Monday, December 21, 2009

Deactiving Hovercraft Mode

Seven years ago, my husband and I moved from the urban home in Denver that we adored to a bigger home in suburbia. We had an 18 month old son and a child-to-be-named-later on the way and we knew that we would not want our kids riding their bikes on the busy city streets around our home. We wholeheartedly believed that a move to the suburbs (a move we would have eschewed just a couple years earlier) would be the best way to give our children the fun, peaceful childhood we’d each had.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that moving would present even greater, hidden danger. It was in our idyllic neighborhood that I first fell victim to a frightening disease, the affliction of overparenting. Up until that point in my parental career, I was admittedly rather haphazard. I bumbled along trying to figure out who my children were, where they fit into our lives, and how we functioned as a family. I left my son in the playpen while I cleaned. When he wouldn’t nap, I just gave up and let him stay awake. I owned just one book on parenting and its main function was to collect dust. All that was about to change.

Shortly after joining the play group in our new neighborhood, another mom asked where I intended to enroll my son for preschool. The look on my face must have been pure deer-in-headlights naivete.

“Preschool? He’s just two.” I gasped.

Surely I didn’t need to be worrying about that yet, did I? After all, I had no formal schooling until I got on the bus on my first day of kindergarten. (Yes. On the school bus. At age 5. Alone. No mommy to accompany me. Shocking, I know. My heartless mother let me get on the bus while she stood on the curb and waved goodbye before heading home to a cup of coffee and Days of our Lives.) Much to my dismay, all the other mothers in the play group started discussing how vital it was to get your small children, especially if they were boys, into a good preschool. It was September. Registration began in January. I had four months to research, visit, interview, and determine the best school for my son. My rapid descent into parental onset insanity began.

While the play group was a good setting in which to make new friends, a place where I could commiserate about exhaustion and the lack of nearby drive-thru Starbucks stores to remedy that exhaustion, it was also the school where I began my formal education in modern-day overparenting. Nearly immediately, I ingested the “good mom” Kool-Aid provided and started pulling out the Baby Einstein tapes and buying organic baby food. I devised appropriate responses to head off criticisms regarding why I bottle fed my infant son...although I wasn’t quite sure when bottle feeding my children became a public concern. I began taking my young boys to story time (which they wouldn’t sit still for), to the Museum of Nature and Science (where I once lost my youngest son for 3 minutes of utter terror), and to weekly play group where they would hopefully learn to play nicely with others. It was all part of my new role as stay-at-home mom. After all, parenting was now my only job, so my Type A personality applied the same diligence that I had applied to college and my career. My children were my new career, and parenting them to the hilt became my chief job description.

I made sure they were in infant swim class. I childproofed the entire house with baby gates, outlet plugs, cabinet locks, and doorknobs that even adults struggled with on occasion. I read to them daily. I counted to ten with them in four languages. We limited television and made sure that they only watched “educational programming.” And, yes, both boys began preschool at age 3 so they could sing songs, learn to sit on a line, follow instructions, cut with safety scissors, and begin their formal education with an education in how to be educated.

As I trudged along, however, something did not feel right. My body had clearly been hijacked by an alien being. I was on autopilot. I felt nothing but inadequate as my boys failed to meet crucial milestones in the baby book in a timely fashion. Our house was filled with workbooks, games, crafts, art supplies, and educational tools, all representing my boys’ hidden potential. Yet, I never took the time to ponder how I became the self-sufficient, independent, capable person that I am without all the advantages of art classes, weekly museum trips, play groups, infant swim classes, a preschool education, child safety seats, or even seat belts. Even more rarely did I take the time to sit and enjoy my children for who they were because I was too busy comparing them to other children and wondering why they were different. As a parent, I was perpetually stressed out and wholly consumed with offering my kids everything that society was telling me they needed.

Something had to give. Recently, hubby and I decided to move consciously away from helicopter parenting and to stop hovering perpetually over our children. We’re choosing to give them more space, space in which they will perhaps struggle occasionally but will eventually grow into independent, autonomous, creative thinkers. It’s been difficult to let go, but what has surprisingly been more troubling is that we find ourselves worrying about what our peers will say. Last week we walked with the boys to the park; once there, we left them on the playground to walk around the lake trail there. As we left, a couple other parents made a mental note of our departure. Our boys are 6 and 8, plenty old enough to play for 10 minutes without constant parental supervision, especially when they can see us and know where we are. Still, we felt self-conscious about our decision, despite the fact that by the time we were 8 years old both hubby and I had been left to ride our bikes off alone to our friends’ homes, to school, and even to the store to buy a few things. The watching eyes of judging and all-knowing Big Brother follow us mightily in suburbia.

My parents may have been the King and Queen of Tough Love, but they did me a favor in requiring from me a measure of sacrifice, hard work, struggle, and failure during my first 18 years. When I would miss a 4.0 grade point by garnering a B-grade in a course, my mom’s standard response inevitably referred to where I had failed instead of where I had succeeded. I didn’t get paid for my good grades; I was merely expected to achieve them. My parents didn’t give me an allowance either. I was part of a family and as such I had responsibilities. When I felt uncomfortable about something, my mother forced me to face it; she never once called my teachers and asked them to give me a make-up test or yelled at my coaches when they only let me play right field in softball. If I forgot my coat, I was cold. Left my lunch on the counter? I had to sit hungry while other kids ate. When I didn’t get into my first-choice college right off the bat, my parents asked me to figure out what I could do to change that situation. They repeatedly requested that I rise to the challenges I encountered and they made sure I had the space to do it. And, guess what? Not only did I survive the things I feared most, but I gained self-confidence and self-esteem for enduring them. Funny how that works. Yes. They had to watch me struggle sometimes, and I understand now with my own children how that must have broken their hearts; but the payoff is that they have three intelligent, hard-working daughters who have all earned master’s degrees and aren’t living in their basement.

Parents today are far too fearful. We spend too much time worrying about what we can do to make the most of our young children’s early brain development. We start pondering what we can do to get them to college before we even get them potty trained. We’re getting it all wrong. Children only get one childhood, and we eviscerate it by bombarding them with non-stop activity and not allowing them to get bored and find their own amusement once in a while. We’re so busy planning for them that we don’t listen to them. And, we treat them as if we know their destinies instead of being silent enough to let them discover their own. Our kids will go as far as we allow them to go which, judging by many of the parents I know these days, may mean they never make it beyond the end of the driveway alone. Personally, I’m hoping mine get to the moon without me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Modern Day Thanksgiving

Recently, a friend sent me a forwarded email that outlined for those individuals under the age of 30 how lucky they are to have all the modern conveniences they take for granted. It was a sarcastic, flippant message, the kind I wish I had written myself. Even though my kids are a bit young for it, I read it aloud to them (omitting the choice language I’d rather not hear repeated). The responses from my oldest son were both incredulous and terrifying.

When told that when I was a child if I wanted an answer to a question I would have to go to the library, research the topic in the card catalog, and then go find the book and READ through it for the answer, he responded: “You didn’t have computers? Seriously?”

When told that we didn’t have handheld Nintendo DS video games with 3-D graphics, and that we had to play Atari where our “guy” was a little square and the screen stayed the same and there was no way to win so we just had to try to keep playing while the game got faster and faster, he gasped: “That sounds horrible.”

While his comments amused me somewhat, I found myself actually feeling a bit sad for him. Children born in the 21st century have to do so little for such an easy, quick payout. It got me to thinking about how grateful I am for the things I had to learn how to do while I was growing up. These are the things, I realize now, that make it possible for me to problem solve when the high tech solutions are not available. I was actually in an airport restaurant once when they were having a trouble with their ordering and payment software. We needed to catch a plane so we asked for our bill, only to be told that we’d have to wait because their system was down. We couldn’t believe that it never occurred to any of them to write out a bill, figure the total manually, and hand it to us so we could pay cash. Sometimes that thinking-out-of-the-box thing we learned growing up comes in handy. You know, the kind of thinking out of the box that you acquired when you didn’t have cartoons available 24/7, and you had to use your MacGyver brain to imagine that the braided oval rug in front of the kitchen sink was actually a ship sailing on an ocean of linoleum. After my son's comments, I couldn’t help but wonder if our children will ever be able to extrapolate solutions to the tough problems facing our planet when they are adults because so much has just been handed to them, and I kept feeling grateful for having been raised in the world I was raised in.

With Thanksgiving nearly here, I thought it would be timely to write a few quick notes of gratitude for things I feel incredibly fortunate to have in my life. However, instead of reaching deep into my heart and recounting the blessings that come to mind first (my loving and patient family, my incredible friends, my health, our warm and comfortable home), I thought I’d be a bit more shallow and give thanks for the things I could do without if I had to, but I’d really hate to have to do without. Might as well celebrate the conveniences that my children don’t realize are true conveniences.

First, I am grateful for my cordless telephone, the one that allows me to wander aimlessly around my house during a conversation without becoming entangled in a 100-foot cord that I then have to stand on a chair with receiver dangling to unwind again before the next call. I’m thankful that when I want to have a private conversation, I can actually disappear with that phone knowing that there is no cord by which someone could track me through the house and ultimately to the closed door behind which I am hiding.

I am uber-thankful for our DVR, which provides me the opportunity to pause television to shush my kids so I don’t miss one hilarious word Tina Fey is uttering on 30 Rock. That DVR is my lifeline during episodes of LOST; how invaluable it is to be able to rewind the show 5 minutes to point out to my less-detail-oriented husband how the numbers on the soccer players’ backs are, in fact, the LOST numbers of 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, ad 42. And, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how our DVR assisted in potty training our children by making anytime during a show a good time to visit the bathroom.

I am thankful for my luxury SUV. I pay homage to its heated seats that warm my backside in the winter, its back-up camera that ensures I do not run over my boys’ bicycles while backing out of the driveway, and its computerized gauge that warns me that I will be walking with gas can in hand if I do not hit a service station in the next four miles. The remote-operated rear door that I can open as I am walking to the car with my groceries rocks. The automatic sunroof and the in-dash CD changer are also treasured, but what I love the most are the two easily accessible plug-ins for my technology so I can listen to and charge my iPod Nano while simultaneously using my GPS to direct me to the nearest Starbucks.

Speaking of, I need to give a grateful shout out to that mega-giant of coffee and espresso convenience. Starbucks, thank you for rescuing me when I realized that I would never survive staying home with two, non-napping boys full-time without a ubiquitous fountain of caffeinated goodness. Thanks too, Starbucks, for the WIFI, the story time hours for kids, the numerous drive-thru locations, the personalized Starbucks cards (the one I got from a dear friend reads: “Given enough caffeine you could rule the world” -- and it’s true!), and for the invention of the Grande Skinny Vanilla Latte that is my life’s blood.

I am grateful for the Victoria’s Secret Miraculous bra that gifted me with an absolutely ludicrous (and yet totally awesome) D-cup and saved me thousands on surgery that would have appointed my girls the only not-sagging part of my body twenty years from now. I give thanks for the iPhone apps that make life less frustrating, apps like Shazam (so I can figure out who the heck is singing the song I can’t get out of my head) and Video Poker (so I can practice for Vegas while I’m on the flight out there). I am thankful for debit cards, pay at the pump gasoline, and satellite television on airplanes. And, I give thanks for the ultra-quiet dishwasher with a timer that washes dishes for me while I sleep.

There are so many modern inventions that I am grateful for and for good reason. While my life is more complicated than my grandmother’s life ever was, it’s also full of travel and adventure, which hers was not. And, I know, that someday when my sons are grandparents they will sit down and tell their grandchildren about how hard things were for them when they were kids in the days before hovercrafts. I’m sure they’ll also tell them about how in the olden days their mom used to tell them stories about how hard life was when there was no Caller ID or voicemail, just the same way my mom used to tell me stories about how she had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to school. I’m thankful that some things will never change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Something crazy happened to me yesterday. I was shopping for Christmas gifts, when a plaid miniskirt began shouting my name. I’m not often approached by random outfits in a retail store, so I’ll admit my curiosity got the best of me and I allowed it to drag me into a fitting room. I am not a fan of clothes shopping. I hate crowded retail stores with fashionable young people wearing name tags pestering me about all the help they can provide. Internet shopping was invented for people like me, people who avoid other people when possible. There’s something so satisfying about seeing the perfect outfit online and having it magically appear (okay, not completely magically) at your front door via a large, brown truck. But, this was clearly no ordinary skirt. So, I grabbed it and a couple of its friends and wandered back to the unisex fitting rooms in The Gap.

The fitting room was being managed by a way too attractive, twenty-something year old guy with striking blue eyes. I have to admit that this always throws me for a loop. I have been around long enough to remember when there were both men’s and women’s fitting rooms. And, after 14 years of marriage, I’m no longer accustomed to having a random guy nearby to assist me with my clothing. I guess I should learn to appreciate that luxury these days since fitting rooms at The Gap are as close as I’m going to get to reliving my college days.

But, I digress. The skirt and its buddies were all lined up, so I chose the biggest one to try on first. In a perfect world, I am still the same size 6 that I was in college. Well, the size 6 I had brought into the fitting room with me more or less fell down off of me as soon as I put it on. Interesting, I thought. So, I went to the size 4, which also proved to be too big. I scoffed at the size 2, but put it on only to discover that I could spin the entire skirt around on my waist. It was still too loose, and I had run out of sizes. I had to go to the laughable next step of asking the blue-eyed fitting room hottie to retrieve for me a size ZERO item of clothing. Yes. A size 0. My husband laughed.

“How can you be a size 0? By virtue of the fact that it’s a 0, doesn’t that mean you don’t actually exist? Wait. When you turn sideways, do you disappear?”

All joking aside, I was a bit perplexed at this point. I mean, seriously. Let’s get real here. I am 5‘5” tall and just under 130 pounds. I do not have an eating disorder, nor do I abide by some movie-star macrobiotic diet or Diet Coke and cigarette weight loss plan. I do not do 1000 sit-ups a day. I do not have a personal trainer. I am a fan of high-fat dairy cheese in all its forms, and I do eat dessert nearly every day. Yes. I live in the fittest state in the nation, and I do a reasonable workout 4 days a week. But there is absolutely no fathomable reason that I should be three sizes smaller now than I was twenty years ago.

Still, hottie returned with the size 0 skirt and I tried it on. It fit. What? How? Am I shrinking? If I am a size 0, then surely the young women on Gossip Girl must be wearing toddler clothing, right? Barbie clothing, perhaps? If I wasn’t a size 0 when I weighed 15 pounds less than I do now, how is this possible? Retailers have figured out that people will buy more clothing if they feel better about themselves. And, who doesn’t feel better about herself when she discovers she’s miraculously a smaller size without having lost any weight? Let’s face it. If you have to get a bigger size than you wore last season, you may not feel like shopping: you might actually feel a trifle nauseous. It’s depressing. But, if you get a smaller size, you figure that you’d better get two other things in this exceedingly small size as proof and then go out for a celebratory cheeseburger because, after all, you’re so skinny you must not be eating enough.

Yet, this country is getting fatter. You needn’t go any further than your local mall or grocery store for adequate proof. Our sedentary lifestyle, combined with an abundance of “convenience foods” heavy on fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, has been working against us for decades now. I spend a lot of time at home perched on a stool in front of my laptop, mere feet from a giant stainless steel box full of food, and this could be a huge obstacle in the road to thinness. However, I am also fortunate to have the time, flexibility, and income to afford active hobbies. Our family hikes, bikes, skis, snowshoes, and inline skates. There are miles of open space trails behind my house for running and climbing. I have a gym membership and the time to use it. I realize not everyone has the same good fortune I’ve had. I was blessed with a fairly high metabolism, good health, an apathy towards chocolate, and an honest love of being active. But many people in this country are not as fortunate as I am. And, this is why clothing manufacturers have changed their sizing to increase their sales.

I’m not downplaying the positive, albeit ephemeral, effect achieved by suddenly and inexplicably seeing a size 0 on your clothing tag. It did make me temporarily euphoric and self-confident. But, it’s not realistic and it’s simply not true. Nearly twenty years ago, when I was what was then a size 6, I bought a gorgeous velvet cocktail dress at a vintage store. It was labeled size 12, and it was a tight fit. It threw me to try on a size 12 dress only to discover that it was nearly too tight to wear. But, that experience stuck with me. I’ve never forgotten that dress or the lesson that obviously I was not the size 6 my clothes proclaimed me to be.

This downsizing clothing (while we’re all upsizing everything else) is troubling to me. We’re deluding ourselves into believing that the status quo is not only good but it’s better than good. What’s not to like about putting on 20 pounds since high school but still being able to wear the same size you wore to chemistry class? The reality is, however, that 34 percent of Americans are obese and nearly another 33 percent are overweight. We’re not healthy. Maybe if we stopped focusing so much on sizing each other up and focused instead on helping each other out we’d make some progress?

While I’m not sure what the solution to this clothing dilemma is, I do know this much: I am not the Incredible Shrinking Woman, and I didn’t buy the super cute, plaid, size 0 miniskirt that called me by name. I knew every time I’d put it on, I’d feel at best a bit disingenuous and at worst like a complete fraud. Perhaps that sounds silly, but it’s the truth. Before you judge me, just remember that a zero is merely a number. I’d like to believe I’m a bit more than that. We all are. And we should start treating ourselves and each other that way. I think we’d be a lot happier.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Which Witch?

Before trick-or-treating last night, as I was putting on my costume, I offered my yearly address regarding Halloween etiquette to my children. It is remarkably similar to the speech my mother would deliver to my sisters and I before we would embark on our trick-or-treating romps through the old neighborhood. In my perfect world, I imagine other parents recite similar words to their children before sending them off into the night.

So, as I was adjusting my pointy, black hat with the silver stars, I gently but firmly reminded them that there are a few Halloween rules by which they must abide if they want to be permitted to trick-or-treat. The mandatory, non-negotiable Halloween rules in our house are:

Only approach houses with porch lights on.
Say “trick or treat” when someone answers the door.
Say “thank you” when the candy is given.
Do NOT not balk at what you are given. You’re lucky you’re getting anything.

The boys pretended to listen and promised to be good, and I sent them on their way with their father so I could hand out candy from our house. As I finished lighting the jack-o-lanterns on the porch, I was feeling as optimistic as a couple of pear ciders will usually convince me to feel. I dumped the last of our ginormous Costco bag of assorted candies into the pumpkin bowl, turned off the lights inside the house, and donned my purple gloves just waiting for the costume-clad hordes to arrive.

I like being in costume to hand out Halloween candy. It’s unexpected; the majority of trick-or-treaters are genuinely thrown off when I open the door and they see I’m in costume. I’m normally a fairly predictable person so I revel in my chance to confuse someone, even if that someone happens to be a 4-year old dressed like a bumble bee. But, wearing a costume also puts me into the Halloween spirit. Although I am usually somewhat reserved around people I do not know, a costume gives me the freedom to be a bit more bold.

As the doorbell rang for the first time, I hadn’t yet decided which witch I was going to be for the evening, the good witch or the wicked witch, but I didn’t have to wait long for my character to develop. I opened the front door and stood there in my costume and standing there staring back at me were a princess, a knight, and a vampire, all approximately age 6. They said nothing. I stood there staring back at them until one of them finally offered up a feeble “trick or treat.”

I opened the storm door and started to put multiple treats into the bags, and one of the children questioned me.

“Do you have any gum?”

Trying to be as polite as possible while not letting on that I was slightly annoyed by the blatant request I replied, “Sorry, sweetie. No gum.”

He replied, “It’s okay. I don’t like gum. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to give me any.”

Then they wandered off my porch without a second glance while I stood there incredulously. I found myself wondering when children got so brash as to make requests for what they want in their plastic pumpkins or pillowcases. Should I be impressed that he’s a kid who knows what he likes (or doesn’t like) or is it okay that I found his attitude a bit troubling? One of the best parts of Halloween when I was a kid was spilling the loot out onto the table after trick-or-treating and trading treats with my sisters or friends. I don’t like Butterfingers, so I was more than happy to trade them to my sister for her Almond Joys. The negotiations were brutal, but we always ended up with what we wanted. What was this kid’s plan if I had dropped gum into his bag? Was he going to take it out, hand it back, and ask for something better? I felt myself starting to turn a bit green.

I placated myself with the thought that surely my children would never do such a thing and hoped the next group would make me feel better. The doorbell rang a few minutes later with a parcel of five children. This group also stood there looking at me without uttering trick or treat. When I finally requested the obligatory phrase, they acquiesced.

As I started putting candy in their bags one child at a time, I noticed a little hand begin to creep towards my stash of treats. I stopped what I was doing, turned sharply, stared the child down, and stopped just short of smacking his hand (although I really wanted to).

In a voice that was gravelly and somehow not my own, I scolded him sharply. “I hand out the candy.”

He quickly withdrew his grubby little paw and I went about finishing my task. This group at least did manage a couple “thank you” comments as they walked away.

I walked back into the house pondering when it became acceptable for a child to reach into the candy bowl as an adult was actively passing out candy. Did I miss the memo? I mean, I was standing there in costume with my own hand in the bowl. Did he not understand why I was there? Was he afraid I was going to skip him somehow or was he, like the previous child, just trying to grab what he wanted? Whatever happened to children like the kind I was, the kind who was afraid of adults and wouldn’t have had the nerve to just grab candy from the bowl? Are all children so brazen these days?

Before I had time to think any further on that, the doorbell rang again. This time there were two 10-year-old girls on my doorstep. They were clever enough to sing-song a cheery “trick or treat”. As I opened the door to hand out the candy, the princess heard something from within her treat bag and started rooting around in there.

“It’s my cell phone,” she told me. “Hold on one second.” And, she put her forefinger up to let me know she’d be with me in a minute.

Galloping ghosts! Did this little girl just put me on hold on my own front porch? I am fairly certain I looked around for the hidden camera. This had to be a joke, right? I stood there for a minute while she had a conversation with her friend, Henry. Apparently, Henry was trying to meet up with them but couldn’t figure out where they were. At last, she ended her call, dropped her phone back into her bag, and then presented her bag to me. I dumped something in and as I did I noticed that my fingers seemed somewhat longer and bonier than they had before.

One 8-year-old child asked me why I didn’t have any lights on inside my house. I didn’t understand where he was going with that question. Perhaps he was implying that it looked as if no one was home (despite the porch lights being on, the lit pumpkins sitting on the porch railing, and candlelit paper bags that were illuminating a pathway to my doorstep)? Still I found myself answering this child, as if I owed him an explanation. Maybe if he had been dressed like a cop I would have been clever enough to invoke my miranda rights? As it was, however, by the time I had finished elaborating regarding the non-illumination of my household, I noticed a broom leaning against the corner of the porch.

As the evening progressed, I became depressed by the number of children who did not feel it necessary to grace me with a “trick or treat” when I opened the door. I thought that was standard Halloween protocol. Amazingly enough, it was the teenagers who made me feel better; most of them came to my door with better manners than some of the younger children who had parents standing nearby. At least the majority of the teenagers seem to comprehend how the whole Halloween thing is supposed to work. I don’t mind teenagers trick-or-treating. I realize that some folks think there is an age at which one should stop the charade and move on, but I like Halloween and feel that if you’re willing to get dressed up to ask for candy when you’re sixteen then you deserve a flipping Kit Kat.

I could cackle bitterly on and on about my experiences last night. I could tell you how no more than half the children who darkened my doorstep bothered to say “thank you” or how some of their equally rude and lazy parents actually followed their children around the neighborhood in their cars so they wouldn’t have to walk in the 50-degree temperatures. But, maybe it would just be better at this point merely to straighten my hat, tie a double knot in my cape, and fly out of here on that broom. Who said the Wicked Witch of the West is dead?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Braying No More

Well, I’m mostly certain hell has frozen over. How do I know? Because I actually give a flying fig if the Denver Broncos win their football game tonight. I haven’t been a fan of the Broncos since my family moved here from Buffalo, New York, back in 1977. Orange Crush fever was alive as Denver fought for its first Super Bowl title. I was 9 years old. I had the Orange Crush t-shirt on and drank Orange Crush soda as we watched the game at our friends’ home. It could have been the beginning of something beautiful. Instead, the only crushing thing on January 15th, 1978 was our 27-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII. And so, my brief fling with the Denver Broncos football franchise ended long before it truly began. Picking up the pieces of my shattered heart, I did what any fickle, young woman scorned would do: I started calling my ex names and reveling in the bad things that happened to them. And, I ceased all interest in the National Football League, save for Super Bowl Sunday each year when I was at least guaranteed an abnormal amount of unhealthy food and a few memorable commercials for my time and attention.

My visceral distaste for the NFL continued for most of my life until last year when a friend asked me if I wanted to join a fantasy football league. I must confess that in the years directly preceding this invitation I wholeheartedly made fun of my husband (and anyone else) who thought fantasy football was a worthwhile endeavor. I can hear myself clearly now:

“So, pick real players, put them on an imaginary team, and then play other make believe teams? What is this? Never Never Land? Seriously? Do you not HAVE a life?”

Still, since my husband was participating in a couple fantasy leagues and seeming genuinely excited about the prospect of Sunday football for the first time in years (and dragging me through the whole experience whether I liked it or not), I decided to join my friend’s no-money-wagered, all-female fantasy football league for the 2008 season. I knew nothing about football other than the basics. I could tell you how most of the scoring worked, what the object of the game was, and that the phrase “a flag was thrown on the play” meant “hold on...something’s up.” I didn’t understand what a “safety” was or what role a tight end played, but I figured that since I was going to play with seven other women in this league it was a safe bet that some of them didn’t know those things either. And, all I really wanted was to be able to share in the excitement on game days with my husband since the television was going to be tuned to football anyway.

So, my friend Kris set us up with Yahoo’s fantasy football online. She emailed me a date and time for the draft. Thirty minutes before the draft, I printed out a couple online cheat sheets with names of players I might want to draft, poured a glass of red wine, and logged into the site. I chose a name (the Colorado Cougars -- why not? I’d just turned 40) and watched the seconds tick down. I stumbled my way through my first fantasy draft. In the first round, I got to choose fourth. I immediately swiped up Tom Brady who, in addition to holding a top-five spot on my “Sports Stars I’d Love to Hook Up With” list, had been the winning quarterback in the previous SuperBowl. By the time the draft was over, I felt I had assembled a fairly competent team. As I compared notes with a friend’s husband and my own, I registered that they seemed suitably impressed with my choices. As a coach, I was feeling tentatively optimistic. This was going to be a good season.

But, no sooner had my about-to-be-stellar, first-ever fantasy football season begun then tragedy struck my fledgling Cougars. During the first game of the season in Foxborough, I watched my Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady go out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

My first reaction was an audible “Are you kidding me? Having sex with Tom is going to be a lot more difficult if I have to worry about his stupid cast!” which was then followed by “ACK! I can’t believe my number one draft pick is going out for the entire season!”

I was out of it before I even got started. I struggled to pick another quarterback since the good ones had been swiped up during the draft, but settled upon Aaron Rogers, Brett Favre’s replacement in Green Bay. I just hoped I could hold my own. I ended my season in 6th place. It was not the awesome season I had planned on with Tom, but the experience provided what I had hoped it would...a reason to become invested in the NFL again. And, even if my 6th-place finish put a permanent rift in my relationship with Tom Brady (well...okay, it was a combination of his thoughtlessness in becoming injured and effectively trashing my first season as head coach and his oh-too-public relationship with that flawless and omnipresent Supermodel Who Must Not Be Named), I learned a lot and enjoyed the competition.

When the opportunity arose to play again this season with the same gals from last year, I signed up. I changed my team name from the Colorado Cougars to the Carefree Cougars (because I’m 41 now and I’ve grown less competitive and more zen through last year’s losses -- yeah, right). I ended up with third round choice in this year’s draft and prepared for a new season of football. I actually looked forward to the start of football season this year for the first time in my life. My new team, led by Peyton Manning, has some incredible talent at running back and wide receiver. And, as we’re now 6-0 going into next week’s tough match up against the number two team, the Denver Doll, I am fully reinvested in the NFL. Hubby and I are having fun commiserating, celebrating, and consternating each week over the games and our teams.

So, as the Denver Broncos battled the San Diego Chargers tonight, I found myself both watching the game and following it on ESPN Live with a born-again interest in my home team. I feel as if I’ve come full circle. I will admit that I resurrected that fickle, young woman scorned briefly last week when the Broncos beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and I smiled and cheered at their defeat (that will teach you to go out on me, Tom). Thirty-one years ago when I was just a kid, the Denver Broncos broke my heart. This year they are attempting to renew my faith in them. I feel a kinship with Denver coach Josh McDaniels. I’m just starting out with my team too, and no one really expected much out of us either. But, now we’re both 6-0 and we get to celebrate a bit tonight. And, although I’m not quite ready to reclaim my status as a Broncos fan (I refuse to be one of those pathetic bandwagon hoppers), I henceforth promise to stop referring to the Broncos as “the Donkeys” and let go of my long-held grudge. Wishing you continued luck, Josh, but when Kyle Orton plays my team (via Ali’s Gators in our fantasy league) I vow to crush you both like an empty can of orange soda. Game on!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Panic -- The New National Pastime

I am not much of a worrier. Quite honestly, worrying requires the type of commitment of which I am not capable. Maybe I’m just glass-is-half-full or maybe I’m just comfortably numbed to the idea that we all have to die of something. Either way, I don’t spend a lot of time pondering things over which I have little or no control. I work hard enough to maintain the modicum of control I truly have in my life; I don’t need to increase to my to-do list by considering dangers outside my jurisdiction.

Last spring, our post 9/11, perpetually nervous country found another reason to fret as a new flu emerged from Mexico. The drama-seeking media got busy counting victims, tracing its origins, and calculating possible death tolls. “Swine flu,” as it was then dubbed pursuant to its original existence in populations of pigs, became the next great anxiety. Comparisons were made to the Spanish flu pandemic that is estimated to have claimed 50 to 100 million lives between 1918 and 1920. Following the swine flu became something of a new national pastime. Surgical masks and antibacterial gel were being cleared off store shelves as the Woody Allen-type worriers stocked up...just in case. Everywhere I went, someone was talking about it. Airlines stopped handing out pillows and blankets on flights, claiming the measure (while also conveniently cost-effective) was meant to reduce the spread of the swine flu. Entire schools were being closed down for fear of the disease spreading. The paranoia was omnipresent.

Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the panic subsided as summer arrived. With the end of the school year, the number of cases being reported to the public daily seemed to decrease. Everyone, except the CDC, seemed ready to put swine flu back in its pen. As a nation, we seem to relax a bit during the summer. I guess we figure we only have three months to enjoy life. So, in June we began enjoying barbecues, boating, baseball games, beer, and fireworks. We started taking deep breaths again (even ones not covered by surgical masks). We went back to focusing on living rather than dying.

Much to my chagrin, however, with the arrival of fall returned the fervor for the fever. The kids went back to school, and Americans went back to their panicking and stressing over this virus. But, now, we were no longer calling it “swine flu.” Suddenly, it was H1N1. A friend of mine quipped that at first she thought H1N1 must be somehow related to R2D2 from Star Wars. My first and admittedly sardonic reaction to the new name was that someone in DC was busy doing some heavy lobbying, convincing Washington insiders that the nickname “swine flu” was detrimental to the sale of bacon, ham, pork chops, and baby back ribs. Either that or some piggish attorney had filed suit in superior court claiming defamation of porcine character. No matter what the reason, now H1N1 was the new fearmonger.

At one point, I heard that upwards of 50% of us would contract this particular strain of flu this season. I had many friends tell me they were going to get two flu shots this winter to protect themselves and their family from different strains. Again, this seems like overkill to me. In my house in the past two years we’ve gotten “the” flu shot, and for two years in a row people in this house have gotten “the” flu all the same. It’s gotten to the point where it seems like a crap shoot to me either way. Don’t get the shot, maybe get the flu. Get the shot, maybe still get the flu. What difference does it make? The World Health Organization is now saying that if you have symptoms that appear to be related to H1N1 assume it it is H1N1 and don’t even bother getting tested for it. The virus is already showing some resistance to the Tamiflu that is prescribed to combat it. The likelihood that you or someone you love is going to get this flu is pretty high. It seems like an awful waste of precious energy to worry about it.

Maybe I’m alone in my complacency towards this virus, but then I’ve always been a realist. A 50% chance of contracting H1N1 is as good as a done deal to my jaded mind. Wouldn’t it just be best to try to stay healthy in the first place? Take a proactive approach rather than trust that some hit-or-miss vaccine will keep you well? Doesn’t it make sense for those of us who are not infant, elderly, or already infirm to wash our hands judiciously, eat well, exercise, take extra vitamins, get some fresh air, and make sure we are getting adequate rest? And if, heaven forbid, we actually come down with H1N1, would it really kill us to take a week off work, stay home, rest, and try to keep from infecting others? I guess that is too logical. Perhaps we should merely continue with our current modus operandi, do what we do best. Speculate. Wait. Discuss. Panic. And, then, point fingers, assess blame, and wait for the next thing we need to panic about to rear its frightening head.

H1N1 is a risk but so is every other thing on this planet. Every day that you wake up is a day that you might end up dead. About a week ago, I learned about the quite unexpected loss of a thirty-something friend. It got me to thinking about how little control we have. I think what we should really panic about is what we’re not doing with the time we have here on this planet. If you really need something to fear, fear that you’re not spending enough time with your children. Fear that you’re not realizing your true potential because you’re lazily watching 5 hours of reality-based television each night. Fear that people you love may never know how much you care for them because you’re too busy with your job to tell them. Fear that while you’re worrying about things you can’t control you’re missing what you could actually change for the better. H1N1 is not what we need to be immunized against. We need to be immunized against fear-based distractions that remove us from what life is all about. Let’s kick panic to the curb and replace it with our old national pastime, baseball. Baseball gives us something to look forward to, something to cheer for, something to get behind...a means for feeling alive. And, if that’s not enough, at least baseball offers snacks, souvenirs, and a seventh-inning stretch. What has panic offered you lately?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Other Woman

There is another woman in my husband’s life. And, no. I am not referring to his mother, although for years I would have been. This is someone else, and I have known about their relationship for a while. Honestly, I have known this other woman for longer than he has. I must somewhat reluctantly admit that I actually introduced them. Their relationship has been going on for over a year now. I’ve quietly stood by, complicit in the arrangement, peacefully ignoring it. There’s been no need to worry about it at all...until now.

You see, the other day my husband sauntered into the kitchen and casually announced that she’s coming to town. (Okay. He actually bounded into the room and said, “She’s coming to Denver! She’s coming to Denver!”) Up until now, their relationship has been solely online. But, now she’s coming here, and he has an opportunity to see her in person. This is where things become complicated for me. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this latest development, but because I introduced them this technically is my fault.

For most of the past year, the other woman has actually been something of a relief for me. At the end of a tedious day at work, hubby usually comes home and wants pleasurable companionship, which I am sure is what many men expect at the end of a day at the office. As it turns out, however, my office is incredibly noisy and at the end of a long day my introverted self craves nothing more than to be alone to wind down from all the chaos. For most of our marriage, this difference has spawned something of a struggle in the evenings. But, after 14 years, hubby and I have worked out an arrangement that has alleviated our mutual frustration with each other every weekday evening: hubby heads off to his office for companionship with the other woman while I retreat to do whatever I want peacefully (or as peacefully as I can in a house rife with the sounds of The Clone Wars and its Jedi masters).

I am passionate about a great many things, but I do not happen to be passionate about my husband’s two favorite things on earth: photography and food. This is where the other woman comes in. She IS passionate about these things. In fact, she has a web site devoted to them. Her name is Ree Drummond, and she is known online through her hugely successful web site, “The Pioneer Woman.” I found her site over a year ago through mutual friends who were raving about a few of her recipes. The minute I saw the site, I thought of my husband who lives and breathes food and photography. It was a no brainer. I selfishly hooked him up with her to help him pursue his hobbies without my having to feign interest in shutter speeds, the quality or quantity of adequate and appropriate light, or the many virtues of the cast iron skillet.

Recently, though, I am loathe to admit that there is a small portion of me that is jealous of The Pioneer Woman. For starters, she clearly possesses the patience of Mother Theresa because she home schools her four children; some days I imagine shoving my kids out of my still-rolling SUV in the driveway of their school so I can make it to Starbucks for my requisite latte more quickly. Then, there’s the fact that she is talented, clever, and savvy enough to have created her own online empire, complete with legions of devoted fans. She has a gorgeous family and her strongly forearmed, deeply blue-eyed husband is a genuine (you have to say that “gin-u-wine”) cowboy in the truly honorable sense of the word. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the woman creates pure culinary joy in the kitchen and wields a camera the way Michelangelo wielded a paintbrush. I hesitate to even mention this next item because it’s so trifling, but it also annoyingly happens that The Pioneer Woman is an insightful, witty, and perfectly entertaining writer. And, now, she is a published author, something I have long fantasized about becoming. Okay. Okay. So, I’m a teensy bit more than a small portion jealous of her. But, why shouldn’t I be? She’s unbelievably accomplished and my husband admires and respects her, seeks her advice, and looks forward to checking in with her. It’s a smidgen disconcerting.

To make light of the situation and mask my insecurity about it, I continually tease him about his need to visit her because most of the people I know who visit her site daily are women. But, you know, he has learned a lot from her about Photoshop and photography. He’s made her Pasta alla Vodka, and I’ve willingly devoured its awesomeness. He may someday even win something from one of her giveaway drawings. I shudder to think, though, that he may have commented on her blog. I can tell you in all honesty that he’s not once commented on MY blog, and that level of commitment to her from him could really be a blow to our marriage.

I guess I can’t blame him if he considered leaving me for her...or at least wishing perhaps that I was more like her. After all, at this point, she’s his muse. She lives and breathes his passions. To me, photography is an art that I enjoy vicariously but will never want to understand in detail, and food is just a necessity to keep my blood sugar from getting so low that I become more obnoxious than I normally am when fed. I force myself to believe that The Pioneer Woman is so wholeheartedly in love with her handsome cowboy that she would never be tempted to abandon her Marlboro Man for my husband who, incidentally, some say resembles Richard Gere (although I don’t see it).

So, when The Pioneer Woman comes to town next month to sign copies of her newly published cookbook at The Tattered Cover Bookstore, I will probably go with him to get a copy. It never hurts to size up the competition. Besides, I would like to meet her in person too. She’s a whirlwind force to be reckoned with; I might learn something from her or, better yet, I might realize she and I share a lot more than just my husband.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Not-So Great Expectations

My mother has a saying that she’s been sharing with me at opportune moments for as long as I can remember: “Expectation is the mother of disappointment.” I have never liked this statement, mostly because I’ve always believed that setting no expectation invites laziness and apathy, two things I’m not well known for. I prefer to have expectations and then be cautiously optimistic that others and I will rise to meet them. Sometimes my hopeful wishes are fulfilled and, true to my mom’s saying, sometimes my expectations of greatness leave me quite disappointed.

Last Saturday night before bed, we decided to depart for an early morning ride to the mountains to view the fall colors. We’d heard the aspen trees up near Kenosha Pass were turning, so we planned to get out of the house by 7:15, make the obligatory stop at Starbucks, and head up Highway 285 early enough for my husband to be able to take some photos with the morning sun illuminating the quaking, golden leaves. It sounded like an easy enough plan.

Sunday morning, the alarm chimes at 6:45 and, being one of those annoying “morning people,” I pop out of bed and head for the shower while the rest of the family sleeps just a bit longer. At 7, we begin preparations for our excursion. All travel with children requires far more planning than ever was necessary before children; the sheer magnitude of supplies necessary to embark on even a four hour road trip is staggering. We start rounding up DVDs and Nintendo DS systems. I find my iPod, and hubby gathers all his camera equipment. Then, we debate what to do with the dogs; we normally leave them at home but we’ve been trying to convince Ruby, our darling Border Collie, that she actually enjoys car rides, so we decide to bring her too. By the time we head out the door with entertainment, jackets, headphones, shoes, cameras, wallets, keys, iPhones, one live puppy, and several stuffed animals, it is 7:45. Not stellar, but still respectable enough given our track record for late starts.

As we pull out of the driveway, hubby notices we’ll need to stop for gas. We head to the Starbucks drive-thru and then over to the gas station. While we’re at the Conoco, hubby decides he and the kids can use some food so we make another unscheduled stop at McDonalds. Back on the highway again at 8:10, hubby is starting to be a bit concerned about his prospects for good lighting. At the same time, Luke points out that while the adults are busy swilling Starbucks we’ve neglected to get drinks for him or Joe. Dang. We knew we were missing something. We pull back off the highway and proceed to 7-11 to remedy that issue. Ten minutes later we’re finally beginning our climb up Highway 285, and we realize that we’ve made four stops in 35 minutes and we’ve only advanced approximately 10 miles.

Still, we continue on, optimistic that we’re now finally on the right track. I laughingly joke to hubby about how long it’s going to take before someone needs to stop for a potty break. He rolls his eyes and we keep going. For a few minutes, we really are enjoying the drive, laughing about the chaos of doing even small things these days. I turn back and admire the boys, who are quietly watching a movie with their headphones on. I make a mental note that the puppy is drooling all over the back seat, but decide that it’s still a great day.

We’re not even to Conifer yet when Luke announces he needs a restroom. Ding. Ding. Ding. We have a winner! We’ll just pull over and you can pee in the woods, we tell him, hoping to save some time. This, I have realized, is the beauty of having boys instead of girls: I get to take advantage of the whole peeing-standing-up thing vicariously through them with quick stops on the side of highways and interstates. (And, don’t ask my boys how many times I’ve asked them to fill up empty water bottles while we’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-70 after a day in the mountains and I refuse to get out of the line of traffic to find them a restroom.)

Then, the plan for our Sunday morning of leaf peeping begins to implode.

“I don’t have to PEE.” Luke replies.

Ugh. Of course not. We tell him to hold on and we’ll find the next gas station. The next gas station is in Pine Junction, and it is actually a small, log-cabin type convenience store that also sells fishing licenses. Apparently, their idea of a public restroom is a porta-potty out in the parking lot.

Hubby tries to coax Luke into the outdoor toilet, but Luke is now and has always been fearful of pit toilets. I can’t say I blame him. A few of them have frightened me too. While hubby is working on Luke, I attempt some damage control and try to get our drooling dog out of the backseat and into the cargo area of the SUV. I open the back gate and she flies into the cargo area like a champ. Just as I am appreciating her agility and praising her for her good listening skills, I realize she has bounded right over the back of the seat and is once again drooling on the leather in between the boys’ car seats. So much for that brilliant plan.

I walk over to check on Luke and realize it’s a no go. He has decided he will wait until we get home. It is now nearly 10. Hubby sadly announces that since we are still roughly an hour away from Kenosha Pass and the sun is already too high for the kind of photos he was hoping for, he thinks we should just cut our losses and pack it in. My husband is an incredibly good sport. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about him. He takes everything in stride while I’m bashing my head against walls. He’s smart enough to know when enough is enough, and after 16 years together I am smart enough to know that when he says it’s enough he’s probably right.

We tell the boys we’re heading home, start a new film for the descent back to Denver, and as we coast down 285 we hear the puppy offer up her telltale retching sound and then we smell the dog food. Joe squeals in disgust and curls up in a ball to avoid the mess. Luke starts gagging at the smell and opens his window. I turn around and see the rubber mats on the floor covered in dog puke. It’s one of those moments when you realize you have a choice: you can either laugh or you can pitch a fit. We choose to laugh. The day has been filled with so many signs that we were not meant to see the leaves. We talk about what we’d expected for our day, and I tell hubby about my mom’s saying.

“Well, what if you don’t have any big expectations and you’re still disappointed?” he asks, referring to our simple plan for a casual drive to look at turning aspen leaves.

I had no answer for him then but it’s starting to make sense to me now. Maybe disappointment merely exists as a litmus test, so we know what we’re made of? Although we missed our one chance this year to enjoy the fall colors before an early snow took them away from us, I am not disappointed. The day may not have gone according to my usual lofty expectations, but I’m finally learning to stop bashing my head against the wall of disappointment. Expectation may well be the mother of disappointment, but now I counter with my own cliche: “Attitude is everything.” I’m still going to have my hopeful expectations and, occasionally, my expectations may lead to disappointment; but, experience has taught me that I can handle it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Walk 50 Miles in My Shoes

A few years back, as midlife began to sink its cruel claws into me, I made a promise to myself to get in shape and to do something every year to contribute to the world in a positive way. So, when a friend asked me to join her for a two-day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer that year, it seemed like a no brainer. Training to walk 40 miles put me in the best physical shape I’d ever been in and raising the $1800 required to participate in the walk made me feel as if I’d made a respectable contribution to the breast cancer cause. In fact, I enjoyed the effort so much that I repeated it with another friend two years later.

This year, my friend Celeste asked me if I was interested in doing another long walk. She suggested we do a three day, 50-mile walk for MS. I have to admit that I hesitated when she asked me to change causes. I was comfortable with my ability to talk about and raise funds for breast cancer care and research. Celeste then mentioned that the MS Challenge Walk required a $2500 fundraising effort, a pretty hefty sum in today’s sketchy economy. And, just as I was about ready to tell her that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to switch causes, she mentioned that we’d have to go to San Diego for three days to do it. Suddenly, my loyalty to the breast cancer cause was in question. After all, I love a good challenge and 50 miles was 10 miles further than I’d gone before. And how could I resist a late-summer walk in San Diego near the sand and surf I so rarely get to see by virtue of being a landlocked Coloradan? I mean, maybe it was time I started fundraising for a different charity? Was it really fair of me to put all my efforts towards one already well-celebrated cause? Shouldn’t I share my time amongst equally deserving charities? I decided that I had to go along with Celeste on this adventure.

So, when I finally locked in my $2500 fundraising requirement, I used my United miles to acquire a “free” airline ticket and on this past Thursday afternoon I boarded a flight for San Diego, walking gear in my carry-on bag and California dreams in my head. The flight touched down just before dinnertime in San Diego, and when I stepped out in the sunny, ocean-humid air, the whole weekend seemed full of joy and promise. I pushed the 50-miles of walking out of my head and focused instead on the idea of an ocean view, the fragrance of jasmine, and a glass or two of red wine by the pool.

Awesome glass of Napa cabernet aside, my dreams of a relaxing stroll by the ocean were quickly squashed on Friday morning when I realized with chagrin that I had apparently signed up to do the walk not with my fun-loving, game-for-anything pal, but instead with her alter ego...the competitive, wild-eyed, mule-driving overachiever. Less than one mile beyond the starting line, Celeste started bobbing and weaving through the walker crowd like George W. Bush dodging Iraqi shoes. She was a woman on a mission. I reiterated that this was not a race, but sensing that she was not to be trifled with I decided to shut up and run alongside her, off the curb, through the bike lane, around the crosswalks, until we’d safely garnered a substantial lead on most of the rest of the walkers who by then were looking at us as if we were insane. Ask me what I remember about that day and I will tell you two things: we finished in the top 10 and we made friends with a nice guy who spent his entire day getting ahead of us at rest stops only to get whooped by us as we raced past him again five minutes later.

As luck would have it, though, our substantial, kick-ass pace was greatly lessened the second day with the advent of several blisters that formed on Celeste’s heels. Our second 20-mile day found us still walking at a fairly good pace, steadily passing folks along the sizable hill up into Torrey Pines State Reserve (thank heavens for all our high-altitude training in Denver), and more gingerly strolling down the backside of said hill trying to keep from damaging our already sore toes any further. We accepted that we were not going to be breaking any land speed records that day and we enjoyed talking with other walkers and pausing occasionally to take in the beach sights: surfers waiting for the perfect wave, sea lions darting in and out of the surf, high school kids smoking pot, and hot California guys in wet suits wandering by. Celeste continued to play “slug bug,” pounding me on the arm every time she saw a VW Beetle, while I winced and whined about it all day. We finished about an hour later than we had the previous day and only after I had removed my shoes and socks and waded fully clothed into Mission Bay, thereby realizing the opportunity, however brief, to enjoy the sea.

As much fun as the two long days had been, I got a reality check on Saturday night. I’m not sure if it was the sheer exhaustion, the bottle of cab that Celeste and I shared, or the candle-lighting ceremony in the dark ballroom, but as I sat there with tears streaming down my face it hit me how much this cause meant to most of the people in that room. For me, the trip had been a selfish one, full of my desire to get exercise, get tan, and see the ocean. But, that night I realized that while I was having a great time and laughing it up with Celeste, many of these people were truly suffering: suffering with MS themselves, suffering with the thought of a friend or family member who was in pain, or suffering through the loss of someone dear to them to the disease. I hit a level of awareness I’d perhaps subconsciously been trying to avoid and, for the first time, I entered into the magnitude of the whole experience and the scales tipped.

Sunday’s last 10 miles were much more somber than the previous 40 had been. We were tired. Celeste’s feet, blisters literally built upon blisters, were killing her. My muscles were valiantly fighting the influence of the copious amounts of ibuprofen I’d taken that morning. As we reached mile 9 where we gathered to complete the last mile en masse, I wasn’t the competitive, race-happy person I had started out as on Friday. I was one of the lucky ones. A sea of orange shirts denoting those walkers with MS was a stark reminder of my random luck. MS is an arbitrary and completely mysterious disease and, as I looked at those brave individuals walking in those orange shirts, some who walked with arm braces or canes just to get through the 50 miles along with me, it was hard not to think about how ridiculously blessed I am.

My weekend trip to San Diego was amazing and certainly everything I hoped it would be. The sun, the sand, and the sea did not disappoint. The company was awesome, the food was plentiful, and the views were stunning. Celeste and I learned a bit more about each other (I have got to get better at that slug bug game) and a lot more about MS. But, the best thing about the weekend was finding a purpose to continue my now cherished, long-distance walks. If hubby is kind enough to acquiesce again next year and agree to tolerate yet another long season of training walks and the trip to San Diego, I promise to be a better fundraiser for MS and a better walker, one who is more grateful for what it means to be able to walk at all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Confessions of a CrackBook Addict

I have a confession. I am an internet junkie. Seriously. I probably need a 12-step program. Unlike Al Gore, I do not believe I invented the internet, but I have had an internet problem for a long time now. I established my first email address through the ubiquitous America Online in 1995. I still recall a time when I knew only three other people with internet capability. We would email each other, feeling quite superior for being hooked into the World Wide Web before so many others. We reveled in sending each other photos and waiting the 15 to 20 minutes while they downloaded through our phone line, one pathetic color line at a time until the image was fully revealed. It was like Christmas every time one of those photos actually came through.

I made my first online friend in 1996 through an internet pen pal site. I matched up with another internet addict named Barb. I watched her son grow from a 6 year old to a college student, all online. We shared our daily lives via email and became friends. I did eventually meet her in person, as well. And yes, I am sure she is who she says she is and not an internet predator or a cross-dressing male (actual name: Bob) parading around cyberspace as a female. These days, Barb and I continue to keep in touch through the internet, where we still discuss music and the hazards of raising children.

In 1998, while in graduate school studying technical writing, I took a course called “Hypertext.” One assignment was to create an online identity by developing our first personal web site. I made the most ridiculously basic site that was graphics-heavy and took mind-boggling amounts of time to load. It even had some of those then hip, animated gifs on it. That web site taught me several valuable lessons, one of which was that sometimes messages we put on the web don’t come across as intended. My vapid identity web site caused a falling out between me and a college roommate, who was a bit sensitive about the photo I posted of her cat. She was upset enough that she stopped speaking to me. Lesson learned: not everyone likes seeing themselves (or their cats, apparently) online.

My obsession with the internet, my family can attest, has been an ongoing struggle. It has spawned many an argument. Unfortunately, it has only gotten worse since I kicked my PC habit and became an Apple user. I discovered there’s a reason they call you a “user”; after I discovered the MacBook which, at least in my case, would have been more aptly named the CrackBook due to its habit-forming properties, it was a short trip into an even more problematic addiction, the iPhone. Now my family and friends travel with me 24/7, provided that my AT&T coverage holds up. I will admit that I have taken my iPhone camping and been saddened that I did not have enough signal to check my tweets on Twitter. I’m all for roughing it, but roughing it gets a lot rougher for the folks around me if I have to go a couple days without 3G communication.

My husband, tired of trying to communicate with me through more traditional methods such as actual conversation, has occasionally sunk to my level just to get a point across. He has honestly been in his office, a mere twenty-five feet from where I normally perch with my laptop, and sent me an instant message to ask me a question. He texts me all day long. We have played Scrabble online together while in the same house too. I’m sure this all seems quite sad, but in many ways my twisted habit has been helpful. It’s a lot more difficult for hubby to fight with me if he has to express his bitterness via chat. You see, he’s not the world’s fastest keyboarder and, when he learned I could not only out argue him in person but could instant message quick circles around him as well, he simply gave up arguing with me. The lack of arguing combined with our mutual belief that “sexting” is a poor substitute for actual sex has left us with a reasonably happy marriage.

So, my internet infatuation continues. I have googled myself. I have accounts on Yahoo, MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook so I can keep up with friends. I currently have four separate email addresses. Every time I decide to stop spending so much time online, something draws me back in. I think it’s that the internet is a perfect place for an introvert like me. I feel safe when I converse in this virtual world. I’m invisible, but not.

My mom feels the internet is ruining interpersonal communication because we are so tied to our devices (or is that merely “vices”?) that we don’t interact with other humans anymore. But, I disagree. Because of the internet, I converse daily with friends I previously talked to only occasionally. I also have friends from around the country whom I never would have met otherwise. I’ve reconnected with people who knew me eons ago...before the internet even existed (gasp). And while my mom is correct that perhaps we don’t spend as much time actually speaking to one another as we used to, through my rose-colored glasses I choose see that we have merely spawned a new epistolary age. True. Some of our notes to each other are very short, but we’re still writing and reading and I find that encouraging. Either way, I’m continuing to enjoy the ride on the information superhighway just like a dog with its head out the car window on the open road. I just hope no one schedules an internet intervention for me anytime soon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Woofy Down the Well

Last Saturday, our home nearly suffered the loss of a dear family member. His name is Woofy, and he is our youngest son’s favorite stuffed dog. Woofy is a chocolate lab with a soft, faux leather nose that is losing fluff from a previous wound and matted fur that proves he is dutiful, diligently, and deeply loved. Woofy travels with us. Woofy has been to school. Woofy visits grandma’s house. Woofy is well-liked and popular among all the other stuffed animals. Woofy is a model pet. In short, Woofy is indispensable.

It was early evening and the boys were upstairs playing. Hubby and I were downstairs starting dinner and enjoying the fact that the kids were laughing and not bickering...for once. Suddenly, the laughter was rudely interrupted by a disconsolate wail. Immediately, I froze, my Mother’s Sixth Sense instinctively trying to determine if it was a cry of physical pain, anger, indignation, or another of the myriad cries our children have perfected. I didn’t have to wonder for long as our youngest appeared at the top of the stairs, mouthing completely unintelligible words, tears already streaming down his face. I realized then that it was the worst of all possible cries...the cry of heartbreak. It didn’t even matter what had happened. My son was so tortured in that moment that my heart was right there with his. I felt sick to my stomach.

“Slow down and tell me what happened, sweetie.”

He barely managed a broken and pathetic, “W-OO-OO-OO-OOOOOOFY!” Then the impossible words formed on his lips: “Woofy is GONE!!!”

I don’t know exactly what took over my brain at that point, but I’m fairly sure that if temporary insanity exists I had it. Apparently a deep-seated post traumatic stress disorder memory from a stuffed animal mishap during my childhood took hold of me. I raced up the stairs on a mission with my sobbing little boy trailing behind.

“WHERE’D HE GO?” I screamed. My children just stared at me, clearly unsure what to make of their wild-eyed mother.

They pointed to the corner of the room and an air conditioning vent that was missing its cover. I ran to the corner, flew onto my son’s bed as if channeling Superman, and peered down into the dark vent hole. I could see nothing. Hubby soon arrived to see just my legs and feet as the rest of me tumbled off the bed so I could reach down the vent to determine if Woofy went straight down or, by some dumb luck, hit a curve in the vent and stayed close enough to grab.

Bad news. Woofy really was gone. I started shouting commands like an officer at a Marine boot camp.

“Get me a flashlight. I need a flashlight and a tape measure NOW!”

The three men in my life stumbled around dumbfounded, trying to locate flashlights that were long since appropriated for more fun endeavors like making scary faces while pretend camping in the basement. When they finally located a cheap, plastic, children’s flashlight and fresh batteries, I aimed the flashlight down the black hole. And, sure enough, Woofy was down there. WAY down there. Twelve deep, long, bleak feet down there, to be exact. The pain on my son’s face as he registered his loss was excruciating. Woofy was our Baby Jessica in the well. We had to rescue him, no matter what it took.

With hubby’s stomach growling, we reconvened in the kitchen to discuss our game plan. Hubby didn’t seem very concerned given the gravity of the situation. Of course, Attila the Hun might have appeared a bit of a milquetoast when compared to my frenzied hysterics.

“I’ll open the vent from the crawl space after dinner,” he said, far too calmly for my liking.

“It may not seem this way to you,” I said in my most-restrained, protective Mama Bear voice, “but THIS is an emergency!”

I stomped downstairs to the crawl space, fully intending to take care of the situation myself...until I got there and stared into the recesses of that cavernous space, the space that is filled with spiders, large wolf spiders known in our house only as “the creatures that must not be named.”

Realizing that I was not going to let this go until Woofy had been rescued, hubby caved. With flathead screwdriver in hand, he braved the depths of the crawl space and went to work taking the vent apart. The boys and I stayed near the crawl space, ready to help in any way possible as long as actually entering the crawl space did not come into play. In a few short minutes, I watched my husband become a hero as he pulled Woofy from the vent and gently handed him to his tearful owner.

In that moment it went from Threat Level Red to Threat Level Green in our house. We all took turns hugging Woofy and talking about how happy we were. Disaster averted. Crisis resolved. The nightmare was over. Or, so I thought.

Three nights later at dinner we were talking about the whole ordeal again when our little guy spoke up:

“Can we please stop talking about Woofy?” he said nearly in tears.

I knew then that this experience would change my son the way I was changed 30 years earlier when my beloved orange bean bag dog, Drooper, sustained a life-threatening loss of beans during a household tussle. Someday, I imagine that my son will have his own post traumatic stress moment when his child’s stuffed toy is in peril. I know he will react as I did. He will relive the entire emotional experience of fearing that the thing you love most has been lost forever and temporarily misplace his sanity. And, hopefully, in that moment his memory will erase the near loss of Woofy and in its place put a new memory, the memory of a wild-eyed father who would not rest until all was set right again.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Guilt-Free Zone Ahead

Like many women in my suburban neighborhood, I am a stay-at-home mom. Well, I’m actually a not-quite-stay-at-home mom because, let’s face it, no “stay-at-home mom” actually is home very much. Sometimes I feel as if I live in my SUV; I have considered just putting my pillow and a fleece blanket in the cargo area, where my ubiquitous water bottles and the random leftover french fries and fruit snacks that I know will sustain me if I ever get stuck during a blizzard reside. But, I digress. I was talking about being a not-quite-stay-at-home mom. Not Quites often seek the guidance, solace, and companionship of other Not Quites in an attempt to carry on some type of conversation that requires an education beyond, say, 3rd grade level. We commiserate about our jobs. It’s really no different than what my hubby does with his coworkers when he’s enjoying a lunch that requires neither peanut butter nor jelly.

I was recently deeply alarmed by a conversation between a couple friends who were discussing how guilty they feel about the way they've parented their children and the repercussions of their parenting mistakes. My friends actually sit around and feel badly about what they feel they’ve done to their children. They actually worry about this. Guilt, it seems, is as natural to them as breathing. They are mothers. They have made mistakes. They feel inadequate because of it.

Now, I am Type A by nature. I like order. I seek it. I plan. I organize. I evaluate. I pay attention to detail. But, as anal retentive as I can be (Freud would have a field day going over my neuroses), I do not as a rule feel guilty about how I parent my children. Truth is, I don’t believe in guilt. My life is a guilt-free zone.

You may wonder how I achieve this blissful state of non-guilt. It started nearly 20 years ago. My mother wanted me to do something and I didn’t want to. Being a good catholic, she went into the traditional ritual of the laying on of guilt (I believe this is the 8th sacrament). Something in me snapped. I was 23. I was finally in charge of my own life and feeling defiant. I remember telling her, “You can say what you want. Guilt doesn’t work on me anymore.” And, POOF, just like that, guilt was gone. Funny how when you cease to believe in something (the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Prince Charming, or fair and balanced journalism, for example) you feel a release from bullshit. And, thus it was that guilt vanished for me.

The way I have it figured, guilt is a wasted emotion. Guilt implies that I have done something wrong. I’m not sure about other parents, but I parent from my gut and I do the best I can with what gifts, talents, and skills I have. I’m not implying that I’m not potentially ruining my kids with my parenting style. Certainly, at the very least, I am messing them up. But, that’s not the point. The point is that I’m just being me. I am living my life and I am raising children. Am I going to be perfect at it? No. Will they need therapy someday because of me? Possibly. Does that make me a bad mother? I don’t believe so. If my sons ever have children of their own, I think they will come to the same realization that I did: parenting is the great leveler. Most parents are at one time or another flattened by the cries of a teething infant, or powerless handling a toddler with croup, or brokenhearted when their child’s favorite stuffed animal disintegrates in the mouth of the family dog. Some things that happen in our children’s lives will be negative, and they may be a direct result of our actions. But, that’s life. I’m just going to do my best, forgive myself when I make a mistake, apologize to them when necessary, and move on, trying not to repeat the same bad behavior next time. Guilt-free.

The beautiful thing is that guilt-free works in all areas of life. When I eat that Love It size of Founder’s Favorite ice cream at Cold Stone, I eat it guilt-free. I might bike a few extra miles tomorrow because of it, but I don’t feel bad about it. I enjoy every second of it. I may be screwing my kids up, but I’m going to enjoy every second of my time with them. Guilt free.