Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Very Eclectic Most Useful and Best of the Web 2009 (with initial caps)

I see some well-known online magazine sorts of blogs/sites have put up their annual lists of best/most popular bloggers and I see it is the same old names as always, ho hum. I'm put in mind of high school where every year we held voting for Most This and Best That and Miss This and Mr That. Some of the Mosts and Bests were people I liked, and believed should get recognition, but, of course, they weren't all of it. Anyway, I've got authority issues and never take well to The Man (whoever or whatever that may be) telling me who is Most or Best. I always spy on my friends on Twitter, Facebook, or their blogs to see who they quote, link or read. That's who I figure is a good shot at being a most or best for me.

Yes, I'm that person -- the one who is influenced by her friends, versus another source.

Also, I have a broad range of online interests. Web love is a many genre'd thing.

Anyway, I decided to put out my own recs, and solicit yours, in no particular order (hence the unordered list):
  • Real Simple online. Suffice it to say, the answers to everything in life are here. If you can't find the answer you seek, they have great recipes, including for cocktails, which, I'm sure at the very least buy time to find the answer.
  • PR Squared, suggested by local buddy @briguyblock. You know those PR and social media/online marketing sites that are grasping or self-aggrandizing -- "Read ME, I'm an expert, and I can make you rich QUICK! if you follow my simple rules," -- well, this blog is not that. It's actual good, no, great, info. It's mature and a fabulous resource for anyone trying to build a brand (especially their own).
  • Communication Overtones. My friend Kami hasn't written enough there lately (no pressure) but when she does, it is oh-so-relevant and enlightening. Kami's The PR Pro, and that's not just a business name.
  • Greeblemonkey. Parenting. Photography. Technology. Music. Aimee Giese rocks. She's funny and real, takes great photos, and gives great post. I may have read her end of year iPhone app recap post, err, six times. And maybe spent money on her rec.
  • MOMocrats. Of course. Keen information about and insight into current events and politics that affect women from some of the best writers and minds. (Note no qualifier about "on the Web" because that is the least of what these women do.")
  • Everyone who knows me knows that I have a huge mom-advice crush on Devra of Parentopia and Rosalind Wiseman, both of whom continue to patiently dole out excellent advice about real, honest, successful, no-guilt, good enough parenting to help girls navigate this tough world. Recently, I added Rachel Simmons and Melissa Stanton to that list because they are fantastic. Melissa's a great lady, I like her. Check her Stay-At-Home Survival Guide and Real Life Support for Moms.
  • TheMotherhood.com and Savvy Source, both of which offer, hands-down, the best opportunity for community on the Net. They are quite, quite different, which is why I love both and find each fulfills a different need in me. Savvy is local -- my area, and has great info about schools etc. as well as wonderful local and regional talk. I've met some great Texans. TheMotherhood.com is broader geographically, but just as close as a tight-knit small town -- also, I can talk parenting, recipes, and Mad Men there. There's a lot of good people at both.
  • Speaking of Mad Men, there's my friend Becky, who talks about so much more but if my favorite fan to converse with about the show. Speaking of friends, there's my friend Kat, who may or may not blog more recently than October, but is always up for good twitversation. And my friend Yolanda, who is, thankfully, writing on her blog again -- she's lovely.
  • My friend Noelle says you better be reading Crazy Bloggin Canuck. After a peruse, I agree. On her behalf, I say read her, too. :)
  • Then there's Blog Nosh, which is awesome and so deliciously meta. I so rely on the kindness of meta these days.
  • And Deb. Who Rox. And who suggests Liza Was Here, LesbianDad, Mombian, Autostraddle, Kathryn Martini, Begayaboutgirl, Cream Puff Revolution, Seeking Simone, Lelonopo, and Dorothy Snarker of Dorothy Surrenders.
  • Speaking of rocks out loud, Maggie Dammit and her Violence Unsilenced.
  • Long-term bloggers who I still read for very good reason (and who still read me -- thank you!): Mayberry Mom who also writes Family Fitness, Mary of Them's My Sentiments, Jeanie in Paradise, Bon of Crib Chronicles, Ed of etee, Maggalicious of Magpie Musing,and last but not least Annie.
  • Oh love Mamma Loves. Slouching Past 40. Simply beautiful writing. Always. With sharp, sometimes pained, sometimes gorgeous, insights.
  • And Fem 2.0 including the women behind it and the conveners (see blog roll on sidebar).
  • Melisa is fun. Fun! And overall lovely.
  • Robin of Pensieve I met during Tide Loads of Hope, which automatically qualifies her as a great person. But it goes beyond that.

Tell me who, what, where you like to read. Even if it's yourself.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Care package for troops -- our holiday tradition

Every year since the war began, I've sent care packages to troops. They've been getting bigger each year. Seems like the longer people are fighting, the longer they are away from their families...the more I need to do in support of them.

This year, I started thinking about a friend and how her husband was re-deployed, again. I wondered about these families that have to say hello and goodbye so often -- although she and so many others are so wonderfully eloquent and open about it that there is little actual wondering involved, other than "what would I do?"

My friend's husband got leave to come home for the holidays -- yea! -- but he left behind other members of his unit. So I said, "What can I do?"

Her husband asked his unit members, they generously shared their names and APO address, and I thought, "Who else can help?"

That's when I turned to my SeaWorld WildSide buddies. They all signed up to help without hesitation. One friend had her child's class collect and contribute for her holiday buddy. One friend shopped the stores out. Others asked about special requests. In the end, everyone sent gorgeous packages of treats. I sent a little gift bag of stationary, and silly stocking stuffer items for each person, along with a holiday card that expressed my appreciation for their service.

My kids helped. My husband helped. When I stopped to think, this is one of our holiday traditions. We've done it our kids' entire lives -- which also gives pause to wonder, "How much longer?"

If we think we have an opinion about the war/conflict/emancipation/peacekeeping mission/whatever euphemism we use now, imagine how the troops must think and feel about it. If we think it's tough to continue supporting this conflict, imagine how it feels to be the people doing it. If we think the price tag is high, imagine how much it costs those military service members. And their families.

Then think about how they do it. Every day. With pride.

That got me thinking about every day...and maybe other holidays besides Christmas and New Years.

Watch out. Soon, I might be asking people to send Valentine's cards. Peeps at Easter. Fourth of July packages. :)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Don't look now

They say you aren't supposed to offer instructions with Don't in front. "Don't look down!" And you instantly look down because your brain is completely focused on the looking down part and the why not to do it part. They say you are supposed to say what to do instead. "Look up!" is supposed to be a lot more successful. But we keep saying "Don't look down."

Daphne du Maurier had that in mind when she wrote her creepy short story, "Don't Look Now." That story is what I call a train wreck tale: you can't look away. The movie, even more so. Does anyone remember that movie? 1973? Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a young, grief-stricken couple who encounter psychics, ghosts, and serial killers in Venice? du Maurier could do Gothic. And creepy. It's kind of everyone's worst general fears all in one tale.

Isn't the creepiest thing of all when you watch a person in an everyday thing -- something you might do? -- and you know something bad is ahead?

"Don't look now!" You know something creepy this way comes. Of course, in movies and books there is clever foreshadowing, mood music or scenery, special angles, and other warning signs. Building the tension.

I'm always listening for warning signs in life -- ominous music, coincidences, irony. Somehow, though, those warning signs don't always work in real life. It can be an ordinary thing on an ordinary day, and despite signs, you miss the warning because you’re so focused on what you expect: a normal day, the same as every other time.

That’s how it was for me, yesterday, when my dog and I left our house in the morning for our usual walk. "Just once around the block, down to the park for a quick run, and straight back!" I told him. My mother was visiting for the holidays and my sister and her family were due to arrive by lunchtime. My neighborhood park is an easy jog down my street, so he and I set off.

A man stopped us and said, "Are you heading to the park?"

He was a stranger, I didn't know him or why he was asking.

"No," I said, lying.

"Good," he said, "Don't go there. Don't look." Then he left, quickly.

How odd, I thought. Of course my brain immediately did what human brains do and fixated on going to the park and looking.

As we approached the park, a police car sped by.

How obnoxious, I thought. They ticket us all the time, they should obey the laws too.

The car went by again. And again.

Then an SUV marked CSI sped by. And again, and again.

How weird, I thought.

When we arrived at the park, I realized it had not been the same cars going by -- it had been five separate police cars, a CSI truck, and an unmarked white detectives car.

My dog started to automatically cross the street, but I paused. I looked at the police, detectives, and CSI lady. She's so tiny, I thought. How funny that she's so very petite. But maybe, I thought, she just looks super tiny next to that man. He's so tall, such a really tall, tall man. How odd, such a very tall man. I kept staring. They stood in a cluster, right across the street from me, by the playground equipment where I'd brought my children to play this same time yesterday. I hadn't brought them today. I was in a rush.

The police stood together, the detective in a button up shirt, tie and trousers, writing on a big black tablet, the police standing more to his left, in uniform, and the CSI lady by the very tall man on the right. The tall man kept looking down, never looked up.

Who is he, I wondered, and why was he so casual, no uniform, just a t-shirt, athletic bottoms, and fanny pack. Did they call him in? Why the fanny pack?

Some movement further down caught my attention, two men, one dressed like the detective, the other in dark blue uniform, walked past the boy scout hut to the water's edge.

Oh no, I thought, another alligator? Another kayaking accident? Not graffiti again, or even vandalism of the benches on the dock -- too many police for that.

None of the police moved with any urgency, though. Whatever it was, it was -- past tense. Done, finished.

The police blocked the path and anyway, it didn't seem wise, after all, to take my dog for a run in whatever it was. We curved to the left and looped through the neighborhood, instead.

Arriving home was a flurry. I pulled my husband aside and said, "We need to do a big redirect for the kids, away from the park. Let's not say no park, but just say let's stay home." I knew the kids, after their cousins arrived, would be eager for a park outing. "There's a lot of police, something going on, I don't know what," I explained. He nodded and I repeated this to my mother. Shortly after that, my sister arrived. While walking out to greet her, my neighbor passed by.

If I hadn't been so distracted, I would have caught her demeanor, but it was another clue I missed.

"Were you and your dog just at the..." I gestured. She nodded. "Did you see the..." I gestured. She nodded. "Do you know what..." I gestured. She nodded. "Can I come in a sec and..." I gestured. She nodded.

After greeting my sister and her family, I darted over to my neighbor's house. She was distraught. This is my unflappable neighbor. A local leader. A voice of reason. She saves me from snakes, lack of recycling, and too much red.

"Are you okay? What happened?" I asked. There was a tragedy, a man had hanged himself at the playground. She saw it. I mean, she saw him.

A little thought niggled the back of my mind -- but she'd gone out at least an hour after me, how had she seen him but I hadn't?

"I didn't realize," she said, "I was just going to talk to the police, I knew people would ask me, you know?" Yes, I knew. We all expect her to know, also she's in leadership position, which adds to our expectations.

"I was going to ask what happened, how long the park would need to be closed, let them know I could contact people," she explained.

There was no crime scene tape, nothing blocking her access, not even the police. They waited for her to walk up to them. They stood there, by the tree, on the path.

"That's where they were when I went by, but that was nearly two hours ago now," I exclaimed, "How very odd!"

"Well the coroner just now arrived," she told me, "Just now."

"So, the hanged man, he was there, hanging, all morning? Didn't they, you know, take him down?" I asked.

"No, he was there when I walked up. They were all standing there," she said, describing the same group exactly that I'd seen. "I just thought he was a tall man. I mean, the t-shirt and fanny pack seemed odd, but I thought he was just a tall man. Until, you know I walked up to them all and...and he wasn't tall."

"Oh, oh no," I said, reaching out to her, "Oh you saw, I am so, so sorry. Are you okay?"

"Yes, yes," she said, and her husband stood there, staring down, and I felt glad he was there. She said she'd be taking it easy that day. I expressed my sympathy again, and we shook our heads over the tragedy. A young man, she said, maybe even someone home for the holidays. So sad, so very tragic. We both felt horrible for the family, for the tragedy.

"Well," I said, wondering how to end a conversation like this. "I better get to my family, they're all here..."

"Sure," she said. And we both swore it would be a while before we'd feel okay about the park.

I started to say goodbye but instead said, "Wait, a tall man, who wasn't tall -- you said he was a man, you thought he was very tall only he wasn't tall...why wasn't he tall?"

She stared at me for a minute then said, "He wasn't tall, because he was hanging. From the tree, the big one, by the path, that the kids play on -- that tree. He was hanging, not tall."

A tall man, a very tall man, who wasn't tall. Because he was hanging. From the tree. By the path. Where the tiny CSI woman, who wasn't tiny, was standing. By the man who was hanging, not tall.

"In a white t-shirt, with a fanny pack, like he was out jogging, or walking a dog..." I said.

We stared at each other, and she confirmed it.

Don't go to the park. Don't look now.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

How the holidays fill me with loads of hope

I am part of a special holiday Blog Carnival hosted on Blog Nosh Magazine and this post was sponsored by the Tide Loads of Hope program.

I was standing outside my house, directly under my children’s bedroom window, in what passes for cold in Bay Area Houston. In my hands I balanced a big boom box, Say Anything style, except it wasn’t blasting music. It was blasting the sound of reindeer hooves on a roof, including snorts, and the jingling bells of their harnesses.

That’s when I knew it.

No, not that I had lost my mind; I knew that I had finally gotten my holiday groove back.

I knew that come what storms may, we could weather them, and when you have a chance to stand outside in what passes for cold blasting sleigh bells on a boom box to bring a little magic to kids, your kids, who still believe in, well, the everything sort of possibilities…you go for it, big.

This marked a huge change.

I’ve spent my life trying to find my footing during the holidays. My family had the general traditions – ham, pie, gifts, visits to family – but nothing terribly consistent. My parents had barely settled into our immediate family’s ways when they got divorced, then we had to transition into juggling two (very competitive) Christmases. That was barely settled when each got remarried and then a whole new set of traditions and expectations came into play. By the time I left home and married my husband, I was more a little confused about the holidays. I was, in fact, completely cynical.

I remember all the craziness and competition, but I also remember being in the bell choir and making beautiful music for the Christmas Eve candlelight service. I remember the year I got to be the Angel in the Nativity scene. I remember my grandmother making chocolate silk pies with whipped cream topping, just the way I liked it – and saving the first piece for me. I remember being bored one afternoon with my friends and sister and masterminding a caroling outing. I remember the man who cried when we sang, and who could barely express how much our song had meant to him.

Our neighborhood wasn’t the nicest, not even during the holidays. Nobody put bows on street lamps, and decorations were few and far between. It wasn’t the sort of place that had carolers. But that afternoon, some little girls, eight-ish and ten-ish went around to sing because we loved Christmas. The man told us we brought him joy. And hope.

That’s the magic of kids, you know? They live in a world of magical realism, impossibility, and belief. They hope. And why not?

That’s why – despite the past and the last five years – I found myself standing outside my girls’ bedroom window adding to the myth.

The last five years have been a mess: two hurricanes, both damaging; a lost job; three pet deaths; a cross-country move; losing the vast majority of all we owned in a flood; fighting two major and serious diseases; losing several friends to cancer; and more.

It’s taken a toll on us, the adults, and by virtue of that, on our kids. My older daughter is old enough to remember Before, but this life, the one we lead now, is all my littlest one knows of our lives.

For a long time, I’ve been telling myself a lot of shoulds – how I should be, what I should do, what the kids deserved and how I should fulfill that -- all of which increase in volume and frequency this time of year. I know that when you’re tapped out on so many fronts, every little extra effort seems beyond your ability, even if it’s for good. Still, I put on a front, for the kids. Because I should.

But sometimes, that fake it until you make it has a way of working out.

Last year, we laughed with true glee as we spread reindeer feed in the front yard. We laughed even though our yard hadn’t recovered from the hurricane and we still had two holes in our roof and our budget was missing in action because the insurance settlement barely covered a third of the cost. We laughed because we had a reason to be happy – we had our home, we had what mattered. We had each other.

I stood outside with those recorded bells jangling that Christmas Eve night, and I shook not with cold but with excitement and suppressed laughter.

This year, I pulled out my holiday shirts. All of them. The St. Patrick’s one, the Easter one, the Fourth of July one, the Halloween one, and yes, even the Christmas one. This year I decked the halls for every season. This year, as soon as we put the Thanksgiving d├ęcor away, we started pulling out the Christmas things.

Our house may not have lights strung all over, but it’s got two little lighted Christmas trees in the front flower bed and a homemade by children wreath on the door. My kids may not remember the individual gifts they get, but I hope – I hope loads – that they’ll always carry memories of the special times we create every year. I hope they’ll remember the night they heard Santa’s sleigh and knew his reindeer ate their feed. I hope they remember how mom cried at their Las Posadas program and tried to tell them how much it meant to see them dressed as little angels, singing about the real reason for the season. I hope they know hope, always.

How do the holidays fill you with loads of hope?

Respond here, or on your blog, but please come join the carnival of hope

Loads of Hope for the Holidays

Please join us at Blog Nosh Magazine as we share stories of hope this holiday season in support of the Tide Loads of Hope program, a mobile laundromat offering laundry services to families affected by disasters.

Share your own stories of hope, along with Blog Nosh Magazine, Velveteen Mind, and a gathering of inspiring bloggers, and enter your own post link in the blog carnival below. Visit Blog Nosh Magazine to explore featured bloggers as well as three featured posts selected from carnival participants listed in the linky (that could be you!).

Lend your voices now, then participate live during a two day event in New Orleans, Sunday and Monday, December 13 and 14, as we tweet stories of resilience from laundry recipients and volunteers on the ground. Follow along on twitter via #loadsofhope and be sure to follow @TideLoadsofHope.

Learn more about how you can extend hope to families affected by disasters by visiting http://tideloadsofhope.com

Blog carnival hosted by Blog Nosh Magazine, sponsored by Tide Loads of Hope.

How do the holidays fill you with loads of hope?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Someone's in the kitchen with...KIDS! And it's called Kinderkitchen by Kuhn Rikon

I am a frequent customer of my local caterer, which offers really economic home-cooked meals. You buy, bring home, and eat. Yum. And easy.

I used to like to cook, bake especially, and my true gift is as a saucier. I can also whip up amazing things with just what's in the fridge.

People used to fly up to Boston just to eat the seafood I made. Well probably also see the sights and maybe visit me, but seriously, they requested to eat in, specifically asking for my crab cakes, shrimp, and Scrod.

I can't explain how I morphed into a noncook. It's maybe the Unappreciative Audience (aka The Kids). It could also be the exhaustion. The other demands. But mostly, I think, it's the kids.

I do know that they'll eat food other people make. My kids, for example, turn their noses up at my homemade stew (and it's good, honestly, it is) but will eat it at a friend's house. They'll eschew my fish, but will chow down at Joe's Crab Shack. They'll savor the caterer's casseroles, after telling me my own is Yuck.

It's not me, honestly, it's them. Seriously. Truly.

I do also know they'll eat what they make, so I've been, especially now that they are older, involving them more and more in the cooking process.

Then my favorite local caterer started offering kids cooking classes. How cool is that! Kid-friendly recipes and lessons.

So I'm twittering this (because that's what you do -- or rather, what I do) and a local friend says, hey did you know there are kitchen tools designed for kids?

Uhh, no, because I am not that savvy or cool. LOL I make my kids suffer through using what we already own, because I am so scroogy that way and "fit them into my world" is how I roll.

Then, as if leading me to new knowledge wasn't enough, she offers to donate a gift pack of these tools. They're called KinderKitchen by Kuhn Rikon. And oh-my-stars this is like "little gingerbread playhouse in the garden" level dream-come-true cool.

I relished the idea of Fun in the Kitchen with My Kids, but knowing that these tools would be ever so much more valuable as a silent auction item in our school fundraiser, I bravely and selflessly handed them over for the greater good.

There was maybe a little weeping at my pity party.

So at the fundraiser, everyone got to see these amazing kid's kitchen tools. They are kid-sized, easy to hold with good grips, really high professional quality (maybe a little nicer than my own things, actually), and adorable with cute designs and bright colors.

Let's just say...BIDDING WAR.

There was maybe a little smugness at my school fundraising party.

But anyway I know you folks are out there gift shopping. And while I've heard people are fighting for some robotic hamster in a cage (????), I personally prefer fun yet useful will use it all year long gifts.

And really...what better than kitchen tools for kids?

Mouse measuring cups. . .so much better than robotic gerbils:

This post is uncompensated and written for no reason other than because I wanted to do it, because seriously, I think these things are wicked cool and wanted to tell you about it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Bitten tongue

I, as you may have gathered, like to use my words. I try (like hades) to use them wisely and for good. But I am a woman of opinion, prejudice, judgment, and some immaturity as we all are and so sometimes my mouth, it does run away. Less these days than in the past, I hope. Although I do seem to talk a lot, still.

However, recently I've been learning how very much I say about the things that often matter little to me.

I have always kept up an artful show, a stream of lies and excuses -- a habit, a defense I developed long ago to protect myself, which, in turn, protected others around me too, for better or worse.

One time, in middle school, I pretended I didn't know how to clean anything. More specifically, I pretended I didn't know how to sweep. This from the girl who'd been sweeping and mopping for years, among many, many other responsibilities. I'm all for chores, but there's a distinction between responsibility and burdening. But at camp that summer, I wanted to be that girl: the carefree one who had little responsibility on her shoulders. The one who was only expected to make her bed, clean her room, put away laundry -- my idea of normal. The one whose parents adored her, and maybe spoiled her little -- and not only in front of other people, when they thought they were being watched and judged. I wanted to laugh and joke and kvetch about parents in normal teen ways, such as "My mom won't let me go to the Mall!"

When I pretended to be that girl kids liked me. They thought it was funny. I played along, adding to it, pretending to be rich and indolent, hamming it up. I never told an outright lie, beyond the sweeping thing. Instead, I would tilt my head, raise my eyebrows, and be silent, letting the other kids draw their own conclusions. They were so happy to be so bright and insightful.

They let me in, they joked with me, they gave me a nickname. I was accepted.

When I pretended to be that other girl -- the one who could not sweep -- I belonged. I was no longer the girl who was afraid to walk into her own house, uncertain of what I'd find (anger? okay?). I didn't need to worry about money. I didn't have anxiety. I didn't worry whether others knew.

That girl did not live in a house of cards. She did not lose sleep at night wondering when her house would fall.

She was fun, and people liked her.

When my sister found out and outed me, she asked me why. I shrugged. I couldn't explain why to anyone, not really. Anyway, I imagine most kids would never, ever have understood why I started this pretense. I imagine most adults would not have, either.

The best I can explain it now is a girl desperate to escape. I no longer wanted to be me, in my life. Some kids might have felt suicidal. I felt like pretending.

I think, maybe, that children with safe relationships are the ones who complain out loud about their parents. I think kids who say, "Oh my GOD, I HATE my mom," are the probably often the ones with very little to no valid reason to hate a parent. I think the ones who have real reason to hate a parent are often very quiet about it.

My parents. My family. The place I come from. It is why I bite my tongue. It is why holidays stress me. It is why sometimes I feel hopeless about humanity. It is why I analyze things. It is why my posts are often about my Holiday Cocktail and ways to save and serve leftovers instead of warm and moving lovely personal familial posts.

I wanted to write a happy Thanksgiving post -- something about gratitude and good attitude, and the small joys that came. I wanted my week to be full of the silly relative stories that make us laugh, too much food that makes us all groan in sympathy, and sweet kid tales that make us all smile.

There was that.

There was also the catching up on the to-dos.

There was also the Great Battle of Sugar Ant (ongoing), my latest humorous home invasion accounting that I've been trying to write.

There was also the rest of it.

The rest of it I usually turn into shame and artfully mask with many words that don't mean as much. The rest that is pretense.

One time, a couple of years ago, some people asked me why I am such a scrooge about Christmas. A hundred replies about every Christmas of my life so far, each sounding worse than the last, pounded in my temples. The question became a challenge, and my response became a post about why I have a Blue Christmas.

The reactions humiliated me. I lengthened my perspective and I saw that what caused my humiliation was buying into the dysfunction -- believing in any way that it colored me, and was in some part, my fault (as I'd always been told).

And yet, it also freed me. So it has made me think again about revealing.

Letting it out, letting it go. Distancing myself from it.

I know well this pattern and how it plays out. I know where it goes.

That's why I was not surprised when, while holding the beautiful Kirsty book in which one of my humble blog posts was published, instead of saying anything about congratulations or pride, my father instead launched into a lengthy and loud public criticism of all of my essay's faults. That's why none of what came during this holiday surprised me. If you lived this, you too would not be surprised. That's not the same thing as being prepared, though.

This morning, the first grade teacher at our daughters' school caught me and my husband doing one last peek into our littlest one's classroom. "Don't you wish you could be a child, that age again?" she asked us.

My husband laughed. "No, not really," I said. At that age my father locked me outside one night and told me I could live with the dogs if that's the best I could behave: like an animal. My mother let him. She gestured helplessly at me, which is my best recall of her during my childhood: gesturing helplessly. At that age, I curled up next to my miniature Spitz for warmth and comfort. My dog, my best friend, my unconditional love. The teacher regarded me oddly. "I wouldn't want to relive my childhood," I said, "But it is a beautiful thing to see them live their childhoods. I just enjoy childhood through their eyes. How happy they are, how much they enjoy things." How they trust me enough to get angry at me and tell me they hate me.*

This afternoon I watched a video of a woman speaking about how the first thing she did when she got her cancer diagnosis was call her mom and dad, because she knew they'd be there like they had always been. My prospect for that is a much lower percentage. Her certainty shook me. I'd call but I'd expect little, and I might get more, or less, depending. How much I got would all depend on me, as it always has. My parents would ask me to understand, would ask me to see how much I was asking of them, and would, in some way, gesture helplessly, moving on to the more important things. This is the little message sent to me regularly: I'm not that important. I know where they come from, what they dealt with in their own childhoods, and that this is how it is.

Like I said, though, knowing this does little in the way of preparation. Infertility is better for that, actually. I know I am not alone in that I had little rituals and superstitions on important cycle dates. Building little altars everywhere -- whether literal of figurative -- is what does something in the way of preparation.

On my way over for Thanksgiving, I read Tweets from Grace about surviving the holiday and things to do to protect yourself when it suddenly struck me: I have never fully believed I deserved, was worthy, of protecting myself.

So for my Thanksgiving? I am grateful for people who help those lightbulbs go on overhead, for people who use their words and courage of sharing to facilitate this, for realizing. I am grateful for people who understand and do not diminish you.

So later that same day, after reading messages of Forgive Yourself, Stop it Before it Hits You, Never Be Afraid to Walk Out, when the shame and not good enough and no love started coming my way I did not let it enter in. My essay is not bad. I am not bad. My essay is not weak. I am not weak. My essay does not lack critical information and points. Neither do I. I have not asked for this. I do not deserve this. I am not asking too much. There is not a limit on what I am worth.

When I will stop wondering why this is the way it is will be another blog post altogether.

* Do you know? When I said I did not want to relive childhood, that teacher opened up to me, too. She shared a couple of challenges, very briefly, to let me see a new facet of her, something deeper than the expected, and more of a human, than simply a cheerful smiling face that thinks children and childhood are gorgeous in some oversimplified way. I liked her immensely, then.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Perfected art of dehumanizing

We humans have perfected the art of dehumanizing people for our own ends. We modern people have perfected the art of rationalizing this, even to the point that we believe it is Good and/or Deserved.

Reality TV doesn't help, but, perhaps ironically, I think blogging does. In snippet situations--which abound in all areas of media and life these days, from text messages, to brief interactions, from hectic schedules to ideology condensed to a talking point--we can find our brief summaries of others reinforced. Blogs and other lengthier more personal interactions force us to pause and reconsider...if we let ourselves.

It's so simple to sum up another person: she's organized, he's loud, she's a christian, he's a liberal, she's scary smart, he's so nice...

We often even think of these things as compliments. But are they? Or are they oversimplified labels that in some way dehumanize the other person? Have we snapped people we know into lock boxes, never to be taken out and examined more closely? Have we missed something key to that other person?

Here's why I find that troubling: what do we value, when we value people? And are these the attributes we seek, past the surface, if they are not displayed superficially for us to easily grasp? Some may hide deeper those things which you value.

I was thinking of examples in my own life. One of my favorites is Harry. I met Harry at work when I was still wet behind the ears despite a wedding ring, college degree, and more than a few years of professional working experience. I was, at the time, probably an ideal employee: self-starting, knowledgeable and experienced enough to have and volunteer ideas, but still eager beaver loyal and desiring to please. I joined a really cool start-up, replacing Harry.

"Why are you leaving?" I asked.

"I don't really work here. It's just a contract. I'm not into the whole working for the man, staying put thing. I work, save up, and spend the rest of my time in South America climbing mountains," he said, emulating the epitome of Cool Alt Dude.

A fairly traditional gal at heart, I admired what had to be my polar opposite. I shared Harry Adventure Tales with my husband the entire week I spent being trained for my job by Harry. I was fascinated by Harry's incredibly different lifestyle and life choices. I kept trying to get to know him. Harry, however, was unimpressed by me and I accepted that. I was Normal, Average, I had no problem Working for the Man, carrying home a regular paycheck, and missing South American mountains. I had no stories of adventure.

At the end of the week, I learned Harry had recommended I be fired.

Why would he do this? He didn't want this job -- he was heading for Chile next week anyway! Wasn't he Nice? All Cool Alt Dude let it flow? Why would Harry do this to me? I'd only tried to do my best, learn everything -- was it a problem with my knowledge or performance? No. Wasn't I nice? Yes. Then why?

Harry had pigeon-holed me and it wasn't in a good way. My neat desk indicated I was Uptight. My questions to ensure I learned my job well indicated I was High Maintenance. My carefully organized files indicated I was Anal. My excitement meant I was High Strung.

The very things I cultivated carefully to be Really Really Good and that I thought were valued highly in employees -- plus, just happened to be fairly innate to me and were my techniques for doing a good job -- were somehow twisted and sounding awful coming from his mouth.

"She's not ever going to be a fit," Harry told my boss, who thankfully ignored him. My boss, much wiser than me, probably saw past the Adjectives and Perfect Dehumanizing t0 the realness of both of us and the situation. Harry resented me taking his cash cow, however innocent I was in that decision. He had a good thing going, what with being able to eat his cake and have it too.

I wasn't wrong, Harry was Cool Alt Dude with a Brown Belt in Zen, but that didn't mean he was above feeling very human in this situation. Harry wasn't wrong, I am organized, and a little high strung, but that doesn't mean I'm not human, or much more than that string of judgments.

Harry labeled me, and locked me out. As a result, neither of us gained a better picture and understanding of Who the Human was, really. We probably never would have been friends. But, we'd have each had -- especially Harry -- a better idea of a complex person, one we might never know, or even like, but that we could accept as a multi-faceted human. (Although, I hadn't yet learned that it was an option to not like another person then -- I was still trapped in the idea that I had to like everyone and had to make all of them like me, too. Not managing that was a major failure, indicating Imperfection and Something Bad in me I had to fix.) (I am, to some degree, over this, except when it comes to people I do like, who do not like me back, or who do in some ambivalent way that does not lead to the friendship I hoped for.)

I might have understood and been more thoughtful of how it worried Harry, losing this contract and putting the very Cool Alt Dude lifestyle he so valued in jeopardy. He might have understood that Id just moved over 2000 miles from home for this job, was trying to acclimate, and was desperate to succeed for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was not wanting to prove all our parents dire predictions of failure and ending up in a box under a bridge" true.

I might have grasped his Cool Alt Dude was a protection from the commitment and chaos he knew he'd have to someday deal with, but that he still fought and feared. He might have seen that my organization was compensation for my fear of chaos, and my social awkwardness of not knowing what to say or do sometimes.

But we each needed to know ourselves better, first, needed to understand and accept our own complexities, before we could see that others had more surface area than we initially saw, too.

With time, I came to understand that.

I came to understand that I needed to open up my personal book just the right amount to not dump too much or hide too little. Leave a bit to wondering, wanting to find out. This is not a natural skill for me, like it is for some.

But in time I learned people value that more, just as I learned that workplaces appreciated organized, motivated workers, but not as much as they valued people they liked. Offices were no different from high schools or life, in that respect.

At the end of the day, you don't hear people saying, "I LOVE her, she's so detail-oriented! That's why she's the best employee!" any more than you hear people say, "I LOVE her, she's so organized! That's why we're best friends!"

You do hear, "She's so fun, I love being around her!" Fun. Kind. Thoughtful. You know the rest. You know the things you say you like about other people, and you know you need to like other people to value them.

Those adjectives are hard to come by, though, and are nearly empty compliments.

I do worry about how so much of today's world seems to encourage and reward fast summation of other people, condensing their lives into brief talking points and their humanity into 140 characters or less.

Perhaps we are active participants in our own labeling and dehumanization.

I think of my friend Cyn explaining why she's given up on adjectives and nouns in the short social media bio sections. To attempt to paraphrase her: Verbs say so much more about who I am, through what I do, instead of just labeling myself for you. Verbs can lead to questions. Verbs make you active. Adjectives and nouns coat you in amber for viewing.

What is valuable to you and why is that valuable?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Whale of a Great Slumber Party at SeaWorld

A while back I conceived of this brilliant plot whereby I would conspire to convince SeaWorld that TheMotherhood.com and I could make fantastic co-hosts for an awesome event at their San Antonio location.

Friends, I must talk a really great game because I convinced the brilliant (and occasionally omniscient) Kami Huyse and SeaWorld as well as the amazing Cooper and Emily of TheMotherhood.com that this was a very good idea.

The next thing any of us knew (ha! as if it was simply movie magic easy LOL!), we were blowing up air mattresses with some of the most fantastic women in Texas to sleep with extremely cute but a little smelly puffins.

I've felt at a cross-roads this year, more so lately, which may or may not have anything to do with a recent birthday. I don't mind getting older or even middle-aged, aside from the minor physical inconveniences (great scott, the plucking!) (the sagging elbows!) (the creaky knees!) (enough!) but the big benefit of aging is supposed to be wisdom and perspective, and I'm determined to get me some of that, especially as I watch my days end at 9:30 p.m more and more often and start considering my reminder iPhone apps and Advil as best buddies.

You don't need me to tell you that it was so incredible to spend the night at SeaWorld. You can guess how it felt to fulfill a version of my nearly 30 year "From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Franweiler" fantasy. You comprehend how awesome it was to check off some cool items on my bucket list:
  • sleep with polar aquatic birds,
  • stick hand in dolphin's mouth,
  • gain approval of killer whale matriarch,
  • perfectly mimic seal,
  • make BFFs with beluga whale, and last, but not least,
  • over divine food, listen to major executive passionately talk about green initiatives.
You can imagine how much I enjoyed having the park all to us. You know those animals are amazing. Incredible. You may even know personally know how very hard it is to stay behind the blue line while beluga whales flirt with you and, like sirens, entice you to leap in their pool and frolic with them, shedding the last stressed mantles of your humanity.

But how did this add to my Ultimate Life Goal and Commitment to Meaningful?

Aside from the obvious and pat answer that everything beautiful and experiential is worthwhile (which sort of smells slightly new agey to me, a scent only two grades above Dolphin Food and Puffins Au Naturel):

Things are richer with personal connections

Beautiful settings don't hurt, either.

I always get more out of a place when I know enough about the place to ask questions beyond the pat and obvious (although I'm not above acting like a second grader and asking questions such as, "What do they think of their poop, if they deign to notice it there in the tank with them?")

But I like to get a deeper appreciation for the little things of a place and how they fit together to make the whole such a wonderful picture.

What makes me take notice is seeing a place and event through other people's eyes and being aware of the place through knowing important things about it.

These things connect me, personally. I'm engaged. That makes it matter more, which, in turn, makes it a richer experience.

Being able to share that with others only enriches it more.

I loved being able to share it with Heather, Erica, Kelly, Joy, Dwan, Colleen, Debi, Dawn, Rachel, Emily, and Kami.

Slumber parties and inside jokes

Is it feeling a little clammy in here to anyone other than me?

While Emily and I were waiting for the fabulous Suzy of SeaWorld and Kami, we were shooting the breeze when I trotted out a memory of being on a bus heading to sleep away summer camp, a time I always loved. My hair, long and straight except for the feathering around my face, blew back in the wind from the open windows. My shorts-clad legs stuck to the hot fake leather seats, which had that acrid sweet smell old bus seats always had. Beside me, my friends Brandy, Shannon, Laura and Jenny sat laughing. We were so thrilled to be together we began belting out "Don't You Want Me, Baby." We were young, excited, happy, carefree, and on our way to the best time of the summer. Who was new? Who was back? Who grew up over the past year? Who was different? Who was the same? Most importantly, which guy would be cutest and who would hook up with him?

Now, nearly thirty years later, I had the same excitement buzzing in me as I waited for the WildSide adventurers to arrive for our camp. Would the ladies I only knew online seem as familiar and friendly as they did online? Would they look like their photos? Sound like their blog posts and tweets? Were they as giddy about being in a major theme park overnight, just us, as I was? Would anyone know the book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler if I kept referencing it? Was anyone else feeling unbearably light inside?

What I found were women even more amazing than I expected, who were very real, and kept it real, all while maintaining a wonderful spirit for adventure. Despite the risk of getting drenched, everyone hung right by Mrs. Shamu. Despite our great and knowledgeable guide Chance sharing good information, and knowing the rule about the blue line, plus being warned that "whales look sweet but are NOT furry warm cuddly creatures," we all nearly leapt in the pool with the beluga whales.

These ladies asked tough questions, and every member of the SeaWorld team from executive Dan Decker to our guide Chance, SeaWorld comm rep (and indispensable cheerful and professional help) Suzy, our camp counselor Brooke, or anyone else on hand to help us enjoy ourselves, had the answer.

SeaWorld is awesome. I love their commitment to conservation and green choices. Who doesn't love a graceful and gorgeous dolphin being friendly? There is so much to see, learn and do there.

But it's even more awesome with a well-educated guide (getting a Ph.D) who calls out "Hey Hotties!" when he wants our attention. (And we must have been like herding cats, seriously.) And at night. By ourselves. With good food. and chocolates and mocktails. Who doesn't love a good sleepover when everyone has good laugh at silly slippers and people share their stories?

WHALE DONE! Such a Duh! and yet, Life Altering

Looking mighty bottle-nosed to be a whale, but at SeaWorld, hungry aquatic animals will be whoever you want for a bucket of fish. KIDDING!

We got a copy of this book, WHALE DONE!, which discusses the techniques SeaWorld trainers use to encourage the desired behaviors the animals display during performances (and other times).

I've read the positive parenting books. I took the classes. I went to puppy kindergarten. Four times.

I want to do this, and yet, it's a struggle. I come from a completely and totally GOTcha life (read the book, you'll get it) and setting expectations and working in a WHALE DONE way is, and probably always will be, a struggle to me due to background, habit, culture, temper, and so forth.

But through this book, and events like this, I keep feeling doors and windows in my mind open.

And you know, when I go away (mommy guilt) it helps more than a little to know I will be bringing back something more than 9admittedly VERY CUTE) stuffed penguins. (Stuffed with fluff, folks, I mean, what do you think we did in the penguin encounter all night? I assure you NO AQUATIC POLAR BIRDS were harmed in the making of this spectacular event.)

To read others' take on t he event (and isn't it awesome to read different takes on the same thing? see? ENRICHING! No wonder blogs are so popular.):

Heather http://www.savingssosweet.com/2009/11/seaworld-san-antonio.html

Dwan http://mommadjane.com/walk-wild-side

Debi http://sabusykids.com and http://voices.mysanantonio.com/sabusykids

Kelly http://www.savvymoxie.com/2009/11/sleeping-at-sea-world.html

Dawn (Lettergirl) http://notgoingpostal.com/2009/11/17/lessons-from-a-seaworld-slumber-party/

Colleen http://bit.ly/wild-side and http://babypotential.typepad.com/start_here_grow_far/2009/11/introducing-some-of-texas-finest-and-funniest-mommy-bloggers.html

Special thanks to the amazing SeaWorld hosts: Brooke (our counselor), Chance (our guide), Dan (our Big Wig), Kami (our Hottie Van Hot), and Suzy (our amazing contact).

And the fun doesn't end. SeaWorld, as you might have gathered, is so much more that simply an incredible and fun destination. They offer so many resources for parents. Come check out this circle, Raising Enlightened Kids, at TheMotherHood.com., where you can "discover the stories, photos, projects, lessons and fun SeaWorld offers for families who want to add meaning and culture to their family time. Let's talk about giving back, positive relationships, conservation, animals, education, and more!"

We've had, already, a really enlightening talk with SeaWorld trainers about how to use positive methods in work and home to accentuate the positive and reach desired behaviors let me just say...afterwards my kids made it to school on time, neat, and all of us were HAPPY.

Full disclosure: I worked with SeaWorld for this event. However, this post represents nothing other than me and my own thoughts about the event, and was not in any way solicited or compensated by SeaWorld.

Friday, November 13, 2009

100 Years of Magic -- Cute Costumed Kids Included

My four year old dressed to the nines for our special night out to Disney on Ice. I thought she'd be unique, a stand-out. I thought she would garner attention in her plum fairy princess outfit.

What I forgot was that "costume" is the preferred style for the four year old girl crowd.

Instead of being the one, my daughter was one among many. Princesses (all of them, including Pocahontas), fairies, Minnie Mouses, and any and all Disney characters pranced in mini-form around Reliant Stadium.

My daughter had, in her ineffable way, tapped into the collective four year old dress-up girl consciousness.

As we passed these costumed sprites (and fairies, and princesses, and mice), my eyes met the other parents' eyes in a flash of commonality: we were parents with This Sort of girl child, and we were That Sort of parent, who was willing to let our girls dress up to go out, even if it was in costume. Whether we had anything else in common was irrelevant; on that point, we met and connected. Our girls had donned costumes for this special event. In my case, both of my girls did, in their own ways.

The thing about my little girls donning costumes is that very rarely are they donning a character. The costume, for them, is an extension of their own character. Persistence, my four year old, was very much herself last night. She just happened to be wearing a multi-hued wispy fairy outfit.

My kids are very imaginative and like most kids, they do enjoy imagination and role-playing games. Sometimes they use props or costumes to further the playacting, but so often, costumes are an end in and of themselves. They are something fun to wear.

And when did we stop doing that, grown-ups?

Upon deeper thought, though, maybe we haven't -- it's simply more subtle. I was wearing a deep purple cardigan over a lavender shirt, with jeans, and ballet flats. I dressed it up a bit with a big multi-toned purple necklace, with huge brooch-like dangling charm. I wore matching purple crystal earrings. What, in the end, was so different between my outfit and my daughter's? Other than hers was largely chiffon-esque and mine was cotton and denim.

The point was, we both put on costumes of a sort to reflect something we were feeling about the night and the event: we felt it was special. Something to do a little something extra for, via our clothing.

And Disney on Ice was special! Before the event, I joked that as someone who couldn't ice skate on kids' style double blades while clutching the railing, I was always going to be impressed by people who could glide on a thin blade on slippery ice.

These skaters glide, dip, fly in the air, hop on and off props, and all in all, tell an entertaining story, all while amazing us with athletic grace on the ice.

What's great about Disney on Ice, and one reason I think it works even for tots, is that it spins out different short tales, tied by very thin thread, with frequent changes to keep interest and attention. It also includes visually interesting costumes -- read: lots of sparkle -- and characters the kids know. Plus, it ends with small "fireworks" display.

The show began with Mickey and the gang, as usual. It then spun into some other snippets, most notably to my four year old, the big Princess sequence. She got to see Belle and Beast, and then every major Disney princess skated out with her Prince. They did duets and also big ensemble numbers. I loved the nostalgic wrap up of the first half with a grand ensemble of It's a Small World. The performance had the different music and dance styles, costumes from each country, and lighted floats. The second half included a big Pinocchio number, which my seven year old enjoyed.

It was a good time -- a special family outing time.

In my last post, I included details about going, coupon/savings information, and so forth. If you are thinking about going, I encourage you to just do it! I've seen a few Disney on Ice shows and really like this one best so far. It's on in Houston through the weekend.

Big thanks to MomCentral, Feld Entertainment, and Disney for a good time for our family. I only take offers like this for events I think are a fit for our family. I do receive tickets as a gift, but they only ask that we enjoy ourselves and let them know if we liked it, or if we write about it. There is no deal, requirement to go to the event, or exchange of services. That I've written about it -- and glowingly -- is simply a factor of "we like this event, we enjoyed ourselves, and it was a good time for our family." But I think the photos of my happy kids show that!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

This is a sincere promo post about Disney on Ice

Don't roll your eyes at me -- I come bearing coupons!

So listen, my kids are MAJOR fans of Disney on Ice (any one, they aren't picky) and frankly Disney ought to hire them to promote the show because honestly nobody else does a better job. Right now a bunch of parents we know are either cursing my name or buying tickets to the show (although, upon reflection, it's not mutually exclusive lol).

The kids are currently hoppier than a grasshopper in a field of clover and more excited than for Halloween because tomorrow we are going to see Disney on Ice's 100 Years of Magic.

I am really glad it is tomorrow because I told them a week ago that we were going and it's been a chorus of "are we there yet?" ever since. And we're excited about it too because it IS a great and entertaining show. I can't ice skate in simple clothes clutching a wall so to watch these athletes glide around in elaborate costumes wows me every time.

I'll be back later with photos and stories (you may comment on the cuteness of the kids) but in the meantime I wanted to tell you tomorrow is opening night and if you want to go, there's a coupon code. Here are the details:

Use code: MOM**
Get 4 tickets for $44 weekday or $4 off on weekends
You can buy tickets at ticketmaster <-- that link also has date, time and location details

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

There are worse things I could do

It's a jungle out there, which requires skilled juggling and a bag of tricks, too.

When Grease! (the movie) came out, my friends and I went Grease-crazy. Everyone bought the album, and we poured over the foldout album cover's yearbook style collection of photos. We tried to decide which T-Birds were cute versus too greaser, and which photo of Danny and Sandy was best. Meanwhile, the vinyl record played on the record player in the background, repeating the songs until they were burned into my brain for thirty years (and probably beyond).

For my birthday, I had a fifties themed party that year. All the kids came in rolled up jeans and tee-shirt or puffy poodle skirts. I have the photos still, and there we are dancing, singing, and mugging in a big group for the camera. It's amazing how period-perfect we looked. It's amazing how carefree and happy we were.

When I look at the photos, I remember other things beyond the giant amount of fun we had at my party, beyond how thrilled I was when the first doorbell chimed with the first guest. I remember how my entire birthday nearly crashed and burned before it even happened, courtesy of a very mean girl who lived on my street. And I remember how Grease fixed it.

Most girls liked Summer Nights or Hopelessly Devoted, and I did too, but this little heart-breaker from Rizzo (Stockard Channing) was my favorite.

Grease was the first time I caught a hint that the incredibly scary Girl World (via Rosalind Wiseman) I inhabited was not my own personal limited experience (and occasional nightmare). Here was an entire movie about the scary dynamics between girls, their friends, and boys, too. It was, apparently, a universal truth, a universal experience. That truly helped to know. The movie played to sterotypes but not too deeply. Each female character had a little bit of complication and depth:

You had Betty Rizzo, the head Pink Lady. A tough girl. Hard of mouth and hard of heart. Sexy. The school loose girl. Plays insider jokes to heighten a sense (or fear of) exclusion. Sets up pranks and prats for Sandy, the new girl, to trip over. The Mean Girl.

Then there was Marty, often Rizzo's right-hand girl. Pen pal to a long billfold full of servicemen. Goes for older guys. Flirtatious. Hints of sweetness and innocence, or wicked irony in naming her after a cherry that's been popped and pickled. Borrowed sophistication.

Frenchie was the girl who floated around the edges of the Pink Ladies, and tried to truly befriend Sandy, but not enough to stand up for her when the ladies target her. Frenchie has her own issues, anyway.

Jan, the class clown who seemed to follow Rizzo more often than not.

Last but not least, you had Sandy Olsson, the new girl, the good girl, the one who is just trying to be nice and yet somehow inadvertently stepped all over toes everywhere while trying to figure out who she is and how she fits in.

The quintessential coming of age story.

Also? The quintessential Girl World movie. Well before anything starring Lindsay Lohan. A whole generation before, in fact.

Shelley was the Rizzo of our neighborhood, and Moria was her Marty/Frenchie. Mine as well. Shelley was completely a power player -- a player with power. She was the youngest of older parents, with older siblings. Her older siblings were in high school and could barely spare us a glance. She was incredibly spoiled. She got more money, candy, and TV than the rest of us combined. She also got a lot more freedom. And she used that liberally.

She'd plan trips to the corner store, which required walking up a major road for several blocks. My mother put her foot down with a big no. Shelley sweetened the pot saying she'd buy everyone a bubblegum who came. I pleaded. I whined. I threatened. My mother held firm. And so I'd watch the kids tromp off with Shelley, who had the lead, of course. She'd tell them how to walk and which songs to sing. They all came home with new bubblegum card packs. How I felt: my mother was in my way of maintaining my position in the pack. She was ruining my life. And it was all Shelley's fault, too.

Shelley moved in after we did, and by the time she arrived, my sister and I were good friends with the two sisters next door -- by luck we were all of an age. Shelley leapt into the center of that, of course. She offered constant tests of her friendship and friends' loyalty to her. She'd dare them, challenge them to prove how they'd do anything for her, for her friendship, and the kids invariably did.

Except me.

And thus began the battle.

By the time my birthday rolled around, the war was in full heat. Shelley threatened to tell everyone to skip my birthday. Much drama and threats and tears and yelling and more drama ensued. I wish I remember exactly how it all worked out, but my memory gets a little hazy at that point. I think some of the mothers talked and the kids were given no choice. Except, maybe, Shelley. She never said one way or another whether she was coming, but in the end, with the entire neighborhood and our friends all there, she came. The last guest to arrive.

I remember her arrival and how I tensed. Missy, my lifelong good friend who went to another school and lived in another neighborhood, had heard about Shelley but never met her. Caryn, my very own personal best friend in the whole wide world, knew Shelley well from school. When Shelley arrived, I deployed my manners, but then I also gave into a hissy fit. I stalked back to my bedroom with Missy and Caryn and vented about Shelley coming.

They tried to reassure me that I should ignore her, that it would be fine, that she wouldn't cause any trouble. They talked me into returning to the party and having fun anyway. Then Missy delivered the coup de grace, "She doesn't seem so bad, anyway, Julie," she said, "I mean, from your descriptions I sort of expected Regan!" (Regan, from The Exorcist.)

Could nobody see how bad this girl was? How manipulative? Could nobody see her games? Every time I tried to talk to anyone about Shelley and the misery she caused, I got a lot of "ignore her" and "it's not that bad" and "you need to quit making such a big deal out of it" and "let it roll off your back." I also got, "she's insecure," and "she's jealous of you," which I did not buy for one second. Shelley had nothing to envy, that was clear, plus she never seemed envious or insecure. The worst was, 'You're letting her do this, letting her get to you." After a while, I began to believe that it was true: I was the problem, I made the problem by naming it, and it was all my fault. Not to mention, I must deserve it.

On some level, though, I continued to think Shelley was the bad news, not me, and someone needed to notice and take care of it.

I stalked out to my party with my friends, and Caryn, always the fun and funny girl, said, "Let's twist again, like we did last summer!" She swung her hips and demanded music and dancing. Nobody cared it was anachronistic. Nobody cared because we all just wanted to have fun.

I ran to the big stereo table and grabbed the Grease album. A Rizzo photo caught my eye. Suddenly, the Shelley v me situation was so clear. It was life or death to her, or felt like it was to her, to be in charge of the Pink Ladies (or our neighborhood). It was who she was, and my constant challenges on the basis of fairness and principles to her authority, while seemingly rational and reasonable to me, were attacks of the very fiber of her being to Shelley. Shelley would never give up her Queen Bee perch, and we'd never be friends, no matter how much I followed my mother's entreaties to "be nice and you'll make friends." I didn't like her, she didn't like me, and we disagreed about the rules of the 'hood.

Right in the moment I was ready to slap her with my glove (metaphorically), I realized...I didn't even really want a duel, and the principle was really not that important to me. I'd been engaged via my stubbornness, only. In fact, maybe, just maybe, I was part of the problem. In fact, maybe, just maybe, I'd been a bit territorial about the friends when she arrived. Maybe I wasn't quite blameless. Maybe things weren't so simple or black and white.

I looked at Caryn, Missy, and the girls I really liked. True friends.

In my mind, I stepped aside. The next day and the day after that, I stepped aside. I quit letting Shelley be That Important, That Powerful. I'd made my point -- I wasn't her subject. I couldn't force others to make the same choice, and in that instant, I realized that these girls probably wouldn't. They'd keep playing her game. In the end, that had been what I'd wanted. In my mind, it was justice -- to convince these girls to see the power player for who she was and to abandon her court, so we could return to the happy play days we'd had before she arrived.

But it would never be, and so, I opted out.

I took the measure of the other girls and recognized them for the Marty, Frenchie, Jan, Betty Rizzo, Sandy, Patty Simcox and so forth that they were. I recognized them for who they were as much as which roles they played. And I got it, sort of.

I opted out, and things were more peaceful. Nobody thanked me. Nobody expressed appreciation that I'd quit putting them in the middle of a struggle between me and Shelley. Nobody said they were glad that the tenseness eased.

But the friendships got a little easier, and Shelley's teasing had no more nerve to hit.

I found out that Shelley wasn't evil personified at all, sometimes, she was even kind of fun. But, she was not a girl I'd ever particularly like. And that? Was okay. Because we could get along.

I wish I could say that there was never another problem, or that I didn't continue to have to close my eyes and count down my anger. I wish I could say I really learned learned that lesson, and never went through the same things again and again throughout my youth. But, I needed to learn it a little bit more thoroughly. The key, though, was that Shelley, Rizzo, and Grease! did provide valuable perspective: it's not really life or death, it's not the end of the world, you can make a choice, and in the end, you can always opt out.

I'm still learning how and when to do this, but as I raise my daughters -- and re-read the new edition of Queen Bees and Wannabes (just go get it -- it's still as good, and better, with updates, additions, and the new technology chapter that helped me and my husband settle on a Specific Policy WRT Technology and now I sleep better at night. really.) -- I have an empathy for the Girl World they inhabit that I hope translates into useful and supportive parenting.

Because of all the Shelleys, Morias, and similar that I met in life, it caused me to constantly seek perspective and positive tools to handle the situations.

Because of Grease! and Rizzo, I always suspect that under each Girl World role-player lies a real feeling human being, who, regardless of role, probably feels like the real girl Rizzo sang about:
I could hurt someone like me,
Out of spite or jealousy.
I don't steal and I don't lie,
But I can feel and I can cry.
A fact I'll bet you never knew.
But to cry in front of you,
That's the worse thing I could do.
It doesn't make us like each other. It doesn't make the world sunshine and roses whenever we're around each other. But it does provide an underlying base of understanding, that can enable us to let it go -- in a real way, a positive way, not a "try to shut it out and sweep it under the rug way."

So when my older daughter refused to say goodbye to a classmate one day, and when I asked about it said, "She's always so mean to me!" I thought of Mean Shelley, and I thought of Wise Rosalind, and I checked my personal baggage and asked, "What does that mean, she's mean to you? What is mean?"

In this case, mean meant bossy. Mean meant challenging my daughter's perceived right to run her own show, and that show might include a cast of characters that overlapped the other girl's show. In this case, it meant a Shelley and Julie dynamic.

I took a deep breath...and we talked.

I watched my daughter consider taking the same step I had, and letting it go. For now, though, we agreed that you don't have to be friends, but you do always have to be courteous, which means accepting it when it comes your way.

It's never simple, never black and white. There are always multiple players in any game, and a key is deciding what you are doing, and whether it fits with your own personal convictions for who you are and what your morals are.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Imagine all the people...celebrating more birthdays

It was days, really, between learning my friend was being sent home, cancer treatment suspended, and learning she had passed away. Sadly, the first symptom came well after the cancer had already metastasized and spread. They began intensive treatment, aggressive. It was hard on her, but she had a lot to live for: loving family, loving friends, and two beautiful children, as well as all of her work, including a book she authored for children about children on the autism spectrum. That was her: a do-er.

She was the sort of person you could picture growing older, still doing. I could even picture her forty years from now blowing out a cake full of candles. In my imagination, over her cake, her hair was still bright, as it was before she got sick. She’d do that, I knew, keep herself looking nice. She’d have a big smile, and she’d tell everyone they shouldn’t have made such a fuss, but everyone would ignore her because they knew she was deeply touched -- family and family times were everything. I wished that for her with all my heart.

When I got the message she was gone, I denied it. I didn’t believe it until I read her obituary in the paper. I left a comment on the online memorial. I spoke about what a fantastic person she was. I spoke about how heartbreaking a loss it was. I mentioned nothing of my anger.

The next day, I went for a run. My feet pounded the track in fury. The hot Texas summer sun pounded me back, just as brutal as my anger. I hate this, I thought, I hate this day. My children had been surly, uncooperative, and cranky. The day was intolerably hot and humid. The sun was relentless. I pulled myself along the straight stretch before a curve that took me along the water.

My iPod stumbled out of my pacing songs and Falling Slowly came on. I nearly clicked to the next song, but the lyrics caught and tugged at my grief. We’ve still got time…the song trilled. But my friend doesn’t, I thought, my friend hasn’t got more time. Why not? I knew how she’d feel about that, and that she’d be of two minds, and unapologetic. That’s how she was. She called it like it was. But she also called blessings for what they were too. I felt ashamed of my ingratitude: for having known her, for all the gifts I received from her, for the beautiful children she brought into the world and would not get to see grow up, for the fact that I had today, another day with my children even if they were cranky and I was grief-stricken and miserably hot.

I took the curve in the track a little slowly and I thought hard about her. She’d have loved this hot day. She’d have loved to be healthy and bickering with her children about getting ready for day camp. She would have loved having this day, I knew. And I wanted to give it to her, a late or early birthday gift, depending upon how you looked at it.

Here it is, I thought with my mind and heart, here is this day, another day, one you would have liked, one that was hot, one that was about being a mom, one that was about making a healthy choice.

I sent the experience of the day up and out, and away to her. And a little bit of grief fell away from my heart. She may not have another birthday, but I do. She may not get to celebrate another birthday with her kids, but I can. And I can send the appreciation and joy from that to her.

My friend, and all the other friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, brothers, fathers, husbands, wives – all the other people who have gone, or are still here fighting, or stand beside someone fighting cancer – are why I joined the American Cancer Society’s More Birthdays effort. I can take a page from my friend’s book and be a do-er. I can celebrate and recognize that every birthday is a blessing.

I am a member of the American Cancer Society's Blogger Advisory Council, a small group of volunteers that advises the Society on its social media strategy. Part of our mission is to spread the word that we have power in the fight against cancer. The first step is to build awareness and engage women. Visibility equals power! So we have started a blog "chain" to spread the word among women bloggers. We call it Bloggers for More Birthdays.

You can help me!

Join Bloggers for More Birthdays by dedicating a blog post to someone you love who's been affected by cancer. Host the badge on your site to build visibility. It's a simple way to celebrate those you love. Just write a post, host our badge, and know that whatever you write, you’re raising awareness and inspiring others to join American Cancer Society in the fight against cancer.

And please, host the special Bloggers for More Birthdays badge on your blog to encourage others to join. Just visit our site for the code to grab a badge, and sample posts.

We want to spread the word, so we ask you to get others in your networks involved by sending them your posts and asking them to dedicate a post of their own. If you don't have your own space online, email a post to bloggersubmit@officialbirthdayblog.com and we'll post it for you.

You can tweet about the chain as well, please use #morebirthdays:


dedicate a blog post to someone you love with cancer and tell their story join http://bit.ly/13kS6L for #morebirthdays

blog against cancer: join http://officialbirthdayblog.com/category/bloggers/ for #morebirthdays

Blog for #morebirthdays, less cancer join http://officialbirthdayblog.com/category/bloggers/

Happy Birthday.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The American People in their Righteous Might*

* Title from a speech by FDR immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor

Eight years ago I was so pregnant I was at that "oh no you didn't go and make me move, now I'll have to sit on you and crush you" stage.

When I woke up that morning, I lay on my side, the left, of course, with my knees slightly bent, of course, and I contemplated the floor. Was it going to be easier, I wondered, to maneuver the upper half of my body upright first, or to kick my legs hard enough to get momentum to drop them over the edge of the bed to help hurtle me into a standing position?

In the end, hunger is what really got me out of bed that day. But still, I moved at the speed of snail.

That's why I was still in my car zipping through Salem, slowing only to consider stopping for a pistachio donut at the greatest little bakery right before the historic square. In my mind, the morning is molasses slow motion and details are vivid. It was a gorgeous perfect New England fall day. Brilliant sky, crisp air with sunlit warmth. I glanced to my left as my car slowed for the curve and checked out the window display for the Salem doll lady, then swung my head to the right to drool over the gorgeous Victorians. The witch museum off the square was preparing for Halloween. Not a morning like any other, a sharper more perfect morning than any other. A day that should have been as spectacular as the weather, as the coming season with all its fun and treats and special moments.

NPR chirped the news in my ear. I turned off to Marblehead, and as I drove into my work parking lot I felt so lucky: I was pregnant, healthy, had a great job, lived in the most beautiful place in the US, had a great husband and life was good.

That's why I was so stunned, so disbelieving when the newscaster stumbled over his words and said, "This can't be right...we're getting reports that a plane has struck the World Trade Center...we don' t understand the report, we need to check, we'll keep bringing information..."

That's the moment the day started to move in fast motion blur.

I actually ran into my office building, the first office was the film guy. He had all sorts of TVs and equipment and people were crammed into his office.

"Oh my God," I said, "They're saying...planes? In New York City?"

"I know," my coworker Frank said, "We're watching..."

And the bodies parted and we turned to the television just in time to see the second plane hit. There was a long, loud audible inhale, and maybe a short scream, but what I really recall was the publisher's long low moan. "My son," she said, "My son is in that building!" She hurried from the room and it was so, so quiet until several people started murmuring oh my god.

The newscasters were talking about Boston, about threats and planes to Boston, to the Financial District where my husband worked.

I tore my eyes away from the television and hurried to my office. I called my husband, "Oh my God did you see?"

We spoke for a few minutes then he said there was a commotion outside his office. He came back a minute later, "There are military planes flying over my building," he told me, "What is happening?"

"You should leave," I said, "I heard they're shutting down the trains."

"I don't know," he said, with that reluctance of people who've been through too many false fire alarms.

A minute later I heard urgent shouting behind him. "What was that?"

"A fireman," he said, "He told us all to get out, now, not to shut anything down just go."

"Do it," I said, "Run as fast as you can to try to get space on the train. Get off at Swampscott," I said, naming a stop significantly south of us, "I'll drive to get you."

"I'll call you," he said. But cell service went out and it was the last I heard from him for hours and hours.

Nobody understood. Nobody comprehended. But urgency began penetrating the shock.

I drove to Swampscott and waited. Much later than expected, the train arrived, so full that people stood on the steps, clinging to the rail, white-faced, silent. People poured out. "There he is!" an older woman said out loud. "Oh I'm glad," I said. "Do you see your husband yet?" she asked. "No, no, not yet." Her son joined her and they lingered beside me until I burst out, "Oh thank goodness there he is!" She smiled at me and left, one happy end to one story that day.

Every architect in America who watched the news that day knew what was coming. The World Trade Center towers are standard lesson in architectural school. My husband predicted nearly to the minute when the towers would fall, and how. Later, I heard countless architects share the same story.

So much grief and anger. So much sudden comprehension. So much seeing what would happen next with deep dread. So much so unavoidable. So much anger about what could have been, or should have been, known and avoided.

My sister-in-law called. She'd been rounded up by the FBI. That's how she phrased it -- rounded up. "I stood behind him in line," she said, "The terrorist guy, the one who flew the Boston plane. He was right in front of me." She was terrified and the FBI kept questioning her. They took all her bags -- briefcase and purse -- and her car. She cried. Not from fear, but because she had nothing to tell them. She wished she had something to tell them.

We all wished we had the right words that day, the ones people wanted to hear.

I remember being so confused by my shock. "It's not like it's the first time this sort of thing has ever happened," I kept saying.
"Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God. "

--- Franklin Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech, December 8, 1941
The truth is, history and past events not withstanding, it was unprecedented, what happened that day.

Shock became anger, anger became action, action became war, and then the losses compounded, as did the deep divisions, and the cementing of opinions and sides.

Eight years later.

That baby is nearly eight now. My baby, I mean, not the war.

But you can't hardly think of ages without realizing that we've been at war my daughter's entire life. That children her age are missing someone. I read an essay today by a 9/11 widow. She has meticulously architected, in her mind, her husband's death, and her own life to this day.

This morning, on another 9-11 -- which remains, no matter what, not just any other day in September, not any other Friday or birthday or deadline or any event, special or mundane, Nine Eleven -- I felt sluggish as I did eight years ago. I pushed myself around the track, though, bribing myself with an episode of This American Life: "Fine Print." They interviewed an Iranian man who had been seized, imprisoned, tortured and forced into a false confession about conspiring with Western Powers. Western makes me think of cowboys, which isn't too far off if you think more deeply about how the West was won. Western makes Middle Easterners, okay, Iranians, think of 1953 and how the West won then, too. They have not forgiven or forgotten, and it lends credence to the false confessions, which are actually well-planned and profesionally delivered.

Omid Memarian's confession was well-planned and professionally delivered, despite his best attempts to surreptitiously poke sticks in the spokes.

He said that he realized, a week or so into his detainment (such a word) and torture, that he wasn't even the real target -- the perceived threat. He was merely an innocent bystander, so to speak, a tool to threaten and get at the real targets and true perceived threats. He sounded put out, and humiliated. To go through all this and just to be a tool.

Sort of like the people in the Towers, on the planes, in the field in Pennsylvania. The people lost in 2001.

Memarian falsely confessed in 2004, his country ramping up its anti-Western strategy, possibly as a direct result of US actions -- although they seem to dislike the British as intensely -- which were a result of the 9/11 attacks which were a result of...

War is a Mobius strip.

So here we all are, eight years later, continuing to feed in on ourselves, feed on ourselves.

Memarian also said that while he was being tortured he thought, "I don't want this to become that divisive moment, that defining moment, not for me, not when I'm only 30."

As a journalist, he said, explaining, you spend time with people in tragedies, and you realize that there are these moments when life becomes split into Before and After. He'd interviewed detainees and torture victims, among others, and he said they just never quite recover themselves.

The producer of the show, Nancy Updike, didn't ask him to explain what he meant. At this point, eight years later, we all comprehend what that means.


In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying. In 1969, a lot of people knew a lot about loss and grief. In 1969, four generations of men had fought four generations of wars. In 1969, war didn't bring about a baby boom, it brought about a baby bust. The joke is that the Baby Boomers were too busy being eternal teenagers and living selfishly to actually have children, but if you asked me straight out I'd say that's silly, straight out.

Anyway, as we all know, they waited until the first Gulf War was over to have children. Maybe we all thought war was petering out, by then. It certainly didn't have the same impact the Vietnam War had on us, culturally. Also, the Greatest Generation had already happened, so what was left to the rest of us? Lesser? Frankly that was fine by me. I didn't mind having a lesser and more comfy life. I was happy to appreciate the mettle testing the gradnparents' generation had sustained if it meant I got to miss out on a Great Depression and World War.

Anyway, though, as we all know, that wasn't to be.


Kubler Ross said there were five stages of grief. Have we hit number 3, Bargaining, yet? or are we stuck at 2, Anger?

You aren't supposed to rush the process.

But maybe, just maybe, it's time to let go of the second stage.

I heard that the ability or willingness to traverse the stages linked to the amount of meaning and purpose one has in life.

Here's to us finding, nationally, a new and strong meaning and purpose beyond the before and after, beyond the anger and fear.

I learned a lot more about loss and grief, personally, this summer. That's why right now it feels so important, urgent maybe even, to me to say we need to celebrate.

A short while ago, on a curve in a track by the water, I cried about a lost friend. I cried because I hated the day -- it was hot, the children had been contrary -- and she would have loved it. I cried because I was here and she was not. How I wish you were here to have this day, my heart cried. That's when it hit me: I needed to have this day and find the joy in it, and send it up to her, somehow.

Live and let live.

We need to have this day and find the joy in it and send it up, somehow.