Kids

The push and the pull … and the push

January 19, 2017

When we pack up our sweet little popup and head out to commune with Mother Nature, it is 100 percent guaranteed that my children will sniff out and frequent two places: The playground, crawling with feral wilderness kids, and the camp store. And these chicks are con artists, I tell ya. They can hit up their PaPa for a 5 dollar bill like a Las Vegas hustler and have a Rocket Pop in hand before we’re backed in and level.

On our last trip for the season, the third visit to this particular park that year, the older girls started wearing a path in the pavement. They’d go around the same loop on their scooters, always stopping at the camp store for a minute before hopping on their Razors and racing back to the site. They’d done it so many times, I’d eased up on my strict surveillance of the situation. And anyway, I was doing laps myself, mom strutting behind Sloppy Joan as she strolled about on her tiny legs under a bright yellow canopy of leaves, pointing at every dog, fire and bug. It was what I imagine sloth poetry is made of.

After a 30-minute .5 mile, we came up to the camp store and my mother sitting perched just outside with her tiny white rat dog on her lap.

“Ummmmm …” she said.
“What?”
“I thought you were in the camp store.”
“No, I’m walking with Sloppy Joan. Should I be in the camp store?”
“Well, the girls went in there. I think they were going to buy something. I thought you were already in there.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Right.”
“Right.”
“So …”
“So, I guess take Sloppy Joan and I’ll go check it out.”

I walked in and followed the intentional maze of tall wire shelves – past fridge magnets and Wiffle Ball sets and boxes of instant potatoes – until I reached the line. At the front of that line stood two little girls, their chins barely reaching the counter. The oldest, with her disheveled ponytail and Chick’s Rule sweatshirt, stood confidently as the middle one offered shaky support from just behind her, biting her top lip for comfort.

[Mom enters the scene.]

“Hey guys.” I said.
“Hi Mom,” JoJo sighed, knowing this put a damper on their hustle.
“So, whatcha got here?”

They had a lot of stuff, you guys.

Two candy bars, two packages of glow sticks, one notebook, one box of crayons and two, rather sizeable, stuffed animals. Dogs, if I remember correctly. I have no idea how long they’d been at the counter.

“It’s $33.50,” the irritated 17 year old with no children said to them (but looking directly at me).
“And how much money do you have, girls?” I asked.
“I have $5,” JoJo offered.
“So, if you have $5 to spend and $33.50 worth of toys and candy, what do you think you need to do?”
“Get more money?” JoJo proposed.
“Or, maybe, I was thinking … put some things back.”

Groans and those dreadful whines that announce the impending arrival of an actual, super-annoying cry started spilling out of child No. 1. My face was filling with the incinerating heat of extreme mortification. I turned to the gentleman behind us and, out of obligation and respect for the assault on his leisurely stroll to the friendly camping store to get coffee filters, mouthed a sincere, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine!” he said too kindly. “I love watching other people parent, and it’s a good lesson for them.” (I feel it’s vital to the story that I mention the dude looked like Jim Gaffigan.)

Two minutes later, we left the store with one candy bar, one package of glow sticks and one sour little camper. (Spike was fine. She, I deduced, was merely along for the ride.)

“What happened?” Mom pounced as we walked out.
“Oh, I’ll tell ya what happened. My children were trying to buy Christmas with a $5 bill and no parents. That’s what happened.”

She. Fell. Out.

I finally laughed, too.

Later, when I pulled JoJo aside to talk to her about the responsibility of carrying money and making smart purchases and always, always letting someone know where you’re going and what you’re doing, I realized that her frustration wasn’t just about the fact that I’d cockblocked the purchase of the one stuffed animal that brought her to an even 500. It was more about the embarrassment. She felt a false sense of confidence because she’d been to the store with me and now she just wanted to prove that she could be grown up, too. She could make a transaction. She knew what was going down.

Only, little bird, you don’t.

And thus the internal battle begins. I can appreciate the fact that she had the self confidence to walk into a store and do something “adult”. It’s amazing actually when you think about the fact that they had been casing the joint the whole time. And the last thing I want ever is to squelch my daughter’s spirit. But obviously certain things require supervision and guidance. She’s just in such a dang hurry to grow up, that one, always offering to cook dinner and watch the other kids. “You’re 7!” I want to scream. “Be my baby forever!”

It’s a tricky thing, instilling self-assurance in our kids. We want them to be carefree, but cautious. Capable but reliant. Brave but tentative. We tell them they can do anything in this world, as long as they let us hold their hands and take them there to do it. It’s a balance, I suppose, like everything. And it’s often necessary. I mean, my 7 and 5 year old clearly can’t be trusted to go off on their own with a sweaty handful of bills and a thirst for entertainment.

But even though I know it was the right one, my reaction on that day and in other situations, both before and after their Treat Yo Self 2016 binge, have me pondering some of the big motherhood questions. Am I standing back enough? Am I promoting independence and a sense of wonder? Am I flapping their hesitant wings with heavy hands, or am I teaching them to fly?

Seeking answers from within your social circle won’t help. Getting together with girlfriends is really just an exercise in self deprecation and unconditional acceptance. We shower our fellow soldiers in the comfort that they are doing the absolute best they can, and then solidify the support by immediately countering with a one-upper of a personal parental failure.

“You guys, I haven’t cooked a meal from scratch in 6 days.”
“That’s OK, I caught Susie eating a used Q-Tip out of the trash Tuesday night.”
“Oh, man … well, at least she’s eating. Henry only eats AirHeads and olive loaf.”
“I say give it to him. At least you’re feeding him. I forgot to make breakfast twice last week. Just plain spaced it.”
“It’s all good! I got mad at the boys for insulting my banana bread with a smiley face made out of chocolate chips in it, so I picked up the whole loaf, took it to my room, locked the door and ate the entire thing while I watched Breaking Bad and pretended to cry.”
“Awwww, you put a smiley face in it? You are such a good mom. I aspire to be the mom who makes food into faces. I was out of stationery this morning, so I wrote Desiree’s teacher a note about her eye drops on the back of a past due notice from the cable company.”
“But you’re communicating. Unlike my husband!”
And so on …
We can stop there.

If we’re really honest, none of us know what the hell we’re doing. And even if we did, sometimes it doesn’t matter anyway because the little shits have these minds of their own. The nerve. We spend all of our time with our kids pushing them and pulling them, and then second-guessing ourselves so we push them again. And then we leave them and spend the whole time dissecting what we did while we were with them. The bottom line is we just care too damn much.

Last weekend, Hank’s mom brought over some old photo albums. I flipped through as she squinted down at the snapshots and recounted old neighborhood buddies, the days they had no money, and injuries. Sooo many injuries. Stitches and staples and gashes galore. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess because they were boys and because I never went anywhere, and because I left home and got married right away, I was just always like, ‘Go! Try it!’ and they got hurt sometimes. But it all worked out.”

After she left, I thought about how strictly I police the girls sometimes. (Not always. Because sometimes I watch Mad Men and “fold laundry”.) I can hover like a rescue copter with the best of them, just waiting for the signal to drop my ladder. And I love to call out up-to-the-second instructions: “Don’t do that!” “Get down from there!” “You’re going to fall!” “Wait for a grownup!” “Look both ways!” Necessary? Often, yes. Beneficial? Probably not always, no. A little psycho? Perhaps.

But nobody tells you when you’re supposed to cut strings and nudge them out of nests and let go of their hands. I mean, I feel like, unless somebody instructs me or they demand it, my timeline for those initiatives is … never.

I do want to put them out there. I want them to feel like they can own their feelings because they were born from their own decisions. I want them to be bold when something stirs in them. I want them to explore. I want them to take risks. (The push.) But I want them to be safe. I want them to be aware of the possible outcomes. I want to protect their little bodies with traffic guard arms and their hearts with the wisest words. (The pull.)

My conflicting feelings on this matter have never been as palpable as they were this past Saturday morning as JoJo and Spike took to the basketball court. See, Hank thought, in the interest of saving some of our Saturdays, it would be best if we just put both of the girls on the team for first and second graders, even though Spike is in preschool (she is old for her class). The second the game started, my rescue chopper instinct kicked in. My curly haired babe was flailing. She was smaller, weaker and slower. The argument could definitely be made that this was not our finest parenting decision.

But the buzzer rang out at the end of their little game and she was still standing. Crying, because she got hit in the cheek, but still standing. Through with basketball because the kids were running over her too much, but still standing. Disenchanted because it wasn’t like playing P-I-G on the tiny hoop in the basement, but still standing. She was still standing, and she was fine. So why shouldn’t I be? Everyone needs that one story, “Well, my parents didn’t even believe in age groups! They just threw me in with the 10 year olds and left for an hour!” This, I suppose, will be hers.

Had I not walked into that camping store that morning, JoJo would have learned a tough lesson about finances. It just wouldn’t have been from me. But she would have gotten the lesson anyway. (Still, the thought of that is horrifying. “Where are their parents?” asked everyone anywhere watching that situation play out.) They’re going to fall off the bed whether I tell them to stop jumping or not. They’re going to run into each other, and get knocked down and slip off monkey bars. I guess it’s just the deciphering between “that’s where you come in” and “that’s part of life” where it gets muddy for me.

Maybe the balance rests in the letting go. Or maybe, like in Mean Girls, the balance does not exist. Maybe we never really let go because that means our job isn’t as important as we think it is. And I know parenting is important as hell. So, maybe instead, I’ll just concede a few things …

Spelling quizzes and checking their homework folder will be mine.
Tests and final school projects will be theirs.

Pep talks, protection and well-meaning warnings will be mine.
Perseverance and victories will be theirs.

Boo boo kissing, cuddles and words of advice will be mine.
The lessons will be theirs.

(Negotiations are ongoing.)

Thoughts

These three resolutions made the cut

January 5, 2017

Happy New Year, you beautiful souls!

I don’t know what your Christmas looked like, but mine was fantastic, to the tune of a tummy-flattening stomach flu (second time in three weeks), a 103 fever for Spike and 2500 rainbow loom bands scattered across the floor like birthday confetti thanks to Sloppy Joan. Ahhhh, the holidays. A time of sugarplums and pure insanity.

Anyway, you blink and Bam! A brand new year has arrived. Everybody’s so excited to see 2016 go and I’m over here all just like fine with the ways things are. [gulp.] But I’m going to put my big girl pants on, stuff some optimism in my pockets and step boldly into 2017 with my chin up and hope in my heart.

The best part about turning the page? Resolutions. I love ‘em. I do. I typically come in at around eight goals because, you know, I’m desperate for improvement, and I typically hit one or two. Last year I checked off backpacking, trying one new thing a month, and I’d like to think talking less and listening more, but that’s subjective.

This year I got a little … we won’t say less ambitious, we’ll say wiser about resolutions. I hear a lot at work about setting SMART goals. They should be Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely/Trackable. Ohhhhhh! That makes so much more sense than saying, for instance, “I want to stop living by a schedule” or “I want to be a better human”.

Also, while I was enjoying some much-needed, stay-in-my-jammies all day time over the holidays, I came across Gabrielle Bernstein’s Facebook Live on goal setting. “Don’t make them negative,” she said. “Put a positive spin on them.” So, instead of saying, “I’m not going to let myself eat crap anymore.” You might say, “I’m going to truly fuel my body.” Find a way to take all the terrible things you need to quit and make them sound pretty. I’m up for it.

So, I see you 2017, and I’m comin’ for ya. Here’s what I’ve got my sights set on …

We’re tackling our fourth Whole30 in this house, and this time, the hope is I can reintroduce every food group but sugar. I have not kept my addiction to sugar a secret and it’s time to say goodbye once and for all (except for birthdays and warm donuts). Parting is such sweet sorrow.

I’d also like to push myself to get stronger. I always look down at a scale, but I’m starting to think scales are stupid. I want to look over at a bicep instead. I want to feel like a badass and have the package to drive the message home. I find the weight room at the gym to be such an intimidating place, filled with men who really, really use the mirrors. I need to get in there in the new year.

I need more of what scares me in my life. For example, Hank surprised me with a trip to see one of my besties in Florida in February and let me tell you a secret … come close … closer … closer … this is going to be really embarrassing for one of us … I have never flown by myself. Yes, I am 34 years old. Yes, I do grownup things like pay bills and buy food to cook it and keep a household of people alive. Yes, I am terrified to fly by myself. But I’m doin’ it! I love the feeling after I do something new and it turns out completely fine and, on top of that, it’s awesome. And most new things are just like that.

I want to use my vacation days for vacation and not just sick kids and furniture deliveries. Americans throw away like 600 million vacation days a year. Let’s all agree that’s just sad. When I think of my happy places, with my happy people and all I’ve yet to experience, I just want to turn in PTO and get going. Twenty years from now a house filled with things won’t mean shit compared to a heart papered in postcards from beaches and mountaintops, signed by my four favorite people (plus me, of course).

About two weeks ago I started on this one. I began unfollowing every major news outlet on Facebook, Twitter and email notifications. No more “Alerts” or “Updates”. I find that the majority of what’s published poisons my spirit, and the pieces I need to know always find me in other ways. Peace, to me, is better than drinking from the fire hose of negativity fed by our popular media outlets. It’s just noise at this point, and everyone wants to shout so their voice can make the ugliness even louder. Well, I don’t.

The second prong in this approach is the adoption of a flow rather than a routine. This one will actually be pretty brutal for me. If we’re buds, you know I live and die by my schedule. Up for the gym by 4:40 a.m., out the door for school and work by 7:16 a.m., lunch at noon, snack at 3 p.m., dinner on the table by 6:30 p.m., kids in bed by 8 p.m., melatonin at 9 p.m., nothing after 10 p.m. It is the fabric of my being. It’s ingrained in me the way Let It Go is ingrained in my children’s vocal cords. But living in a flow might look more like …

4:43 a.m. – I think I’ll sleep in a bit and do yoga at home instead of running at the gym.

Noon – I’m not too hungry yet, maybe I’ll finish up this story and then grab a late bite instead.

7:30 p.m. – It’s bath night but we really should go for a bike ride instead, it’s so beautiful out.

8 p.m. – I feel flustered. I think I’ll meditate for 15 minutes.

No one – and I mean no one – would describe me as a gal who can just roll with what comes, so this one’s my wild card, but I’m optimistic. Maybe sugarfree me will be more malleable, too.

Whatever goals you set for yourself, I hope the next 360 days bring you hope, love and lots of wholehearted contentment.

Kids

The woman who cares for my children

December 30, 2016

We sat outside on a sticky August evening – four tired mothers, spent from trying to keep all the plates spinning on our fingertips and tiptoes and the one woman who made it even close to possible, Kay. We raised salt-rimmed margaritas in celebration of our dear friend’s 59th birthday and looked lovingly upon her.

To know Kay is to know belief. She is proof that God walks among us; That He does some of His best work through others’ hands. She infuses everyone she meets with honesty and love and conviction. She has a peace that only comes with unwavering faith and firm truth and the understanding that you have found your calling. And the best part about all this? For five beautiful years, my girls have rubbed up against these rare qualities in Kay’s home, which is really their second home.

“You really need to do something nice and celebrate.” I said
“Well yeah, you know me.” Kay responded sarcastically.
“No, seriously … you do so much for everyone else.”
“Yeah, well, I have been thinking a lot about my kids and things I need to do and things I’d like to do and, well …” [pregnant pause] “… I do have a date.” [bigger pregnant pause] “I’ve decided to stop watching children around Christmas next year.”

Tears. So many tears.

And then congratulations.

And then more tears. This time with snot.

I knew this day was coming. I mean I practically promised to sell my kidneys to get JoJo in with Kay when we moved back from Indianapolis. I knew she was wonderful and I knew my children needed to be in her home and I was willing to stalk her, beg her and just start dropping my little girl and money off until she settled into the idea. But I didn’t have to do all that. After a good referral from a friend and a pleasant chat, Kay decided to take our then 2 year old. We, I was told, would be the last family she would care for before retiring.

When we had Spike she mentioned that when we were done having kids, she would soon be done as well. She told me the same after we had Sloppy Joan. She planted subtle reminders of her impending retirement along the way – pebbles for us to pick up and remember that her home, sweet as it was, would not be open to us forever.

But still on this suddenly unforgiving summer evening, with the bitter taste of the salt biting my tongue, I felt shocked. My heartbeats were thunderous in my eardrums and my eyes were drowning in hot tears. What would we do without Kay? What would any of us do?

I don’t call Kay a babysitter, a fact that has been pointed out to me by several different people on several different occasions. I’ll say, “Kay, who watches the girls,” or “Our friend, Kay” or “You know, Kay, the baby whisperer,” but never “babysitter”. It just feels so inadequate. A babysitter is a 15 year old who sneaks her boyfriend in the back door and gets gum stuck in her braces. Kay is a miracle worker. Kay speaks child. Kay is the captain and the wind and the vessel itself.

There have been so many times she’s told me something about one of the girls that should have been so obvious, but it took having her gently point it out for me to see it. She’s taught them all how to go up and down stairs. How to pray before meals. How to bump a volleyball and swing a bat. How to roll up their sleeves and get dirty and scoop up crayfish in the creek. She treats each one equally but sees the intricate nooks and folds of their little personalities perfectly.

In 27 years the woman has never taken a sick day. I’m not kidding. She doesn’t take vacations, she doesn’t get the stomach flu, she doesn’t get strep. She’s a machine. And it’s not like she just got good at connecting with kids in her veteran years, either. I rode up to Kay’s daughter’s lakehouse (because they actually want to spend time with all of us outside of the weekdays, proving she is, in fact, a saint) with two freshman in high school who grew up at Kay’s. Their stories were the best. Kay sent a snake home with them and it had 200 babies. Kay let them build a tepee in the ravine next to her house. Kay got them to do things their parents would only dream of. She was a main character in the beginning chapters of their lives, and they would never ever forget her.

And let’s talk about the food at Kay’s.

Kay shops at the exact same grocery store where we shop. Exact same. But for whatever reason (magic pixie dust one can assume) everything is tastier at her table. One of the teenagers I was with confirmed the hypothesis I’d had for years.

“So, you’re saying if I buy a gallon of Hawaiian Punch, and Kay buys the exact same gallon of juice, it will taste better at Kay’s house?”
“Yes.”
“But …”
“I know! I can’t explain it! It’s just better. The fruit snacks are chewier, too.”

Her cheese sandwich is one slice of white bread with a Kraft single on top microwaved for 22 seconds and folded over. The kids go nuts for it. I make it, and nothin’. No love. But the gleaming cherry on top of the sundae that is Kay’s, is the crumbs. Imagine if you will, the broken shards of fried potato that reside in the bottom of a grease-soaked bag of plain potato chips. You’d toss them away, right? Consider that a crime at Kay’s. At Kay’s, everyone has an assigned crumb day. When the bag gets down to potato pieces, she spoons one tablespoon of chip dip (a special Kay kind of chip dip that I have purchased but did not taste like Kay’s special chip dip) into the bottom half of the potato chip bag, which she has cut in half for convenience. She then uses her hands to push and massage and squeeze the dip/chip components together to form the ideal consistency. She hands the crumb day child the dip spoon and gives them the green light to shovel their prize into their watering mouth as the other children at the table look on in complete and utter jealousy. That, my friends, is the crumbs. And it is the holy grail of Kay’s.

Seasons passed. That summer gave way to this past summer and before we knew it, it was fall.

Every year over Fall Break Kay has a wienie roast and bonfire for the kiddos. They push leaves into giant piles and roll down her perfectly sloped hill and laugh and play and torch marshmallows. When I came to pick up the chicks on this special day, Kay called me over to show me pictures on her phone. The kids had found an owl sitting in a tree down in the ravine. How fitting, I thought. An owl, a universal symbol of learning, would preside over this, their final autumn gathering. The lessons learned in this yard, in this home, around that kitchen table, from this woman, are lifelong. She has been their greatest teacher in the years when the rules really matter and the instructions aren’t always clear for tired mothers and well-meaning fathers.

When you make the decision (or the decision makes itself) to be a working mom, you accept the sacrifices but they still keep you up at night. Agony is wrestling with all of the things you’re missing and the precious time you’re losing. Your greatest wish is that you can find a place to take your child where they will be safe and loved and understood. I know people who search and search and search for that kind of environment. We were lucky enough to have it for this short time and our girls will be better people because of it. Kay’s house is an extension of our home. It is warm and welcoming and her entire family has carried our children in their hearts.

Another season passed. And now, here we are at “Christmas time next year”.

It’s time for me to be an adult. (Let me go on record as saying I despise such occasions.) I’m so thrilled for this beautiful woman who’s dedicated so much of herself to other families. She deserves – more than anyone I know – a day off, a vacation, an impulsive decision. She deserves to sit with her grandbabies for hours and share her gifts with other people and to let others stand in her light. I tell the girls why it’s so important we support Kay and celebrate this time for her. Then I turn away from them and cry like the giant woman-baby I am.

I cry every time I think about Sloppy Joan missing those summers down in the ravine, when I pull up to find them sitting on the driveway barefoot with vanilla ice cream running down their sun-kissed arms to their elbows. Or the girls begging to go to “Kay-Kay’s” in footie pajamas with their blankies under their arms. Or Kay giving them kisses on their cheeks and telling them she loves them after they had a tough day. Or all of the 8 million things that only the families who went to Kay’s can appreciate, that won’t be part of our routine anymore. Our days will be a little less full without her.

A few weeks ago she had all of our families over for a Christmas dinner. Kay gathered the children around her dining room table, where they’d sat for so many meals, and she invited them to pray, just as she had so many times. As they folded their precious hands and followed her in making the sign of the cross, I felt those steamy tears I’d felt a year and a half ago rolling down my cheeks. No one could love our little tribe of misfits the way she had. What will we do without Kay? What will any of us do without Kay?

The night Kay told us she would be moving on, I went home and wrote this:

The woman who cares for my children is not a babysitter.
The woman who cares for my children is a maker of memories.
The woman who cares for my children is a friend to me and a light to all.
The woman who cares for my children is the wisdom through trivial tears.
The woman who cares for my children is a compass at the crossroads.
The woman who cares for my children carries them in her heart just as their mother does.
She is a light and a guiding force and a selfless soul whose role in this village will never be forgotten.

I feel it more today, on your last day with our babies, than I did on that August night.

We thank you Kay.
We love you Kay.

Try That With Matt

Try that with Matt. Have a Hupe Holiday

December 23, 2016

Getting through the marathon and final 100 yard dash of the holidays is challenging enough. Instead of something new, we’re looking back on our treasured traditions. Hope you don’t mind.

**MATT**

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, plastic figurines litter the yard, Dolly Parton’s holiday radio is at the top of my Pandora stations … ‘Tis the season to be Merry! (That’s my name. No shit.)

First, for those of you who don’t know my family, they’re a little bit crazy when it comes to Christmas. I mean, I didn’t come up with the saying, “Have a Hupe Holiday!” own my own. The joys of Christmas run deep, on both sides of the family. DSS ordered a favorite Christmas memory, but I opted to reflect on this magical time of year while Home Alone is on in the background.

My grandpa Hupe put up outdoor lights and figurines. My uncles, my dad … it’s legit in our blood. Kids, don’t you want a house you can be proud of? Sure you do! I could tell you plenty of stories about helping Dad, testing bulbs, getting figurines out of the attic, making an annual trip to the Christmas section to find what would be the new additions to the yard. Our operation was no joke, people. Let me put this in perspective for you. One year I brought a couple buddies to help us execute the display. My sister and I got into a disagreement about where Santa No. 11 should go and Jolly Ole Saint Nick, aka Big Rog, gave me my walking papers. His exact words were, “Matt, get your friends and get the hell outta here!” I am still the only person in the family to be kicked out of Christmas decorating. It’s that serious.

I took the knowledge I absorbed over the years with the old man and applied it to my own home. After countless hours spent bulb checking, circuit blowing, figurine staking, it became second nature. And I’m happy to report that in my second year as a homeowner I was awarded first place for my display by the neighborhood association. It was a major award! I know my grandpa was looking down, proud and probably noticing which little lights were out.

On Mom’s side, the Christmas crazy comes through in baking, ham balls, taco dip and sentimental gifts. Every year, for as long as I can remember, we’ve gathered at my folks’ on Christmas Eve to shovel all kinds of calorie-loaded, butter-soaked goodies into our fat faces and get our cheer cranked up. I have so many memories here, from my uncle’s parents having a snore off that was caught on camcorder. (It was the 80s, so you know it was the kind that made you look like a local news reporter when you propped it on your shoulder.) To my aunt giving me a Christmas peanut one year because I was supposedly bad (I don’t buy it.) Or the annual butt shot of the oldest sister, who’s the designated Santa, as she climbs around pulling gifts out from under the tree. My mom has three sisters. They’ve collected an ornament every single year for God only knows how long, so there is always the opening of the ornaments, which signals the grand finale. Oh, and how could I forget … there’s always the one gift that someone gets that makes all of them cry … and they all cry the same. It’s a packed house, full of family, food, drinks and shuffling from room to room to avoid hearing the same story eight times. It’s our tradition and to me it’s the moment Christmas begins.

Trying to think of a favorite Christmas memory isn’t easy. There’s just too many options. I mean, I got my dog Babe for Christmas and she meant the world to me (I think she rides next to Santa in his sleigh now), DSS got engaged on Christmas morning, I got an Atari for Christmas … How can you narrow down a field like that? Well you can’t. It’s impossible. My favorite memories have nothing to do with gifts and honestly every memory is a treasure. It’s seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces to see what Santa brought this year. And the excitement on my mom’s face as she tries to focus her special eyes on what in the hell her grandkids are opening and hoping that they love it. It’s getting together with my dad and my uncles and listening to them belly laugh for hours. It’s having breakfast with my family Christmas morning while my old man seeks everyone’s approval for the new casseroles he whipped up. It’s listening to my aunts talk about health issues, recipes and grandkids, and having some drinks and cracking up with my cousins.

Christmas is so special because it brings out our inner kid. We all have that one memory of that one gift that just took things to the next level. How did Santa know? So embrace your inner kid this Christmas, enjoy your family, your friends, tell that stranger you hold the door for Merry Christmas, sing as loud as you want on Christmas Eve at church … because you know what, when Santa squeezes his fat ass down that chimney this year, why shouldn’t he see the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse? Oh, and if he happens to have a little beagle with big ears with him, give her some love for me, would you?

Merry Christmas to you and your family! Enjoy every second of it.

Love, Just Matt

**ME**

I am a Christmas junkie. I live for the high of giving the perfect gift, the rush of sneaking things under the tree and the dizzy delight of too many treats chased with cream-drunk coffee. My family knows these instant gratifications will be followed by a sad yuletide crash, complete with 48-hour stretches in the same sweats, a dent in the couch from my cheeseball-lovin’ lard ass and loads of seasonal self deprecation.

Truly if you don’t like Christmas, I fear you are dead inside. Black. Hollow. Cold. Dead. Just know that if you tell me you aren’t that into it, these are the thoughts I’m having.

When I close my eyes I can feel the still, quiet buzz of anticipation in the room. My nose fills with the plastic film of wrapping paper and the punched up pungent aroma of pine. It’s like the tree knows this is it, the big show. I love all of it … well, almost all of it. I could do without shopping and cleaning for company.

The memories are deep and long, and each is too precious to push aside. There was the year my brother fell down the stairs as we went searching for Santa and I thought he was dead. The year my sister ate all the chocolate in her stocking and barfed all over Mom’s new couch. Getting dolled up in big fancy Christmas dresses and singing Sandi Patty. My dad’s matching jammie sets. The year my brother had mono and slept through the whole thing. Me and Hank’s first Christmas as a married couple, and our first Christmas as parents.

And while I don’t like to play favorites, and seldom do (that’s a lie), I would be remiss not to take this opportunity to relive the morning Hank asked me to marry him.

Mairlyn don’t play when it comes to Christmas. Though we’d been together for five years, my boyfriend had never been to our family Christmas. That was Mom’s rule. As Matt said earlier, everyone who drove past our home during December knew how the Hupes felt about the holiday. The same could be said for anyone who stepped inside. Garland and stuffed Santas and bowls of striped candies covered every wall, every surface, every banister. So when my sister said she wanted to go get extra decorations for the family room, I was a little surprised. But she’s a Hupe by blood, so I went with it.

We were about 30 minutes into opening gifts on Christmas morning when Hank walked into the entryway just outside the family room. I saw him and had one thought and one thought only: Who died?

I knew Hank and I were going to get married from the day we met. It was really just a matter of when. We talked about it from time to time and he always said the same thing. “I would never ask on a major holiday or when I know you’re expecting it.” No ring at the bottom of a glass of champagne on Valentine’s Day. No princess cut peeking out of an anniversary souffle. And absolutely, without a doubt, 100 percent no Christmas. And so, when I saw him there, with the most sober face I’d ever seen him wear, I immediately went to death.

Of course the only thing dying was my bachelorettehood. When I walked back into the room, ring on the right finger, my brother was crying. Turns out he and I were the only ones who didn’t know this was coming. Everyone else had been in on it. And Hank got to stay for Christmas. He was officially locked in. I remember how my heart dropped, and then quickened and then swelled. It was a Christmas to remember and I’ll never forget.

I wish you all a weekend filled with tons of twinkle lights, magical moments and giggling children. May their naps be lengthy and their meltdowns be minor. And above all, I wish you peace and … you guessed it, wholeheartedness in the new year.

Love, Courtney

Kids

Motherhood: Praise-seekers need not apply

December 21, 2016

During my awkward but beautiful NKOTB elementary school years, my family spent a lot of time camping. Biannually, usually spring break and once in the summer, we would take a big trip to Myrtle Beach or some other southern spot with great historic locations my father could hike up his tube socks and take us all to. There were five of us in that travel trailer. Sometimes, it was cozy and could hardly contain our Griswald family contentment. And other times …

People hit each other.

The details have faded as the 20+ summers since this one particular event have passed, but I still recall the bullet points. There were these sunshine yellow melamine dishes tucked away in the cabinets of the trailer. For whatever reason, I loved them. We’d unhitch and level off and my mom would go about her routine; putting groceries away and optimistically teasing the amenities. “Those swings look like they go pretty high guys, I don’t know …”. She would hum the latest Top 40 hit from Genesis. Dad would cuss through the setup outside and go find wood. (He was always finding wood.) But of everything in this waltz we watched a thousand times, there was something about those canary dishes that signaled we were really staying. We were on vacation.

One warm afternoon, after the melamine coffee cups had been washed and the Sunbeam bread used to feed the local ducks was tucked away, my brother came in and took a giant proverbial crap right in the middle of everything.

Back then, Matt hated being with us. He barely spoke and when he did it was to complain about what we were eating or where we were or who was there. It was super obnoxious. My parents were just trying to be memory makers, right? They carted us around to check off the snapshots every family had in their photo album in the 1980s … kids on a beach … kids in front of a roller coaster … kids on a hike. It was never enough for him just to stand in formation, put a smile on his face and pretend to relish the thrilling rides at Dollywood. Oh, no. Not Matt. He had to make his disgust and general dislike for the people who grew him known.

Anyway, on this one warm afternoon, after Matt nudged her and nudged her and nudged her, my mom, the sweet lady who weeped at Casey Kasem’s long distance dedications and introduced me to the Shoney’s breakfast buffet, God bless her … well, she completely lost her shit on my brother. Right there in the camper. Her arms were swinging and sounds were coming out at triple speed and didn’t quite form all the way and my brother’s eyes were wide and wild as he succumb to her fury. He had walked across the limb so many times, and on that day, in the camper of family dreams, the limb snapped.

I watched it. The whole thing. So did my sister. So did my dad. I don’t think any of us took a breath for the entire 56 seconds my mother spent physically and verbally retaliating against her almost-teenage punk of a son before storming out of the trailer in tears. Huh, I thought. I guess Mom went crazy.

Then I grew up, had kids of my own and realized we’re all just one forced fart, recorder recital or “She hit me!” away from crazy.

Being a mother is a thankless, soul-sucking, humbling, disgusting, exhausting occupation. I used to imagine my mom pulled everything out of her ass. I needed something for a school project, she got it. I was sick and wanted saltines with peanut butter, she made them. I wanted to try gymnastics, she signed me up. She drove me. She watched me. It all just got done. I never thought about why she needed to take a hot bath and pound peanut M&Ms by 9 o’clock every night. I just never considered it.

And neither do my kids.

I babysat for my niece one summer break during college. She had this little car she could ride on. It had mermaids and fish all over it and sang this stupid song … “I’m a happy mermaid, down in the sea – something, something, something – and dance with me.” She used to scoot around on that thing pressing the button on the steering wheel every 2 seconds. So to my tired ears, it was just, “I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a …” for minutes on end. The funny thing was, she loved the end of the song. Whenever she got distracted and made it to “… and dance with me,” she laughed with joy. And then she’d go back to pressing the button with the hope of hearing it in its entirety. Of course her rapid trigger finger meant, “I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a ….” The insanity! But now, I am that mermaid car. I am the button on the other end of a child’s fingertip – constantly trying to get it all out, to get to the end, to the point.

The number of times I repeat myself in a day can clock in at no less than 900.

“Get dressed, please … Get dressed, please … Get dressed, please.”
“Eat your breakfast, please … Eat your breakfast, please … Eat your breakfast!”
“Get your coat on, please … Get your coat on, please … Get your coat on, please.”
“Tie your shoes, please … Tie your shoes … Tie your shoes, please.”
“Come on, please … Come on … Come on.”
“Eat your dinner, please … Eat your dinner, please.”
“”Stop jumping off the couch, please …”
“Clean your room, please …”
“Brush your teeth, please …”
“Go to timeout, please …”
“Get in bed, please …”
“Stop talking and go to bed, please ….”
“Go to bed!”

No one hears me. At some point between when they exited the womb and they started using more than 3 words together at a time, my voice was tragically muted. I know, and you dear reader likely know, that if I don’t move the circus along, no one gets where they need to go. No one gets to the bus stop on time and I get yelled at for chasing it down a few stops away. No one feeds the dog and she dies. No one gets their library books and the teacher sends a scathing note home. I’m just trying to help! “I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a …”

And yet, the gratitude tank runs dry most days. Living in a home with young children means you better be prepared for prison rules, man. Because only your child would take a giant deuce in the middle of the dinner you spent 3 hours making. And then tell you they hate what you made anyway. Only your child would rub her hard moss-colored boogers against the only white shirt you own. Only your child would headbutt you when you’re trying to kiss them, or kick your nose during a friendly tickle or pee on your bath rug or vomit in your hair on your 30th birthday (that really happened). Kids are cruel. They don’t know and they don’t care, and when they do know, they still don’t care.

You have to go into it knowing you won’t collect on those gratitude IOUs they’re leaving all over the tubs they’re pooping in and rooms they’re trashing for at least another 18 years. And that might be ambitious. And you aren’t really allowed to care. You’re expected to be durable and flexible and resilient. You’re expected to be both Betty Draper (in the early seasons) and Sheryl Sandberg, depending on the scenario, and settle for a fart vapor’s worth of appreciation for both social archetypes.

I’ve spent hours planning my menu on Pinterest only to have Sloppy Joan turn her plate over and throw it across the table more times than I care to share. I’ve had chicks climb into my Epsom salts detox bath because they were cold and it looked fun. I’ve walked in to find every item of clothing from the bottom bar of the closet ripped off the hangers and thrown around the room just minutes after I finished putting them away. I’ve had more little people watch me poop than a pony at a county fair.

But we love them.

Sometimes it looks like rocking ourselves in a corner with drool streaming out of ours turned down mouths, but we love them.

It’s an abusive love. Like the way people with ulcers love flaming hot Cheetos. We love their toots and boogers and ridiculous requests and come back for more day after day after day. We plot our escapes and then crave their sticky, sweaty, vaguely pissy scent the second we drop them off.

Being a mother is thankless 23 hours out of every day. But man … they really reel ya in during those 60 minutes when it really counts, huh?

It’s rarely with words. Though sometimes it is sweet, silly, wonderful words I reach into the air, grab and write down somewhere to relive later. But more often it’s a little warm body climbing into my lap while I’m distracted with another conversation. Or a drawing that comes back in a folder from school with stick figures holding hands, the taller one labeled “Mama”. Or a cheerleader. Or an impersonation. Or a cry in the middle of the night. It makes me feel needed and seen and responsible. Yes, it’s a thankless job. It isn’t for the weak or the praise-hungry. The pay is shit. But if you play your cards right and keep your eyes and ears open, the benefits can be pretty sweet.

Thoughts

It’s simply the Best

December 9, 2016

It was one of those evenings right before the official start of winter when the cut of the cold and premature darkness still surprise you. It had been a long day at work. My brain needed an invigorating, startling freeze to reset. I pushed the door open, stepped into the parking lot and turned my face to the sky, as I always do, in hopes of a masterpiece. My God, the moon is breathtaking, I thought. What magical gifts He gives us sometimes. And then, just as I reached my car, it occurred to me … it came into focus … that solar superstar, that awe-inspiring sphere, was not the moon at all. It was, in fact my friends, a high roadside sign for Burger King.

I wish I was kidding. But alas, this is the burden I bear. My eyes are not like your eyes. My eyes are very special.

See, along with an affinity for chocolate laced with nuts and tendency to burn dinner, my mother also handed off a rare genetic eye disorder called Best Disease the day I was born.

First of all, we can all agree that Best Disease is, hands down, the absolute worst name for a disease ever. Ever! Can you imagine spending your entire life telling people you have the Best Disease? It sounds so narcissistic. Oh, you have diabetes? Well, I have Best Disease, so your second-class excuse for a disease can just have a gay ole’ time being in my disease’s shadow. Sorry bout ya. Crohn’s? Pssh! Why don’t you man up and get a real disease, son? Cuz there ain’t no disease like the Best Disease, cuz the Best Disease don’t stop …

I’ve seen it in pictures and had it explained to me a dozen times, but I’m still not 100 percent sure what this inconvenient little bitch is all about. As I understand it, it’s a form of macular degeneration that manipulates the macula in the retina. The macula is a tiny area that’s vital for seeing detail and color. We use it anytime we look directly at something, like when reading, watching TV and writing. (So, naturally, I decided to be a writer.) Members of our elite little club develop blisters on the macula that look like an egg yolk. There’s more potential for growth and decay after that, but it’s all kind of scary and gross, so we’ll leave at the yolk. It doesn’t hurt and there is no cure. It just is.

It’s like having a cool party trick that only the nerdiest people at the party appreciate. About eight years ago I thought I needed reading glasses. So I did what anyone would do. I went to a popular optometrist in town, known for having the coolest frames. I think the publisher I worked for at the time also got a fat discount through some shady deal, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, I went in, they took their pictures and put me on the end of the table to start playing Name That Curvy Figure That Vaguely Resembles a Letter.

“OK Courtney, if you could just read line 5 for me, please.””
“Sure. K … 7 … J … G?”
“Huh. OK, how about line 4.”
“9 … T … P … is that a horse maybe?”
“Interesting.”

After I murdered the test, the optometrist threw my eyeball pictures up on the screen. What happened next should have been embarrassing, both for the professional administering the exam and myself, but somehow it just happened and neither of us acknowledged the absolute absurdity of the exchange. The dude actually sat his pen down, excused himself and left the room. Only, he forgot to close the door.

“Tim! You have got to come see this lady’s pictures! I mean … you’re gonna shit.” he said to, I’m assuming, the other nerd at the party who would appreciate my trick.

Then, as casually as if he’d just dropped off a roll of toilet paper to a buddy stranded in a gas station bathroom, he strolled back in and resumed his routine. I let him have the moment.

My college roommates called them my special eyes. (Do you remember that commercial? “Look … Look with your special eyes!”) Hank still affectionately refers to them by this name whenever I think I see a cat in the yard and it turns out to be a plastic bag, and other such misunderstandings. I can see most things, but color can be tricky. I get headaches after too much reading. I crinkle my whole face and bring things about a centimeter from my eyeballs to put it all together. Sad? Not really. I don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t know if my red isn’t your red. If it’s duller or distorted or muddy. I have no clue. Are the clouds closer than they appear? I mean … maybe. If you say so. I don’t know. Perception is reality, right? It’s like when someone describes The Revenant and how visually stunning the cinematography is. I’m never gonna watch that graphic shit, so I take their word for it, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m never going to actually see The Revenant, so what difference does it make, really? OK, that example was a stretch … But the point is, I can see some form of red and some clouds and so, I guess, don’t cry for me Argentina.

1-800 Contacts – Special Eyes from The Perlorian Brothers on Vimeo.

The poetic karmic justice of it all is that I spent years watching my mom magnify large print and smash magazines to the tip of her nose, always giggling right up to the threshold where good fun met mean-spirited, only to realize that I blinked and became the object of my own jollies. My brother sent me an email on my first day at a new job: “I can see you now,” he wrote. “Sitting in your new office, hands folded in your lap, leaning into your monitor, face smashed to the screen, granny panties halfway up your back.” I looked down and smirked. If he had a spy in the room he couldn’t have gotten any closer. It was exact. I am my mother’s daughter in many ways, but perhaps none as strongly as my blind lady posture.

And I can laugh at it. All of it.

Except then someone took Spike’s picture.

Hank and his mom both noticed it first. In several pictures where someone used the flash, one of Spike’s pupils was red and one was yellow or white. It was the strangest thing. Googling commenced. Discussions were had. It could be nothing … or it could be cancer. It could be a sign that the blood vessels in her eyes are not receiving blood. It could be a handful of devastating, gut-punching problems. But I suspected the Best.

An ophthalmologist in town was kind enough to squeeze her in at the urging of Hank’s dad. Hank took her. When he came home he did this thing that he always does when he delivers bad news. He sat down next to me on the bed, put his hand on my leg and started rubbing his thumb back and forth. “Well, it’s Best Disease.”

First I cried.

Then, I called my mom. And she cried.

“Oh honey. I know exactly how you feel. I felt the same way when they told me your sister had it. And I felt the same way when they told me you had it. And my mom felt the same way when she found out I had it. But you know we really are so lucky.”

When my mom was in her 30s she went to see a specialist at the University of Michigan. After a full day of tests, questions and observations, the puzzle still had quite a few missing pieces.

“Let me ask you this, can you read the paper?” the doctor asked her.
“Yes. I have to use a magnifying glass, but yes.” she’d answered.
“But, the point is, you can read the paper. A lot of people can’t.”

And the older I’ve gotten, and the more I’ve morphed into Marilyn and her mega-magnified dreamworld, the more I’ve come to terms with the hand I’m holding. And it ain’t so bad. You learn to laugh at things like grabbing the wrong child’s hand at daycare and walking right up to the projection screen to read your notes during a presentation and having your husband read an entire movie’s worth of subtitles to you so you can watch what all the sophisticated folks are watching. It’s all part of the deal. You learn to just ask for a paper menu at restaurants where the food is listed on boards above the register. You squint. And you get by.

And, above all, you learn that very special “p” word. Who remembers our life skill here? You learn perseverance. Because things won’t be as black and white (they might seem more dark gray and cream, depending on the light) for her as they will be for others, my second daughter’s skin will get a little thicker. She’ll learn adaptability and how important it is to let humor hold your hand when confronting adversity. And she’ll learn the truth, which is that it can’t all be easy. If it were all easy no one would know how to fight for the good stuff or fix anything.

When the shit hits the fan, I want my kid to persevere. When the menu is listed in light blue print on a dark blue board high up on the wall, I want her to kindly ask for a printed copy and get on with her face stuffing. Because nothing – and I mean nothing – should stand in the way of a girl and her chicken soft tacos with pico and extra guac. Certainly not a decor choice. And certainly not egg yolk eyes. Sometimes you gotta just put on your big girl granny panties and promptly bitch slap the hurdle at hand.

Every parent gives their kids something terrible; Whether it’s a weird big toe or pointy ears or debilitating genetic disorder. (Note: If you don’t know what this terrible thing is, you don’t know there’s something weird about you, too. Look into that.) In the long run, having something not great happen to you is a blessing, not the curse it presents as first. It’s the stuff of character and grit and the female equivalent of balls (we really need to figure that one out).

Plus, she looks so cute in her little sparkly pink glasses. I mean, you guys, so cute.

My sunsets might be made of Burger King signs and distorted shades, but at least I get them. And I know that Spike will learn to see the beauty in sunsets, too. Whatever colors they come in through her special eyes.

Try That With Matt

Try that with Matt. Meditation

December 6, 2016

Try that with Matt

While our denial of the fact differs – he adamantly disputes it and I fully accept it to the point of obsessing – my brother and I both experience an immense amount of stress. Mine even manifests into anxiety attacks as a cherry on top from time to time. (His might too, but he’d never tell anyone.)

This fact does not make us special, mind you. We don’t win a pity prize. Stress is the basic cause of 60 percent of all human illness and disease. Since 1 in 5 of us report experiencing extreme stress, it’s safe to say that our hectic schedules, ridiculous expectations and insane pressure to perform are literally killing us.

You might remember our monthly challenges are about improving and enjoying these insane little lives, so, in that spirit, we thought it might be a good idea to dabble in this crazy thing the kids are all trying called meditation. I’ve played in this sandbox before, of course, but something about bringing my brother along made me feel more accountable. More optimistic.

In a podcast I listened to recently, one of the guests said, “Meditation doesn’t fix stuff. It calms the water enough so we can see the stuff.” Then I guess it’s on us to fix the stuff. It’s better than nothin’. There’s a biweekly mindfulness and meditation class for stress reduction in our area. I know the instructor, Dr. Dave, through work, and he is phenomenal; One of those people who drops truth bombs and owns dramatic pauses like a boss and rolls out the blueprints to rewire your brain. It was Bring Your Bro to Class Day, and I was kind of geeked.

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**ME**

Matt had to hit the head before the meeting, so I went in with Dr. Dave. (We rode the elevator up together. Street cred, what?) There was a circle of chairs, every-other one occupied. We wouldn’t be able to sit next to each other. Maybe that’s for the best, I thought. I settled in to the one closest to the door. My brother walked in just as the action started. He looked at me and put his hands up (universal for, “What the …?”) and fell heavily into the next open seat.

“Tonight we’re going to be talking about stress and how it affects us. Specifically at work.” Ho! Ho! Hooooly good topic for my ticking timebomb of a sibling, I thought. I might need this, but no one, and I mean no. one. needs this like my brother needs this. I couldn’t have planned it better. I didn’t look at him. It’s so irritating when someone gives you that look. That oh-you-know-that’s-you look. That obnoxious side glare tethered to accusation and incrimination. It’s the worst. So I smirked into my lap.

Dr. Dave explained that stress is a nonspecific response to any demand or change, either past or present. It’s the Fight/Flight/Freeze mechanism. The interesting thing is, our nervous system (which also resides in our stomach, FYI) doesn’t stop when stressed to sort through the scenario. Is this me reliving that time I thought I lose my child at the department store? OK, that’s old news. We’re good here. No. It just tenses and twists and tortures.

How do we stop the torture? We smell the coffee, that’s how.

Mindfulness, he went on, is intentional (being present in the here and the now) and attentional (moment-to-moment sensory awareness). We are a society on autopilot. We don’t taste, we shovel. We don’t listen, we respond. We don’t explore, we run the routine. Putting on the brakes to snap out of that cycle, off of that hamster wheel, can turn the color on. When we detach from what we think needs to happen and attach to, instead what is happening, we become active participants in our lives. In this respect, being curious is healthier than being in control. And I am a person who craves control. Ask yourself, in the morning, could you take 60 seconds to smell your coffee? It’s just 60 seconds. That’s it. Could you feel the mug in your hands and the steam at the base of your nose? Could you notice the rich color? Could you smell. The damn. Coffee?

Next was putting our talk into practice. Dr. Dave led us in a flow meditation. We began in our toes. How do they feel against the floor? Are they clenched or bent? We went to our stomach. So much stress rests in our tummies. Really stop and listen to your stomach. Then we moved to right above the stomach. Then the chest. Then the jawline. Then the top of the head. These are some of the places we commonly foster tension and anxiety. Just by checking in there. By noticing. We’re doing more for ourselves than we do on any given Monday.

As I sat still and contemplated what my stomach was trying to tell me, I heard it. The Abominal Snowman of yawns. Oh my gosh, I thought, was that … Then, another. The source of these room-sucking exhalations could only be my brother. I opened one eye and looked down the row of people. There he sat. Tons of Fun, looking like he could topple to the ground at any moment. “Oh, I know!” he told me after class. “I was so relaxed, man. I almost fell asleep.” “Yeah. Caught that.”

When our final body scan was complete, I slowly, drunkenly opened my eyes. Nothing had changed except everything kind of felt like it had. You know during a pause, when a room is so still and so quiet you think you can hear the air moving? Like the buzz and natural current of the universe is bouncing off your eardrums. We all looked like a group of frat guys the morning they were released from the drunk tank. All droopy eyelids and turned down smiles. It was such a nice change from my typical psychotic post-work obstacle course run.

I left determined to keep the good vibes flowing. Matt and I agreed on 5 consecutive days, 20 minutes of meditation each day.

After I meditate, it feels like forcing myself out of a power nap. My body kind of wants to stay sedentary and hushed, but my mind is eager to pick back up and race ahead to catch up with what it missed while it was picturing air in my lungs. Right away, I realized that time would be my nemesis on this challenge. I don’t feel like I have time to sit still for 10 minutes. I write that, and then I say it out loud to myself. I don’t feel like I have time to sit still for 10 minutes! Who am I? In what universe is that an acceptable statement for someone to make about such a spec of a sliver of a day? But I do. I make that statement. And I feel that statement. And that is the problem.

Somewhere between tumultuous tantrums over tights vs. leggings and meal planning and freelancing and not cleaning, I lost the ability to sit still and hear my heartbeat. I mean I assume it’s still beating because I am frantically doing all of these things, but I’m not stopping long enough to hear it and sit with it and thank it. I’m not smelling the coffee. And I love the coffee.

I realized through this challenge that my problem might be bigger than quiet. Bigger than 5 days and 20 minutes. It’s more sizable and serious than any app, although Headspace did do its best to work with me. The problem might be my priorities. I’m feeding the stress and starving the senses. Sometimes these challenges are the answer. And sometimes they just give me more questions. And so my elusive love affair with meditation continues …

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**MATT**

Meditate for 5 days, 20 minutes at a time.
20 minutes a day.
It’s only 20 minutes.
20 minutes to sit and try and focus on myself.

For those reading this that know me, I know you’re laughing right now. You know I don’t sit still. As my old man would say, “I’m like a fart in a skillet.” I’m not sure what in the hell that means, but I’m pretty sure it means I don’t relax. It’s just not an option. Something’s always poppin’ off. My brain just doesn’t have an off switch. But Biscuits picked it, so, let the challenge begin …

First stop, Dr Dave. The class started with a discussion on “stressors” in our lives – co-workers, expectations of our employers to be available 24/7, workload, money, family, etc. We all have them, but how do we deal with them. Obviously, we all have our ways of coping. Some good, i.e. hitting the gym, running, enjoying nature … and some not so good, i.e. downing a six pack, bottles of wine, excessive eating, smoking a pack of Reds (if you are a badass). Dr. Dave was telling a room full of people looking for tools that meditation was the ticket to stress relief.

Now, this may come as a shock, but I have never meditated before. At least not consciously or soberly. So, I sat with 20 of my new best friends, closed my eyes and focused on myself. I followed his cues – take a deep breath, focus on your toes and how they feel … think about the sounds you hear, are they far away … We were trying to stop our frantic minds and be present, which is something I am very interested in trying to do more of.

Dr. Dave says if you yawn, you are doing it right. Well, i did it right. Thank God everyone’s eyes were closed because my big ass yawned about 20 times in 20 minutes, tears running down my cheeks. I was a couple of minutes away from laying on the floor in front of Dr. Dave and taking a power nap while he wrapped things up.

After the meditation session we talked about things we do to try to gather focus when we are having a stressful day. How we hit that reset button. One lady mentioned she has a stuffed animal with really soft ears in her car that she can look at or pet and focus on to try to calm her mind. Another lady has cats and watching them wake up signals her to focus on herself. For Adam Sandler fans who’ve seen Happy Gilmore, it’s finding your “happy place”. It’s letting all of the bullshit we deal with drop away so we can get back to kicking ass instead of thinking of everything we have going on at once and freaking ourselves out. I know my reset is going to the gym. What is yours?

We all strive for some sort of balance in our lives. One of the reasons this challenge interested me so much is because I struggle to be present. My mind is consumed with the things I need to do, what I should be doing, what do I have going on at work tomorrow, what do I need to do first, check my work email, return texts, laundry, do we have any food at the house to make for dinner … shit! I just missed my daughter’s entire basketball game. Why does all of this stuff consume me? I know I’m not the only one. I’m not complaining, either. It’s life, right? I get it. But the balance … The balance is what I am after.

Technology is awesome. It’s very efficient, inexpensive, so much information, but we all need to make time to disconnect and just show up. Fuck all of this other shit that I have going on or things I need to do. Uncle Map is hanging with his niece and son putting up his Christmas tree and being present in this time and enjoying the moment. That’s what makes me genuinely happy; watching my son playing baseball and having a conversation with my daughter and ex-wife. Happy is putting down the phone and being where I am, not working.

That is my biggest struggle and I am trying to be better. We can all return those texts and emails at our convenience. We can “like” our friends’ pictures and read their posts later. It will still be there. Be present and do whatever it is you are doing and do it fully.

This challenge made me think about the way we act when someone unexpectedly passes in our lives. We all step back and say, “Shit, man … life is so, so short. I need to do all of these things I want to do now because my ass could be gone tomorrow.” So you think about all of the things you want to do, then a few days pass and you are back in your daily grind and won’t think about those wants until the next big life event makes you go, “Shit, man …” That’s what this challenge did for me in a way. When you sit with just yourself for 20 minutes, it gives you time to realize all of this crap that consumes us daily – work, keeping our house up, going to this function, meetings, social obligations – at the end of the day, it’s all just noise. It’s all bullshit. What matters is your friends and family.

Life goes by so quickly. My son is 12, my daughter is 10, my folks are getting older, my nieces are growing like weeds, my buddies all have busy lives … So, when I get to spend time with these people I love, I want to do nothing but love and enjoy every second of that time because you can’t get it back. We need to stop worrying about everyone else, what they are doing, why they have a different opinion, who gives a damn? Do you and enjoy all of the people you surround yourself with and wonderful things you get to experience in this crazy-ass life.

I guess I should have started sitting still a while ago, huh?

Kids

Little JoJo and the case of the first grade burdens

November 21, 2016

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We’re working through something in our house right now … or, rather, something is working its way through us in our house. I’m not sure which way it’s going to be honest.

When you have kids, girls in particular, you anticipate some emotional ebbs and flows. I mean, think back to those tumultuous times. You get out first in ciphering. The teacher busts you passing a note about needing to poop. You get Danny from New Kids on the Block as your future husband in MASH. You want to play ninjas and your friends are all about house. Your pants split up the butt. Someone points out you’re digging out your wedgie. Those early (and late) school years are a social minefield and you’re just trying not to get blown up every day. True to the timeline, it seems our oldest chick has hit a valley and to be completely transparent, we’re not quite sure how to pull her out.

A few weeks back, on my birthday, JoJo invited me to her school. “I want to buy you lunch, mama!” she offered through that delicious, jack-o-lantern grin. How could I turn down chicken fries and refried beans charged to a card my 7 year old routinely exhausts with bags of Doritos and impulse cookies? I moved a meeting and accepted her invitation.

Now, I try really hard to be the cool mom. Because, you know, I’m guessing it beats the alternative. So, at 11 o’clock sharp on a Tuesday morning, I wedged my old woman butt onto the sticky, minuscule little stool next to my daughter and started working the lunch table.

“Hey Madison! What’s new girl?”
“You’re JoJo’s mom, right?”
“Ahhhh … yeah! Remember, I was at the Valentine’s Day party? With the fruit kabobs and M&Ms.”
“Oh, yeah.”
“Yeah, so, what’s the word? What’s happening in the first grade these days?”
“Well, we’re learning about the water cycle.”
“Whaaaaaa?!?!?!”
“Yeah, you know, condensation, evaporation, runoff …”
“Whoa. That is so cool.”
“I guess.”
“And Mary … is that you? How are you ya little cutie?”
“Hi.”
“Mary, did you get a lot of Halloween candy? JoJo said she saw you trick-or-treating.”
“I did! Like, a lot.”
“Oh man. What’s your favorite kind?”
“Kit Kat. Duh.”
“Yum, I love Kit Kats. So, do you live in our neighborhood then?”
“Yeah.”
“Well, fun! We’ll have to have you over to play sometime.”
“Yeah, but I can’t Friday. Missy’s having her sleepover Friday.”
“Missy is?”
“Yeah … all the girls are going I think.”

But all the girls were not going. Because my little girl was not going. I knew this because she runs all of her social engagements through me first and there had been no Elsa invitation sealed with a sticker. No call from a mother. No, “Can I, Mom, can I? Please, please, please.” None of that.

In these situations, there are always two navigation options. The high road, which looks something like:

“Oh gosh, Mary, that sounds so awesome. We hope you girls have a great time at Missy’s and we’ll find a day to have you all over soon.”

Or the gutter, which is more of a:

“Oh. Really? Well, Missy’s house smells like cat urine and she’s only allowed to have sugar between the hours of 1 and 3pm. So have fun with your lame little sleepover. I hope someone sticks her hand in a bowl of lukewarm water and she gets a terrible new nickname, like ‘Pissy’ or something even more terrible. We’ll be watching Kidz Bop Live on repeat and hittin’ Reddi-Wip straight outta the can at our crib, sucka, so, smell ya on the other side.”

But that is just so, so ugly. And I’m really trying to counterbalance some of the ugly in the world right now.

Not to mention I think the sleepover was really a minor symptom of a much bigger problem. Hank and I had started noticing some changes in our JoJo well before my birthday lunch. A shorter temper, angrier reactions, more emotional than usual (if one can fathom that), not wanting to go to school. Do I think that Pissy and her party were the sole catalysts for these changes? Nah. But I think there’s a piece to the puzzle there.

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Looking at my oldest daughter is like picking up large fragments of a shattered mirror. Not all, but so many of her mannerisms are identical to my own. Perfectionism? Ah, there I am. Trying too hard to please everyone? I see you, Courtney. She carries these pieces of me deep inside her, so I recognize them right away. She worries … my God does she worry. She holds herself to an unattainable standard and it levels her when she doesn’t reach it. If she isn’t winning it all, she’s losing completely. She is her toughest critic. If people don’t adopt her approach, she disengages. Over the years I’ve learned to curb some of my self-sabotaging habits, but my little girl is so far from recognizing her struggles as struggles. She just straps them on her tiny back and sinks.

Birth order is a funny thing. People always say, “Typical first child,” and for the longest time, I thought that was crap. (Spoken like a true youngest child.) But now I’m not sure. When you’re first in line, followed by a class clown who always gets the laugh, and an adorable little parrot, it has to bring a lot of pressure.

I agonize over helping JoJo find her place. She is a wonderful student, and learning, to this point, has come fairly easily for her. But that brings its own set of challenges. She looks at things differently. She over thinks and inflicts a lot of self punishment. She spends an exhausting amount of time and energy dwelling on defeat, large and small. I wonder if she’s hopping around in my footprints. If I’m unintentionally showing her how to slide right into that all-or-nothing straight jacket and tighten the straps.

Hi, my name is Courtney, and I need help being a parent.

As I age and grow as a wife, mother and temporary inhabitant of this world, I’m finding that when you are open to learn, you discover great teachers everywhere. I had plans to attend a mindfulness workshop with my brother a few nights ago and one of the participants, who’d attended the class before, mentioned that she keeps a soft stuffed animal with her in her car. Whenever she starts to get “too in her thinking mind” (translation: close to losing her shit) she reaches over and touches the soft dog. This brings her to her senses, literally – touch, taste, smell, sound, sight – and away from that trail of toxic thought. It’s a mini mediation. It brings calm.

Inspired, I went home that night and grabbed a small emoji pillow JoJo had won in a claw game. (Sidenote: Can they just eliminate all of the gosh dang claw games in all of the gosh dang restaurants and waiting areas already? Can that be a universal agreement? No, I don’t have any quarters. There are no. more. quarters.) I sat my girl down and explained to her that I wanted her to carry the pillow with her. When she felt herself inching toward yelling or pouting or losing her temper, she should rub her thumbs back and forth on the winky face and think about what it feels like. Is it soft? Is it cold? And what it looks like. Is it yellow? Are the threads coming undone? The idea is to diffuse her neurological nuclear attacks. To bring her calm through sensory awareness.

[Experiment update to come at a future date.]

It’s so simple to disassemble and assess myself. What’s working. What isn’t. What takes me off track. What stirs things up for me. But with my kids, it’s like a constant A/B test. In Marketing, it’s common practice to pit two similar strategies in design, messaging, etc. against each other and compare the results. The approach that performs better is the lever you pull going forward. There’s so much of that in parenting, except it isn’t just Choice A and Choice B. There can be hundreds of choices to test. Hundreds of strategies to try.

Is she sad because she didn’t ace her test? I need to help her fix the one she got wrong so she feels it’s complete. Or maybe I should try explaining it a different way. Whatever, she has to get over this perfection thing.

Did the girls in class leave her out? I need to have someone over for a playdate. I need to talk to the teacher. No, I need to tell her about how little girls were mean to me when I was little. I should get her a diary.

Are the other two getting too much attention? I need to take her on a mommy date. Or maybe help her find a hobby she likes. I should have let her bake those dang brownies from scratch. I need to celebrate her more.

It’s taxing trying to be the fixer.

And so maybe we shouldn’t. In “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” Brené Brown talks about how hope is actually a byproduct of adversity. If we swoop in and try to work through things for our children, or find ways to numb the discomfort for them so they never have to feel it, we are taking away some degree of pain, yes, but we’re also robbing them of those earned feelings of hopefulness and optimism.

Not to mention sometimes I think that all that mopping up messes and bandaging bad experiences gets to me. Like I sponge up all of the ugly and sad, only to have it eventually erupt out of me and all over them after a particularly long day.

Then, the other morning, the biggest Brené gift yet was placed in my lap with a generous red bow. So I opened it. Christmas come early! After surviving a stupid morning triggered by a 2-hour fog delay, I raced to put JoJo on the bus. As I finally watched her hesitantly shuffle across the street to the big yellow bird, which would carry her to the battlefield to face problems I’ll never see and can only hypothesize about resolving, I hit play on my audiobook and listened as the narrator read Brené’s Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto.The smooth voice filled my car …

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And the game changed.

I don’t care what stage of parenting you’re in. What problems your children have, or you have, or this world has, those words are a beautiful, soul-shaking truth bomb. I will print them out and hang them in my closet, in my office and on my fridge. They are the ticket. They are the door, the bridge, the gospel. I want to have them tattooed onto my crowded, burdened brain.

I can not wipe my daughter’s struggles clean. Whatever she’s working through now, it won’t be the last time she has to sort through things to find her balance and her bearings. My fear and worries and apprehension and anger won’t absolve her of adversity. But I can hold onto the hope that letting her work through whatever she’s facing now, knowing I’m standing right at her shoulder, will carry her one step closer to being a capable little warrior of this world.

I will pull up a chair at her table. I will curl up next to her in her bed after the battle. I will let her snot and sob on my sweater. I will hand her a small emoji pillow or a tissue or a baseball bat (whoa, just kidding there). I will do my best to be strong, confident and vulnerable in all the best ways, so maybe she feels empowered to do the same. I will show up for her when the Pissys of the world don’t. And I will work toward being wholehearted and kind to myself so her sweet, impressionable little ticker starts to fill up, too.

(Unless anybody has any better ideas. In which case, private message me immediately.)

Thoughts

Paul’s Boots

November 12, 2016

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I don’t know about you, but this week left me feeling chewed up, spit out and nauseous as hell. I’m not going to talk about politics here because quite frankly I’ve exhausted my arguments and understanding, but I’ve slept, stayed off social media, gone for a run, and all I will say is that the world better just prepare itself for the shit storm of love I’m about to unleash on it, starting with this amazing short film REI released this week. Live this life. Love these people. Spend time somewhere magical.

JoJo Just Said, Spike Speak

Sisters say what? (Vol. 4)

November 10, 2016

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“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … seven girls for milking…” – Spike

“Mom, I think I’m allergic to cars. I’m always sneezing and breathing and all of that allergic things in cars.” – Spike

“If she didn’t eat dinner, her bloodline probably dropped.” – Spike

“Shut your nut hole, Spike!” – JoJo
“What did you say?” – Me
“What? That’s a nicer way of saying shut up.” – JoJo

“I’m trying to clean them with my eyelashes.” – Spike, blinking frantically with her new glasses on

“I laughed so much I was tears!” – Spike

“See how it’s a patter-in? Mama, see?” – Spike

“I’m sweats!” Spike

“I don’t think of that. Every night I think of faces on hearts before I go to bed. And sometimes it still turns into bad dreams. But that’s OK.” – Spike

This was Spike’s first week of preschool. She met a boy, and they fell in love. It happened so fast …

“Guys, c’mon get dressed. You can’t go to school naked.” – Me
“Mama, guess what.” – Spike
“What?” – Me
“My face will always be naked.” – Spike

“Let’s make this simple. We should just have dinner on Friday nights like we do with Grammy and Papa. Because we’re sisters.” – Spike

“Look! A forever-green tree!” – Spike

“How was your day?” – Me
“Horrible. Embarrassing.” – JoJo
“Oh gosh! Why so bad?” – Me
“Because my teacher couldn’t read my name and she called me up by her desk forever and it was terrible.” – JoJo
“Why couldn’t she read your name honey?” – Me
“Well, I wrote Courtney Jr.” – JoJo

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“I was chasing this cat and it went into the woods and all the sudden it was a bunny. And then these boys, who litter, came up and they were like, ‘you’re a farty fart’, and I was like, ‘I’m going to do all these tricks to you,’ and so I picked up some grass and threw it at them, I picked up a bike and threw it at them, I picked up a stick and swung it at them, and then, they were like running, and then they pushed me.” – Spike
“Whoa, whoa, whoa … I need to find their parents right now and talk to them!” – Me
“I don’t think they even have parents. It’s so sad.” – Spike

“Mom, when your underwear matches your pants, that’s fancy.” – Spike

“So, Mom, what do you think about Hillary Clinton? You know, I just don’t like either one of those contestants. That Donald Trunk or Hillary … Do you? I just think I love President Obama. He’s the only president I’ve known in my life!” – JoJo, sitting with her legs crossed, getting frozen yogurt

“Why are they wearing those panties?” – Girls, watching male synchronized diving

“I wanna see that.” – Spike
“What?” – Me
“That movie. Ya know, Critics Agree.” – Spike
“I think the movie’s called Pete’s Dragon, honey.” – Me

This was an apology letter JoJo wrote to another little girl in the after-school care program after she spit on her. Which, apparently all the kids were doing. All the kids, however, did not try to pay their victim off with one drawn dollar.

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