Thursday, December 30, 2010

Enjoying them enough while they're around

"I just hope I enjoyed them enough when they were around."

An empty-nester friend of mine I work with said those words to me about six months ago and I swear I've thought about what he said almost every single day since.  The last of his kids had just left for college and the way he said it, it made me wonder if I were truly enjoying my kids enough.

It's become a go-to phrase for me. I use it every time I feel really freaking overwhelmed, which is just about every morning from when the alarm clock goes off until, approximately, the time I end up back in bed at night. (Does anyone else out there feel like they get shot out of a cannon every single morning?) Or maybe, say, over a long holiday break when everyone is home, all day, every day. I use his words to get me through the times I stand at the bottom of the stairs to the basement wanting to cry at the mess that never seems to go away--the soda cans and granola bar wrappers, banana peels and video games, Legos and guitar amps and nunchucks and dust. And the times when there aren't enough hours in the day to buy groceries, go to the bank, cook dinner, help with homework and dole out the lunch money I didn't get at the bank. When the mouse that got away this week was a big one--I completely forgot to go to my own dentist appointment. Just plain forgot!

I use it to remind myself of what it will be like when they're out of the house completely and the place is quiet enough for me to write, or maybe to even think, which is a concept that goes a long way toward explaining the quality of my writing to date. I think about what my friend said, about the importance of enjoying our children while they're with us, because they really are only with us for such a short amount of time and wasn't it just yesterday they were babies?  So I take deep breaths and try to enjoy the noise, the mayhem, the mess. Really. I do.

And it helps. Really. It does.

The kids are at their grandparents for a few days this week and I'm getting a little taste of that empty nest feeling. It's glorious. I'm soaking up the peace and solitude like a serenity-starved palm tree that's reached an oasis. You know, if palm trees could walk to an oasis or be, somehow, serenity-starved.

This regenerative peace and solitude is only wonderful because I know it will end soon.  Tonight when all three of them come home with laundry, and crap they will pile on the countertops and stories from their trip they will fight to tell me, stepping on each others words in the process, I will go to that phrase again, but this time it will be easy. It's the times that it's not so easy that I must keep this promise to myself. I will endeavor to enjoy them enough while they're here.

Training Fish

I have a trained fish.  I know this brings up an obvious question: Why?

Mel is my writing companion. (After Herman Melville. Get it? Moby Dick?) Mel's a mostly pink Betta fish that lives on the bookshelves next to my writing desk.  (And don't get any ideas just because he's mostly pink. He's still a fighter.) For years now, I've kept a Betta Fish in my office. In some weird way, I feel it forces me to spend more time there. Yet, not necessarily more time writing in there. Only a writer in the act of actively not writing would take the time to train a fish.

My husband says Mel is just trying to fight with me, seeing as how he's a fighting fish, (Jeff has always been the romantic one.) but I disagree. None of my other Betta fish would ever come to the side of their bowls and kiss my finger the way Mel does. Not Sushi, not Maguro, not Unagi. None of them. Mel is special. The day I walked into Petsmart to get him (after waiting, of course, a respectable time after Unagi's funeral (burial at sea) ) I was headed toward the dog food aisle when Mel caught my eye. He was flashing around wildly in his little round container. When I came back to get him, I knew he was the one. He had the ugliest little face. If I didn't buy him, no one would.

At home, Mel continued to flash around in his bowl whenever he sensed someone walking into my office, probably from the vibrations of the floor in our old house (Although, unlike me, he's immune to the vibration of the floor that happens every time the El goes by.) So every day, as part of my pre-writing ritual, and the pre-writing ritual is a long one so as to procrastinate as long as possible before the act of actually writing, I feed Mel, but first I insist he come to the side of his bowl to say "hello." And he always does.

I've talked to other writers about this. About our writing rituals, that is, not training fish. And we all have our own quirky writing rituals. (Although I wouldn't mind hearing from anyone who also has a trained fish. Perhaps we could share the number of a good therapist?)  I don't know what it is about forcing yourself to sit down in the chair that is so hard some days. And it's way harder when you're writing fiction, I think, than when you're writing anything else. At least for me it is. Especially these days, when I'm working on a third novel and my second one is still collecting dust on a shelf, because the publishing industry is in such a state of turmoil that even published authors, even authors waaay more successful than myself, NY Times Bestseller list successful, cannot get the attention of an editor unless we're the star of our own reality TV show.

The eternal optimist in me knows the publishing industry will somehow sort itself out and that authors will have ways to get works out there, and get paid for them. In the mean time, Mel has been fed, the incense is burning, my email has been checked, my blog has been written, which only's time to train the cats. 
They look at me from the armchair in the corner of my office with eyes that say, "Fat chance, sister."

So even though writing novels seems sort of like a disease, in that it's something I feel I absolutely have to do and for which there's no cure, these days it can sometimes feel as pointless as, well, as pointless as training a fish.

Christmas Cookie Call of Duty

How do you make Christmas cookies with thirteen year old boys? Violently. 

Baking Christmas cookies together has been a holiday tradition of ours since the boys were old enough to say "artificially colored sugar."  It's been great fun, sometimes even for me.  As the years have gone by and they've gotten older, it's even become easier.  They used to like to make a big mountain out of the flour and they would call it "Hunter Island." It's where, they told me, the evil hunters that hunted animals lived. And then, as we added eggs, vanilla, etc,. they would systematically and diabolically...drown all the hunters on Hunter Island.  Really gets you into the spirit of the season, doesn't it?

In recent years, we've come to make more, um, creative Christmas cookies. One year, after having been turned-on to food coloring markers, all the people-shaped cookies had butts drawn on the back. And who knew my favorite little star cookie cutter could be used to make ugly bugs?

I hope the cookies that display reindeer and bears eating Santa and angels are just a throwback to the boys' Hunter Island days and not any kind of indication they've been playing too much Call of Duty.

My daughter made cookies with us for the first time last year and I was hoping she would add a more gentle, feminine approach to the process. No such luck.

Regardless, today is the day we've set aside as cookie baking day, and so we need to get to it, our Christmas cookie call of duty, so to speak. All three of the kids told me yesterday they were looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to continuing our tradition, and perhaps even secretly, to the evil results. Because, from the baking to the eating, the whole process is still delicious.

A Birthday Promise

My daughter has wanted a cell phone since she arrived here a little over a year and a half ago. (In case you're new here, I don't have an especially precocious one-and-a-half-year old; we adopted Tanya from Russia when she was ten.)  We told her she could have one the day she turned twelve and, today is that day. The Winter Solstice, a Lunar eclipse and my daughter gets a phone. Does it feel like the world should start spinning off its axis to you?

We decided to give our twin sons cell phones the summer after they turned twelve, but the boys were, for the most part, completely ambivalent about it. They still are. Between the two of them they use about fifteen of our shared minutes each month and write a few texts. Most of the time I have to remind them to turn their phones on, which is challenging for them unless I also remembered to tell them to charge their phones the night before. (Although they have managed to download a few games they haven't paid me for yet. Ahem.) At the time we bought the phones, the boys were going to be starting at a new school thirty minutes away and taking a bus there and they'd never taken a bus to school before and after thinking about it calmly and rationally, this mother freaked out.

So we bought our twelve year olds phones. Of course Tanya wanted a phone, too and we told her, "When you turn twelve," which seemed oh so far away at the time.

Turns out the boys didn't really need them. The day Kyle missed the bus, he called from the school office. Although I have to admit the phones have come in handy, like the time I was running late to pick Ethan up from Cross-Country practice. I was able to tell Ethan, who thought is was a good idea to run in shorts and a T-shirt on a thirty degree day, to go back into the school to wait for me.

It's hilarious to us to see the different attitudes toward the phone that exist between boys and girls. Before Tanya arrived here, the ringing of our home phone was mostly met with indifference, sometimes even annoyance depending on the time of the call, and more often than not it would go to the machine.  She hadn't even been here a week when she took a diving leap for the phone when it rang.  We sat in the kitchen and watched this in awe. The girl didn't even speak English.

Even though we know from experience that our daughter does not need a phone, we decided to give her one anyway. It's about the promise we made.  At the age of twelve, this little girl has been the victim of far too many broken promises.

So today the lunar eclipse is over, the days begin to get longer, my daughter turns twelve and gets a phone.  All is right in the world.  That is until we get that first bill.

Getting "Lanced"

It seems maybe that Do-Gooder Graffiti I wrote about last week is having an effect.  My sons and I went for a run along the lakefront this afternoon and for the first time in a long time I didn't get "Lanced."  If you've ever run the lake, then you know of what I speak.  "Getting Lanced" is the term I use to describe the cyclists who brush by closely, too closely if you ask me, when they pass.

I hate that.

I know it's hard to be an aspiring Lance Armstrong within the city limits of Chicago; our lakefront path is crowded. But maybe you "Lancers" should have thought of that before you moved into Chicago to train for the Tour de France. And I know this is what you must be doing if you get so annoyed with anyone getting near your precious bike path that you feel the need to Lance us by speeding by so closely to show us you're annoyed. Sometimes I swear you take off some of my dog's ear hair when you go by.

I'm out there trying to take up as little space as possible,which is even harder in the winter when ice and snow take over the running path adjacent to the bike path. I must admit some days even I get annoyed with the strollers and people out for a stroll and the flocks (they must, apparently, be required to do this in flocks) of women power walking (and you know they're power-walking and not just out-for-a-stroll because they purposefully pump their arms to show you) but then I remember all the things our kindergarten teachers taught us about sharing and being kind. So I try to stay Zen and just run around them, remembering to clear left every time lest I get run over by someone in yellow spandex training for the Tour de France, which would be an ignominious way to die.

And yet today, on this wonderful, glorious Sunday afternoon, I ran with my sons (and the three of us, with the dog, are like a double-wide coming down the pike) and not once did we get Lanced. Not once!

Maybe it's the spirit of the season. Maybe it's the Do-Gooder graffiti inspiring all the Lancers to be kind. Or maybe it's just the fact that when the temperature 19 degrees, yellow spandex just doesn't keep you very warm.  Regardless, today I celebrate a Lance-free run!

A Christmas Eve Carol - When a Family Tradition Comes to an End

For over fifty years my eighty-nine year old mother has been hosting a Christmas Eve party at her house, and while my husband and kids and I will be heading over there this year, we are the only ones who will. It seems this family tradition is coming to an end.
I have fond memories of this party. One year, my Uncle Mike announced Santa had come early, leaving presents for the kids on the second floor landing of my grandmother's two-flat (we lived upstairs, grandma down.) I think I must have been around four years old, and for many years afterward, I couldn't understand why this year Santa had only shown up just that once.  My cousins (mostly boys) and I would play together wildly and, being raised an only child, it was both fun and slightly terrifying.  In those years, I would have to guess attendance hovered around thirty people, probably more. 

But kids grew up and moved out and had their own families.  Families moved farther and farther out to the exurbs and it became harder and harder to make it to my mom's house for Christmas Eve.  "I have to work until five,"  "I have church at seven,"  "We're going to So and So's house this year," "There's just not enough time to see everyone." In recent years, sometimes there've been as few as ten of us.
Bravely, my mother and father soldiered on. I've offered many times to host the party for them, to no avail.  My mother loves this party and she would not give it up.  (How many times have you been successful trying to convince your eighty-something Russian mother to do something else?) In many ways, I think this party keeps her going. And so the few of us who've continued to attend would sit downstairs in the wood-paneled basement drinking our traditional bourbon-spiked punch and eating cocktail weenies (Say what you will, they're always gone by the end of the night!) and, some years, awkwardly listening to the clock tick. No, it's not the most exciting or boisterous party ever held on Christmas Eve, but that really isn't the point.
We don't have the closest extended family in the world, but we mostly still like each other and enjoy each other's company.  We're not getting together every weekend for birthdays and anniversaries and unless there's a wedding or a funeral during the year, Christmas Eve is usually the only time we see each other, which could explain why it is we all mostly still like each other and enjoy each other's company.
This year, my cousin decided she's hosting a Christmas Eve party at her house, and poof, the remaining guests are now gone.  My mother is handling it well. Better than I am. (I understand my cousin's house is small, but she could have at least invited my parents. Although I guess that would have meant inviting the five of us too and I think you begin to see the dilemma that's had me start to write a letter to Ask Amy three separate times.
My mom insists on cooking dinner for us, a ham, which she says makes her happier than "dealing with the caterers." My Dad will still go out and get a tree and decorate it.  My kids say they're looking forward to going to Grandma's, and I guess I am, too. 

No tradition lasts forever, I suppose.  Which I think means we should all enjoy each other's company while we can.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Do-Gooder Graffiti?

Love. Be good. Do right.

These  words are graffitied on the boarded up and winterized concessions stand down at the lakefront just south of Belmont harbor.  It looks like someone tried to clean off the words Do right and Be good at some point and then someone else came along and spray painted Love over the top of the result.  It always makes me smile when I see  it though.  Such happy graffiti.  So positive and uplifting.  In spite of the ironic fact the graffiti artist who wrote Do right and Be good was doing neither when he or she decided to spray paint those encouraging words of wisdom on someone else's property.

"Why do people do graffiti?" one of my sons once asked me.
"Heck if I know," came my reply. "I guess they just want to be heard or to leave their mark, somehow."
do right.jpg

It seems there should be a better way to do it. I personally have never once wanted to spray paint anything in my life, except for maybe the metal patio chairs, but I don't think that should count. Although I guess I must admit to attempting to write, I don't even remember what, on some wet sidewalk cement we came across down at college late one night - until the owner, lying in wait in his car in his garage - flashed his headlights on when we stopped and bent down in front of our prospective canvas. He should have let me at it, because he must have fallen asleep or left his post at some point. Walking past later, I saw someone had managed to leave their message. And it wasn't Love or Be good.

Maybe graffiti artists don't have moms who fussed and fawned over every scribble on construction paper that came home from school.  Maybe they just like the thrill of getting away with it.  I don't know.  I do know it's sometimes hard to be heard in this world. I think this must be why I blog. Most days I can't get the attention of a single person in my household unless I raise my voice, wave my hands frantically over my head or impersonate a Wii controller.

Whatever the reason graffiti artists do what they do, and no matter how wrong we may think it is, I still take pleasure in seeing those inspirational words down at Belmont Harbor.  Because if you must try to be heard or leave your mark, even if it's illegal and wrong, I guess it's best to at least try to be an inspiration instead of profane. So with that in mind, I leave you with:

Love. Be good. Do right.

Oh, and Be Kind, too. Because I found this today down near the theater by Fullerton.
be kind.jpg

I am a pilot, but I don't play a cardiologist on TV

I'm not a cardiologist, but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night...

I am a pilot, but I don't play one on TV.

Did you hear about this guy?The airline pilot who was pretending to be a cardiologist? How would you like to find out he'd done your by-pass surgery? (Although there's no record he ever actually treated any patients. Pilot duped AMA with fake M.D. claim
Naturally, flying big jets requires a certain amount of ego. (A whole lot of ego, the husband says.) And we can get defensive (see previous paragraph) when people try to minimize the skill it takes to do what we do, because it does takes a lot of skill and a lot of knowledge, training and practice. At times, I've found myself  thinking, Well, if I can land a heavy jet on 27R at O'Hare, then I can certainly use this drill to hang a picture, even though I've never once, ever, used a drill. So, I can sort of understand Captain William Hamman's line of thinking. Well, if I can land a heavy jet, then I could be a cardiologist...That may be so. If he went to school and had actually trained, studied and practiced to be a cardiologist. William Hamman allegedly had a few years of medical school and never finished.

That he was able to fake it for so long is astonishing. I'd like to see a cardiologist try to fake being a pilot. We have a saying in my industry on the consequences of incompetence or neglect, "Dead bodies everywhere."  Yeah. it's morbid and dark, but it's also the reason most pilots are rather intolerant of other people's screw-ups (see my post last Friday Two-Do List) It also makes little things seem like, well, little things. I burnt the Christmas cookies. So what? Are there dead bodies anywhere?

Unfortunately, part of what Hamman was teaching--the crew concept--is important. In the airlines we call it Crew Resource Management (CRM) and it deals with letting all members of the crew have input. It's not meant to diminish Captain's authority. It's meant to prevent a Captain from flying a plane into the side of the mountain or running it out of fuel while all the other crew members sit quietly by and watch. I have a friend who is a big deal pediatric neonatologist and she told me how much she loved a class she attended on CRM, which was based on the airline industry concept.  Apparently, questioning or advocating a different course when talking to a surgeon in surgery is similar to questioning a Captain. That CRM has saved lives in airplanes is well documented. I have no doubt it could do the same in the medical field, e.g. Sir, did you mean to leave that scalpel inside the patient?

Hamman is no longer pretending to be a cardiologist.  He's no longer flying for United Airlines, either.  The man's ego and delusions of grandeur are what enabled him to pull-off a career as a airline pilot while simultaneously pretending to being a doctor on the side. It was also the source of his downfall.

I can only hope the only ill-fated consequences of my pilot ego in the other parts of my life will be a large hole in the drywall in the basement rec room and the fact I like to call myself a writer.

The E-End of Borders on Michigan

After I'd finished some Christmas shopping at Water Tower Place earlier this week, I walked across the street to the Borders on Michigan Avenue to say farewell. The store is closing, everything is on sale (except calendars, as I was secretly hoping) and there was quite a throng of people there. But there's always been quite a throng of people there. The closing of the Borders on Michigan is just another reminder of the huge zeitgeist shift in the book world. 

The Michigan Borders was, IMHO, their flagship store in Chicago. It was THE place to do a book signing.  All the celebrities signed their books there.  In fact, I seem to remember Al Gore did his book signing at the Michigan Borders on the same day I did my very first book signing. The only difference is, I was signing my book at the Borders on Clark and Diversey.

When I was at the store this week, the shelves had been pretty well picked over, and although I was tempted by a paperback history book on Riverview, the temptation went away when I saw it was still fifteen dollars on sale.  Of course I went downstairs to see if my novel, Wish Club, was still on the shelf. (It wasn't)  It reminded me of all the times growing up when I'd go to bookstores and imagine where my novels would be placed. (Right after Steinbeck!)  Seeing my book on a store shelf for the first time (at the Borders at Clark and Diversey) was weirdly anticlimactic. I didn't burst into tears like I thought I would.
I didn't buy any books that day. I have an iPad. My husband wants Santa to bring him a Kindle. I'd already spent way too much money at the American Girl Place across the street and the thought of carrying any heavy books back down Michigan Avenue seemed ridiculous, especially when I could just go home and download them. 
A friend of mine was lamenting the closing of all these bookstores.  "Where am I going to go to find out what to read? I love to check out the tables. Get recommendations from the booksellers. Then I go home and buy them on Amazon."   Really. She said this. And without any trace of irony.

I guess each of us, in our own way, is contributing to the change.

It's hard to imagine a future without tangible books. I look around my house at the crazily packed bookshelves in just about every single room and try to imagine a Star Trek-like version: sleek shelves that contain only one important keepsake tchotchke and maybe an electronic photo frame.   "At least you'll never spend half a day looking for a book again," my husband says, and I find some comfort in this.  But I didn't grow up imagining where in the electronic library my book spines would appear.  I love real books. I mean, I really love them. Perhaps unnaturally so.  I suppose there will always be print-on-demand for us dinosaurs that can't give up our paper books.  But I think when my next novel gets published, most probably as an e-book, those tears may finally come. .

Two-Do List

Has your To-Do list become a Two-Do List? Scatological inferences aside, it feels like everything I try to accomplish these takes two steps (or more) instead of what I think should be one. And, well frankly, this makes me feel like number two.

For example, I can't remember the last time I made any kind of appointment in one phone call. When I call, I have to leave a message because they're away from their desk right now but my call is very important to them and they'll call me right back. These days I know better than to check "make dentist appointment for Ethan" off my list. If I trust the system to work, I know I'll be standing in my kitchen eight years from now staring at my toothless son Ethan wondering why he hasn't been to a dentist in so long. I must wait until they actually do call back. But then I won't be home. Repeat.

Eventually the appointment gets made, but how much time has been wasted? And it's especially frustrating to me this time of year. Have I mentioned in the last fifteen minutes I have three kids with birthdays this month? And one next month. I have one next month, too. My husband's.

So when I email my website lady and ask her to make a change, do I take it off my list? No. That would be silly! I must wait. A week later, when I check my website to see if said change has been made, and it's one of the times it hasn't been made, which is about fifty-percent of the time, I then get to email her again. And she provides an excuse and says she'll get right on it.  Do I take it off the To-Do list now? Of course not. Repeat.

And what about being on hold, oh, say with your favorite cellphone company because your son lost his cellphone (Yeah, under his desk. We turned the house upside down, re-traced steps, checked school lockers and Lost and Founds.  He found it yesterday under his desk. I will not post a picture of what it looks like under his desk, you must work that frightening visual for yourself.)  When I talked to the nice computer lady, I gave her my cellphone number, but when I typed in my son's she said, "I'm sorry, I'm just not getting it." She didn't even seem sincere.  She never did get it, although my dog left the room when I started shouting expletives.  And here's what gets me: I had to give said computer lady the last four digits of my Social Security number. And then, when I finally was able to talk to an actual person about turning my son's phone service back on, guess what I had to give him? That's right! I had to give him all the same information over again. I had to repeat it.

Busy Moms barely have time to do things once, much less three and four times, so
I won't go on and on, finding more examples of life's little time wasters. I think you get the idea. Besides, I've got my Two-Do list to get to.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

Retiring Number Ten--Saying Good Bye to Ron Santo

Never in my life have I cried over the death of a celebrity. Ever. Yet every single time I read anything about Ron Santo I burst into tears. Not huge hiccupping sobs, but tears. I feel like I've lost a friend.
I'm a Cubs fan, of course. (Our dog is named Wrigley, for crying out loud.)  I've lived within a mile of the stadium for the last 21 years. And yet I feel that even though I grew up liking the Cubs, a fan, I never really loved the Cubs until we moved into the city, at Cornelia and Reta, in 1989.  We lived so close, when we sat outside and watched the game on our fire escape of a back porch, we could hear the cheers in the air around us before we heard them on the TV.

My husband is the truer baseball fan, even though he came into it later in life. Growing up downstate, he was dangerously close to becoming a St. Louis fan. (I know!) And he somehow ended up married to the girl who won't even drink St. Louis beer at the ballpark.  Yeah, that's right. The beer snob is married to the Old Style girl.  But he's the one that got me started listening to the Cubs on the radio and now I can't believe Ronnie's gone.
I was in North Carolina the day Elvis died. My sister and I pulled through the drive-through at the bank and I didn't understand why the teller was crying.  I thought she was ridiculous.  I thought it was equally ridiculous the day my Polish Catholic babysitter showed up at my house in tears on the day the pope died.  I mean, she didn't even know the guy. But today, I get it.  Ron Santo was known to me as only a voice on the radio, but oh, he was so much more than that. He expressed our pain, our love, our frustration.  I'm not the biggest Cubs fan that ever existed in our world. (That title probably goes to my friend Rick Kaempfer, or maybe my friend Dane Placko.)  But I'd be surprised if they're shedding any tears tonight, and I'm trying to understand why I am.

In case you may have been wondering what caused our team to have such a rough season last year, it wasn't pitching or injuries. It was that we finally got season tickets. Sitting at all those games though, it felt like something was missing without Pat and Ron in my ear.  Knowing that Steve Bartman had WGN on his earbuds when he caught that ball can almost make you forgive him.

My favorite Ronnie one liner, was set-up when Pat said, "It's so cold I can't feel my toes." And Ronnie replied, "Neither can I." Which is hilarious and bittersweet and speaks so highly of a man who lived through so much, but never, ever, dwelled on the negative.
I think of so many summer evenings with Pat and Ron on the radio. The weather is warm and the kids are goofing around in the backyard. My husband is cooking on the grill and we're drinking a beer and if the wind is right, we hear the cheers from the stadium before Pat tells us about the double play and Ronnie yells, "Oh yeah."
Maybe it's this. These moments that he's a part of that I don't want to let go, that I'm afraid are slipping through my fingers as I watch my children grow older and prepare to leave the nest someday sooner than I'll be ready for them to go. Maybe Ronnie's death is a reminder nothing is forever and to enjoy every moment and always look on the bright side of things.

I don't know who will be the color guy next year. It doesn't matter. Ronnie's in my Hall of Fame. And I know, next year, and for many years after, my Cubs world will forever be a little grayer.

Now pass me a tissue.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Little Black Dress Dilemma

My husband and I are going to a Christmas party tomorrow night and I'm in a dilemma about what to wear.  I have several little black dresses and the difficulty is in deciding which one.  It's an office party. My "office." And while I want to look, you know, sexy, I don't want to err on the side of hoochie mama. Because, after all, who ever wants to err on the side of hoochie mama?

I thought having a daughter around would be a great help in situations like this, but it's a bit trickier than I'd anticipated. It's not that my daughter isn't helpful. She is. And she has an amazing sense of style.  With a hairband and some ponytail holders, in nothing flat, she can do her hair up in the coolest fashions.  When I bought her curtains for her canopy bed, I forgot to get tiebacks for them, but when I came into her room the next day, she'd tied them around the posts in such a way I immediately told her she had a future as an interior decorator.  
Her fashion sense, well... Did I mention she's from Russia? I've spent a lot of time in that country and, for a woman who spends the better part of her life in a blue polyester uniform, or jeans and a sweatshirt, let's just say I didn't blend. When my daughter first arrived here, her critique of my aforementioned fashion sense was swift and severe.  Seems I never wore enough make-up. Simultaneously wearing all the jewelry in my jewelry box was still not jewels enough.  And whenever the time came to help me pick out an outfit, the tighter, the louder, the sexier the better. And don't even get me started on high heels.
But back to my point. I basically have it narrowed down to two dresses for the party.  The first is a silk Calvin Klein. It's conservative, not very form fitting, but with the right jewelry, could be great.  The second has lace over skin-tone fabric on top, is low cut and has a form fitting tulip skirt.  I secretly really want to wear this one, (Is it still a secret if I announce it here?) but this is the one I fear leans toward hoochie mama.
At work, I've only been seen wearing a most unflattering uniform, complete with a man-tie and a hat, and the thought of wearing the less figure flattering Calvin Klein pseudo-tent feels, well, like more of the same. But it's the other one, the form-fitting one, that my daughter loves.  Keep in mind her taste in clothes, and I think you can see my dilemma.
I still have some time to decide.  I can make my daughter happy and risk joining the ranks of all the poor women before me who've had the misfortune of donning what they considered a sexy dress, only to become the woman at the party who was wearing "that dress." Or I could show up in a Calvin Klein yurt.
Whatever I decide, if after the party I'm remembered at all for what I was wearing, I can only hope, at the very least, it was for an ill-advised little black dress, and not a lampshade.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Article clipping 2010 style: Is it email antimatter to your kids?

I sent my son Kyle an email last week with a link to a CNN article about the scientists at CERN laboratory in Switzerland who had created antimatter. (Here's the link:CNNWorld-Scientists Capture Antimatter Atoms ) I knew he'd be interested in seeing it, because for the last year or so he's said he wants to work for CERN as a nuclear engineer when he grows up.  Yeah, I know.  But he's never been the kid who aspired to be an astronaut or cowboy. 

Kyle's interest in antimatter is our fault, I'm afraid. The downside of parents who forced their children to sit through far too many episodes of Star Trek. The original series, The Next Generation, the series that came after that but which wasn't as good, all the movies. I supposed we should just be grateful he isn't trying to apply to Starfleet Academy. And Dan Brown needs to take his share of the blame, too, since Kyle read his antimatter-involved novel, "Angels and Demons," about forty times.

About halfway through typing out my email to Kyle--and here's where I get to my point, finally--it occurred to me what I was doing is the 2010 version of clipping an article and mailing it to and/or saving it for my child.

I had become my mother. Again.

Already, my son only thirteen years old, and I was sending him articles.  How long before I slid completely down this slippery slope? How long before I would be emailing him links about some girl he grew up with that he no longer remembered but whom had just placed fourth in some beauty contest?  About a neighbor he never met who was running for Alderman? Oh, I knew it wouldn't be long before I'd be sending him articles about the company he worked for that I'd pulled from our local paper, full of factual inaccuracies and information he'd already known months before!

"Just thought you'd like to see this, dear," my email subject line would say.

I fought off the urge to send him a link to a good therapist.

Of course I asked him later if he received my email. Did you read the link?

Oh, here we go again, I thought. But Kyle was gracious, probably more so than I've often been with my mother on this front. He thanked me and said he hadn't heard the antimatter news.  He thought it was cool and certainly hoped the CERN scientists didn't accidentally obliterate this side of our galaxy by turning it into a big black hole.

Umm, yeah.

It wouldn't matter, I suppose, to have a majority of my "article" emails end up in the black hole of the adult Kyle's spam folder, because at least he'll know I'm thinking about him and I'm interested in his life and that I wish he and his awful wife would come visit once in a while.  And if he ever does appreciate anything I manage to send him, well then, that would be just like antimatter icing on my dilithium crystal cake.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Supper Club

Supper Club has been an ongoing tradition with a group of our friends for nearly twelve years now. It consists of six couples (and children) who get together every other month or so for a Sunday dinner.  Each couple takes turns hosting and therefore cooking the main dish. Everyone else brings something--a side or appetizer or dessert.  Old friends, good food. The recipe really couldn't be more simple.

We’ve grown considerably over the years. We added a couple. Every couple’s been adding children.  We currently have 27 card-carrying members.  (That’s right, Dave. There’s a card. Maybe you missed that meeting!)  We joke (see previous sentence) about our stringent rules and by-laws, but we don’t have any. We don’t even actually have a card. (At least that’s what we tell Dave.)

Whenever a couple hosts, they pick a theme. It can be the type of food, like Italian or Cajun, but we’ve also branched out into more elaborate ideas.  We’ve had, for example: “Food you hated as a kid but like now”; “All-American dishes” (for a July Fourth get-together); “The food of your ancestors” and “Apple, the secret ingredient.”

This year, since we were hosting the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I really wanted to do “Food on a Stick,” because it’s ridiculous and because who was going to be eating any food on a stick on Thanksgiving?  The spirit of the season prevailed and instead I decided to make the theme “Food You’re Thankful For.”

And we ordered pizza for the main dish.

Because I am thankful that—when life gets too busy or too exhausting or you’re throwing a party three days before you host Thanksgiving dinner because it seemed like a good idea at the time but a few days beforehand you wonder what the hell you were thinking—I can pick up the phone and have some nice young man bring a hot pizza right to my door. 

Everyone emailed what they would bring, but when my friend Rick said they’d bring salad, it caused no end of ribbing from the group, because after all, how many people are truly thankful for salad?  Rick wrote a very nice rebuttal about why he is thankful for salad and honestly, when you think about it, we really couldn’t have had all the men bringing beer.

After everyone left and the house went quiet, as if contemplating it’s own state of disarray: stacks of pizza boxes on the back porch, a sink full of dishes, two pink socks (and a quarter!) stuffed down the toilet downstairs, it occurred to me what I was truly thankful for. And it isn’t the fact that those three toddlers will not be invited back to play in our toilet anymore.

I realized I’m thankful for my friends and our Supper Club. Simply that.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Race Against "The Day"

My sons and I went running together over the weekend, just down to the lake and back.  We've run together before over the years, though never quite this far.  I keep telling them that before long, there will come the day when I won't be able to keep up with them. They're thirteen now, very soon to be fourteen, and already they tower over me. After a season of cross-country, their endurance and speed have improved remarkably.  It won't be long now, I know, before a run with mom will be reserved for one of their "easy" training days.

I love the looks we get as the three of us (sometimes four, when we bring the dog) come barreling down the sidewalk.  It's not every day you see a mother out running with her sons, much less her identical twin sons. Who tower over her. From some of the stares, I gather we're quite a spectacle.  My favorite thing is to catch the eye of a woman I can only assume is another mother.  We share a smile and I feel like some sort of maternal rock star. Yeah, that's right. Out running with my handsome sons.

My husband was the track star in high school, smoking through 800 meter and cross country races. I spent the better part of high school just smoking.  Watching my husband run is a thing of beauty. He has perfect form. Not to mention his running gait isn't bad either.  I kind of lumber along, a sort of un-gazelle.  Initially, I'd feared my sons had inherited my unfortunate gait but after they put a few miles under their belts I watched their form improve, even out, become more and more like my husband's. Thank goodness. (They did, however, inherit his complete inability to turn off a light switch.)

Every time I run by the lake, I stop at some point, to take a moment.  I do this on days when I feel so good I don't ever want to stop and on days when I can't wait for the break.  I like to just look out over the water, at our beautiful city, and give thanks for everything I have.  A silent meditation. The first time my boys and I made it to the lake, I introduced them to the concept.  Although getting the silence part was tricky, it's become somewhat of a tradition.

When the day comes, I don't care how fast they eventually are or how far they can go, I will endeavor to find a way to force my sons to slow down and lumber down to the lake with their mother, so I can have my moment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Get DOWN with your kids' Lingo

I have a requestion: If you're looking for a fun time, want to try taking this Good Housekeeping Quiz? Test Your Teen Slang - Good Housekeeping As everyone knows, Good Housekeeping is my go to place for everything hip and cool, which are words that are no longer hip and cool, so I'm told. They're "sick" Or actually not sick. Regardless, I got "coolest mom ever" on the quiz. (See what I mean about the whole GH thing?) But I still can't wait to tell my kids! Gotta bounce.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Paris Needs A City Mom!

The Champs de Mars is a beautiful place to run and when I'm in Paris, I take advantage of the opportunity by doing so. It's a little more than a mile to make one loop around the park, and, terrific view of the Eiffel Tower notwithstanding, I have to admit my favorite part about the jogging path there is it's close to my hotel. No matter where I fall over, it's a short crawl back.

I was running the Champs de Mars earlier this week when I saw some guy driving an antique car down the gravel path and through a large group of people. At first I thought he'd made a wrong turn, somehow involved in a bad French traffic-circle snafu. Until I saw several women wearing 1940's era hairstyles and dresses, and men in WWII army uniforms. I also saw a few guys carrying large video cameras and it didn't take long for acitymom's sharp mind to realize they were making a movie.

Well now, this doesn't happen every day. How exciting!  I couldn't wait to tell--well, anybody.  On my next pass, another antique car had joined the set and I adjusted my path to remain clear. Not because I didn't want to be in the background of a WWII movie, but because I was wearing a bright, lime-green running jacket and, as everyone knows, lime-green wasn't even on the color wheel until, like, 1967.
I was halfway around the other side of the park when I heard the gunfire. Now, as we all know, we're supposed to remain vigilant in Europe these days and I, for one, have been doing my part.  In Chicago, when the sirens stop wailing long enough for us to hear the gunfire, we know it's time for us to dive into the bathtub.
In France, however, it seems they haven't received the memo.  They walk toward the gunfire.  Now, I'm no expert, but this doesn't seem very bright to me.  Especially considering it was machine gun fire and there actually are real gendarmes on patrol all through the park, carrying real machine guns.  For all anyone knew, it could have been actual gunfire.
Now, maybe they don't have acitymom in France, someone to explain to their children why we don't walk toward gunfire or wear red hoodies in bad neighborhoods, but I watched several groups of people turn with a concerned look, then walk toward the rat-a-tat-tats.  From where we were, you couldn't see it was a movie being filmed over there.  This did not seem terribly bright to me.  (Same goes for another woman jogger--who kept passing me by the way, which is no reason for me to not like her in the first place, I'm just saying--who kept running through the middle of the set of the movie being filmed. It made me secretly happy when one of the crew finally called her out for it.)

When the gunfire erupted once again, I saw another couple turn toward the sound with a concerned look.
etower.jpg"Ils font un film," I said in my lame French as I ran by. Acitymom just trying to do her good deed for the day, calming the nerves of nervous tourists from within the safety of her lime-green running jacket. But the look of concern didn't disappear from their faces.  

Of course not. I'm certain my horrible French accent mortified them.  I didn't look back to see if they walked toward the gunfire and the movie set or not.  I was just happy for the opportunity to tell somebody.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Veterans Day!

Thank you to all of our awesome veterans. But a special thanks to my dad, Platoon Sergeant Richard R. Strickland, WWII 88th Infantry Blue Devils
(If you follow the link, you can read about one of the battles my father fought on Mt. Battaglia, Italy.) I'm really proud of you, Daddy!

                   Platoon Sergeant Richard R. Strickland, WWII 88th Infantry Blue Devils

Saturday, November 06, 2010

It gets dark so early now.

Don't forget to set your clocks back tonight.  And do we dare try to guess who will be the first person to utter the title sentence to us as if it's news?  Enjoy the extra hour of sleep. Now, if someone could just explain this process to my dog.

Friday, November 05, 2010


A City Mom is now a part of the ChicagoNow family of bloggers, which means you can also find it at

All the dry humor you've come to expect at the same low price.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Yeah, No

Yeah, no.

No, yeah.

It seems, these days, no one can make up their mind. Have you heard this new colloquialism? I’ve been hearing it more and more often lately. I’ve even found myself saying it.

“Did you have a good time at the Cubs game?”

“Yeah. No, it was great.”

“I’ll bet traffic was terrible.”

“No. Yeah, it wasn’t too bad.”

How weird is this? What does it mean? In an age when we’re trying to Bring Back the Sanity and Drink Tea and Restore Fear, I think it doesn’t portend very well for our futures. We can’t even decide if we want to say yes or no! How are we supposed to decide what we want for lunch, or our birthday, much less on election day?

I’m a great believer in the philosophy found in the book, “Your Word is Your Wand,” which predates The Secret by almost eighty years. It was written in 1928 by Florence Scovel Shinn and is all about the power of your words. As I tell my kids, the fool that wrote the little poem, “Sticks and Stones,” had no idea what he was talking about. Every bruise from my childhood has healed, but I still hear the mean things people said.

Francis believed, and I do too, that words have power. (Of course I do, I’m a writer for crying out loud.) She says words carry a vibratory quality that resonates and helps create the world we live in, our realities, if you will. And if you don’t believe this, try this the next time someone asks you, “How are you?”

Answer, “GREAT!” or “SWELL!” or “FANTASTIC!” instead of just, “fine.”

I used to joke with the cashiers who would remark they hadn’t met anyone else that day who was “SPLENDID!” by saying, “They tell me if I keep saying it, eventually it will come true.” And you know what? It did. I am splendid now. Okay, maybe not SPLENDID, at least not every day. But I’m certainly better than fine. (On most days, anyway.)

So, it’s especially disconcerting to me to hear people say, “Yeah, no.” And I hear it every day. All over the country! It’s a virtual bad colloquialism epidemic (much worse, I think, than, “My bad,” or “It is what it is,” or "I'm just saying." I hereby declare I'm going to start a campaign to stomp out, “Yeah, no.”

Are you with me?



Friday, October 29, 2010

Creepy Trumps Trampy

I sent my daughter to school today with a bloody lip. But she was asking for it.

And, sick as it may sound, I kind of enjoyed giving it to her. Except for when the blood dribbled too far down her chin and I had to sop it up with a tissue, and then later when she put on her new, white, winter coat and I had to yell, “Watch out! Don’t get blood on your coat!”

Yes, my daughter went to school today for her Halloween party dressed as a “Vamperina.” I’m not sure what this is, exactly, perhaps a morbid cross between a vampire and a ballet dancer, (which makes me grin, considering how much trouble I’ve had dealing with ballet teachers lately) but it does involve wearing a costume I think is much too sexy for an eleven year old girl. I made her wear a T-shirt underneath the top, which looks too frighteningly similar to a Merry Widow for my liking. I mean, are they hiring pedophiles to design Halloween costumes these days? And this costume is made for young girls. The size on the package says it fits Juniors Size 0 to 9 (and don’t even get me started on size 0). I have to admit the girl on the front looks cute wearing it, but somehow when the costume was on my daughter, it looked all wrong. Maybe I’m just a prude at heart, forced to suddenly face my inner Phyllis Schlafly when confronted with my own daughter looking one minute older than her eleven years.

My daughter wanted to wear make-up, too and, of course, I let her, because after all that’s what Halloween is all about. That’s what makes it fun—dressing up like someone you’re not. This is why my favorite go-to costume consists of black clothes and a pointed witch hat, because it’s easy and means I get to look like someone I’m not, even if I am only one letter away.

The T-shirt underneath and the blood dripping from her lip did make the costume, helping to transform it, at least in this mom’s eyes, from trampy to creepy. Creepy I can live with. And she’ll probably be able to wear the leggings again.

We won’t, however, discuss the fact my son went to school today dressed as a drunken pilot, because as everyone knows, the apple doesn’t—no, wait. Because as everyone knows, Halloween is about pretending to be something you’re not.
Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Onion Opine

The only thing that stinks more than an onion is the onion metaphor. You know the one, about peeling away the layers. Oh, sure, it tries to hide itself, differentiating in little ways, but it’s all the same odiferous slop: “It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion”; “Peel away all the layers of an onion, and what do you have?”

You have tears in your eyes, and hands that smell for three days.

I must confess, I actually remember kind of liking the onion metaphor the first time I heard it. I thought it was deep. However, it began to lose its luster around the seven trillionth time. The metaphor is so old, I’m surprised writers still use it. The donkey in Shrek uses it (and I actually cheered when Shrek later referred to him as “onion boy”) and last night we heard it yet again when we finally got around to watching the movie The Blind Side. Now I guess, in defense of the screenwriter’s use of, “She's an onion... You have to peel her back one layer at a time,” in that movie, that it’s based on a true story and maybe Mr. Tuohy did have a habit of saying that about Mrs. Tuohy. But let me tell you, I don’t think I would be too fond of my husband referring to me as any root vegetable, least of all an onion.

I did find myself crying through half of The Blind Side, though. But I don’t think it had anything to do with onions or wrongful use of metaphor. A psychologist might say it had to do with the adoption theme. I found my daughter tearing up, too. The story hit a little close to home. From the kid that no one-else wanted to the sharp-tongued mom who lashed out at anyone hurting her cubs (Speaking of tired metaphors. My bad.) From the eighteen-dollar salads I can no longer abide or (in our new recessionary spending regime, instituted by my husband, whom I now fondly refer to as the "Quicken Nazi") afford anymore, to the people who were my friends and even some family members, that simply didn’t “get it,” it all rang true. I certainly hope my tears didn’t have anything to do with regret for adopting a young Russian girl, as opposed to a prospective NFL football player.

My tears always bring concern from my kids, which is so thoughtful and sweet, it’s hard to believe I find it in my heart to mess with them.

“I just love cooking for my family so much,” I’ve been know to melodramatically sniff when they come into the kitchen and find me in tears, before they notice the pile of chopped onions in front of me, which causes much eye-rolling but usually gets a laugh.

Three days of smelly hands isn’t too much of a price to pay for some unsolicited empathy from your children. Especially if it gets a laugh. Even if the laugh is as thin and fragile as the skin of an onion.

Sorry, but you know me. I couldn’t help but make a stink.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Backlash Blogging

As per usual, my timing is flawless. My blog, which I’ve been writing for close to five years now, has just become the newest member of the ChicagoNow family of bloggers, right in time for the Mommy Blogger Backlash.

Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who seem to think women exploiting their children for personal gain is wrong. Well, to them I say, “What else should we exploit our children for?”

My husband gave me the bad news the other day, about the teenage girl who stood up to her famous mommy blogger and told her, in so many words, to knock it off. The mommy blogger in question is Heather B. Armstrong and her blog is called “Dooce” and when you read her blog entry [] on her self-censorship it’s really quite touching. I didn’t want to like Dooce, because of the jealous evil inner- competitor in me, and also because her husband was able to quit his job just to manage her. Plus it's been reported they bought a big new house. I couldn’t help it, though. I like her blog. She’s funny. But her self-disclosure set up a media frenzy and like all good media-based ethical frenzies they force us to question our actions and motives, not to mention our career choices.

I’ve tried over the years to be careful what I write about my children. I don’t disclose where they go to school, or where we live, or tell stories I think would embarrass them (too much). I’ve pulled pictures at their request and run ideas by them. (My husband’s actually the more sensitive one, afraid I’ll portray him unfairly as the hapless husband doofus character we see in so many bad sit-coms.) I used to comfort all of them with my relative lack of fame in the blogosphere, saying things like, “My blog just doesn’t generate that much traffic. It only got twenty hits yesterday, and I know ten of them were Grandma.”

So when the ChicagoNow opportunity came knocking, I worried it would change things. For a while, I considered not doing it. Then weirdly, my family talked me into it. After much soul-searching, angst and writerly self-doubt on my part, we had an open and frank discussion about whether or not they minded being the subject of my writings and how they would feel if I actually did become famous and didn’t any of them really want a big new house? My husband, stopping short of quitting his job, even performed a spot-on impression of Mr. Potter from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he asked, “Oh, confound it, man, are you afraid of success?”

A little.

Regardless, you will now find me here fighting against the Mommy Blogger Backlash, exploiting my family for personal gain. Because if I didn’t find a reason to laugh a little bit every day, as anyone who's ever bought a stock I recommended, or stood behind me in the checkout line at Jewel can surely attest, I would find myself crying over my flawless timing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Great Girly Fun

My daughter recently went to a birthday party at one of those just for girls makeover places. Neither of us had ever been, and in case you haven’t either, you need to be informed about what is going on under our very noses! Young girls are being dolled-up with make-up, nail polish, ball gowns and glittery hair-do’s and then forced to parade around like fashion models, all the while being told they’re fabulous.

In other words, having great girly fun.

The father of the birthday girl somehow couldn’t make it to the party. He was at home with the siblings, is the excuse I was told, but I know exactly what was going on. All that pink. All that girliness. He was, as my sons so aptly put it when faced with similarly overboard feminine situations, afraid of bursting into flames.

Personally, I’m surprised I didn’t. Dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans with no make-up and my hair in a messy bun, I still can’t believe they let me in the door. Several times throughout the course of the afternoon, the highly-fashionable young ladies, the Party Coordinators, who worked there would glance at me with a concerned look and eyes that said, “Ooh, a total make-over candidate” or maybe just “Doesn’t she give even a little bit of a crap about the way she looks?” All except for the one Party Coordinator who had her perfunctory I’m-so-bored-with-all-this look perfected to the point the only thing missing was a cigarette butt dangling from her lips.

But every one of them was terrific with the birthday party girls, helping them pick out sparkly gowns before doing their hair and make-up. With more blasting Hannah Montana music than a person should ever have to endure in a lifetime, the girls then walked to the end of a runway (yes they had a modeling runway) to strike a pose.

My daughter was so nervous. She’s basically a very shy girl (until she gets to know you, then watch out). When it came time for her to strike her pose, unlike most of the girls who vamped it up with hands high up in the air and hips bumped out, hair tossing, my daughter stiffly stood at the end of the runway. She just stood there. So I said, “Relax, Honey! Have fun!”

And as she walked around to join the back of the line I realized what a total jerk I was. This was not a time for any type of criticism. None at all. This was not about me and my heart aching for her in her uncomfortableness. The next time she came around and posed, in approximately the same way, I applauded wildly. And she gave me a timid smile.

Have you ever been to France, or met a French woman? Have you ever noticed how confident they are, the way they carry themselves? And let me tell you, they’re not all Brigitte Bardot clones over there. My high school French teacher said this was because, from an early age, adults in France instill in young French girls a sense of their own individual beauty. Wow. Wouldn’t that have helped navigate a lifetime of fashion magazines and movie stars?

As quiet as my daughter had been during the entire party, she didn’t stop talking about it the entire way home in the car and she proceeded to tell her father and brothers every detail of the day, which amused my husband no end but almost caused my sons to start smoldering. Later, my husband asked if having young girls aspire to be super models in such a way was a good idea. (I think his mind had already made the leap to freaky beauty pageants, but this was nothing like that.) Initially, I started nodding in agreement with him, Yes, lipstick on nine-year olds is bad. But then I thought about it. Telling young girls they’re beautiful and fabulous is not. Confidence in one’s own inner, and outer, beauty is a good thing. And so is a little glitter. Playing dress-up, with a little lipstick and some nail polish, never hurt anybody.

I stash some lip-gloss in my purse, and vow to keep this in mind the next time I run out the door in my sweatshirt and jeans.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Surprise! It's Back to School

It’s that most wonderful time of the year: Back to School. When your children put on their brand new school clothes and grab their shiny new backpacks and gleefully and joyfully get forced out the door with a crowbar on their first day of classes. You can tell from the beautiful grimaces on their faces in the First Day of School pictures how excited they are about yet another year of learning.

Back to school time, while thrilling for me (I get to be a writer again!) is also a mixed bag. At our house, September rivals December as the most hectic month of the year—and we have three birthdays in December. It’s a little jarring to go from staying up late every night over the summer watching stupid movies on TV, to going to bed at nine and waking up at six fifteen. Not to mention how hard it is on the kids. And back to school month is always stuffed with important events parents must attend at school—like open houses and fundraisers and that initial parent teacher conference. And the best part is, they’re always a surprise! The dates and times are, shhh, a big secret until the very last minute.

Do you remember back in college when you’d make all your plans for the weekend on Friday afternoon? Well, maybe if you were deciding to have a party at your place you might plan it out as far ahead as Thursday. I think this is something our educators took away from their years of higher education, this idea of springing mandatory get-togethers on unsuspecting parents, giving them as little notice as possible. And then they wonder why attendance at these meet-and-greets is not so high. Do they not know ahead of time when these events will occur? Could they put them on the website calendar? Or do they just decide the Thursday before the Open House it must happen the following Monday?

I have three kids at two schools. And a job. That requires me to travel. I’m only gone about 50 consecutive hours a week, but during that time my life and the workings of my household are fragily strung together via voicemail and Post-it notes. And on a weeknight when I’m home, to suddenly and unexpectedly be required to spend a two hour chunk of my time at an open house I found out about the day before can send those post-its swirling into the air like…uh …well, like a big mess of swirling Post-it notes.

And if you think this makes me grumpy, you should hear me rant about the other pop-up requirements that happen sporadically throughout the school year.

“They’ve added another track meet this Wednesday night.”

“Junior needs to bring a plain white T-shirt to class on Friday.” (This one was easy.)

“Junior needs to bring one cup of sugar and two teaspoons of Northeastern Bulgarian Saffron to class tomorrow for our special multi-cultural Social Studies cooking day.”

Bulgarian Saffron? Tomorrow?

I can’t be the only parent that gets frustrated by this lack of notice. I know the schools are trying their best, but it just seems a little disrespectful to me, as though they believe none of us have jobs or other children or anything else we need to be doing besides running out to Spices R Us in the middle of the night. Everyone’s lives seem so scheduled these days—way more so than when I was growing up. Have you tried to schedule a playdate lately? Sometimes we're working six weeks out. Talking with another mom on the phone I often feel like an Administrative Assistant to Mr. Big trying to schedule a meeting with the Administrative Assistant for Mr. Important.

Between work and after school activities and other essentials—you know, like buying groceries and, eventually, eating them—I don’t understand how parents are expected to accommodate all these last minute requests. A little respect, in the form of a little more notice would be so greatly appreciated.

I certainly mean no disrespect as I pour two teaspoons of Turmeric into an envelope and say to my son, “Well, this is Southeastern Bulgarian Saffron, so it may taste a little different to the discriminating palate. I hope it’s okay. Just be sure to tell your teacher. I wouldn’t want to surprise anyone.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The screensaver for our kitchen computer is comprised of pictures from our iPhoto library, which scrolls random photos across the screen in what I’m told is the “Ken Burns Effect.” I don’t know from Ken Burns, but every now and then when I sit down at the computer to check my email or my Facebook page or some other mind-numbing and equally unimportant activity, like Googling the lyrics to a Lady Gaga song, I stop and just watch the story of our lives float by.

It’s a happy story and every time I do this, I’m reminded to be thankful for everything we have.

Okay, so our everyday life—full of errands and squabbles and bills and messes—is not always so consistently happy, but this is my point. Who takes photographs of unhappy things? Most people stick to photographs of the good stuff. Christmas card photo out-takes notwithstanding, our photo album is full of mostly happy memories.

So I enjoy sitting at my kitchen computer and watching the illusion of the totally happy life float by. It’s hypnotizing to see all the Christmas mornings and vacations, school plays and get-togethers with friends, Halloween and birthday parties. Whenever the screensaver eventually goes black, I get sad. (Don’t tell my husband, the Energy-Star Nazi, but I’ve secretly extended the time span the screensaver will play.)

However, the photo album as screensaver also has its downside. Like trying to explain to guests why we have a picture of a chicken bone on whiteboard (Science fair project. Don’t get me started.)or a really dark and grainy picture of the moon (husband, digital camera and new telescope) or why, at that particular moment in time, I’m hiding under the kitchen table (a vacation photo of me in a bathing suit scrolled by.)

We resisted going with a digital camera for a long time, so our electronic photo library doesn’t start until 2003. However, once we made the switch, I can’t believe I ever resisted. Now, I fret about when I’m going to find the time to scan-in all the photos from all the old photo albums we have. No small task, since I just counted forty-one of them. We do, occasionally, pull one of the old albums down off the shelf and look through it. But only occasionally.

With our screensaver, the memories float by every single day. I can’t think of a better way to be consistently reminded of all the good things in life. Especially on the days when things aren’t so rosy, like when the kids are hungry for dinner because it’s seven o’clock and my husband’s stuck in traffic on his way home from work and the back porch grill is on fire (and my neighbor across the alley is watching me from his upstairs bedroom window, I’m sure critically and with 911 on speed-dial, because I don’t have a Y chromosome and what am I doing out there in the first place?) And it’s on days like these it’s nice to be reminded of how perfectly a Thanksgiving turkey turned out, or how a homemade birthday cake tasted delicious, in spite of the fact my husband and children thought it took two boxes of Betty Crocker cake mix and two cans of frosting to make a single double-layer cake. It may have looked like an illustration from Dr. Seuss, but who could argue with all that chocolate?

This is why I enjoy allowing myself to become hypnotized by our screensaver. It gives me many little reasons to be happy every day. And as Lady Gaga might say:

Not sure what it means
But this photo of us
It don’t have a price
Ready for those flashing lights

You know, if I were to ever Google the lyrics to "Paparazzi" or something.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Friends with Kids

My sons are teenagers now and therefore they spend the better part of their summer vacation sleeping and/or playing video games in the basement. They’ve been known to remark, upon finally stepping outside, “The light. It burns.”

I don’t really mind them being so plugged-in to their computers. They’re good kids: good students, responsible, respectful and obedient (mostly). (As my husband so astutely pointed out years ago, “Wouldn’t it be way freakier if they did remember to do exactly everything you told them exactly when you told them to do it?” He’s right. It would be freaky. And it could quite possibly mean they were girls.)

Playing computer and video games is how they de rez after a long year at school. And we do set limits, albeit rather lax ones. I don’t even want to think about how many hours of my childhood I wasted watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” or “I Dream of Jeannie.” At least the games they play are interactive and require some brainpower, more brainpower than wondering if the Professor was ever going to get them off that island.

In games like World of Warcraft, the boys are required to do some math. One of my sons has even been named head investment banker for his guild, which makes me simultaneously mortified (Bernie Madoff anyone?)and proud and leaves me wondering, since he nearly doubled his guild’s net worth in one day, if there’s anything he can do about our portfolio.

However, the fact their computers have access to the Internet does bug me, even though they’re in a public place in our house, the center of our basement rec room. And both boys have been well schooled on the dangers of Internet predators: Don’t give out personal information. Never say your age, etc. So, it was with some horror I listened to my son Ethan recount a story at dinner the other night.

“So,” Ethan said. “I signed on to World of Warcraft this morning and this guy starts chatting me. He said, “Hi! My name is Friends with Kids.”

“Really,” I said. Already I didn’t like where this was heading.

Ethan continued, “I don’t reply to this guy, and then he asks me, ‘How old are you?’ So I say, ‘236.’”

Okay, good, I thought. He didn’t give his age to this creep. And he was being funny, besides.

“Eleven to Seventeen would be perfect,” Friends with Kids replied. When Ethan didn’t answer him, he asked, “Where do you live?”

And I was ready to call the cops.

“The North Pole,” Ethan said.

“Oh, you live in Chicago. Great!” Friends with Kids replied.

And then I really started freaking out, because I was thinking of all the time the boys have spent playing this game with such lax security controls on personal information and all these weirdoes out there. How could this guy have known this information about my son? Ethan hadn’t given away any personal information. Friends with Kids, on top of being a pervert, must be some kind of account hacker or something. I was ready to call the police, and Blizzard Entertainment.

“What street do you live on?” Friends with Kids asked next.

And Ethan replied, “Candy Cane Lane.”

“Oh, I see. You live on [insert our street name here.]”

I wished Ethan had just signed-out at this point and come to get me. To say I was terrified is to say the least.

Yet Ethan, our preeminent family storyteller, was quite obviously relishing my horror.

“Then, Friends with Kids asks me what my name is,” Ethan continued, “and I say, ‘It’s Santa Claus.’ And then, Friends with Kids said, “Your name is Ethan [insert Ethan’s last name here] and…[insert dramatic pause here]…of course, I know all these things, because I’m your brother.”

At which point, Ethan says he did look over at his brother Kyle grinning wildly at the computer screen next to him, but that he did NOT sock him soundly in his left arm leaving a small bruise above the elbow.

I was so relieved this was all a practical joke, I practically started crying, not knowing whether I should congratulate Kyle for a brilliant prank, or sock him in the other arm.

Ethan’s anecdote resonates with me for so many reasons. I was proud he knew how to handle this guy and not to answer any of his questions. I was also proud of Kyle for knowing what kinds of questions an Internet predator might ask. I felt we had prepared them well. And I think it’s a cautionary tale, too. One that says, “Don’t play a joke on your brother unless you want a bruise on your upper arm,” or maybe, “Don’t tell a story about hitting your brother unless you want to clean out the garage.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Acai Berry and Ice Cream Diet

I haven't posted in a while. A family emergency. Everything's okay now and I should post an essay soon. In the mean time, enjoy my efforts to drive traffic to my blog.
Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.Acai Berries.
Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.Ice cream diet.

Friday, April 23, 2010

TuTu Frustrated--a Mother's Plie

I’m trying, desperately, to get my daughter into ballet lessons and I can’t seem to do it. I like to think I’m a pretty resourceful person, yet it seems I’ve encountered the impossible task. None of the ballet studios will even call me back. They won’t return my emails, either. They refuse to communicate with me at all. Every one of them! It’s like trying to get a response from a literary agent and I’m—but I digress.

I mean, is this any way to run a business? I guess it can work for you if you’re an airline, but a ballet studio? And aren’t we supposed to be in the midst of a bad recession here? Everyone I know has been making cutbacks and it would seem like there might be one or two openings in a ballet class for one tiny little eleven year-old girl. Or maybe that’s the problem. Maybe they don’t want girls who are just starting ballet at the age of eleven, because as everyone knows, if you haven’t been in your toe shoes since the age of four, your ballet career is already over.

But I don’t want to make my daughter into a career ballerina. Frankly, I have greater expectations for her. Perhaps this is the problem. Perhaps people who become career ballerinas are inherently disorganized. Or uncommunicative. Or have borderline Anthropophobia, which prevents them from intentionally coming into contact with people who aren’t wearing pink tights.

I wonder if there are lines of little ballerinas all up and down and around the block waiting for these precious slots in ballet classes and somehow I’ve just missed them. Do I need to get up at 3 a.m. and wait outside a ballet studio with my tutu, sleeping bag and hibachi, because if that’s the case, I think I’d rather just have a flat screen TV.

Wait a minute. I just got an idea of what could really be going on here. Having just adopted my daughter last year, I’m new to the world of raising girls. There’s a secret handshake, isn’t there? Some sort of code maybe? I’m supposed to say something in my voicemail messages or type something into my emails that will let these dance people know I’m part of the “in” crowd of girl moms and that it’s okay for them to talk to me. That’s it, isn’t it?

Okay, I realize there probably isn’t a secret decoder ring involved in getting my daughter into ballet lessons, but I would like to give a child who’s never had a ballet lesson, ever, the opportunity to try it. A Russian child. This is her heritage, for crying out loud. The hardest part about all this is, I don’t know what to tell my daughter anymore. It’s been weeks. She has to be wondering why her mother can’t seem to find someone in this big city to teach her ballet. Her friends go to lessons (or so they say. I am beginning to wonder.) But getting Tatyana into a ballet class is proving harder than moving a fifty-foot telephone pole. I only hope it turns out as well. (If you may recall, I moved the pole.) But for some reason, I can’t seem to move these ballet studio people to call or email me back. To communicate with me, period. If they don’t have any openings, can’t they call to say they don’t have any openings? I’m not asking them to make an exception for us, but to simply do the human, civilized thing: respond to me.

I’m starting to feel invisible and not in a good super-power way but in a bad--uh,hang on. The phone is ringing. I’m not kidding you. Right in the middle of writing my ballet lesson manifesto, the new ballet studio I called for the first time yesterday called me back. Within 24 hours no less. She even apologized for not getting back to me yesterday. They’re not taking any new students right now, not until after the Big Spring Performance. Classes start again this summer, the nice dance lady says. She will mail me a brochure and I can pick the time and days.

I’m so happy, I do a pirouette! And put my tutu, sleeping bag and hibachi away.

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Adoption Postcard, from my side of the edge

When I first heard about the Tennessee mom who put her seven year-old adopted son on a plane back to Russia all by himself, my first thought was, I didn’t know that was a possibility.

Okay, okay. Of course, you must know, I’m joking. What that woman and the boy’s grandmother did to that child is unthinkable. I am not defending it in any way. However, what I do take issue with are all the people so eager to jump all over this family in judgment of them. In news story after news story and blog after blog, I watch parents (and probably some non-parents, too) practically getting-off on their vitriolic condemnation of Torry Hansen and her mother, Nancy.

So, I ask them; Do you feel better now? Do you? Are you currently swaggering around, a cross between Mother Teresa, Erma Bombeck and Carol Brady, feeling oh so much more like perfect parents because you didn’t ship your kid off to Russia?

Well, if I may stay up on my high horse here, I refuse to spew such vitriol. Most of these people chiming-in haven’t adopted an older child, and while I haven’t walked in the Hansen family’s shoes, I’ve walked in a pair similar to theirs. My daughter arrived from Russia just over a year ago.

Adopting a ten year-old girl was by far the single-most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. And I’ve done some pretty difficult things. It was also the single-most terrifying thing I have ever done, because when you go in, you know, there is no going back. Fortunately, my sweet daughter does not have severe psychological problems and she has not tried to set her bedroom on fire, yet, (and we were warned this was a possibility)(And I don't think the incident with the pillow and the nite-light should count) but there were days, many days, when I woke up convinced I’d ruined my life.

This, however, is not an uncommon reaction to adoption. We sought family counseling to help with our transition into a family of five and our therapist told me that everyone she’s ever counseled after an adoption, to a person, has said to her the phrase, “I feel like I’ve ruined my life.” It didn’t matter if they had adopted a newborn baby, a seven year-old, internationally or domestically. Everyone had this feeling. To a person.

Yeah. It’s that hard.

And my daughter is a good girl! She brushes her teeth when I tell her to. She goes to bed when I tell her to. She does her homework and cleans her room and is making friends and getting good grades at school. The ultimate adoption success story. But lest you get all teary-eyed thinking how wonderful it all is, let me tell you about the days when it wasn’t so perfect. About the days she told me how much she hates me and wants to go back to Russia. About the time she spewed a string a Russian expletives at me that would make a sailor of any nationality proud. The time she bit my son. The time she—well, you get the idea. And these are the times that can put you close to the edge. I’m guessing they were what put Torry Hansen over it.

Fortunately for our family, the good days, slowly, began to outnumber the bad days. And now, one year later, we have mostly all good days.

There’s a point in the integrating and bonding process when an adopted child will rebel with gusto, testing you; You say you love me, but do you really? And then they will behave terribly (see above), to test the limits of that love. My guess is this is where the Hansen family was at the point when they snapped. For me, those were days when I didn’t particularly want to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also when we started the adoption counseling.

I have to believe that if the Hansens knew they had other options, they would have tried them. I don’t know what the laws are in Tennessee, but in Illinois, we had to take a certain number of hours of adoption courses. We were urged to join support groups and knew we had a wealth of resources available to us should we need them. It’s obvious Torry Hansen failed at parenting this child, but who were the people, the authorities that failed her, and ultimately, her seven year-old son? And why was the boy in the grandmother’s care? Had she received any adoptive parent training? She was apparently the person who orchestrated his return to Russia and I think there may be a whole lot more to this story than we will probably ever know.

In the mean time, everyone can continue to flap around and squawk about how awful it is, and it is awful, and they can point fingers at the mother and judge her harshly—whatever it takes to make them feel superior. As for me, I’m just grateful I’ve been able to hold it together, to get through the really hard days without mailing all of my children off to a foreign country with a post-it note stuck to their foreheads.

But in my house, I have a wonderful and supportive husband and two wonderful and supportive sons, and extended family, who have all been a huge part of making my daughter’s transition here the success it has been. We had excellent adoption training courses and terrific counselors that got us through the really hard times. And of course, my daughter herself. A sweet and loving girl, the bravest little kid I’ve ever met, who made the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, the happiest most rewarding thing I’ve ever done as well.

We’ve been lucky. And if you must, feel free to judge me on that.