Saturday, February 25, 2012

The difference

My mother's house. Jim, Mom and I are sitting around the dining room table having lunch when Jack wanders in and says, "Grandma, will you please make me some chocolate milk?"

Grandma: Of course, just let me finish eating.

Me: Jack, you are nearly 12 years old. Make you own chocolate milk. Leave your grandmother alone. Don't be ridiculous.

Jack pouts. I scowl. Jim rolls his eyes.

Grandma: Mary, you aren't old enough to understand this, but I won't get many more chances to make his chocolate milk. In five minutes, he will be gone. It will happen before you even realize it. He will leave us and move away.

Jim: Yeah, and he'll be the only kid in college who doesn't know how to make chocolate milk.

Neat trick, kid. Now make a sandwich.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Halcyon days

Y’all, I am 40 today. I am 40, and I am surrounded by more goodness than any high-strung, middle-aged girl has any right to expect from this life. I am not always quite sure how I got here, but I’m damn sure of this: I am right where I belong.

40 things that tell me so:

This sweet, smart guy

The rattling purr of this old, devoted cat

The love these guys have for each other

The love these guys have for their dad

The first week of November

The first week of June

The woman who made me who I am
The love my children have for her

Ben’s curls

Jack’s eyes

Jim’s hands

My funny, loving, fiercely self-assured friends
The people who make my workdays a lot less like work
The joy-induced nervous breakdown my dog has whenever I walk through the door
The garage full of beautiful things my husband is building for people who will truly enjoy them

The bird feeder outside the kitchen window
Black coffee and raisin toast with peanut butter

Stacks of clean laundry
Inside jokes
The way my husband always offers to make me tea when he boils water for his own
Kids who love my music
Kids who also love their own, terrible music

Texts that make me LOL
Hugs that last longer than I expected
The first sip of a really good beer
The screened porch

Mani/pedi/brunch Sundays with the girl gang

Hikes to the quarry

Rain dances

The Fortunes – every single one of them

Our daily commute
Our evening routine
The cul-de-sac full of kids on bikes and scooters and skates
The home we’ve made

The mistakes we’ve made
The peace we’ve made

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The end of the beginning: Feb. 12, 2012

Well, this one completes the archive. From here on out, the posts and the columns will be new stuff -- an archive in the making, I guess. Rereading all these columns over the past four months has been an amazing birthday gift.

I have relived so much wonderful I had forgotten, and I have been reminded of the power of shared history to built bonds that nothing can break. Here's to 40 more.

The view from thirtyten

    So what is the very last column I write in my 30s supposed to be about, anyway? All the stuff I’ve learned up to now? All the mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve grown from them? Bleah. That’s so boring.

    Maybe the last column I write before I turn 40 next week (or thirtyten, as I think of it) should be just another column. Because, really, is it that big a deal to turn 40? I don’t know. I’ve never done it before. It feels like it should be a big deal. But it also just feels like, meh.

    I have a theory about this (of course I do. I always have a theory.) The people I’ve known who have been the most freaked out about turning over a new decade are the people who go through life marking things off their to-do lists.

    With the best of intentions, they lay out this map, and they give themselves deadlines and they go though life checking the boxes. And when they hit one of these round numbers without a box checked, they lie down on the bathroom floor with a bottle of wine and cry.

    I feel for these folks, and I know quite a few of them. But as I sit next to them on the bathroom floor, the only thing I can recommend is that they turn that infernal to-do list on its head.  

    Make the list backward. Start at zero, compile your accomplishments and then congratulate yourself. Because if I had this theoretical to-do list with boxes to check, here are some important things I would have failed utterly to do by 40:

  • ·      Publish a book
  • ·      Earn a graduate degree
  • ·      Figure out what I want to do when I grow up
  • ·      Make enough money to not have to think so much about money
  • ·      Stop cussing
  • ·      Stop driving so fast
  • ·      Be as loving and gracious as my mother
  • ·      Fix my ridiculous hair
  • ·      Stop yelling
  • ·      Learn to cook something besides soup
  • ·      Learn to enjoy cooking anything at all
  • ·      Memorize the multiplication tables
  • ·      Decide whether or not I believe in god
  • ·      Write legibly
  • ·      Think before I speak

    I mean, by any of those measures, I am an abject failure who ought to be crying on the bathroom floor. I can’t cook or multiply by nines, I’m a terrible driver with a foul, impulsive mouth and only a measly bachelor’s degree to my name, and my dog is the only person who has the patience to listen to me ramble about the nature of spirituality.

    And don’t even get me started on the topic of the book I haven’t written. That one really does make the bathroom floor look like an inviting place to lie down.

    But if I make my list in the other direction – the what-I’ve-done direction – it looks pretty darn good:

    There’s my all-terrain vehicle of a marriage to the best man I’ve ever known. And there are our amazing, exhausting, infuriating sons, whom I love so fiercely that it’s occasionally terrifying.

    There’s my work, which has been a quirky and enjoyable jumble of jobs all built around my desire to write for a living (a neat trick to have pulled off, if I do say so myself.) There are my beloved, compassionate friends, who know how very much they matter.

    And there’s the peace I’ve made with my toughest critic. It took me a long time to figure out how to be kind to myself. I’ve learned to cut the poor girl a break.

    There’s lots of other stuff, too, but who cares? Because here’s the thing I know at thirtyten that’s most worth remembering: If you get too busy worrying over to-do lists, you’ll miss all the fun.

Eyes up. Pencils down. Hearts open.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

That's what it's all about: Jan. 15, 2012

One of my many, many theories is that we are here to have fun and to be useful. I think most of what matters in life falls into one of those two categories. The fun category is my favorite.

As long as we’re here, we may as well have some fun
    Last winter, as the snow fell and fell, my husband dug around in the attic until he came up with some old cross-country skis. He trundled the old skis out to his shop and attached them to a seat he fashioned from plywood. He waxed the skis until they were slick as an election-year promise, and I dubbed his creation ‘Frankensled.’
    Our family spent several snowy days dragging Frankensled all over the place, zipping down golf course hills and suburban streets, giving the neighbors rides and dodging the dog as he tried valiantly to catch us. Our boys had a ridiculously good time. We did, too.
    This is a gift my husband has -- the ability to play, to imagine and then build a world that is joyful and sincerely, sweetly fun. It’s one of the things I love and admire most about him, and it’s something that has made all of our lives immeasurably better.
    I’ve been thinking about this lately because I keep seeing articles and books about ‘tiger mothers’ and ‘helicopter parents’ and all these other super-stressed-out people who really don’t sound like they’re having much fun raising their kids. They seem to be raising their kids as if they’re studying for some parenting test – as if their children’s successes and failures will leave some indelible mark indicating their own worth as people.
    For better or for worse, my husband and I are just not taking this approach to parenting. You guys, we had kids so we could play with them.

    Sure, we do all the boring stuff you have to do – we keep them safe and clean and fed and we make them wear seatbelts and helmets and all that. We’re straightening their teeth and correcting their grammar and insisting on ‘excuse me.’ We try to teach them, mostly by example, the joys of meaningful work and the powerful importance of kindness.
    But I think the most critical thing we can teach them is to enjoy this life – to come at it with their minds and hearts open. And, as a necessary counterbalance all those Frankensled days, I think the next most important thing we can teach them is that their lives are theirs.
    I think my sons know I don’t much care what they do when they grow up. Professional labels and corner offices and hierarchies have never much interested me. I want them to be kind. I want them to find work they love and always to do their very best – not because they need to prove anything to anyone; just because their very best is always the right thing to do.
    Their lives are theirs. I gently explained it to my 7-year-old this way last week, as he hunched morosely over his homework:
    “Son, if you don’t do your homework, it won’t hurt me a bit. But if you don’t do your homework, your day tomorrow will be not much fun because you will have to do it and also do all your class work. It’s up to you.”
    The boy did his homework. And if he hadn’t, guess what? My little speech wasn’t just posturing. The consequences are his to confront. I would simply have sent him to school to deal with it.
    So, no, I am not going to go all ‘tiger mother’ and stand over them as they spend hours practicing musical instruments they hate. My husband is not going to force them to play sports that don’t interest them. We are not going to become ‘helicopter parents’ and insinuate ourselves into every facet of their lives and agonize over their every decision.
    You know why? Because it’s just no fun at all to do those things. It’s no fun for us, and it’s no fun for them. And we are here to have a good time.
    Man, I sure wish it would snow again.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Oh, brother: Dec. 18, 2011

My kids are soul mates. It takes me apart, the way they love each other.

There is real power in brotherly love
    I recently shuffled through the living room on a Saturday morning to find my 6-year-old son sitting still and mute in the semi-dark.
    “Ben, what are you doing, honey?” I asked.
    “Waiting for Jack,” he answered.
    Jack is 11, and he has begun to realize the appeal of sleeping a little bit late. The days when both boys leapt early from bed each weekend to racket up the playroom stairs together are fading fast.
    But Ben is unperturbed. He knows Jack will be along. He’ll wait.
    A friend visited us from Oregon a few weeks ago. As we sat talking into the wee hours, we got around to discussing the boys. We talked about how dramatically different they are in everything from their physical types to their temperaments. They have nearly five years and a world of dissimilarities between them. And they are as genuinely close as any two people I’ve ever known.
    “Do they fight?” my friend asked.
    “Like animals,” I said. “But that’s the price of real intimacy, isn’t it? Conflict isn’t scary when you’re that close.”
    I had never really thought about it until that moment -- until I said it -- but my sons have taught me so much about love through their example.
    They love each other fearlessly, and they battle full-force, in a way that clearly assumes there is nothing that can’t be mended. One minute they’re glowering and grappling; an hour later they’re splitting a Coke and amiably comparing their Pok√©mon card collections.
    In my head, the unspoken subtext sounds like this: Yeah, I know I punched you in the stomach and you kicked a hole in my Lego tower, but it’s cool. You know I love you. I always will. Let’s watch a movie.
    There is never any question of where their loyalty lies. In a world run by grown-ups and governed by the capricious rules of playgrounds and childhood hierarchies, they make their own safe harbor.
    My mom recently told me that her father always said this: The enemy of love is not hate; the enemy of love is fear.
    The reason we were talking about my grandfather is that my mother still misses him, sometimes sharply. He’s been gone 20 years. He always called me Kelly, for no good reason, and it made me feel like I had a special identity that was just for him. I can still hear his voice, saying that name to me.
    It’s such scary stuff, love. To truly give yourself over to it is to understand that you’ll most certainly be hurt. You’ll probably be hurt a lot. You may even be hurt in a way that will always be with you.
    We’d be crazy not to be afraid. But we have to be brave. A guarded heart is a lonely place to live. And why else are we here if not to love each other, despite the inherent risk?
    That’s what I think about when I look at pictures of my sons, who reflexively embrace any time we point a camera at them. We never tell them to do it, but they always do.
    Their arms drape each other’s shoulders, their heads tilt close together. Like plants seeking light.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Juggling: Nov. 20, 2011

I'm a woman who has it all. And there are days when I'd really like to give some of it back.

Do it all, have it all, darn it all
    It’s possible that I was recently rude in a meeting at work.
    I truly didn’t mean to be. But I was completely overcome by the urge to splay my hands over my face and groan, ‘Noooooo, please no.’ I may have also said something along the lines of, ‘That idea makes me want to die.’
    OK, yes, that is bad, bad workplace behavior. But in my defense, the suggestion was that we put an article about ‘work-life balance and doing it all’ in a publication we were planning. And, y’all, that idea just made me want to die.
    I am living deep in the reality of doing it all, and I just cannot stomach the urge we have to package up that reality using some goofy infographic featuring a woman in a business suit juggling a bunch of representative icons (the baby, the house, the husband, the briefcase, the running shoes).
    Those articles always feature cheerful advice from someone terrifically accomplished who’s doing it all. She’s making time for yoga and having the weekly date night with the husband and gluing together art projects with the kids while becoming the youngest vice president of whatever in the history of someplace. She’s telling you to make time for yourself and have a list and have a plan and drink lots of water and get enough sleep.
    Good. Great! And wow, thanks, but now I feel like a failure.
    What I really want is a feature called something like: “The truth about doing it all and having it all: Embarrassing shortcuts, mortifying secrets and frustrating foul-ups from the real lives of working parents.”
    Like this: Sometimes my kids run out of clean clothes and get dressed out of the hamper. We eat pizza and hamburgers all the time. I hate doing art projects. When I sit on my 6-year-old’s bed to help him study for his spelling tests, I sometimes fall asleep. I have never cleaned the light fixtures in my master bathroom. (They are so dusty it’s kind of fascinating; at this point I’m scared to touch them.) I am not above suggesting to my sons that they just go ahead and hit each other; I don’t think I need to be involved in their fights and if they pound each other, the fights end faster. I sometimes work at midnight because I just didn’t get it all done. I don’t understand my 11-year-old son’s math homework. I sometimes work on the weekends because I just didn’t get it all done. I have been known to call into meetings from the park while telling my kid that, yes, I am watching him on the swing when, no, I am absolutely not watching him on the swing.
    Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that this is the reality of a full life. I know enough about the sway of the cosmic pendulum to know that things will, eventually, slow down. The kids get bigger and more self-sufficient. Work has its slower seasons (that’s what I’ve heard, anyway). One day I’ll take that light fixture apart and clean it. Stuff evens out. Right?
    But in the meantime, it needs to be OK to acknowledge that when I leave work in the evening to take a run, I am neglecting work and my husband is at home handling the evening routine without me. And when I stay at work to finish a project, I am not getting my workout and my husband is at home handling the evening routine without me. And when I go home to help my husband with the evening routine, I am not getting my workout or finishing my work projects.
    And I need to make peace with this cell phone I have full of the frustrated texts that fly back and forth between my friends and me, all of which are a variation on this theme: I miss you, I never get to see you, I’m sorry I had cancel lunch but the baby is sick/work is crazy/let’s reschedule.
    Not to mention the myriad ways I neglect my good-hearted husband. This is a person I like enough to have babies and a mortgage with – a person who holds my hand when I am sick and asks me every single day how I am feeling and if there’s anything I need. We have to painstakingly carve out time to even have a conversation.
    So I want to ban those cheerful infographics showing the business-suited woman confidently juggling all that stuff. And maybe replace her with a picture of a woman who has her hands splayed over her face, groaning, ‘Noooooo, please no.’