my fortune: recycle or compost?

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Every once in a while I threaten to go to graduate school. Each time, my very supportive husband who’s in the midst of getting yet another graduate degree affirms, I could totally go back to school if I wanted to.

“I think I want to go to law school. Do you think I could do it?”

“You could do it. Go for it.

“An MFA?”

“ Why not?”

“An MBA?”

“Sure.”

“Accounting? I always kind of wished I was an accountant.”

“You hate math pretty much more than anything, but if you really feel like that’s what you want to do, I’m sure you could.”

“I think I heard somewhere you can get a Masters Degree in Pop Culture. What about a Ph.D? I could be Dr. Pop Culture. I’ve pretty much already done the research.”

Unfortunately, none of these forays into higher learning would help me in navigating the disposal of our lunchtime waste at one of our fine San Francisco malls.

The trash/recycling/compost complex loomed behind us as the boys and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch of room-temperature poststickers (“there are delicious potsitickers  around the corner from our house! Let’s get conrndogs!” one of us usually argues.) I noticed that since our last mall visit, the recycling powers-that-be or the mall powers-that-be had the bright idea of adding a waste disposal instructional video that was now playing on a loop on a flat screen TV right above the waste bins.

Perhaps they filmed this video after watching security camera footage of our family confused and arguing at the bins about where to put our corndog sticks.

When the potstickers were gone, and the cookies were pillaged for their fortunes, we gathered our mountain of wrappers, utensils, cups, and plates, and stood in line at the waste disposal annex that, I’m pretty sure, occupies the space where Chess King used to be. I looked back and forth from six straw wrapper halves to the examples posted in the display cases above Recycling, Compost, and Trash, or as they call it, “Landfill” to make sure you think three times before you put your cherry lemonade cup in that hole.

The panic set in when I saw the kind of plate I had was not represented on the wall of examples.

“Do I pour the sticky potsticker sauce in compost before I recycle the cup? I have a different fork than the one on the board; mine might be made of potato or corn. We do this fine at home; why is it so difficult at the mall? The mall’s supposed to be fun! What kind of paper is my cookie’s fortune written on? Is it coated?”

“You’re not keeping your fortune?”

“I’ve had enough adventure for one year, thanks. I’m not thrilled that more ‘awaits.’ Anyway, crummy fortunes aren’t covered in this video, and now there’s a line behind us.”

“Mom, I’ve had lots of practice at my new school; we have this same set-up,” said the middle schooler as he adeptly took over. “It took me forever to do this my first day, and there wasn’t a video,” he continued as he buzzed around me in a blur of recycling, “but then it got easier.”

The soon-to-be 2nd grader piped in as he composted his napkins. “My teacher gave me a garbage buddy to help me after lunch on my first day.”

Planet Earth might be happy to know our malls and schools are, at this moment, assigning garbage buddies and hosting a generation of whiz kid Reducers, Reusers, and Recyclers. Just wait until they get THEIR graduate degrees.

*I still do not know which bin the corn dog stick goes in

sunburnt: a summer (cautionary) tale

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There are a few minor adult ailments that might be described as humbling. The first of the non-graphic variety rhymes with… tangover.

The second – a summer staple, perhaps next to the tangover – is the sunburn.

Maybe you are of Irish descent, and you have freckles, and you spent 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s summers with ineffective and/or expired SPF 4 slathered on your parts, only to have the lotion rinse immediately off on the first pass through the sprinklers, or with the first toe dipped in the pool, or with the first sweat broken. Maybe you decided you were better off with an unflattering oversized t-shirt covering your bathing suit – a shirt that became a 40-lb anchor once you jumped in the pool.

Maybe you are an olive skinned beach beauty who’s only had to look with pity at one of us less fortunate folks, roaming the sweltering grounds of the state fair, pink and defeated.

As a grown-up, I listen to my doctors. I wear sunscreen on my face every day. I wear a hat. I sit in the shade. I even went so far as to move to the foggy part of a notoriously foggy city. This ain’t my first rodeo – I’ve been burnt before. (I have been to a rodeo, but it was at night, so I was not actually burnt at the rodeo.)

I was burnt in the usual locales – the pool, the park, the passenger seat of a car, the driver’s seat of a car, the back yard, the front yard, and while sitting on a bench/blanket/lawn eating a sandwich/popsicle/cheeseburger.

In college and during that sliver of time in which I wore a bikini, my then-boyfriend/ now-husband and I uncharacteristically spent the day jet skiing on Lake Tahoe. It turns out Lake Tahoe is closer to the sun than I am used to. The jet-skiing part exposed enough parts of me – top, bottom, front, and back – to make sleep impossible as there was not one way to avoid resting on a throbbing purple and blistered patch of skin. I was out of commission for two days, calling in sick to my barista job, and freaking my mom out with sunburn fueled hallucinations.

In high school, I went to the mid-day Oakland A’s baseball game with friends.  Our upper deck seats put me at roughly the same elevation as Lake Tahoe. As I rode back home, rolling around in the back of my friend’s grandma’s old van, I knew I was in for a world of hurt. I couldn’t bend my knobby violently violet knees and the blisters were already presenting themselves. It was days before I could ride my bike.

Over the next 20 years my baseball outings were relegated to night games, or day games at the San Francisco Giants’ ball park where one usually freezes one’s rear end off, regardless of what weather is happening immediately outside the gates. But July 4, 2013 – armed with a hat, two tubes of sunscreen, and an additional precautionary spray from my friend Megan’s sunscreen can- I re-entered Oakland Coliseum at mid-day, ready for my show-down with the sun.

Our kids had been lined up in the parking lot and sprayed down with an additional protective layer of cream over their little faces, necks, and the oft-forgotten tops of ears.

Somewhere in the 2nd inning, I took off the knee brace that protects my wonky joint but makes my leg fall asleep when I sit for very long. Maybe it was my hops-based beverage in a souvenir mug. Maybe it was the nostalgic and patriotic delight of being with friends at a baseball game on the 4th of July. Whatever it was, I missed sun-screening my darn knee. On that day, in the stadium cleverly designed to focus the sun’s powerful rays on whatever seat my pale limbs occupy, the sun won.

Our friends from New Mexico emerged from the game looking as if they had been kissed by the sun. (Fun “fact”: New Mexico’s climate was designed to resemble that of the Oakland Coliseum, so they had the advantage going in.)

My little family unit walked to the car with 7 pink knees, and one familiar-looking, raging violet knee.  I knew I what I was in for.

Beginning with the failed attempt at prevention, your general sunburn experience might look a little like this:

  • You feel false confidence that you’ve done enough to protect yourself
  • As the sun goes to work on you, you remain blissfully ignorant
  • You congratulate yourself for wearing shorts and a tank top because it’s so hot
  • Your friend slides her sunglasses down her nose, peers at your afflicted area, alerts you to your pinkness, and pokes it with her finger
  • You put on another layer of sunscreen or move to the shade, knowing it’s already too late
  • You realize it’s going to hurt
  • It hurts
  • You wonder if it should really be as purple as it is
  • It hurts more than it did before
  • You vow never to wear a tank top and shorts again, let alone go in the sun
  • You love aloe
  • You love aloe so much
  • You consider filling the tub with aloe and sitting in there for a while
  • Nobody is allowed to touch you
  • You do not sleep
  • You can’t stop talking about your sunburn, as much as you want to
  • Your mom tells you not to worry, it will fade into a tan
  • You assure her that it most certainly will not fade into a tan
  • She remembers that she and your brother are the only family members who enjoy the “fades into a tan” phenomenon
  • You realize the burn does not hurt as bad as it did yesterday
  • It’s itchy now, a sure sign it will peel soon
  • It peels
  • It’s peeling and you feel like a lizard, and you have finally found the one thing that grosses out your boys so it’s kind of funny

All the while, and just like with a tangover (I’m guessing) you waiver between feeling sorry for yourself, and feeling like an idiot.

You should know better. You cooked your own goose. Or in this case, you cooked your own knees.

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* At the top is our actual sun prevention collection. It is strategically spaced through the house, so that by the time you reach the front door, you will have had three to four opportunities to remember it.

**This is me and my awesome friend Megan at that fateful game. I’m the one in the stripes. The one with the freckles. The one who’s legs are sizzling just out of frame.

A Puzzling Dilemma as in a dilemma about puzzles

Image I certainly wasn’t going to let the boys sit around during the first week of summer and play video games. No sir. I had big plans: walk the new neighborhood discovering the treasures outside our back door and establishing ourselves as regulars at the library and the playground around the corner. Take a picnic to Golden Gate Park. Frequent the local museums. Become a family who cooks together and whimsically creates goodies like sweet potato chips, and kale chips, and banana chips.

It was a chilly, foggy San Francisco summer day – the first of many, I’m sure. The boys had already raced through the comic books they insisted on checking out from the library, and nobody felt like slipping off the mist covered playground equipment around the corner. Our pantry was also suffering from a disappointing lack of kale, sweet potatoes and bananas.

I stood in the middle of the room considering our now limited entertainment options while the boys’ fingers slyly walked themselves to the Playstation controllers, like Thing in “The Addams Family.”

Aha!

“A puzzle! Puzzles, are fun, and I have a perfect puzzle for us.”

I dug around the cabinet, to find it pristine and unopened, even after two moves. Mickey Mouse in all his glory. Not just any Mickey Mouse, but a mosaic Mickey, in which his diminutive frame is constructed of tiny little scenes from Disney classic movie scenes from “Aladdin,” “Peter Pan,” “Lion King,” and “101 Dalmations.”

The puzzle prep began –  a cleared spot on the floor, a giant plastic lid for the portable puzzle building surface, comfy clothes, and snacks. The 7-year-old took his place next to me and helped rip the plastic film from the box. The almost 13-year-old stretched his lanky frame across the couch above us, typing into his phone what I guessed was a text that read something like, “Sorry friends, I will be unavailable for a bit. I’ll be building a cool puzzle with my cool mom and adorable little brother. It will take a couple of hours, but it will be awesome, then we can start texting again about how much we love our parents and reading.”

“Remember, first we look for the edge pieces, so we can build the frame,” I said as we pulled off the lid. “We’ll knock this thing out before dinner.”

“There must be a mistake, is this two puzzles?”  Inside the seemingly bottomless box, were the tiniest puzzle pieces I had ever seen, with only about three colors of the rainbow represented.

I looked at the lid. 1000 pieces. One thousand.

Jake peered down to us from his perch in a way that made it clear Zach and I were on our own.

Do we back down in the face of a challenge? No, of course not. I ignored the voice in the back of my head that plead for me to abandon ship, and find some Play-Do.

“More like a thousand pieces of fun!” we decided and dove in.

“Is this an edge, Mom?”

“No sweetie.”

“How about this?”

“Close, but no. See, it has to be totally straight on one side.”

“Is this an edge?”

“No, sorry.”

“This one’s red, where does it go?”

“I’m not sure. We’re just looking for edges right now, don’t worry about the color yet.”

“Is this an edge?”

“Yes! Yes, it is! Great find!”

“I did it! Aren’t you happy I found that for you, Mom? I need to go to my room for a second.”

You can see where this is going. It wasn’t for a second.

The fate of this puzzle rested with me.

Over the din of the video games that were eventually turned on, the boys threw me an occasional, “Mom, you are so good at puzzles. It’s really shaping up. Look at you go! I can kinda see the picture. Did you forget that we need to eat breakfast/lunch/dinner?”

The floor suddenly was uncomfortable. All the pieces looked the same.  I was missing two edges. I had other stuff to do. All this squinting at the tiny pictures of Mufasa were going to give me crow’s feet. I wanted to quit.  The boys were right there, occasionally paying attention, though. What would my quitting teach them? Anyway, they would probably want to help when it started to come together, and when they saw how much fun I was having.

Over the course of the next three days, my mind raced over the doldrums of methodically scanning the example picture for the location of the tiny Princess Jasmine who was looking slightly down and to the left, as opposed to the right-facing Jasmine, or the Jasmine glancing over her shoulder. Wait, is this helping my healing brain, or making it worse? I should give up. No, it makes much more sense for a grown woman to obsess over a Mickey Mouse puzzle for three days, than to give up just to do “laundry” and “clean the bathroom.”

It was a silly puzzle, but I learned a few things.

I can now pick out, from a mile away, all of the gradations in the red and blue color families.

Putting tiny dalmations in a puzzle is just mean.

There are always moments in the course of a puzzle, where you are certain at least three key pieces fell on the floor of the puzzle factory, and were never included in your box.

“Good job Mom,” even when being delivered between pitches of an MLB Playstation game, makes you feel good.

The boys are surprisingly self-sufficient. And they were interested in helping after all. When I had 980 pieces put together, they decided to jump in for the assist, and have subsequently, and repeatedly reminded me of their contributions. In a moment of weakness, I allowed myself to participate in a kerfuffle with the youngest about who would have the honor of putting in the final piece. It was me. I put it in. And it was wonderful.

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DON’T GET BANGS and other things to know in case you get a brain virus

Image“Do you realize the person in this house with short-term memory problems is also the person who put away most of the stuff from our moving boxes, and now is the only one who knows where everything is?”

I would tell you how my darling husband John responded, if I could remember.

The last time I posted here, I was brimming with a hopeful excitement about a future where I could lounge on a then-unidentified couch in a similarly unidentified home in a new city. Now I lounge on a fully identified couch in our new condo while my cat sits in the window enjoying the fog obscured view of San Francisco.

As we anticipated, life is different – the schools, the parking, the restaurants. What I had not expected way back then, was that I would be different. The city didn’t do that though. My brain did.

While I am in the process of forgetting where I’ve put our belongings, I am also recovering from a bizarrely inconvenient, temporarily debilitating virus that came out of nowhere and attacked the very brain I had become so attached to. Sure my brain was not much help in high school Algebra, but it’s gotten me out of some sticky situations, and I had woefully under-appreciated how, for 38 years, my brain helped me walk, and talk, and touch my nose, and remember what movie that guy in that one commercial was in, and also do basic addition and subtraction if the moment absolutely, positively necessitated it, and nobody else was there to handle it.

It was Valentine’s weekend. John and I had packed up our offices, and said “see you later!” to our friends. We’d found a new place to live, and were readying our family for the move. We even tried to go away for a romantic wine country getaway that was cut ridiculously short by what I thought was a run-of-the-mill cold turned piercing ear infection. I was dizzy and nauseous and subsequently and sadly not at all interested in wine or romance.

Things get fuzzy for me at about this point in the timeline. Somewhere between, “Oh, I think I’m coming down with a cold,” and “garble garble non-sensical slurry garble,” John took me to the hospital where I was admitted, and soon sent to the stroke unit. My brain became the focus of a team of neurologists and infectious disease specialists. I couldn’t walk or eat, and I was slurring terribly. My dexterity was shot; I couldn’t touch my nose, use my fingers, or pass the same impairment tests used at field sobriety checkpoints. My cognitive functioning was on the fritz and I was showing signs of memory loss. The orthopedist made an appearance too, but he wasn’t as interested in my brain as he was my knee that had been dislocated in the ER during a lumbar puncture.

A cadre of tests eliminated stroke, brain tumors, ALS, MS, Lyme Disease, and Gullain-Barre syndrome, among other things.

I vaguely remember a young woman fastening electrodes to my head for the EEG and the loud whirs of the MRI tube. My brain was swollen, and not in the fun cartoony way that should have actually made me smarter.

John slept on a cot at my bedside each night, and I spent a few days with a pair of his (clean) running pants wrapped around my eyes to block any and all offending light whether it was from a crack in the blinds, or the glaring rays of fluorescence sneaking in under my hospital room door.

John also spent the first few days of my hospitalization sitting with the news that I might not make it through this illness- a fact I was not aware of until I was home from the hospital two weeks later, eating a Jell-O cup in bed. I had a virus, and it was either going to get better, or it was going to get worse.

I’ve lost huge chunks of memory from the first five or so days in the hospital, with only hazy recollections of voices, and faces, and discomfort, and apologizing to the nursing staff for the unpleasant things they had to do to keep me from getting bed sores. If I was going anywhere, the lift team was involved. The lift team is made up young, strong guys who are there to lift you if you can’t do it yourself. I apologized to them too.

Finally, I started to get better, which is better than getting worse.

The one good thing about your brain causing the hitch in your giddy-up, is that the very fact it’s malfunctioning, keeps you from truly realizing what a pickle you are in.

I may not have fully realized the badness of my situation, but I could still kinda think, and started to hope that I would emerge on the other side of this thing with at least something to show for it.

“Perhaps, there is a lesson in this,” I thought as I lay there immobile, “What is it?  Be nicer? Don’t stress about dumb stuff? The wine country is dangerous? What is it?”

All of those things are true. But also:

  • Our time here is short and there’s a lot to do, which is frustrating when you really can’t do a lot as fast as you would like. Do what you can.
  •  But you can’t do it all. Choose wisely.
  •  Don’t ever get bangs. On the off chance you are growing out those bangs at the exact moment you end up in the hospital with limited use of your limbs and zero dexterity, your inability to keep the bangs out of your face will consume you. Your world will have shrunk to the exact size of your hospital bed, and there will be some moments where it feels as if it’s actually shrunk to the size of your wayward bangs. You will tell everybody who happens into your tiny world, that even though you have a mystery virus, and you’re hooked up to machines and tubes, your top complaint of the day is your unwieldy hair. The occupational therapist who successfully harnessed my gnarly mane, bangs and all, into a lovely braid, is to me, one of Earth’s top people.
  • Never keep underwear at home in your dresser drawer that you wouldn’t want someone to bring you in the hospital, because that is the exact underwear that will be delivered to you.
  •  Nobody goes into the healthcare field for the glamour of it. Because, unless they are going to the black-tie Healthcare Workers Gala in a hotel ballroom on a balmy May evening, there is just no glamour. None. Not any.These healthcare types are with us in the trenches during some of our darkest and ugliest moments. My pastor husband and I often discuss what it means to have a sense of call, which is what finally made him take the turn from a business guy in a suit, to a reverend guy in a suit. Callings aren’t just for pastors though – people are called to all kinds of professions that defy logic, like teaching, and law enforcement, and whatever job it is that puts a person at the other end of a hospital room call button at 3:30 am.
  • Gratitude is hard (especially with hair in your face) but it’s good for you. I’m not just thankful for being on the intermittently bumpy road to recovery, which I am, but I’m forever thankful to God for my amazing husband, kids, parents, family and friends and the hundreds of people who reached out, prayed, made a meal, sent flowers, took care of the boys, sat at my bedside patiently listening as I slurred and repeated myself, or helped us out once I finally came home and clumsily climbed into my own bed. The more gratitude I can find in a day, the better I feel.
  • Save yourself the brain virus, and *skip the wine country. You can drink wine anywhere.

*I fully acknowledge the Wine Country, and the fine people of Sonoma County California did not give me my brain virus.

Today, I’m two months out of the hospital and off the walker, one month past my last bout of vertigo, about 20 hours since my last headache, and hopefully moments away from totally re-gaining the rest of my short-term memory and ridding myself of the overwhelmingly pinchy feeling that comes when there’s too much input into my poor addled brain. I did not emerge with any cool superpowers, as my wonderful, sweet, caring boys had hoped. I did get that squeezy brain up there from one of the nurses on the stroke unit, and that was cool.

This is me in my pants hat – perhaps the greatest medical invention of February 2013.hospital

upheaval: deciding is half the battle

ImageNot one box has been packed, and no progress has been made in eating our way through the eleven cans of tomato soup in the cupboard – eleven cans I will not want to pack when the time comes. Just the deciding part of our latest venture has taken a lot of talking time, and thinking time, and meeting time, and even research time. Then there’s the TV time that is required to bring sweet relief from all of that thinking, and talking and deciding.

Even the mere decision to change your life and up heave the lives of the little ones who depend on you to not do something crazy – like up heave their lives – takes more time, and energy, and emotion than I remember. And we’re not even to the actual upheaval.

We are a pastor’s family, and the job of pastor, like many other jobs out there, usually involves a move or two, and leaving a church and a community that you love, because you get an inexplicable nudge that becomes impossible to ignore. That move can easily require thousands of miles, and new license plates. For us, it’s a few miles, a few zip code digits, and a new dentist.

But it’s still a world away.

We’re leaving our quiet cul-de-sac where we slow down for deer, squirrels, and wild turkeys, and we’re crossing the bridge back to San Francisco, the city where John and I started as fresh-faced newlyweds with bus passes and a poorly insulated apartment. We’re leaving a beautiful, wonderful, supportive church on a suburban hill, for another beautiful, wonderful, already supportive church on an urban hill.

The life-changing  jobs we’ve had for the better part of a decade come to a close this week, and the goodbyes are well under way – a not-so-easy process for a notoriously long goodbyer, who hails from an impressive line of long goodbyers. My family is a stand-on-the-porch-and-wave-until-the-car-is-out-of-sight bunch of goodbyers. We are “just one more thing before we hang up!” goodbyers. And I absolutely, positively, will not allow any air of finality when I bid someone adieu. You could tell me you are really excited to get started on your 200-year cryogenic hyper sleep project, and I will tell you that I will, for sure, talk to you soon.

I’ve probably hugged some people 45 times already. I’ve cried at inopportune moments, which stinks because I’m an ugly crier. Other moments, I’m giddy with excitement about the possibilities, and the newness, and the guaranteed proximity to dim sum. The kids’ friends think a move to the city is cool, and not really a big deal because their parents go to work there, like every… single… day.

We haven’t nailed down a new home address, and I don’t know quite yet know what I will do for a living, but I’ve been around the block, and trust that we’ll figure that part out.

So that’s where I’ve been, and where I will be for a few more weeks. And one day, some day, I’ll be sitting in my yet-to-be identified living room (too presumptuous to hope our new place in the city will fit a couch?) lazily taking iPhone pictures of the cat and tinkering with a blog post about cakes, or the bus, or bugs, having (fingers crossed!) gloriously shaken out the writing cobwebs. Maybe for a moment I’ll miss the excitement, the nervous stomach and eye twitch that accompanied months of a not-knowing limbo defined by this narrative: “should we really do this….I mean seriously, should we?” which was capped off with the answer. “Yep. We’re doing this. It feels like we’re really supposed to do this.”

Wait! One more thing….I will for sure talk to you soon.

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sounds even better now

When you become a person of a certain age – no longer a freewheeling 37, but not yet a contemplative 39 – you might find yourself in a curious spot. You are continuously being propelled deeper into adulthood by health, family, bills, career, and a waning metabolism. At the same time, you are still tethered to your youth… maybe by your family, your hometown, memories of your old metabolism, and quite possibly by something very simple – your music.

And when you are of that certain age, the bands that shaped your adolescence are also of a certain age – older than they used to be – but still performing. You buy tickets to their show, maybe at a county fair, or a casino, or a vineyard instead of the huge arena where you couldn’t find your mom’s car in the parking lot, and you felt lost and panicky, wishing for the invention of some kind of portable telephone you could carry with you.

As an adult, you arrive at the vineyard, prepared to defend yourself from the mobs of pushing teens you remember having to navigate as a scrawny concert-going kid. Then you see those unruly teens have grown up too, and they’ve spread their picnic blanket next to yours, and they are kicked back on the lawn ready to reminisce with a glass of chardonnay and their spouse of 10 years.  You are chagrined to see that your-now-middle-age-teen-idol still insists on not wearing a shirt to perform, and that you will not get to say to your fellow revelers, “Stop stepping on me with your giant Doc Martens!” Or “You kicked me in the face with your giant Doc Marten when you were crowd surfing. Not cool man…not cool.”

My suburban high school sat geographically equidistant from the surprisingly urbane streets of Sacramento and the rolling countryside of the Sierra foothills. We had rap kids and country kids. We had wannabe Rastafarians and punks and metal heads and teenyboppers and kids who undulated between all of the above, simply because they could. (Kids in my high school also loved Jimmy Buffett, RUSH, the Grateful Dead, Journey, Van Halen and The Steve Miller Band – and I don’t know what to say to them, because those bands were already old way back then.)

Like most high schools since the advent of music, and I guess since the advent of high schools, social divisions could easily be drawn by musical tastes, that is until Seattle based grunge exploded, which happened my senior year. It didn’t matter where your musical allegiance had been – you still turned up “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when it came on the radio.

Not to worry, I’m not stuck in my high school years; I’ve picked up new bands along the way. I don’t wear my once favorite Edie Brickell, OMD, or EMF shirts to the gym. (Even if I went the to gym, I wouldn’t wear them).

I do feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have some of my favorite bands stick around to provide new soundtracks for my adulthood. Depeche Mode and Duran Duran are still together, and touring. The Cure, as far as I can tell, is still together. REM broke up the same day Facebook launched a redesign, sending Gen Xers everywhere into a collective tizzy. We sadly lost MCA of the Beastie Boys to cancer. Last year, I had to block Erasure from my Facebook feed, because the frequency of their posts was simply out of control. Somewhere along the way, I lost They Might Be Giants to children’s music, perhaps when they started having children themselves. The Smiths, of course, had already been long broken up by the time I got around to appreciating them. Now after, 35 years, INXS has officially called it quits.

INXS was special. The car ride to Oregon with my childhood friend Jenni and her unfailingly patient parents was defined by repeated playing of our Kick cassette. Kick was the first tape I wore out, listening over and over until the perfect voice of Michael Hutchence was left warped and  garbled.

My mother’s own unfailing patience allowed me to go to the INXS concert the night before my huge junior year project was due. I was hoarse from screaming “I love you Michael,” and delirious from seats so close to the stage that Michael Hutchence had surely heard me. I was home by midnight to finish the paper, and asleep by 4:00 am, my mother by my side the whole time. I love her.

Someone stole my “Welcome to Wherever You Are” CD during a party in our freshman dorm suite, even though Michael, Tim, Jon, Garry, Andrew and Kirk (my second favorite) watched protectively from the poster on the wall, and the guys of The Cure kept vigil from their spot, one poster over.

I surely wasn’t the only young adult to cry when Michael suddenly died in 1997.

The band’s televised quest for a new lead singer, “Rock Star: INXS” played in the delivery room, a happy distraction in between contractions as John and I waited for the birth of our second son in 2005. Oh, how I am not kidding at all.

But you grow up a little, and you don’t buy the new albums, but you go back to the songs you sang in the car with your friends. You go back to the song you listened to with your boyfriend, only to find out he was mostly tolerating INXS because you liked them so much, which apparently was a good idea, because you married him. And when you read the headline telling you your special band broke up, you feel a little guilty, like if you had been a better fan, they could have made it. And you feel guilty because the way you found out they were still together, is by hearing they had broken up.

I’ve used these photos before – but I love them. That up there is my sophomore dorm, and my INXS poster. Down here? Freshman dorm…and the guys from INXS, though you can’t see their noggins.

costume conundrum: saying no to the morph suit

I hadn’t forgotten this blog. In fact I thought of it often, but found that just like everybody else around here, most moments during the notoriously crazy start of fall were wrapped up in work – kid work, house work, work work, and the annual duties surrounding prepping the DVR for a new season of TV.

And during the most frenzied moments, oh, how I longed for the calm, predictability, and parameters that routines seem to give the serene and well-rested families I read about in parenting articles. Those parents have it together. They have systems. They know what’s for dinner next Thursday. They are never stumped. Most striking, they are not afraid to say no when they need to, and their kids thrive within their well-appointed boundaries. The routinized life I’ve haphazardly aspired to through the years, has always been just beyond my half-hearted reach.

So if I’m not that, I must be spontaneous and carefree! I must welcome every new opportunity to come our way in the interest of raising curious and whimsical little adventurers!  I know plenty of people in that category too.  They say, “YES! Of course!” They run headlong into life with great gusto and imaginative barefoot kids in tow.

“There’s a street fair! Let’s go!”

“It’s hot! Let’s have ice cream for dinner!”

“You found a puppy!?! What luck! Of course you can keep him!”

But….no. I tap-dance between the two– feeling equally ill at ease in both approaches to parenting. It’s exhausting for me and certainly confusing for the kids; especially when they’re already stuck in their own kid-sized limbo, figuring out where the little boy stops and the big kid begins.

Which brings me to the issue at hand: the morph suit.

Oh you haven’t seen it?  You would remember if you had – once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

The morph suit is a Halloween costume – conveniently available in children’s and disturbing adult sizes. It appears to be a one-piece stretchy leotard, designed to cover every inch of a person — hands, body, feet, and the whole head, including the wearer’s face. It’s reminiscent of the horribly scary rubber suit that kept popping up in the promos for the first season of the hit TV show I never watched, American Horror Story; or the lesser-known, just-as-creepy “Human Being” mascot suit from a show I always watch, Community.

The costume catalog arrived in the mail from one of our local party stores. Most households likely tossed theirs out with the Pennysaver before it ever hit their kitchen counter top. Not us. For days, the boys pored over the catalog’s flimsy pages examining every wacky, gory, cartoony, super-heroic option. But they always came back to the morph suit.

I stumbled out to the kitchen early one morning to find the catalog on the counter where I couldn’t miss it. The red morph suit was circled and surrounded by a dozen subtly drawn arrows.  You know what they say though, better to wake up to a picture of the morph suit, than wake up to the morph suit.

As the boys ate their Cheerios, and I buzzed around the kitchen, I casually pointed to the catalog and blurted out, “There’s just no way you’re getting the morph suit. Aside from the fact that it’s disturbing in every way and would give us nightmares forever – you can’t wear it to school. You’re not allowed to have anything over your head and face.  Then you’d just be sitting in class in a skintight suit, regretting your choice and wishing for a pair of pants.”

The 7-year-old shrugged and moved on to the Avengers page. The 12-year-old mumbled in agreement, but stood in front of the morph suit display when we finally made it to the store (effective catalog mailing, Party City!). Zach was thrilled that (spoiler alert) Captain America was still in stock, as well as the a la carte shield and gloves. After carefully considering the pros and cons of the Captain America suit with the built-in muscles, he opted for the slimmer, standard non-muscled version citing flexibility, breathability, comfort, and ease of storage as its winning qualities.

“The morph suit is not happening,” I told Jake, as he stood looking at more morph suit options than even the catalog had boasted.

“I know. I don’t even care, I’m over Halloween anyway. I’ll just hand out candy,” he said.

Had my flippant dismissal of the (still-terrible) morph suit sullied his last gasp for his little boy-hood? I took him down the next aisle in a quick attempt to preserve his childhood. “How about you dress as a rocker? Mobster? 80’s guy? 70’s guy?” I was just pointing out a mullet wig, when an old friend and her 12-year-old daughter appeared in the aisle.

Zach, having found a new audience, immediately launched into the laundry list of why the muscle-free Captain America might just be the best costume in the history of Halloween.

My friend gestured to her daughter, “she’s not so sure about Halloween anymore; she might just want to hand out candy.”

Before saying our goodbyes, the tweens mumbled back and forth in some kind of primitive communication that conveniently allowed them to act as though the other person did not exist, as only 12-year-olds can do. We made our Captain America purchase and Jake left empty-handed. By the time we got to the car, he was chattering about his science project and asking about lunch.

Transitions are hard and helping your kids navigate the pitfalls of adolescence is no picnic. It can be fun to say yes with abandon, but sometimes the one thing I bring with me to the parenting table is that I too, was once in middle school. Sure, saying no to the morph suit may have been a big bummer, but it’s better than sitting in math class wishing you were wearing pants.

whose bucket list is this? the beauty of doing stuff you didn’t think you could

When I look back at the highlights of this weirdly action-packed summer, I feel a sense of accomplishment from successfully whittling away at a bucket list….

Somebody else’s bucket list.

There is a special sense of satisfaction, however, that comes with doing things you never intended, hoped, or signed up to do, and then doing them well.

If this list looks familiar, please step forward to claim it. It’s mostly done, so, you’re welcome.

#1 Be Allowed into Central America

Every day, people go to fabulous exotic places with backpacks, sarongs, and well-worn passports. Maybe they’re off to climb a peak, or swim to a hotel room that sits on stilts in the middle of a crystal clear lagoon. Maybe they’ll pet a sloth, or drink tea with a prince on the balcony of a palace. No? That’s not what happens immediately upon crossing the border? My obvious international inexperience also extended to not knowing how to change money, or use a passport. I knew how to take a cab – but I didn’t know how to take a cab in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua – the exotic-to-me locale where our dear, smart, hyper-educated, beautiful, world traveling friends had decided to get married. We’d known them forever, and I’d been not-so-secretly hoping they would finally get hitched.

But Central America?

What happened to getting married in Vegas? Or Palm Springs? Palm Springs is nice.

I thought my first trip abroad, might be to, say…. Canada. Not like faaaar into Canada – I’m not crazy – I was thinking maybe the part of Canada that touches Washington.

My husband John was not nervous at all. He’s traveled far more than I, and in more precarious situations than our loungey, celebratory jaunt to the Tropics.

John came home a few nights before we were to leave, and could see it on my face.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I’ve been reading the Internet.”

“No. Why? Why would you do that?”

“According to the Internet, there’s a good chance we’ll be abducted by machete wielding kidnappers if we take that road from the airport at nighttime.”

“We won’t. Stop reading the Internet. And besides, someone visiting from Nicaragua would be scared to death if they read the Internet about coming here.”

Here’s what happened instead of us getting kidnapped: Our trip to Granada, Nicaragua – a Spanish provincial town from the 1500’s that smells eerily like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland — was notably machete-free. We met amazing people who’d traveled from near and far to celebrate a couple we all love; the weather was warm and the people of Granada were kind, and lovely.

The trip turned out fine. Not just fine, but fun. Like really, really fun.

Even the part where my hair frizzed out to three times its normal size.

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#2 Be OK with Lizards

After traveling safely from the airport, we settled into our Indiana Jones suite – huge vaulted ceilings, wrought iron fixtures and a mosquito netted, four-poster bed.

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John, having been to Central America before, ran into the bathroom ahead of me, mysteriously asking me to wait in the hall until he emerged a moment later with a sheepish grin. “OK, here’s the deal. There’s one little green lizard in there, but he darted away. I’m sure he’ll stay hidden.”

He did stay hidden, and I’ve never been such a picture of efficiency in the lavatory. I stomped into the bathroom on every subsequent trip, hoping to scare away any critter that may have already called dibs on the bathroom. It was a full 24 hours before the little green lizard and I came face to face.

I have been known to scream and run when faced with a lizard of any size, shape or color. However, the tropical heat paired with the rum gifted to us by the bride and groom, most certainly significantly and mercifully slowed my freak-out response time. I was able to look right into the creature’s beady little eyes and see he was scared to death. He had a facial expression I did not know scaley things were capable of. As he stood frozen in the corner, his face said, “Please don’t see me, please don’t see me. Does she see me? Oh no, I think she sees me.”

My fear was replaced with pity as I realized he was just minding his own beeswax when he got stuck in a bathroom with a terrifying giant sorely in need of a deep conditioner and a flat iron.

#3 Use what little Spanish I learned in college

Each morning of the trip, John and I shuffled to the hotel dining room where Olga, whose dewy skin and bright smile belied her age, presented us with a new exotic juice, tropical fruit, and huevos-anything-you-want. She was patient with my Spanish as I said the eggs are very good, and the birds are very pretty, and the trees are very pretty, and the table is very pretty. And every day, Olga suggested to us that our family would only be complete once we had a daughter. Either that, or she was saying her family is complete because she has four daughters.

If only my college Spanish teachers, who I in no way remember, could see me now! Unlike Spanish class, not once did I get to ask someone how to get to the library.

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#4 (Almost) jump into a pool, fully clothed, at the end of a party

Our trip to Nicaragua was a four-day fiesta punctuated by naps and mosquito bites, and of course, the tear-jerker wedding and five-hour dance party reception that concluded with grown men jumping into the swimming pool fully dressed – John included. I stood next to my college roommate as her boyfriend Jesper jumped in. Liane and I hemmed and hawed. “Should we jump in? We should, we should totally do it.  I don’t know. Yes. No. Yes, let’s do it.”  By the time we got to “OK, we’re totally doing this.” It was over, the guys were climbing out, and I did not have to transport a soaking wet dress back to the United States in my carry-on.

But still, I’ve never been closer to jumping into a pool while wearing a dress. So, progress.

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# 5 Be glad I went to my 20-year reunion, and come to terms with the fact that high school was actually pretty OK.

When the invite came for my 20th high school reunion, I thought, “Of course I’m going.” I spent the next months trying to change the minds of naysayer classmates who saw no value in reuniting, telling them “Come on, you have to go! It’s been 20 years! No, it’s not the same as Facebook! It’ll be fun!”

Sitting in the parking lot, all dressed up, with my classmates streaming into the party behind me, I realized that maybe I had jumped the gun. “Remind me why I’m doing this,” I said to John. It’s not like I was that great in high school; I was really committed to that asymmetrical haircut I had all four years. I went through a thing where I made my own jewelry. I was in a knee-brace half the time. I was a bit of a spaz. “I don’t need to be here. We have Facebook now.”

Buoyed by my arm-candy husband and old friends who met us in the parking lot, we went in.

Sure, the evening had its awkward moments – even painfully awkward moments with stilted conversation or that thing where you don’t recognize or remember someone in the slightest – but most of the moments were hilarious, sweet, fun, or wistful. Everyone had changed…but not really. While the 10-year reunion had an air of one-upsmanship, the 20-year came with the acute but unspoken sense that time was now starting to go by too fast, so we should just enjoy ourselves. Some classmates had passed away, many had moved away, and it seemed that everyone recognized we simply don’t have the luxury of time to compete, judge, be intimidated, or hang onto whatever baggage we’d brought from high school. We’re all just people, with a little bit of shared history – just like we were in high school, before we had the wisdom and sense to realize or appreciate it.

If given the chance, go to your reunion – it’s not the same as Facebook.

So there you go – what I did with my summer vacation. And now for MY rest-of the-summer bucket list:

Sit around and talk about the heat

Clean last day of school stuff out of backpacks before first day of school

Get DVR ready for new season of TV

Deep condition

*The photos at the tippy top are hopefully illustrative enough to make sense: Nicaragua. Then you’ve got reunion pics with girls I was lucky enough to grow up with. This one below? That’s my darling husband leading me through the streets of Granada. I’d follow him anywhere (almost).

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tiny dancers: the show must go on…and on

Have you ever witnessed something that you immediately realized could only be experienced, and never adequately described?

I did, and let me describe it.

It was the end-of-the-year dance showcase that my youngest son just happened to be a part of. This dance extraveganza is a long-standing tradition for our neighborhood dance school and likely similar to shows in any town with a tap class and a kid with a dream.

Or maybe any town with a jazz class and a kid from one county over, where dancing isn’t allowed – so when Kevin Bacon the kid isn’t angry-dancing in the barn to the cassette in his tape deck, he’s sneaking over the county line to blow off steam the only way he knows how – with a kick ball change, pivot, barrel turn.

As for our 6-year-old, he simply wanted to unleash his hip hop moves onto an unsuspecting world. Just like most little boys are sure they are born naturals at martial arts, they are also “natural” breakdancers.

The first week in class, Zach realized his “natural” abilities could use some guidance and fine tuning, so week after week, he would run excitedly into the dance studio with his new buddies to grapevine, learn the snake and spin an imaginary record to JJ Fad’s classic, “Supersonic,” after the teacher with-the-patience-of-a-saint explained what a record was.

And week after week, the hip hop parents stood squished together in the hall watching every rehearsal through a window while complimenting each other for being way more chill than those other dance parents, like, oh I don’t know, maybe the ballet moms down the hall.

Weeks turned into months until the big day finally arrived.

With the costumes on, the hair done, and audience packed into the theater, the rest of the afternoon was uncomfortably out of our hands. There would be no last minute hugs or gentle reminders of which foot was in fact, the left one.

My older son Jacob sat next to me fidgeting in his seat undoubtedly uncomfortable with the acute lack of texting that was about to happen for him.

Every grandpa, uncle, neighbor, and big brother who flipped through the program, likely said, “Forty routines!! What the – can’t we just leave when MacKenzie/Avery/Abby is done?”

I couldn’t believe it either. I would not have exactly been first in line for a ticket if my kid weren’t in it. I have no patience for talent shows on TV. As a kid, I could hardly sit through an episode of “The Gong Show,” without having to leave the room when things got weird or uncomfortable. The embarrassment I felt on behalf of the contestants was simply too much to bear.

But, as the curtain rose, my breath caught in my throat, and in true Colleen fashion, the tears came. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and my own kid wasn’t anywhere in sight. He wouldn’t be for quite some time;  his 3-minute dance was 33rd in the line-up, near the very end of this 2+ hour operation.

But I didn’t have to know these kids to tear up for them.

From 3-year old cowgirls, to 10 year-olds tapping to Lady Gaga, and to the ethereal, lithe ballerinas who’d been training since they were the pint-size cowgirls – they showed the lucky ones in the audience what happens when you mix joy with talent and hard work.

These little stinkers were amazing.

Every dancer was shining up there. Jake, perhaps once the grumbliest of them all, sat transfixed. Maybe he was trying to understand the mechanics of tap dancing, or popping and locking. Maybe he was just noticing for the first time that a girl he’d known since 3rd grade, was not just a face in his class, but a truly talented, and graceful dancer… who was in like, 15 numbers. Jake leaned over during her 11th dance and whispered, “imagine how much money her parents had to drop on costumes.”

And there, close to the end, was Zach’s little group.  They were an instant hit, and danced their way through cheers and whoops and hollers. Sure, the Gen X parents went immediately bananas when they heard JJ Fad’s signature devastating beats; but these kids were not just cute,  they were having a blast, dancing their little hip hop-loving hearts out.

We didn’t buy tickets to see a parade of dance prodigies – the chances of these kids growing up to be professional dancers, were likely similar to those of the kids at any baseball field growing up to be Buster Posey. We didn’t even come to be entertained. We came to support our sweet, regular, goofy kids who happen to work very hard at their fun hobby – a hobby that also happily counts as exercise. We came to cheer and encourage and support. We came to be nervous for them, then excited, then relieved.

We also came because most of these kids can’t drive, and they needed rides.

Amelia Earhart: a girl and her freckles

ImageAfter an un-fun cycle of disheartening political news, economic news, and more cannibal news than there should be in a week, I was happy to see a very timely Amelia Earheart headline. Just like I will always read a story about Kate & Wills, or the year’s most popular baby names, I will always read about Amelia.

I’ve been keeping up enough to know an unfailingly patient/obsessed team of folks have been getting closer to solving the 75-year-old mystery of her disappearance. The headline teased that they’d made a new discovery on the remote island where they’d been focusing their search; the team unearthed something that surely belonged to Amelia.

By golly, this just finally might be it!

What did they find? Her flight log? Her signature cap? A diary full of her hopes and dreams?

The amazing clue? A jar of anti-freckle cream.

C’mon Amelia, not you! World-renowned aviator, off on your historic around-the-world flight, and what did you make sure to pack? Dr. C.H. Berry’s Freckle Ointment.

Something I did not know about Amelia – she hated her freckles and desperately wanted them to fade.  She had fame, glory and the adoration of the world, but those freckles just had to go.

I would not deny a lady the little luxuries that lift the spirit, especially on a desert island – a moisturizer, some sunscreen, a honey-infused lip balm – but when you are a modern day heroine with stuff to do, it’s time to own your freckles.

OK, so it’s no secret I have freckles. The spaces in between my freckles are not so much “alabaster” or “ivory” as much as they are, “see-through.” I wasted many years of my youth apologizing for it and covering it up with pants. Even with 100% percent humidity on an 8th grade summer trip to Washington DC, I was the one kid in pants, sweating profusely but pretending I wasn’t even hot, like, at all.

As an adult, it’s still not ideal –self-tanner continues to be a requirement as a public service – nobody needs to see my veins.

But I had Seventeen Magazine and MTV and modern day middle school to blame for my insecurities. I guess I just assumed Amelia would have been thinking about loftier things – I mean, she had known a time when women didn’t have the right to vote, for pete’s sake. But maybe  how American women think about themselves through the decades has not changed as much as we’d thought – for the better or worse.  Maybe we all at some level dream about the big, and fret about the small.

Sure, I might be a little bummed that someone like Amelia Earheart was hung up on her freckles, because freckles are great  (I tell myself and that charlatan Dr. C.H. Berry); but in one little discovery on one little island – I realized that Amelia is as much a modern woman as can be found today – gutsy and delicate,  brave and insecure, all at the same time.

Those aren’t qualities women aspire to, it’s just what we are, and what we’ve been throughout all of history. Maybe we can get rid of the “insecure” part when all of the girls of the world collectively decide that they’re tired of striving for the perfection that is always out of reach – whether by a lot or a little – and think about trailblazing, instead. One can blaze trails while still having freckles.

The beautiful pic of Amelia is from: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/assets/aa/earhart/aa_earhart_learns_2_e.jpg, and happily in the public domain.