Friday, August 31, 2012


The sky that twinkles. The bite of fall in the air. The people who read, encourage, comment. The way my transplanted hydrangea has shot out new leaves all over the place. The smell of little sweaty feet. The smell of yeast bread rising. The Phillies shirt from a friend that wears like a hug. The wonders of the internet, text-messaging, telephones and easy communication. The kind of difficult communication that makes us stop and think and wonder how we can do better. The kind of silent communication that comes in hugs and glances and a casual patting of my arm or playing with my hair. The health of my family. The answering of prayers. The spaces of light and openness. The consolation of friends. The common experience. The history of a love. The funny things you did when you were younger that make you giggle today when you need to remember that things are fun. The people who will call you and remind you of those things. The buoyancy of life. The hope. The faith. The possibilities. The small excitements that add up to general joy. The pain. The defeat. The opportunity to get up again. The love. Definitely the love. In all of this, love.

Please add more of your own. It will be a river. It has nothing to do with page views, number of comments, good writing, right or wrong, personal or universal. This is a tribute. To life, to gratitude, to connection. Deepest gratitude to Tara who reminded me today of why I really keep blogging.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tangled Date Night: History and Science

Get this, you guys.
The Chief Lou and I were having a romantic evening last night. We really went all out.
We put the kids to bed early and they actually fell asleep when they went to bed.
We slipped into something a little more comfortable (read: flannel pants), turned the lights down, heated up a great big bowl of queso and got the fiesta sized bag of chips, and snuggled up to watch NOVA on PBS.

It was hot.

Very hot.

It was about volcanoes.

Not just any volcano. Mount Saint Helens.

So, if you're roughly my age, images of the explosive eruption of Mount Saint Helens may be burned into your unconscious along with Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. I remember sitting and watching people on the news try to uncover streets, cars, houses, beloved pets that were covered in ash. I remember people being vaporized in the nuclear fallout and singing with Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. I remember images of rescue workers in yellow suits helping deal with the aftermath. I remember mushroom clouds. I remember Plasticine hair and large white teeth. OK, so maybe I was pretty young and it all kind of ran together in my mind. But I do remember when the communists made Mount Saint Helens erupt and all the trickle down ash. Of course, I was living in Vermont at the time, so we were about as far removed from the whole thing as you could get and still be in the US. Those poor foreigners in the State of Washington - not DC where my grandmother lived, but that distant galaxy of Ewok planets where the trees grew so large and there were things like volcanoes. Listen, if you're older than I am and less demented, your memories of the thing may be a little different. But what is that thing people are always saying? That children often see things more clearly than adults do? This is obviously a case of that, so don't be harshing my buzz. Anyway, it was 1981. Anything was possible.

So, as life goes on and you have man-made disasters to confront and store away in the unconscious, these mere volcanic eruptions get pushed aside in favor of other horrors. Like Milli Vanilli and the 2000 election and stuff like that. Until you are snuggled down with your sweetie and suddenly realize that you recognize the footage that they are showing of the surrounding areas. I've been camping near there! With my babies! I've stopped to pee at that exit on the freeway! This is so about my life! So we watched the geologists (they're a wild and photogenic bunch, aren't they?) as they explained all about the lava dome that has grown in the crater and there were a lot of seismograph action shots [I do love a seismograph!], a few thermal computer images and lots of helicopter shots of blowing ash. It was just riveting and here is what I learned:

- Geologists are insane. It is like an extreme profession. I never would have guessed it what with the rocks and the bazillions of years and all that.

- After an eruption, the volcano continues to burble out lava and it hardens in the cooler air and forms a bit of a cork for the volcano. A massive cork made of rock.

- There are pretty much non-stop tremors after an eruption as the volcano continues to burp and clear its throat.

- That sucker erupted again in 2004 and 2007 and NOBODY TOLD ME ABOUT IT! In 2004 I was safely away in the land of Ohio, but in 2007 I was RIGHT HERE. (I told you. This is all about me.)

- Once the volcano settles down some more, it occasionally belches out "spines" of rock the size of sky scrapers, sometimes at a rate of 16 feet an hour. That's not terribly fast if you're driving to the mall, but if you're watching a whole building breaching like a whale out of a volcano crater, that's entirely too fast to be at all comfortable with. All of this is just happening a short way down the freeway from me!

- The insane and photogenic geologists did some really fun things with core samples and newly exposed rock walls and a fancy microscope and explained very patiently to me that Mount Saint Helens is "like a bottle of soda that has gone flat" just as casual as you please. Apparently the belching is from trapped gases and as of late, she's had a Tums and a good dump and is resting quietly now. The relief was palpable in our TV room, let me tell you. Except...

- They have no idea, nor any idea how to predict, how long it will be until those gases build back up again. Cheerful Crazy Geologist Guy just shrugged and pushed up his glasses and said "It could be three hundred years, it could be three years."

In summation: there is a big honkin' rock cork stuck in the champagne bottle of a mountain near me that is being steadily shaken until who knows when it will pop that cork with a mighty vigor and I will die in my bed, or at the very least have to get my carpets cleaned.

Here's the best part though. This is the part that made me cry. In the crater of the  volcano where everything was dead. Dead as a doornail. (Someone please explain this to me, what is a doornail and why is it deader than other things?) It looked like the surface of the moon. All dust and gray and black and ash and igneous rock. Barren and destroyed. Obliterated. Just dead. Except...

Right smack in the middle of the crater was a burst of color. A wild prairie lupine had sprung up amid the destruction. Not just managed to grow, but was thriving. It is a plant that usually grows at higher elevations but there it was, just standing tall and bravely blooming its delicate purple flowers. How did it accomplish such a thing? Crazy Geologist Guy with Ponytail explained it to me. It nourishes itself. It has bacterium that live on its roots that convert something into nitrogen to feed the plant, which in turn grows and photosynthesizes and feeds the bacterium a simple sugar. So there, in the middle of such desolation and complete annihilation, this plant gave itself some sugar and insisted on growing. Not only that, but because this plant decided that it would just, you know, grow, it has helped to pave the way for life to slowly return to the crater and surrounding areas.

Come to think of it, I may just survive a volcanic eruption after all.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Being a Tool

If you sent me to my room and told me to get dressed and I walked out with pants on my head, you would think me either insane or five years old.

If you asked me to dust the blinds and I went in search of a circular saw, you would lock up the tools, myself included.

If you wanted me to make you some tasty guacamole and I reached for the bag of marshmallows to fold into the mashed avocado, you would likely gag and remove me from the kitchen.

I clearly could not be trusted.

These are not difficult things to grasp when one is not insane, nor five years old. There are times, places, tools, ingredients for success. Not name-in-lights-fame-and-fortune success, just simple get-up-and-live success.

How often do I walk around with my figurative pants on my head? How often do I make myself ridiculous by attempting to wear myself wrongside up? How often do I shatter and destroy something that only needs some gentle attention? How often do I serve up something completely unpalatable and expect people to just choke it down? I'm not sure of the exact answers to these questions. That's why I ask them.

We have these tools for living: love, humor, time, talent, loyalty, fear, doubt, sensitivity, drive, ambition, conscience. We have recipes, instruction manuals, purpose and utility. It should be simple. Use the screwdriver to twist things in, to hold them securely. Use the pants to cover up your bum. Use the garlic in just about everything. Use a damp sponge and mild detergent to get out that spot. Use your love to comfort and heal and build. Use your fear to spur you on. Use your conscience to guide your steps. Somehow, though, we sometimes find ourselves sitting on the floor with a potato masher in our hands and wondering why it won't draw a straight line and why there are all of these extra parts lying around. You've covered your love with fear and gotten righteous indignation all stuck in it. You've mortared your bricks of ambition with the grape jelly of doubt and somehow misplaced your talent.

Sometimes it feels like we've constructed these lives out of chicken wire and bubble gum. The wind howls through the holes and you stand up to shut the door and realize you've got your intentions stuck to your shoe and you go to light the fire with a spaghetti noodle and wonder why you feel so tired.

Somehow it holds, though. We muddle through. We choke down the marshmallow guacamole and realize that while it was a textural nightmare, at least the avocados were nice and ripe. My favorite jeans have almost more holes than seat, so when I put them on my head and play the fool, if I turn my head just right, I can see out of them and find my way. Sometimes the shattered places, while essentially unnecessary and uncalled for, let in a different light and some fresh air.

I clearly cannot be trusted, but yet I am. I am again and again and by all kinds of people. It is in this spot of grace where I make my messes, build my rickety structures of hope, I wallow and I bumble and I break. But sometimes, whether by luck or by concentration or by divine intervention, I grasp the hammer and hit the nail on the head. And while I congratulate myself, the people who love me quietly sweep up the debris.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Late Summer Sunset

I'm borrowing a page out of Masked Mom's book tonight and posting something from the notebook. Not literally, this is from my book. I wrote this about two years ago for a friend of mine who was having trouble seeing with the right kind of eyes. 

August 16, 2010

Sunset in the late summer here is like no other place I've been. I lived some places that could conjure some pretty amazing sunsets. The soft, greenish-red of Vermont; the dazzling, glittery high-tech of Hong Kong. I've watched the sun set on four different continents, dozens of countries, countless cities. But here... here it's different. Here, it feels like home.

A clear, sunny day has its own color. The way a cloudless summer sky blue reflects the green of our urban spaces surrounded by mighty trees gives way to the violet mountains, the baby powder volcano, the liquid indigo of sound and lakes and sea. This cool palette is a constant reminder of elements, greater forces at work. It makes our efforts in sticks and bricks and glass seem like childish play.

The mountains recline while the trees whisper and the water giggles and they toss the sunlight around. Allowing us, for now, to sit nestled in their laps and play at technology, progress, before they choose to wipe us clean. I like the feeling of living in borrowed space. The wanderer in me feels at home in a city whose very nature feels transient. I haven't felt this welcome since I lived in pre-1997 Hong Kong.

One of my favorite times of day is when the sun decides to call it a day, pack up and go home for the night. To go put up its feet for a while in Asia while we cool off. It's not the gentle slipping from the sky, the polite and lingering egress I've seen in other places. It's like it suddenly realizes it's been at this party too long - suddenly glances at its watch and realizes "It's nine-o-clock! I should have left hours ago!" and vaults for the Olympics, turning once to flash a dazzling smile across the Sound and it's gone. You're left standing there with your cooling cup of coffee in the rapidly cooling air, feeling the full force and impact of dangling off the northwestern-most corner of the continental United States.

But there are those few minutes... the brief moments between the slight shifts in the light. Like when a momentary hush falls over the party and you sense it is time to go. That few minutes before the sun hops over the mountains that its sleepy light dims a bit and crackles, sending a shower of golden sparkles to settle over all those blues and greens like the iridescence of a peacock's feather. It's a beauty almost too much to take in.

If you look with the right kind of eyes, it's a cad's apology meant just for you. "Hey, sorry about all those days I was supposed to show and didn't. If I could hold you in this light just a little longer, I would. But I gotta run. You understand. Listen, I'll be back soon. Not sure when, but I promise, next time I'm through this way, maybe I'll stop by."

And just like that, before you can protest, give it one last kiss, it hops over the mountains. And before you get the chance to protest or be hurt or question its fidelity, it gives you that wink and special grin over its shoulder, bathing you in its glow. A special light just for you and it's gone.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Redemption of Facebook

Sometimes I get tired of people. Sometimes I scream inside my head and despair. Sometimes I think that we are regressing as a species to some kind of grunting, knuckle dragging, nit-picking (and eating) people. Except in sweat pants.

I don't like to feel like this. I love people. I love the infinite variety of experiences, perspectives, oddities, ambitions. I love the idea of people just walking around doing their things and living inside their heads and loving intensely and being grossed out by things and getting tired, getting excited, getting angry, getting dressed, just living.

But sometimes the cacophony of humanity wears me out and I want them all to go quietly home and stay off the internet. That's usually when I go quietly home and stay off the internet. Those times that I feel like if I see one more picture of a chicken sandwich, one more article about parenting styles, one more grammatical error or misspelling, one more kitten picture, one more Mason jar, I will tip into a specific breed of rampaging madness that frightens children and small animals and is bad for the electronics.

But then...

Let me tell you a story.

I dated a guy my freshman year in college. He was large and handsome, had played football in high school, rode a motorcycle, did things like rock climbing and played sports for fun. In other words, so not my type. He wasn't a particularly bookish fellow but I really liked his motorcycle, so we went on a few dates. He was a nice guy, we were both immature, I was kind of a jerk, he was a jerk back, it ended badly. I ran into him again about three years later and we dated a little more. It ended badly again (not entirely my fault this time) and I haven't spoken to him since. No hard feelings, really. I have maintained over the years that he was really a nice guy, we were just woefully unsuited to each other and kind of idiots for not seeing that... twice.

Yesterday, in the midst of one of my "I am going to blow up the internet" moments, I was just logging off of Facebook when I noticed this guy's last name in a post by a mutual friend. I was sick to discover that My Motorcycle Guy's younger brother had just been in a horrible accident at work. Younger Brother's life was in the balance and prayers fervently requested. I monitored for the rest of the day and was both relieved to hear that he would make it, but crushed to learn that after three emergency surgeries, he would lose his leg four inches above the knee. I messaged our mutual friend and told him to tell Motorcycle hello for me and that I was praying for the whole family.

By yesterday evening, two separate friends had set up websites to raise money for Younger Brother's family. You see, he's self-employed and under-insured and has four small children and he has a long, long road to recovery ahead of him. By this morning, there were hundreds of messages from all over the world on the websites, thousands of dollars have been raised so far. There was an eloquent and moving piece written by Motorcycle about the incident, about his love for his younger brother, his gratitude for all the support, and his faith that they would all get through this. Yeah, I cried.

As I sat and stared in awe at this massive outpouring of love and prayer and financial resources for a person who found himself suddenly in need, I was humbled. So many of the messages to Younger Brother started with "I've never met you, but..." and then went on to chime in their support and encouragement. The words of my Motorcycle Guy - so sincere, so well-written, so thoroughly full of love and respect - brought tears of joy and relief. That he is a good guy, he is out there living his life, being a devoted husband and father and son and brother and living with strength and faith that just shone through his words.

I was humbled and restored. Sometimes I get so tired of people. I get tired of the constant yammering. But then when good people use the tools of social media well, I get to see that my cynicism is unwarranted. I get to witness the swelling of thousands of hearts, the giving of thousands of hands, the pouring out of rivers of encouragement and love. I get a small window into a funny little jagged piece of my past and can put it in its proper place; close that chapter with satisfaction and love. I can feel my own smallness in this ocean of goodness that quietly surrounds us. I can dissolve my petty criticism and despair in this ocean. I can let it buoy me up and fill my ears with its ringing beauty. I can look and see it stretch from horizon to horizon, endless, unspeakably vast, quiet, powerful and certain. I can remember why I love people so much.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I'm squatting over on Kelly's blog, Southern Fried Children, today. She's on vacation, so I wrote about what the jBird wrote about one of our vacations.

Do any of you not read Kelly's blog? You should, if you don't. Prepare to be blown away by wickedly funny storytelling, brute honesty, moving insight and, let's all be honest here, your own jealousy that you can't write like that. Kelly's is a name we will one day see on a table of contents in an anthology or on the cover of a book. There is no way talent like that will go unnoticed. I am completely honored and flabbergasted that Kelly even reads my blog, much less allowed me to guest post in her space. She's one of those gems of the blog world that make it all worthwhile. So go read.

Meanwhile, I will be thinking about the word "squat" and how it's a very funny word. The house next door to my mom had squatters in it, true story. That wasn't very funny, though. OK, it's kind of funny because my mom had no idea she was living next door to a meth lab, she was just annoyed by the junk in their yard. Meth labs aren't funny. What's wrong with you?

Speaking of squat, when traveling abroad in countries that primarily use what is known as a "squat pot" or "squatty potty", thank your lucky stars. It is so much easier than having to hover over a toilet seat. There are some American gas stations that I wish had squatty potties.

"Doodly squat" is a wonderful phrase that should be used a lot more often. As in: "I don't know doodly squat about quantum mechanics."

Squats are one of my favorite exercises. They just seem efficient to me. They hurt like mad, work about eighty-five muscle groups at once and you can also do them at random out in public and people just think you're picking stuff up. Much easier to justify than jumping-jacks.

Squat. What are your other favorite uses of the word "squat"? Why are you even still reading this? Hop on over to Southern Fried Children and check out her squatters. She's also got MOV from mothersofbrothersblog, Tara from Faith in Ambiguity, and Mike from All Things Reasonable... Except the Ones I Forgot. We are not cooking Meth, I promise. But we are telling some stories in Kelly's absence. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beneath the Surface

The Chief Lou has taken a few days off work to help get some things finished around the house. So of course, this morning we went kayaking. And then we stopped on the way home for giant cheeseburgers and garlic fries. So, of course after that, we couldn't possibly go to the hardware store, we had to take a bit of a nap. That's the best way to work off a cheeseburger, according to experts. Cheeseburger experts, that is. I am, of course, a cheeseburger expert. I've eaten cheeseburgers on at least three continents. Word to the wise: do not eat cheeseburgers in China that come from unauthorized cheeseburger dealers. Not worth it. I digress. This is not about cheeseburgers. It is about far more important things than that. That's saying a lot, mind you, coming from me.

As our cheeseburger comas receded late this afternoon, we recharged and balanced with a bounty of summer fruits: nectarines, strawberries, honey dew melon (I digress again, but when I purchased this particular melon, the darling man checking me out suddenly shouted "Honey dew melon! Any honey will do, Melon!" I very nearly kissed him.) Some assorted cheeses: Havarti with dill, double cream Brie, Manchego and buffalo Mozzarella with flat breads and crackers. Fresh pinon coffee from New Mexico, and the waning sun. And then we went and dug up half our yard. This is really what I'm talking about.

Everyone was puttering after dinner in that satisfied, sleepy, summer sunsetty kind of way. I stood with mug in hand, thinking about New Mexico and how I love it so, and surveyed my back yard from the deck. That happy, satisfied, I must dig up that bamboo shoot right now feeling just washed over me. I'll be like Ina Garten, I thought. I'll take my coffee outside with my shovel and talk to an invisible audience about the gastronomic delights of summer while I putter about in the garden in white linen and never break a sweat or get dirty. I will be backlit and hazy and beautiful in the setting sun. And that bamboo shoot in my flower bed is driving me crazy.

The bamboo shoot was about the size of a pencil, maybe a little taller, but certainly no wider. I have new leather work gloves and a shovel recommended by contractors. I have gardening clogs that have a pattern like Monet's Water Lilies. I have a belly full of fruit and cheese and sunshine and delicious desert coffee, how can I go wrong? My first shovel full of dirt came out easily, and maybe the second and third. And then I hit what felt like stone. I dug around a little bit to see if I could get underneath it, but alas, finally had to stoop and pry out the landscaping boulders that have been artfully placed in the flowerbed. Roar. I am so strong, I am mighty, I lift large rocks in my leather gloves and sassy gardening clogs. I am strength personified, one with Mother Nature as I just heave this here stone and slip a little bit and have to stop and hike up my pants and try again and Sweet Baby James, there's a city under my flowerbed!

A complete subway system of thick, hard roots crisscrossed around and disappeared out of sight. You know how they use bamboo for floors and furniture and eating utensils and stuff because it is so hard and durable? Yes. Well. My shovel told me I should get an axe probably. Instead, I got reinforcements. "Um, Lou? Can you come here for a second?" He loves to hear these words, you know. He knows it means I'm up to something and that "a second" could last anywhere from a few minutes to fourteen years. The monkeys love to hear this, too. They know there will be two parents involved in something strange and consuming and they will be able to "help". The Hooligan came screeching out in his underwear and my flip flops, with the jBird hot on his heels, on a mission, demanding "Show me where you need me to dig."

We never got the axe, but we did involve two plastic trowels and tiny claw rakes (Hooligan: "Look, I have badger claws!") some sort of pick-axey, double headed digging tool, a lot of hands, and some serious elbow grease. My annoying bamboo shoot led to three or four others which led to a cluster of other tiny ones which led to "oh, what's that doing over here?" and so on. We dug up about thirty feet of this underground bamboo city from under about a third of our yard. It was better than cheeseburgers, I tell you. To finally dig out enough around the root to get a firm grasp and pull, watching it peel up like giant hairy zipper from the ground, to feel that sweet release as it pulled away, to find another intersection and follow it where it goes. All eight hands and a tiny bulldozer plowing and digging and tugging and reaching and excavating together. Great family times. "Hey, remember that time we stayed up way past our bedtime digging up the yard?" That's wonderful and an after-school special all its own, but that's not what this is about, either.

It's about this: that one, annoying, pencil thin bamboo shoot disturbing my violas. It was beautiful, but out of place. It was this small intrusion on my landscape, sprung up there beside the rocks and through the flowers. I have this settled world; a tidy, small plot of ground I cover. I walk my paces, I paddle along the surface in the sun, I eat my cheeseburgers, bloom occasionally and try to keep the peace. With flippant hubris and a pair of dashing gardening clogs, I had this plan to just remove this one thing out of place. This one, tiny thing. This delicate anomaly which happened to be connected to a vast and ancient network that runs throughout the whole yard, just underneath the surface. In our excavations, we found evidence of previous attempts: great fattened canes which had just been cut down at the ground and covered with mulch. "They moved the headstones, but they didn't move the graves!" Sure, it had prettied the place up a little bit, but didn't remove the problem, and in fact, made it worse by aggravating the plant to grow further roots and spring up elsewhere.

Look beneath the surface, that's where the truth lies. It lies in vast networks, ancient and strong; sometimes with its point of origin so far away, it's unrecognizable. This is my inspiration. I trade my shovels and claws and tiny bulldozers for pen and keyboard, paper and screen and I dig. It's a communal effort, it's hard and sweaty work. I get dirty and blisters on my hands. But this is my goal, with all this scribbling and chittering on the keys, to find the sweet relief of finally getting a handle on that firm root of things and pulling it, like a great hairy zipper from its home. To expose it and uproot it and see how it all connects. To not just trim unsightly things out of view, but to find their source, examine them and try and strike some balance in the landscape of things.

"Um, you? Could you come here a second?"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I Hope I Never...

There was a great big cloud that filled up the Sound and stopped right at the water's edge where we stood in the sunshine.

I hope I never get used to things like that.
I hope it always surprises me how the stones on the beach are worn so smooth and how the tides lay them out like expensive landscaping, only better.
I hope I never grow tired of watching my wee girl drawn to the water as if by magnetic force.
I hope it never stops amazing me how even with a fever, she will be silenced, energized, mesmerized by the surf while she communes, picking around in the seaweed, burying her toes and watching, watching, watching while the tide rolls in.
I hope I never forget that if there are objects near a body of water, my small, burly boy will throw them in, brush his hands with satisfaction and turn to throw some more.
I hope it never ceases to amuse me how he must find the largest rock and try to lift it, how he calculates strange distances behind his eyes and asks me if we can do impossible things.
I hope my breath never stops catching over the mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers and the trees, so invincible and fragile and huge.
I hope I never lose the butterflies that swim in my tummy when we lie down to sleep under the stars and laugh into the night as the fire dies and tell each other the same jokes that no one else would understand.
I hope I am never immune to the dirt between my toes and the smoke in my hair and the magic of fresh, hot coffee in the middle of the forest.
I hope these eyes of mine never stop seeing the endless beauty, the possibility, the minutiae, the bare and open hearts, the magic, the good, the life in all that surrounds me.

The cloud stopped there on the edge of the Sound and we stood in the sunshine and we watched as the waves rolled in, unexpected and broke at our feet. Through a sightless fog, these waves just kept rolling in.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

My Twofold Plea

It's amazing how much one can accomplish when avoiding doing something else.

I have a notebook with a running to-do list that sits on my desk. Whenever I think of something else I want to do sometime, I write it down on this list. I go back later and transfer things to my calendar that are time sensitive and oh, isn't this all very fascinating.

My current list is about three pages long. I got up this morning and got the Hooligan off to Lego camp and came home to write. The jBird has been craving some quiet solitude and it seemed a perfect opportunity for me to get down to business. The coffee was just so, the sun was twinkling in through the skylights, the temperature was neither too warm nor too cold, the dishes were done, all was well in the world. A perfect morning for writing.

So, I checked off an entire page of my to-do list. An entire page. I selected fabric and sewed curtains for the Hooligan's room, I got a garbage can and towel bar for the upstairs bathroom, I completed the next stage of the desk we're building for the jBird's room, I changed and washed sheets, I scrubbed both bathrooms, washed the shower curtains and re-hung them, got us ready for camping tomorrow, I organized two utensil drawers, cleaned out my cake decorating supplies and organized them, I even organized the junk drawer. All of this with time to spare to take the monkeys out for lunch and ice cream and do a little shopping. I am a human dynamo, I am. Because I am so full of crap.

I committed to write an essay for an essay contest. The deadline is September 30, so I have time, but I decided to borrow Deb's deadline of August 25 so I would have time for editing and polishing and agonizing and all that. Also as moral support, you see. I am completely immoral support. It is a maximum 1500 word essay. Guess how many words I have written toward that maximum? None. Not a single word. Nothing at all. Now ask me how many words I've written in emails complaining about it? How many words have I spoken to my husband whining that I can't think of anything? I've exceeded the maximum. And now this dreadful excuse for a blog post. Because I am so full of crap.

I'm not wild about the topic for the essay. A very supportive writer friend of mine told me to "come at it sideways and give it a shank in the side. Whisper poetry in its ear as it dies." I very much would like to do exactly that. But for now, I have bound my head and my writing fingers all up in knots thinking about the topic and distancing myself from it. Usually when I write, I have an idea and think "I shall write about this," and then I let it knock around the dryer a bit, trying this way and that way to express and then usually some other way pops out of nowhere and I sit down to write. It's always different on the paper than it is in my head. I'm usually OK with that. This one, though, whenever I think about it all I hear is "LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"

My plea is twofold. I am not writing this post just to whine. I am now more determined than ever to write this stupid essay and write it well. Here's my twofold plea, writer friends:

Fold 1: Please tell me if this ever happens to you and what are some things you do to alleviate it. It's more than "Oh, I can't think of anything to post on my blog today." This might require a plumber. Please advise any home remedies.

Fold 2: Hold me to this. I will not back down from it. I really want to. I really want to say "Oh, it just wasn't for me." I don't honestly believe that's the case and I don't want to cop out. So, ask me how it's coming, remind me it's almost due. Don't let me make excuses and remind me if I do.

Deal? Deal. I promise not to torture you patient, sweet people with ranting and whining and blow by blow progress reports. I just need to make my commitment public-er so that I will follow through with it. You all indulge me so much. I'm asking for a teensy bit more.

I have very much enjoyed ticking off my to-do list, but the more I tick off, the more ticked off I become because it is all the more glaringly obvious that there is this one large item that I have not even touched.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Too Late?

I had a long and informative conversation with my mother yesterday about her transition into becoming a vegan.

The Chief Lou and I have a summer tradition every four years of watching Olympic gymnastics and crying and cheering and remembering how we both wanted to be Mary Lou Retton when we were kids.

A dear friend of mine took me out to dinner at a new swanky hipster joint where we devoured fresh oysters on the half shell and licked the platter clean.

My mother was diagnosed with diabetes about ten years ago. This woman who raised me has always been conscientious of her diet. She fed us from our huge organic garden, locally raised chickens and milk and dairy products. Our sweets and treats were always homemade from scratch and in our childish dementia, a Hostess Snack Cake was a foreign and exotic delicacy. She did aerobics in the 80s, step in the 90s and does circuit training and yoga in the new millennium. Since being diagnosed with diabetes, she has been continually frustrated with willy-nilly blood sugar levels, despite her best efforts. She has spent the last several years feeling like a failure somehow.

I used to stand in front of the mirror and practice my Mary Lou smile and throwing my arms up over my head triumphantly. I cartwheeled around the basement and begged for gymnastics lessons. I taught myself to do a front handspring and wondered if I was well on my way to the Olympics. The Chief Lou mostly ate Wheaties, so he could enjoy her visage on the front of the orange box. He was clearly the most dedicated of the two of us. Anyone who would eat that much sawdust to be closer to his goal is hard core.

I have eaten lotus root sauteed in plum sauce. I have eaten deep fried scorpions and cicadas. I have eaten sea cucumber, turtle head soup (the cheek meat is the most desirable and considered lucky), beef Tar tare, fresh caviar from the Black Sea. I have eaten the worst green beans ever made at a pot luck. I have eaten foot, crow, my words and dirt on innumerable occasions. Until a few weeks ago, I had never eaten oysters on the half shell.

Bumper sticker wisdom and, more recently, Facebook status commenters would tell us:
"It's never too late." Chirpy words of encouragement that are parroted to folks who reach out in a new endeavor, to prod people who may be hesitating about trying something new, to cheer for people who strike out after their dreams.

Sometimes it is too late. I will never be Mary Lou Retton. I will never compete as an Olympic gymnast. That ship has sailed. Unless they open up an event for doughy, hirsute thirty-seven-year-olds thundering and sweating around the mats, I will not get my gold medal or my Wheaties endorsement deal. Let us not even discuss the coveted spangly leotard.

Sometimes it's late, but not too late. My mom, at age sixty-five, has decided to completely change her lifestyle, to chuck over notions she has held dear for as long as I can remember so that she can feel better, live better, and help out her malfunctioning pancreas. The Chief Lou and I have cried and cheered for her nearly as much as we have for Gabby Douglas this summer. We have marveled at the strength she has shown in eschewing foods she loves and trying to re-adjust her way of thinking so that she might just have this chance to control or even reverse the effects of her illness. Many of her friends have encouraged her not to. Many have told her just to get the 24 hour insulin pump so that she can eat whatever she wants. She, the avowed chocoholic, has refused. Why is she doing this? She told me yesterday, "I just don't want to wait until it's too late."

And me. The not-gymnast. I have tried not to resist ageing in any sort of inappropriate way, but I get overwhelmed sometimes with the feeling of marching time. I am content and have no serious complaints about my life, I've done a lot with my years thus far. I've accomplished things I set out to do and some that I didn't set out to do. But sometimes that dull fog of having seen it, done it sets in. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is a little tattered and worn, a little too familiar.

But then a friend calls you up, takes your arm and says let's go here. She laughs that you've never, and she gets you a seat at the bar with all the cool people. She orders for you and promises greatness. Sometimes you get to grasp that shell and let the ice-cold slippery goodness, drenched in lemon and garlic, slide down your throat and you laugh and lick your fingers and go back in for more. Sometimes you get to taste new flavors, get drunk on only the delicious unexpectedness of it. Sometimes you get to be new and inexperienced again and discover something for the first time. Sometimes you get to realize as you sit back and survey the pile of empty shells that sometimes it is too late, but probably not as often as you might think.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Facing the Music

I'm sure nobody ever does this, but you know how when you stuff the dryer so full of things that all seem to have large metal snaps or buttons? You know how it makes that semi-rhythmic clank, thump, bang, scratch noise? Not quite rhythmic enough to habituate to and tune out, but not quite distressing enough to actually go and do anything about it? Maybe it's just me. Major household appliances and I have very hesitant relationships. We're like the U.S. and China that way. We need each other, depend on each other, but never quite trust each other and find it culturally impossible to see from the other's point of view. I don't want to talk about dryers. Or Sino-American relations, really. That noise, though.

That noise is the closest approximation to what it sounds like most of the time inside my head. There is always a sort of clanking and thumping going on. Sometimes I can go about my business and let it just bang and shudder away in the background and ignore it until the cycle is finished and that loud BUUUUZZZZZZ! echoes all around and lets me know it's time to go write down what I was thinking about or to take care of a certain piece of business, or actively claim a decision I've been working on.

Just like the dryer, I try not to set it to work right before bed, or when it might be left untended and inadvertently set things on fire. I clean out the lint trap according to the manufacturer's instructions.  I try to be as efficient as possible in my use of energy and air dry as much as possible. Sometimes, though, whew. Some days it's just a little too loud. Some days it just thumps and clangs and jumps and seems to never stop. I start to wonder if the heating element is gone and it will never stop. Maybe it has thrown a belt or something. Maybe (and this is the nightmare) it will need to be replaced. Those days I finally throw the door open to make it stop and walk away, but then inevitably I just end up with a pile of damp, mildewy jeans.

I was thinking of this clank-thump-bang phenomenon today as I puttered around my quiet house. It was quiet on the outside anyway, but that Maytag of the mind was working hard to dry what sounded like a load of soggy pygmy goats. I was dreaming up tiny mutton recipes when it hit me. Music. Since we've moved, I haven't set up my stereo. Mostly because it's about ten years old and only half works and we've been discussing replacing it for about five years. I usually attach my iPod to a set of tiny speakers and put them where ever I am, but the speakers met an untimely death involving a Hooligan and a rocking chair and a potty emergency. I don't wear headphones when the kids are home with just me because well, because. The long and the short and the baaa-baaa clank of it is that I have been puttering without music.

Without my friends that live in the speakers who sing and growl and scream and strum and thump their drums or yodel or whatever I feel like listening to, I am stuck with the clamor of my overheated dryer brain stuffed with gravel. When I went to pick up my jBird from her guitar lesson feeling hot and frazzled and unable to express coherent thought, I was met at the door by a wall of sound. Beethoven's 5th on vinyl, blasted through really good speakers. I very nearly wept. It was better than a massage, better than a long nap or a haircut.

It's time for me to face the music. I can't change the way this clunker of a mind works. I can't change this clanking, thumping brain of mine. I can work to use it as efficiently as possible, acknowledge its quirks, take care of it and perform routine maintenance, but I can't trade it in for a new model, and I can't waste a lot of time and energy wishing it were different. It's as inevitable as laundry, it will drive me nuts from time to time. What the guitar teacher and Beethoven reminded me of this week, though, is that I can do like I do on laundry day: turn the music loud and power through the work that needs to be done. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

She Has the Monopoly on Him

The Hooligan saved up some allowance money and was dead set on purchasing (his word, purchasing) the game of Monopoly. I have played a lot of Monopoly over the years. Sometimes with random and far-reaching consequences (another story for another time.) But I had no idea where the Hooligan had even heard of it. We tried to convince him in the store that it might be a little long and a little tricky for him. He's five.

"Um, yeah thanks, no. I will purchase Monopoly."

All-righty then. It seems to me, that's precisely the sort of mentality one needs to succeed at Monopoly. Needless to say, the last several days have concluded with a family Monopoly game. Like all good socialists, I lose every single time I play. The monkeys love this. They hand me one dollar bills out of pity as I mortgage my paltry holdings to try and pay the Luxury Tax.

The jBird is a real estate magnate, always. But she's generous. Can't pay your rent? She'll smile sweetly, give you a hug and then tell you to pay up. She will occasionally trade a property to boost your portfolio if she feels like it would be fairer if you could build some houses. But mostly she toes the line and calmly demands payment.

The Hooligan, on the other hand, is kind of like playing with a mad, drunken trust-fund baby. He howls if he has to go to jail: "I'm rich! I don't have to follow the rules!" He careens around the board buying properties at random and insisting on smelling the money whenever you pay him rent. He doesn't distribute his houses evenly, creating odd financial landmines all over the board. He always lands on "Free Parking", he always wins the beauty contest, his trust fund always matures, it's always his birthday and we always have to pay him $10 apiece. He cackles with glee, stores his money in an untidy heap in front of him and occasionally rolls in it. Can't pay your rent? He hollers "Give me all your money, sucker!" and then does what he calls "The Hooligan Shuffle" - a little song and dance routine that's half soft shoe, half end zone dance. The boy is insane. His stated goal in any game is the same: "I want to build all the hotels!"

Tonight's epic battle found the jBird and me almost immediately sporting barrels with suspenders. "I'm eating out of garbage cans!" she wailed. She is unaccustomed to the poor house as far as Monopoly goes. Meanwhile, the Hooligan was building "all the hotels" along two sides of the board. He hooted and hollered and danced and offered to let me be his servant when I couldn't pay his steep rent. But then it was jBird's turn. She landed on Park Place with a hotel and couldn't scrape together the cash. She made a big show of handing everything over and taking her thimble off the board. She came and giggled with me in the poor house and played assistant banker. She was fine.

The Hooligan, however, was not. His laughter got a little strained and he started wiping furiously at his eyes. His turn took him past "Go" and as he collected another $200, he started crying in earnest.

"I don't want this! I feel so bad!"
"Why do you feel bad? It's just how the game goes."
"Noooo! I feel terrible that jBird lost everything and it's no fun for me to be rich if she doesn't have anything!"
"It's OK, buddy. Look, Mama lost everything, too."
"But I feel so bad for jBird! She's my sister and she's eating out of garbage cans!"

We finally struck a deal with him to assuage the grief. jBird went and played on his "team" so that he could share his wealth with his sister and then he happily carried on completely stomping his father and me into the ground.

My Hooligan is a sweet kid, but he's a bit of a meathead. He never seems to be paying attention when I try to tell him things. He seems to shrug off just about everything. He's a hugger and a headbutter. He's my baby boy and I love him like only a mother could, but he doesn't have the more universal appeal that his sister does. He's not a networker or a people pleaser. He is, however, fiercely loyal to those he deems worthy. That list includes about five people and his sister tops it.

I have feared for years that he may be in the mob. I think these fears are well founded. When he was three he toddled up and asked me for a thousand dollars. When I asked him why he might need the money, he shrugged and said: "I need to go to North Chicago. Business." These fears have grown to include the mental image of visiting him in some strange mansion one day where live sharks swim in a moat around it and giraffes roam freely through the hallways. I have pictured him answering the door in a silk smoking jacket and nothing else, inviting us in for hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. My waking nightmare has swelled to include wild real estate deals made from jail and pants-less dance parties upon his release.

But I can rest a little easier knowing that if even half of my fears do realize, he'll always have his sister's back.

Author's note: I'm supposed to be writing about inspiration this month. I'm not sure anyone will find my Hooligan's antics inspiring, or even interesting, but when your days get long and you are sweating in places you didn't even know existed, you take inspiration where you can get it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

They Bob

They bob.
They wink and wave and smile, fall over and get back up again.
They sputter and shake like puppies, bewildered and offended at a sudden change of events.
But they bob.

They float back to the surface, reaching for the sun.
Their energy.
It's as if they draw it from the flailing of arms and legs.
Like solar powered perpetual motion machines.

They've drunk half the lake by now.
Falling, mouths wide open, laughing.
Bellies full of algae, sand, plankton, small fish?
But they bob.

There have been wild whoops.
The excitement of a few dollars' spending money, some ice cream, a penny on the ground.
There have been squeezed-so-hard-eyes-shut-in-the-effort hugs.
The gratitude of small gestures, the dawning realization of a world so much larger than themselves.
There have been sullen mutterings.
The little indignation of inconvenience required of them.
There have been torrents of tears.
The injuries of person, of heart, of feelings that come from being the smallest in the room, the ones with the least say in things.
There have been shouts, giggles, mad dancing, the maniacal laughter of using that last ounce of energy to just let go.
There have been tiny snores and snuffles in the night, small bodies seeking solace in something familiar, to lie like a spoon and be sheltered, safe in the soft warmth of their origins that they know like breathing, like food.
There have been explosions of every color: mean red, the indigo of loneliness, the violet hues of twilight come too soon, the verdant joy that rolls like hills and breathes life into its surroundings, the firecracker oranges of cackling mirth, the stormy blacks of despair, indecision, exhaustion, frustration, concession.

And still they bob.
These large and messy presences, bound so tightly into small, lean bodies.
These impossibly buoyant little souls of whom much is demanded.
They roll with the changing tides, slip under, stand up, sputter, smile and do it again.
They reach out, grasp each other's wrists and tug.
They tumble, collapsed into a heap of each other and come up fighting.
Fighting for air, for space, for solid footing, for a place in the sun.

Love seems an inadequate word for what happens inside me for them.
They grip my viscera with their grabbing little hands and eyelashes and that tilt of small chins, a wink, a sudden tear or smile. The curves in the backs of their little knees, their strong little shoulders, the moles on each of their cheeks, their breath, those dark and endless eyes.
They grip me and they pull me up, an aching lightness fills me up.
They take me with them.
And they bob.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Unlikely Inspiration

I have had the good fortune over the last few weeks of being really obnoxious and stirring up misunderstandings with several people about whom I care a great deal.

You know how sometimes you're grumpy and you think, "Why is everyone in the whole world so stupid and annoying?!" and then you have a quiet moment to sit and reflect and realize that it can't possibly be everyone in the whole world, so it's probably you? Well, it's been kind of like that.

How can all these people who know I love them take what I say so wrong?! Chances are it's because I'm saying it wrong, or I'm saying things I don't need to, or because I'm running off at the mouth without thinking things all the way through.

I have a host of excuses that come and pat me on the back and cluck their tongues and sympathize with me: You're tired, you poor dear. You didn't really mean that. Everyone has bad days. There were extenuating circumstances. You are a rare and unique snowflake who is frequently misunderstood. You had good intentions. You are only human. And any other number of gentle self-bolstering murmurings. It's not that these things are not true. But what does it matter if my intentions were good when my ill-chosen words (or seriously, complete diatribes) hurt someone else?

You know that feeling of not knowing the snappy comeback and then later you think of all of these marvelously wicked things you could have said? I almost never have that feeling. Not because I am so nice. Because I can almost always think of the snappy comeback. I can flatten someone with words if I feel cornered, insulted, or even just mildly irritated. It is a far worse feeling to have flattened someone than to have stood speechless and blinking. But this is not the sort of thing I'm talking about, really. I don't often get into verbal confrontations like that any more.

No, sadly, I'm talking about the sort of well-reasoned, articulate, contemplated blowing of hot air from atop a self-designed pedestal that deflates people. Not on purpose. But because my purpose was unclear, or because my own ego decided to come and do a little jig in the forefront of my brain, drowning out anything anyone else was saying. Where I allow the part of myself that fears itself and other people to do the talking for me. The kind of thing where I project the nonsense of my own neuroses onto a screen of other people's lives and superimpose my perspective over everything like some kind of grainy, B-grade horror flick. And not the "so bad it's good" kind, not the cult classic. Nope. It's the kind that leaves people groaning and outraged that they've wasted their time with it. The kind that has people looking for their car keys and trying to make a hasty egress halfway through.

You may have spotted up there that I said "good fortune". I was not being sarcastic. This month I am writing about the things that inspire me from day to day. If I am completely honest with myself, a major source of inspiration for me both in life and in writing is to stop and reflect on my own bad behavior. There are things that I struggle with constantly. There are elements of my personality that I detest. I gave up worrying over a less-than-supermodel appearance years ago. When people ask what I would change about myself, I never think of my love handles. I think of my tongue. For every gift, there is a light and a dark side. For everything we do well and naturally, there is an abuse of the talent.

I have been blessed with a certain amount of ability to express myself with words. I can't dance, I don't draw or paint well, I will only ever be a moderate to poor musician, but I can sometimes turn a phrase. I take this for granted. I assume that it comes naturally to other people. It is not usually a difficult or arduous task to sit and think of things to say or write or imagine. I like words, I like to play with them and see what they will do. I live intentionally to try to use those words for building up, drawing closer or describing a common condition. I have my own personalized paving stones in the road to hell in this particular regard. Sometimes, because they flow so easily, because I have practiced commanding them, I get emotionally lazy or careless or just plain arrogant and forget or ignore the effect they can have. Sometimes they tear down, push away, and attempt to define myself outside a certain boundary. This is not a source of pride for me. It is a misuse of ability and really just generally obnoxious and tiresome.

Why is this inspiring to me? Because these brushes with my darker nature, my egregious missteps, these confrontations with the ugly things within me spur me on to do better, to be better, to live better. I compete and contend with these demons every day. It is through this acknowledgement of my own shortcomings that I push myself further to learn how to love better, how to relate better, how to soften the edges and recognize the gaping holes. I'm still learning. Every day I fail at something in one way or another. Sometimes more spectacularly than others. I accept this. I am, after all, only human. But being human does not excuse me from trying to be a better human. This is my inspiration: the gifts of growth, of humbling experiences, the gift of a chance to learn and move onward, upward, outward some more.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


I have been awash, away.
A river of cardboard boxes, paint rollers, memories, plans.
I have been wandering aimlessly crosscurrent, barking my shins on the newness of things.
At some point I picked up my feet and let the current take me where it would.

It has taken me away.
Away from endless words and constructions of small sentence empires.
Away from the interior decoration of my own skull and into the other muscles in my frame.
The ones that scoot and lift and tote and adjust and fold and hang and sweep away the debris of change.

My words have leaked outward into the necessary conversations of conversion to a new locale.
The words to comfort, soothe and share excitement with tiny people overwhelmed.
The words for new things - that bit of hardware that holds a drawer in place, the properties of machines that cut grass, the jargon, syntax, rhythm, grammar of finding a toothbrush, a cherished doll, a clean pair of socks.

I have floated and tossed, awash, away on the strength of will to do this one last thing before I sleep.
My life preservers of ibuprofen, glucosamine, chondroitin, tied together with an Ace bandage to hold in the tiny screams of old injury - they float with me, crashing into the mattress every night to sleep with mouth agape, arms outflung, dreamless and sinking, sinking, sinking like a well-tossed stone.

My life preservers in the daylight hours besides an endless stream of coffee are the crooked smiles and still-small hands that seek comfort in my own, the strong back and quiet patience of a man who rises early, works a day, comes home and works another day again before he gets to sleep beside me.

I have been awash for days, neglecting things that matter for things that matter more.
I have come ashore in a new place, different from where I started, but my senses remember this is a place I've stood so many times before.
I have come ashore with creaking joints and have prized apart my rusted chest of words. It screams and groans with the effort and resists the light of day.
I tire with the effort and make excuses to walk away, to leave it where it sits, to convince myself it does not contain treasure but only silt and slime and small dead fish who lost their way.

I have sat on this stubborn, heavy trunk I carry with me everywhere I go and gazed into the foggy night of acquiescence and there, like beacons in the distance, a steady winking string of lights that flash and catch my eye. These are landmarks I know, they are the presence of a familiar, comforting path, not so far away as it feels.

These are landmarks. These are you. Your words. You continue through the night. Your struggles, preoccupations, triumphs, mundane - they are not mine, but they continue on simultaneous, steady and intermittent, the blips on sonar that show the contours of a shoreline that I've been drifting right beside.
They are you.
Standing there and patiently blinking until I realize I'm not drifting.
I'm tethered not so far from shore.

This is dedicated to the loyal readers and writers who have inexplicably shared this whole writing escapade with me thus far. With special thoughts for Deb at Kicking Corners who is working down to a final deadline and asked for others to share what inspires us along the way. Without a doubt, my inspiration comes from all of you. You who read and share and believe what I sometimes find impossible - that I can do this writing thing. You who write and share and say amazing things in ways that I never even considered before. I love this cacophony of voices more than I can say.