No-fight club

Despite what my husband thinks (*ahem*) I do not like fights. I end up in them sometimes because I lack a filter. I let things tumble out of my mouth.  I react first and think second. So, yeah, there are those clashes that build and erupt like thunderstorms on an August afternoon.

What I like even less than the one-on-one encounters is going up against the Goliaths. A few years back, I engaged in a legal battle with my former employer. It was stressful. I did not prevail in the end.

Now, it looks like something simmering on the stove has potential to boil over. I cannot reveal many details; I don’t want to hurt my chances.

I’ll say this: We pay dearly for this product and now the company is saying it doesn’t want me as a customer anymore because it feels I have withheld information on my initial application. Further, had it known these “things,” it wouldn’t have touched me with a long, sanitized pole. It has done some investigating of my past, it says, and found things it doesn’t like. If I cannot document and justify these “things” in a convincing way, they are pulling the plug. Fighting words.

All this came out of nowhere.  It makes me wonder. There are many battles in progress out there. I wonder sometimes, on a larger scale, what it really means.

A few weeks ago, when I told my story to a stranger at a forum on issues about this industry, she looked me in the eye and said, “You are screwed.”

I didn’t believe her. I don’t now. But that doesn’t mean I’m not scared. There will be a fight. Large or small I do not know. Win or lose, I have to try.

Unless it’s all a dream.


Road map to confusion

For weeks I tripped over a cardboard box of books in the garage. I cussed, kicked the box, wondered from where it came. I made a mental note to move it to the trunk of my car to take to the recycling center. Except the trunk of my car was filled with bags of paper that needed shredding and clothing destined for the donation bin.

One day I couldn’t take it any more. I overturned  the box. Onto the concrete floor spilled volumes of those “complete idiot” guides and the “for dummies” books, along with some kindling in the form of a Rush Limbaugh book, some unknown volumes and this trio of curiosity:

In a roundabout way, a gift to me from my ex-husband.

I picked up the paperback “Love Medicine” by Louise Erdrich and suddenly I was a junior in college, swept away by the flowing prose of D.H. Lawrence and satire of Swift. I wasn’t assigned Erdrich; I stole it from my then-boyfriend who’d become my husband (and discover my petty thievery) and is now my ex. (Apparently the book has traveled full circle into my life again.) I fell in love with Erdrich and her then-husband Michael Dorris and their deeply moving stories of Native American life.

As I fanned the pages, picking up the musty, smoky scent of time, scanning the highlighted passages, I remembered the day my ex and I divided our book and CD collection into two piles: his and mine. The Erdrich collection, the Dorris, the Dylan and Rolling Stones CDs remained in his pile.

The box was from my ex.

I can understand the need to thin the book collection, to maybe be nice and give me the book I’ve always liked more than he did. I cannot understand “Road Map to Ecstasy.”

They arrived via Girl from the West’s car. Perhaps he knows her well enough that a sex book in a box of boring books is a book that won’t be touched. Perhaps he no longer needs a guidebook.

I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll never know.

I’m choosing to say thank you.

Thank you, ex-husband, for the sex manual and the literary classics, not doubt selected to read afterward, in front of the fire, started with the Rush Limbaugh book.

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Why you need more than one child

Stunned, I sat in silence behind the closed bedroom door. My youngest girl, a kindergartener, picked up every last Barbie shoe, scarf, perfume bottle, fork (Do you know how small they are? About the size of your pinkie fingernail.) from my office carpet and put them in the designated storage box.

I asked her to do it and she did it. Just like that.


It actually works sometimes, doesn’t it?

Had I stopped at one child, I would not have experienced the sweet beauty of this moment.

How did this happen? I’ve not deviated too much from the parenting manual I used for the first child.

It just worked this time.

Or maybe it’s just that each child is wired differently.

Or maybe it’s because I stayed home with her. (And, no, this isn’t a post taking a position on stay-at-home motherhood over working mothers. I’ve been both.)

When I was a working parent, my only child knew how to manipulate me. She knew how and exercised the option often. Inadvertently, I gave her loopholes. I was also much younger, a fist-time parent, and very worried about anything threatening my job.

I had a flashback moment today at the bus stop, as I watched a young mother dressed for an office job frantically wheeling her baby’s stroller along the slippery sidewalk. The tot inside gurgled and kicked his feet, while his big sister grimaced and dragged at least five steps behind. The mom barked some threats at her, coaxed, and finally pleaded with her to step forward and get on line for the bus. Each day this scene plays out in some fashion.

How many times in my young motherhood was I that woman, one eye on my wristwatch and the other on my girl, who either cried and clawed at me to stay or arrived at day care in her nightgown because she refused to dress for the day?

Child No. 1 never did what I asked on the first, second, even third request. Always there were threats and consequences and then the dreaded follow-through. She always pushed it to the edge with me. Then, we had the ‘tween years. I was all out of ideas and so full of frustration I decided to resign my position to attend at least in part to her needs. Now, that firstborn is almost an adult; the game is a bit different.

Having two children or more gives you a chance to get some perspective on human nature and chance. If you have an obedient, people-pleasing first child, you may think that’s how all children are and arrange for more. If you have a difficult, defiant, march-to-the-beat-of- a-different-drummer first child, you might hold out hope that statistically you’ll draw the obedient card the second time around. Maybe you’ll get yourself fixed.

Every parent, if they are going to have more than one child, is bound to get at least one “challenging” child. To have a brood of challenges is unfair. To have an army of Stepford children is also, well, freakishly unnatural and only occurs on TV.

Right? Tell me this is right.



The new normal

rshartley via creative commons

Forget about setting schedules, syncing calendars, or crafting some semblance of normalcy in my life. It’s not going to happen. Even though my soul craves order and organization, the universe thinks otherwise.

After giving myself a month to just relax and enjoy life home alone, October was the month of getting back into it — whatever “it” is supposed to be. I was going to polish the résumé, network a little to find freelance jobs, go to the career center for advice, research graduate degree programs, sign up for job retraining, reinvent the wheel.

Yeah, right.

Here it is Nov. 3 and none of those things happened. The networking event? Ended up falling on one of those teacher planning days. Training session last week? Had to cancel when Girl from the West’s car died in a far-off subdivision. I’ve been the go-to parent for the last few weeks while husbands and fathers traveled to far-off regions for their work. Seems as though every time I make a plan to move forward, the universe makes another plan.

Did I mention I took on a big project with a short deadline?

My inner wonder woman refuses to concede defeat. I keep thinking if I do things differently, they’ll come out in my favor. Is it any surprise that I have relapsed?

This is my new normal and I’m just going to have to accept it for now. Swimming against the current just gets me sick and crazy. I don’t want to be sick.  I have two sick kids in my house now. I don’t want to be crazy. I want to buck the family trend.

So, in a big middle finger to the universe, I’m participating in National Blog Posting Month for the second time. My first NaBloPoMo began while on a junket to Vegas with full-blown pneumonia, why not do it again with a raging case of the hives?

Life is good.


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Pictures of my life, Part IV

Girl, you have no faith in medicine.
Is there a way to find the cure for this implanted in a pill? 
Is it just the name upon the bottle That determines if it will? 
Is the problem you're allergic to a well familiar name? 
Do you have a problem with this one if the results are the same?
-- Jack White, The White Stripes


In black and white, I’m on  a regimen of crap that I hate. The pills get stuck in my throat. The one I take at night sometimes makes me nauseated. I resent the idea that I need these things to feel/appear normal. Sometimes they don’t work at all. I’ve prided myself on being medication-free for years. I told myself that it meant I was healthy. Was I? Am I now? Today I heard a common-sense talk about wisdom and knowing when to let go of control. Wisdom is knowing when to take the medicine. Wisdom is knowing there isn’t a fix at a nearby big-box store for every problem in life.

In the world of color, I added some red to my hair.

Still haven’t mastered the art of self-portrait photography



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Setting free the butterflies

‎”You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.”
~ Swedish proverb

After: a painted lady butterfly

On Monday, we opened a mesh and plastic butterfly cage and urged five winged creatures to leave their nest, to abandon the predictability of their lives, and face the unknown.

A month ago they arrived  in a jar, five little caterpillars no bigger than pine needles. As the days passed, they grew in length and girth until they were lumbering, bloated things with barely room to move.

Before: very tiny caterpillars

Frankly, caterpillars are a crashing bore. Some days that jar sat on the shelf untouched. By the time they were ready to cocoon, those caterpillars were enormous. Then they did this bizarre thing: they suspended themselves by, what, their tongues? their feet? from the jar lid and curled into a J shape and somehow magically changed from fuzzy and lumpy to smooth and iridescent.

It was like Botox for the insect world.

Now came the really, really boring part. We peeled the paper lid on which the chrysalides were mounted and pinned it to the side of the mesh and plastic pavilion. It looked like some kind of pathetic science fair project involving wads of chewed gum and safety pins. Then, we waited and waited and fell asleep from the sheer boredom of the unmoving wads of gum. Until…

Late last week I heard a flapping sound. I looked over and ta-dah! just like that without fanfare or drumroll the first butterfly was born. It perched on the mesh, dripping meconium and vibrating all casual as if everyone does something like that when no one is looking.  Determined to see one of the remaining four emerge, I carried the cage around the house, peering in obsessively. But every damned time I looked away to make a sandwich or take a call or go to the bathroom, I’d come out to find more flapping of wings and yet another empty cocoon. I started to think they had performance anxiety.

By Saturday I had a cage of winged, elegant creatures who were the embodiment of happiness. Unlike their boring former selves who put me to sleep with the endless parade of eating and pooping, these guys held my attention with their pulsating wings, their wiry antennas, and inquisitive proboscis that rolled out to impressive lengths.

These butterflies have me thinking about change, of course, the whole metamorphosis thing and all. Change doesn’t always happen in front of us when we’re watching and waiting. It grows in the shadows of our inattention.

I’m trying to look at whatever it is that’s going on with me as a metamorphosis rather than a gathering of sad birds overhead, preparing to nest in my hair.

Those butterflies, so beautiful and delicate, waving those wings inside their cage. I wanted to keep them in my pocket. But I knew on the most primal level they needed to fly free. Even if freedom meant flapping right into the waiting beaks of hungry birds.

Oh, imagine the joy of ascending to the blue dome, buffeted by the wind. Could that ever be traded for the predictable security of a mesh cage?

Today, a painted lady visited our lily garden. Could it be?

Here’s a link with videos of the various stages.


Today I stand at the crossroads.

My Girl from the East, who was a mush and Cheerios eater when I started this blog four years ago, (yeah, there was an anniversary here recently) graduated preschool last night in a ceremony that was so sugar frosted my teeth ached by the time it was over. Who can resist 20 five-year-olds singing with hand-made mortar boards on their heads? No one.

I’m at the end of one thing and the beginning of another. We are in the twilight of our innocence. My girl and I connected in a smoke-filled room in China almost five years ago and haven’t been apart more than a day or two since then. Stay-at-home motherhood  was not what I expected. I hated some parts and loved others. I have no regrets.  I was there for the first words, the first wobbly steps, the potty training, first friendships and preschool experiences. And all along the way I was at her side or close enough to catch her fall. Once she gets on in the world without me for seven hours a day, it will change. No longer will I be the all-knowing, omnipotent center of her universe.

In three months Girl from the East will  board a big yellow bus, wave to me,  and in a rumble of diesel exhaust leave me behind to figure out a new way to fill the hours of the days of my life.

Which brings me to the next  big thing: my health. I am not better. I am not worse. I am the same in a way that I don’t want to become the new normal. I’m on the dark side of a divide, one in which something about myself will be learned once I step into the light. Maybe I’ll have to give up certain foods or household products. Maybe I’ll have to get on medication. I don’t know, but I suspect a life change.

I’ve been forced to slow down. I’ve started saying no to things without hesitation. I’ve been reading and resting a lot. I’ve let things go, particularly my gardens. They will survive. Nature is tough.

Today is the end of one thing and the beginning of another.




Pictures of my life, Part 2

Sometimes a sticker is just a sticker*

I’m working on quieting the noise inside my head otherwise known as obsession.
Who am I?
What is this?
Where did it all come from?
When did it start?
Why me?
How will I know the answer?
For a lifetime I’ve been amassing great files of questions and answers to someday assemble in a big book.
I doubt I’ll ever read it.

I’m learning to let it go. Piece by piece.
Everything I need to know I already do know.


*I’ve walked by this sticker two, three times a week for years. It’s on a light pole outside the local Trader Joe’s.
I laugh every time.

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Other people's kids

Photo via Wilmette Library History

I didn’t particularly like other people’s kids before I became a mother. That might sound odd considering I worked as a babysitter for many years.

Thirty years’ perspective has taught me that my own miserable childhood colored my view of children and childhood. I’d like to think I was a capable babysitter. If you paid me, I’d keep your child safe and entertained, fed and bathed. But on my own time? Shrieking babies and troublesome tots sent me over the edge. Once on a trans-Atlantic flight, I asked to have my seat changed because I could not bear six hours of a baby fussing and kicking at me while the oblivious parents thumbed through magazines and stared out the window.

Once I had my own shrieking baby who became a fussy toddler who became a quirky kid who then morphed into a mouthy tween, I understood. I changed. When you need milk and eggs and diapers, you need them, regardless of baby’s mood that day. You can’t always wait until you have a babysitter to take care of daily business.

While I may be deaf to the hounds of hell in Home Depot, I am not blind to the actions of other people’s children. Just yesterday I was at IKEA and had to speak up because the family seated in front of us in the food court thought putting two toddlers in a shopping cart and parking it behind them constituted child care.

At one point the drooling, whining little girl leaned so far out of the shopping cart she almost toppled onto my crepes. After I protested loudly but politely to the family, the father apologized and guided the baby cage on wheels to another table. Momma Mia, Mea Culpa’s post about an unruly school-aged boy reminded me of one of the most upsetting incidents I’ve ever had involving someone else’s child.

I was in college. My boyfriend and I lived in off-campus housing. It was a rectangular complex with a huge courtyard that held a swimming pool, lots of trees, gardens, and picnic tables. I loved to haul my books, some spiked lemonade, and my blanket down to the pool and study.

During one such poolside study session, I was joined by a 10-year-old boy. Despite posted rules against children swimming alone,  it was just the two of us. I think I may have inquired about his parents, noted the posted rules, and commented on his refusal to leave. Several times I looked around for a nearby adult, but none was present. I felt anger brewing inside of me toward whomever was in charge of this boy. How dare they assume I’d play lifeguard.

I tried to study. I sipped on my drink to soothe my nerves. I tried to ignore his splashing and shouting. Something tugged at my conscience and I looked up from my notes.  I saw one hand reaching out of the deep end of the pool, fingers curled into a claw.

I tossed my book and stood up. The boy surfaced, let out a little yelp, and went under again. Thinking back to the time when we were camping and my brother nearly drowned had my father not been nearby to leap into the murky depths and pull him to the surface and how my brother must have vomited a gallon of pond water before we declared him OK, I began to panic with the certainty that this boy was dying.

I let out a half-hearted, “Hey. You OK?”

I looked around for some reinforcement but the courtyard was deserted. I ran across the deck and jumped in the water. When I touched his back he surfaced,  smiled,  wiped the snot from his face, and started laughing.

He was faking.

I think.

I wanted to strangle him.

I grabbed his arm and pulled him to the edge of the pool. I made him get out.

I marched him over to his chair, told him to get his towel,  and then asked him where he lived.

Silence. Dripping water. Sniffling.

Where do you live? Which apartment is yours? Who are you visiting?

Drip. Drip. Sniff. Sniff.

I looked around the complex, scanning the balconies and walkways.

What the hell? Hadn’t anyone noticed this?

Like I said. I was not the nurturing sort. I needed him to go somewhere safe so I could get back to my homework. I coaxed him out of the pool area and toward the building manager’s office.  Just then a door opened somewhere above us. A voice shrilled from inside the threshold. Responding, the boy bolted from my grasp, flip-flops slapping, water drops marking a trail.

I never saw that boy again or ever found out to whom he belonged. I followed the quickly evaporating droplets to the second floor, but no one answered my knocks of inquiry.

What was I after anyway? An apology? A chance to rant?

Did that kid really fake drowning to get attention?

Did he have a medical condition/behavioral problem?

Did he speak English?

Was he lonely and bored? Did he have an inept caregiver?

I’ll never know.


Short and sweet

by alancleaver_2000 via creative commons

My oldest daughter made me cry in public this weekend.

I was front row, center, and caught without a tissue to save me.

Most of what I write about here centers on my life with 5-year-old Girl from the East. I don’t say much anymore about 17-year-old Girl from the West. I no longer feel comfortable blogging about the details of her life. She’s old enough to tell her own stories.

But I want to tell this story. This weekend that almost-adult daughter of mine who often tests the limits of my love and patience knocked the air out of my lungs. In a good way.

After an eight-year hiatus  she walked on that stage before a full auditorium of her peers, teachers, and parents, and sang solo.  I wept.

She kept the whole thing a secret, telling me only a week ahead of time that she was performing in the high school talent show. Last weekend I took her shopping for something to wear.

“Are you alone or with other people?” I ask as we slide hanger after hanger of dresses across the racks, assessing each one for potential.

“What kind of music are you using?” I prod, as we hold up shoes to the dress under consideration.

“Do we need something glittery and showy or something soft and flowing?” I say with growing annoyance.

She has not answered any of my questions. She won’t. I know it. It occurs to me that this irritating habit has some fairly obvious roots.

It also occurs to me that she didn’t really need my help picking out clothes. She wanted my emotional support.  At least she seemed to heed my advice on what not to wear on stage.

After all, there are high heels and sheath dresses and then are YouTube moments waiting to happen.

She did the same thing to me eight years earlier. Made me cry. Kept me in the dark. Back then an even smaller version of this girl stood on the same stage, this time dressed in the rags of a street urchin, dirt smudged on each cheek, holding a straw broom and singing “Castle on a Cloud” in the local high school production of “Les Miserables.”

No one in our family and friends group that evening could believe the clear, sweet music flowing from this child’s vocal chords. Even though she’d been selected from a district-wide audition, we all had braced ourselves for any possible outcome, from perfect delivery to utter stage fright.

Instead, our then third-grader amazed us all with a strong voice that projected around the theater and as much confidence as the teen cast on stage.

We thought it might be the beginning of something for her. She’s been performing in public in odd ways since she was old enough to realize she could attract an audience. (Imagine a four-year-old in Borders getting up on a window sill and breaking out in song and dance while her mother paid for books.) She’s been a member of all of her school choirs, joined local choral ensembles, is a four-summer veteran of music camp, and toured Europe for a month in 2008 as part of an international choral ensemble exchange student program. She’s done all that but she has not reprised the solo since her stint as young Cosette.

I stopped asking her about solos years ago.

Last weekend, she broke her silence and I was caught crying in a crowded theater. I am not a public crier. I’m not even a private crier. But when your child does something to make you that proud, to make you really notice that she’s come into her own, ready to take on the world, it’s impossible to maintain a poker face.




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