Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tales from the Land of the Happy Housewives

an interview conducted by Jenny Gardiner

Today we are departing from our usual Erma-esque ways and have a guest author visiting. Ellen Meister, Judy and I are members of a group of authors called the Girlfriends' Cyber Circuit and when we have new books on the market, we try to help each other get the word out to readers who might be interested in their books. You're probably already familiar with Ellen's wildly successful novel, SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA, which is straight up our alley. Ellen's latest, THE SMART ONE, will certainly appeal to all of us mom-types as well.

Thanks for stopping by, Ellen! Please tell us a little about your book.

THE SMART ONE is a sister story with a bright voice, a dark crime and more humor than I expected. (Sometimes my characters surprise me!)

The three sisters in this book mix like oil, water and hundred-proof gin . . . a combination that threatens to combust over family tensions, suspected infidelities, a devastating accident, a stunning confession, and the sudden reappearance of their handsome, now all-grown-up former neighbor, Kenny Waxman, who's back in town making his mark as a TV comedy writer.

It seems like the sisters will never understand where their differences begin and their own destructive tendencies end. Then they discover a decades-old body stuffed inside an industrial drum and begin a bold, heartbreaking, and sometimes hilarious journey that will either bring them together . . . or tear them apart for good.

What got you writing in the genre in which you write.

I really never think about genre. I just write the stories that appeal to me. So far, that has meant writing books that explore female relationships. (My first book SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA was, at its core, a friendship story. My new book, THE SMART ONE, is a sister story.) My publisher markets these as women's fiction, which is fine with me, though I hope that men feel free to read them!

Favorite thing about being a writer?

I love this question! My favorite part is hearing from readers who I've touched in some way. That makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Least favorite thing about being a writer?

The despair hits when I realize I have to unravel a large chunk of a novel in order to make a change. It's so overwhelming. I start out in a panic thinking there's just no way I can do it. Then I roll up my sleeves and get to work.

What is the most interesting thing that's happened to you since becoming a published author?

It's been such a surprising journey of highs and lows that it's hard to pinpoint one thing. But certainly one of the most gratifying experiences has been meeting other authors. Writers are my rock stars, so when I get real face time with one of my literary idols it makes me giddy with joy.

Lastly, I am a big fan of pie. Banana Cream is my favorite, hands-down. So I always have to ask authors this: what's your favorite type of pie?


Thanks so much Ellen, for stopping by! I'm actually off to make peach pie with the last of the summer peaches here in Virginia!


Friday, August 29, 2008

Re-Direct Me, Please

Re-Direct Me, Please
by Barb McKone

Way back before college bills, before cell phones and I-Pods and hot flashes, we parents learned a very basic parenting skill.  Those who didn't learn it were washed away in the swift and horrible tide of endless dealing with every single question and problem our children posed instead of just a manageable fraction of them.  That skill is called re-direction.  

One of the greatest things about re-direction, or distraction, is just how darned often it can be used.  And, if used properly, it has nearly a one hundred percent success rate.   When the child is very young, crying over a stubbed toe, the mom, while rubbing said toe and consoling, says to crying child, "Guess what?!  I bought some bubbles at the grocery store today!" or even just, "Ooh, what a pretty cloud.  Have you ever seen a cloud that looked like a pony before?"   Sore toe forgotten.  But, that mom had better have those bubbles.  Re-direction is the art of replacing one situation with a new, more acceptable situation or just diverting attention long enough to direct that attention to another subject.  When the child is in middle school, anxiety over some terrible assignment or grade on a test may be replaced by: "Hey, don't you think that new boy in your class looks like a Jonas brother? " or perhaps just, "All right!  New episode of Lost tonight! Do you have time to watch?"  It may not be quite as successful, but, temporary distraction is better than none at all.

Life has been busy lately.  I believe I've fully given in to the mid-life crisis.  Between fretting about jobs and sending kids off to college and late-night calls from the emergency room by that new college freshmen and inexplicable wakeful moments in the middle of a perfectly good night's sleep, I've been feeling a little overwhelmed.  Isolated.  Exhausted.  Bogged down and just, well, down.  Self-absorbed, perhaps, without realizing it.  And until tonight, I didn't realize what I needed.

I needed to be re-directed.  And I was, tonight, by one historical televised moment.

Even though it's been understood for months, I almost couldn't believe what I was watching.   It was surreal.   I'm sure many in the generations ahead of me were shaking their heads in disbelief, but my generation always knew it was possible.  We knew it would happen some day, but wondered if it would occur in our lifetimes.  There were times it seemed less probable than a man walking on the moon must have seemed fifty years ago.  We have an African American Presidential nominee.  And what a nominee he is.

Regardless of political party or background, any American has to admit that tonight was truly historical.  I watched the acceptance speech with tears in my eyes and a combination of awe, joy and fear in my heart. It was awesome, wasn't it, to see that diverse crowd, cheering their unified support?  To hear the words of promise and change?  To think that we might, just maybe, really be less dependent on foreign oil in ten years?  And it is terrifying, isn't it, to think of the danger posed to this man and his family?  And what about the pressure, should he win, of being the first person of color to lead our country?  Just the thought of it makes me quake in my slippers.  
So, I've got something else to think about tonight.  Something new.  I'll sleep better, knowing that we are a country willing to shake things up a bit.  I think I might even go to bed smiling instead of worrying.  My thoughts have been re-directed to a world of optimistic possibility.  I may get that wonderful new career!  I may get through an entire week without a parenting crisis!  I may even, at long last, not wake up before sunrise and end up cleaning instead of sleeping.  After all, anything is possible!  If you don't believe me, just ask Barack Obama.



Thursday, August 28, 2008


by Jenny Gardiner

Dammit, dammit, dammit!

I've been trumped by the hair net brigade. The lunch ladies. The ol' gals who slop swill on a plate day in and day out!

My ace in the hole as a mother has lost its curb appeal, if you will, thanks to food services at my son's university.

When your kid leaves for college, a mom has little pull remaining. Not much to draw that child back home again. I mean let's see...On one hand, you have your parents nagging, telling you what to do, telling you when to do it and often how. On the other hand, you can be off on your own, very little obligation but to pass your classes, and have fun and party till the wee hours and hey, who'll ever know?

I fully realize that part of the charm of going away to college is this lure of the illicit: we're gonna drink and maybe do drugs and stay up all night and do whatever with whomever and nobody's gonna do anything about it!!!! those students say with their thumbs in their ears and their fingers flailing upward in a nah-nah-nah-nah-nah way. But at least eventually the mom-made meal lure would bring them back home, at least fleetingly.

When I was a kid, one of the few things I looked forward to upon my return to the home front was a good home-cooked meal. I will never forget one of the really depressing side-effects of ingesting dining hall food back in my day--- it turned everyone's poop orange! Maybe this was because it was during the halcyion days of Red Dye #40, I don't know. But it was, at the least, disturbing. Talk about mal-nutrition!

My freshman year dining hall experience ran the gamut from the infamous (and much-loathed) chili-dogs to a fine-dining item known as "shrimplets": a glob of batter with dessicated shrimp flakes mixed in, molded into the vague shape of an actual piece of shrimp and deep-fried to golden goodness. I knew it was time to get home to a good meal when shrimplets on the menu began to sound tasty. At least if dredged in copious amounts of ketchup.

We also had what was at the time the very cutting-edge new-concept salad bar. But this was in the early 80's, so the salad bar was doused with heaps of sulfites to preserve it's "freshness." This, however, left a bitter taste and had an undesirable mouth-numbing after-effect that left me generally eating only the chow mein noodles on top and none of the wholesome veggies beneath.

My son, on the other hand, is attending a school that touts one of the nation's top-ranked dining hall experiences. So great is the food that it the fact is oft repeated as mantra by most students, faculty and administration. Harvard might boast about its superlative education, but this place, dammit, they've got you by the balls with fabulous food.

When we went to orientation this summer, I was dragged kicking and screaming (almost literally; I detest cafeteria food and had been looking forward to finding a nice restaurant in town, enjoying a leisurely glass of wine and some actual food, not modern-day shrimplets) into the dining hall. My husband insisted. "We have to get the entire college experience," he crowed at me. Why, I have no clue. I'd already attended college, escaped dining hall food with a large supply of ramen noodles, and had no desire to stroll down that Memory Lane again. But I relented so as to not have a hissy fit in front of my son and his potential peers.

When we arrived in the dining hall, I almost heard a choir of, well, not exactly angels, but something that would indicate this place wasn't serving chili dogs. A quick glance around revealed dining stations everywhere: Italian, Chinese, Mexican, sushi, vegetarian, breakfast-for-dinner, a dessert bar (our dessert was one item, rarely something one would choose to eat if given the chance to eat either that or gnaw on one's own flesh). Hell, they even had a churrascaria. Who goes to the trouble to have a churrascaria for a bunch of college students who would gladly eat shrimplets if given no other options?

Now my husband has never met an all-you-can-eat venue that hasn't thrilled him to the core of his very being. He rises to the challenge and slathers his plate as high as it'll hold the food. And goes back for more. And more. And more. He was a very happy camper at the dining hall that night, particularly as he gloated at me, the doubting Thomas, who wanted nothing more than to hate the food and toss it over his head. Take that, dammit, and gimme my glass of wine and my goat cheese appetizer! While the food wasn't exactly Michelin star-ready, I'll tell you this: that Freshman Ten would rapidly have compound into the Freshman Forty for me, especially considering the dessert bar included cheesecake, belgian waffles with ice cream, even mini creme brulees. Ooooh, la la!

Now when my oldest brother went away to college, I, the loving, baking-obsessed little sister that I was, whipped up a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to send him. Back then shipping things wasn't as simple as it is today. We didn't keep packing materials handy, things took ages to get to their destination. Undeterred, I rifled through the house and found soft packaging for those cookies: I securely buffered the batch with cotton balls, jammed it into a shoe box, and sent it on its merry way. Where it no doubt sat on a variety of sweltering trucks in the early days of September en route from Pennsylvania to North Carolina over the course of a week. By the time my brother got my well-intended gift, the cotton had glued to the stale cookies and there was to be no salvaging of the things.

I entertained the idea of sending my son cookies. This time I could even overnight them so they wouldn't be stale. And I'd avoid the cotton balls in favor of maybe bubble wrap. The only problem is my cookies will be no draw, compared to the four-berry tart, mousse au chocolat, and the myriad other desserts at his daily disposal.

By extension, those meals he might yearn for served up with my loving hands will pale in comparison to the lobster, tenderloin, sushi and lord knows what else they're offering up at that place.

I want to lodge a complaint! They're making school so desirable that my son will never want to come home!

I guess the upside is it's making my husband want to re-enroll in college, just for the meals alone. Maybe I can talk him into that, and I'll be off the hook for cooking dinner for a couple of years: not such a bad downside to being usurped in my mommy role, eh?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Feeling my Age . . . Whatever it is

by Judy Merrill Larsen

Okay, I know, by looking at my driver's license or passport (or, quite frankly, in the mirror in the harsh light of day) that I'm 48, that I could stand to lose a few (10? 15? 20?) pounds, and that under no circumstances will I ever regain that youthful flat stomach I once had. I know that. And for the most part, that's fine. I like being an adult. Like that my years give me some clout.

But, I also have to admit that my internal sense of how old I am doesn't always mesh with my actual stats. You know, I'll be feeling cute, walking down the street or hanging out with friends, and I don't necessarily feel middle-aged. Or old enough to have two kids in their twenties (Eek!). But then a clerk will call me "ma'am" and I realize the world sees me differently than the way I think of myself. It's like someone has just shoved a mirror in my face and said, "Hey Lady, take a gander at this." And it's not always pretty.

The first time this hit me upside the head I was much younger. 31 to be exact. I was ice skating up at the municipal rink with my sons. I was pretty smooth. I mean I couldn't do spins or anything, but I could turn and stop without falling. My kids thought I was pretty boffo. And then I wiped out. I hit my head and the head band I was wearing flew off and skittered across the ice. My pride was a bit bruised, but other than that I was fine and dandy. Until the "skating guard" (some high school boy with black skates and a whistle) came over to help me up. I assured him I was fine and he sent me on my way. But not before handing me my head band and saying, "Here's your hair piece." In his eyes, I was some old mom who'd narrowly escaped breaking a hip and needing a wheelchair.

Another time, just two years ago, I was walking across a college campus with my older son. It was a gorgeous spring day, and the campus was teeming with students playing volleyball and soaking in the sun. We were having a good time and laughing and while I KNEW I was a mom and not a co-ed, in some part of my brain I thought, hmm, I remember this, I fit in. Then a frisbee whammed me in the back of my head, I stumbled a half-step, and I was suddenly surrounded by nervous looking young men (my son included) who were worried about me. Because to them, I was old. I was a mom and for all they knew I was about to have a hot flash.

But, Saturday night I was transported back to feeling 17 again. For almost 4 hours. And I was young and thinner and so was everyone else around me. I was on the floor for a Bruce Springsteen concert and I was BORN TO RUN, baby. For 3 hours and 20 minutes I danced and sang and cheered and raised my fist high because tramps like us were out on the streets (oh oh oh oh oh!) and dancing in the dark. Now, there are plenty of reasons I love Springsteen--his songs resonate with me unlike any other, and he's still (at age 58) totally hot in a pair of jeans, and he's been the soundtrack of my life for more than 30 years. But, for me now, approaching 50, I especially love that his songs make me feel like dancing and rocking and rolling. When "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" comes on the car radio, I'm dancing in my seat and am a teenager again with my whole life in front of me and the road is wide open. And no one can convince me I'm old.

Of course, when I got home I soaked my swollen feet which I hadn't had to do the first time I saw Bruce 28 years ago, and when I was trying to fall asleep, the music still pounding in my soul, I had to get up and take a Tums because the glass of wine I'd had when I was soaking my feet brought on some heartburn.

So I'll keep holding on to the warm memory of Saturday night. And when I'm feeling stiff and old, all I have to do is put a Bruce CD in and hit "play."

p.s. And, no, that's not me in the picture (although in my mind, that's how I looked). It was a young girl he brought on stage to dance with him during "Dancing in the Dark."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Box That Rocks

By Melanie Lynne Hauser

My husband just amused himself by making a little kitty fun house for our cats. He took a big box, cut three holes in it, each one on a different side, and put it down in the middle of the living room floor. And sure enough, as I’m typing this one cat is inside and the other one is outside and they’re batting at each other and chasing each other around it and it’s very cute.

And it reminded me of times gone by, times when all I needed was a box to make me happy. I wish my needs were still so simple.

When I was growing up, my dad owned a small appliance store. (Not a “small appliance” store, but a small store that sold appliances.) Occasionally he’d bring home these huge refrigerator and stove and dishwasher boxes for my brother and me to play with. That was just the best. We’d construct houses, forts, entire cities made of boxes. We’d bend them and stack them and tear out openings. They seemed huge to me, too. Boxes twice as big as I was. I’d think that I could really live in them, forever. Of course, back then we didn’t have a lot of other stuff to play with. No videogames or computers or 500 channels of cable TV. Mainly just dolls and books and board games, and in the summer we spent a lot of time outside because there was just as little to do inside as there was outside, and outside was more fun because dirt was involved. So those appliance boxes were just the best. Until it rained, of course. Then we’d have to tear everything down and put it out for the garbage man, and wait until the next time Dad brought home some boxes.

Eventually, of course, I grew up and became kind of prissy, to tell the truth. Dad stopped bringing home boxes. But when I married and had kids, I got to return to that time again, just for a little while.

I remember oldest son’s first Christmas. My husband and I are pretty reasonable people, in spite of what you might think after reading this blog for awhile. We knew that it would be ridiculous to spend lots of money on an eight-month-old who still thought his fist was pretty entertaining. We left the major spoiling to his grandparents and uncles, and his father and I bought him just a couple of presents, mainly based on the size of the boxes. He spent hours and hours playing with those boxes — the actual toys being ignored. He stacked them and put them over his head and drooled all over them and we didn’t care. In fact we thought it was very amusing and congratulated ourselves for being such practical parents.

And when the boys were toddlers, we’d construct elaborate forts out of blankets and cushions and pillows and keep them up for days and days. They slept in them, even, and I’d bring them little snacks and even pretend mail, like they actually lived there and fun was had by all.

Then, somehow — it all got so complicated. Someone got them one of those mini Jeeps that had to be recharged all the time. Someone else got them one of those Playmobil sets — I think the first one was a gas station — but it was far too complicated for the boys and so I ended up spending hours and hours putting that thing together, from an instruction booklet that was about 500 pages long. Then the boys discovered videogames, my husband and I became enablers, and all of a sudden play time became this complicated set up of cords and cables and consoles and outlets. Then came the computers, the iPods, the portable DVD players….

And life — or at least the things that give us pleasure — became complicated. Even for me. To be honest, I’d much rather spend an afternoon shopping at DSW for the latest platform-soled Mary Janes, stopping at Starbucks for a double tall nonfat easy caramel caramel macchiato, going to Sephora to sample lipsticks, then dropping by J.Jill to see if there are any cute skirts on sale — than play with a box.

But still, sometimes I wish I was young, and the boys were young, and we could be happy with just a fort made of blankets, or a sunny afternoon, or a found penny on the sidewalk — something simple. Something uncomplicated.

Like the endless possibilities of a cardboard box.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dragons, and Tuna, and Fleas

By Margy McCarthy

Sparky and I got married quite young- I was twenty-one, a senior in college, and he was twenty-three. Our first apartment was a sectioned off part of a house. It had a delightful floor-plan: when you opened our front (and only) door, you stepped across the threshold and found yourself in the bedroom. The kitchen was hardly big enough for the two of us, and the cabinets were painted a garish bright orange. The bathroom was tiny and dim, but there was enough light to see that a previous occupant had hand-painted a dragon on the toilet seat.

We named him Dudley.

When the Marine Corps took us to North Carolina, we rented a wood-grain paneled, flea-infested single-wide in the middle of a National Forest. We knew we had conquered the fleas when our cat deigned to walk on the floor. The kitchen countertops were so crooked that if you left an apple or potato unsupervised, it would immediately roll off and bounce across the room.

(Those children of the Depression got nothing on me. I can poor-mouth with the best of them.)

I mention these things because as our situation improved, I found a real sense of satisfaction in looking back at those poor but happy times and seeing how far we had come. When you start out with crooked counters and a dragon on the toilet, there’s no place to go but up.

But I didn’t mean to spoil my children. That part was an accident.

I’m not talking about having raised the kind of kids who have a matching sports car for every outfit- I’m talking about the kind of kids who offhandedly say things like- “I would rather eat ramen noodles every day for a month than wipe my butt with cheap toilet paper,” when they really don’t like ramen noodles, and “I could hardly sleep in that bed at the Marriott, the sheets felt like sandpaper,” or “They didn’t use new baby sweet peas in the pasta salad, did they? The texture of these isn’t nearly as good.”

I confess. Food, bedding, and toilet paper are a few of the primary areas in which I have failed to prepare my kids for the harsh realities of the big, bad world.

It happened so innocently that we never saw it coming: The oil-packed tuna we ate in my childhood long ago bowed out in favor of water-packed. Then it was chunk white, and then solid albacore and now there’s yellowfin in the stores. You know how it goes- when they were little you could fix the kids a burger and they were happy as a couple of pigs in mud- but then one day they wanted to try a bite of steak… The next thing you knew, it was Saltimbocca Alla Romana all around.

When I went off to college a generation ago, I packed the sheets from my childhood twin bed and a quilt my grandma made. Over the course of the last few years, my son’s down pillow led to a down throw, which led to a down comforter, to a feather bed, to 300-400-500 thread count sheets- which eventually led to a mom who needed a forklift to get her kid out of bed, and fears he may never get himself out in time to get to work or class on his own. (It’s no wonder I had to rename that boy Snooze.)

And for that matter, mea culpa on the TP too. I still have flashbacks to the couple of years when my dad decided to save money by ordering toilet paper for the house from the janitorial supply company the church used. I swear- it was two cases of 120 jumbo rolls of economy-grade burlap. Yee-ouch.

My maternal regret today is that I seems to have inadvertently stolen the pride of accomplishment I felt in overcoming all the easy, surmountable obstacles (like oil-packed tuna and corn cobs on-a-roll) from my children, and left them only the hard ones. When we go up to visit Snooze in his brand-new enter-through-the-living-room apartment, I will have to do my part to remedy that error when I help stock his personal, privately-keyed pantry.

No yellowfin for you, kid. Earn it yourself.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Half-Empty Nest by Barb McKone

Half-Empty Nest by Barb McKone

My daughter is gone.

After a whirlwind of activity, excitement and confusion, we pulled away from Truman State University last Sunday one child down, my first baby left behind to a suite full of giggling, texting eighteen-year-old girls.  My 15-year old son sat in the back seat, only slightly traumatized by the experience.  My husband and I were worse off.  I felt numb.  Blind sided.  I really didn't know what to think, or what to do.  Drive home, I guessed, but I kept feeling like we'd forgotten something.  What the heck was missing?  Finally I figured it out.  Gracie was missing.  It all happened so fast.

She didn't wave goodbye.  Didn't walk us to the curb.  We had stayed until the bitter end; she had places to go.  Freshman barbecues to attend.  My daughter was gone.

Let me tell you what else is gone.  

The mess.

I know I should be broken up about our sweet daughter having moved on to the next phase of her life, and I am.  Really.  I miss her every minute.  I expect to see her smile every time I drive up to the house.  If I dig deep enough, I can muster up enough tears to fill that joke of a sink in their suite bathroom.  The day after dropping off Gracie was the first day of school in our little town.  The sight of the happy kids with shiny new backpacks waiting for the school bus, hand in hand with their moms, nearly knocked me flat.  Wasn't that us, no more than weeks ago?  After a couple of hours of kleenexes, I snapped out of it.  I snapped out of it because, from my vantage point under the covers in her bedroom, I noticed the large, multicolored glob of dried birthday cake frosting on her bedroom wall.  I  hadn't been aware of the frosting fight in the bedroom.  I pulled back the covers, grabbed a kitchen knife and damp paper towel, and started chipping.  

Since finishing off the first pack of Mr. Clean Wipes, it's been easier to not fall too far into sentimentality.  I've found two phone cords and a favorite sweatshirt I "lost" last fall.  I've found duplicate sweatshirts of at least three she took to school, meaning three of her friends are missing theirs.  Which friends, we may never know.  I've found sales slips for clothes never returned after last Christmas and birthday, and a shelf of American Girl dolls I'd completely forgotten about. The missing Lacrosse letter, graduation cap and 8x10 senior photo were found behind a bookcase, and there really was a piece missing from the "broken" Dustbuster.  It's called a CHARGER, and it was under the bed.  It took three days, but her room is now the cleanest in the house.  It's HUGE.  I had forgotten how much larger rooms look when the floor is showing.  I've organized her drawers, what's left in them, and her closet is color-coded and spacious.  I'm thinking about moving in.

I've heard story after story about the moms who move their kids into their dorm rooms, organizing their drawers and labeling their desk supplies and hooking up their printers for them.  Tsk, tsk.  The kids should be independent.  Do it for themselves.  They're going off to college, aren't they?  Why coddle them?  What kind of mom would do that to their child?

Me, that's who.  

I love it.  I helped her pack, organizing t-shirts into tank, sports, sentimental, and fashion. Underwear was carefully laundered (by me) and sorted in much the same way.  In the dorm room, we chose a bed close to a closet with the desk underneath for more floor space and started unpacking.  She was gone in a flash, off to breathlessly meet new friends and make plans to meet up at the orientation events.  Small-world stories popped up every few minutes: I think I know you from camp.  Aren't you Robert's friend?   You're in my dorm?  On my floor?  OH. MY. GOODDD!  Four hours later, computer almost figured out and a tally of everything we'd forgotten in my purse, we shoved off.  It was time.  I was satisfied.  I'd organized her for one last time.  From now on, she's on her own.

Famous last words, right?  

Truth be told, I know that I did it more for me than for her.  I'm a little scared of my daughter being at college, so it makes me feel good to at least try to believe it that my last-ditch effort at organization might help her somehow.  She'll start out her first semester of college with her jeans separated from her sweats, and she may be able to study better knowing she has an extra set of clean towels on the shelf above the closet door and a hook for necklaces. Why it makes a difference to me, I don't know.  But somehow, I sleep better knowing I folded her pajamas. 

She called three times in the first three hours after we left.  She called to thank me for the plastic talking parrot from the Cracker Barrel gift shop (somewhere in Ohio- great green beans and cheesy potatoes) I left on her bed.  Hours of amusement.  She called to ask where her headbands were. Bottom drawer of the three-drawer stack on the left side of her closet.  She called to let us know the barbecue had been short and she and her her new "best" friends were getting ready for their first evening on campus.  She told us how much she loved her roommate "Cat"- she wasn't at all stand-offish as she'd first worried, just a little shy.  And, she called to thank me for helping in her room, unpacking and organizing her drawers, and making her dorm bed with her new comfy sheets, a thick new comforter, and matching pillows.  

Okay, now I'm getting a little misty.

She noticed.  I could hear a sweet genuine smile in her voice, and she noticed.  Maybe there's some hope after all.  Perhaps my need to separate push pins from paper clips will make a little bit of difference in her life.  Maybe the next eighteen years will be slightly more organized, and include a Dustbuster that's actually charged up from time to time.  

I can't give up  hope. 

In the meantime, I woke up in the middle of the night last night wondering if I'd ever taught her how to make my special laundry paste out of Clorox 2, Oxy-Clean and water.  Find an old toothbrush, dunk, and scrub scrub scrub.  Bra straps: good as new.  It'll also take the paint off your car.

Maybe next summer we'll perfect the laundry paste.  For now, I've done what I can, and my nest is half-empty.  
I need to go have a little alone time now.   I suddenly have the perfect spot for just that.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

by Jenny Gardiner

Thirty one years ago this summer, I had my heart broken for the first time. I was in high school, and my boyfriend, my first love, departed for college, leaving me behind to wallow in tears as he launched into a new life in a new town, with new friends, worse yet, new girlfriends, and no me.

I remember with clarity the pain and the tears and the fact that there was no way to get out of it: I had to forge through the hurt and become a new version of me, a little tougher, a little more mature, having been fortunate to have had such a wonderful relationship and trying not to be bitter about being left in the dust.

My boyfriend at the time did the right thing in breaking up with me---it wouldn't have been fair for him to have embarked on this new life with baggage left behind. It didn't make it any easier knowing that, though.

I'm feeling the heartache once again. Only this time it's vicariously through my own teenaged daughter, whose unexpected vacation friendship with an adorable young man blossomed into so much more. And because of the late nature of the relationship, from its inception it's been a countdown of sorts until he departed for his college, far away from here.

They've made a different choice---they are going to try to maintain the relationship, a tact made easier with text messaging, IM'ing, and webcams. I wrestle with whether this is a good idea for either of them, but I respect them for whatever decision they make, and hope it is for the best and holds neither of them back.

I try to latch onto hopeful stories about relationships that somehow last through lengthy separations, knowing the odds are against them remaining together. I was heartened recently to hear that a friend's son, who dated the same girl in high school and part of college, then broke up, reunited with her a few years out of college, promptly got engaged, and will be married soon. My husband's best friend's mother was widowed unexpectedly a decade ago, and is now betrothed to her high school sweetheart. These things can happen, I tell my daughter, hoping not to dash her hopes.

More than likely they'll end up like me and my old boyfriend. Once I graduated from college we went out on a date. But that magic just wasn't there for me any more. I'd grown and changed and wasn't interested in reviving what had been.

Ironically, after all of these years, he and I have become friends again. I guess being an author and having a name somewhat in the spotlight enables long-lost friends to find one easier, and through a series of funny circumstances he got in touch with me a few months ago.

I'd like to tell my daughter that maybe some day, if she and her boyfriend don't make it through this transition, perhaps they can become friends again. Maybe even more. I actually find it comforting to have re-befriended someone with whom I was so linked in my past. We exchange stories about our kids, our lives, our careers. We'll never be what we were, but a friendship mellowed with age is often a much nicer outcome than it otherwise could have been.

I know my girl has got a lot of heartache to come. This is compounded with the fact that she's a junior, and we're not so inclined to send her off to visit him at college at that age. But in the meantime, I'll hold onto the romanticism of their long-distance young love. And if nothing else, hope for them both a friendship that will withstand the test of time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Getting Organized

by Judy Merrill Larsen

Some of my nearest and dearest will be laughing themselves silly with the title of this post. I tend to be cluttered. I have good intentions, but I've always been able to ignore mess if I have a good book to read or the NYT crossword to solve. I straighten up the coffee table in the family room, but within a short time it's crowded with my stuff. I'm often asked if I outline my novels and I laugh and respond that only if post-it notes stuck on my laptop and various legal pads counts as outlining (and, as an English teacher for 15 years I know it doesn't).

I do try. I have a file for all my 2007 tax receipts. I just can't always find the file. (Oh, and yes, I know I should put it in my file cabinet. I'm not stupid.)

And, I'm not a slob. I just keep things. And I have yet to find the perfect organizing system.

In some areas, though, I have systems in place. In my classroom, each class was color-coded. Red handout? Fourth hour. Grading sheets? Green. But I frequently lost my keys under the mounds of papers and files on my desk. My recipes are neatly divided in my recipe box. But, sometimes I use a recipe for a bookmark in a cookbook.

All that said, I love having a structure, a rhythm to my day. I get the coffee ready the night before and I make sure that there are four cans of Diet Mountain Dew (ick. yuck. gross.) in the fridge for my husband who, while not a coffee drinker is a caffeine needer. I not only make a list before I go to the grocery store, I plan out the dinner menus for the week. I do crosswords in ink.

So, that's why I love this time of year--we're about to get back to school. Structure. Set schedules. Every June, along with the kids, I celebrate the arrival of summer vacation--no nagging about homework, no late night runs to Target for posterboard. No pleading with the school custodian to please, please, please let us in to the part of the building where a certain locker is with a certain chemistry book inside of it.

But . . . by the end of July (and maybe a tad earlier) my husband and I start whispering to each other, "When does school start?" Because the kids, as kids do, view every night as Friday night. Their alarms aren't going off at 7 a.m. But ours are. And we still ask our kids to wake us up when they get home. And that ranges from midnight to 3 a.m. And teenagers are nocturnal nightfeeders. And we're tired. I'm ready for the house to be empty for 6 or 7 hours every day.

So, right now, I'm rejoicing as much as the kids are grousing. The schedules have arrived. The summer reading is 50% done. The college books are ordered. One has already headed back to school; another is in week 3 of his job two time zones away. And on Monday, I will have a quiet house by 8 a.m. and will be able to gather all the post-its and other scribbles and get down to the business of finishing the final (or so I think) revisions of my novel so I can send it off. But right now laundry calls. Hope the buzzer on the dryer doesn't wake any of the sleeping kids.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How to Trap a Wild Teenager

By Melanie Lynne Hauser

Yesterday I walked into younger son’s bedroom. Well, “walked into” is kind of a euphemism, as he has recently rearranged his furniture in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

As soon as you open his door you’re confronted with a giant bookcase blocking further progress; only the most determined can figure out how to squeeze past it and then you risk stepping on all sorts of pointy items on the floor (like pencils and a couple of old Rubik’s cubes) or sliding on discarded clothing, flailing your arms around like a windmill. Once you’ve mastered this, though, the only thing you have to do is turn a sharp right at the guinea pig cage (in front of which is lots of straw and tiny little guinea pig food pellets, again — not so easy to walk on), then step over a giant mound of socks, and then you’re in. You’ve reached Command Central: the corner of the room that holds his computer desk and TV. If you’ve managed to reach this safely, then you might be able to actually talk to the lad, or even — gasp — touch him.

I don’t know. Is it just me, or do you think he's trying to tell me something?

Anyway, yesterday I ventured into his lair a couple of times. Mainly because I had started to forget what he looks like. And the last time I did so — just to pop my head around the corner and say, “Hey, buddy — how’s it going?” — he tugged on his hair (which he does when he’s frustrated) and said, “This is the 7th time in two days you’ve come in here.”

Now, at first I was impressed that he was keeping a running tally. That shows a certain amount of dedication, when you think of it. And obviously, I was making an impression.

But then I was a little PO’d. Excuse me for wanting to pop in and say hello now and then. Excuse me for wanting to make sure he wasn’t growing a beard, or sniffing glue back there, or ordering lots of stuff on Amazon (because he has my password, which allows someone to order stuff with “One Click,” which theoretically means he could be purchasing mass quantities of DVD’s or…or…underwear, and I’d never know it).

So I got a little huffy. I pointed out that if he voluntarily left his lair for a couple of times a day, I wouldn’t have to “pop in” like this.

He pointed out that he didn’t want to see me. So why would he voluntarily leave?

I pointed out that I was the one who was in charge of giving him his allowance.

He pointed out that I couldn’t withhold it because he did do the two or three tasks, weekly, that earned him his ten bucks. Plus he'd just started a part time job.

I pointed out that it was tough beans, I still didn’t have to pay him and job or no job, I knew he needed those ten bucks in order to fund his VitaminWater addiction. (Those things are about $4 a bottle!)

He pointed out that that would amount to child abuse, and he would have no qualms about calling Family and Child Services and reporting me.

I pointed out that he could go ahead and do that — but then I stopped myself, looked around at his room — which does resemble one of those horrible cages that you sometimes read about, where bad parents lock up their children and keep them hidden from the world. And I figured he'd have no problem telling Family and Child Services that I kept him locked in there when, in fact, he was absolutely dying to run free outside.

So I left. I went downstairs, letting him think he had won. I waited a couple of hours. Then I got busy in the kitchen. About half an hour later, the house was filled with the aroma of fresh baked cookies. I heard a door open. A step in the upstairs hall. Another step. Then a tumble down the stairs.

“Cookies?” He asked hopefully, poking his head around the corner of the kitchen.

“Maybe,” I said coyly. Standing there with a plate of cookies in one hand, a glass of milk in another.

“I love you, Mom!” he said, sitting down at the table — not minding that I sat across from him.

He was too busy eating to notice my look of triumph. He actually lingered down there for a full five minutes, and we talked about the Olympics (he thinks Michael Phelps is a god, but thinks that men's gymnastics is the most ridiculous sport in the world, since men can't even point their toes right, like the girls can) and the Cubs (he agrees with me that Geovany Soto is our favorite player this year). Then he put his plate in the sink and went back upstairs — after first giving me a fond pat on the back.

And I smiled, knowing that I had stumbled across the key to raising teenaged boys: Set a trap. (And keep lots of cold milk on hand). I’m going to have to be careful about this, though. I can’t tip my hand; I can’t suddenly start roasting whole pigs in the kitchen every time he shuts himself off from me.

But an occasional batch of cookies or bowl of hot buttered popcorn — yeah, I think I can get away with that.

Don’t you?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Take Your Daughter to Work Year

By Margy McCarthy

There are many facets of my persona that are unusual, but the top of them all has to be my choice of occupation.

I teach.

Okay- that doesn’t seem weird. Lots of people teach. But I teach middle school.

It is the rare adult who voluntarily signs up to spend seven hours a day in a room with a group of twenty-eight hormonal adolescents. When you multiply that by six classes and a homeroom, you might think you have a sure-fire recipe for insanity. Maybe you do. Some days I would swear to it. But for some reason or other, I keep going back. I love it.

So call me crazy.

For the past three years I have taught the accelerated level of eighth grade language arts, which means that every summer the registrar scrapes off the top layer of test scores and sends them to me. This year that top-floating layer includes my daughter, Shriek.

When people learn that my daughter is my student, I get mixed response. Some think it’s fine, but more often they think there might be a conflict of interest or some sort of subtle favoritism. These are obviously the people who don’t know me very well. When Shriek comes into my classroom, she does what every other kid does. She acts like every other kid, and I think the odds are pretty good that there are a fair percentage of students in her class that don‘t know we are related at all. If it’s awkward for her when I give a well-deserved lecture (her only comment about it so far is that it’s “a mixed blessing”) it doesn’t show. I don’t call on her any more than the others or any less. If anything, she’s at a slight disadvantage, because I won’t look over her language arts homework before she turns it in.

But I have to admit, I like seeing her in my classroom.

I was, after all. her first teacher. We’ve read together for thirteen years- it’s just that now she gets graded for it. Six years ago, her brother, Snooze, was in my class-- and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to us.

You see- the classroom puts me in a different light. I play a different role. At home, it’s just Mom saying “put the dishes away” or “pick up the dog poo in the back yard,” and you know if you put it off for another hour nothing terrible will happen. But at school, everybody does what Mom says the second she says it- they take out their journals and follow the prompt. They write copious notes on capitalization. They read stories and do vocabulary flashcards- and if you’re lucky, she’ll get out the slates and let you show that you know your definitions by drawing pictures. They love to listen to her read- something you’ve been doing so long you take it for granted- and they laugh when she says something funny. Which she actually does quite a bit.

At school- you figure out that although Mom is kind of weird-- it’s the cool kind of weird. She knows what she’s talking about up there. And wow. The kids like her.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lovin' Those Underdogs! by Barb McKone

Lovin' Those Underdogs! by Barb McKone

Ahh, the Olympics!  Every two years it's the same.  I tell myself I'll just watch just a few evenings, or throw in an afternoon from time to time.  Never happens.  The minute those opening ceremonies commence, I'm hooked.  I love the human stories, I love the falls from the high bars- I'm stuck in front of the screen until the last torch is snuffed.  With the exception of boxing, that is.  Everyone needs a popcorn break.  This year, the big events begin so late in the night I can barely keep my eyes open- I'm staying up way past those nine-year-old gymnasts' bedtimes.  Somehow, I've managed. I've watched every beach volleyball match.  I'm tired, but I'm doing it for my team.  I'm watching for the underdogs.     

So far, this year's games are pretty much a scuffle between China and the United States.  I've watched a lot of gymnastics.  From time to time there's a flag of Germany or Japan waved, but for the most part, it's been about the Big Two.  Swimming is the exception.  Michael Phelps is the big name, of course, but some other cream is bound to surface.  There are a couple thousand races, after all.  Several interlopers from stray countries have snuck into, and even won, some races.  I thought I was just about to watch one such race.  Surprise- Rebecca Soni from the Team U.S. just beat the Spandex off of a great swimmer from Australia who was supposed to win by a mile.  Super Exciting!!!  Soni was so adorably happy and genuinely surprised at her own success that she could hardly stand still when interviewed.  She told her story just as she will tell it again and again to her friends and family, trembling and giggling.  It was a moment that, clearly, will shape her life. No one expected this of her, and SHE WON.  Hooray for her!!!   You gotta love those underdogs. 

We've all had our underdog moments.  Not the break-loose-during-the-Thanksgiving-Day-parade moments, but the how-the-heck-did-I-get-here-at-the-front-of-the-pack moments.   My underdog moment happened when I was about twelve.  I was on the summer swim team for the sixth summer, and frankly, no one expected much of me.  I was a pretty good little swimmer, but not compared to Betsy Harris and Lisa Stifler.  They were the stars.  They were always placed in the two center lanes, and they were the start off and anchors of every relay in our age group.  Laura Murrin and I were the others in the relay.  The solid fill, so to speak.  We were fine.  We just weren't Betsy Harris or Lisa Stifler.  

Every summer started with a week of hard early morning practices in a frigid pool, followed by the inevitable Friday morning time trial.  Time trials, if you've never been involved in one, are sheer torture.  For the purpose of swim meet placement, the racer waits to dive into a timed swim, watching and hearing the times of all of their potential opponents.  Club records are neared. The coach paces, stopwatch in hand and whistle around his neck, taking notes and nodding. Excitement builds.  And, finally, it's time.  

In our case, two swimmers at a time were tested.  It was the 50-yard Freestyle.  Betsy Harris and Lisa Stifler had already been timed, and our coach looked pleased with their results.  It was going to be a good season for the Danville Dolphins.  Laura Murrin and I dragged up to our starting blocks.  I can still remember the sandpapery feeling of the block under my feet, and the sun baking onto my goofy white cap.  I remember the starting whistle, and diving in.  I remember cutting through the water, feeling strong and losing track of Laura Murrin.  She was usually either right beside me or ahead of me.  I slammed my hand into the wall and climbed out of the pool, and then realized Laura Murrin was just finishing.  Drying off,  I noticed the quiet.  No times had been shouted out to be recorded.  I turned to look at the coach, still checking his stopwatch, and saw the confusion, then surprise, then amusement on his face.  

"She beat them all," he said, shaking his head in the truest disbelief I think I've ever seen.  "Barb beat them all."

Did you see the face-off of Team USA and France in the 200 Free Relay?  The French relay anchor, a giant of a swimmer named Bernard, had said prior to the race that his team was at the Olympics to "smash the Americans."  They were supposed to.  The French were highly favored to win, as I understand it.  Why anyone on earth would ever issue a challenge (especially with a French accent) to a relay team that includes Michael Phelps, I can't imagine.  It fired up the American underdogs, and none more than 31-year old relay anchor Jason Lezak.  He evidently had a reputation for being an outstanding swimmer who did not always perform to his potential.  I still don't know why he was swimming last, but he swam his leg against the challenger Bernard.  It was amazing.  Behind by a body length, Lezak swam the fastest free relay split in (I hope I've got this right) Olympic history.  It was, other than a few perfect 10s through the years in gymnastics, my favorite Olympic moment ever.  Lezak looked absolutely stunned, gazing up to see the crowd in the Bubble Palace erupt.  Shocked.  But not nearly as shocked as the French team.  

A win by an underdog often trumpets the arrival of a new leader.  A new super-kid in town.  In some cases, it signals the triumphant perfect time to retire.  In Bernard's case, it's a lesson in keeping one's lip zipped.  In my case, it was really just a fluke.  The perfect combo of too much protein and sleep, perhaps, but that moment, over thirty years ago, seems like yesterday.  It was a life changing moment.  I learned how great it felt to win, and Betsy Harris and Lisa Stifler learned that they should swim faster.  I never beat them again.   

It's okay.  Because of Betsy and Lisa, I know how the little Russian gymnast who just unexpectedly stuck her landing off the balance beam feels.  She can't hold back her smile.  

Go, underdog, go!  



Thursday, August 14, 2008

High Maintenance Road Trippin' by Jenny Gardiner

I've been on the road a lot lately. Totally tuckered out from work-related road-tripping. Facing mounds of laundry and dry cleaning and a house that appears to have been vandalized by my teens while I was away.

On the first leg of my travels, I attended a writing conference attended by a few thousand women. This is the third year I've attended this conference, which is professional in every way, shape and form. I always return home with reams of information, great ideas, and insight into the publishing industry.

But I arrived at the meeting with a level of perplexity about women and conferences. Now I come from a guy-centric background. Grew up with three brothers. The semaphore of my childhood was a series of grunts and groans. Even now, though I've got two girls, I notice with intent what my husband and son are like. Boiled down to their essence, men are simple, they're basic. Women are complex. Now I'm not here to determine which is preferable (although I'd be a traitor to my sex if I said anything other than us!), but rather put out an interesting observation in relation to my conference.

You see, many weeks before the conference---no, really months before the conference---female attendees started chattering on various online writing venues. Discussing the finer details of the destination, scouting out restaurants, shopping, transportation options, and such.

As the conference drew closer, the level of obsession grew to disturbing details. No longer satisfied with spread sheets of local merchants and what pharmacies were nearby, women started dispensing sage coping advice.

"Drink plenty of orange juice in the weeks leading up to the conference so that you're in good health," one would say. To this another would counter with advice on what cold-prevention methods are most effective. And then another would suggest the cheapest place at which to purchase it. In bulk. Echinacea, Airborne, Cold Eeze, you name it, someone knew which preventive measures were sure to beef up your auto-immune system to combat the dreaded Conference Physical Drain.

Soon we were being cautioned against even more fearsome doom. One author offered up helpfully, "I've pasted some exercises you can do to prevent the blood clots (Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT) that can occur in some people from sitting long periods of time."

I just thought I was going off for a few days of fun and education! I didn't know I could well keel over from a blood clot unless I downloaded her exercises to my MP3 player!

There was the great jacket debate, in which a good handful of women argued over the degree of warmth they'd need for their travels from their jacket of choice. Someone actually demanded: "Define jacket" when another woman suggested she pack a jacket. Um, back in my day, a jacket was a jacket! We need to clarify this?

Some more "who'd have thunk it?" tidbits from well-meaning yet perhaps a bit anal retentive attendees:

°DON'T drink from the glasses in the bathroom. Find yourself a
plastic cup

°To cut down on trash that doesn't get recycled, a better idea might be to take a tiny container of your own dish detergent. I've been doing that for years, & it comes in handy for other stuff that needs washed or if you want to use a glass for one thing, then need it to be clean again later for something else

Maybe it’s the three brothers in me, I don’t know. But I couldn't help but cringe each time those women mapped out yet another bizarre high maintenance upkeep plan for the conference (don't forget your sweaters for chilly air conditioning! What’s the weather going to be like? Why does it matter? You'll be indoors for 99% of the time! How will I deal with my computer? The same as the other several hundred people milling about the hotel with theirs does. It'll be easy! Will there be WiFi? I don't think a hotel exists in a large city that doesn't have it at least in the lobby!).

Find me a man--any man--who honestly would think twice about anything more than what time the meeting is scheduled for and is he prepared for it. I don’t know if a guy really gives more than a split second’s thought to whether he’s packed enough underwear. Meh, you can get more when you get there if you don’t have it.

But thanks to my ever-vigilant fellow authors, I would have been able to find everything I could possibly need in a city of 3/4 of a million people, where, no doubt, the concierge would have provided the same information to me in a moment’s time, were I to need it.

It’s as if they need to be handheld through this world of professionalism. Now this is a group of very talented women, many hugely successful writers, many having come from previous careers as doctors and lawyers and the like. But what is it about a group of women that prompts this crazy-obsessive need to freak out on just about ever aspect imaginable?

I guess I should just chalk it up to the complexities of being female. After all, I'm the first one to complain when my son doesn't change his boxers the entire week we're on vacation. But maybe there's a happy medium in there?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Olympic Events or, Damn, I'm Old

by Judy Merrill Larsen

I remember when I realized that most of the athletes at the Olympics were younger than me. It seemed to happen suddenly. I went from wanting my hair to look like Dorothy Hamill's (1976) when I was 16, to realizing one of the athletes in the 1992 Olympics was a kid I used to babysit for. But, thanks to some of the events, like marathons and shooting and stuff (not sexy events, I know), there were usually some athletes who were older than me.

For instance, this year, if I were 7 years younger, Dara Torres would fit that spot.

But this time around, what has caused me to gasp is not the record-breaking swimming events nor the stunning agility of the gymnasts, but the realization that there are parents of athletes who are younger than me. Yes, that's right, I'm almost closer in age to some of the grandparents of the athletes than I am to the athletes themselves.

And quite honestly, that irritates me. I'm not ready to be sent to a rocking chair with my food mushed up for me to gum.

So, I think we need to rethink some events. I mean, heck, they discarded that whole amateur athlete position. And they now stagger the games so the winter and summer games aren't in the same year. They tossed out the scoring for gymnastics so there's no such thing as a perfect 10 anymore. What we need are events that hinge on having some life experience. (Isn't that nicer than saying events that are aided by cellulite, bifocals and creaky knees? Thought so.)

Without further ado, here are events I'd be likely to medal in:

~wine opening. Oh yeah, I can swivel that cork out without even blinking. In one motion and with no cork residue left behind. And, to show even more versatility, I'm not a wine snob--grocery store sale wine is fine by me.

~lie detection. C'mon, if you're a parent of teens worth your salt, you're right here with me. When said teen gets a bit vague, a little shifty-eyed, you know the lie is coming. And, then I just smile, nod, act as though I bought it, but watch out, kiddo, because I will trap you in it like nobody's business. You won't know what hit you. Yup, I'm that good. (15 years of teaching high school really hones this skill, too.)

~sock sorting. I may own the world record on this one. And all those socks with no mate? They're in the top drawer in the laundry room and, oh baby, when the mate turns up it's a special day around here. And every 9 months or so I dump the drawer and we start all over.

~rolling-eye stare-down master (vs. teen-age girl category). I will not be moved. Not a whit. Roll your eyes, sigh with disgust, doesn't matter. And, I also up the degree of difficulty by being able to do this at the mall. In Abercrombie and Hollister. Oh yeah. High five, right here.

~spaghetti sauce maker extraordinaire. Over the years, the recipe evolved into perfection. I love it. My kids love it. My husband loves it. Friends ask for the recipe. And just the other day, my older son called me from Seattle to ask for the recipe now that he's out on his own. I dare say this category might need to be retired.

~and, as long as we're in the kitchen, let's include gravy made from scratch. With turkey drippings (but no giblets. Those are just slimy.) and broth and a bit of cornstarch mixed with cold water. Bring to a boil. Simmer.

~I'm pretty damn good at camouflage dressing (and perhaps the two previous events help explain this one). No, not as in war-torn fashion. I'm talking about understanding the "what not to wear" mantra. Understanding what makes me look slimmer. I might not quite be at medalist level here, but I'm willing to push myself and hope one of these years to be on the medal stand.

~Finally, I'm a font of unwanted advice on any topic you can imagine. And, I manage to slip it in without even being asked for it (telepathic, I guess).

So, what events would you like to see? What would you medal in? We can do this and, I promise, no goofy team outfits or chapeaus.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Lesser of Two L-Words

By Melanie Lynne Hauser

Here’s a pop quiz for you. Say you were downloading all the old pictures on your camera, and you stumbled upon a photo of - yourself. Say that that photo was one of the better ones you’ve seen lately (i.e., your triple chins weren’t in evidence, your eyes were open, and you didn’t look like you’d just swallowed a small animal). Say that you even liked it enough to put it in its own special folder on your laptop, one titled "Surprisingly not awful picture of me, to be used whenever I'm interviewed by the local paper or People magazine or some other highly unlikely event." (Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?)

Say that, in a fit of girlish frivolity, you emailed your husband this photo, too.

Now, there are several ways your husband could respond. You may even anticipate some of them — “Huh, nice picture.” Or “Is your hair really that color?” Or maybe even total silence, which you know by now not to take as a comment, but rather recognize it for what it is — that he never opened the file because he got distracted by the next item in his inbox. So he never saw it.

But no. Your husband does not respond in any of these totally acceptable ways. Instead, when you coyly ask him what he thought of said photo, he responds thusly:

“You know, I thought you looked a little butch, to be honest. Like a lesbian.”

Now, how would you respond to this? Here are your choices:

A) Hit him over the head with the closest blunt object (which might be — now this is purely hypothetical, mind you, so I’m not saying it was — the pooper scooper used for cleaning the cat’s litter box), then run crying to your bedroom.

B) Hit him over the head with the above-mentioned blunt object, then put your hands on your hips and lecture him about being a typically pathetic male with a school boy’s fantasy involving girl-on-girl sex.

C) Hit him over the head with the above-mentioned blunt object, then coolly grab the closest credit card and inform him that obviously, you have a ton of shopping to do, being that your entire wardrobe needs an immediate feminine upgrade. And that he needn’t expect you back in time for dinner.

But wait! Before you can choose any of these options, suppose he gets a clue. He looks at your face (all three chins trembling) and starts to backpedal. He stutters and stammers and comes up with what, in his mind, is a brilliant save:

“Well, actually, now that I’m looking at this picture again, I’d have to say I was wrong about the lesbian thing. Really, what you look like is a rancher. Like someone who raises llamas.”

What do you do? What do you do with a man like this, who thinks that telling you that you look like someone who raises llamas is a big improvement over telling you that you look like a lesbian? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) What? WHAT, I ask you??????

Please, if you come up with a solution, let me know. Better still —

Write it down and send it to:

“Melanie's Husband”

c/o PO Box He’s Never Having Sex Again

Dog House City, USA.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mama's Lament

By Margy McCarthy

It’s certainly not for lack of material that I struggle putting together this post.

I have plenty to say.

The problem, I’m afraid, is that it’s just too soon to say it. It’s too fresh.

I’ve heard it talked about; heard the keening of other mothers- but I guess I didn’t know how primal those cries were. I think you can’t know until it happens to you.

My baby boy left home today. He hugged me hard, told me he loved me and would miss me, kissed me three- maybe four times on the way out the door-- and he was gone. And now he will never be in my home every day the way he has been his whole life until today- ever again.

Everything has changed.

I know that my job- from the moment he was placed into my arms in the recovery room nineteen years ago- has been to take that baby home and make a grown up out of him. Physically, there is no question of my success. I also know that I have stretched my time with him already by his doing his first year of college locally.

Don’t get me wrong. I am excited for him, out on his own, stretching his wings, seeing what he can do. I remember that feeling myself. I am also more than a little jealous that he will be in Flagstaff where the air smells of pine and the shade is deep and green.

But I’m scared for him too.

And there is an ache inside me I’m afraid will be there forever.

And that’s all I can say about it right now.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Vacation? What Vacation? by Barb McKone

Vacation?  What Vacation?  by Barb McKone

My family has a split personality.  I realized it a week ago, the moment we pulled into our driveway and tumbled, tanned and happy, out of the car and back into our Real World. Vacation was over, and, within moments, so was Vacation Personality.

Vacation Personality is the reason we must, absolutely MUST, for as long as we're living together, go on a family vacation every summer.  No question, no exceptions.  

No one ever has time for vacation.  My entire family, as I make the calls and plans and reservations and buy tickets, looks as if they might die.  Really.  I'm the worst person in the world, expecting them to leave their friends and lives for a week or two.  But, lo and behold, after we've made the back seat cozy with pillows and a favorite blanket and we get into the car and turn to the first page of the AAA map, Vacation Personality sets in.  

Vacation Personality is:

Relaxed.  No phones, unless we want to risk them getting wet or sandy.  Believe me, I'm not saying my daughter isn't texting away in the back seat en route, but, on vacation the kids don't seem to be adhered to their phones as if they are pacifiers.  It's amazing how fast those fingers can click!  On vacation there are no schedules except for the ones we set for ourselves. If we want to lie around on the beach until the dolphins show up at dusk, we can do that.  A few more rounds of beach paddle ball before the sun goes down?  No problem.  We've got no place to we have to be.  How wonderful is having no place to be?! 

Adventurous.  Sea kayaking, anyone?  Sure!  How about a little crabbing off the dock in the moonlight?  Sounds good!  Stop off at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame?  Why not?  No "I'm supposed to meet Mary at the mall," or, "I have band practice all afternoon."  It's all "sure!" or "let's go." Really, what else can they say?  We're a thousand miles from home, we've got the time blocked off, and we have the keys.  For all intents and purposes, the kids are being held hostage in the back seat, and they don't even seem to mind.

Adaptable.  Our vacations schedule is as follows: Three days here.  Half-day of transit, two days there.  Moving on.  Overnight somewhere else, three days in a new place.  And on.  This is what comes of having a husband with seven siblings who all live half a country away.  Visit one, you'd better visit them all, or at least see them.  It's fun.  It's important.  It's tiring, and since we're the only ones in the Midwest, the road only seems to go one way.  To their credit, probably because they know the routine so well by now, our kids have learned how to to travel light and gather belongings fast.  I didn't realize until this summer that our nomadic vacation wanderings have taught a life skill that will serve them well in their college years of couch-surfing.  Well done, us! 

Unified.  My kids like each other.  Sometimes, they even like their parents.  I know I'm blessed in this.  I've known families for which vacations are tenuous at best.  There is almost nothing that satisfies me more than turning around in the car and seeing my children laughing together. Yes, half the time they're laughing AT my husband or myself, and the other half of the time they're laughing at a movie they're watching, but they're together, and they're laughing.  For at least one week per year, our children WILL pay more attention to each other than to their friends.  Some day they'll thank us. 

So, after nine days of the Vacation Personality we ALL (and I mean it- I think the kids like the Vacation Personality even more than we do) so enjoy, it is always surprising to me how very fleeting it is.  

Home Personality hits at the front door.  Dogs barking and leaping at our knees, we enter the world of How We Left It.  No matter how we left our lives, they always seems to need days of restoration when we return from a trip.  Appointments that need to be made.  Laundry piles I guess I missed.  Weeds that seem to have grown much more than a weed should in under two weeks and are now sharing their seed with the rest of the neighborhood. 

Home Personality, especially upon return, is rarely relaxed.  Scheduled to the gills.  Home Personality is super social, just not necessarily with family.  It's still unified, but more in passing than in hugging and laughing.  Home Personality has an agenda.  Commitments to be met.  It gets things done.

Home Personality's motto: Get busy or get out of the way. 

This all reminds me a little of church day care on Sunday mornings, back when the kids were little.  We all volunteered to help in the Nursery from time to time, and it was fascinating to see the family dynamics displayed on these occasions.  Many of the children, upon drop off, were crying.  Screaming.  Literally peeled from their dad's pressed pant legs and deposited on the ABC rug on the floor.  But, after some Teddy Grahams and a story or two, they wanted to play. Blocks.  Dolls.  Soon they'd start to cruise the room for games they didn't have at home. By the time their parents came to pick them up, they would barely look up.   When they notice their parents, of course, they're immediately clingy again.  Teary again.  Back to normal.  

How great it would be for our Normal to be Vacation Normal!

It's not that our Vacation Personalities are gone.  They are always there.  I like knowing that they're simmering underneath our daily routines, deep down and dormant.  Thankfully, sometimes they pop up and give us a hint of what the next summer will hold-- fun, delightful, adventurous spirits, just waiting!  It's nice to know that all that they need to wake up is a road atlas and a full tank of gas.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda by Jenny Gardiner

I know I've talked already about my son heading off to college, and I fear I will be accused of redundancy, but I can't help myself. With less than two weeks before my firstborn flies the coop, I am steeping myself in a tea of sentimentality, and it seems that every thing anyone says or does reminds me of something, some small nugget of parenting past. My emotions are hovering atop the Golden Gate Bridge, teetering over the edge, about to plunge southward, and I just know that the sporadic tears I've shed behind the cover of sunglasses over the past few weeks threaten to engulf my demeanor soon, soon, soon, proving to all how my heart is aching and how powerless I am to do anything about it.

This parenting thing, it's so crazy. As if each of us is inventing it all over again. Hell, how long have humans been raising children? Why does it feel as if I'm the only one to feel like that red-nosed two-dimensional cardboard man on the Operation game board, with everyone using those ham-handed tweezers to pluck my heart out, zapping me again and again and again with the pain of having this heart-ectomy?

I'm certain that during those hormone-saturated early days of motherhood, I sat with my newborn son 18 years ago and projected out nearly two decades, to this day I'm about to face, and I know without a doubt I sobbed like a lunatic. And I don't doubt that my husband laughed at my silliness, what with it being practically 20 years away and all. I simply cannot imagine where the time has gone, how I went from holding this small infant with which I hadn't the slightest idea what to do, to now, of my own volition, even, pushing him out the door, sending him on to the next phase in his life, knowing it's the right thing for him, and really even the right thing for us, but agonizing about it every step of the way.

I haven't known what to do with myself. I don't want to betray my emotions to everyone else. And I don't want to make it harder for him. I want to buck up and be brave. But I want to revisit all of those moments past, and try to savor them one last time, even though I know we can't do that. There's no turning back. The savoring is done at the moment the act is committed, no more.

I threatened all summer, every summer, really, to make the kids sit down with me and read through our favorite children's books. Every summer we never quite got around to it. So yesterday, I forced all of the kids to join me while we read through book after book, my voice choked with emotion, my heart a piece of chewing gum that you stick on your finger and then pull it out and then whirl it around and around till it's all tangled and gummed up and thoroughly useless.

I hate this, I really do. Never could I have projected out 19 years ago when I first found out I was pregnant that some day I would agonize over the loss of the subsequent two decades in this way. I guess I didn't prepare myself for it then. And I certainly am not ready for it now.

And so perhaps it is fitting for this writer to seek the sanctuary of books, books that hold within them tiny little moments of our lives together, memories I can knit together again and again as I mourn the loss of what was, and look ahead to what will be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Kissing Politicians

by Judy Merrill Larsen

I know we're still a few months away from Election Day--by which time I'll be able to repeat all the commercials by heart and will also know that when the caller ID says "Unknown Number; Unknown Caller" it's not really Al Gore/Sheryl Crow/Paul Newman (unfortunately!) asking me to vote for their candidate, it'll be some recorded message yapping at me.

But yesterday was the primary here and there's nothing like a primary to make politics really local. Anybody and their Aunt Martha can, and often do, run. And they'll show up on my front porch to say howdy and ask if I'd like a yard sign. This happens every election. But this time around, I came face to face with a candidate I'd kissed. Not one of those politician air kisses with hundreds of other folks around. No. This had been a date kiss.

And I was stumped. I knew who he was. (I mean his name was on the pamphlets. Duh.) But, I doubted he knew or remembered who I was. Should I remind him? But what about his wife standing there on my front porch with him? (Our kiss was 15 years ago. Way before either of our spouses were on the scene.) It was tricky. Plus, I was probably going to support his opponent in the primary (a man, I'd like to point out, I have never kissed). I hesitated.

We chatted, I shook his hand, and he turned to leave.

It's funny, I mean you don't really think about the things you do or the people you meet when you're 18 or 24 or, in my case back then, 34, you don't think about those people popping up in your life years down the road. And it wasn't anything slimy; I'd simply bought a date with him . . . .

Okay, perhaps that requires some explanation. It was for a good cause. It was one of those bachelor auctions which was a fundraiser for some important cause. I don't remember which one, but it was legitimate. (As a quick aside, can you imagine the outrage if they had a "bachelorette auction"?).

Anyway, I'd been divorced for a year and a woman I taught with invited me to join her and her friends for A Good Cause. I grabbed one of my friends and we went. I had no intention of bidding. But I'd never been to any sort of live auction before. It's fun. And I got a bit caught up in the action. Perhaps there'd been some wine involved. Anyway, when this particular bachelor came up, I recognized him as one of the nice guys I'd chatted with during the cocktail portion of the evening. And, well, before I knew what was happening my arm shot up and I hollered out an amount (much to the surprise of my table mates) and two bids later he was "Sold! To the woman in blue at table 9." We went out a time or two. It was fun, but we had little in common.

And then, 15 years later he's on my front porch, looking paunchy and with a receding hairline (I would not have recognized him if I hadn't known his name), asking me to consider voting for him in the primary. I smiled, took the literature and went back inside.

I know they say "All politics is local" but this is a tad too local for my comfort.

* * * * *

Results just in: As I write this, the race is still too close to call. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Naturally Speaking

By Melanie Lynne Hauser

Well, I am happy to report that no tears were shed in the moving of my son into his very first apartment, prior to the start of his sophomore year in college.

And I have no idea if it's because it was so hot and humid on moving day that I had no moisture left inside my body, or if it's because I'm more mature than I was last year.

Actually, I do have an idea. I'm not sure if I've ever said this about myself before, but I think it's because I'm more mature. I know, I know - what a shock!

Now that I've had a weekend - and yes, a Cosmo or two! - to recuperate and reflect, I'm ready to share all my Deep Thoughts about life, liberty, and the empty nest with y'all. Ready? Too bad.
Here goes:

The first cut is really the deepest. (With apologies to Sheryl Crow.) Anyway. Last year, when my firstborn went to college as a freshman, I was a mess. My husband was a mess. We were a collective mess. We cried and grieved and just generally carried on like two little sissy girls and truly, it felt like a death.

And now I know, it was. It was the end of our family as we had known it for 18 years - the end of four of us under one roof, my husband and myself responsible for our sons' welfare and happiness and always, always teaching them - to be responsible, to work hard, be happy, close the top of the cereal box so the next person doesn't have stale Cheerios for breakfast, etc., etc. The end of our time as the parents of children. Now, we had to learn how to be the parents of adults, and we didn't know what that was like. We couldn't imagine it, and so we grieved for what we had known.

Well, now we don't have to imagine. We know that Older Son did, in fact, come home during the last year. Many times. We know that when he did, we always picked up right where we left off. We also marveled at how much he was learning, how eagerly he embraced his new experiences, how much he looked forward to more. All things he couldn't have accomplished still under our roof - and that's the most important Deep Thought I want to share:

This summer, this extended time when Older Son was home again, even though we knew it was just temporary - it was wonderful. Full of great family time, lazy days just spent hanging around and watching all three seasons, on DVD, of "Arrested Development." And of course, I rejoiced in having my family all together under one roof again. Yet...

I would look at him, hanging around on the couch, sleeping until noon, living by our rules, our schedule, our choices - just marking time - and I would say to myself, "This is not how a 19-year-old should live all the time." It was fine for the summer. Just long enough for all of us. But I knew that HE was bored sometimes; he started to chafe a bit toward the end, and suprisingly enough, so did we. Not because we were all together; that was, and will always be, a blessed time. But because this interlude felt exactly that; a holding pattern, all of us just treading water until "real life" started up again. And for my son, that couldn't happen while camping out in our family room.

At 19, 20, a person really needs to start living his own life, or learning to, anyway - and you can't do that when your mom is constantly asking you if you want her to make you a sandwich for lunch. No matter how many times you tell her not to worry about you, she'll still ask. Trust me. She just can't help it.

All this is kind of a long-winded way to say -

I didn't cry this time. Partly because I wasn't afraid I'd lose him forever - I'd learned, last year, that I wouldn't. Partly because I knew what to expect when we came back home without him - and the three of us (my husband, me, and Younger Son) have eased right back into the routine we established last year, where Younger Son clearly relishes his elevated status to One and Only.

But mainly, I didn't cry because I recognize, clearly, that we all need to move on - both Older Son, and his so-called elders. He needs to make his own decisions, establish his own traditions and routines. I need to get back to work - my writing has been non-existent this summer - and continue to look for new things, new ideas to take up the time and energy that I used to spend raising children.

He'll be back - we'll always be back together. For short times, and longer times, but never again the way it used to be, and that's OK. That's more than OK, actually - it's the natural progression of life, and when you step back, remove yourself from the equation and just look at your children and all that's ahead of them, you know that. Finally, you know that.

So there. No tears, some fears (we saw so many rat control signs in the alley where we parked the moving van!), but mainly -

Just joy. And some chuckles, as we watch our eldest grapple with life on his own (he had to wait three hours for the cable guy to show up - welcome to adulthood!). Happiness, to see him so excited about the little things we've long taken for granted. (When was the last time you announced to the world that you "couldn't wait" to put together bookshelves from Ikea??)

Thus endeth the Deep Thoughts on my son's second year in college. And I'm no fool. I completely understand that next year, when we move Younger Son into his dorm for Freshman year, there will be floods of tears again. (And more Deep Thoughts - lucky you!) Because that will be another end, as well as a beginning. And for a while, all I'll think about is the end, which is natural.

But sooner or later, I'll figure out how to be happy about the beginning...

Which is natural, too.

Monday, August 4, 2008

First Day of School

By Margy McCarthy

And so it begins.


Her outfit for the day was laid out carefully last night on the chair in the corner of the room. The matching accessories she selected are on the dresser.

Her new shoes are on the floor.

She didn’t sleep well- a combination of eager anticipation, adrenaline, and pure dread kept her from the rest she needed to face the coming day, and she’s up with the birds this morning. Up before the alarm clock had a chance to do its job.

Up before anyone else in the house.

There is plenty of time, and yet she’s racing the clock; doing battle with hair that refuses to cooperate; trying to control the trembling of her hands as she manipulates the hot iron, trying to quell the rising tide of questions that race hither-thither through her mind. Her two best friends moved away to other places and she feels left behind. What if no one wants to sit with me at lunch? Who will I talk to? What if the new kids don’t like me? She applies her makeup carefully, despite the sweat popping out along her hairline and the barometer’s promise to remove all traces of her application the second she walks out the door. What if I forget my schedule? What if the lockers don’t work? What if I say something stupid? What if they all laugh at me?

Well, she thinks, it could be worse. At least I don’t have to ride the bus.

She spritzes her hair with a final mist of spray and fumbles with the clasp of her carefully chosen necklace. She assesses her reflection in the mirror.

Everything looks all wrong. Who does she think she’s kidding?

She takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. Steady. Steady. She knows what her mother would tell her: “Just be yourself, honey. Just do what you’re there to do, and do it the very best you can. Don’t worry about what other people think.”

Well, sure. Easy for her to say. She’s old. She gets to stay home whenever she wants to. She isn’t going to have a zillion pairs of eyeballs staring at her today. She doesn’t have to worry about looking like a moron or a dweeb.

She can hear her family moving around in the kitchen now. Everybody’s up. She looks at the clock one last time and sighs.

She’d better go down and supervise breakfast.

Maybe she can look over her lesson plans one more time before she leaves too.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Life's a Beach

Life's A Beach by Barb McKone

This week, spent mostly on the beach, has brought back memories of the small paperback that rested on the radiator in our hall bathroom through my middle school years. I never read it; I'm not sure I even picked it up again after reading the back. "I'm Okay, You're Okay." When it comes to life on the beach, truer words have never been spoken. Or written.

As I lie here, covered in #50 and still frying, I make the hundredth beachy observation of the afternoon. A group of three sisters are romping in the surf. While I've noticed that my fifteen-year-old son has attracted several groups of tween girls in tiny bikinis, lipgloss and eyeliner to our chosen beach spot, ("prostitots," as my daughter calls them) this group of women could not be further from that category. They are mid-fifties to mid-sixties, hair all the same length, large bodies in brighly colored tank suits perched on skinny legs, laughing and visiting as they bare their bodies to the world. They are having a wonderful time, splashing and diving like teenagers. I love them. I secretly wish to be the fourth sister, listening in and adding to whatever subject is so cracking them up. I know, however, that I just wouldn't fit in. My beach blanket might as well be a world away. I'm just not yet worthy.

I am a pool person who wants to be a beach person. I have worn a cover-up to the beach. Flip-flops that match the cover-up. I have not self-tanned, and I'm a little self-conscious about my thighs. These ladies are fearless! While we do also observe the occasional perfect beach body, they are few and far between. I am the norm. The sisters are the norm. After just one afternoon of beach viewing, I know that it's time to cast the cover-up aside.

The beach frees its visitors in a way that midwestern chlorine just can't match. Perhaps it's the long walk from the locker room to the lawn chairs in full view of all the still-tight new moms at the kiddie pool and teenagers at the snack bar we're forced to endure; something makes the pool a more body-conscious place. Perhaps it's the given beach draw of the ocean itself; no one's looking anywhere else. I allow my mind to wander through this thought while watching a grandfather dipping his granddaughter's toes into the incoming tide, leaning over to show at least two inches of rear end I just don't need to see. "Crack Kills," my daughter mutters under her breath. We both chuckle a bit, but I have to give the guy credit. Aware of the low-riders or not, I'm sure he wouldn't care. No one at the beach seems to care.

At this point, a seagull swoops down and yanks my already sandy sandwich from my hand. He gets the top half, and the groups around our blanket area witness this and laugh at my shock. Apparently, one holds their sandwiches closer to the chest at the beach than I have. I had the gall to be leaning forward, elbows on knees, absentmindedly watching my husband and son playing paddle-ball as I ate. I don't really care. The seagull looks satisfied, and honest to God, it was like I'd mixed the mayo with sand. Let the sneaky creature take the whole thing. I don't need that much... what would it be? Fiber?

My kids are laughing too. Playing games, enjoying the day without any i-Pods or telephones, and laughing. Pink noses and backs peeling a little, we stay, day after day, from morning until the sun goes down. How did this family togetherness in a summer of chaos happen? It's the magic of the beach! No more cover-ups for me. By day three, I walk fearlessly from the car to "our spot." I am relaxed. I am officially, for at least until next season, a "beach person."

I look around for the sisters. They've probably finished their week and headed home. Either way, I will carry their lesson home and into next summer. At the beach, we're all okay.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Please tune in tomorrow when Barb has computer access.