Sarah R. Callender

Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category


In Heath, Parenting on September 7, 2016 at 6:20 am

“The problem with having a mental illness,” I tell my husband, Jeff, “is that it makes me feel a little crazy.”

Jeff is making spaghetti sauce because making spaghetti sauce is one of his spiritual gifts. While he chops and sautés, the kids and I watch MLS soccer and fold laundry because watching soccer is one of my spiritual gifts, and the laundry, well, it needs folding. My son’s folded clothes don’t look much different from the pile I dumped out of the hamper. My daughter’s shirts, pants, and undies are origami.

“You know what I mean?” I say.

Jeff knows exactly why I am bringing up this topic.

“Seriously,” I continue. “How do I know when I’m being crazy crazy vs. normal crazy . . . like how Erica gets a little . . .” my index finger makes circles at the side of my head, “you know, twizzy.”

Erica is one of my best friends from college. She invented the word “twizzy.” She is a most wonderful human being, without whom I would be lost.

I scratch my cheek. “Did I do what I did because I have mental illness or because I’m me?”

Jeff turns to our children. “Hey, kids?”

“Yeah, dad?” my son answers.

“Your mother’s weird.”

“Really, Dad?” my son says. “You’re sure?” At thirteen, he is honing his spiritual gift of sarcasm.

Jeff and I laugh because while Jeff is peace and I am war, while he is slow and I am quick, while he is stoicism and I am passion, we share the same sense of humor, an important thing to share every day. Especially important on those days, years ago, when I thought it might feel very good, very comforting and relieving, like chicken noodle soup or a bubble bath, to drive my minivan into a concrete wall.

I get up off the floor and join Jeff at the stove. “The problem with having a mental illness is sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s the illness and what’s just being human. You know?”

He knows. On the soccer field that afternoon, I flipped out. My daughter’s team was playing the Marauders, a team of little girls who played downright dirty: two-handed shoves to the back, intentional tripping, illegal tackles. And their parents, the trees from which these rough little apples fell, spent most of the first half yelling at the ref and the linesman, questioning calls, questioning fouls, questioning whether the ref could benefit from an eye exam.

At some point in the second half, I erupted. “Hey!” I called over to the Marauder’s parent area, left of the midfield line. “Knock it off! Quit yelling at the ref!”

“Oh, lighten up,” one of the fathers called back to our team’s parents, the right side of midfield. “We know this ref. He knows we’re kidding.”

Our girls don’t know you’re kidding,” I said. “They only hear you yelling at the ref. How about let’s keep it classy!”

Another marauding father chimed in, “Well, someone can’t take a joke.”

I don’t care for it when someone tells me to lighten up, and I can take a joke when that joke is at least ten percent funny. Without considering ramifications, I abandoned my base and strode into enemy territory.

“Who said that?” I asked the cluster of dads, each of whom was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I. “Whoever said that, you need to apologize.”

A guy with a head like an Easter ham mocked me with his grin. “I’m so sorry.”

“That,” I said, forgetting I was speaking to a grown man, “did not sound sincere at all. I’d like a sincere apology.”

From nowhere materialized one of the marauding mothers, a squat lady with flinty eyes. She shoved me hard in the shoulder. These parents, like their daughters, had certain spiritual gifts.

“You need to get back to your team’s end,” the lady said. “Look! The girls are all staring at you.”

When I turned, I saw she was right. Play had stopped. From the opposite side of the field, Jeff was also staring. He had been snapping action photos of the game while I was losing my cool, demanding apologies, and believing I could convince other adults to behave themselves.

“What happened?” he asked, joining me as I returned to our team’s parents, all of whom were dying for a play-by-play of the altercation.

I shook my head. Hot with shame and dizzy with adrenaline, I wasn’t sure.

Now, alongside Jeff at the stove, I start unloading the dishwasher while he chops carrots. When the kids take their folded laundry to their bedrooms, I lower my voice to ask the question I am most worried about. “Did I lose my cool because I have bipolar?”

He pauses. “Maybe. But probably it was because those parents were rude and their girls were shoving our daughter. And sometimes your need for justice overrules your sense of safety.”

When we married nearly eighteen years ago and I stood at the altar and promised in sickness and in health, I pictured a really bad case of strep throat. Perhaps a herniated disk (him) or melanoma (me). I would take care of him and he would take care of me, driving each other to medical appointments or zipping to Safeway for Ibuprofen or 7-Up, for bags of peas to be used as ice packs. Young and healthy, we were eager to start what seemed like a till-death-do-us-part slumber party where we’d maintain DINK status for a while, then have a couple of kids who would exhaust and delight us. We’d raise those children, passing stomach flu and cold viruses back and forth. Maybe—God forbid—head lice. I never imagined mental illness.

Even though I was suicidal at sixteen, foggy and vacant throughout college, on the verge of mental collapse as a 22-year-old high school English teacher, and panic-filled as a mother of two kids under age two, I did not realize I had depression. I just thought I was broken and weird. Stressed and incompetent.

In my thirties, I finally received the diagnosis of depression, and ten years later, a new psychiatrist and I realized the illness was actually Bipolar 2. The diagnosis brought relief. Deep down, I knew my moods could swing: From psychic pain that felt as sticky as pitch, weeks where I was chronically teary, unable to formulate a clear thought, and incapable of doing anything other than focus on surviving the present moment, hoping I’d make it to the next, and the next after that. Then over to the light-bright electric end of my spectrum. During those hypomanic episodes, I sent weird and offensive emails. I wrote numerous blog posts and pages of nonsensical fiction. I believed I was not merely funny but hysterically hilarious.

That’s another problem with having a mental illness: reality gets hijacked. Driving into a concrete wall sounds comforting and relieving. Telling unfunny jokes to people I hardly know makes me the cat’s meow. I am lucky I did not do more harm. Lucky I have the husband I do. Lucky I knew where and how to get help. Lucky I have health insurance.

“I have bipolar,” I told Jeff when I came home after receiving the diagnosis.

“Huh,” he said. “OK.” As if a bipolar diagnosis was no big deal. That’s another of Jeff’s spiritual gifts: he rolls with the shoves. To me though, in the context of our marriage, it was a big deal. I didn’t want to have brought it into our marriage, possibly into the DNA of our children. I didn’t want to be a burden or create burdens for others. I said my vows as an equal. I didn’t want my brain chemistry to turn me into someone who was needier than my partner.

Back in our kitchen, Jeff pulls his roasted San Marzanos from the oven. They fragrance our kitchen as they did our garden on August afternoons.

“What scares you most about the bipolar?” I ask.

I wait. It can take him a while to answer small questions and just about forever to answer big ones. But if I give him forever, his words are always thoughtful, practical and true.

Tonight he doesn’t need much time. “After your last round of depression,” he says, “I realized this isn’t something that’s going to go away. And someday I might need to play a caregiver role in our marriage.”

His words sting. “No you won’t,” I say. “I finally have the right diagnosis. The right meds. I know how to manage it.”

Jeff nods. The baking sheet of tomatoes sizzles in protest, as hot and irritated as I.

But we both know I am stitched together with thread. Not fishing line or steel cables. Just cotton thread, the kind I can tear with my small hands.

“You’re like a superhero,” my friend Erica says. “Someday we’re going to realize that the mentally ill have the best brains of all. And then everyone will want to have a mental illness.”

I love Erica.

I love my husband. Plates of spaghetti and fruit, fresh Parmesan and olive bread with butter balance on our laps. We eat in front of the Sounders game with the kids, plus our puppy and two ancient cats sleeping alongside us. Steam from Jeff’s spaghetti sauce rises into my face, comforting and relieving.

“Hey,” he whispers. “Next time the girls play the Marauders, I’ll block for you.”

I laugh. “No way. I am standing nowhere near them.”

But I do like that image: a justice-seeking mother with bipolar disorder, charging the opponent’s stronghold in her husband’s draft, not broken or needy, just a regular gal with the spiritual gift of surrounding herself with those who keep her safe and sound.


In Parenting on May 8, 2014 at 6:24 am

An Open Letter to the Mother Crow That Attacked My Head Last Spring

Dear Ms. Crow,

Let me start by saying that I hope you and your family have had a blissful year. I am sure you have enjoyed the magnolia and cherry and lilac blossoms in this neighborhood, the neighborhood our two families happen to share. Though I suppose I should ask: Do pastel-hued flower blossoms (lacking the shiny, silvery hue of hair barrettes and orthodontia), hold a crow’s attention? I suppose it could be mere myth that crows are attracted to that which sparkles and glints in sunshine. After all, I was wearing nothing shiny–neither bling, nor barrettes, nor braces–on the day of The Attack.

Speaking of, do you recall the events of that May afternoon? It was 3:20 p.m. on a Thursday. I was hurrying north on 50th, between 68th and 70th, wearing my raspberry-red Eddie Bauer jacket, likely rushed because I am often late to collect my child from school. I remember the next details quite clearly: there you were, black feathers on a black telephone wire, and I smiled, making eye contact. Poor crow, I thought. I bet no one takes the time to smile at you. To really see you. To look past your symbolic-of-death exterior and understand that you, on the inside, are a living creature. Just as I am. 

Unfortunately, thirty seconds after I smiled at you, you attacked my head.

It being late May, I can only assume you were guarding your fledglings. Fine. It was perhaps my imposing height and immense biceps that suggested I was a serious threat. Never mind; that was sarcasm. You, clearly a good mother, simply wanted to protect your children. Plus, I would later learn (in post-Attack crow internet research) that your species views thoughtful, compassionate eye contact as a threat. I had no idea! Please know I was simply trying to brighten your day, not threaten your family.

To make matters worse, I now realize you were just a few weeks postpartum, and while I don’t presume to know anything about crow mothers, if your first weeks of motherhood were anything like my own, I understand why you found yourself attacking the innocent head of another.

You see? We two are not so dissimilar. In fact, other than the black feathers, talons, sharp beak and nasty CAW CAW thing you do that, especially after The Attack, makes my stomach knot up, we are exactly alike.

I, like you, have children whom I would protect to the death.

You don’t believe me? Just a few weeks ago, a little girl made fun of my daughter’s cheek mole. This little girl made a mean-voiced comment about the mole, then went further, commenting on the three hairs that poke from the mole. Worse, she did this in front of several other girls. The moment my daughter mentioned this story to me, I felt my face flush. My jaw tightened. My pulse raced. I had to fight every instinct not to fly over to that twerp’s house and snap her in two.

Why didn’t I? For starters, in the Human World there are laws that prohibit mothers from busting down the door of a little girl and snapping her in two. Plus, her mother scares me. Her mother’s friends scare me too. They all make me feel like I am right back in middle school. Do crows have middle school?

Anyway. There have been numerous other events where I have wanted to take down someone who messed with my child. The school principal. The boy who pushed my daughter off the bleachers. The former-friend who said my child, “was a little freaky.”

I know you understand my desire to protect my child from cruelty, because that’s what you were doing when you flew into my head, thwacking me with your God-only-knows-where-those-feathers-have-been wing.  We mothers love our babies in ways that are neither rational nor fully healthy. And that love, sometimes, makes us attempt (or at least consider) acts of violence.

Mrs. Crow, you are smart enough to read this letter. You are smart enough to make tools that help you do stuff. You are, apparently, smart enough to do science experiments.

crow scientist

Here you are, Sept. ’12, measuring scientific chemicals. I assume these days you work part-time for NASA.

I know you are smart enough to know that I am genuinely remorseful, that I am truly sorry I engaged in pre-Attack eye contact.

I am sorry that I scared you on that day, that somehow you thought I was tall enough to pluck your babies from that 100-foot pine tree. I might steal my friend, Steph’s, French bulldog puppy in the next week or so, but I can assure you, I would never steal a baby crow. Ick. Yuck.

I am sorry for the way I disparaged you, post-Attack, and felt the need to wash my hair three times, scrubbing really hard each time, in order to “get the crow out.”

I hope you can accept my apologies.

I also know you are smart enough to, even one year later, remember my face. Hence the reason for my letter. Soon, your 2014 babies will hatch, and while I no longer feel safe walking my former route to pick up my daughter at school, while I now look down at my feet whenever I hear the screech of you overhead, black-feathered tightrope walkers, I know late May through early June is a time where you might feel, for lack of a better word, a little looneytuney if someone walks in the vicinity of your fledglings.

I propose that we come to a simple understanding: I swear I will not bother your babies if you swear you will not divebomb me or any members of my family, including my mother, whom you have apparently made uncomfortable with your too-close flybys. I assume you see my face in hers, being that your kind is so “good with faces.” See? You are smart enough to engage in Mafia-esque terror tactics, knowing that the best way to get to me is by getting to my loved ones. Donna Crowleone.

But I hope we have a deal. I also hope that we can be, well, not friends per se, but that maybe we can coexist in harmony, two mothers in the same hood, women who respect the other’s passionate love for her children.

Feel free to respond via email or text or carrier pigeon as I eagerly anticipate your response. Regardless, I wish you all the best and trust you will have a lovely Seattle summer with your children. Perhaps I will see you at Zoo Tunes or a Mariners game. If you are not aware, the Mariners are miraculously (at the moment) over .500, and the stadium’s not far from our homes, at least as the crow flies.


A Seattle Mother



In Faith, Parenting on June 13, 2013 at 7:02 am

In March, I put a cup of Safeway Select Mandarin Oranges in Buddy’s lunchbox. Ever since, that same little cup of Safeway Select Mandarin Oranges comes back home in his lunchbox, uneaten. I keep sending it. He keeps bringing it back home.

By now, the orange segments have taken roughly sixty round trips on the school bus. They have attended a field trip to explore the tide pools at Lincoln Park. They have gone over to Buddy’s friends’ houses. Spent hours and hours in his dark (and likely stinky) locker. Been jiggled as Buddy jogs to the bus stop. It’s now more like Safeway Select Mandarin Orange Puree with Some Kind of Frothy Top Layer. The frothiness might suggest fermentation.

Each day after school, I say, “Buddy, you have got to eat the fruit in your lunch!”

Each day he replies, “Mom, I don’t really like those oranges.”

“I know! Eat ’em anyway!”

“OK,” he says, racing outside, carrying the homemade ninja accessories he makes when I’m not looking. “I’ll try!”

“YOU NEED TO TRY HARDER!” I yell at no one.

That’s when I catch a glimpse of a big housefly ramming its stalwart body against the plate glass picture window. It always irritates me when a fly does that over and over and over, as if somehow, if it just keeps trying, it will be able to bust through the glass. I want to redirect it. Gently tell it to knock it off because it is so depressing to see an insect or a mother doing the same stupid thing over and over, always getting the same, frustrating results. Plus, it sounds like it hurts. Thunk–buzz–thunk!–buzzzz–THUNK!–buzz.

So it got me thinking about school lunches and how we can’t control what our kids eat when they are elsewhere. We can only make accessible the ingredients for a semi-healthy lunch (and understand that when Sweetie packs a container of pickles, she’s just giving them to her friend, Madeline), then hope they actually eat the semi-healthy things.

I realized that what we pack in our kids’ lunches is a metaphor for what we (i.e. earnest yet deeply flawed parent-people) try to do each day: fill up our kids’ internal lunch boxes with all sorts of good stuff–love, compassion, gratitude, humility, the ability to laugh at oneself, a decent work ethic, the peace that passes understanding–with the hope that when our kids are out in the world, flying solo, they will use that fuel to thrive and love and do good.

But sometimes our kids are going to ignore the good stuff we’ve placed in and around them. They are going to make dumb choices. They are going to do unkind and impatient things. I know this because I make dumb choices and do unkind and impatient things, even though I am a grownup, even though my parents lovingly stuffed me with all sorts of good things.

But I am the hopeful sort. I am the housefly, body-butting the window over and over. Each day, I have hope that if I keep sending my kid off to school with Good Stuff, then that Good Stuff will be at his fingertips . . . should he decide he’s in the mood to consume it. I just wish he would EAT THOSE PULVERIZED ORANGES SO I WOULD FEEL BETTER.

This seems like a good time to point out that sometimes, when I pack a thermos of hot Chicken and Stars soup in the kids’ lunches, the thermos explodes and Buddy or Sweetie comes home with a backpack that reeks of salty broth, with rubbery pasta stars glued to the homework folder. The lunchbox needs to be soaked and washed, and the kid is limp with hunger.

That’s a bummer. It’s also a metaphor. Sometimes we (earnest yet deeply flawed parent-people) present our kids with things that are, in the end, messy and unhelpful. We hardly ever mean to; we just pass on what we think is a good idea, or we pass on things without thinking much at all. And then, because of steam and pressure and maybe the lid wasn’t on quite right, ka-BOOM!!!! Chicken and Stars everywhere.

This also seems like a good time to mention that sometimes you come across a parent who packs this in her kids’ school lunches.

Bento 1 Bento4


(These were from Parenting magazine’s 20 Easy Bento Box Lunches. They don’t look Easy to me, but maybe I just don’t have the proper tools or carrots or patience).

Looking at these photos, you might think, I have never once made a roaring lion out of my kid’s mac n’ cheese. I’m a failure! Or you might say, “Show me a mom-made lunch with farm animals made out of rice mounds, cheese, and raisins, and I’ll show you a mom with too much time on her hands.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Cool. This mom’s Love Language is Bento Box Lunches! 

J.D. Salinger once said, “All mothers are slightly insane.” I believe that’s true. Insanity just looks different in different mom-people. Sometimes it looks like a mom shouting about mandarin oranges. Other times it looks like a bento box stuffed with carrot tulips and PB&J florettes. We really are all slightly insane.

I think part of the insanity might result from this answerless question: What’s the best way to love my kid (surround him with good and healthy things, both fruit and life skills) and, at the same time, start shoving him out of the nest? How do we parent within that tension?

Remember that scene in James and the Giant Peach, where the massive peach (that had been successfully floating on the sea) was getting munched by hungry sharks? And how Spider spun hundreds of ropey threads, and James and the other creatures lassoed seagulls, and the seagulls lifted the peach and its passengers up into the air?

giant peach

I love the idea of that scene, the idea of a huge, dripping orb of peach being lifted from the salty water. Saved. Rescued. Protected. I like the idea of staying near my kids, in case they need to be saved, rescued, protected.

But it’s good to start snipping a few of those silky threads. To start relieving a few gulls of their peach burden. The Cloud Men are up there, remember? We don’t want to get too high.

I should stop shouting about mandarin oranges and trust the process of parenting. I should snip a few ropey threads, maybe five or six each year, so that Buddy and Sweetie will figure out how to soar safely, with hardly any help from me.

But gosh, isn’t hard not to want to throw our kids into a vat of kale-blueberry-pomegranate-quinoa-Compassion-Humility-Peace-Generosity-Kindness-God and yell, “EAT! Eat it ALL! Clean your plate, kids! Lick your plates clean!”?

I think it is. Nearly impossible, really.

Photos compliments of Parenting magazine and Flickr’s benimnetz.


In Faith, Parenting on December 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm

bird on glass

Beside my writing desk is a large square window. Outside the window grows a sprawling cherry tree. In the bare branches of that cherry tree, birds–robins, nuthatches, house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, wrens, spotted towhees–congregate for whatever bird conferences and forums are necessary in the avian world.

Today a shooting occurred. An elementary school. A town like mine, like yours. Children died alongside the teachers who tried to protect them.

We are nearing the shortest and darkest day, the equinox. But today the sun shines, and as I try to write, I am distracted by the birds outside my window. They flit and dart and swoop from branch to ground and back to branch, enjoying the break in the rain, searching for the bugs and worms offered by the saturated earth.

My parents taught me to appreciate birds, to show them kindness when they arrive, guests in our yard and trees.

I don’t care for crows. They are too much like ravens, the birds Edgar Allan Poe has forever ruined for me. But most others, especially the rounded-bodied ones that would fit perfectly in my cupped hand, are a delight to watch as they confer in the cherry tree. Their bird bones, filled with air rather than weighted marrow, their jerky movements, their fixed stare. Do birds even have eyelids? And how about the way they look at me, at each other, turning their whole head as if they have slept wrongly on their nest pillows, awaking with cricks in their necks.

It is unimaginable, this tragedy. Just as Columbine was. Just as Jonesboro was. Just as West Paducah was. The parents who have not yet been reunited with their children? How do they stand the waiting? Because of course, they know what the waiting means.

I just Googled it: birds have three eyelids. Three! So yes, they do blink, but apparently their eyeballs are capable of very little movement. And, their lack of strong binocular vision means they must turn their head to see something, using only one eye at a time. That explains why they move as if in a neck brace. And, while we’re on the subject, what about bird bones? Does air really fill their bones, or is that a slice of misinformation I chose to believe, a way of explaining how on earth a creature could fly with such grace? Oh sure, I have often thought, if I had air in my bones, I’d soar like that too!

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s the United States saw a sharp increase in gun and gun violence in the schools. By 1993, the United States saw some of the most violent time in school shooting incidences. In 2006-2007, 38 deaths resulted from school shootings in the US. 

Bird Bone Update: According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, flying birds (i.e. not ostriches or penguins) do in fact have hollow bones, but they are dense and heavy, not light like plastic drinking straws as has been thought for thousands of years. Who knew!

The backyard of my childhood was dotted with bird feeders and bird baths. My dad made special trips to the hardware store for the particular birdseed for our yard’s particular native birds. My mom mixed hummingbird nectar, and my sister and I marveled, from the breakfast table, at the blur of wings and the shimmer of iridescent throats.

I appreciate birds (excepting crows) because of my parents.

But there is an unfortunate consequence of the bird conventions that take place outside the window beside my writing desk: once or twice each month, a nuthatch or a wren, a sweet little monocular-visioned fellow with three eyelids and a hollow skeletal system, flies directly into the glass window beside my writing desk. The thud of that feather-covered, air-filled body against glass astounds me.

That exact terrible thud jolts me today from the imaginary word-based world that appears on my computer screen. Oh no, I murmur. Pushing my chair back, I step to the window, reluctant, craning my neck to see the concrete below.

I call my friend, Ann, who has three boys and lives in Connecticut. I leave her a message, crying as I push out rambling words. I call my friend, Steph. I don’t leave a message because one crying message a day is plenty. I don’t call my friend, Schmidtie because she doesn’t need to know this, not now. She’ll call me when she finds out.

From experience I know not every bird that crashes into the glass will fall. Some might realize their tactical error just in time and swerve to avoid the head-on collision; only their wings or a bit of beak will hit the window. Others though, fall stunned to the concrete, a dusty imprint of their feathers left on the glass. But I can see no fallen bird from my place beside my writing desk, from my side of the window.

Much of the time, the traumatized bird manages to fly away, a bit off kilter perhaps, but still airborne, as if nothing has happened. But the seriously concussed birds fall to the steps below the window and lie there, twitching or shuddering a bit, their puffed chests heaving. Some die instantly, their down-covered necks snapped by the collision.

This tragedy, on such a sunny December day, is as unforeseen and stunning as a clean, clear glass window. So we find ourselves saying all the usual clichés: There are no words. This is unthinkable. Why did this happen? Their lives are forever changed.

Because I cannot see the bird from my side of the glass, I shuffle, slipper-footed, to the front door and open it slowly.

The sight in front of me, a small brown bird on cold concrete, is not pleasant. Already, the stunned fellow has lost control of his bowels. Two small circles of shiny white excrement pool beside him. He is breathing still, but the breath comes hard and heavy, and his black eyes are open, staring, blinking even. With one or two or all of his three eyelids.

As much as I want to cover the fellow with something for warmth, I simply whisper to him. I’ll check back, I say. And I do. No longer able to concentrate on my writing, I check on him every ten minutes, wishing I could do more, wishing I knew what was helpful at a time like this.

It is the invisible windows I hate most. Makes me want to wrap my husband, my children, in bubble wrap, then hold the bundle of them tight in my arms. My friend, Schmidtie, believes the things we worry most about will never happen. Therefore, she worries over everything.

When I check on my bird friend this time, the fifth or maybe the sixth time, things have changed. His eyes are still open, but no longer does his chest rise and fall. It’s clear his bird blood circulates no more.

But I can’t bear to clean him up, not right now. I’ll do it before the mail carrier, Mary, arrives with her big black shoes. Before my scampering, alive, safe, unshot children arrive home from school. Before the crows that congregate in murders (of all things!) on our block, gravitate—caw, caw, cawing—toward the death on our front porch. It’s terrible to be so close, just one brick wall away from such fresh death. Death that is still warm.

It’s hard enough to be a kid these days. After today, it’s even harder.

An hour later, when I can no longer ignore the dead bird on our front steps, I do what I saw my mother do when birds collided with the windows of my childhood home: I go to the kitchen for a plastic grocery bag and an old dishtowel, this one green checked, a wedding gift from the decade when my favorite color was green.

Standing at the front door, plastic bag and wedding dishtowel in my hand, I pause to whisper something that could be prayer, could also be eulogy. But when I open the door, I stop. I swear the bird has moved.

Sometimes, I know, I imagine the things I want to happen. Snap-necked birds returning to life. Cancer miracles. Mean people getting kind. My children treating others with compassion and being treated with compassion right back. No more acts of evil on the campus of an elementary school on a sunny December day.

But yes! There it is: movement. His head lifts a little, and I see his body rise and fall as he breathes. My heart quickens and my face flushes. Go little guy, go! I whisper. Live! Live! Live!

I want to clean up the two ponds of white poop. I want to warm him with my faded wedding dishtowel, but instead, I back away, closing the front door, moving to my office where I can pull my writing chair over to the window and watch over him. So I can shoo away anyone or anything that threatens his recovery. Cats. Crows. The FedEx guy delivering presents I have ordered from my children who, today, will come home from school.

Maybe this is why it took me eight years to write my novel: dedicated bird watching.

My friend, Steph, calls me back. She cries as we try to help each other make sense of this, but we can’t find any sense in it.

So what do we do? Gun laws? Mental health support? I don’t know what we’re supposed to do on a day that brings this news.

But when I walk to the grocery store, to get away from my television, the Seattle sun is still bright. Once in the store, an employee asks whether I like the song that’s playing on the stereo. I can’t really hear it, but because his smile is so happy, I say, “Yes. It’s a great song!” And I find myself being especially kind to the woman behind me in line, especially friendly to the employee who rings up my soup. I say hello to a few other people I don’t know, and as I walk home, I realize I do know what we do now: We keep on being kind to one another. We love each other even harder and bigger than we did yesterday, just as we did after Pearl Harbor and Columbine and September 11th.

My parents have taught me about hope and love. My faith affirms these things, and helps me understand that we don’t understand this tragedy because we don’t have to understand evil. We have to DO something about it–please, God, help us figure out what to do about this!–but we don’t have to understand it.

I appreciate birds (excepting crows) because of my parents.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr’s  Swampthing1000.


In Faith, General, Parenting on September 9, 2012 at 8:41 am

Anatomy of the School Emergency Kit

Sweetie, do you know what I dread each September? The assembly of your emergency kit.

I know it seems silly; after all, the contents are simple, basic things I have lying around the house. But maybe, perhaps in the year 2045, you will be a forty-year-old woman with a seven-year-old daughter for whom you have to pack an emergency kit. Then my dear, you will understand how those simple, basic items placed in a labeled Ziplock can take your overly-imaginative brain to terrible places.

Here. Let me show you.

The first item on your school emergency kit list: Juice box/beverage (the school has some emergency water). 

The school has “some emergency water”? Meaning what, exactly? One gallon per kid? One Dixie cup per kid? If the school’s not going to be specific, Sweetie, you get two juice boxes. Drink up. Or, share with a thirsty friend. It’s a scientific fact that generosity will distract you from the earthquake that has just flattened everything but (apparently) your 62-year-old school.

Next? Granola/cereal bar/cracker package/rice cakes. Dried fruit/trail mix raisins.

I slip four granola bars into your Ziplock, going back and forth and finally adding the granola bars with the almonds—a cardinal sin, I know, to bring tree nuts onto campus. But when that tsunami hits Seattle, and I cannot reach you, I want you to have some protein. Sure, I could give you a can of black beans and a can opener and a spork, but a can of black beans–even if it’s organic–will not say I Love You or I Will Get to You As Soon As I Possibly Can like a tree-nut-filled granola bar.

So four granola bars. And a handful of Hershey’s Kisses that needs no explanation or apology.

This year, I will also include a bottle of bright pink nail polish in your emergency kit. Was this the “Small comfort item (optional)” the school had in mind? Likely no.

Will it irritate your teacher? Perhaps.

But obviously, Sweetie, you cannot bring your brother (your favorite comfort item), and the Ziplock bag is too small to fit Phantie, the pink elephant(ie) with whom you have slept every night of your 2465 days.

I figure you and your brave classmates might get bored, sequestered in the classroom for 37 hours after terrorists bomb Seattle. So when inevitable tedium strikes, take turns painting each other’s nails a pink so bright and cheerful that you think of sundresses and sorbet and strawberries, not the reason you are stuck in a classroom with “some” water and your dear teacher who is reading Enemy Pie and The Adventures of Taxi Dog and Freckle Juice by flashlight, wishing he were home, safe, with his wife and daughter.

Pair of socks for hands or feet.

Socks for hands? When you were in preschool, it wasn’t as hard to imagine your little hands wearing a pair of socks after a natural or man-made disaster.

But you are nearly eight, Sweetie, and it’s heartbreaking to picture you, at this age, curled up in the dark, without your Phantie, lying beside your manicured classmates and fearless-on-the-surface teacher, wearing socks on your tender hands.

And let’s be honest. Nine times out of ten you pull a pair of socks on your feet and then wail, “But these don’t feeeeeeel right!” If socks never feel right on your feet, how on earth would socks possibly feel right on your hands?

Still, I add a pair of socks to the Ziplock bag. If all the other kids are wearing socks on their hands, I don’t want you to feel left out.

Which brings me to the tricky one. Note/Photo from home.

You know my friend, Rachel? She refuses to write the annual Emergency Kit Letter. She claims it’s simply too upsetting.

With most things, Rachel is peace and calm personified. Not when it comes to writing an emergency kit letter to her boys, not when she knows she might not be alive when they read it. A letter under those circumstances is a whole different ballgame.

I agree with Rachel. It’s terrible to write that letter. But I don’t want you, Sweetie, to wonder why there was no handwritten note tucked into your Ziplock. Had I been too busy? Too forgetful? Did I accidentally put both your letter and your brother’s letter into his Emergency Kit, just like I sometimes accidentally pack two desserts in your lunchbox or two chocolate milks in his?

A little girl with socks on her hands, listening to her teacher read Judy Blume by flashlight, shouldn’t have to wonder and worry why her note from home is missing.

That said, it’s an impossible note to write. I want to tell you everything will be OK, that I’ll be there in just a couple of minutes, that we’ll go out for ice cream afterward. I want to tell you that the biological warfare that has paralyzed NE Seattle isn’t dangerous enough to keep me from reaching you. I want to tell you that no quake or tsunami can separate us. That the massive meteor miraculously hit that big, already-empty hole in the ground that was going to be a new Trader Joe’s (what luck!), and I’ll be at the school ASAP.

But these might be lies. And I don’t want you to think this after reading my letter: You, Mom, Were So Full of Shit.

After some thought, I write this:

Sweetie. We love you so much! Daddy and I are missing you right now, but we know you are being so brave. Are you painting your fingers and toes with the nail polish? Make sure you paint your friends’ fingernails too. (And no, you do not have to wear the socks on your hands if they will smudge your nail polish.) Oh, we can’t wait to see you! Love and big hugs and kisses!

Mom and Dad 

Next? Small flashlight and Solar blanket (optional).

Do I add them to the Ziplock? You bet. The solar blanket might be handy, should the earth’s rotation slow, causing a dark chill to fall over NE Seattle.

Does a solar blanket require the sun to warm a little girl’s body? Who knows! Will a flashlight only cast eerie shadows in an otherwise darkened classroom? Who cares! Light begets hope. Hope begets warmth, with or without a solar blanket.

Packet of Tissues and Index card with emergency contact information, health needs, etc. Those I add with no problem.

I seal up that Ziplock, write Sweetie Callender, Room 26 on the bag with a Sharpie, and I say a prayer that you will never have to read my letter, carefully crafted with loopholes and almost-lies.

I say a prayer that this Ziplock will come home with you on the last day of school, still holding those almost-expired granola bars and optional solar blanket and tacky nail polish, a color I would never let you wear unless meteors or 9.0 quakes or tsunamis were in the day’s forecast.

I say a prayer that I can use the exact same letter next year. Each year.

Because I agree with Rachel. Some letters are just too hard, just too anxious-making, to rewrite every single September.


In General, Parenting on August 2, 2012 at 6:39 am

Sweetie is 7.7 years old, but for years, she has been an expert at making up games with rules that make no sense, rules that change constantly during the duration of the game, rules that seem, to the rest of us, improbable and inconsistent and highly irritating.

Last week, for example, Buddy was down with a fever. Housebound for two days, Sweetie was not interested in Yahtzee or Sleeping Queens or Sorry or Whunu or Quirkle. She wanted to make up her own game.

“Mom,” Buddy (age 9.2) whispered. “I don’t ever understand her games.”

I patted his leg. “Me neither, Bud. Me neither.”

Meanwhile, he and I could hear Sweetie puttering downstairs, whistling her trademark whistle that she does when she’s most happy.

“It’s a little like Twister!” she called up to us, “but with Pick-upSticks. And some yoga. Buddy, you get to be the spinner.”

Buddy rolled his eyes. “Oh, great.”

What followed (which is exactly what always follows during one of Sweetie’s games) was the most bizarre and difficult and confusing game I’ve played since the last time I played one of Sweetie’s games.

You know how certain things (me in a maxi dress; Husbandio with a perm; Romney in the Oval Office) should never go together? That goes for Twister! and Pick-up Sticks and yoga.

Buddy, even while ill, was able to summon dramatic sighs and moans that mimicked the sighs and moans I was doing in my head.

He flopped on the floor, a look of anguish on his face. “Sweeeeeeetie,” he moaned, “this game doesn’t many annnny sense.”

“Yes it does,” she chirped. “You just need to do what I’m telling you to do. Then it will make sense.”

I’ve been thinking about those words a lot since. And while I’m no shrink, I bet a kid like Sweetie (i.e. a less traditional kid who doesn’t mind butting against societal mores, via hairstyles and fashion, on a daily basis) thrives when for once she can make up the rules. Rules that, sure, seem arbitrary and unnecessary and tedious to others, but that make sense to her.

A few weeks ago, she asked if she could use the green Halloween hair dye and attend Circus Arts Camp with green hair.

“Nope,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Why not?”

She didn’t whine or get upset. She just asked, “Why not?” in a way that made me realize she just wanted to understand why not. And as I thought it over, I didn’t really have a good answer. It was summer. The hair dye was temporary. Green is her favorite color. She was attending Circus Arts camp. There are plenty of Seattle parents who allow their kids to do far weirder things.

I could see why she was standing there, wondering ‘why not’? because I was wondering why not. Why is there some sort of unwritten rule about why a kid who loves color and loves standing out, fashion-wise, can’t have green stripes in her hair?

So I sprayed green stripes in her hair.

The more I think about it, the more Sweetie’s desire to foist her seemingly-weird rules on her parents and brother seem to be a form of payback. Payback for my rules, but also payback for the world’s rules, rules that in her mind, are a hundred times less sensible and logical than any rules she could create.

Why can her brother, age nine, take off his shirt and run around at the park when she, at age seven, is too old to do so?

Why can grownups dye their hair (“boring” colors in her POV) while kids can’t add a little color to their own locks?

Why can some people get married while others can’t?

Why is it OK to have dessert after dinner but not after breakfast?

All good questions. Questions for which I don’t have any good answers other than, “Because I said so.” Or “Because I am your mother.” Or “Because that’s just the way the world is.”

Do I want to teach my children that they have to follow rules even when the rules don’t seem grounded in safety or logic? Yes, part of me does. I don’t really want a kid with green hair. I don’t want Sweetie running around outside topless. I don’t want to send her off to school with a belly full of toast and ice cream. But you see? Those are all my issues, not Sweetie’s.

So while I am doing downward dog, with right foot on red and left hand on blue, waiting for Buddy to “spin” the Pick-up Sticks and do some sort of mathematical calculation that only Sweetie knows how to do, in order for me to know where to put my left foot and right hand, I am thinking that Sweetie is basking in the knowledge that for once, she gets to be in charge of the rules.

And that must feel pretty good.

Photograph courtesy of Flickrs’ Wrote.


In Parenting on June 10, 2012 at 7:38 pm

When I was pregnant, other mothers promised the following would magically occur after the birth of my child:

1. I would want to stay up all night, staring at my sleeping, sweet-faced child.

2. I would be able to recognize my child’s cries from a sea of also-crying children.

3. I would miss my children terribly when they weren’t within arm’s reach.

4. I would absolutely love being a mom.

None of that happened.

When other mothers promise that certain things will happen automatically, and then those things don’t happen automatically, it makes a gal feel like a totally inept mother. Inept and abnormal.

A mother who couldn’t recognize her own child’s cry? Certainly Buddy, in his colicky first six months, gave me plenty of opportunity to hear his cry.

A mother who didn’t need to stare at her beautiful sleeping baby? Yeppers. When the babe was asleep, I wanted to be asleep OR I wanted to be writing. Or eating some form of cheese on some form of cheese vehicle. Or surfing, putting things in my shopping bag and then forgetting I had put them there.

It also took me a while to admit that some days, I simply didn’t love being the mother of babies . . . or toddlers . . . nor did I love Sweetie’s Helen Keller phase. I make a lousy Annie Sullivan.

And yet, there has never been a question, not one single doubt, that there’s anything weak about the Love I feel for Buddy and Sweetie.

The love just doesn’t look or feel like how I expected.

It’s a hard thing to articulate, a mother’s love, in ways that don’t sound cliché and sappy. It’s also hard to assign words to something that’s simultaneously basic and complex.

In some ways, the love I feel for Buddy and Sweetie is as solid and natural as the pit of a stone fruit. But it’s also like the pearl that sits on the meat of an oyster. It’s like a Rubix cube or a many-faceted gemstone. It’s also like a pile of dirt. Some days the love feels like bricks. Other days, like bubbles.

Other than that, I have a hard time explaining what I feel for my children. It must be some base animal instinct, some biological reaction, that mothers almost always love their children without question or reason.

But I had been promised (and therefore I expected) that if I loved my children, I would love the role of mother. So I worried I was not meant to be a mother. Or, that I was not one of those natural mothers.

Of course, not all innate, “natural” maternal actions and reactions are examples of good parenting.

When I was in kindergarten, our family took home the class gerbil. During the vacation, this particular gerbil decided to give birth to three or four pink, hairless babies.

She then proceeded to eat them.

In hindsight, these babies were likely stillborn, in which case this could have been an example of a mother’s grief. Or her desire to tidy up the place a bit. Animals, as we know, do some pretty violent, unsophisticated stuff sometimes. They can’t help it.

But recently I’ve noticed there’s something rather violent and unsophisticated, even animal-ish, about the way I love Buddy and Sweetie.

Which isn’t what I was expecting.

A few months ago, Husbandio and I noticed a weird-looking mole on Buddy’s upper arm. The dermatologist agreed it was weird-looking, that it might be something that was once called “juvenile melanoma.”

Excuse me?

“They don’t call it ‘juvenile melanoma’ anymore,” she explained. “Apparently the word ‘melanoma’ frightened too many parents.”

“Take it out,” I said. “He doesn’t have baseball until Saturday or viola until Monday. Take it out. Now. Please.”

No stranger to the removal of weird moles, I moved to the chair where Buddy was reclining. I held his hand as they cleaned his arm and injected the lidocaine, and I began watching the “punch” excision.

Here I must pause to explain that I genuinely enjoy watching medical procedures. I like watching my own, and I like watching the procedures of others. I don’t get woozy or wiggy or grossed out. I just think bodies are pretty cool.

But apparently, I don’t think it’s cool to watch someone take a piece of my son.

Holding Buddy’s hand, I started to feel dizzy and sick and lightheaded. He was fine, but my face must have lost all color because the dermie forced me to sit down.

Even weirder: I kind of wanted to punch that dermatologist in the face. NO ONE takes a tiny chunk of my son. No one.

See? That’s a violent and irrational response. The response of a gerbil.

Then, just this week, I was watching Buddy’s baseball game when a parent carried over a sobbing Sweetie, explaining that a boy had pushed Sweetie off a concrete thing. YET AGAIN I had not recognized the sound of her crying. Another mother had to rescue her.

Holding her tight while she cried, I surveyed the damage. Sweetie’s shin was already bruising under a scrape of raw skin.

“Who did this?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm.  “And do you want me to go talk to him?”

Sweetie nodded, sitting up and wiping her eyes.

“Good,” I said. “Let’s roll.”

When the mother-witness pointed out two boys making their way to the other side of the field, I literally sprinted after them, taking the shortcut (running through center field), hot on the trail of these punk, middle school-aged bullies.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Hey you! Why’d you push my daughter? Huh? Why’d you push her?!?!”

Turning to me, the thugs proceeded to make up some story about “not even being over near your daughter,” during which Sweetie caught up to me.

“Mommy,” she said, tugging my hand. “You chased the wrong boys.”

After I apologized profusely, I chased down the right thug, only to realize he was the child of a super-nice mother I know from the gym.

I looked down at Sweetie. “Um . . . I know that kid’s mom. Do we still need to talk to him?”

When Sweetie nodded, I took a deep breath and, in my explanation of the crime and the resulting injury, I proceeded to make this little boy cry. I came on too strong. I was far more aggressive than necessary. As a result, I felt obliged to track down this nice-mother’s email so I could send her an apology for my crazy mama bear antics.

See? I’m only a few brain cells more sophisticated that than poor mama gerbil.

And yet, I’m glad I want to protect my daughter from thugs. I’m glad I want to punch someone who’s cutting up my son. It means I am a natural mother after all.

But it’s taken me a while–years–to feel like a natural mom. We have these certain expectations, and if they aren’t met, we can feel like failures. Our expectations cause us to criticize and condemn ourselves and other mothers who make different family or parenting choices.

In this Huffington Post article, Elisabeth Badinter makes this statement: “Nature knows only one way to be a mother.”

That’s true. The mama gerbil didn’t pause to consider her various grieving options. She just started eating her babies. But, Badinter goes on to explain, we human mothers have choices and options.

[Women are] endowed with consciousness, personal histories, desires and differing ambitions. What some do well and with pleasure, others do badly or out of duty. By failing to take account of women’s diversity, by imposing a single ideal of motherhood, by pursuing the notion of a perfect mother — one who has the exclusive responsibility of making or breaking her children — we fall into a trap.

I once had a friend tell me that the birthing choices we make–whether to give birth with or without an epidural, in a hospital or birthing center or at home, with a midwife or with an OB–“says a lot about who we are as mothers.”

This friend  chose to have a “natural” childbirth, whereas I had recently given birth to my second child, in a hospital, after a visit from Dr. Feelgood, the deliverer of epidurals. I felt slapped in the face, and her meanness, the way she judged the way I chose to welcome my children into the world, is still painful.

So how about this. Instead of focusing on whether we (or others) are meeting our own (or society’s) fixed and limited expectations, let’s focus on how we show our love, our encouragement, our dedication to our children.

If you are someone who does love every moment of motherhood, please don’t think I’m a monster.

Likewise, if you want to nurse your preschooler on the cover of TIME? Rock on. If you want to return to work two weeks after the birth of the babe? God bless you, sister. If you want to homeschool or send your kid to boarding school or enroll in the Waldorf School down the street? Great!

The different choices we make as mothers does not usually reflect the amount of love we feel for our children, and that’s the important thing, Love. The unimportant thing is those terrible expectations that society foists upon us.

So please, if you happen to hear one of my kids crying and I don’t notice, will you come get me? Chances are, I won’t have heard him or her.

Also, if you see me sprinting somewhere, in hot pursuit of a four-foot thug, please ask me if I’m sure I’m chasing the right guy. Chances are, I’m probably not.



In General, Parenting on April 9, 2012 at 7:07 am

The other day, Sweetie came downstairs wearing a rainbow-striped sweater, a many-colored floral dress, rainbow leggings, intentionally mismatched socks, and a hairstyle that involved six different accessories, including a piece of rainbow yarn for gift wrapping and another big poofy rainbow bow. The girl likes her rainbows.

What I thought upon seeing her: Please God, let kids not make fun of her today.

What I forced myself to say: “Wowww. You sure have a LOT of color in your outfit and a LOT of very interesting things going on in your hairstyle. You, Sweetie-girl, are definitely going to add some color to this gray day!”

I paused, watching her look down through her green and purple glasses, so pleased and proud of her unorthodox outfit. And while I still am not sure whether I should have said this next thing, I couldn’t help it.

“There is,” I said, “a small-to-medium chance that a kid might say something like, ‘Why are you wearing your hair all weird like that?’ Or ‘That outfit is craaaazy!'”

She gave me a look of exasperation. “But Mommy, I WANT kids to say that.” Then she twirled her way out of my office, right into the bathroom, where she smiled at her beautiful reflection in the  bathroom mirror.

My momentary anxiety over Sweetie’s unorthodox style (a style which has been unorthodox for years) made me think about the things we wish most for our children.

I’m pretty sure that at the heart of our hopes and wishes is this: we want our kids to be normal. To fit in socially, emotionally and physically. To be at peace with who they are, yes, but never stray too far from the norm. We want our kids to be special and unique but not weird.

No one wants a weird kid.

The reason for that is obvious. When you march to the beat of a different drummer, other people notice your rhythmic differences, often with irritation. A bunch of unique rhythms, even one unique rhythm, tends to threaten the whole song.

To be honest, I’d feel a whole lot better with Buddy and Sweetie taking well-traveled I-90 across the country than I would with them forging their own less-traveled roads. The untraveled road is bumpy and unpaved. Deep ruts and potholes can really do a number on one’s tires.  Boogeymen and Whomping Willows and moral eels abound on roads less traveled.

This Guy Was Last Seen on a Road Less Traveled near Spokane, WA

On the roads more traveled, there’s a Starbucks and a McDonald’s every few miles. The pavement is mostly even. Friendly police patrol the area, monitoring reckless driving, helping when there’s car trouble. Gas stations and rest stops with hot coffee line well-traveled roads. There’s not a moral eel for miles.

Moral Eels Terrify Me, but for Some Reason, I Love Putting Them in My Blog Posts.

I have a friend who assumes her young son is gay. “That’s fine with us,” she says. “We don’t have any problem with that.” She’s 100% sincere when she says that. But then she continues. “It’s just that being gay means life will be harder for him. That’s what’s hard.”


Same goes for kids who are transgendered. Kids with Asperger’s or Tourette’s or birthmarks on their face. Kids who are super intelligent or super tall or super unathletic. Life is harder for kids who aren’t physically or socially or intellectually normal.

But what is “normal” and why do we care so much about it?

A recent NY Times article titled “Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?” discussed the plight of Tracee Sioux, the mother of a young girl who had started developing early, getting pubic hair at age six, followed by breast buds and woman curves. The article explains:

Over the past three years, [mother] Tracee had taken [daughter] Ainsley to see several doctors. They ordered blood tests and bone-age X-rays and turned up nothing unusual. “The doctors always come back with these blank looks on their faces, and then they start redefining what normal is,” Tracee said . . . “And I always just sit there thinking, What are you talking about, normal? Who gets pubic hair in first grade?”

In this case, Tracee’s concern with “normal” is rational. She wants to know if something medical or environmental has caused her daughter’s precocious puberty. I can understand that. Tracee also worries about her daughter’s self esteem, her daughter’s discomfort with developing so early. I can understand that, too.

Sometimes, when our children are clearly are not normal, getting a label of “Yep, your kid is just fine!” is utterly frustrating. When a medical professional tells Tracee her daughter is “normal,” he is really saying Tracee should not worry, that she’s being neurotic and alarmist.

So yes. There is a time and place for the concept of normal, for the boundaries of what is and what is not normal. But I think we humans can rely too heavily and seek too much comfort from a hard and fast definition of what is normal. After all, we like labels. Labels are comforting in the same way fences, walls, security systems, country clubs and private schools are comforting. But why?

An article in Psychology Today titled “Why We Fear the Unknown” explains:

The drive to completely and quickly divide the world into “us” and “them” is so powerful that it must surely come from some deep-seated need. The exact identity of that need, however, has been subject to debate. The late Henri Tajfel, of the University of Bristol in England, and John Turner, of the Australian National University, devised a theory to explain the psychology behind a range of prejudices and biases, not just xenophobia. Their theory was based, in part, on the desire to think highly of oneself. One way to lift your self-esteem is to be part of a distinctive group, like a winning team; another is to play up the qualities of your own group and denigrate the attributes of others so that you feel your group is better.

So labeling may be a natural reaction when we come across those who seem not like us. We’re likely not even aware that we do it. But perhaps we should start being more aware of the things of which we are not aware. After all, when we slap a quick label on someone, we immediately limit what we think they have to offer the world.

When Buddy opted to switch to another school in the district, other moms were not shy about sharing their concerns with our decision to let Buddy make his decision.

You’re going to let Buddy go to a school with a bunch of intellectual weirdos?

You’re going to let Buddy go to a school where kids have no social skills?

I wouldn’t want my child going to a school where all the kids just play chess and talk about chemistry!

That’s a whole lot of fear and discomfort going on there. Not from his peers, but from his peers’ parents. Kids aren’t nearly as adept as labeling and judging those who are different as adults. Interesting, no?

The other day, I dropped Sweetie off in her classroom to see that in her teacher’s place was a substitute teacher. The sub had long hair and breasts and feminine clothes. But her voice was Barry White-ish, and her face and hands were masculine. Along her chin was faint stubble. She walked like a linebacker, her broad shoulders thick and muscled.

My first (unkind, judgmental) thought: Jeepers!

My second thought:  Bless your heart. Your life is about infinity times harder than mine.

I also wondered whether Sweetie would notice the blurred lines of this teacher’s gender.

So that afternoon, when Sweetie and a pal were having an afternoon snack at our house, I casually asked. “So how was the sub today?”

“Not so good,” Sweetie said immediately. “She didn’t really know what to do. And Mary kept telling him–I mean, her–how to do stuff. Because she didn’t really know what to do.”

“Yeah!” Sweetie’s friend chimed in. “And she talked like a man!”

Sweetie agreed. “Her voice was verrrrrrrry low.”

So yes, the girls noticed some gender blurring, but there was no judgment. Judgment of her sub skills, yes, but not in the fact that she looked like a woman yet had the voice and the posture of a man. Kids notice difference, but there’s often little judgment and certainly no discomfort.

Maybe we should be more kid-like in this way. After all, when we avoid anyone who is different, might that be our loss? I’m not suggesting that I’d suddenly like to hang with Ann Coulter or a mom who home schools her nine children. I’m not saying you should should invite a schizophrenic homeless gentleman over for dinner. I’m just saying that maybe people who are different shouldn’t be labeled as oddball nut-jobs.  (Even though it is very difficult for me to think of Ann Coulter as anything other than a nut-job.) As difficult as it is, maybe we should be better about recognizing that each human, however weird or unorthodox, has something valuable to share.

In this article, “The Upside of Autism,” the author makes this point:

When it comes to disorders of the mind, our society has a tendency to seek out the safety of clear-cut categories. We want there to be a bright line separating normal from abnormal, health from sickness.

Alas, the human brain is a category buster, an organ so complicated that it continues to surprise and confound.

Consider autism. In recent years, autism has received an increasing amount of attention, largely because of a dramatic increase in its incidence. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, which include “classic” autism as well as Asperger syndrome.

These diagnoses are often based on observed deficits in social interaction, such as a lack of eye contact or verbal conversation . . . Because of these obvious shortcomings—humans are supposed to be social animals, after all—most people regard autism as a disease, a straightforward example of an impaired mind.

Yes, we are supposed to be social animals. Therefore we value other social animals. Therefore someone who seems anti-social or socially awkward is labeled as weird or different or abnormal. The article goes on:

But there’s compelling evidence that autism is not merely a list of deficits. Rather, it represents an alternate way of making sense of the world, a cognitive difference that, in many instances, comes with unexpected benefits.

An alternate way of making sense of the world. How refreshing! Shouldn’t we, a nation born of a desire to be free and to have freedoms not afforded in other places, celebrate new ways of making sense of the world?

Or, do we really mean this: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. UNLESS they are weird. Or mentally ill. Or have an autism diagnosis. Or make art that makes no sense to me. Or prefer to wear a thousand rainbow patterns and mismatched socks.

Many artists and composers and writers struggle with mental health issues, but the world would certainly be less colorful without Van Gogh’s Starry Night, without Abe Lincoln’s Four Score and Seven Years Ago speech, without Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. All works created by people with oddball brains.

So today, on yet another gray Seattle morning, I say this:

Give me your mentally ill artists and writers and musicians, your rainbow-clad, crazy hairstyled children, your transgendered substitute teachers, your Aspergery inventors. Send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed to us. For it’s they who add color and music and ideas to our broken, messy planet.

The least I can do, the best way to thank them, is to show my compassion and encouragement in return.

Scary moray eel photos courtesy of Flickr’s Intova and Kumukulanui.


In Body Stuff, General, Parenting on March 22, 2012 at 6:52 am

A Persuasive Essay, in Which Sarah (who is not a sex educator) Explains Why You Might Want To Be Discussing the Birds and the Bees with Your Children

Our family did The Sex Talk when the kiddos hit kindergarten. This was, I admit, mostly to avoid my own embarrassment. I figured if the kids were too young to know they should be mortified by the conversation, I wouldn’t be so mortified.

But our desire to introduce the topic sooner rather than later was also based on two other facts:

First, Sex is confusing.

For this I blame Ancient Greece. Sure, the Greeks may be the co-founders of modern civilization, but one only has to look at birth stories from Greek Mythology to understand why we might be confused about birds and bees today.

Athena, for example, spent most of her gestation and childhood in Zeus’ skull. When Hephaestus, a blacksmith, took a wedge and split open Zeus’ head, out popped a full-grown Athena, all dressed in armor (complete with javelin and flouncy skirt).

Equally interesting and violent, Aphrodite was born from the sea-foam that rose up from her father’s castrated genitals. Oy!

Dionysus was born from Zeus’ thigh. (Which explains why we never hear that Zeus “peed just a little” during post-partum jumping jacks.)

And Helen of Troy was born (hatched, technically) after Zeus turned himself into a swan and impregnated Leda, Helen’s mother.  Why a swan? you may ask. I suppose Zeus might have asked, Why not a swan?

We also need to give our kids the skinny on sex because of the omnipresence of sexual language and imagery. Our kids will be exposed to it even if we’re vigilant and concerned and involved. Even if we monitor screen time. Even if we home-school them. Call me crazy, but I prefer that my kids learn stuff from me rather than from one of those super-classy Go Daddy ads or from the news headlines detailing the sexcapades of elected officials or, worst of all, from some sicko trolling for kids via the internet.

Two books we started reading to the kids (when Buddy hit kindergarten) were Amazing You! And What’s the Big Secret?. I’d recommend both as good jumping off points; the cartoon illustrations are appealing to kids, and the text is honest and direct.

I will say that in What’s the Big Secret, there’s a page on masturbation that (according to the negative Amazon reviews) tends to disturb at least seven parents in the United States. One negative reviewer was also appalled by the use of the words “vulva” and “scrotum” in this particular book. I suppose she was hoping for “hoochie” and “balls”?

God bless America.

I will also say that the first few times, I skipped right over the page that explained what goes where during sex. At least until Buddy realized that unless sperm had wings or ninja powers, the transfer from the guy’s penis all the way over to the woman’s egg seemed unlikely.

Buddy started jabbing the tips of his index fingers together, asking, “But how does the sperm get to the egg?”

So I swallowed, then forced myself to tell him the truth. “The penis just gets really really close to the vagina.” I paused. “Actually, it goes inside the vagina.”

He nodded. “Oh,” he said. “OK.”

“Buddy? Do you want me to keep reading, or does this make you feel a little uncomfortable?”

A very long pause. “It does makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but I want you to keep reading.”

Now, three years later, I am extra glad we’ve already broached the topic, as at age nine, Buddy has reached the mortified stage.  A few weeks ago, Sweetie told us (over post-church Sunday dinner) that so-and-so in her class was saying the f-word.

“Oh,” I said. “What’s the f-word?”

“Fuck,” she said, her little voice as clear as a bell.

It hurt my ears a little, but I was also relieved that she seemed to believe this boy had exposed her to the f-word. As opposed to her mother. Who has been known to use it on occasion.

“That’s right,” I said. “That’s the f-word. Do you know what it means?”

Buddy and Sweetie shook their heads.

I glanced at Husbandio who gave me the green light to take this conversation to the finish line. “Well,” I said. “It’s a not very nice way of saying “having sex.”

Well, as soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, Buddy picked up his milk, chugged it, then stood up and hurried his dinner plate to the kitchen counter, his fair skin blushing pink. “May I please be excused?”

Without waiting for us to answer, he hurried away. It seems the topic still makes him feel a little uncomfortable, only now he does NOT want to hear more.

Yet The Talk needs to keep evolving and changing as our kids get older.

Throughout history, if kids got The Talk at all, it was really just a single talk. One terribly embarrassing conversation, after which parents could put away the copy of Where Did I Come From, breathing a sigh of relief that THAT duty could be crossed off the list.

But Seattle-based sex education experts Amy LangJulie Metzger and Jo Langford believe The Talks should keep happening as the kids mature. Even if our kids aren’t asking. In Lang’s article titled, “The Three Biggest Myths Even Smart Moms Believe That Get in the Way of The Sex Talks,” the Number One biggest myth is that parents don’t need to have the conversation if kids aren’t asking about sex.

Our kids may not be asking us about sex, but they are likely talking about it with their peers. And even if they’re not talking about it with their peers, they are still seeing sexual imagery and hearing sexual language.

Think about it: Thanks to technology, an elected politician can take a photo of his penis and email it to a special friend! Or several special friends! And then the whole world is privy to these indiscretions.

It is difficult to avoid coverage of Weiner’s wiener or Limbaugh’s misogynistic idiocy that likens women to porn stars and prostitutes. It’s even more difficult to watch a simple football game on television without seeing sexual imagery.

Go Daddy ads, for example, are trashy and stupid, but man, do my kids’ ears perk up during those 30-second spots. I suppose when you have two hot women painting the body of another hot, faceless woman who just happens to be naked, that grabs a person’s attention.

And what about Victoria’s Secret ads? According to Macmillan’s Online Dictionary, soft porn is described as “films, magazines, photographs, etc. that show sexual images but not sexual acts.” Don’t those angel-filled ads qualify as soft porn? I think so. Perhaps it’s the erotic noises in the background music. Or the way the model is lying across the back of a white horse. Or the way she’s touching her lips with her fingertips. Or maybe it’s just the perfect breasts everywhere. And there’s always lots of wind blowing. Have you noticed? Are we women sexier in a strong wind? Here. This one has the music and the wind and the perfect breasts.

And speaking of perfect breasts, let’s chat for a moment about the difference between pornography of the 1980’s vs. pornography today. Thanks to technology, more breasts can be “perfect,” either by surgery or by airbrushing. Also thanks to technology, porn is available on any computer, AND it’s available in Hi-Def video form. Gone are the days of still-shot photos. Now kids can get their sex education and learn what women really like via porn videos.

The topic of pornography is a larger one for another time, but let’s just consider this: if children are watching porn videos on the internet (and we are naive if we think they aren’t!) they will believe that’s how sex works. No need for relationships, no need for small talk or meaningful conversation or a getting-to-know-you period of courtship. No sir. Give the guy a bit of chicka-baobao background music, and the clothes just fall right off.

That’s a myth that disturbs me a whole lot more than castrated genitals.

I’m certainly no expert, but I’d prefer that Buddy and Sweetie learn from me, not from the internet, not from the mythical worlds of Victoria’s Secret fantasies. Not from kids on the school bus or the playground. Certainly not from Danica Patrick who, in my opinion, really blew her chance at being an excellent role model to girls. But that’s an entirely separate topic.

It’s a myth that educating kids about sexual matters turns them into sex-crazed creatures. It’s a myth that reading the page about masturbation turns kiddos into mega-masturbators. But it’s no myth that too many of us American parents are surprisingly prudish and squeamish when it comes to talking about sex.

Teaching kids about sexual matters (including safety and responsibility) increases the chances that they will turn into responsible, respectful teenagers who grow into responsible, respectful adults.

And it’s a fact that our modern civilization could use a few more of those.


In General, Parenting on February 5, 2012 at 8:00 am

I never thought I’d have a crybaby for a son. I thought I might have a redheaded son. A son who loved to read. A son who adored musicals and the Mariners. A son who laughed when I used my Julia Child voice to narrate my dinner-making. But crying? Why would I have a crybaby, especially a crybaby son?

As a new mom, I figured it was just the colic. And the acid reflux. As a wee, flop-headed newborn, Buddy was the hard-bodied king of crying, his belly a taut six-pack from hours of core-tightening hysteria. He’d cry throughout the day, then cry throughout the night. To the point where, in the early months, I almost stopped hearing it. Maybe like how people living in Carmel or Santa Barbara eventually stop hearing the ocean.

Except for those times when I did still hear it, those middle-night times, when the sheer sound of Buddy’s inconsolability shredded my already-feeble sanity. And I would lay my red-faced, swaddled raison d’être on the couch, whisper-yelling, “Please shut up! Just please shut up!” as I hovered over him, my face inches from his.

OK. So maybe Buddy’s crying wasn’t exactly like living in Santa Barbara.

But that was just the colic, I reassured myself. And the acid reflux.

So I waited, reminding myself of the single consolation prize I had read somewhere: colicky babies often turn into bright kids. Whoop-de-doo!

But when Buddy finally seemed to outgrow the colic, the acid reflux, all the physical explanations for his sadness, he was still a crybaby. And I didn’t care if he was the next Einstein. I didn’t care if he grew up to speak six languages and win Nobel prizes for Theories of Irrelativity. I just wanted a kid who didn’t cry all the time.

Yet as Buddy got older, his crying just grew wetter. And louder. As a pre-schooler, the proverbial spilt sippy-cup of milk sent him into a puddle of his own sadness. The smallest, most inane-looking playground knee scrape created a hysteria that suggested he had just severed his own limb with a chainsaw. When I cut his burrito wrongly? The neighbors likely thought I had sprayed acid in his eyes. And ¡ay carmaba!, when Buddy dropped a Lego piece into that rail on the minivan’s floor, the rail that allows the seats to slide together and apart, the rail that serves as the final resting place for Goldfish crackers, Starbucks straws and yes, Lego pieces, Buddy was reduced to a yammering, milk-livered moldwarp on the floor of the minivan.

OK, I told myself, maybe there’s a reason he cries so much. So I experimented. For a few weeks, I showered his wails with the devotion of, I don’t know, a really devoted mother who wins mothering awards. And when that did exactly nothing to change the volume or the frequency of his crying, I spent two weeks virtually ignoring the poor kid, giving him barely a “Be a man, kid! Shake it off!” in response to his tears.

Of course, ignoring my crying child also proved problematic, largely because of Other Moms. One day at the park, Buddy bumped his shin on the merry-go-round and crumpled into a shrieking mess that led Other Moms to believe he had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees. I downplayed it, giving him only a “You’ll be fine!” thumbs-up from across the way while Other Moms rushed to his aid.

“I just don’t get it!” I remember telling my husband during one of those romantic nights out where we find ourselves chatting about sexy topics: our children, our children’s teachers, our children’s college savings plan. I dipped a sweet potato fry into a ramekin of mayo, shrugging. “Seriously. He cries over everything. It’s ridiculous. And it’s embarrassing. You should see the looks I get from Other Moms when he does that severed-limb thing. Buddy’s ridiculous, all that crying over nothing.”

“Ridiculous,” my husband agreed.

My husband is very agreeable. Just ask anyone.

But then, the smallest shadow of a smile passed over his lips.

“It’s not funny!” I said. “It’s light years from funny. You’ll see precisely how unfunny it is when his classmates start beating him up. Because they will. Kids beat up crybabies.”

Agreeable husband nodded, this time keeping any flicker of a smile from his face.

“It’s just that he should have grown out of it by now, his disproportionate reaction to even the dumbest things!”

“Hmmm,” my husband said. “As disproportionate as someone crying when Katie Couric’s husband died? Someone who doesn’t even know Katie Couric?”

My eyes narrowed. I set down my margarita. “Katie Couric’s an Everywoman. Women cry when sad things happen to an Everywoman.”

“Yes,” my husband said, his voice patient.

My husband is so patient. Just ask anyone.

“But who cries in the first scene of The Sound of Music?” he said. “Who cries at church whenever she hears kids singing?”

I picked up my margarita an inch off the table, only to thunk it right back down. “Who doesn’t cry when she hears little kids singing church songs? And anyway, this is about him, not me. This is about how extreme he is, zero to sixty in 2.2 seconds. He freaks out over nothing, then it’s over, passing like an eight-second hurricane. And,” I lowered my voice, “Other Parents think there’s something wrong with him. Wrong with us, like we’re raising a crybaby.”

Agreeable Patient Husband nodded. Then took a slow sip of margarita. Set down his glass and leaned back in his chair.

“You know why I married you? I knew you wouldn’t let me get boring, that you wouldn’t let me turn into someone I didn’t want to be. It’s great that Buddy has it too . . . your passion.”

I crossed my arms. Did my raised-eyebrow, thin-lips expression. “You’re saying I gave this to him? I made him this way?”

And then, when my sweet, highly-astute husband nodded, I burst into tears.

So here’s the whole truth and nothin’ but: I did cry way back when Katie Couric’s husband died. And I do cry during the intro scene of The Sound of Music, when Maria is spinning, wide-armed over the mountains, her apron and her hair so clean and shiny. I cried three summers ago, many times a day, when I believed my husband and I had fallen irretrievably out of love. And then I cried during marriage counseling when I realized that our love wasn’t, in fact, the least bit irretrievable. That really, we just needed to take a few steps closer to one another, to close the chasm created by our kids’ presence. Oh, and I should probably come clean and say that the other morning, I cried when I saw glassy-full raindrops dangling from the bare branches of the cherry tree in our front yard. And just this week, I cried when I realized another great agent was offering to represent my book. Sometimes beauty is so beautiful and relief and joy are so great that only tears will do them justice.

So how could I have missed it? How could I have spent the last eight years telling Buddy to buck up, to Man Up, to stop crying, to be strong and brave? How could I have tried so many times to squash my son’s passion, the emotional swings that are so much a part of my own emotional make-up?

And isn’t that the rub! As parents, we’re supposed to know and understand our children better than anyone, yet I find that such close proximity to my children renders them blurry and dizzifying. Like watching some hi-def action movie from the front row of the theater. Like when Sweetie shows me a paper-cut, holding her finger three millimeters from my left eyeball. “I can’t see it, Sweetie,” I tell her. “I can’t see something when it’s that close.”

And she gives me a look that suggests I’m simply not trying hard enough.

I’ve said it before: parenting is akin to standing too close to a Seurat painting, staring so hard at one dot, a single brushstroke that alone, gives us no indication of the beauty of the larger work, the whole creation.

I never thought, as a parent, I’d need to make a bit of distance, to take a few small steps back to appreciate the wholeness of Buddy, a messy piece of art who, yes, cries over puddled milk and lost Legos and missed shots on goal. A boy who weeps when he takes a tumble or when he’s playing with kids who aren’t playing football-basketball-soccer-flyers up-tag by the rules. Just as I once wept for a celebrity widow I’ve never met. Just as I often get weepy in church when people ask God for His help with husband’s brain tumors and sick children and mental health and the safety of children fighting wars in the middle east.

Knowing one’s child requires truly knowing ourselves. Buddy has taught me this, a far more useful theory than the ones Einstein ever taught me.

Kids, even those lovely, easy-going kids who did not start life as squalling bundles of woe, really are so smart that way.

It’s true. Just ask anyone.