All This Time I Thought My Eyes Were Brown

Note: I began this blog right at a year ago. At that point, I was getting Alex prepped and ready for high school graduation and the impending transition to college, accepted a large volunteer job at Emma’s middle school (on-going) and somehow found myself heading up a massive fundraising/advocacy/building project for Ben’s high school baseball team that’s still in the works, but at least I can see the finish line. Oh, and yes, I was working. As I look back, I’m scratching my head, wondering why in the world would I think, Hey, I should start a blog! There’s likely some psychological reason I embarked on this new adventure at that moment. Probably some type of subconscious distraction from the fact that Alex was almost grown and soon-to-be flown. Regardless, I haven’t had much time to write new entries. In looking at my first post here and my resolution to want less in ’16, I’m happy to report I’ve made some solid strides, but like most things, it’s a work in progress. In honor of this, what follows is an essay I wrote years ago that’s a fun reflection on the want less theme. I hope you enjoy!

All This Time I Thought My Eyes Were Brown

When I was a child, about the only thing I ever learned from a cartoon was to be wary of coyotes bearing Acme products.

But like a lot of things since the ‘70s, cartoons have changed for the better. These days, some actually come with a nice little takeaway. A smidge of morality that can help little ones set their miniature moral compasses.

One of my 4-year-old daughter’s favorite cartoons is the Berenstain Bears. This is an adaptation of the book series that we’ve had around our house for many years. In case you aren’t familiar with the bear family who lives in the big tree house down a sunny dirt road in bear country, they’re pretty much your typical middle-class American bear family, of the teddy variety. Aside from living in a tree house and having a little extra fur, Brother Bear and Sister Bear are a lot like regular human kids. They struggle with many of the same issues. Chores. Homework. Bullies. Over scheduling. Fitting in. Obeying Mama Bear and Papa Bear. You know, typical bear stuff.

In one particular episode, the cubs get an unwelcome visit from the green-eyed monster. Old green eyes is related, in a lot of ways, to that pesky little devil that appears on your shoulder and gets you to do bad things — only the green-eyed monster is a specialist, dedicated to instigating want. Planting the seeds of envy. Stirring the pot of malcontent. And in the Berenstain Bear’s story – turning otherwise lovely little darlings into sniveling, greedy little stinkers.

Emma chose The Green-eyed Monster episode one morning (video on demand, another notable improvement since the ‘70s) while I squeezed in my daily half-hour on the stationary bike. I look forward to my faux cycling time. Not necessarily for the exercise, but because it affords me a few minutes to make a dent in the weekly accrual of magazines that are perpetually piled on my bedside table.

This is my quiet time to research investments, brush up on foreign policy and get to the heart of our country’s $1.8 trillion deficit.

Kidding.

While there is usually one or two real magazines tossed in the mix, just so the housekeepers don’t think I’m completely shallow, 90 percent of them are retail catalogs — zero editorial content, 100 percent stuff. I just hate to put any of them in the recycle bin without a good once over. After all, you never know when I might stumble upon that thing I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

Truth is, I like looking through the pages. It’s sort of my modern version of the giant Sears catalog, a.k.a. “The Wish Book,” that would land on my childhood doorstop with a window-rattling thud. The main difference is that today I’ve got a little 2×3 piece of plastic that doubles as a magic wand. With this magic piece of plastic, I can turn anything on the page into a reality that shows up in the form of a UPS package by the front door. Isn’t that fun?

So this is our weekday morning routine. I scan my magazines, alright, catalogs, and Emma watches one of her favorite shows. On this morning, as I half listened to the story, I made a comment to Emma, over the dog-eared pages of my new Anthropologie catalog, “Tsk. Tsk. Looks like Sister Bear’s got a bad case of the green-eyed monster.”

I put the catalog down and watched the plot unfold. Sister Bear was in a tizzy because Brother Bear got a new bike and she didn’t.

I peddled along shaking my head and thinking if I were Mama Bear, I’d take that greedy little fur ball by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. “Don’t you know there are cubs in this world who don’t have any honey to eat? Cubs who would love to have all those Bearbie dolls you have? Just appreciate what you have and stop begging me for more. Now march it up to your room and start hibernating right now missy. I don’t care if it is spring.”

That’s what I’d say. But not Mama Bear.

That Mama Bear is a true saint. Patient. Soft spoken. Wise. Pretty much everything I’m not. In all the episodes I’ve seen, she’s not once shown her claws or growled at her cubs. And she always seems to know just the right thing to say to get Brother and Sister back on track.

Now this may sound strange, but I look up to Mama Bear. Not since Yogi has there been a bear pushing such a good agenda. And it’s not just this one episode. I’ve known Mama Bear for a number of years now, what with three cubs of my own. She helped me gingerly introduce my kids to the somewhat scary idea of strangers. She’s shown my boys how pointless it is to play the blame game. And made them see that even bear cubs get the jitters before going away to camp.

But by far her most ingenious parenting moment was the plan she implemented the time Brother, Sister and even Papa, started loosing their manners. It was a punitive plan, designed to get the family back on a tactful track. And it was true genius.

Each breach in behavior resulted in a punishment. If you were caught interrupting, you had to dust the downstairs. Forget to say “please” or “thank you” and you were off to sweep the porch. Rude noises? You get the pleasure of weeding the garden. It went on.

Thank you, Ms. Cartoon Bear, for the fabulous idea. My mind starting spinning – wow – I could really use this to my advantage. With all the bad manners around here, I could have this house in shipshape in no time. I’ll be like an army sergeant – “Uh oh. Interrupting Mommy while she’s on the phone. Give me two scrubbed toilets.” Oh, this could be good.

I’ve actually found myself in situations where I think, what would Mama Bear do? Maybe I’ll start a new catalog filled with things no one needs and launch it with a WWMBD bracelet. But really, Mama Bear probably wouldn’t do that. In fact, if Mama Bear had a leaning tower of catalogs on her bedside table, she would probably realize it was sending her cubs the wrong message and quickly take her name off all the mailing lists. Killjoy.

But back to The Green-Eyed Monster. The message was such a good one that I even snuck it in on Emma’s older brothers. Of course they wouldn’t be caught dead watching a “baby show” but since they’re not allowed to watch any TV during the week (homework and all), I could probably get them engaged in C-SPAN just for the opportunity to stare at the screen.

To put my plan into motion, I slyly asked them to keep an eye on Emma while I took a phone call for work. They were told to do their homework in the living room while Emma watched an unspecified show (The Green-Eyed Monster, of course). If you have school-aged kids, you know it’s absolutely impossible for a child to even get past the “Name” portion of homework when they’re in the same room as a working electronic device. It’s like a transient paralysis, if you will, ensuring that my plan would be foolproof. They’d soak up every second of the show while holding their pencils in ready position and their mouths agape for the entire running time.

I didn’t want to reveal my ulterior motive, so we didn’t discuss the show. But a week or so later, it was evident that my clandestine moral lesson had sunk in when Ben and I made a quick run to Target to pick up party favors for his eighth birthday. I promised him that we’d go straight to the party section. In and out, lickety-split.

Who was I kidding? This was Target, after all, green-eyed headquarters.
Sure enough, the rapid romp-thru skidded to a halt within three feet of the threshold when the 99¢ bins beckoned like a bunch of cheap, plastic little carnival barkers. After a slow mo trek past them, with Ben’s urging, we moved on. But not far. The sight of t-shirts reminded me I needed a t-square to help Alex, with a social studies project. This sent us to the art supply aisle, which meant we had to pass the greeting card aisle which reminded me that one of my client’s just had a baby girl so I needed to pick out the perfect card, which reminded me that my own girl Emma needs some new pajamas, which reminded me that I’ve been wanting a new pillow. Ben shadowed me all over the store like the sullen, dutiful child of a shopaholic.

About the only thing I truly needed to buy was a pair of horse blinders, so I wouldn’t be distracted by every chotchke and thingamajig lining the shelf. As we made our way past the small appliance section, the cart instinctively turned (really, can you have too many Crockpots?). “Hold on honey,” I said as I checked out Rivals latest model. My ogling was interrupted by a dash of ice water splashed in my face, in the form of a comment from Ben.

Completely under his breath and mostly to himself, my young son shook his head in disgust, tapped his little foot, looked up at the ceiling tiles and said, “the green-eyed monster.”

“What?” I asked.

“The green-eyed monster,” he repeated cautiously and with a sly grin.

“Oh my gosh! You’re right,” I laughed, shaking the cold water off my face. “You’re absolutely right.”

My clandestine lesson had worked. Only this time, it was on me. Chalk another one up to Mama Bear.

The People v. 40

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Aging isn’t always pretty, but it can be pretty funny, as long as you can laugh at yourself. As I begin my last year in the 40s, here’s a essay I wrote a couple years back about the perils of 40+ trips around the sun.

Here’s the thing. At this very moment you and I are doing the exact same thing. In fact, so is the mailman. The Pope. The guy who poured your latte. The squirrel digging in your container plants. The newborn baby. Even Adele.

We’re aging.

But I don’t want to totally bum you out. The good news is so are the other 7.4 billion people on our planet. So we’re in pretty good company.

I’m thinking about this as I sit in my oral surgeon’s chair, trying to figure out why I can’t pry my mouth open wide enough to eat anything larger than a poppy seed. This is a problem, not only because I can’t properly yell at my kids, but because we humans have that pesky need for food.

The timing suspiciously coincides with my entry into the 40s.

My husband, Frank, is four years older than me. Which means for past few years he’s warned me about the physical changes that inherently come with crossing into the middle of the fourth decade. I’ve laughed these off with a not-happening-to-me kind of attitude, otherwise known as denial.

I don’t mean to sound all braggy or anything, but my 40th birthday came and went and the next morning I looked like I could easily pass for 39 years and 366 days. But it didn’t take long for that mean ‘ole 40 to start her tomfoolery. To prove my point, consider this unsettling episode.

A mere four months after my 40th, it was time for the annual Christmas shopping extravaganza. It’s a long-standing tradition — the first Saturday in December, cousin June and I hit the stores from the time they open till the SUV becomes a low rider from the weight of all the loot. We buy for everyone on our list, including each other. June usually picks something to wear, which I then purchase, wrap and send home with her for a huge surprise on Christmas morning. Myself, I like immediate gratification, so I forego the wrapping formality and begin using my chosen treasure right away. In past years, I’ve nabbed earrings. A great shirt. Something fun for the house. But this particular Christmas, I came home with a new king-sized pillow and a foot massager.

The saddest part is how downright giddy I was about them both.

The thing is, I work hard at staying healthy. I faithfully do my 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days a week, so I don’t end up on the wrong end of a heart catheter like my mom did at the ripe young age of 50. Oh and, let’s see, my paternal grandmother died of a heart attack. Grandpa too. Maternal grandpa? Yep. Grandma? Stroke.

Now I’m no soothsayer, but even without a crystal ball, I can predict my hereditary demise if I don’t abandon the fatback, deep-fried ways of past generations. All to say, I haven’t had a piece of fried food in two decades. (Swipes of my kid’s French fries and tortilla chips don’t count, right? Work with me here.) And in addition to the cardio, I hit the gym and lift weights twice a week to keep my bones strong.

But even with my virtuous attempts, the temple, as the Good Book calls it, is suddenly in need of some repairs. Not just some spackling and a new coat of paint, I’m talking structural issues here.

It seems that I’m another victim of 40 and her nasty band of bullies. I still haven’t pinpointed exactly when the first act of vandalism occurred. But all evidence points to sometime after July 26th, 2007. Since then, it seems the little rascals have repeatedly entered the temple under a cloak of darkness and deep REM, resulting in visible cracks in the exterior and some shakes in the foundation.

Suddenly, it seems, the entire structure is vulnerable to all sorts of calamity.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fatalist by any means. I’m typically a look-on-the-bright-side kind of girl who see her glass half full and a stormy forecast as 10% chance of sun. But it’s a bit of a stretch (ironic word choice) to think of my jaw as 1/8th open.

The jaw thing wouldn’t be so bad on its own, but did I mention that my Morton’s neuroma and planter’s fasciitis are acting up? Two sudden-onset foot ailments the 40-pranksters brought my way. So now, as punishment for wearing shoes I actually liked all these years, my podiatrist (yes, I now have a podiatrist) gave me a list of granny-endorsed shoe brands that put the frump in frumpy. And to add discomfort to discomfort, I’m supposed to wear these hard plastic, ski boot-like contraptions while I sleep. Yea, right. The idea behind these 50-pound gems is that they will keep my feet flexed, which will stretch my calf muscles, which will alleviate some of the fasciitis pain. Yes, there’s nothing like shoving your foot in a bucket of concrete to help you snooze like a baby. But the doctor said to wear them, so being the compliant patient, I did. My bad. Not only did I end up bruised from beating myself silly while attempting a simple roll over, the Velcro strap aggravated my neuroma issues which landed me back in the podiatrist office, this time staring down the barrel of a 12-inch needle that the doc inserted in between my first two little piggies. Not even the births of my three kids prepped me for that torture. I’ll stick with the neuroma pain from now on, thank you very much.

And just be sure I know who the boss is, 40 recently forced me to see a dermatologist. I hobbled in on my neuroma-riddled, fasciitis-plagued tootsies, speaking like a washed up ventriloquist with my paralytic jaw, all to hobble out carved like a totem pole.

My multiple skin biopsies came back as Grover’s Disease. I’m sure you haven’t heard of it so let me fill you in. It’s an irritating, itchy rash sort of thing that typically affects overweight men over the age of 50 that — get this — sweat a lot. All of which, I’d like to note, do not fit my personal profile. Don’t you know 40 and her cronies were slapping their thighs over that one?

I know, I know. Thank the Lord (and I really do) these things are just a nuisance. Ego threatening, maybe, but not life threatening. But it does get me thinking that if all this is happening just prior to the mid 40s line, what craziness is waiting at the half-century mark? Will the temple need new plumbing, a completely new heating and cooling system? Will the foundation crack?

Wouldn’t it be something if we could put 40 on trial and see what she has to say for herself? That would be one heck of a class-action suit. 586 gazillion trillion felony counts of desecration of a temple. If I were a prosecutor (which I’m not, but my friend is, which vicariously gives me all sorts of unsubstantiated credibility) I’d throw the book at her. My opening argument would go something like this.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the defendant is responsible for the hostile takeover and maiming of innocent, otherwise sprightly, spunky, healthy adults. What will the evidence show? It will prove that the heinous crimes committed by 40 and her maniacal gang, have forced countless numbers of innocent victims to wear bifocals and comfort shoes. (The jury gasps in horror.) Our exhibits will further prove that 40 is responsible for planting dimples on all the wrong cheeks, etching deep lines into previously smooth exteriors and is the number one perpetrator of (dramatic pause) flab. We will also introduce experts who will prove that 40 is the cause of a serious condition known in the New England Journal of Medicine as going to pot. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, 40 is nothing more than a cold-blooded, menace to society and therefore deserves nothing less than to be found guilty for her calculated crimes.”

Yep. That’s what I’d say, if only I could open my jaw.

Death by Chocolate. (Well, almost.)

 

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Today’s National Pet Day! In honor of, here’s a post written about Ollie, our original wild child.

My dog recently tried to commit suicide.

I should have seen it coming, what with the steady increase of children around here and the equally steady decrease in his activity level. Apparently, in a moment of rock-bottom desperation, he saw a way out: An oversized bag of chocolates on top of my favorite living room table.

“Come here, big guy. Come closer…,” the confections must’ve called to him. “Eat this and you’ll go to the big field in the sky where Frisbees are thrown 24/7. Where the roads are paved with carrots (my dog’s odd), your bed’s a big comfy couch. Oh, and there are no toddlers.”

It worked. He devoured the whole five-pound bag — foil wrappers and all. I found his big ol’ 80-pound Labrador-Retriever self beached on the living room rug like a furry Orca. A few tale-tell bits of foil lay scattered near him. And the deep scratches in my mahogany table read like lines from a canine suicide note.

The on-call vet suggested I induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide. So I hauled the pedigreed mutt out back in the 30º weather to commence the life saving. It seems that hydrogen peroxide wasn’t the bubbly Ollie wished to wash his chocolates down — well, actually up — with. The fella has quite an ornery streak, but so do I. And after conjuring up my best crocodile-hunter impression, I body slammed him to the ground and won. (Round one, that is.)

After getting the first tablespoon down his chocolate-coated throat, I waited expectantly for the result. Then waited some more. Nothing. Ding, ding. Time for round two. I circled the deck ominously, giving him my steeliest glare. This time the scene was more like crocodile hunter meets bull rider. But again, my stubborn side kicked in and I persevered. After getting the second tablespoon of peroxide down, I waited again. Nothing. Not even a gag. Maybe I should call the vet and see how long this is supposed to take.

As soon as I opened the door, the hound dashed in and emptied his entire stomach contents on my hand-hooked wool rug that doesn’t react well to liquids. The only saving grace was that the vomit had a lovely chocolate aroma.
Ollie is our first child, if you will. We brought him home at a mere 8 weeks old, barely weaned and cute as anything. He was the runt of the litter and I picked him out specifically because he wouldn’t stop pulling at my shoelaces — a sure sign that he was to be mine. (And hopefully a red flag to you, in case someone ever tries to brainwash you into thinking that an obsessive puppy sounds like a great idea.)

He’s always been a tad on the hyper side. “He’ll calm down when he’s 2,” my husband, Frank, and I kept telling ourselves. And when he was 12, we were saying, “He’ll calm down when he’s 13.”

It’s not that I don’t love the dog. It’s just that, um, well, hmm, he has some rather unnerving habits that on their own might be tolerable, assuming you’re heavily medicated, but seeing as how I’m not — toss squabbling brothers, a toddler and a seemingly permanent case of PMS into the mix and well, God love him, Ollie is always the straw that breaks the mommy’s back.

Like the majority of his kind, Ollie loves water. You can’t keep him out of a pool, pond or stream, but forget about trying to get him to go potty in the rain. And tennis balls? He’s a full-blown addict. His entire existence revolves around scoring his next ball fix. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a sphere per se; it can be a cup, an octagon from little Emma’s shape sorter, or even a plastic shovel from Alex and Ben’s backyard toy collection. He has an uncanny knack, that was cute the first couple of times, for dropping said items on the ground and pushing them via snout, right underneath the foot of someone simply trying to make it from the living room to the kitchen without twisting an ankle or breaking a neck.

He knows how to open cabinet doors (we have to dogproof more than childproof), and somehow managed to open and stuff his not-so-svelte body into the tiniest of toy chests one day in the quest of a super ball. It was quite a sight, seeing him stuck like that. Reminded me of myself after having my first baby — trying to squeeze into my pre-pregnancy jeans before leaving the hospital — only Ollie managed to get all the way in. I would’ve left him there to learn a lesson, but unfortunately for me, and the neighbors, his earsplitting bark was relentless.

I admit that it’s not his fault. Frank and I take the blame. We did all the first time doggie parent things: Took him to the park to have a social life, trained him to be a Frisbee dog and generally devoted all our spare time to the little scoundrel.

“You know Ollie’s actually going to lose some status and become a dog after the baby’s born,” my mother told me over the phone toward the end of my first pregnancy. I dismissed this with an exaggerated eye roll and another dive into the box of cereal I was snacking on. She’s a cat person, after all. Big, sloppy, shedding beasts are my thing, not hers.

Now – more than a decade and three kids later, I’ve realized the gospel truth. Mothers are always right.

So I’ve decided to try something new in my quest for domestic bliss (okay, actually in my quest to prevent my head from spinning, which tends to scare the children). I’m choosing to focus on Ollie’s redeeming qualities. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

First, he is the darn best security system anyone could hope for (minus the fact that he can’t be disarmed). I have no worries that a prowler will ever enter our home without my knowledge, since nary an acorn hitting the roof or a squirrel on the porch goes without a hardy round of brain-rattling barking.

Second, his dog bowl is always half full. He lives life just knowing that while it looks like I’m really working at the computer, talking on the phone and simultaneously balancing a small human in my lap, if he gives me a solid, meaningful “woof” and runs to the back door, I’ll instantly come to my senses, drop all those silly distractions and take him out for a round of fetch.

And last, but so not least, he’s a love with the kids. Although “No Ollie!” was one of the first phrases uttered by all three of my offspring, he puts up with whatever they dish out. From being ridden like a racehorse to being the pretend dragon in a 5-year-old’s drama, he’s never once snapped at the kids. Which, come to think of it, is more than I can say for myself.

The Sunday Miracles

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A few weeks ago, in the middle of a sunny, almost-warm early March day, Alex walked into the kitchen and uttered these shocking words. “Hey, do you want to go on a walk with me?”

This wouldn’t be remarkable for any reason, except for the fact that he’s 17. And given that he’s now a driving, almost adult, I see the mailman (excuse me, the mail carrier) more predictably than I see my son.

I looked around the kitchen to be sure one of his friends hadn’t snuck in behind me, but it indeed appeared that he was speaking to me. It wasn’t necessarily the most convenient time to go for a walk. I was attempting a baking feat, which was ambitious from the start, but when your 17 year old asks you to go on a walk, you drop everything and go.

I wondered if he had anything earth shattering to tell me, but he didn’t. I wondered if I should use the moment to impart lifelong lessons, but I didn’t. Instead, we just walked up to the shops that are a few blocks from the house. He had a gift certificate he was ready to cash in, so there was a destination to the excursion. He spent his gift card and we leisurely strolled through some of the newer shops I haven’t had a chance to visit. We talked about nothing in particular — just little things of no individual significance. But collectively, they added up to mean the world to me. When we got home, he even thanked me for going. Since he wasn’t feverish, I claimed it as the only thing it could be: A Sunday miracle.

Okay, so it wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea. But if you don’t have a 17 year old, here are a couple of simple truths I didn’t see coming:

1. They are their own independent people, with busy schedules — whether it’s social, sports or school, they have their own, real life — with places to be and people to see. And over time Mom’s role gets downsized. One day you’re the star in his show, then suddenly you’re lucky if you get a bit part. If there was playbill for Alex’s past year, my role would be listed at the bottom as, “line cook.”

2. Once they can drive, just wave goodbye. When they are dependent upon you for taxiing, those quick trips from point A to B to C and back again, are actually critical connection points. These are the little windows that give you an inside look at what’s going on. Now that Alex is his own shuttle service, well, those connection points are gone. Gone, as in, “here are your car keys, now drive away with my heart.”

I wasn’t prepared for this. I was actually thrilled that he worked so hard and saved his money for to pay for half a car. (We sprung for the other half, because driving around in half a car would be so awkward.) He has worked for the past three summers and by the time he was 16, had saved way more cash than I had accumulated into my mid 20s.

But regardless of how they arrive at their first set of wheels, it will become a vehicle that clearly furthers the process of letting them go — both literally and figuratively.

So here we are, halfway through Alex’s final semester in high school. In a few short months, my kid will be off to the University of Georgia. Of course, this is wrought with its own excitement, joy, pride, anxiety, sleepless nights, ifs, ands and buts. His role in our family is huge – he’s our firstborn, with two siblings that look up to him, even though they don’t act like it. And he’s the first to leave the nest.

Suffice it to say, I’m feeling sentimentally fragile these days. It’s unknown, even to me, when the emotional pangs will hit — the spontaneously welling of tears that I try quickly to shut down. Along with wearing sunglasses a lot, I’m trying to avoid known triggers, like thinking this is his last (insert event here) at home, looking at our digital photo frame, chock full of little Alex shots, and, of course, Alan Jackson songs.

So I held on to the sunny, warm memory of our Sunday walk throughout the next week. As the following Sunday rolled around, I loitered around the house and found many excuses to hover near his doorway, you know, just waiting to see if a second miracle might occur. As the afternoon ticked along, I took the ball into my own hands, peeked into his room and asked him oh-so casually, “Hey, you want to go play some tennis?” I turned to leave sure his head wouldn’t even lift from his snap chatting endeavors, as he muttered, “Nah.” Instead, he replied with a simple, “Sure.”

Ah, a second Sunday miracle.

I’m pretty certain one can get too pushy with the miraculous. So I was all set to revel in the joy of the past two weeks, when out of the blue the very next Sunday, Alex asked me — just me, no begging sister, no brother or dad allowed — to go to lunch after church. And here’s the kicker: He paid.

This marked the third miraculous Sunday moment in a row. And this past Sunday was Easter, so make that four.

I hesitate to even put it in writing, but could it be that my son is feeling a slight bit sentimental about his impending departure? Could it be that he is feeling the heavy tug as well? I will never ask, but I will take it. And I will hold on to it, ever grateful for his letting me in as I struggle to let him go.

And, of course, I’ll keep my Sunday’s open.

What’s your emergency?

 

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Note: It’s TBT, so I’m sharing my first essay, written many moons ago, but the lesson holds true today — maybe more than ever.

It was a muggy July afternoon and all was peaceful on our quite Atlanta street. I had just gotten both boys down for a nap at the same time. An accomplishment so rare, I decided to treat myself to something completely self-indulgent: A shower. As I silently crept down the hall, giving the dogs my “bark and you die” look, I was struck by the distinct smell of something burning. An insidious smell — like rubber or wiring.

My mind flashed back to the terrifying scene of our neighbor’s house burning to the ground a couple years earlier. Then I remembered the electrical fire up the street. And the kitchen explosion behind us. My thoughts were raging out of control, just as I knew the fire soon would be. Frank was on an airplane coming home from Chicago, so it was all up to me. I darted from room to room, sniffing like a hound on the trail. The threatening smell was everywhere. Upstairs, downstairs, in the hallway, in the kitchen.

Then I heard the beautiful sound of a car coming up the driveway. Frank’s home early. We’re saved. I thought as I ran to greet him. Catapulting myself out the side door, I yelled, “Quick! Something’s burning.” He dropped his luggage on the driveway and dashed in with me on his heels. We flew from room to room like Peter Pan and his shadow.

“Grab the kids and get out of the house,” he shouted as he dialed 9-1-1 and ushered the dogs outside. I took the stairs in two strides and soon had both boys thrown over either shoulder like two sacks of bewildered potatoes. “Everything’s okay,” I said, trying to use my most reassuring mommy voice. As I inhaled the fresh air of safety, I realized we’d made it. At least we had each other. But wait, Frank was still in there.

Before we got to the sidewalk, the fire trucks rounded the corner, sirens blaring. “Wow,” Alex said barely able to contain his excitement. “Are they coming to my house?” There were three fire engines and an ambulance. The firefighters, dressed in their scary aardvark-looking suits, leapt from the giant red trucks and disappeared into the house.

Out of my peripheral vision I saw a group of neighbors congregating. “Not another one,” they had to be s. A few of them risked it and came down to check on us. “We think it’s electrical,” I said, trying to sound like I wasn’t about to have a complete breakdown, imagining every piece of priceless pre-k art reduced to ash.

“Let me take the boys to my house,” my friend Anne offered. “Sure. Great. Uh huh.” I said, just knowing the whole house could go poof at any second.

I stood on the sidewalk accompanied by a fireman who kept watch from behind the ladder truck’s enormous steering wheel. We waited in silence. And waited some more. No hoses were being connected to the hydrant. No flames. Not even a spark. What’s going on? I wondered. After a while, the ambulance left. Then after another while, one of the fire trucks moved on. Finally I asked the driver if I could go in. “Sure,” he said, nonchalantly.

Cautiously, I inched open the side door to prevent being overcome by smoke. All the firemen and Frank were standing in the kitchen looking stumped. “Are you sure you haven’t turned on any electrical appliances today?” One of the men asked me. “Nope, nothing but the coffee pot which I always unplug after using to prevent an electrical fire,” I said confidently, thinking one of them might give me a gold star for being such a whiz at fire safety. I was just about to impress them with my stop, drop and roll technique when one of the men leaned against the dishwasher that was nearing the end of its drying cycle.

He opened the door and pulled out the bottom rack. “I think I’ve found the problem,” he mused. He held up a baby bottle nipple that had taken a kamikaze leap from its basket onto the heating element, burning a hole right through it.

A couple seconds of silence passed, as Frank and I exchanged looks of relief clouded by humiliation. Then, as if on cue, all the firemen burst out laughing. “Oh man, just don’t tell the neighbors,” Frank said half seriously. The firemen were all good sports, reassuring us that we did the right thing. Better safe than sorry and all that. But they were still chuckling as they made their way back to the trucks.

The nipple is encased in a glass baby food jar in the kitchen hutch. Right there on the shelf, for all to see. It’s our reminder of the harrowing afternoon that wasn’t. And now, when one of us is on the verge of overreacting, the other simply poses the question, “do you think it could be a burned nipple?”

Interesting how that has helped us put out a lot of fires.

So long want.

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I realize March isn’t the typical time to usher in a New Year’s resolution, but I’m always running late, so this is par for my course. Truth is, my annual resolves tend to dissolve faster than the sugar in my coffee. So with that in mind, I’m changing my tactics.

This year, as 2016 continues to roll in with all its possibilities, I’ve realized that there’s one thing I want most: to want less.

It’s not a resolution, per se, but more of an awareness. An awareness that want will always want more. And at the end of the day, the only thing it breeds is discontent.

I’m seeing the seeds of this insatiable desire in my teenage boys who “need” a new pair of this, a new one of those and the next generation of the latest thingamagig out there. I hear myself saying to them over and over again, “please just appreciate what you have and stop wanting more.” So this year, I vow to listen to myself and practice what I preach.

It’s not that I’m a compulsive spender or that my kids’ college funds are being blown on shoes and handbags. But I do admit, I love a good buy. And, well, let’s face it — there are a lot of them out there. My inbox, and I’m sure yours too, is bombarded by amazing discounts on all the things I didn’t know I couldn’t live without. How can I pass up that flash sale? Or this sale on a sale?  It’s a daily deluge that can quickly sneak in and ramp up.

Not long ago, my new pair of black boots arrived. This was not an impulse purchase, but a necessity, considering I’d gone practically forever — an entire year and then some — without a pair. I pulled them from the box to show my husband who looked at me cockeyed.

“What?” I asked, already ticked at his less-than-enthusiastic expression. “I had free shipping, 20% off my entire purchase, and they were already on sale,” I added defensively, to reinforce the fact that they practically paid me to take them off their hands.

“What’s wrong with your other pair?” he asked.

“What other pair? I haven’t had black boots in more than a year.”

He turned and walked upstairs and into my closet, immediately disappearing into a cloud of chaos, only to return with a pair of great, unworn, black boots that I didn’t even remember I had.

The moment taught me two important things. One, if I can’t keep up with my personal inventory, I have too much. And two, I really need to clean out my closet.

In the early years of my advertising career, I had a salary negotiation with the agency’s president. He told me something that, at a wide-eyed 26, I hadn’t quite realized about the human condition. “It doesn’t matter how much you make,” he said with resignation, “it’s never enough.” How sad, I remember thinking. I didn’t want to be that kind of person then and I don’t want to be it now.

Showy isn’t in my DNA. I come from humble stock. My bloodline has a long tradition of solid, middle-class values. My parents, their parents, their parents’ parents — they all made their money the old-fashioned way: they earned it. And along with earning it, they respected it. Not in a miserly, hoarding way. My parents taught me to appreciate money, but not to mind parting with it either. Mom will empty her pantry for anyone who knocks on the door asking for canned goods, and Dad has been known to surprise strangers by picking up their tab at restaurants. My parents are the type of folks that, even if they had millions of dollars, would still live in their modest ranch home and drive a sensible car. They find absolutely no value in demonstrative wealth.

I look at them now, in their late 70s. They’ve both logged thousands of 9 to 5s: My dad, a retired IBMer, and my mom a former bookkeeper. They don’t have a country club membership or a second home. But they have everything they need and, most importantly, everything they want.

This isn’t a new sense of contentment they’ve stumbled upon in their retirement years. It’s who they are, through and through. My mom has never had a desire for designer anything. She wouldn’t know her Dolce from her Gabbana. This presented some challenges for my older brother and me growing up. Not that we wanted a materialistic mom, but the problem was, ours could sew. Strutting around in your Butterick-brand denim pants (not jeans, please note the distinction) can be detrimental to a middle-schooler’s emotional state. My kids have no idea the bullet they’ve dodged by having a mom that can barely thread a needle.

Yes, 2016 is my year to get back in touch with my not-so-impulsive side — to model my parents’ behaviors and be generous by supporting more worthy causes, not my favorite retail store. So good-bye good buys. So long free shipping with no minimum order. I’m battening down the hatches and putting the hammer down on want. But it’ll be a whole lot easier after my Amazon Prime membership expires.

 

 

 

 

 

The ink link.

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“Mom, do they have bathrooms in Heaven?” Ben asked when he was 6, with a look of thoughtful concern. I stood stumped, with raised eyebrows, wearing my hmm-I’m-completely-at-a-loss face.

Fortunately, rescue came quick as Ben’s wise older brother Alex weighed in with a beautiful blend of theology and logic. “Ben…” he said emphatically, “your body doesn’t go to heaven. Your soul goes to heaven and your soul doesn’t have privates.”

Uh huh. What he said.

It’s been a number of years since that exchange occurred. But I remember it perfectly. Mainly because I write everything down. I’m not sure why, other than I read somewhere that it was a good idea. And guess what? It is a good idea. Especially since I can’t seem to remember where I left my keys a minute ago, jotting down the interesting things my kids say helps me remember these moments like they just happened.

I’ve got a basket full of memories scratched on napkins, ripped corners of scrap paper, receipts, you name it. From Alex asking “Who made God?” to Emma, when she was a preschooler, asking how the person working at the drive-thru fits into the speaker box, I drop the new quote into my designated basket then eventually get around to adding each one to my on-going Word document. There’s really no big point in doing this, other than the smile it brings me when I scroll down the page every now and then. That, and of course it’ll be great fun to share with their fiancées one of these days.

What I conclude as I scan over my master list of quotes is that childhood is an adorable time, when everything is black and white, but full of color.

One of my favorite entrees happened one October when Ben was in first grade. He was still absorbed in a long-running cowboy phase, wearing his Tony Llamas with everything, including shorts throughout the summer. He’d even been known to sport his leather vest and chaps out in the backyard taming the Wild West in the middle of our urban-lot-sized ponderosa. And Church? Every Sunday he attended in his standard garb: boots, Western shirt, khakis, and rodeo belt — complete with the apropos oversized silver buckle.

On this particular morning, the Sunday school teacher was going around the circle of kids, asking what they were going to be for Halloween. It was my week to be a helper, so as I sat on the carpet behind the children, I overheard Ben’s friend Katie quietly say to him, “I know what you’re going to be for Halloween.”

“What?” Ben asked, skeptically.

“A cowboy,” she replied knowingly.

“Huh?” Ben said, glancing down at his big ‘ole buckle and boots then back at her like she was obviously, apparently, 100%, completely blind. “I am a cowboy,” he replied. “I’m going to be a Power Ranger.”

Silly girl.

Yes, one can glean a lot about children by listening to their quips. Here are a few things I picked up on recently after scanning my sheet of memories.

  1. Children are observant. Living in a metro area, we have our share of panhandlers. One afternoon, when Alex was in third grade, there was a man standing on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign that read “Homeless Vet.” “Look Mom,” Alex said, “there’s a homeless veterinarian.”
  2. Little guys know when to throw in the towel. When Alex was 7, he was upset because his allotted TV time had come to an end. Ben, who was 4 at the time, took it upon himself to rid his brother of his deep sadness. Ben’s happy-making repertoire included classic face-making tricks, like sticking both thumbs in his ears and wiggling his fingers while waggling his tongue at the same time. But after an exhausting number of tries, he walked over to me and threw his hands in the air like a miniature prosecuting attorney. “Mom, I put all my funny faces on him and he’s STEEL sad.”
  3. Childhood is tough. Ben had just turned 6 and was enjoying the loot that came with his birthday. He was focused on the finer points of Lego architecture when he hit a snag. “Emma,” he sighed dramatically to his 2-year-old sister. “When you’re my age, you’re going to have a very difficult life…” I stopped in my tracks to overhear what could be so stressful, “…putting together Legos and stuff.”
  4. Quiet walks are great for imaginations. Alex and I were on a post-dinner walk around the block when he was 7. As we rounded the corner to home, he said, “Mom, what if the roots of all the above-ground trees were really the tops of underground trees?”
  5. Little ones are little philosophers. At the dinner table one night when my Emma was 3, she announced with a Plato-like sense of musing. “Hmm…I don’t like apples. Dramatic pause. And I don’t like sauce. Another pause. But I sure like applesauce!”
  6. Once a daredevil, always a daredevil. One morning when I was taking a shower, I had Ben (then 3) safely set up in my bedroom watching a cartoon. While I was in lathering up, I heard a shocking thud and yelled, “Ben…are you okay?” The bathroom door swung open with bravado and there he stood sporting his favorite blanket as a cape, his little fists resting on his hips. “I’m okay. I was just flying.”
  7. Kids come with a fresh perspective. As a family we were glued to the 2008 Summer Olympics. During the diving competition Ben innocently asked, “Do they get to pick what event they do, like gymnastics or swimming?” He thought the athletes might get to pick their daily activity out of hat, like an elementary school field day. Then during Sean Johnson’s gold medal performance on the beam, he looked up at me — completely blown away by her routine — and asked, “Wow! Does she just make this up as she goes along?”
  8. Little girls are mostly sugar. When Emma was 5, she woke me up one morning by climbing into my bed, using my sheet as a belay rope. She plunked her head on the pillow next to mine and asked me softly, “Mom, when we die, do we get to fly there?” “There” meaning heaven. “Fly” meaning like Tinker Bell. And her innocent question meaning I had another quote to put in ink.

Welcome to my mid-career crisis.

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It’s official. I’m having a mid-career crisis. I know this, because I consulted my go-to source of all knowledge: Google. And to no surprise, I met 99% of the checklist items sourced in the gobs of articles on the subject. It seems I’m not in a mild crisis situation, but a full-blown funk. The good news is, at least I’m not alone.

I’m a writer. Always been one — my first article was published in my elementary school newspaper. It was a piece on my trip to Fantasy Island (that’ll date me) where Tattoo greeted me, and Mr. Roarke transformed me into the likes of Nadia Comaneci (quite a fantasy for a gangly girl that could barely manage a handstand). In college, I continued down the writer’s path, finding journalism to be an ideal fit: Mainly because it required the least amount of math. So post-college, with a journalism degree in hand, I marched into the Mobile Press-Register and landed a job as a sports and feature reporter, covering all varieties of high school sports, the weekend police beat and yes, the obituaries. That lasted just over a year, and only because my dad told me I had to show some stick-to-it-iveness.

I moved to Atlanta and quickly found what clicked. For the past couple decades (possibly a quarter century, but that involves math, which I’ve established I’m no good at), I’ve made a living as an advertising copywriter. The first few years were filled with energy, passion and the competitive spirit that’s inherent within the creative department of any given ad agency. Whose script will be chosen so the copywriter and art director can fly to LA or NYC for a week-long shoot? Who can be the cleverest, wittiest, smartest? Who will be most decorated in the annual awards shows? It’s funny, looking back, how much emphasis was put on winning awards for something the rest of the world desperately tries to ignore. Regardless, it was an inspiring place to be in my mid-to-late 20s and I loved being surrounded by talented, creative folks all day.

Then along came Alex, and everything changed. This came as no surprise to anyone but me. I was sure a child wouldn’t derail my career. But this 6-pound, 8-ounce little guy quickly turned things upside down and inside out. It was during an agency trip to Napa (the most beautiful place I didn’t want to be) that I decided to pull the plug and go freelance.

Then along came Ben. And a few years later, along came Emma. My role as a mother had completely swallowed my role as a copywriter, so I stopped going into agencies and toed the strict line that I’d only work from home. To my bewilderment, it worked. I’ve continued to make a decent contribution to the family budget, while working from my home headquarters. But over the past couple years, I’ve slowly felt a unwelcome writer’s discontent sneaking in, demanding something more. So, taking my Google-search advice to heart, it’s time I shook up my career path and tried something new.

I’ve known for some time that the only truly fulfilling writing I’ve done in the longest, is my mostly kid-prompted essays. I’ve written them oh-so sporadically, only when the inspiration hits and the calendar allows (did I mention sporadically?) And while I’ve known I love this type of writing, it doesn’t pay … in cash. But thanks to my mid-career crises, I’ve come to realize that payment comes in many forms, fulfillment being mighty valuable. So, welcome to my blog.

This actually comes as another surprise to me. I’ve avoided blogging for years, preferring to write my essays in a bubble. After all, I’m a classically trained journalist, who pledged allegiance to Strunk & White and vowed to abide by AP Style. I was raised with the mentality that being “published” must be earned to be legit. So I faithfully avoided the everyone’s-a-writer blogging platform and, candidly, considered it more a blahg than anything else. But guess what? In the past year, I’ve discovered the opposite. There are some amazing voices out there in the blogging realm — authentic, thoughtful, unique and talented writers who share their stories in a way that has inspired me to do the same.

Thank you for being a part of my antidote to the dreaded mid-career crisis. I hope you’ll come back and I hope you’ll enjoy something along the way. Who knows, maybe I can inspire you to tell your stories. If you do, don’t forget to share them with me.