Sarah R. Callender

Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category


In Faith, Parenting, Writing on September 19, 2011 at 6:54 am

Sometimes I think I should run off and join the circus. I hear they’re hiring. In fact, here’s the ad from this Sunday’s Classifieds:

Seeking A Bearded Lady for circus sideshow. Salary negotiable. Hours TBD. Benefits many, including unlimited popcorn and three square meals a day with The Strongman, The Tattooed Baby and The Human Cannonball. Must be willing to endure minimal taunting from audience. Skills on stilts and knowledge of juggling a plus. Send photos as jpg.

Hm. I twiddle the whisker on my chin. Popcorn? Negotiable salary? Only minimal taunting? I already receive maximal taunting from my friend, Stephers, because I still own a flip phone, and therefore it takes me fifteen hours to send a text. Minimal taunting? That would be a walk in the park. A day at the circus.

But then I remember I don’t care for circuses. I don’t care to see animals doing unnatural stunts. Clowns make me feel icky. There’s something a little disconcerting about contortionists and trapeze artists. And I bet the Ringmaster would put The Bearded Lady in charge of the elephant poop.  The new hairy-girl always gets stuck with the chores that involve poop.

Yes. I think for now I’ll just settle in and enjoy my current jobs: Babysitter and Stenographer.

From the get-go of momhood, I knew if I could think of myself as Buddy’s and Sweetie’s Babysitter, rather than as their Mother, I’d stay more sane (in theory). I’d feel less pressure (again, theoretical). Best of all, I wouldn’t have to worry about sending them into therapy. Did Freud ever tell even one of his reclining clients, “Now . . . tell me about your babysitter.”?


So it’s just easier to think of myself as my children’s Babysitter. One who might have responded to this ad in the Sunday Classifieds:

Seeking a Babysitter to care for two children for their whole life. You must make sure they have clean teeth and good manners. Pay attention to their friendships and ensure they are neither bullies or the bullied. Feign interest when they describe every detail in the Mario Bros Wii game they have just played. Feign patience when you are teaching them to tie their shoes or ride a bicycle. Feign energy when you and they all have the stomach flu. Feign more patience when they are still wearing Pull-ups well into elementary school. Prepare them to make good and thoughtful decisions on their own. Teach them that falling seven times is A-OK, as long as they get up eight times. Sing funny songs and speak in funny accents (when appropriate). Teach them the value of music and Shakespeare and the elderly and Faith and both playing sports and watching sports on TV. Teach them how to spread peanut butter on bread and how to fold laundry and how to clean the pee off the toilet and the bathroom floor. Keep reminding them to clean up the pee. Yell only when necessary. You must have high tolerance for mess, noise and fart jokes. You must allow the children to climb trees and ride bikes in the street and use sharp knives safely. You must teach them to swim and look grown-ups in the eye. You must love them so hard that they know they are valued just for being born, YET, you must never allow the children to think they are any more special (or any less special) than any other human on the planet. Most of all you, Babysitter, must never mistake your charges for your masterpieces.

Salary: low-to-nonexistent. Hours: unpredictable and very, very many.

Et voila! As my children’s Babysitter, I would never-ever fall into the trap of thinking that my charges were a reflection of me (in theory). Not once would I be tempted to feel that their successes were mine; nor would I feel like was a failure (again, theoretical) when they acted like dimwits.

Because when a parent absorbs her child’s successes or stumblings, things get hairy. Bearded Lady hairy. Pluck, pluck. Tweeze, tweeze.

So I try to have the same mindset with writing.

See? Doesn’t the Stenographer look peaceful?

And doesn’t the Writer look dazed and overwhelmed and miserable?

Just as it’s less stressful to think of myself as my kids’ deeply flawed (yet well-intentioned) Babysitter, there’s far less pressure when I remind myself that my novel is not my story but the story of the characters. That they have lived the story, and I’m just like that court stenographer who sits in the courtroom, transcribing the various events, verbatim, on my whatsamahoozey machine.

Fortunately, it’s far easier to think of myself as my characters’ Stenographer than it is to think of myself as my children’s Babysitter; I have never felt like I created Lucy, the narrator of my the book. She was real before I came along; I just had to get to know her, and then settle in with my stenotype machine and get to the careful work of listening.

No doubt Lucy and her story will hit some bumps. The book will get all kinds of reviews, some mean and nasty. Her story may sell infinity-million copies; more likely, it will far, far fewer.  BUT, the book is a success because it has been written. Period.

Same goes for my kids. In spite of the buffoonish things they will inevitably do, they are successes simply because they were born. And if they don’t understand that with every bit of their being, then I have failed them as their also-buffoonish, juggling, poop-scooping, Strongman-loving, Bearded Lady Babysitter-Stenographer.



In General, Parenting, Writing on September 6, 2011 at 6:19 am

I am tempted to mosey over to the bumper sticker store and buy this one for the bumper of my minivan: MY KIDS CAN BEAT YOUR KIDS AT SLUGBUG!

Because they can. And I believe in promoting our kids’ natural gifts and talents via the bumper of our motor vehicle.

Not familiar with Slugbug? I have tried three times to write a description that doesn’t put me to sleep, and I can’t do it. So please, just go here so I won’t have to worry that I have put you, lovely reader, to sleep.

You might also remember it by another name: Punchbuggy. That’s what it was called when I played back in the olden days, as Sweetie likes to call my childhood. As in, “Mom? Did you have that chin whisker back in the olden days, too?”

“No, Sweetie,” I say, using my most soothing Soothing Voice. “That’s just something women get when they’re really old.”

And she nods, running her thumb back and forth over the whisker.

My kids, however, have taken Slugbug/Punchbuggy to a whole new level. In fact, my bumper sticker should say: MY KIDS TAKE SLUGBUG TO A WHOLE NEW LEVEL!

Because they have. My kids play it with PT Cruisers, Jeeps, Scions and Mini Coopers. And they don’t just call out, “Slugbug!” They feel compelled to get really detailed and holler, “Slugbug blue old-fashioned convertible with the top down and with a rusty bumper!” Or, “Turquoise PT Cruiser with wood paneling and cool hub caps and a big white dog sticking his head out the window!”

Of course, if there are three people in the car, The Spotter must holler that exact thing three times, giving all three a slug in the arm or the shoulder:

Turquoise PT Cruiser with wood paneling and cool hub caps and a dog sticking his head out the window! Turquoise PT Cruiser with wood paneling and cool hub caps and a dog sticking his head out the window! Turquoise PT Cruiser with wood paneling and cool hub caps and a dog sticking his head out the window!

Well. As someone who’s especially sensitive to sudden, repetitive noise (followed by punching) when she’s depressed, Slugbug is not my current game of choice. And while I certainly cannot blame one certain thing or person or car punching game for my summer malaise, I will say that when, a few weeks back, I decided it would feel really good to “check myself in” somewhere, I knew it had to be a place with little-to-no yelling or punching.

But where does one check oneself in to escape such a thing?

At first, I thought this was my only option:

But that seemed like overkill. Kind of. Plus, I don’t recall that Nurse Ratched was able to quell the yelling and punching.

Then I stumbled, (thank you, God) upon The Whidbey Island Writer”s Refuge.

So I picked the latter option and packed a few belongings, and with Husbandio’s and Grandparentios’ and many amigas’ support, I drove up and over to Whidbey Island where I spent five nights in a little cabin in the woods, calling it my Better Than the Psych Ward Week.

My cell phone didn’t work. There was no TV. No one was yelling, “Black Scion with tinted windows and a California license plate and a mattress strapped to the top!” multiple times.

No one was slugging anyone.

No one was crying because of a slugging.

And in the silence, I read and wrote and slept and went for hikes and ate dinners that consisted of tortilla chips and jar-cheese. I finished Round Two of my novel revisions and got those back to my fab agent. I prayed. I dreamed funny dreams about an ex-beau who broke up with me twice (no, not you, Paul). I did yoga wearing weird outfits. I made applesauce and roasted veggies while listening to the Gypsy Kings. I drank Mike’s Hard Black Cherry Lemonade. I wore no make-up. I shaved no legs. I was basically three whiskers (and a bear) shy of becoming a female Grizzly Adams.

It was fabulous. And so quiet.

But then, of course, I started to miss my children.  

But then, of course, I started to get really lonely.

But then, of course, I started talking to things I don’t normally talk to. The tea kettle, for example, was a chatty kathy of sorts, especially when she’d get all snippy and boily. And I wasn’t afraid to let her know it. Oh, simmer down, Sally. I am trying to write. You think I’m at your every beck and call?

Sally would pout for a moment, then realize I was just kidding, that perhaps she didn’t have to take me so seriously, and I’d pour her water over my tea bag and compliment her on her fine boiling abilities, and we would, once again, be the best of friends.

But that wasn’t all. I talked to the spider babies still ensconced in their egg sacs in the rafters of the screened-in porch. 

I talked to the blackberries (before I ate them), the warmest and fattest ones, picked from the brambles that dotted my hiking paths.

I talked to the jar-cheese, Newman’s Own Salsa con Queso, complimenting it on its fabulousness.

I talked to the earnest little nuthatches, so chirpy after the sun elbowed the rain out of the way.

All that talking to kitchen tools, arachnid egg sacs, food and birds, did not happen because I was insane.

Rather, it happened because I was noticing.

It makes me realize how much I don’t notice in my daily life, a tragedy for a writer who relies on her ability to notice things.

When it’s so quiet and there’s no one asking anything of you, when no one’s yelling about cars and then punching you, you have more time and energy to notice things. And when you notice how many perfect and amazing things there are on this planet, spider sacs and jar-cheese to name a few, you want to connect with those perfect things through words. Or in my case, because I was speaking to tea kettles and spider sacs, through monologues.

When I think about it, I’m not surprised that I talked to the tea kettle. Nor that I christened her Sally. After all, fiction writers must animate that which doesn’t exist. We must breathe life into stories and lives and places that exist only in our heads. All this animating and breathing life into things that don’t actually exist requires some dang peace and quiet, so we can notice all the stories that are steaming and boiling right in front of us.

Finally, on the last day, I was ready to come home. 

Finally, on the last day, I started missing my kids.

Finally, on the last day, I felt so saddened by the idea of leaving that I got a little teary and panicky.

To calm myself, I breathed life into this story: I will come back here again. I will come back here again. I will come back here again.

And then I went for one last hike, trying to inhale as much solitude as I could, trying to let nature osmosisize right into my skin pores.

Until, ACK! With so much inhaling and osmosis-ing, I nearly stepped on a big old slug, a plump fellow dilly-dallying with impressive slowness right in the middle of the gravel road. Where he could have been killed or worse, licked.

That’s right.

My former classmates from Sleepy Hollow Elementary might recall Fifth Grade Camp where, on a nature hike, we stumbled upon a banana slug of epic proportions. At which point, we were invited to join the Lick a Slug Club, a teacher-sanctioned club sans hazing.

There we were, all twenty-six of us, lining up to lick the back of this poor sot. I was thrilled to be right behind Drew, my crush du jour, because licking the slug right after Drew was basically like French kissing Drew.

Except, as it turned out, right after Drew licked the slug, the slug must have realized he didn’t have to take this anymore. Apparently, just as I bent down to French kiss Drew via a slug’s back, the dear fellow started secreting some weird numbing agent that made my tongue both slimy and numb.

Served us right. Here he was, probably just out running errands for his wife or maybe training for a triathlon. And then, boy howdy!, out of nowhere there’s this mass of eleven-year-old kids queuing up to lick him. That was probably the weirdest day he had ever had. We deserved to be numbed.

So last week in the woods, when I happened upon this plump fellow, probably a banana slug based on his over-ripe banana peel colored skin, I paused to take the time to notice him.

I squatted over him, marveling at how he was, in fact, making forward progress while not appearing to move a muscle. And I decided it wasn’t good form to monologue with a tea kettle but not monologue with a slug, especially in spite of (or maybe because of) the bad blood between me and whichever ancestor had secreted slime on my tongue circa 1982.

So I got my face real close to his.

“Slugbug banana slug,” I whisper-yelled into his ear. “Slugbug banana-colored banana slug, with big Don Knotts antennae, moving very slowly across the road, dragging a piece of twig along with his slimy underside!”

Then, instead of punching him in the arm, I blew him a little kiss, thinking he’d prefer that to getting licked by a strange woman on a lonely gravel road.

And that’s when I missed my kids a lot just a little. Because it’s not quite as much fun to play Slugbug with a slug. It’s a lot quieter, sure, but I get to have more than just monologues with my children. I can make my kids laugh in a way that I can’t make a spider egg sac laugh. My kids can make me laugh far harder than jar-cheese can.

This week away reminds me of that concept of seasons, that there is a time for everything. A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to tear down and a time to build. A time for enduring loud, punching car games, a time for solitude in the woods. A time to talk to tea kettles and slugs and NOT be accused of insanity because, ha ha!, no one’s around to hear.

If I can have these small slices of quiet and peace amid this much longer, louder, more punchy season of Buddy’s and Sweetie’s childhood, then maybe that’s enough to sustain me. Maybe.

Now that I’m back home, I miss my Better Than the Psych Ward friends a little terribly. I miss my sassy Sally. My wee spider friends, too. The chirpy birds. My slug boyfriend. Of course, I miss the jar-cheese. Jar-cheese really does have a decent sense of humor. I miss the quiet most of all. The peace to notice all the less punchy, less yelly aspects of life.

But I’ll be back when I need another week to recharge, when I feel like I can’t really do my job(s) well anymore. When I feel like I need to remember to notice all the things that are too quiet to garner my attention over the sounds of my children, two creatures whom I love a lot with a love so big it roars in my head and my heart. A lovely sound, Love. So noisy in my heart and my brain and in every breath.


In Body Stuff, Parenting on July 10, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I am one of the only people I know who doesn’t love summertime. Which is a little embarrassing. But then, so are my night sweats and my chin whisker and my affinity for doing pretend British accents, and I haven’t exactly been shy about sharing those details of my very glamorous life.

Or . . . maybe you don’t love summertime either, and we just have never had the I Dread Summertime conversation. If that’s the case, then please, let’s have that conversation because I know it would make me feel better, less alone, less like some F to the R to the EAK of nature.

In the mean time, outing myself as a summer-hater is risky because being a summer-hater in Seattle is akin to being a communist during the McCarthy era. Being a summer-hater in Seattle is like being that guy who, at the Vida Vegan conference, admits that a BLT without the B is really depressing. Being a summer-hater in Seattle is like being that gal at the writers conference who stands up and says, “It only took me eight days to write my novel, and already, I have three agents who want to represent me and five publishers who want to buy my book. Being an author is easy! And so fun!”

I do see why summer-haters aren’t welcome in these here parts.

For starters, summertime in Seattle is the only reason (most) people live in Seattle. OK, Summertime and coffee. If you are able to walk .3 miles in pretty much any direction, you can run right into a tall split shot, three-pump Americano in a grande cup with room for cream. Or whatever your drink of choice happens to be. Seattle’s a city where addiction is easy AND convenient. I put that in the Pro Seattle column.

Seattle also has bodies of water in pretty much every direction. And mountains to the east and to the west and beautiful clusters of islands where Orcas frolic and bald eagles soar like it ain’t no big thing to be a bald eagle.

I think Seattleites also probably love the idea that it’s OK to wear fleece to the symphony, jeans to the opera, and these weird shoes out to dinner:

But I’m just going to digress for a brief moment and say that it’s not OK to wear these shoes out to dinner. Fine if you’re going to wear grubbies to the symphony or to the opera. Fine if you want to wear these shoes when you are kayaking to the grocery store or searching the tide pools at Golden Gardens. I’ll slap you silly, however, if I see you wearing these shoes at Crush or Le Pichet or even Red Robin. It’s not OK to think it’s OK to wear those shoes. It’s really not. I don’t care how comfy they are, how much your toes enjoy having their own little toe-compartment.

But yes, if you ask Seattleites why they stay in Seattle, most will include “the summertime” in their top ten list. There’s very little humidity, the average temp hovers right around 75 degrees, and the sky is so suddenly blue that you feel like you’re in a kid’s Crayola-ed, blue-skyed drawing.

People are outdoors again, riding their bikes and working in their gardens. Flying kites. Eating al fresco. The sun is finally warm. Everyone is friendly and chatty and happy.

Everyone except me. The idea of summer feels like a punch in the gut.

It goes without saying that Seattle is not to blame. Nor does my dread involve my concern about the sun’s damaging rays. I just know that for the past eight summers, I have entered the summer cheery and chipper, but celebrated Labor Day in a cloudy, scratchy funk.

In spite of the sun finally doing its job, in spite of me getting to exercise a bit more, in spite of a more relaxed schedule, in spite of the opportunity to take a break from Everyday Math and Reading Logs and packing school lunches, in spite of the fact that I take my Zoloft communion wafer every morning without fail, summer ends with me feeling like I’ve been injected with a massive dose of BLAH. Like I’ve pounded a grande quad-shot of I FEEL SO HEAVY AND WEARY. Like I should be wearing a t-shirt that says, Really? This is supposed to be fun?

And I feel pretty terrible about that. I like to think of myself as a hopeful, optimistic person who’s got a really amazing life. So why do I hate the summer?


At least I didn’t know until earlier this week. Somehow though, I stumbled across a blog called Beyond Blue written by a lovely and honest woman named Therese Borchard. Therese is a mom and a writer and yes, she struggles with depression.

It is she, my new friend Therese, who helped me understand why even the mention of summer leaves me with rising anxiety and dread. Her post, 6 Tips to Help Summer Depression normalized all of my weirdness about summertime and helped me realize that I am not so alone after all. And really, isn’t that part of what living our individual lives is all about: finding others who make us feel less alone?

Therese, in this post, starts her post with this:

The kids are out of school. Your neighbors are whistling on their way to work, greeting you with an enthusiasm peculiar to warm weather. And if you hear one more person ask you about your summer vacation plans, you will throw a US map and atlas at them.

You don’t mean to be grumpy. But darn it, you are miserable in the oppressive heat, your kids are home for 90 consecutive days, and you are don’t have the stamina to pretend you are giddy that summer has arrived.

Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. After publishing a piece recently about the trigger of Memorial Day for me — reminding me that most of my relapses have happened in the summer months — I’ve heard from so many readers that fear this time of year for the same reason: summer depression.

Of course, I went on to read her post, and the reasons behind my unpopular feelings about summer became totally clear:

The summer, at least to me and my lemon of a brain, is terrifying because it is unpredictable and unstructured. And for those of us who are blessed with brains that don’t deal well with large amounts of unplanned, unstructured time, especially chunks of time where small children are needing attention and care, that creates (in me) a feeling of quizzyness and schumphitude. Utter dreadification.

But why? Life is unpredictable. That’s what keeps things interesting, right?

Yes. Right.

Except that reading Therese’s blog post made me recall a study my therapist once shared with me. In this study groups of rats were shocked, some at predictable times where they had some control over the duration of the shock, others at unpredictable times where they had no control over the duration of the shock. The latter group, after a time, showed high anxiety and/or depression. Many rats simply schlumped in their cages, demonstrating utter despondency, passivity, and helplessness.

I think that’s what happens to me too.

While more easy-going people (i.e. not I) appreciate the change in the summer routine, that absence of structure makes me feel anxious and depressed. If you add young kids to an already unpredictable schedule, that’s a doozey of a combo where one’s schedule is both unpredictable and just beyond one’s  control. Unpredictability + lack of control = anxiety and depression.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson!

Of course, I am WELL aware that my woe-is-I version of unpredictability and unstructuredness is an ice cream sundae compared to that of others whose days are filled with suicide bombers or despotic leaders or alcoholic husbands. With that tandem of lack of control and unpredictability, I’d be in a world of hurt.

But my flea-sized version of unpredictability is real to me. So I am trying to structure my summer with the hope that I can be in Rat Group A, the group that’s shocked on schedule, like having Tea and Crumpets and a Wee Electric Shock every day at 4:00. Promptly at 4:00, please.

So I am trying to structure my day with all sorts of things that are fun for both me and the kids so that the shocks, perhaps, are more predictable than not. Yahtzee, for example. Yahtzee’s nice and predictable. As are Math workbooks. Violin practice. Twice weekly trips to the library.

Yes, it may sound a little uptight, but frankly, I don’t want to lose my sugar this summer. It’s less than fun to lose one’s sugar, especially when everyone I know and admire is tra-la-la-ing their way through August, happy as bivalves.

In addition to using the Tiger Mother’s Guide to Summer Violin, Math and Literature, I allow myself to go on vacuuming sprees a few times a week during which I allow my Miele Red Star to inhale whatever flotsam and jetsam has been left behind by the small people who call me Mom. Vacuuming up one’s kids’ crapola is deeply satisfying in that vindictive, I’ll-show-you-who’s-boss sort of way. As you may know.

Along with militant daily structure and my trusty sidekick Miele, I also have a trusty mantra, boring and cliché and trite, BUT effective:

I, Sarah Reed Callender, am appreciating these fleeting moments of my kids’ childhood.

Because it’s true what all those other, older parents have said: the kids do grow up so fast. And, for the first time ever, I feel a glimmer of sadness about that reality. That’s a good sign, that glimmer of sadness. Hooray!  I guess I am like most moms after all; I’m just a bit of a late bloomer.

I am also trying hard to remember to laugh, which is getting easier now that Buddy and Sweetie have started to become funny. Buddy, for his part, has discovered the art of doing airquotes in his speaking. Sure, 50% of the time he does the airquotes on the wrong word. Like this:

Mom? I think we should go to “the park.”

Hm. “The park?” As if that recreational area with three slides and monkey bars and a wading pool and three big fields and a path to ride your bike and a merry-go-round AND that massive climbing structure isn’t actually a park?

But I just laugh. OK, I say. As long as you let me put “sunscreen” on your face before we go.

The other 50% of the time, though, Buddy’s dead-on with his airquotes:

Bye, Dad. Have fun “working” at Starbucks.

Hey Mom, since Dad’s out of town, what’s for “dinner”?

Dad, what book are you going to discuss at your all-dads “book group”?

I remind myself to laugh when I hear Sweetie in the shower, belting out songs from church, only she’s singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “Peace Like a River” in that nasally Bob Dylanish voice.

I remind myself to laugh when I go into Sweetie’s bedroom in the morning to wake her up, only she’s fake-sleeping and she scares the carp out of me by bursting from under her covers, yelling, “MA-MAAAAA!” in a gravelly Jimmy Durante voice.


To be honest, the first time she did the Jimmy Durante thing, it was a “bad” shock–i.e. one of the unpredictable ones. Now though, the shock of my daughter channeling Jimmy Durante has become a predictable shock. So I can laugh.

Summer may always be my least favorite of the four seasons. But darnnit, THIS summer, I am determined to laugh and schedule and mantra myself right into Labor Day, airquoting my way though July and August, laughing so that I can remind myself to feel as “happy” as possible, lulled by the croon of Sweetie Dylan, knowing that fall’s nip–that tart fwwiisst in the air that turns cheeks and leaves red-rosy– is “just” around the corner. Thank goodness.

Now. Where’s my vacuum? I think it’s time to do some “cleaning”  . . . right after I thank “Someone” for leading me headlong into Therese’s blog.


In Parenting, Writing on June 13, 2011 at 6:50 am

There are many similarities between being a mother and being a fiction writer. Both jobs have salaries that range from pitiful to non-existent, with no real opportunity for promotion. Both are pretty decent conversation-stoppers at cocktail parties (which is unfortunate because I go to a LOT of cocktail parties). Both Mothering and Writing are also misunderstood professions: mothering, as a job, seems fairly vague and fluffy and flexible; writing, as a job, seems fairy glamorous and mysterious. Neither assumption is true. And, both Mother and Writer must accept that she will receive unkind, unsolicited advice from know-it-alls.

Like know-it-alls who berate a new mom (while she is climbing the concrete steps at the Mariners game, her son tucked in the Baby Bjorn) for allowing her not-crying son to go WITHOUT SOCKS. In July.

These days, of course, after eight hard years at Momcatraz, Alcatraz’s sister-prison, I’d have a comeback at the ready, should some stranger give me unsolicited advice about my child’s footwear. But as a new mom, I just continued trudging up Safeco Field’s stadium steps, my hands wrapped around Buddy’s feet, trying not to cry. Because there’s no crying in baseball.

Similarly, check out this snippet from a know-it-all who wrote an Amazon review for Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. One of my all-time favorite books.

Following from Mitchell’s appalling and overrated piece of tripe, “Cloud Atlas”, Mitchell does a Holden Caulfield, writing in the “voice” of an angst-ridden adolescent. Except that, unlike JD Salinger, who was a great writer, Mitchell has no talent, and so this book reads as if written by an adult pretending – unsuccessfully – to think and speak in the way he thinks 13 year olds speak. The result is twee, unconvincing and tedious.

Jiminy crickets!

Fine if this fellow didn’t like the book. Fine if this fellow felt the need to tell others that he didn’t like the book. But is it necessary to be such an insensitive know-it-all? Play nice, people. Play nice and BE nice. (By the way, “twee” means “affectedly dainty or quaint.” I had to look it up.)

What is most interesting to me, however, is that while many parents-to-be read books like Taking Charge of Your Fertility and aspiring novelists read books like Writing the Breakout Novel, (both fabulous books by the way) we parents and writers really have very little choice in selecting the kid we get OR the book we write.

We parents get the kid we get. And then we must raise that kid.

We authors get the story we get. And then we must write that story.

Sometimes we get “difficult” kids. Sometimes our kids are born with learning disabilities or tragic health issues. God bless parents in that boat.  Musicians sometimes get kids who are tone-deaf. Writers and English teachers get kids like Buddy who (as Buddy’s teachers have ALL told me) “need to work on writing more than one sentence when the assignment is to write a full-page story.” My dear dad got two daughters who have never shown much interest in banking or investing or economics. And, my dear friend, Schmidtie, has a son who at age three, would hop out of the bath, shove his bare bottom in the face of their dog, and yell, “LICK me!”

Yep. Those are the kids we get. And then we must raise them until death do us part.

Writing stories is the same. As far as I know, writers don’t “create” the characters in their stories. Maybe more experienced writers, writers who have earned Pulitzers and Man Bookers or writers with last names like Grisham and Rowling and King and Shakespeare have earned the right to create their characters, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty certain that characters come and find the writer.

It’s like that stray cat who comes mewing at the glass sliding doors every day, many times a day. For some reason, out of all the other homes on the block, it has chosen yours. As if it’s somehow insisting that, unbeknownst to you, you are its owner.

Well. After days of mewing, just at the point before you go crazy, you pour that damn cat a saucer of milk. With the hope that a little milk will be enough to send him on his merry way.

Fast forward six weeks, and you’re taking your new cat, Betty (It’s a Girl!), to the vet, just to make sure she’s had all of her necessary shots. On the way home, you stop at Petapoluza to buy Betty a cute purple collar. It’s clear to you that purple is Betty’s favorite color.

Same goes for the mewing of characters. Writers may have some concept of what they want to write, a story seed, a basic idea that seems to be totally in their control. Maybe the writer also has a vague sense of one or two of the characters. BUT then the writer starts writing, and other characters, uninvited ones, start showing up, their mewing incessant and insistent.

It’s like when your parents go out of town, and the plan is to have maybe just one or two of your best friends over and you’ll pop at Tombstone pizza in the oven and crack open a few of your dad’s Heineken. But then THIS happens:

And suddenly, you’ve got all sorts of strangers in your house, people you’ve never seen before, and they’re making out on your little brother’s bunk bed, drinking your dad’s beer, and searching your mom’s underwear drawer for the cigarettes you never even knew your mother smoked.

It (the story) has taken on its own life and the hostess-writer, best graciously invite these strangers into the party-story. If she doesn’t, they’ll keep mewing and mewing and mewing because characters are just like real people; they really just want someone who will listen.

Writers know this, of course. That once a character comes mewing, it’s best to pour him a saucer of milk and get to know him a little, figure out ways to live together peacefully, maybe discuss who gets which side of the bed, how he takes his coffee, does he like to read or watch TV before bed . . . just generally get to know the guy because fiction characters aren’t people who leave unless THEY feel like leaving.

Parenting’s really no different. Some days our children seem so unfamiliar, so completely unlike us, that we wonder how they ended up in our Christmas card. At our breakfast table. All buckled into their booster seats, tossing Goldfish Cracker confetti all over the minivan.

It is scary when we realize that our kid, OUR KID, seems like he may have come from another family, another century, another planet. And yet, we’re supposed to keep giving him saucers of milk? Clothes? A strong set of values, violin lessons, money for Driver’s Ed, and a college education?

But that’s why being a parent is good and healthy. And sometimes, people, something that is good and healthy for us (getting a mammogram comes to mind) is a little uncomfy.

Being forced to raise a child or write a story about someone who is a little different is scary and exhilarating. Much like traveling to Cairo or Kigali or, I don’t know, Little Rock, when you’ve got no luggage or one of those handy electricity converters or any purse-size cellophaned Kleenex packs for what-have-you. Here, in these foreign lands, the locals probably stare at you, the water likely makes you sick, and you can’t really understand what people are saying because here, natives speak at an alarmingly slow speed. As would be the case in Little Rock. People in Cairo and Kigali, as far as I know, speak at a fairly rapid clip.

No matter! We best put on a happy face and start learning the language, the customs, at least basic etiquette so we can get the most out of the experience, be it parenting or writing.

In my case, as I start this second novel, I find myself trying to serve milk to four mewing main characters: two men and two boys. Frankly it makes me angry that four males (ages 11, 16, 40 and 65) have come knocking on my brain-door instead of going to my fab writer-friend, Sean’s brain-door, because Sean IS a fortyish-year-old man. (Though he looks not a day over 26.) That would have been much easier on me, because believe me, Sean is at least infinity times more manly than I, he was once a boy, plus, Sean’s almost always willing to take in a stray animal, friend, character, without more than one or two qualms.

Yessir. My story would be much better off living in Sean’s head. For so many reasons.

Oh, I know it should excite me that my next novel is chock-full of male, first person narrators who happen to be obsessed with realms of science and have medical degrees I can’t even spell. And on good days it does excite me.

On bad days it makes me feel like the time I was hijacked by a tummy bug in Mexico. Which is a whole other kind of excitement.

On badder days, I want to bend and force my characters to be more like me. Much like I try to get slow-poke Sweetie to speed up, to match my pace. Much like I try to get Buddy to not move all the time. Seriously, that kid never stops moving. Can’t he just sit still for one minute? No. He really can’t.

But. They are the way they are, kids and characters. At some point, we parents and we writers have to open the door to the mewing creatures and pour another saucer of milk.

Then we must buckle up, put on our sunscreen and maybe bring an umbrella. Purell’s probably not a bad ideal either. And then, get ready to experience the adventures that come with such a lovely, terrifying, life-changing invitation.


In General, Parenting on May 9, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Buddy has been peeing in our backyard.

Just the other day, in fact, he was playing soccer, practicing the new moves he’s been learning in this very cool soccer clinic. If you can visualize Riverdance with a soccer ball, that’s what Buddy was doing. Until he suddenly stopped and took a whiz on the big pine tree in our yard, the one that will kill us if it ever falls on our house.

But the target of his aim is not my issue. My issue is Buddy’s choice to pee on the tree on a sunny weekend afternoon when there’s a regular, indoor toilet just twelve feet away (as the crow flies).

“Hey!” I said, clapping like a persnickity old lady claps when she’s sitting inside her house and she wants the hooligan kids on the block to stop whatever trouble-making, shananiganing nonsense they’re doing. “Hey!” I barked. “Stop that peeing!”

Actually, this is a lie. It was HUSBANDIO who saw Buddy peeing on the tree. He just told me about it when I got home from wherever I was. And I don’t think he clapped like a little old lady, but I can’t ask him what he did because he’s on an airplane right now, one without wifi. I do know that Husbandio was ticked off because he doesn’t want the peppers and tomatoes and cucs and onions that he has lovingly nurtured from seed to be watered with his son’s urine. Which I understand completely.

Regardless, I’m going to pretend it was I who witnessed the peeing. I am, after all, a fiction writing bullshooter so it shouldn’t be too hard. Unlike some writers, however, the ones who forget to tell you when their non-fiction is actually fiction, I will always let you know when I am lying. You have my solemn promise.

So there I am, standing inside, clapping and yelling, “Hey! Hey, YOU! Stop that peeing!” (remember, this is a lie) only Buddy doesn’t hear me because he’s probably humming the theme song to Riverdance. He just pulls his pants up and goes back to his ball juggling. So to speak.

Now, let me preface this by saying our backyard is about nine feet big. (Another lie, but again, I’m not trying to dupe you; that’s just a technique called “understatement.” Some writers use it for effect. I use it because I don’t feel like trudging outside with my tape measure, so it’s better to underestimate in an exaggerated way so you know I’m not going for accuracy).

Maybe I’d feel different about Buddy’s peeing if we lived, instead, on ten acres. Frankly, I’m pretty sure if we lived on ten acres, I might, on occasion, pee outside too. And that’s no lie. I also feel it’s fine to use nature’s loo while hiking or camping or during any elimination emergency when there’s no man-made loo in sight.

But we are fortunate to have a few loos on site and in sight. Nor do we live on ten acres.

So today, as I’m writing about Buddy peeing in the yard, I’m trying to figure out what bothers me so much about seeing (i.e. hearing Husbandio tell me about) Buddy’s public pee.

Of course, I know this is just a perfect example of an eight-year-old kid who doesn’t want to stop whatever fun he’s having, go inside, take off his shoes, take a tinkle, thoroughly clean up the errant pee drops that get all over the seat and floor*, wash his hands, dry his hands, carefully fold and replace the hand towel that he has pulled from the towel rack*, go put his shoes back on, then continue with Riverdance FC. (Those two asterisks do not denote a lie, nor is it a literary technique. They are purely and simply examples of a mother’s wish.)

BUT (I’m sure Buddy thinks) if he can just stop his soccer skills, pull down his pants, pee, pull up his pants, and carry on with soccer skills, he loses no momentum. Because it’s all about momentum. And flow. And not breaking the flow of a perfect soccer skills practice or the perfect game of Flyers or tag or Death Gun Blasters just because his bladder’s feeling a little taut.

But isn’t it a little icky to pee in broad daylight in one’s backyard, for all the world (potentially five neighbors, truth be told) to see? If I don’t teach him that peeing in the backyard is not OK, then might he not start peeing in the backyards of others? Might he not take a whiz under the monkey bars at recess? Out in center field during his next baseball game? On Skyline Express at Stevens Pass? Is public, outdoor urination not a slippery slope? Maybe that’s what I fear: a urine-soaked slippery slope.

Or perhaps my distaste for backyard urination is actually thickly veiled jealousy.

After all, Buddy can take a pee with the greatest of ease. It’s how his body’s built, unlike the female body that’s not overly-convenient in the Great Outdoors. Sometimes not so convenient in the Great Indoors either. Please don’t make me explain the inconvenience of my very own postpartum body every time I’m doing jumping jacks or “skaters” or jumpy things in my favorite class at the gym.

In fact, when that happens, and I have to stop and leave the class, and go sit on the toilet for what seems like ten minutes because for some reason NOW my bladder’s like, Hm. I’m not sure I really have to go anymore. And anyway, doesn’t it feel really good to be sitting? How’s about you and I just sit here for a while and catch our breath?, just like that, I lose all momentum.

So yeah, maybe I am a little jealous. But I also think peeing outside when there’s no emergent need is a little gross.

Just like I thought it was gross when, about six years ago, I was at a child’s backyard birthday party and I’m speaking to this woman I’ve never met before and she’s holding her six-month-old baby and suddenly she is unsnapping her baby’s onesie crotch snaps and the baby’s not wearing a diaper and then she’s holding him over the lovely potted annuals to my right (that’s a lie; she held him over some shrubby bushes to my left) making this hissing whispery angry-librarian sound like, psss, psss, psss, psss, and that apparently is the cue that her six-month-old son is supposed to pee in the host’s manicured flora.

OK. As someone who wrapped her children in “wearable toilets,” and yes, filled landfills with their elimination-soaked Pampers, I will behave myself and not comment on the diaperless baby movement, but I was more than a little disarmed. And grossed out. Even baby pee is pee, right? I suppose allowing your kid to pee in your own backyard is one thing. But in the middle of a birthday party? Did the host not feel a little, I don’t know, insulted?

Then of course, there’s the questionable etiquette of peeing while talking on one’s cell phone in a public restroom. My most favorite example of this happened whilst I myself was taking a little pre-movie tinkle at Metro Cinemas. Except that while I was sitting there, I realized I was listening to the tinkler on my left answer her cell phone and start AN OVER-THE-PHONE JOB INTERVIEW.

I know! I swear on my children’s lives that is neither lie nor hyperbole.

There I was, sitting there, muttering things like, “Seriously?” and “Are you KIDDING me?” to the interviewee.

Would there have been anything wrong with this woman just letting that call go to voicemail? Or, if she absolutely had to answer, couldn’t she have just said, “You know what, sir? I’m kind of in the middle of something. May I call you back in two minutes?”

Unless she was interviewing for some job that requires extreme multitasking . . . then I guess the interviewer likely hired her on the spot.

So what. Am I too prudish? Do I need to loosen right up, understanding that Boys will be Boys? That we live in an age where talking on a cell, in public, while peeing is OK? If you are part of the diaperless movement, is it OK to have your baby take a tinkle all over your host’s shrubs? If you are interviewing a potential client over the phone, and you hear the sound of toilets flushing in the background, does that bother you?

While I’m waiting for your responses, (and because I’ve been totally honest for at least two paragraphs), I’ll surrender to my inner bullshooter and show you the sign I made and hung on our chain link fenced back yard, just in case Buddy or Sweetie or any of their sweet hooligan friends feel the urge:


In General, Parenting on April 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I might have also titled this post, “When Democracy Goes Terribly Awry,” or “You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!” But as you know, I like to go with one-word titles. One-word titles make me feel chic and mysterious instead of what I really am: someone who has worn an inside-out shirt TWICE this week. I know!

So I like to go with one word blog titles.

Not to mention, there is a certain amount of judgement in the title, “You Have GOT to be Kidding Me!” and as I age, I am trying, often unsuccessfully, to be less judgmental.

But this post’s topic is, actually, about freedom. And how much kids have. And how much kids should have. The seed of this post comes from Public Radio’s This American Life, on January 14, one segment of which was based on The Brooklyn Free School, a delightful little intellectual utopia where, yes, democracy trumps all. A place where kids, age 5-18, have as much say and as much power as grown-up teachers who, presumably, have at least a little academic and professional experience regarding how to best educate children. And who, lest we forget, are GROWN-UPS. Did you catch a whiff of my judgement just then?

A bit of background: This American Life, if you are not a fan, chooses a theme each week. Ira Glass, the charming and affectedly nonchalant host, then moderates and/or narrates three to five “Acts” based on that theme. On January 14, 2011, the theme was “Kid Politics.”

ENTER The Brooklyn Free School, a paragon of democracy, a place that (according to the school’s mission statement on their website), is

. . . a true democratic school for children of all ages. Each child and staff member will have an equal voice in major decisions (and minor ones) affecting the day-to-day running of the school. BFS believes that all children are natural learners and they are fully supported to pursue any interest they have, in the manner they choose, at their own pace, and for as long as they want to, as long as they do not restrict any other person’s right to do the same.

BFS also believes the following:

There is no set curriculum except the establishment of an all-inclusive democratic system that runs the school, and the communication of that system to all members of the school . . . students are free to pursue their individual interests for however long they want and in whatever manner they choose . . . [t]here are no compulsory grades, assessments or homework. The students are in charge of their own learning and progress and are able to adequately assess themselves . . .

While certain parts of those paragraphs totally freak me out (I know; more judgement), I am intrigued by the concept. I taught public high school English before the arrival of Buddy and Sweetie, and I happen to believe that teenagers are about infinity times more capable and amazing than most adults assume. I believe that a largely democratic school, one where students feel valued and heard and empowered, is a neat idea. I, like the crunchy folks at BFS, believe that “all children are natural learners” and that kids learn more and learn better when they have a bit of intellectual freedom. I believe traditional classrooms are the absolute wrong place for certain kids.

But a place where students have “an equal” voice in all major and minor decisions that affect the school? That seems a little irritating, not to mention, inefficient. A few too many cooks in that educational kitchen. I know. Judgement.

Because, as This American Life went on to document a day in the life of a BFS student, it seems to be a place for kids who love meetings, sometimes up to six a day. Calling meetings, attending meetings, voting at meetings. There are meetings about screen time, meetings about classes kids would like to see offered, meetings about whether it’s acceptable to nap in class, meetings to decide whether This American Life should be allowed to do story, meetings with a fox in a box about socks. And yes, meetings about meetings:

So my very judgmental yet very sincere question is this: when do the kids, you know, actually learn stuff? Do some kids graduate from BFS without ever writing an essay? Without ever learning the quadratic equation? Without reading any Shakespeare or doing Chemistry or studying Picasso or running the mile?

And if they never do any of this stuff, does it matter? Is my life any better for having read a whole bunch of Shakespeare plays? Yes. But maybe that’s because I am weird.

OK, and what about a school that allows kids to learn at their own pace? That’s fine for someone like, I don’t know, Einstein. Or wee Elise Tan-Roberts who at age two years, four months, was reciting world capitals, hot on Einstein’s heels in the realm of Mensa. But when I picture my very own Buddy in a school like this, where his teacher might say, “What would you like to learn today, Buddy? Whatever it is, you can just take it at your own pace.” You know what Buddy would say? He’d say: “Farts. I’d like to learn about farts. And recess. How about this: I’ll learn about farts, but only when I’m NOT out at recess, except that I WILL be out at recess, all day, every day, because now I’ve decided I ONLY want to study RECESS, you sucka teacher-lady!”

I will not be coughing up the 15K annual tuition to send Buddy to such a school.

Yet one of the things I find most fascinating is the kids’ right to assess their own progress and skill. We are, after all, raising kids who are part of the Me Generation, a group of tots who are seen (by older generations) as narcissistic and entitled.  Here’s the sad thing: this Me Generation, AKA The Entitlement Generation, AKA the Trophy Generation (I know, there I go again), includes everyone born since 1970. AKA me, DOB 11/28/71.

In 2007 The Boston Globe published an article titled “The New Me Generation,” addressing this very topic:

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, says that this includes virtually everyone born after 1970. According to Twenge, these young people were raised on a daily regimen of praise and flattery from their baby boomer parents and from teachers who embraced a self-esteem-boosting curriculum that included activities like the Magic Circle game. Never heard of it? In this game, one child a day is given a badge that says “I’m great.” The other children then take turns praising the “great” child, and eventually these compliments are written up and given to the child for posterity. This constant reinforcement, argues Twenge, is largely responsible for those young co-workers who drive you nuts. At the University of South Alabama, psychology professor Joshua Foster has done a great deal of research using a standardized test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The NPI asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Foster has given this personality test to a range of demographic groups around the world, and no group has scored higher than the American teenager. Narcissism also appears to be reaching new highs, even within the Entitlement Generation, among American college students. Another national study involving the NPI, conducted by Twenge, shows that 24 percent of college students in 2006 showed elevated levels of narcissism compared to just 15 percent in the early 1990s.

So back to The Brooklyn Free School: it is these Gen Me’er kiddos who will asses and evaluate their own skills and progress? In a land where every kid gets a trophy for just showing up, in a society where kids are taught they are really fantastically wonderful just for breathing and blinking, I’m pretty sure that the BFS is going to be graduating a whole lot of Valedictorians (or, as Husbandio calls them, “Valevictorians”–the irony being that he WAS one).

This whole deal makes me assess how Husbandio and I are raising Buddy and Sweetie. We try to let them be who they are, within reason. They wanted to learn violin, rather than piano (my preference) so there I am, learning the proper bow hold and what one does with rosin and yes, there is ONE RIGHT ANSWER when the violin rental store lady asks, “And would you like to buy insurance?”

Any of you who have seen Sweetie knows that she tends to wear “bright” and “unique” outfits and lopsided, mixed-media hairstyles: one side pigtail, one “loopy thing” atop her head, and one braid. After I dutifully construct such a hair masterpiece, I watch her gaze at herself in the mirror. “I love it,” she says. “It’s perfect.”

Buddy, for his part, has decided he wants to attend a different Seattle Public School in the fall. So? Even though it means two kids in two schools, even though I have parents criticizing me for the fact that a different school means putting Buddy on the bus (the horror!), even though it means if there’s an earthquake or a nutball with a gun picking off students on campus, I am a 20 minute drive from Buddy, we’ve allowed him to make that decision.

But Husbandio and I get to make the call on what’s for dinner and how long the kids can play Wii each week and what they wear to church. When they shower. That they need to write thank you notes. That sometimes you have to say sorry even if you don’t feel very sorry. And you have to make it sound sincere.

Maybe if we had only had one kid, we’d feel comfortable giving that kid the chance to vote, but with two kids (and often only one parent present) a pure democracy would result in unlimited ice cream, no vegetables, no chores. Probably a coup as well.

It’s true that the idea of democracy is a little scary when you’re running a dictatorship. (Right, Hosni? Am I feeling you, Gbagbo?) But I don’t know; I kind of think a parent, a teacher, a coach sometimes just needs to play the role of dictator.

This, however, conflicts with the fact that Americans are crazy for freedom. We want the freedom to carry guns. We want the freedom to end a pregnancy. Me? I’d just like the freedom to take a shower without some small person coming in to give me the play-by-play of his recent Mario Kart race on the Wii.

But in my mind, there’s a limit to freedom. And, there’s a fine line between empowering kids and creating a whole nation of whiny dictators who have no respect for authority. Who don’t even acknowledge an authority exists.

What think you? Would our kids perform better in school if they had more choice, more freedom? Are there appropriate times to stifle a kid’s personality and creative freedom? Is it healthy or dangerous to teach kids that they have a voice, that their opinion is as important as that of an adult?

I really would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. You have no idea how much your comments mean to me.

Finally, on an unrelated note, I sincerely apologize for my lengthy blog silence. At the end of 2010, I was fortunate to get a fantastic agent who wants to try to sell my novel. So, for the past 3.5 months, I have forced myself to keep focused on her suggested revisions. I just sent the revised manuscript off yesterday so while she’s seeing if it’s ready to be put in front of publishers, I’ll be returning to the world of blogging, AKA, doing my duties as a Gen Me’er, one of a billion bloggers who assumes her ideas and thoughts are worth sharing with the entire world. How narcissistic of me! Finally, please excuse any and all type-os. My eyes are so bleary and SO SICK AND TIRED of editing my own writing that I’m tempted to sneak into the older generation, just so I can stop thinking of something other than ME and my own writing.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read.


In General, Parenting on November 5, 2010 at 6:56 am

Oh Google, my secret Lover. Ye who steals me away from the children tending, the novel writing, the toilet scrubbing. You whisper sweet nothings in my eyes, you talk dirty to me with your throaty pleas of Just Surf Meeeeee. And so I do. I surf, riding the waves of the inane, typing search terms like “Cat Pee on Leather Purse” and “Do fish drink? and “Signs and symptoms of Brain Cancer.” Perhaps I could have completed my novel three years earlier without such distraction.

Yet the other day, my sweet Lover gave me much more than an uninformed medical diagnosis or cat pee assistance. My ethereal meanderings actually gave me something helpful to discuss, something that relates to a topic with which I struggle as of late. Softness.

It went down like this: I needed the name of a famous toilet paper brand for my novel, so instead of hopping in the car and zipping to Safeway, scanning the t.p. aisle and picking a name brand, THEN realizing I should probably get some milk and some of that $1.69/loaf Safeway bread and maybe a carton or three of Tillamook ice cream and a bottle of Riesling and yes, while I’m there in the wine aisle, I should probably get a bottle of Syrah . . . maybe two because Husbandio’s traveling a lot, and right, I should pick up my Zoloft, oh, and one of those fruity-juicy Pink Poetry drinks husbandio loves (ah, the irony!)  THEN getting to the check-out counter to realize that I’ve spent over $100 just to get the name of a recognizable brand of toilet paper, I spent just a moment with my Lover (about 699,000 results in 0.18 seconds), and determined that “Charmin” is the most recognizable brand.

It was then, during this brief tryst, that my eye caught the title of a fascinating article. About toilet paper. The article, from the UK-born Guardian, went on to explain that Americans’ love for the soft, 17-ply, bleached-to-snowy-whiteness, quilted piece of fleece with which to wipe their arse, does more damage to the environment than driving a Hummer.

I know!

Now, in case you, lovely reader,  happen to be a happy Hummer owner, I will not share the feeling I feel when I see someone driving a Hummer in Seattle. No I won’t. I will just sally forth, as my dear pal Janna likes to say, because lately I have gotten into the bad habit of ticking people off by being just a wee bit too outspoken. And the Ticked Off folks then shoot me dirty looks in the hallways of my kids’ elementary school, and frankly that wears me out because we’re all just doing the best we can, right? Right. So no, I won’t criticize happy Hummer owners.

I will, however, share with you something my Lover found for me (281,000 results in .40 seconds):


Back to toilet paper. After learning that our love for the softest, snowiest, multiple-est-ply toilet paper does more damage to the environment than unnecessary gas guzzlers, my Lover nudged me to click on a (vaguely reliable) site that detailed The History of Toilet Paper. And you know what? I learned that Americans have not always been so finicky about our bum-wipes. In the wild, wild west, for example, long before Charmin was invented, people used CORNCOBS to wipe their bums.

Also interesting: people in the wild, wild west (when a corn cob was not available) apparently used pages from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, to the point where it developed the nickname, “Rears and Sorebutt.” And, it wasn’t until 1935 that Northern Tissue advertised “splinter free” toilet paper. See? For quite a few years, we cheerfully multi-purposed corn cobs. We didn’t whine about the lack of absorption of the Tuffskins page of the Sears catalog. We didn’t even grumble about tush-splinters.

So what has happened to us? My friends, I submit to you my most recent fear: we Americans have gone soft.

There are examples of Softness everywhere, but the scariest lies in how we are raising our kids. Last year, my dear Chicago-living friend found herself in the middle of a baseball maelstrom of sorts. My friend, whom I will call Kate (because that’s her name)  told me that some parents were irate because the coach of her kid’s team (six-year-old boys) apparently was being a little too rough on the boys. This coach (whom I will call Coach) asked the boys to look him in the eye when he was talking to them. Coach asked them to play the positions he assigned without any whining. Coach expected the boys to work on skills during practice and during the games.

The horror! A coach who wants his team to learn SKILLS? A coach who requests that his team listen RESPECTFULLY? It’s terrifying, really. I’m shocked that Coach has not been banned from coaching ever again in the state of Illinois!

I also hear so much about how so-and-so hated fifth grade because his teacher was too mean (“mean” meaning this teacher made the kids stay inside at recess when kids were disrespectful or rude or talked too much in class). That so-and-so’s self esteem was destroyed in 7th grade math. Yikes. Really? So now one’s entire self esteem, one’s whole sense of self worth can be pillaged during 3rd period? Amid discussions of the Pythagorean Theorem? That teacher’s doing some impressive multi-tasking.

At this point, I am tempted to spiral into the topic of Trophies and self esteem, but when I crossed that bridge (I admit, by sending two rather incendiary and one-sided articles about why giving trophies to a bunch of kids for every sport they play, every activity they do, is actually NOT healthy), I created a big-arse problem for more than just myself. And got shot dirty looks at the hallways of my kids’ school. So no, I will not go there. I will just share with you this image, and you can interpret it however you wish (thank you, Sweetheart, you found about 3,290,000 results in 0.11 seconds):

I, however, am also guilty of raising kids with a Charmin mentality, as opposed to using strategies employed in the harsh world of Corncob Parenting. I, too, worry about my kids’ self esteem far more than I should.

Last year Sweetie played indoor Nerf soccer, co-ed. Her team, The Mighty Mermaids, however, was made entirely of female mermaids. During one game, the Mermaids played an all-boy team (most of whom were larger and a full year older than any of the Mermaids). Because I don’t recall their team name, I’ll assume they were called The Mighty Jerkwads, because I’m telling you, they were jerkwads. They taunted my Sweetie, calling her “Little Girl, Little Girl!” The jerkwads pushed her much harder than they should have, crowded her when she was playing goalie, kicked way too high, so high they could have seriously injured Sweetie’s cute little face.

And you know what? The sad-sack college-age ref did nothing. NOTHING! Well. If you are a parent, you know there is this weird, blinding rage that takes over when someone, especially a whole team of jerkwad boys, is intimidating your daughter. It was this very rage that made me start yelling things at the ref: “Hey Ref! How ’bout making some calls!” I kept on with my yelling until half-time, at which point I stormed over to the Ref and asked why he was letting the boys be so rough.

This guy, who was probably a Mighty Jerkwad himself in his younger days, just shrugged. “Your daughter didn’t seem to mind.”

“She didn’t seem to mind???!?! My daughter didn’t seem to mind nearly getting kicked in the face and crowded by a herd of jerkwads and taunted profusely? She didn’t seem to MIND?”

“Right,” he said. “She didn’t seem to mind.”

Well right then and there, I let him have it. About how NO ONE gets to tell me what MY daughter feels. That if he’s reffing, then he might want to consider reffing. That I will not sit by and let a group of pre-K girls be intimidated by a group of first grade boys.

I imagine the scene looked a little like this:

(About 2,800 results in 0.33 seconds. Hubba hubba.)

This nineteen-year-old ref let me spin out for a while, and then he blew his whistle, and halftime was over.

The truth is, Sweetie is a toughie. She didn’t like when the boy pointed out that she was a “little girl,” but other than that, I think she actually had fun getting crowded by the jerkwads. I was the one who wanted to protect her.

This all goes back to softness, of course. We all want to guard our kids against pain and discomfort and sadness. We want them to feel safe and secure in the world. But, as I try to remind myself almost daily, it’s good for Buddy and Sweetie to experience some bumps along the way. It’s good for them to have coaches and teachers and other adults who demand that kids use good manners and don’t whine. And yes, it’s good for girls to learn how to hold their own on the soccer field.

There will be jerkwads around every corner of every aspect of their life. Yet rarely will there be a ref, even a crappy, do-nothing ref, to blow a whistle.

I guess my point is this: do we want to raise a generation of over-protected kids who need this kind of outfit simply to ensure they don’t get bumped or bruised by the world?

(Thank you, Lover, that was about 86,000 results in 0.54 seconds. Sexy.)

No. Because this would be silly. And it would look silly. And as someone who lives in Seattle, I will say that a Charmin-protected child would be a soggy hot mess in a rainstorm.

Nor can a Mighty Mermaid play a good game of soccer in a get-up such as this.

Plus, wouldn’t so much Charmin hide her lovely mermaid-ness, her shimmering scales, the strength of her tail beating the water as she curves through salty waves?

Yes, I do believe it would.


In General, Parenting on September 22, 2010 at 7:41 am

The other night, I was attempting to squeeze in a few minutes of writing while Sweetie and Buddy were upstairs brushing/flossing/squirting toothpaste all over the counter/dropping the toothpaste cap into the toilet/doing belly bumps with each other/shouting, “Nipple!”

Eventually Sweetie, having tired of the revelry, plodded downstairs and peeked her head into the computer room. “Mama? I have a present for you!”

I forced a smile, keeping my eyes on the screen of my laptop. “A present? For me?”

Nodding, she tiptoed up behind me, all sing-songy, “Mama. Close your eyes and hold out your hand and don’t peek until I tell you to!”

I sighed, closed my eyes and held out my hand, and I felt her lay something cold in my palm. “Ummm,” I said. “This sure feels like a special gift!”

“OK,” she said, “OPEN YOUR EYES!”

I looked down. Sitting in my hand was something that looked like a wet, wadded-up piece of toilet paper.

“It’s for you!” she said, doing that little jumping fairy dance she does whenever she gives someone a gift. “It’s toilet paper that I got really wet and then squeezed it reallyreallyreally tight like this!” She showed me, doing that face she does when she’s dribbling the soccer ball or trying to beat Buddy in a running race. Or, apparently, squeezing moisture from a wet, wadded-up piece  of toilet paper. “I made it just for YOU!”

I gave her a hug, but in my head, I was thinking about one of my favorite kids’ books: Traction Man is Here by Mini Grey. The protagonist, Traction Man, is the beloved, super-tough action figure of a little boy, a little boy with a well-intentioned Grandmother who knits him a jungle green unitard and matching beanie for Christmas.

Note the dismay on the boy’s face, Traction Man’s humiliation, even the concern on the face of Traction Man’s faithful sidekick.

Sweetie gives me and husbandio A LOT of gifts. Usually, a flower petal from the park or a piece of pink Styrofoam she finds wedged in the corner of the Safeway shopping cart. A mangy-looking crow feather. A pipe cleaner that she has bent into a circle.

For a wedding gift, my very dear and classy friend, Ann, received (from her in-laws) a glass-topped coffee table with little bear cubs, lying on their backs, holding up the glass with their little paws. Ann has always had an inordinate fear of bears. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve ever had a three-minute conversation with Ann about anything, you have somehow stumbled upon the topic of her Bear Fear. Ergo, bears holding up a coffee table? Not the perfect gift.

I have other friends who have received romantic gifts from their husbands (and these are real gifts, people; no bullshooting): a replacement glass screen for the fireplace, a turkey baster, entry in a running race in which my friend wasn’t even sure she wanted to run.

My friend Jodi received a book on computer programming and a vegetable roaster from her husband. To which she replied (for the book), “If I want a book about boring crap, I’ll buy it myself.” And the roaster: “Buy yourself your own damn veggie roaster if you want one.”

My friend Allison, an ESL teacher, receives some pretty hysterical gifts from her students. Once a student gave her a white plastic birdcage with a fake bird inside. From another student, Allison got this gift in the form of an Ode:

Allison is good
Allison is nice
Allison is teacher
Allison is happy
Allison is beautiful
Allison is NOT friend

As I told Allison, every great piece of literature has a twist or some cool surprise, as this Ode does in the very last line. Just as Alison is feeling loved, honored and appreciated, BAM!. There’s the reminder that even though Allison is pretty much the perfect woman, ALLISON IS NOT FRIEND!

So what to do with bad gifts? Well, you’ve come to the right blog post, ladies and gentlemen, because in writing this post, I stumbled upon a well-kept secret: The Bad Gift Emporium, a website that’s a cross between EBay and a Virtual White Elephant Gift exchange. Check it out people: let’s say you too are the recipient of a glass-topped, bear-bottomed (ha! my inner fifteen-year-old boy just laughed) coffee table, and you decide that either such an item doesn’t fit the decor of the rest of your house OR you happen to possess an Ann-sized fear of bears, you may post a photo of the table on this website, and, when someone who does have the decor that would support a bear-bottomed (I just giggled again) coffee table, that person can send you an email, requesting information on pricing and shipping and whatever else one with such tastes would want to know about such a purchase.


If you click on the website, you will see that Still Available is the following item: Belly Button Brush (“for getting fluff and other unwanted bits from your navel”). Bits? Bits of what?

NOT Still Available: a Bobble-head Jesus. The owner of the gift was selling it because, “I got it as a gift to add to my sports bobble-head collection. To my knowledge, Jesus never played any professional sports.”

Uh, yeah. Except that I’d call Loving Everyone No Matter What They Do or Say a heck of a lot more strenuous and challenging than putting on a little outfit and chasing after a ball for a few hours a week. But whatever.

Of course, when I pause to think about the concept of gifts, Sweetie’s gift of a clenched ball of wet toilet paper is not “just” a wet toilet paper ball. When Sweetie interrupts my writing time to give me a ball of t.p. or a germy crow feather or a wilted flower petal, she’s giving me a present, sure, but she’s also really reminding me, Mom, Just Be Present. Which is something I am SO bad at. So bad at. Bad at. At.

So where is that t.p. ball present? I admit that many, many of the Sweetie’s presents have found a home in the recycling or the yard waste or the garbaggio. That was where the t.p. was heading too. Except that, per Sweetie’s request, I put the t.p. ball in my pocket. And I forgot it was there and I washed those pants, then dried those pants, and here’s something that’s pretty exciting: if you leave a once-wet ball of toilet paper in your pocket and you wash your pants and dry them in the dryer, that present is totally unharmed, not a bit different than it looked before it was washed.

How practical!

Not as practical as a bit-removing belly button cleaner, of course, but pretty close. Pretty darn close.

And now, I’m going to google “belly button bits.” Just to make sure I don’t have them.


In Parenting on September 7, 2010 at 6:03 am

Nearly six years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful, bouncing baby sloth. Of course, we didn’t realize she was a sloth, not at first. We saw just a normal looking human baby, all pink and squishy and drooly with folds of chub on her forearms and the middle of her thighs.

Some time around her eighteen-month milestone however, we started to realize Sweetie was in fact only part human. The other part, as it turned out, was pure sloth.

There are certainly far worse things to give birth to. Moray eels come to mind.

Or coconut crabs.

Or twin moray eels:

I’m just imagining a Moms of Multiple Morays meeting. Not pretty.

But back to MY sloth baby. I mean, just take a look at this particular cutie, so darn stationary and slow that yes, moss really does grow on her fur. I’m not bullshooting. She’s probably been in this same position since last Tuesday, maybe even since last month, so cute with that Muppet face and Silly Putty nose and those three little claw-toes that basically act as coat hangers as she dangles from a tree branch for weeks at a time, determined to win the Miss Moss 2010 competition.

Yep, there are far worse things to give birth to.

And yet.

While Sweetie really does move at the speed of sloth, I, her mother, am the exact opposite. I eat fast, I walk fast, I read fast, I make decisions quickly (and as a result, sometimes stupidly). I even (as little Jake Doe, Buddy’s buddy once pointed out) drive fast.

“Nope, Jake! I’m not driving fast. Everything just seems faster in a minivan. Right kids?”

Buddy and Sweetie nodded.

“See? I’m just going the speed limit! Not a mile above! No need to mention this to your mother!”

I am fast. Sometimes to a fault. Sweetie, in contrast, has two speeds: slow and Fairy. In Fairy speed, she’s actually light and fluttery and likes to do lots of twirls and (oddly enough) sing like Bob Dylan. Fairy speed is fine. It is Slow speed that’s problematic.

In Slow speed, Sweetie will stand in the bathroom, combing her wet hair for ten hours. She will sing a full Wagner opera while sitting on the potty. She will take roughly an hour and a half to answer a question. A simple question. Such as, “Would you like toast or Life cereal for breakfast?” If I ask her that simple question at 7:30, at 9:00 she’ll say, “Toast please. With butter.”

Even dear husbandio, who moves at a speed far closer to Sloth than Sarah, will look at me, wide-eyed, silent-screaming “OH MY GOSH!” when Sweetie has taken 23 minutes to find her socks. And don’t even get me started about playing Uno! with that girl.  In between each card she plays, she feels compelled to do at least three Vinyasa sun salutations. I wish I were kidding.

About 8% of the time, I can tolerate it, even indulge it. But the other 92% of the time, I find it very difficult to be patient. When, for a hypothetical example, Sweetie (at age 1.5) is making me and Buddy late for the first day of Church Camp where I am the lead teacher and really cannot be late, and she’s standing at the top of the stairs, watching a spider or watching air or whatever she’s doing, I might hypothetically yell (from the bottom of the stairs) something like, “PLEASE! GET IN THE EFFING CAR!”

After which, she eventually does get in the effing car, and off we go to church, (driving at what feels like just a little over the speed limit, but is, I am sure, actually just that deceptive fast minivan feeling) where I will be teaching children about kindness and patience and Jesus’ love and all the things I had none of when I was hypothetically screaming at my sloth baby.

Of course, this is just one reason Sweetie is good for me. As someone who has a hard time living in the moment, I can certainly learn from Sweetie, someone who likes to pause and pack a hundred moments of living into each single moment. Combing her hair. Staring at air. Doing downward dog in between Uno! turns.

Yes, I can learn from her. But do I want to? Not really. Because even some things that are Good for Me are not appealing. Like mammograms. And kale.

Sure, my brain knows that if I were a little more slothy, I might suck a bit more of the marrow out of life. I might notice more bugs and stars and pretty flowers. But I might also be late. WHICH I CANNOT STAND. I can’t stand being late or slow or last or mossy or any of those things that happen to sloths on a regular basis.

It makes me hearken back to an ex-boyfriend, one who was exceptionally slow. Not stupid-slow, but speed-slow. He ate slow. He processed feelings and emotions slowly. He was slow to learn Sarah-ish. But he could provide the brakes if I needed them. Because that’s just one problem with being me: sometimes, there’s no one manning the brakes.

But can a person change the pace that’s been programmed, like a metronome, into her DNA? I don’t think so. I can’t change permanently, not really. Nor do I want to change. Nor can Sweetie change. Nor should she change.

I believe the reason I have Sweetie is not so I can learn to stop and smell more roses, but so I will learn to slow down enough to allow her to do some rose-smelling. And then, as long as I slow to 15 m.p.h., maybe I’ll catch a whiff of the roses too. Which would be cool. I’m certainly not opposed to rose-smelling.

If I’m really honest, I think I must secretly crave and appreciate the sloth pace of Sweetie and husbandio and ex-boyfriendio.

I must appreciate a passenger who can slow me down, just in case I’m flying down that roller coaster hill, heading east on 55th, the one right before Met Market, going perhaps a little too fast while Buddy and Sweetie grip the armrests of their booster seats, their hands white-knuckled, their faces smiling a smile that’s half-way between fear and delight.


In General, Parenting on August 30, 2010 at 6:14 am

As it turns out, Buddy only likes to play solitaire with other people. Someday, he’ll see the irony in that.

It shouldn’t surprise me. Buddy’s always been one of those kids for whom quality time and physical presence is akin to oxygen. So, when Buddy asks, “Want to play solitaire with me, mama?” and I say yes, he runs to get two packs of cards.

And there we sit, sometimes for more than an hour, playing our own games of solitaire. Side by side. Separate but together.

See? Here I am, clad in my Sunday Solitaire outfit. The sad look on my face is NOT that I am lonely, but that I have a whalebone corset digging into my ribs AND garish wallpaper.

What I am NOT kidding about however, is this: If I were to point out to Buddy how alone this solitaire-card playing woman looks, which is precisely how a solitaire-card playing woman should look, he would get that sad look on his face. “But I get lonely when I’m alone.” That’s what he’d day.

That is, in fact, what he does say.

For as long as I have known Buddy (7.5 years plus 38 weeks of pregnancy where he and I were undoubtedly separate but together) he has craved the company of others. He likes brushing his teeth with someone standing there in the bathroom, he likes watching the Mariners with someone beside him, he likes listening to books on tape with someone lying on the floor next to him.

Buddy and I are similar in many, many ways, yet his preference for a constant sidekick is foreign to me. I need alone time. As Lonely as Buddy feels when he is by himself is exactly the same amount of Crazy I feel when I get no alone time.

So as Buddy took breaks from his solitaire game to give me pointers and suggest “better” moves, I realized that Buddy’s and my Love Languages don’t sync up. It’s a problem. I feel guilty when I’m trying to escape him, when I’m hiding from him in the closet or the garage, but man, I cannot abide his presence all the time.

Realizing this issue this morning, I remembered The 5 Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman’s book that explains how, in any relationship, we show our love for another by expressing one (or more, but usually one is dominant) of the five Love Languages: Quality Time, Acts of Service, Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation and Receiving Gifts.

That’s how we demonstrate and express our love to someone. We also feel the most loved when someone expresses a particular, preferred Love Language toward us.

The problem occurs if I am not showing el husbandio, for example, love in the lanugauge he understands. I could be giving him infinity Words of Affirmation, and if he only feels love by spending Quality Time with me, he will feel unloved. And I’ll feel misunderstood because I feel I AM loving him, always prattling on with my Affirming Words. It’s like Pepe le Pew and Penelope Pussycat, and Pepe’s thinking that he is giving Penelope exactly what she needs, when really, she’s just looking for someone who’s not so brazen. Or French. Or skunkish.

This theory does not just apply to grown-ups. Kids too, feel most loved and secure when a parent expresses that child’s preferred Love Language.

So yes, Buddy’s Love Language is Quality Time. He feels most loved when there’s someone (anyone really) standing beside him watching him floss his teeth. In contrast, while sometimes I feel like my love language is Someone Lending Me Her Cleaning Lady and Her Nanny and Maybe Her Ooompa Loompa and Then Slipping Me Shopping Money for Some New Fall Clothes and Sassy Boots, I know my love language is actually just plain old Words of Affirmation.

So Buddy needs ALL of my time, which I cannot offer him. Meanwhile, I need Words of Affirmation, and all I hear from him, especially at the bitter end of the summer, is whining and whining and whining. And I’m probably giving him plenty of Words of Affirmation, and all he hears is the Mwaa Mwa Mwaa Mwaa that Charlie Brown’s teacher perfected.

Sweetie, in contrast, would probably claim that Allowing Her to Get Dressed/Eat/Comb her Hair at Her Own Pace is her love language, but again, that language is in direct opposition with my need to ever leave the house.

You see why children feel misunderstood, why marriages break down, why I never get my Ooompa Loompa.

El husbandio and I discussed love languages years ago (read: I forced husbandio to discuss love languages years ago) when I first read the 5 Love Languages in my book group. But when he and I revisited it this morning, after my Buddy-solitaire ephiphany, I learned husbandio’s preferred love language has changed, become more sophisticated.

Apparently, husbandio feels most loved when I Pick Things from His Garden (basil, tomatoes, berries, stubby little cucs) and Cook with Them.

“That’s how you feel loved?” I asked. “When I harvest your basil?”

He nodded.

“I had no idea.”

I paused, trying to think of the last time I had harvested anything from his gardens. “In case you’re wondering, mine’s still Words of Affirmation.” I did a dramatic supermodel pose. “Like right now,” I said, using the sultry voice the Victoria’s Secret ad lady uses. “You might affirm my just-out-of-bed Heat Miser hair. Or perhaps my ratty XL Northwestern sweatshirt with this Flashdance neckline that I wear over my jammies.”

And while husbandio didn’t exactly verbally affirm, he did nod and smile and wiggle his eyebrows, and that was affirmation enough that yes indeed, he loves me in all my morning glory.