Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas 2014: An Inventory

Five things I have not done / not done well this Christmas season:

1) I thought I would get ahead by ordering my Christmas cards at the end of October. (For those who received one, that is why the reference to autumn is in the present tense.) Because I was so proud of myself when clicking "Confirm," I didn't double-check my account information. The cards shipped to my old address, which is 1,600 miles away from my new address. Luckily, the very kind family who now lives there accepted the box, took it back to the UPS Store, and shipped it to me ℅ the house where I actually live. The box arrived November 3, which was two days before I received an "early bird" 30% off coupon in the mail from  I put the coupon on my desk and thought about calling to see if customer service would retroactively apply the discount. I am still thinking about it.  The cards sat in their unopened box on my office floor until December 14.

2) I never put a single treat in the Advent Calendar. The Equestrian is OK with that. "I think we can live," she says. (She's twelve.) The Drama Queen, on the other hand, claims I now owe her 21 pieces of candy… with interest.

That's enough, right?
3) I haven't decorated the Christmas tree. We hosted an office Christmas party at our house on December 6 (when your husband works for a Catholic hospital system, you're actually supposed to call it a Christmas party rather than a Holiday party), and Nick came up with the brilliant idea to save a few hours of prep time by just putting lights and a star on the tree that we bought at 9:00 p.m. on December 5. Did I mention that he is brilliant? The drawback, however, is that the tree remains lit and starred but not ornamented… with the exception of four handmade ornaments the DQ received from her fourth grade Secret Santa. I am now wondering if anyone will notice. What if I just add more presents under the tree to draw the eye down?

4) I volunteered to be in charge of the school holiday decorations. OK, technically, this is something that I did not think through well last spring when I was cornered by two Parents' Association VPs who already do far more than I do for the school and also happen to be really nice people. (Funny how all December projects seem doable from eight months away.) In the end, it was actually really fun to spend a day decking the halls with a great group of parent volunteers who gave of their time and energy to make our kids' school festive for the season. But I think I may have gotten all the decorating out of my system a little too early. (See #3.)

5) I have not yet shipped gifts to my family. It is December 21. In my defense, my older daughter hasn't finished her Christmas crafting / shopping, so the box is not yet complete. Yes, I could have shipped it incomplete last week and then brought the last few items with us in a suitcase. Could've, would've, should've. Now I may no longer be able to afford to ship the darn box. Has anyone already done the math on the price of buying and checking another suitcase dedicated to gift transport vs. the price of the surgery required to remove my left arm and leg, which is what UPS may now be charging to get a package across two time zones by the 26th? If so, you can email me via the links below.

Five things I have done / done well this Christmas season:

1) Every day I take a moment to sit down, open Christmas cards from friends and family, and appreciate all the love and laughter and memories the senders add to our lives. For those who may wonder whether it is worth it to keep sending, my vote is a definitive yes. We love you all.

Christmas magic
2) I made cookies with the DQ. For the first time ever. I don't come from a Christmas-cookie-baking family. It just wasn't one of our traditions, and, as an uptight perfectionist (WHAT?!?), I am a very nervous baker. Please know that I am in awe of everyone who Facebooks and Pinterests multiple wire racks of cooling confections. I have one wire rack and usually cannot find it. However, I was again invited to a cookie swap and decided to be brave and attend with a tin (see what I did there? I may not bake, but I can create linguistic humor) rather than chickening out like I did last year. After all, these cookie swappers are people with whom I want to hang. And since the DQ is always very excited to use the whisk Santa once gave her, I invited her to jump in and help. We totally botched the first batch, and it didn't even matter. She thought all the ugly ones were delicious. I have come to the conclusion that deliciousness is inevitable when you use two sticks of butter per batch.

3) And speaking of butter, I have exercised three days in a row. On the first three days of my kids' winter break. I don't think that is technically enough repetition to claim I've formed a habit, but it sure is a better start than I've made since… ever. Plus, it is one hour a day of focused, healthy, sweat-out-the-guilt-about-all-the-things-I-haven't-done-or-done-well time. Win, win, win.

4) I let my twelve-year-old miss four days of school mid-December to travel through the midwest with her horseback riding instructor to look at horses for sale. I realize that this one isn't very self-evident in terms of "things I did well." On the surface, it seems much more like a "things I let happen because I overindulge my children." But the trip was an amazing experience for the Equestrian--imagine a combination educational adventure, road trip with your favorite aunt, and opportunity to see some of the best competitors in the sport about which you are most passionate. She came back more grown-up, more appreciative, and feeling completely satisfied that she had already had her Christmas. She didn't come back with a horse, which is not to say there isn't a new four-legged friend somewhere in the near future, but for now we're all content--the tweener included--to be patient and wait. That's about the best lesson she could have learned by driving across Kansas.

5) I had one of those parenting moments that reminded me I sometimes get it right. On the last Monday before Christmas break, when it was getting REALLY hard to get the girls out the door on time, I was hollering "Let's go!" as my ten-year-old stepped over the dog gate from the kitchen to the back hall. She was holding a raspberry-blueberry(-and kale--SHHHHHH!!!) breakfast smoothie in one hand and her school snack and water bottle in the other hand. Her foot caught on the top of the barrier, and she fell chest-first to the floor, knocking the wind right out of her tiny body. She lay there, gasping for air, wide-eyed and on the verge of panic, in a puddle of purple slush. *Big confession moment* I had the briefest flicker of a thought about grabbing a few paper towels on my way to comfort her. Kind of like Elaine from Seinfeld grabbed a box of Jujyfruits before leaving the movies when she found out her date had landed in the hospital. But I didn't. I suppressed my inner Elaine, ignored the clock, and went to give my baby exactly what she needed--a mom who didn't care about whether we were late to school or how much smoothie was on the floor (or the ceiling… no, seriously, on the ceiling). A mom who, for a few moments at least, cared only about helping her feel better. I rubbed my little girl's chest; in quiet tones I promised her that it would be OK and she would catch her breath again soon. I was 100% focused on how much I loved her and how thankful I was that her loss of breath was only temporary. It may have been the calmest and most present moment I've had since Thanksgiving.

Oh, there is one more thing I haven't done this Christmas season: Clean all the smoothie off the ceiling. I find the purple splatter a good reminder that it's not about my to-do list. Or even me. It's about the child. And the Child.
Thumbnail from

Monday, October 20, 2014

Double Standards: The Musical

My younger daughter, the Drama Queen -- and I call her that not only because she feels ALL THE FEELINGS so deeply but also because she loves to perform on the actual stage, preferably with an English accent -- just turned 10, which is the birthday of the iPod Touch in our house. So on the big day, her dad and I brought her to the mall and into the Apple Store, where we were three out of three people not there to try bending an iPhone 6+. Ten minutes later we were on our way home with her new favorite gadget.  Sorry Kindle.
The Drama Queen: "At the Ballet"

Since then it's been all showtunes all the time for her.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

However, I did pause a moment when she came downstairs the other day singing, "Dance: 10, Looks: 3" from A Chorus Line. For those of you who aren't intimately familiar with the lyrics, "Dance: 10, Looks: 3" is more commonly known as "T!ts and A$$."

I looked around furtively and decided to hide my Mom of the Year tiara before someone from the committee could come take it away.

Nick says I have a terrible double standard when it comes to musical theatre. Mature themes that would give me pause on television, in popular music, or at the movies are all fair game when presented in musicals. Or movies based on musicals.  Case in point: On Christmas Day 2013 we sat with our then third and sixth graders and watched Fantine be molested in a coffin... and then sing about it.

It's amazing how clearly you can detect your spouse's raised eyebrows and pointed look in a darkened theater.

Of course, that was nothing compared to the discomfort that oozed from his pores when we took the girls to see the national tour of Pippin a few weeks ago and watched the protagonist learn the hard way that a whole lot of meaningless sex is not the answer to a fulfilling life. And when I say the hard way, I mean trapped in a cage with two women, a man, and a whip. Yep, this with two girls who still say "ICK!" aloud when they see kissing on TV.

In my defense, I find it much easier to have the hard conversations with kids when the subject of said conversation is set to a Tony-winning tune. For example:
  • "Lovely Ladies" from Les Miz gave me the vehicle to explain prostitution and the lack of options for countless women who are turned out on the street, not only in the 19th century but also present day.
  • "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen" from A Chorus Line helped me explain wet dreams to two girls without brothers. It's like the Judy Blume of musical numbers.
  • "As Long as He Needs Me" from Oliver has come in handy lately with the subject of domestic violence and the NFL. I've used it as a cautionary tale to explain the difference between a man who says he loves you and a man who acts like he loves you. The DQ and I agree that this song, along with the final 4 lines of "It's a Fine Life," are some of the most tragic lyrics in all of theater. (For contrast, see "Suddenly, Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors.)
  • "Everything Else" from Next to Normal is a particular favorite of my older daughter, because she loves catching me listening to music with profanity. But I love it for giving me the opportunity to talk to my type-A, horse-obsessed overachiever about what it means to find balance in life, to explain that pursuing a passion is good if it creates a healthy outlet for your emotions but not if you use it to ignore and suppress the pain and problems that come with adolescence. Where was Next to Normal when I was a teen?
  • Pippin: IMHO, suitable for children
  • And the finale of Pippin is a great reminder that no matter what they try in life or where they go to find themselves, my kids can always come back to our family. We may not be glamorous or famous or even extraordinary, but we love them and will be there to hold their hands.
I believe wholeheartedly that these lessons can begin for the youngest of kids with the most innocent of musicals. In Enchanted, Amy Adams reminds us all that a long walk (or run or skip or dance) through Central Park is a great way to put things in perspective. (Of course, we children of the 70s already knew that from Godspell. I dare you to watch the "Prepare Ye" scene from the 1973 movie and not think of it every time you see Bethesda Fountain… or the "Friends" opening credits.)

And how many of today's kids will one day read about fractal theory in physics class and automatically hear Elsa sing "Let It Go" in their minds?

So, please forgive me when you hear the Drama Queen burst out with a few lyrics NSFW. I feel I must continue to embrace my inner Gleek, for she's got a lot to teach my daughters along the way. Of course, it doesn't always have to be be profound and pedagogic. Sometimes it's just fun to have a good old-fashioned sing-along, and musicals are also splendid for those improvised silly moments.  Our current favorite, also from A Chorus Line, is "Nothing." When else in life do you get to be an ice cream cone?

…frozen fractals all around!

Monday, September 29, 2014

O Captain, My Captain

Last month, Susan Schneider, wife of Robin Williams, released a brief statement about her husband's tragic death. In the statement, Schneider revealed that Williams was struggling against depression, anxiety, and the early stages of Parkinson's Disease when his life was cut short.

Many of us were moved to tears remembering truths revealed to us through the art of Williams's career.  For me, it was Dead Poets Society. A close friend recommended the movie to me in a letter she mailed two days before she was hit by a car and killed. We were fifteen. I will forever associate Williams's performance as a teacher attempting to wake his students from the haze of conformity and complacency with the legacy of her innocence preserved and mine lost. "Carpe Diem" became my reminder that not everyone has the luxury of procrastination when it comes to living.
Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

The news flow and social media torrent that followed Williams's death carried with it supportive messages for those held in the grip of the most insidious of diseases, depression and anxiety. But it was the Parkinson's revelation that most filled my heart with empathy for a man I never met but admired from afar. And for his family. Who knew we had so much in common?

Our family, too, is watching someone struggle against depression, anxiety, and the early stages of Parkinson's Disease. My father-in-law.  Before Parkinson's, he was an incredibly skilled wood carver (see samples of his work in a previous post), so let's call him Gepetto. And while I started this blog in the hopes that it would help me sort through the emotions his condition stirs up and perhaps even gain enough perspective to laugh about some of the resulting baloney, it hasn't really worked out that way. While laughter may be one of the best ways for members of the Sandwich Generation to keep perspective on a day-to-day basis, the jokes--when printed in black and white--seem cruel and self-serving. As a result, I'm not posting as much on this topic as I thought I would.

Sometimes, I'm not even tempted to try humor because there is too much at stake. Since Gepetto was diagnosed a little more than a year ago, I've thought about all the preceding physical diagnoses that, with the wisdom of hindsight, should have given us a clue about what was coming down the pipeline: peripheral neuropathy, chronic light-headedness and imbalance, constant dry mouth and hoarseness, and an increasing stiffness in his legs. All signs of PD. But it wasn't until Schneider's statement that I made the connection between Parkinson's and his preexisting depression and anxiety (to which we attributed the dry mouth). These conditions, which he had battled for years, could have also been precursors.

It turns out there are studies on the subject. One case-control study published in 2000 found a significant association with anxiety disorders 5, 10, or 20 years before the onset of Parkinson's motor symptoms. And a more recent article notes that these psychological disorders "occur at a high frequency" in Parkinson's patients. Accompanying factors, definitely. Causal factors, possibly. No matter which is the chicken and which is the egg, the correlation exists.

If we are all made of mind, body, and soul, it is only natural that an illness that ravages the first two would wreak havoc on the third as well.  It also follows that the soul, because it is sometimes ignored in both mental and physical health regimens, may even suffer more.

These days, Gepetto can no longer hold his hands steady enough to carve--or even draw--and struggles to remember how to play messages on the answering machine.  My husband and I feel somewhat helpless on these fronts.

The only thing left for us to do is to try and help soothe his soul.

I'm not gonna lie to you.  It's hard.  It's hard when Gepetto comes to my daughter's birthday dinner and doesn't speak for the entire meal.  It's hard when he calls in a panic at 7am on a Sunday because he's down to one box of raisin bran.  It's hard when I have to remind him what to write on which line of a check and then watch him struggle to hold the pen in place.

Thank goodness they have free coffee in the lobby of his building or I'd never bring myself to go. (See what I mean? The jokes just don't work.)

Jesus's apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians that we are more easily taken down by darkness than anything of the flesh… right after reminding them to maintain honor, peace, goodwill, and sincerity in both familial and societal relationships. I don't believe it is coincidental that the instructions on bringing together parents and children are juxtaposed with those on battling spiritual gloom.

So my family and I focus on treating Gepetto honorably and with sincere goodwill, and we attempt to light small candles in the dark of his gloom--by calling as often as possible to say we're thinking about him, dropping by with groceries before he calls to ask, encouraging him to attend events within his retirement community and with us in the greater community, and reminding him that he is still a priority in our lives.

Not because of who he used to be but because of who he is today.

It isn't a perfect solution. I'm sure Robin Williams's family and friends did the same. But it is the best we know how to do.

And I'll be the first to admit I'm no saint.  Sometimes it drives me to sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. (That one was for you, Robin.) But sometimes it reminds me of the fleeting nature of life itself and the fact that in the end, we may no longer have use of talents, resumes, the minds we work so hard to fill, or the bodies we work so hard to maintain. But we will have our relationships. We will have our souls. And, if we're lucky, we will find truths and peace within both.

The wisdom of the Dead Poets

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Time to think

If anyone was paying attention, which was doubtful at that stage of the game (OK, Mom, I know you were paying attention -- I was really referring to my other two readers), the number of posts on this then-three-post blog decreased by 33% shortly after I started. Why? Because I was multitasking.

While addressing and stamping Christmas cards on top of the desk, and soothing my crazy, beside-herself-with-pent-up-energy-13-days-after-surgery-but-still-not-cleared-to-run-off-leash puppy under the desk, I decided it would also be a good time to go back and add an illustration to my post on procrastination and creative endeavors. After all, we are a visual people, are we not, fellow-Pinterest-junkies?  Somehow, in doing all of the above, I pasted an in-the-works post over the previously published post and hit save, thereby undoing countless hours worth of work and erasing it forever. (And no, I didn't have a back up copy. #rookiemistake)

For what it's worth, here is the offending illustration:
Via @Quotes4Writers

Not that anyone now remembers my Gen. McClellan anecdote, but if you did, I'm sure you would agree that this would have been the perfect visual accompaniment to the now-banished-to-cyber-oblivion post.

But I couldn't help but think about this little snafu while I was sitting at Costco waiting to speak with the pharmacy technician about my father-in-law's prescriptions. (He has nine that he takes daily and no prescription drug coverage. The saints who work at the Costco pharmacy are constantly trying to help me find ways to make it less expensive.) I had left my phone in the car, and since I didn't have the energy to navigate the land of wholesale milk and honey, nor did I want to admit that I couldn't go fifteen minutes without my phone, I was left on a bench with nothing but my thoughts.

My thumbs began to twitch.

I spent the first three minutes working on a grocery list for the smaller-portions store I hoped to hit next. Literally on the back of an envelope. Then, I spent a moment pondering whether I should actually purchase the three-pack of giant Band-Aid boxes staring at me from across the aisle. (You can never have too many Band-Aids, especially when your children have inherited your klutziness. Three trips to the ER for stitches before age seven for my older daughter, but that's another story.) And then, perhaps because I'm currently taking an online writing class and words are on my mind, my thoughts turned to this blog, the post that once was, and what I had lost forever.

Nothing like a little quiet time to dwell on six-month-old regrets that don't really matter anymore.

At first I was just annoyed with myself that in multitasking, I had lost something I enjoyed writing and spent time editing, not to mention a few pithy turns of phrase. And then I thought about the fact that I was just kidding myself by using the term "multitasking." Research shows there is no such thing. Just a quick sequence of starts-and-stops of multiple tasks that divide one's attention and diminish one's returns. And one's number of blog posts.

Sitting there on the metal bench, I didn't have the option of multitasking. This didn't stop my mind from jumping from one topic to the next, trying to keep from losing track of any of the myriad things I feel I need to remember on a minute-by-minute basis, but at least I was cycling through all these topics using only one source of information -- my own brain. Not the Siri-powered brain that lives in my pocket. Just my God-given brain… That used to be enough.

Yes, this is the second time I've used this same meme.
I'm out of practice on how to quiet that brain down. It didn't come with a "Sleep" option on the menu bar.

Gene, who cuts my hair, is an ordained Episcopal priest, a second degree reiki student, and a small business owner with an MSW, two rescue dogs, a two-acre garden, and a wicked sense of humor. Last week (yes, I made time for a haircut -- thank you for your applause), while I was stuck in a chair holding perfectly still with my hands literally tucked under my legs and a nylon cape velcroed around my neck, he said something to me that rang a little more true than I would have liked.  He was quoting his reiki master but, in typical Gene fashion, added that "anyone who has really read Matthew 5-6 should know the same thing." He said, "There is no moment but the present one."

Needless to say, his salon is a cell-phone-free zone.

No moment like the present isn't enough. We're working toward no moment other than the present.  If that's true, then I can let go of my six-month-old regrets and tomorrow's shopping list. (That doesn't seem possible, but like I said, I'm out of practice.) I can sit on that bench and ponder my father-in-law's prescriptions, his well-being, and our relationship without worrying about what I haven't done or have yet to do. Maybe then I'd be a little less likely to be annoyed at what I've lost along the way or what the current moment is keeping me from doing next. After all, aren't the times when my patience wears the thinnest those times when I wish I were somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else?  I'm thinking about that in this present moment.

My kids are currently at sleep-away camp in a "no electronics" environment. When we went to visit my middle schooler after her first two weeks, she asked me, "Did you bring my phone?" Bracing myself for some serious whining, I managed a hesitant but firm "No," to which she responded, "Thank goodness." What?!? I managed not to say aloud. Who are you and what have you done with my daughter who texts as if her life depends on it?  Don't you love how just when you think you have them figured out, kids manage to surprise you?

The fact of the matter is that she was -- as usual -- one step ahead of me.  She was content with the present moment, where she was, and whom she was with. The school year FOMO (fear of missing out) had disippated.

Summer is a good time to see what happens when we revert to our God-given brains. So I've decided to follow her lead. When trying to figure out how to get somewhere, I think about it first before automatically plugging it into my car's navigation system. When trying to remember a fact I once read, I try to figure out the article title and/or publication before just plugging what I can remember into Google. When waking up, I try not to check email before I brush my teeth. Maybe I'll even learn my daughter's mobile phone number by heart before she gets home.


The real test, of course, will be when summer comes to a close and we are suddenly back in the routine.  When my God-given brain is over-committed and under-slept. How many moments will I consider to be real then? Will I remain a lily of the field or will I revert to being a Siri-fueled laborer and spinner yet again? Wish me luck. However, I'm not going to think about that right now. It doesn't matter in this present moment.

The campfire site at Camp Crestridge for Girls

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sorry, Mom

There have been a number of times in my life when I felt compelled to pick up the phone, dial my mom, and just say, "I'm sorry." Not because I wronged her in some way (although there have been plenty of those instances as well), but because I had some sort of epiphanal experience that illuminated how remarkable my mom was during the most difficult -- or perhaps the most banal -- periods of parenthood and how I never properly appreciated it at the time.

This happened once after I spent a long, rainy weekend in Blowing Rock, NC, with my best friend, my 24-month-old godson (who called it Uh-Oh Rock), and my 23-month-old daughter.  In planning, we had envisioned a weekend of wandering around the lake, climbing on rocks, and enjoying the Main Street playground.  In reality, trapped indoors by a late-spring monsoon that turned the paths around our condo into raging rivers and mudslides, we exhausted our Duplo building possibilities, drove to nearby Boone and camped out in a used bookstore with a children's section just large enough to house a train table, and finally, in desperation, dashed into the local fire station and begged them to let us touch the trucks.  On the last evening, I remember turning around from plating dinner in the kitchen to find the two kids playing chase on top of the dining room table and telling my friend, who had until that point resisted introducing her son to television, that it was time to corrupt her first-born with a DVD.  The next day, during the two-hour drive home, I called my mom, who had survived not only my but also my boy-girl twin siblings' terrible twos.

"I'm sorry, Mom" I told her.  "I never realized…"
Thanks, Mom. No matter life's twists and turns,
you always hang in there.

It happened again when my older daughter, now a middle schooler but sometimes still acting like a 23-month-old, decided to dedicate herself heart-and-soul to horseback riding.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I love that she has a passion and that her passion requires equal parts athleticism, humility, self-confidence, and manual labor. (Yep, she shovels her own $#!%.)  But her passion also requires a daily 50-mile round-trip and the planting of a new money tree in our backyard every spring.  Still waiting for those suckers to sprout.  My daughter would give up anything for riding, just like I would have given up anything for theater when I was her age. [Cue the aha moment music.] Just like I would have given up anything for theater, and the emotional ups-and-downs of auditions, and the daily practices, and the late-night tech rehearsals, and the performance schedule that conflicted with my 7th grade class trip to Williamsburg.

Ring, ring, ring.  "Hi, Mom. It's me. I just realized something..."

The latest in this series of events involves a book.  Now, when it comes to books, I'll be the first to admit that I tend to be somewhat pretentious.  It's obnoxious, I know, but when you major in comparative literature, they make you swear an oath on Jacques Derrida that you will never again crack the spine of a David Baldacci.  This pomposity manifests itself in a number of ways.  I avoid most tomes with the "Oprah recommends" sticker on the front (even though I would have given my eye teeth to get one of those stickers for one of my authors when I worked in publishing).  My book club groans when I recommend something on the esoteric side. ("Should we read Eugenides's The Marriage Plot in conjunction with a Victorian novel so we can compare and contrast?" was the comment that almost got me kicked out of the group.)  I voluntarily joined a Facebook group rereading Ulysses during the month of February.  Admittedly, I'm somewhat masochistic on this front, so if it's heavy--and particularly if it's Russian--well, then, I'm your girl.

Gift from my Mom
So when my mom, who is on the waiting list for every new Janet Evanovich and Dorothea Benton Frank novel, sends me something to read, I admit that I'm sometimes a bit cynical a total snob.  For instance, years ago when she sent me Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea (her go-to gift for anyone facing one of life's major turning points) with a lovely bookmark and handwritten note, I shelved the slender volume, unopened, in my guest bathroom.

Last month, however, when my book club finished The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin, I stood in the doorway of the guest bath and looked at the book I had exiled there. Was it true that Anne Morrow Lindbergh had run away from what the public thought was a charmed life in order to sort through and write down down her feelings about balancing the demands of marriage and motherhood with her own desires for intellectual stimulation, satisfying relationships, and self-fulfillment?  Was it true there were essays inside by a well-read, career-minded woman who, mid-life and mid-marriage, had trouble defining her place in the world?  How prescient.  How modern.  How… perfect for me.

My mom probably knew that all along.

I read chapter one and it knocked my socks off.  I read it again, barely able to digest all the lessons it contained, not sure if I had the capacity to absorb any additional truths recorded on the subsequent pages.  For someone whose new year's resolution has simplified itself into this prayer/mantra -- "Help me be satisfied with where I am, if I am where I'm supposed to be" -- this was indeed a gift.  For someone whose life in a landlocked state had become a little too metaphorical, Lindbergh's coastal reflections were both as penetrating and as stimulating as the salt air itself.

"Perhaps this is the most important thing
for me to take back from beach-living:
simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; 
each cycle of the wave is valid;
each cycle of a relationship is valid."

I'm not sure I actually recognized how badly my pride desired validation -- for my choices, for the matters in which I feel I have no choice, and for the place I find myself as a result of the ebb and flow of those forces -- until that validation was proffered in a book that pride itself almost kept me from opening. As Alanis Morissette might write, "Isn't it ironic?"  Sometimes one has to be humble and patient and faithful in order to understand how remarkable the most difficult -- or perhaps the most banal -- moments of life can be.

"Hello, Mom?  It's me.  I just wanted to say I'm sorry… and thanks… again."

Friday, February 7, 2014


Even Nick, who is on neither Facebook nor Twitter, has heard about #SochiProblems. Unlike Justin Bieber's ill-advised use of eggs, I think journalists' living conditions in the Black Sea resort town for the next 17 days has evolved from humor to real news (or at least a good post-Superbowl topic for ESPN Radio). Nick's appalled. The ESPN commentators are appalled. Stephen Colbert is appalled.

Пансионат Солнечный (from
I'm pretty sure this was my exact room,
minus the TV, rug, and throw pillows.
But here's the thing, folks. All this shock and awe inspired by your temporary Russian living conditions could have been avoided if you had just called me before your trip. I would have prepped you, or at least helped you reset your expectations.  Admittedly, it has been almost two decades since I lived in the "Sunny Holiday Hotel" in Zvenigorod and commuted into Moscow to do thesis research, but I'm sure some of the lessons still apply.

Rule #1: Stop being disappointed when things don't work. Instead, learn to be happy when things do.

Bathrooms -- Yes, the side-by-side toilet pics are hilarious, especially when the athletes bring their skis into the loo with them, but is that really such a big deal? There used to be a Pizza Hut in Charlotte, North Carolina, that had the same setup.  (It's now a sushi restaurant that I just cannot bring myself to try, but I digress.) Rule #2: Before going to Russia, rid your mind of any Platonic Ideal of a bathroom. The airplane lavatory on your flight over should help.

In our Sunny Holiday Hotel bathroom, there was no need for superfluous curtains or doors since the sink and shower both ran from the same water source. You toggled the flow to one or the other. Even better, the toilet had a lid, convenient if you wanted sit on it while under the shower, which rained down right over the potty and drained into a hole in the floor. Upon arrival, my roommate and I were a bit surprised by this arrangement, but before the end of our stay we declared the accommodations luxurious. The hotel was, after all, built by the communist party as a place to send their best workers on pre-appointed vacations.

Российская государственная библиотека
Other, grander places had different standards, of course. I spent many a day in the Russian State Library (formerly the V.I. Lenin Library), which houses one of the most dignified card catalogs in which I have ever had the pleasure of losing myself.  But a young woman can only spend so many hours in a reading room before she has to avail herself of the facilities. That same young woman should not be surprised when she opens the stall door (a stall door!) to find a simple hole in the floor, perhaps flanked by footpads.

Looking back, I can pinpoint the day my attitude about Russian bathrooms changed. My journal entry for that day reads, "It was a great day! There was toilet paper in the library WC!"

Oh, and one final word about the john. I'm sure you've seen the poster of disallowed toilet activities that has been making its way around cyberspace. While most people have commented on the "No Fishing" icon, it was the puking prohibition that caught my eye. If you feel nauseated, find another place to toss your cookies. My roommate chose the middle of Red Square. (Sorry, Nadya Blondinka. I couldn't resist.)

Water -- OK, so no one wants to see yellow (or any color for that matter) liquid flowing from the tap, but the warning not to drink Russian water existed long before Sochi got the Olympic bid. Here in the States we spend almost $12 billion dollars on bottled water annually.  I live at the foot of the  Rockies (which, according to Coors ads, means my water should be mountain-spring fresh) and still have two Brita pitchers in my fridge.  But suddenly you arrive in Sochi and are bummed you can drink from the faucet? Some of the pipes in St. Petersburg are actually as old as the city itself. Even in Zvenigorod, nestled in the countryside along the idyllic banks of the Moscow River, you follow Rule #3: Brush your teeth with bottled water and, if you run out, always boil or use water purifying tablets… or both. Or skip a brushing. My guess is that all five dentists would be OK with that.

Lack of curtain rods -- It's winter in Russia. Rule #4: Be thankful for all the Vitamin D you can get. Besides, it's not as if you were expecting blackout curtains, were you? See the picture of the room in Solnechny, above? In June, the light coming in through the window was just like that at both 5am and 10pm.  If you ever travel to Sochi in the summer, just be thankful it is almost 1,000 miles south of Moscow.

On a related note, for insomniacs, I highly recommend White Nights festival in St. Petersburg.

Project management -- "But NC," you may be thinking, "these people spent $51 billion and had seven years to get these hotels ready for us!" True, but remember Rule #5: Time flows at a different rate in Russia. Early one morning, in the Russian State Library, I took a stack of books to the copy desk and filled out a form to get duplicates made of chapters I would need once returning to the U.S. The young man behind the desk looked over my forms, held up one finger, and told me "час" (one hour). That seemed very reasonable, so I went back to my desk and read for a little while. When I again stepped up to the copy desk, the same librarian looked rather confused at my return. "час?" I asked him. "час," he corrected me. Ah yes, I reminded myself, час also means one o'clock. Which gave me plenty of time to take a deep breath, gather my belongings, and head over to The Shamrock Pub to watch a soccer match with some expat friends. I know you're there on assignment, but try to leave the maintenance problems behind and go enjoy some sports.

Empty Coca-Cola vending machines -- I'm pretty sure this just means Atlanta is no longer hosting the Olympics.

Mistranslated menus -- Yes, the dessert item "Cakes in ass." would be upsetting if you were hoping for "Assorted pastries."  Just as I'm sure you can understand my distress when I assumed that "Chocolate butter" was a mistranslation of "Fudge," purchased a sizable chunk, and took a large bite right out of the bag... only to find that it was indeed chocolate butter.

Rule #6: Don't eat large bites of plain chocolate butter.

Unpaved sidewalks / Open manholes -- Repeat after me: os-to-RO-zhno. Once again. Now shout it urgently: OSTOROZHNO! Rule #7: Learn this word. A "watch out" warning not only helps if someone is in danger of getting mauled by a bear, but it also comes in very handy if your fellow journo is about to step into the abyss because of walking while tweeting about #SochiProblems.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Colorado sees surge in 24-hour-all-you-can-eat buffets

News - Business - January 31, 2014 

DENVER -- Citing an increased demand for mozzarella sticks, breakfast burritos, pizza, and buffalo wings, a spokesperson for the Buffet Division of the National Restaurant Association, Colorado chapter, announced Wednesday that several members would be expanding their hours to accommodate late-night patrons.

"What a month!" exclaimed Nicholas (Nick) Michaels, speaking on behalf of BD's Mongolian Barbecue, Golden Corral, Cici's Pizza, Bengal Buffet, and Country Buffet. "2014 is starting out as a banner year for our local industry."
Photo courtesy of the National Restaurant Association,
Buffet Division, Colorado chapter

When asked to clarify, Mr. Michaels explained, "I cannot comment on national trends, but here in the Centennial State we are already seeing a huge uptick in number of patrons, and increases in portion size and return trips to the buffet. We believe expanded hours, accompanied by a modest increase in prices during those hours, will help us capitalize on this newfound popularity."

Dean Costas, proprietor of Boulder's Buffs Bluff Grill, is equally excited about the opportunity for expansion. He added, "We have plans for a tiered selection of items to suit every taste.  For instance, students from the University of Colorado may prefer a separate, low-cost buffet with our most popular comfort foods, like Funyons, Ramen noodles, and raw cookie dough."

Experts credit consumer confidence and an increased motivation to eat outside the home.  Maria Thomason, an analyst with Wall Street Trends, explains: "Fast casual is a winning category, and metro Denver has always been a leader in food movements. Just as we saw this area pioneer (pun intended) the gluten-free phenomenon, we expect this 24-hour-all-you-can-eat buffet movement to ripple, especially as tourists cross state lines and bring the concept from Colorado back to their hometowns."

Not all restaurant owners see expanded hours and increased staffing as a solution for the overwhelming demand, however.  Jason Lin, owner of East Chinese Buffet, stated that he would instead be invoking the "Homer Simpson Rule."

"We reserve the right to refuse service to those who take advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet," explained Mr. Lin.  "We are not a super buffet or a chain.  We are a local, family-owned-and-operated restaurant. These newcomers who stay until the Sterno burns out are just taking food away from our neighborhood regulars."

Mr. Lin's newest neighbor, Travis Monarch, proprietor of the Cannabistro, which opened on January 1, wishes the restaurant down the block would be more accommodating of their shared patrons. But he remains in good humor about what some might find a tense situation.

Said Mr. Monarch, "Sorry, am I laughing again? I'll try to stop. I don't mean it. I feel terrible. I love that guy."

#   #   #

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A genius diagnosis

"Hi. I'm Shef, and I'll be your genius today."  Shef catches me looking closer at his ID badge and continues.  "That's Shef, like the person who cooks your food in a restaurant, but with an S."

"Is Shef short for something?"

"Yes, but I can't tell you, because then I'd have to kill you."

I immediately liked my genius with the scruffy red beard and stretched lobe piercings.  And liking my genius was important, because I was about to entrust him with my alter ego and her well-being.

"What seems to be the problem?" Shef asked.

I launched into detail with the royal we.  "We're tired, I think.  Sometimes, when we're doing too many things at once, we just shut down.  Usually it's when we have a lot of stuff going on.  There's no rhyme or reason as to why it happens.  Sometimes all we've done is switch from one activity to another.  Sometimes we're just trying to rearrange a few things.  But without any warning, we just quit because we cannot do anything else without taking a moment to reboot."

To his credit, Shef pretended not to psychoanalyze me.  I guess that's part of qualifying to be a genius.  ("Can you assess machines without also judging the user?")  He pondered my description, admitted that this was a really unusual problem, and then suggested a few diagnostics we could try.  I set my MacBook Pro on the counter and gave her a few gentle pats.

Shef first checked the issue log. "No issues in the last six days."

"Well, that's because I was supposed to come in on Monday, but I had to change the appointment because… Never mind.  TMI.  Suffice it to say I haven't been at my desk much in the past six days.  If you look back twelve-to-fourteen days, you should see records of my… I mean our issues."

Shef ran a preliminary diagnosis, and we got all green check marks.  I vacillated between being proud of my Mac (we passed! highest marks!) and disappointed that there wasn't a specific diagnosis yet (maybe it's just stress? or all in my head?).  Then he suggested we test the logic board.  Not wanted to seem a luddite in front of my genius, I pretended that I knew what the logic board was and agreed that sounded like a good idea.

After a few moments of gray screens and spinning wheels…
"OK," says Shef. "Now we know what we're dealing with, so if you'll just sign here, I'll send this baby off to Houston for repairs."

Houston, we have a problem.  (No, I didn't actually say that out loud. You're welcome, Shef.)

I walked out of the Apple Store, laptop-less and feeling a little naked and unbalanced.  I decided to do a quick Google search (on my phone -- oh, the hardship!) to see just what was broken inside... of my Mac.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that the logic board is just another name for what I grew up calling the motherboard.

Now, I myself have been known to take a metaphor too far, but really… the motherboard? The mother#@<%!~& motherboard.  The base that provides ports and anchors all connections -- external and internal.  The circuitry that creates ways for other components to communicate with one another.  The backbone of the machine.  That's what had failed?

I once read in Astrology in the Workplace (or something like that -- it was a manuscript someone sent my office to see if we would be interested in promoting the author and her work) that Libras, like yours truly, will work their @$$es off but then need a period to just rest and recharge.  We give it our all for as long as possible, but we cannot handle stress for interminable periods of time.  Balance is important.  This is very true in my case, which I'm not sure makes me a Libra as much as it makes me a human.

And then I thought about a very wise friend -- a genius in her own field -- who consults and blogs on nutrition and well-being. (Check her out!)  She has been on a self-care soapbox as of late. She emphasizes with her clients and her friends that taking a moment away from responsibilities it isn't an indulgence nor a cause for guilt.  Instead, we need to view self-care the same way as we view eating veggies, exercising, or wearing a coat in the winter.  It is a crucial form of preventative medicine and can keep us from having to schedule our own tests and diagnoses.  Not to mention that when we practice our own self-care, we model for the important people in our lives -- significant other, children, parents, colleagues, friends.

I discussed this with my friend Becca, whom I met for a longer-than-usual and laughter-filled lunch after my Genius Bar appointment.  And I was about to explain this to Nick that evening after he returned home from a four-day conference, when he beat me to the punch.  "How about if I take the kids tomorrow, and you get some time to yourself?"

I looked around at the Christmas decorations (half-taken-down), and the laundry (half-folded), and my father-in-law's insurance and tax papers (half-reviewed), and the research for my next writing project (half-read).  And then I looked at the hole on my desk where my laptop would normally sit.

"OK," I said. "Thanks."  Who am I to argue with both a genius and the stars?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Beginning again

1/1/2014 began with dog $#!%.

Stay with me on this.  Over vacation, Nick and I have been taking turns getting up with the dog, Luna, since she is the only one in our family not taking full advantage of the lack of 1) alarm clocks and 2) obligations of work and school.  Today was my day.

So I plodded down to the kitchen in my slipper socks (you may have noticed that wearing warm, fuzzy socks has now been mentioned twice in this blog -- Dumbledore and I have a lot in common in that regard), released the hound, and went about giving her breakfast.  After that I pulled on a jacket, grabbed a couple of bags, and went outside to pick up poop.  I've found it's much easier to collect when frozen (you're welcome), so first thing in the morning is a good time to clean the yard.  Plus, B. is having friends over this afternoon, and the last thing I need is an 11-year-old stepping in (by then thawed) dog poop, not noticing, and tracking it through the house.

Yep, those were my first thoughts of the new year.  Nice, huh?

Somehow, I doubt I'm alone in this.  Like waking up when you turn sixteen or twenty-one (or forty), when you know everything is supposed to be different but don't really feel much changed from the day before, waking up on New Year's Day can be a little anticlimactic.  Especially at forty.  Oh, have I mentioned that I turned forty this year?  You begin the routine again.  Another day, another few piles to be picked up.  The only real excitement is knowing that at some point you will write 2013 on a check and have a good laugh.

But then something happened.  It began to snow.  I swear to you, I had just put the bag-o'-crap in the dumpster and closed the back gate behind me when perfect little light and fluffy dots began floating down from a gray sky.

Selfie with snow and dog bowl
"Well, that's something new," I thought.

And it was.  The fact is that there is something new every day, but sometimes I am so bogged down in the ordinary that I don't take any notice of the extraordinary.  When I got back inside, this idea found reinforcement in the daily verse I receive via email.  Paul reminds us that it isn't turning sixteen or twenty-one (or forty -- did I mention that I turned forty this year?) that guarantees a brand-new day.  It is putting aside a worldly point of view (being over cluttered with the mundane) and living in Jesus's example and grace (everything is refreshed).  It is loving God and loving others, especially those who are unloveable, and remembering that the Golden Rule is the umbrella for all other rules.

Just then, Nick came downstairs.  Neither of us had had our coffee yet, so the first thing he muttered was, "Is that your dog barking outside?"*  Seriously?!  I thought.  That's your lede on January 1?  Um... I mean the 2013 me would have thought something like that.  But since today is the opportunity to try something new, I summoned up all the pre-coffee love I could find and replied, "Happy New Year."  We both smiled.  Wow, I guess a gentle answer turns away not only the wrath of others but also the inner wrath of a wife who resents that she had to get up first to scoop poop.

Last night at dinner I told my kids that my new year's resolution was to stop interrupting people.  I've realized lately that what I used to think was a friendly gesture to help others find the right words when they are struggling to finish a sentence is really more indicative of my own impatience.  And rude.  And something I don't like when it's done to me.  So I'm not going to do it anymore.  But maybe that resolution can be a part of a greater mandate for 2014 -- to watch, listen, and recognize what's new (and quite possibly surprising) in daily life, in others, and through grace.  Happy New Year.

*It was my (our) dog barking.  She plays tetherball with herself and loves it so much that she makes noises like she's being beaten to death.  There's no way the person whose turn it is to stay in bed could possibly sleep in through the ruckus. But it's adorable, as you can see here. #obnoxiouspuppymom