Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 0 – 4

April 19, 2017

“When I os taken him up pear, he told me he a, he had the cancer. So, I stopped anduh got him a gallun a whiskey anda carton a cigarettes and I took him up air to-a the mountain anda I’m not sure but I think he died in August dat year … Me and my partner hada motel we ran and it was fulla, pardon my french, prostitutes and druggies when we bought it and a, we bought it on April 2, 2009. And we ran it and that. And then a, my partner, he died on April 2, 2011, see. … Now, you guys look strong, but they call me Don’t Give a Damn Sam and ifya need me to come getcha, I’ll come up ear and getcha. Just not when I’m fixin to go to bed, em k? I take 5 Benadryl and 3 Unisoms, and I ain’t gettin’ outta my bed once I’m en dare. … Oh yeah, we had a guy die of a heart attack right dare and a girl hung herself on a tree right over dare and uh, yeah, the trail can be a lonely place. I mean, I’d be lyin if I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it myself. Well, y’all member that girl and her dog, dontcha? Someone took her from the mountain and, uh, well, he cut her head off. Yup, he de-cap-a-tated her.”

I could hear Sam Duke, our colorful chauffeur through the mountains, from the back seat, where I sat staring at Just Matt’s hairline trying not to vomit. Sam was from Louisiana, and his personal slogan was, “Let er rip, patata chip!”, a phrase we uttered no less than 89 times over the next three days. He’d picked us up at the Woody Gap parking lot, where we left Tank with the promise we’d return at a reasonable hour on Saturday. In our 45 minutes with Sam on the winding service roads of the Appalachian Trail en route to Springer Mountain, we discovered that everyone who had ever come into contact with Sam Duke had, shortly thereafter, died. Small talk with the Grim Reaper was not how I’d envisioned starting the rest of our section hike. Nonetheless, here I was.

Despite the disheartening development that we were now destined to be eaten by a bear or snatched by an escaped serial killer, it wasn’t all bad news for us. Because of our last-minute change of plans, Gravy and I were able to unload some clothing items and a day’s worth of meals from our packs. When you’re shouldering 30+ pounds and 50+ pounds, respectfully, every ounce dropped is cause for celebration.

Here’s what we ended up with:

And:

Gravy carried much of the same, plus our tent and water pump. We split the weight of the food right down the middle. There are always things you’d adjust after the fact. I would have upped my coffee game, especially given the afternoon I was walking into. A few extra packets would have been a real morale booster; the more toxic sugar, the better. Speaking of, I picked up some Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee with Cream and Sugar and those packets were like drops of what the angels drink. Much better than the straight Via packets, in my opinion.

We exited Sam Duke’s mini van and stepped out into the parking lot at the trailhead. It was 30-something degrees, blowing and sleeting. It’s never good when you hold your hand out to gather precipitation and ask, “What is this shit?” Of course, I had to pee. I wandered off down a trail to find the widest tree and watched Sam drive away. Ah, fudge. We’re really doing this. The rest of my crew was standing by the Springer Mountain map, filling water bladders and situating gear. Lydia, a young female Ridgerunner, walked up from the general vicinity of the grass I’d just watered. Lydia’s role on the trail was to stay on a section to answer questions about gear, shelter and strategy, and educate hikers on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiative, Leave No Trace, their effort to minimize damage to the natural environment along the AT. (The jobs you wish you’d known about 12 years ago, right?) As she engaged in polite small talk, all I could hear was the sound of my inner girl crushin’ on her pants. They kind of looked like equestrian riding pants, but stretchier and warmer; Much cooler than my traditional cargo mom hiking pants. They must be a thing now because a bunch of chicks we saw had them. I was putzing around in farty fashions, showing my age for sure, at least from the waist down. It all felt very first day with a headgear to me.

We started down the trail and took our first steps in a three-day adventure. I followed behind Just Matt and The General as they perfected their Sam Duke impersonations and tallied the body count. The laughter worked as a warmer to counteract the piercing snow-water sludge diving at my face, and I was thankful. Not far in, we stopped at Stover Creek Shelter to make adjustments and get a little snack. Lydia was there. As were her cute pants. Just Matt made no adjustments and just looked on annoyed as we made small talk about bear canisters, the weather the night before and traffic on the trail. See, Just Matt didn’t like this part of it. He packed only bars (no “dehydrated bullshit”) and reminded all of us regularly, through both his verbal and nonverbal communication, just how much he hates to stop for any reason other than sleep or shit.

Lydia predicted the Three Forks Shelter, where we’d planned to stay, would be pretty crowded that night given the chilly temps they were predicting. She mentioned the Hickory Flats Cemetery and Pavilion as a better option. It was just a couple miles away and we were making great time. I mean nothing will motivate you to move your ass like numb fingers and perilous mud puddles.

I disappeared into my head a bit, thinking about everything and nothing at all, and before I even found my stride, I came to The General at a service road crossing.

“What’s up?” I asked.
“That pavilion is right over here, if you want to check it out.”
“K.”

It was 1:40 pm and 36-or-so degrees.

I started counting the hours on my bright pink fingers as I shuffled toward the cemetery. If we left at 8 o’clock the next morning, we would be here for 18 hours.

18 hours.

At a cemetery and open-air pavilion.

In 30-degree weather.

We walked under the roof to assess our accommodations for the evening. There was a young gentleman sitting in a plastic chair facing the trees. He turned and acknowledged us in a polite but minimal way. At this point, the rain was really starting to pick up, so I assumed our pavilion mate was waiting out the storm. I set my pack down and walked over to the bathroom. It had four walls – four walls! – and stood as a literal symbol of the term, “built like a brick shithouse”. I stepped in, out of the wind and into an eery silence. It was a silence that almost had to precede something horrific. I more than half expected to find a friend of Sam Duke’s propped up in a stall. But spooky as it was, it was easily 10 degrees warmer than outside. I stood in the sturdy privy not sure where I wanted to go. I didn’t have to use the drop potty, necessarily, but I didn’t really want to stand around with the frozen sausage fest in the pavilion, either. So, I stood. I stood in a brick potty and just stared at the wall. I stared at the cobwebs in the corners. I stared at the names carved into the plank over the stall built for those with shower bags. I stood and let my frozen mind thaw out with concocted tales of terrible scenarios that played out within these walls. I just stood.

Eventually, I found my big girl parachute panties and pulled them up. I strolled out to the pavilion and started going about the business of making lunch. It was 2 pm and we were strategizing tent setup so we could – what else – turn in for the night. During a break in our chat, The General turned to the young guy sitting next to us, still staring off into the woods.

“You start the trail yesterday?” he asked.
“No,” the kid said.
“Tuesday?”
He shook his head, no.
“Oh man,” The General said. He then turned back around and gave us the big eyes.

It would appear this little guy was having a really hard time getting himself up the AT. Granted, the weather hadn’t been great, and there are a million factors that can crush people at any point in their hike, but one would likely be farther than this 3+ days in. Whatever his deal, it seemed like maybe his meditation was coming to an end and he would be moving on soon. He slowly, quietly stood and started meticulously packing up his gear. He rolled his sleeping mat smoothly and snugly. He checked his food bag and then reclosed it, twice. When all was said and done, he spent 2 hours pulling his shit together. Two hours. Then, he grabbed a water bottle and started off down the road. Huh.

Just Matt was antsy. He’d misplaced his gloves back at Woody Gap and, after finishing a mug of coffee (and sharing his extras with the group), he was ready to hibernate. He and The General put their tent up in about 15 minutes. Gravy, on the other hand, spent a good deal of time strategizing over our sleeping arrangements, since our modest two-person tent required ground for staking into. This was more of a concrete slab situation, so … And I’m not entirely helpful in these situations when I’m not frozen, so …

After several minutes of contemplation, it was decided that Princess Biscuits and Prince Gravy would be resting their royal heads in a makeshift tent under a large picnic table. Gravy draped a hammock tarp over the wood structure and used concrete blocks to hold it down around the outside. We put a tarp down on the ground, our mats on top of that, and we were all set.

Somehow we’d made it to 5 pm and so my counterpart and I decided to go ahead and start dinner. Just Matt and The General had been in their tent for almost an hour already, but Lawd knows I don’t skip meals. They’d turned into a mumbled screen of farts and giggles. (We’re talking about two 40 year olds here.) We boiled water for our freeze-dried Southwest Lasagna, cupping our hands around the scorching dew of the device for pleasure. The rain and snow had subsided, leaving just a straight up cold to harden the cemetery ambiance.

Our neighbor came back.

And then, just as carefully as he’d begun, he initiated the tedious process of unpacking his gear.

Yes, unpacking.

See, he packed it. And now he was unpacking it.

It was time for me to go to bed. I crunched on a 10mg chewable melatonin, brushed my teeth, and had a nonverbal conversation with my husband about the strange behavior playing out beside us before crawling under the table. I put the tarp door back into place and zipped myself into my wine-colored sleeping bag, secretly wishing I were drunk. I was wearing my wool cap, down accessories and long underwear. A sliver of early evening sunlight rubbed against the end of our “tent” to remind me it was approximately 6 pm.

But the sun’s light was a liar. I started to shiver about 20 minutes after I laid down, and began having flashbacks of Roan Highlands Shelter, also known as “the night mama almost died”. I inch-wormed my way backward out of our tent. Gravy was still cleaning up camp. Just Matt and The General were generating a massive amount of heat in their tent. I knew this only because I heard the expression, “sweating my balls off,” a handful of times from my icy cocoon. I stood up and looked at my husband, my trailmate, my life partner, and I told him the thing no one wants to have to tell their loved one.

“I’m getting in there with them,” I said.
“Like, for the night?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”

His feelings of abandonment sliced through my whiny tone as I crouched down and unzipped the door to my brother and my almost-brother’s temporary bachelor pad. It wasn’t warm. But it wasn’t freezing, either. I claimed a spot on the very edge as the two nudged up against each other in their nylon encasings. After 34 years of friendship, I was confident this wasn’t the first time they’d spooned (heads on opposite ends, of course) but it was certainly the only time I would remember.

About 40 minutes later, Just Matt had to pee. Since he was the patty in the hamburger, we all decided to get up and try. After that, my chill started to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep. My husband’s head was just a tent wall, tarp and picnic table leg away from mine, so I could quietly check in on him. When everyone was finally settled, I drifted off to sleep. The crack of a grown man’s fart piercing the peace of the pavilion jolted me awake every hour or so, but still I was warm and mildly content.

At some point after the sun went down, the tent filled with the vibrant muted yellow tone of car headlights and the familiar sound of gravel popping under tires. Someone was in the pavilion parking lot. My mind started firing.

Oh my gosh, they’re looking for that kid. I wonder if he’s still out there. Or, maybe he called a shuttle to come pick him up because he’s freezing and ready to get off the trail. Or maybe it’s the police coming to get him because he’s wanted. Or maybe they’re looking for another hiker who got off the trail and is in trouble. Or maybe they’re workers using the bathroom. Or maybe that kid was a scout and he called some serial killer who is now here to kill all of us and leave our bodies in the cemetery. I hope he doesn’t look under the picnic table. Damn you, Sam Duke! Damn you.

I found myself again just praying to make it to morning.

To be continued …

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 and Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

April 14, 2017

Despite the magenta and neon red splotches with flashing cores parading behind the weather gal delivering the national forecast with an exaggerated drama she’d clearly practiced the night before. Despite the warning from Sam Duke, our would-have-been shuttle driver that morning. Despite the daunting, lead-colored sky, on a Wednesday morning in early April, a humble but determined band of hikers found themselves scaling modest boulders on the side of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

I was the lone woman among this modest herd. Carbon fiber poles in hand, I heaved my weight up staggered rocks and scurried down slippery flat stones as drunken strings of the day’s downpour ran across and spilled over the bill of my hat and dropped onto my raincoat.

Oh, hello there, Mother Nature. It’s been too long.

The uncertainty of Her mood makes the vast wilderness both a magnet and a menace to me. She throws violent tantrums and then lures me back with fiery sunsets and soothing streams and masterful arrangements of stars. I liken her to the college roommate who said really beautiful things when she was stoned, but broke a lotta stuff when she drank.

So, why don’t I just break up with Her? Well, because as much as that bitch can break me down, she heals me, too.

If you’ve followed DSS for awhile, you might remember our hike on the AT last April. After nearly freezing to death in a tent on top of Roan Mountain, we made the collective decision to journey further south this year and knock out the start of the trail, beginning at Springer Mountain, in Georgia.

“I think you’re going to be pretty happy with the weather in those parts,” The General had said in February. “Real happy …”

As the week drew closer, we gathered our gear and laid out our freeze-dried dinners and watched helplessly as the conditions down south grew worse and worse. First, it was rain all four days. Then the declaration of downpours lessened, but the temps plummeted to the 30s. I thought we picked Georgia so we could get away from that shit! When you get one section a year, you hope to heck it’s a good one. It was definitely shaping up to be a long underwear kind of trip.

I pacified myself by cursing the Weather Channel app every day until the Tuesday we loaded our gear and our hesitant bodies into Just Matt’s big Ram truck (“Tank”) and hauled ass out of the Midwest to find solace in the great outdoors. Said solace wasn’t going to come easy. An accident on the interstate brought traffic to a halt for several hours around lunchtime. An eternity in Hell has nothing on the agony of spending that much time in crawling traffic with a full bladder, a Joe Rogan podcast where he’s more stoned than usual, and an impatient driver with a grounded lead foot. After a lifetime of slugging and snaking, we came to civilization again. Starving. Of all the options and all the restaurants, the men in the front seats chose White Castle for our late lunch. White Castle! Since I have tastebuds and my mother’s cantankerous intestines, I took it easy. But the boys didn’t hold back – a decision that would come back to haunt Just Matt the next day, to the surprise of no one.

After a quick REI stop in Knoxville, we pulled into Blairsville, Georgia around 11:30 that night. With lots of talk about town of tornado warnings and predictions of softball-sized hail, we knew it was time to check in with The General.

“Well, I called Sam Duke,” he said. (Sam Duke was our shuttle driver, scheduled to pick us up at 8 am the next morning.)
“Yeah?”
“He said, ‘I wuyundt duy it!’”
“He did?”
“Yup. He said, ‘Y’all can do whatcha whant, but the trail is alays gonna be dare. You won’t if ya dead.’”

And with that, the decision was made. We would meet Sam Duke another day.

Wednesday morning, over a cardboard continental breakfast Belgian waffle, The General, Gravy, Just Matt and I sipped small cups of coffee and listened to the local weather guy instruct Georgians to, “work from home if they could.” But we saw some windows, and gosh dangit, we came to hike.

The General went to work rerouting our course. We would get on at Neel’s Gap and slackpack Blood Mountain (which was intended to be on our fourth and final day) as a day hike, 2.4 miles in and 2.4 miles out. Once we conquered this summit, if there was still enough non-life-threatening minutes left in the day, we would drive over and complete Springer Mountain, which is technically, and I did not know this before that day, not part of the official AT mileage. It’s before Mile 0. The more you know [shooting star].

So, now we’re all caught up. The crew. Slippery rocks stacked on top of each other. Polls. Lightening.

One of my favorite things about hiking is the disconnect. I work in marketing, and I am responding to email, following up on Facebook messages, retweeting, typing, posting, fire extinguishing all day long. When you have to climb all the way to a mountaintop to get a signal, it’s really refreshing. But there, on a hill called Blood Mountain, under the ominous clouds of an unpredictable storm, these typically separate worlds collided. Up ahead of me I heard the distinct tones of a weather alert scream from Just Matt’s phone, followed by the rumble of thunder in the distance. It was so polarizing. We had made the decision to walk at the mercy of nature that day, but our modern day devices pulled and pleaded at us to rethink the vulnerability. We didn’t.

As we climbed up, it felt like the clouds came down to meet us as light fog enveloped our path. Eventually, we made it to the Blood Mountain Shelter, a magical-looking structure that rests in the shadows of Blood Mountain’s intimidating rubble. I used the privy and snapped some pictures of the overlook. My brother was ready to get moving. See, Matt was experiencing his White Castle sliders for a second time. I believe the comment was: “I’m scared if I fall on my ass diarrhea is going to shoot out of my mouth.”

I should have known better than to laugh. I mean, karma has gotten me before. But laugh I did. And on our squirrely descent back down the way we came, I ate shit. I felt my feet start to go, then there was a brief battle between my upper and lower bodies, and then, a second of serenity in that moment when I accepted the fate. I braced for contact. The group got quiet in anticipation of my ass’s connection with the stone below it. Had I been struck by lightning? No, oh no. Just a private demonstration of the grace God gave me. I made some indistinguishable noises in the space of their halted conversation. Then I crashed down, sending my poles flying off in both directions. My right hand and butt cheek took the brunt of it. Since people falling down is my favorite thing, I enjoyed a good laugh before I gathered up the puddle I had become and carried on. Then I laughed 50 more times as I replayed the scenario in my head.

Another window in the weather opened the door for a climb up Springer Mountain. But first we had to drive there. Every road in Georgia that leads to a trail takes 40 minutes or more and has more curves than a Playboy. Left … right …. Left … right … I took two dramamine and it didn’t put a dent in the dizzy. Every 5 seconds a yellow triangle with that damning squiggly arrow. Turns ahead. More. Turns. Ahead. I would pick a point on the horizon, but I was no match. The transportation part just destroyed me. Maybe that’s the cost of yellow blazing.

The rise to Springer was steady and manageable – Just one mile up and then back down. We posed next to the same plaque that Grandma Gatewood and Scott Jurek stood by. It felt like one of those moments where you should move something only semi-significant out of your memory so there’s room with extra padding for this moment, just to be sure. We lingered a bit. The smoky skies and gentle dew kisses suddenly felt fitting, rather than burdensome.

How do you end a day like that? When you’re going back to civilization to hide out from tornadoes rather than tent it? If you’re us, you eat 20 tons of Mexican food, clean up and climb into bed to watch My 600-lb Life with a king size Caramello. The rain and the cold and the fall all felt just fine given the promise of a hot shower, cable and two hotel pillows before sundown. Sleepless nights were tomorrow’s worry. And oh what a worry it would turn out to be …

Some Kinda Superwoman

Some kinda Superwoman: Kirsten

March 31, 2017

Almost 15 years have passed, but I can still call back the moment I held my first niece, all big-eyed and unassuming. It was the first time I felt comfortable holding a baby. Like, my brain and my body just knew she belonged to me in some small but important way. I remember thinking our family would never be the same, which turned out to be true. Our dynamic shifted on that day. My parents became grandparents, I became an aunt, my brother an uncle and so on. But moreso, the light that had, to that point, shined down on me and my siblings dimmed on our faces on that rainy August day and illuminated this fresh little soul, instead. We had a new axis. And I didn’t care one bit, which is rare for a baby-of-the-family type like myself. I was happy to step aside and let this tiny love nugget soak up all the attention that she so deserved and earned by being offensively adorable and blowing the most endearing spit bubbles.

A few years later, my sister told me she was pregnant again, and just after Christmas, she gave me my second niece. Then a few years later, my third niece. Then we were pregnant together and neither of us found out what we were having, and wouldn’t you know, spring brought a pair of chicks; one for each of us. Then, she got pregnant about four years after that and it was, you guessed it, another girl. At this point, it’s starting to get crazy, right? Well, unbeknownst to any of us, including my sister, she wasn’t quite done. In a surprise turn of events, this past fall Kirsten welcomed her sixth little bambina.

They’re beautiful, each of them. My sister’s husband is Mexican and Kirsten is tall, pale and blonde, so it’s a fun little genetics recipe to play with. Some are blessed with the beautiful olive tone and big brown eyes that will just straight up level you, Disney princess style, and others get to be curly towheads with our family’s signature blinding white complexion. The teams currently stand at Brownies: 2, Blondies: 3, TBD/Mashup: 1.

Sometimes I forget just how sensational my sister’s harem is. And then I have a moment of drowning in my own personal kiddie pool (by comparison) of estrogen. Three girls is a lot of emotion, I tell people. We’re never short on tears, drama or clogged toilets. And then I think about doubling down. I think about that feeling when you finish a half marathon and no way, ever, would you consider turning around and doing it again. But that’s my sister’s life. When I tap out and take my melatonin at 9, whipped and tattered from 13.1 miles complete, my sister is a short highway drive away, winding down from a full 26.2. She is a hardcore, badass marathon mama.

It earns her a bit of grace, I’d say. But she’s built for it. She’s my opposite in most every way. She knows when to just roll around in the sea of torn wrapping paper rather than frantically scoop it up and risk missing the moment. And that, I’d say, makes all the difference. Dancing rather than disinfecting. Laughing rather than laundry. It can all wait, and it will. I mean, the mess is multiplying by six at her house as we speak. But she is the perfect woman, partnered with the perfect man, for bringing a big ole gaggle of gals up right.

The stories that come out of her house are gold, as you might imagine. Someone’s always drawing on someone else’s face with permanent marker or painting themselves from head to toe in Desitin cream. Once a mouse got in the toilet. Her oldest, Olivia, who was much younger at the time, unknowingly sat down to go potty and, upon discovering the rodent clawing and frantically swimming beneath her bottom, screamed, “I pooped a mouse! I pooped a mouse! Mommy, Daddy, I pooped a mouse!” She wouldn’t sit on the can for weeks after that. There are self-administered haircuts that will live on in infamy and scars from sister-on-sister war crimes. But all in all, it’s pretty organized chaos.

People always ask me how she does it, and the truth is, I honestly don’t really know. But like any good journalist, I’m always willing to go straight to the source for you guys. So, settle in for this lovely little testimony from one of my favorite tired, brutiful mothers, who happens to be my big sister.

SOME KINDA SUPERWOMAN: KIRSTEN
– Written by the woman herself

December 26, 2015. I’m brushing my teeth and watching the screen of a digital pregnancy test. I say I’ll never forget it, but does anyone ever really forget those moments? The screen showed a clock flashing, then suddenly a “YES +”. I froze. My heart began to race and I felt hot from the inside out. This was not part of the plan. This was not on the family calendar. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but the reality is that in that moment that was not what I wanted. Two thoughts ran through my mind: First, “What will people think?” and then, “What does this mean for my plans and my dreams?” I had no idea how this surprise would fit into our already crazy family.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me introduce myself.

I’m the manager of this circus. I’m the one who attempts to hold this show together while delivering an appearance that resembles anything even near the neighborhood of normal. My fearless husband is our ring leader, and, doing various acts and flips and stunts in rings on either side of us, you will find six beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed, persistent, messy, hilarious, challenging little girls. Yes, I know, I know … SIX GIRLS! No, we were not trying for a boy. No, we aren’t Catholic. Each one of these little tyrants can take us from gut-wrenching laughter to the edge of a cliff in a matter of seconds, and to say it’s like a rollercoaster ride would be a laughable understatement.

On any given day, there will be at least one room (usually more) that I walk into and then immediately turn around, walk out, and shut the door. Today that would be Sloan’s (our fifth) and Izzy’s (our third). I truly believe that I would have better luck trying to teach those pigs to fly than I would have keeping this place clean. If you come over, you’re going to stick to my counters. You’re going to find more apple cores around my house than in the pages of a Berenstain Bears book. There’s no guarantee that a little surprise won’t still be lurking in the toilet when you go into our bathrooms. (WHY WON’T THEY FLUSH?!) I’ve also seriously considered just giving up and telling people we run a fruit fly breeding program. I mean we’ve got reproduction down in this neck of the woods. In other words, if you stop by unannounced and miss the very tiny window where I have tidied enough to present my pretend house to planned company, please bring a hazmat suit.

The truth is, whenever anyone asks me how we do it all, my answer is easy … we don’t! Hang around for 20 minutes and you’ll see for yourself.

I am not supermom. Mass chaos is considered the routine. I forget things all the time. I can’t tell you how many rolls of toilet paper we go through because, honestly, it’s too frightening to keep track. I yell. A lot. I go to the grocery store more than the bathroom. And you should see us all in the car. It’s like a clown car, only instead of men-children with their faces painted in freaky patterns, it’s grumpy, needy little gremlins fighting the entire trip over who looked at who first. (Did I mention they all suffer from extreme motion sickness? That’s right. Envy me, people.) Someone always feels left out or let down. Someone is always hungry. Someone always has to pee at the worst possible time. I’d love to tell you I’m Carol Brady reincarnate. I’d love to say that I’m patiently and calmly helping them learn to solve their problems and hug it out, but I’m not. I’m human. I’m reactive. I’m selfish.

This brings me back to the little surprise I mentioned earlier.

Two days after finding out I was pregnant I started bleeding. I wholeheartedly thought I was having a miscarriage. That was such a strange moment. Strange because I was terrified, and strange because just hours before, I’d felt so much uncertainty about what this baby even meant. This was one of those moments when I had to stop and get my poop together. (Yes, I said poop. I’ve adapted to censorship.) I had to start reevaluating what family means. I had to realize what I would be losing in this new adventure (plans, so-called dreams, schedules and calendars) didn’t amount to a hill of beans, as my dad would say, compared to this new little life.

Having a large family is extremely uncomfortable. That’s the honest-to-God truth. Nothing is easy. Nothing ever goes as planned. As I’m writing this, my husband is picking blue slime out of our three-year-old’s hair. We weren’t put on this earth to be comfortable, though. I truly believe we were put here to be challenged. That’s how we change and grow. I know it’s cheesy, but I often think about diamonds and how much pressure it takes to transform them from a nasty lump of coal into something beautiful. Challenges do that. They teach us. They mold us. I pray that when this journey of motherhood slows down, and my little gremlins are grown, I will see that I have helped mold my kids into loving, God-fearing women. I hope to accomplish that for them, but I know they are doing that for me.

We always talk about our responsibilities as parents and how difficult they can be. God help us all, it really is difficult. But what we don’t discuss enough is what we get out of it. Each and every one of my babies has a totally different personality, and each one of them teaches me something different about myself. It’s like being in a fun house and having six images, all different, but all reflecting me. They are my mirrors, pointing out everything beautiful in my life, but also every flaw. Sometimes what I see is hard to swallow, and even harder to accept, but without them I’d never unlock that piece of myself. I wouldn’t challenge myself to keep growing, and keep going.

Everyone tells you that your kids grow up fast. I have a 14-year-old! Trust me, it does go fast. Every day with them is a gift. I won’t pretend for one second that I appreciate this gift the way I should on a daily basis. I won’t pretend that there aren’t times I think, Man, two kids would have been so much easier. What I will say, though, is that I will be eternally grateful for the moments I laid in bed feeling like the biggest failure in the world (and there are a lot of them), because those are the moments that humbled me. The ones that built and are building me. Those are the moments I had to pray for strength and step outside my comfort zone. I can’t quit this gig. I can’t give up. I have to become more. I have to keep pushing myself. The stakes are too high. I have to keep running, knowing each day I’m a little more equipped for the marathon. Eventually, I will get to a finish line and all the inconveniences and all the mistakes made and lessons learned will amount to something so much bigger than me.

When our little surprise baby was three weeks old, she gave her mama another big scare. She came down with a pretty serious infection. What followed were months of uncertainty. Months of stress. Out little seven-pound gift from God once again brought me a reminder: Life is so precious and makes you no promises. When I look at her, the reflection is one of gratitude and appreciation for what God has entrusted to me.

I used to worry about what everyone thought of me. I used to strive for the façade of perfection, or even normalcy. My large family may look like an inconvenient mess to many, but I just don’t care anymore. God knew it would take six girls to get through my thick skull that His purpose is so much bigger than anyone’s opinion. Love is not some beautiful fairytale. Love is hard. Its fabric is flaws and mistakes, discipline and tears. It’s laying in bed at night feeling like you can’t do this anymore only to get up the next day and try again. That’s the gift my large, insane, beautiful family brought me. The gift of love.

Thoughts

Calling a Code Brown

March 23, 2017

Last week, I ran into my sweet new friend in the parking lot at preschool.

“Hey! Did you get a new car?” I asked her.
“No, I got in an accident.”
“Oh my gosh! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I’m not that person. I don’t like to be Debbie Downer.”
“But, I don’t care if you’re Debbie Downer. You got in an accident?”
“I’m just not having a good week. I screamed at the kids yesterday for no reason, and I’m cranky, and …”

I was watching a very familiar ball of yarn – one I personally keep in my nightstand, next to the melatonin and emergency candy bars – unravel.

She’d taken a mental health day from work, she went on to say, because things were just piling up. Between yelling at her boys and being annoyed with her husband and questioning all of those pesky major life questions, she was mentally depleted and in need of a mindless, indulgent Netflix binge. As I stood there, an unforgiving morning wind intruding in our conversation, I listened as this strong woman, who I deeply care for, talked herself down into a hole. It was a ritual I’d practiced myself and with almost all of my girlfriends, my sister, and my own mother. I waited for an opening.

“Listen, I know exactly how you feel. All moms feel that way. We all have those lows and days where we feel totally defeated, and it’s OK! I promise. I was standing with my toes to the edge last week. And now you’re up. We all just take turns.”

I think we can all agree it’s time to call it good on the charade. Being a mom in any capacity on any day that ends in “y” is a crazy occupation. Crazy! Anyone ambitious enough to think they’re going to climb that ladder has another thing comin’. Between the demand and the clients and the hours, mere survival is considered an above par performance on the job. There are two kinds of days: The days you have enough milk for their cereal, and the days you have to go out into the garage and grab a new gallon. The days you catch the bus, and the days you chase it down and get reprimanded by the driver. The days you make it to work without incident and the days you hit the bump and spill coffee down your white button-down blouse sleeve.

I can tell you, within 10 minutes of my children waking, what kind of day lies ahead of me. I can feel it. Like the air before a tornado – Mother Nature’s hot breath. But we don’t show the sweat on our faces, no. We smile and we press on and we push all the shit way down deep because we think it makes us less of a mom or less of a wife or less of a woman if we aren’t acing all the things, all the time. Well, guess what … that’s bullshit.

I always say, God makes ‘em cute so you don’t kill ‘em. In my case, he doubled up just to be sure and made them funny, too.

On one particularly trying morning, I slipped and let the truth serum seep in. When Cheri in my office asked how my morning was, I said, “Oh, I’m fine, thanks, other than the fact that I want to go on strike against my entire family for a few days.” A spark flickered in her eyes. “You know,” she said, like a kid at confession, “once when the kids were little, I told my husband he had to take them and I checked myself into a hotel for the weekend. I just watched TV, did a little shopping, ate.” We laughed like idiots, and I thought about how many other times I should have put out the invitation for other mothers to share their tales from the trenches.

In the parking lot that morning, if I squinted really hard, I could see the little armies waging battle inside my girlfriend. One side was fighting in the name of vulnerability and transparency and saying all of the depressing shit she was really feeling, while the opposition was willing to die on that hill for the sake of smoothing it all over with a laugh and a shrug. I’m familiar with that war, that struggle. How much to share, when to share it, how to sugarcoat it, which parts of the day’s failures I should censor for fear of how it will poison the perception of my otherwise “tidy” life.

We women, we are an efficient bunch. We are anticipatory. We are prepared and organized and concerned. We shoot ourselves in both feet day after day after day by getting everyone up and dressed and fed and out the door. We sign permission slips and send notes about doctor’s appointments and talk to the sitter at length about the quality and quantity of the baby’s bowel movements. We do it because somebody has to do it. But sometimes, being the somebody who does it just chews you up and spits you out.

In holistic nursing, there’s something called a Code Lavender. When the code is called for a caregiver, he or she is given a purple bracelet to wear, signifying they are in emotional distress. People might be a little kinder, a little more understanding, a little quicker to forgive minor oversights. Well, I’d say it’s time for moms to get a code of their own. Code Yellow, maybe? Code Brown? (Signifying we’re in deep shit.) That way, we can offer hugs, or cocktails, or comforting cuss words to our fellow comrades who are momentarily flailing.

If you have a perfect household with a perfect spouse and perfect children and everything is all Marie Kondo perfect everywhere, that is incredible. But, for the rest of us, it’s really easy to feel lonely sometimes. We think we’re alone in thinking our kids are assholes on occasion. We think we’re the only one who wants to stop for a drink after work on Thursdays instead of sitting in the carpool pickup line. We think there’s a conspiracy that our neighbor’s house is always suspiciously clean while ours is reproducing dust at a mind-boggling rate. We hide our secret Lucky Charms addiction and exchange kale salad recipes.

But the Code Brown could revolutionize our sorority.

For example – and this is entirely hypothetical – if I saw you pulling into the local watering hole on a Monday afternoon and we locked eyes, and you just happened to flash your poo-colored wristband, I might offer to pick up your kids and keep them busy for an hour, no questions asked. And you would return the favor two days later, when it was me sporting the bracelet. If you saw me carrying a snot-covered, entirely hysterical child out of the grocery store and glanced down to find a doo-doo-hued decoration south of my fingers, you would know to say a silent prayer for my sanity (and my child). And I would do the same for you that Friday when you replicated the scene in the McDonald’s playdome. It’s an emotional exchange program, rooted in support and understanding.

So, who’s in? Who’s comin’ with me here?

Let’s remove the stigma staining our struggles and choose, instead, to help a sister out. Friends, I do not mind having your children over to play for a bit, no strings or expectations attached. It does not inconvenience me to listen to your recount of just how irrational your daughter got over al dente noodles last night. No one can hear a mother’s cries and gripes like another mother. I say it can’t count as a true failure if you speak it aloud and set it free.

I’m here. And I know you are, too.

Kids

I wanna be like Spike

March 15, 2017

Women talk a lot about raising each other up. We make signs and applaud the movement to flex and demonstrate our strengths enough to generate a mighty wind, which we’ll use to power a greater good. We post about offering our shoulders for others to stand on, so they might finally be able to reach their dreams. But what does all of this really look like? What is the commonplace, everyday application for lifting up our sisters? Or our neighbors? Or our children?

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how abstract these concepts have been to me. I mean, the memes are great, and I love a good quote, but when you take the lipstick off, what does this particular type of empowerment look like? I wasn’t sure. Until last weekend, when I stopped looking for a grand demonstration and saw it, instead, in its purest presentation. In my daughter’s eyes.

I think I told you guys how Hank and I recently jeopardized our status as mediocre parents when, in an effort to save some of our Saturdays, we decided to sign Spikey up for the same basketball team as JoJo, even though she was two years younger and 4 inches shorter than her average teammate. When we started to question our decision, we resigned ourselves to the argument that it would build character and make her just that much better. Adversity, after all, breeds growth, right?

Each week, the kids would have 30 minutes of practice followed by a 30-minute game. Each little player was on the court for two of the four quarters. Well, on that very first week, Spike took an arm to the glasses, and that was all she wrote. She was still up for the practices, but she turned on the tears when the coaches tried to put her in for the game. “I don’t like people running at me!” she would say through pouty lips under a drippy nose.

The team had two coaches, a man and a woman. The latter, Coach Kasey, just had a way. She was young and athletic and a card-carrying mom herself. She pushed ever so gently by standing right behind them, supporting and cheerleading. She never forced Spike onto that court. Ever. And it was a good thing, too, because I did everything wrong. I pulled every ill-fated play from the playbook. I drenched her in compliments for minor tasks. I bribed. I threatened. I guilted. All laughable attempts that were destined to fall short. And why would they work? After so many “I believe in you”s and “Never say can’t”s, your parents just start to sound like the salesperson at a department store. “Oh my gosh, you can totally pull off snakeskin pleather pants!” It’s just pink noise.

Coach Kasey would check in on our girl and then jog over to the sideline and give me updates. “She said she’d try in the next quarter.” “She’s afraid of that girl on the other team.” “Her knee hurts.” “Her eye hurts.” “She forgot to wear underwear.” Always being a fellow mom to me, but a strong example to them. Positive and constructive and subtle.

At their second to last game, Kay came to watch the girls play. Spike had promised for weeks that she would play for Kay. In fact, she’d asked if her former caregiver would come later in the season so she could be at her very best. You have to really know Kay to appreciate the pressure here. She is a former volleyball and basketball coach and she gets a little … intense. She likes to yell and throw up ref signals, and I’m pretty certain it’s all involuntary. So, when it came time for Spike’s debut, and there wasn’t a lot of movement on the bench, I got a little worried.

But Kay sure as shit didn’t. She just tucked her coat under her arm and marched right over. Hank and I stood aside and looked on as Kay, Coach Kasey and the referee, a sweet older teenage gal, huddled around our hesitant five year old and coaxed her onto the court. We let the village raise our child. She played for two of the six minutes that quarter. Parents in the stands gave her enthusiastic thumbs up as she walked back over to her seat to grab her water bottle. When it was her turn again, she turned in a solid 45 seconds right at the end. I was thrilled.

The tiny taste of the action was enough to awaken the humble giant inside her. The entire week leading up to the final matchup, she told us she was going to play the entire game – all of the minutes Coach Kasey wanted her to play. She wasn’t going to be fast or yelling or waving her arms, she prefaced, but she was going to stay in and stay right there with her coach.

And you guys, she did.

She really did.

Just like the other kids, she played two full quarters, glued to the role model she admired so. Where Coach Kasey went, Spike went. When Coach Kasey told her to put her hands up, pass, run, she did it. Soon, she was running on ahead of Coach Kasey, as her knowing instructor hung back just enough to let her lead. Standing right behind her. Masterfully pushing her on.

And then, the Rudy moment. She shot the ball. Twice.

This adorable love nugget – who spent game after game sitting curled up, knees to her nose, arms crossed, peeking up over her legs with her sparkly purple glasses – that little bug stepped up and flung the ball toward the hoop with everything in her, from her toes to her fingertips. I’d be lying if I denied I got choked up over the whole thing, for the love of leggings!

After the final buzzer, Coach Kasey handed out awards. JoJo got “Best Listener” and Spike got “Team Spirit”. Might as well have been “Best Actress in a Lead Role” and “Best New Artist”. They raced over to show us their certificates and the shiny medals they were wearing with smiles to match. I bent down and gave JoJo a squeeze, then turned to Spike. “I am so proud of you, honey. You really did it.”

She asked if I’d take a picture for her. I followed after her wild brown ponytail, so much pride in her step, as she juggled her snacks and her accolades on a path to find Coach Kasey. As I watched their teacher crouch down in between them, I swallowed hard. This woman probably thought she was just volunteering to share her time and talent with her son’s team. What she actually did was positively alter the mental makeup of a stranger, my Spikey.

It’s truly awesome how people come into our lives and unexpectedly, through the most modest efforts, build new bridges on the map. They rewire parts of our confidence, our character, our backbone. That was what Coach Kasey did for my daughter. By staying with her, behind her, she ever-so-slightly reprogrammed the part of her heart where bravery resides.

As we walked to the car, Spikey’s mind couldn’t catch up with her mouth. “As I ran down and back and forth and I checked the ball and I shot the ball up there, I kept getting prouder and prouder and braver of myself!” She told us how badly she wanted to play basketball again, but only if Coach Kasey could be there. Hank and I exchanged knowing grins, heavy with the burdensome truths grownups carry around. Not a conversation for today. How could I tell those baby brown eyes that we would only be putting her in her appropriate age group going forward, and that made our paths crossing again unlikely?

As we made our way down the road, I heard mousey sniffles. I turned around and tears were rolling down her tender cheeks.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
“Are you hurt?” JoJo inquired.
“Are you tired?” I offered.
“Are you embarrassed you forgot underwear?” JoJo threw out there, which finally made her smile.
“I miss Coach Kasey,” she sobbed. And I felt stinging at the backs of my eyes.

Ugh! I hated that it clicked so late for my gentle lady. I hated that she’d made that connection and now it was over. It’s like when everyone tells you the fried egg sandwich at a local restaurant is to die for but you put off making the trip, and then you do and it is so amazing and then they take it off the menu the next week. The worst! I’ll be honest, I’m fine with getting our Saturdays back, but I would sit there seven days a week to see the pride I saw that morning on her face again. Those victories are so few and far between. And the first couple you get in life are the sweetest ones of all.

Coach Kasey packed up her own family that day and went back to her routine. And I’m willing to bet she has mommy moments of her own where, like all of us, she feels inadequate, disappointing, under-qualified. Maybe not, I’m guessing here. But I hope that Saturday she felt a small sense of what she gave to our middle chick. That she became my real-life illustration of what it means to lift people up. Small girls need grown women they can model themselves after. They will mimic what’s put in front of them, whether it’s good or it’s bad. I am so moved by the influence this woman, whose name I’d never heard 10 weeks ago, had on my ladybugs.

This is what I so desperately want for this place; A community that raises up our fellow citizens and our tinies and one that fosters a warm, safe morale where everyone feels empowered. I don’t know about you, but it’s felt like much of the world has been standing out in the cold for months now. It’s isolating living in a place so plagued by conspiracies and discontentment. But my hope for my children is that it’s different through their eyes. As I looked over and saw other parents clapping for my daughter’s air ball, I felt my heart swell. It was like taking a full breath for the first time this year. All the way in … and all the way out.

I don’t need my girls to be all star athletes, let’s not kid ourselves here. But I did see the invaluable struggle between self doubt and perseverance playing out for their tiny souls on that court. People talk about the parallels between sports and the real world all the time. Now I get it. And if our time in that microcosm has any correlation to the current state of things, perhaps there’s hope for this race after all.

Be someone’s Coach Kasey.

Raise someone up if you can.

Let them stand on your shoulders and offer your voice to make theirs louder.

When pure intentions and unbridled encouragement come together, hope has plenty of room to grow and spill over into all the dark corners and spaces where doubt likes to dwell.

Raise someone up.

Try That With Matt

To my brother on his 40th birthday

March 14, 2017

I know you don’t want this. I know you’ve been dreading this day for 19 years, at least. I know in your mind this milestone is marked with canes and can’ts and all the limitations you fear so much. But all those thoughts were born before we knew the truth. Now we know what 40 really looks like on you. It kind of looks like 21 driving up in a Honda Odyssey. It looks like flippy cup over nice carpet and gift bags crammed full of craft beer. And that’s really not so bad.

We know the important things haven’t changed and, if anything, they’ve gotten better. You’re still active. You’re still loved. You’re still one of the funniest people I know, even though sometimes I really don’t want to laugh at your stupid, sarcastic self.

From far away, 40 might have looked like Mike Tyson biting someone’s ear off, but up close, it’s more like Mike Tyson talking to his pigeons, right? You’re fine. Everything is just fine. I’m proud of you.

Celebrating your last four decades with friends and family last Friday was a treat. I always forget just how hilarious you are until I see you in your element – hosting a room full of people, telling a story in that voice that thunders over the group, and shakes the ground as you punctuate the important parts. Even though most of us have heard your bullshit before, it always feels new, hysterical, hard to believe. You’re theatrical and over the top and completely ridiculous. The people who know you best, know you’re best served up in this state. Showing off and workin’ your side hustle as a professional smartass.

You’ve been blessed with good friends who accept and humor you always, and that’s a gift you get to open every day. Not everyone is that lucky. Never stop sitting around with them and telling those stories. I mean, when someone knows the punchline involves you shitting your pants and they still let you get all the way to the end without blowing the whole thing, that’s generous.

I can’t wait to see what your 40s hold. More challenges, more stories, more love. I hope you choose to walk a little lighter and settle into all the best parts of who you are. I hope you don’t grow up and you don’t stop fighting to be the person you want to be. Meditate. Hike. Relax.

I can’t necessarily see into the future, but I’d say some of your best is yet to come. I can tell you one thing that I predict with 100-percent certainty though. One thing I will gosh dang guarantee you won’t be happening in this decade. I hope you read this next part extra carefully, old man: I will NEVER, ever stand up to sing karaoke with you again. You hog the mic and you don’t need me up there. There’s only room in that spotlight for one star, and it’s all you, brotha.

So, happy birthday and best wishes, you lovable son of a … Here’s to 40 more!

JoJo Just Said, So Says Sloppy Joan, Spike Speak

Sisters say what? (Vol. 5)

March 7, 2017

We laughed to our guts! – Spike

I love to drink my tears. – Spike

JoJo, your face looks funn- [turns and runs into wall]. – Spike

It’s like raining snow! – Spike

Is “whore” another word for “seat”? – Spike

Are we cheering for the Steelers or the Takers? – Spike

I wish you were little, and you were my sister and you looked like you, but smaller. – Spike

Did you know grass is Mother Nature’s hair? – Spike

She laughed so hard she cracked herself out! – Spike

I think my eyes were playing tricks on your mouth. – Spike

See … isn’t having kids fun? – JoJo

Uncle Map is a kiddish grownup. – Spike

I’m having a lot of “excuse mes” today – Spike

Love isn’t just a word. It’s a feeling. – Spike

I wanna wear my bathing soup! – Sloppy Joan

Mom, can I tell you a secret? I’m the class helper a lot and I have to hand out markers. And when I hand out the markers, can I tell you the secret part? I give people markers that match their shirts. If they’re wearing blue, I give them blue. But if they’re wearing white, I have to give them a black marker or some other color. – Spike

Mom, you know, some grownups are smaller than teenage kids because they have shrunken. It’s not their fault. They just get smaller sometimes. – Spike

Is that for your things? – Spike,
Yes – Me
Oh. … Like, it holds them down?
Kind of. It holds them still.
Oh. … But I don’t need one yet, right? Because my things are so small.
Right. But you will when you’re bigger.
Right, like when my things are hangy.
Uh huh.

Do all the hookers have head lamps? – Spike

Mom … Mom, I have to tell you something. No, in your ear. [I bend down] I forgot underwear – JoJo, wearing Umbros at her co-ed basketball game

If you were a seahorse, you’d come out of your dad’s tummy. It’s true. – Spike

Does my bathing suit look like a lea-tart? – Spike

A lot of animals are made out of meat. So I say care for the honeybees, care for the birds, care for the everything. Even animals that don’t make food, I’m still saying to care for even all the animals. Even the ones that attack Mother Nature. – Spike

Dad, what’s that sound? – Sloppy Joan
What sound, babe? – Hank
That car sound.
What car sound?
That boom shakka lakka.

Did you pick up upstairs? – Me
I think we can do more. – Spike
How’s it looking’ up there? – Grammy
Ahhh, i don’t know if you heard me say, there’s more we can do. – Spike

Try That With Matt

Try that with Matt & Co. The Showdown.

March 5, 2017

My family gathers around food. It’s just our thing. Father’s Day is about Dad’s famous grilled chicken. Christmas is for ham balls, chicken wings and queso dip. The girls, Hank and I have dinner every Friday night with my parents before playing three rounds of euchre (Team Granny Panties vs. Boys). And the granddaddy of them all, Big Breakfast, is a feast of Dad’s dippy eggs, pounds of maple sausage and bacon, mugs and mugs of coffee (with the naughty creamer, of course), pancakes, fried potatoes and cinnamon rolls that takes place around my parent’s dining room table every-other Sunday. In a way, this is our church, and the sermon is always written in shameless digs and sarcasm. The congregation is questionable at best.

I could talk about Big Breakfast for hours. Seriously. It’s all about how much time you have. You’ll have your constants, like Dad dripping in sweat over four pans of food, yelling out in desperation through a potato-smelling smoke, “How many more eggs do we need? Marilyn! I asked how many more eggs do we need?” Poor guy. He’s always just slaving away as the rest of us get our coffee in hand and watch CBS Sunday Morning, which is always, always on. You’re guaranteed a story about somebody, usually my mother, falling down. It seems someone in our family falls down at least once a week. Which is probably some form of karmic justice because we all laugh like idiots at the storyteller’s misfortune. I mean, I’m sorry, but if you don’t think folks eating pavement is a side-splitting good time, we just can’t communicate. I always get the middle cinnamon roll, because, it’s the best. Duh. And there are always babies fighting and biting each other over plastic princesses.

Then we sprinkle in some excitement occasionally for extra flavor. There was the time the girls called 9-1-1 five times, unbeknownst to us, and a sheriff showed up. There was the time the entire family spent an hour trying to wrangle a 200-pound pig named Kevin Bacon into a horse trailer. There was the morning Matt belched so loud (also not uncommon) that Mom startled and instinctively turned so quickly she popped something in her neck. Or the beautiful Sunday morning Mom and I were sitting on the deck while the kids played and I leaned too far back in my plastic chair and flipped over backward. Or – and this is one of my favorites – the time my nephew took us on a Polaris ride and my brother, really, really had to go to the bathroom, so he jumped off the moving four wheeler when we got close to the house, his butt cheeks clenched so tightly he only came down on his toes and then waddle/ran all the way to the door.

And then there’s my tiny white nemesis. My parents have this rescue dog, Josie. She’s one of those tiny things, a mix of two different breeds that both have names that sound like poop, Caca-something or Doodle-other. All I know is she loves my dad’s soft bosom and licks her butt and then licks his face and I’m the only one who finds the entire relationship completely appalling. Plus, just the juxtaposition of this giant man holding a frail little dog never seems normal to me. Big Rog, knowing how I feel about the tiny mutt, refers to her as “my little sister”. “Aw, aren’t you going to say hi to your little sister?” “Your little sister had to be sedated to get her teeth cleaned, poor thing.” And so on. Well, at the last Big Breakfast, my ten-tons-of-fun brother pulled a skin tag clean of her neck with his bare hands because he thought it was a tick. She let out of tiny yelp and the whole thing was over as fast it it began. “What is that?” he asked, holding it up between his thumb and his index finger. “Oh my gosh!” Mom replied. “You pulled off her mole!” As Spike would say, “I was laughing to tears.”

See, what I mean … how much time do you have? It’s a sunny-side-up sideshow at a low-budget three-ring circus, this family.

So, why am I talking about all this? Well, partly because I got sidetracked, but I started because Big Breakfast is now part of a winner-takes-all contest several years in the making. It’s sort of a Try that with Matt … and Hank, and Kirsten, and Rog, and Marilyn. That’s right, we invited the whole kookie clan to join us for an extra-special, family-wide weight loss challenge. The Hupe Heifer Showdown began on Sunday, February 19. Six weeks, person who loses the highest percentage of body weight, wins.

Let’s meet the competitors.

The husband.
Honestly, we’re more allies than anything so it’s really hard for me to be an asshole about this one. I make his food, so sabotage wouldn’t even be a game at this point. (“They’re these weird Swedish nutrition bars. My mom used to give them to the kids in Africa to help them gain weight.”) Plus, I’m pretty sure his heart isn’t in it and he’s only participating to humor the acorns at the nuthouse.

Why he could win: This guy can drop some weight when he wants to. But he also has an addiction to authentic Mexican fare and miscellaneous goodies. Dark horse here for sure.

The parents.
Considering the parameters of the challenge, either one of these clowns could just demolish us if they wanted to. Their plan is to adjust their macronutrients (proteins, carbs) and workout more. Now, this brings up a topic that must be addressed. This is not a joke, you guys. My parents wear denim to workout. We’re talking full-on, chafe-your-nether-regions, unforgiving, tough as Clint Eastwood, 5-0-1 jeans here. I once walked a 4-mile race with my dad while he was wearing jorts, aviators and a ball cap. They just go out there like, “Hey, no big deal. I was just doing some light grocery shopping and decided to pop in for a little workout. What’s this spandex you speak of?” And it just baffles me entirely.

These people also grew up in a time when the shelves weren’t crowded with food and to waste wasn’t an option. When my dad was little, he once ate his entire meal after, af-ter, someone at the dinner table sneezed and skyrocketed a boog right onto the side of my dad’s plate. He just pushed right past it. If he put that type of dedication toward cleaning up his diet and moving a little more, or my mama did the same, this could be theirs for the taking. Although, I did have a tense 20-minute argument with my dad over the benefits of white bread (him for, me against) on Friday, so … I’ve got that goin’ for me.

Why they could win: A lifetime of refined flour and 9 p.m. snacking set these two up for some serious success if they can change their habits.

The brother.
On the morning of our initial weigh-in, Matt was running a few minutes late. As we all started going through the breakfast buffet a la Roger, my big brother walked in the back door, peeled off his shirt, then his pants and then pulled his boxer briefs up his crack before stepping onto the scale. The Chris Farley-esque stunt had Mom bent over clenching all of the pee-releasing muscles. It was bold. It made a statement. It lessened my appetite. I’m pretty sure this dude would sit in a sweat suit hovering over coals in a sauna for 48 hours straight to win this thing. I’ve been seeing him at the gym at 5 a.m. and I know he wants it. Problem is, he also wants deep dish pizza and all of the chocolate cakes. The struggle is so, so real.

Why he could win: I’ve often thought that Matt was missing the chip inside most people’s bodies that says, “No! Stop! This is the most I can take!” He’s lifted a riding lawnmower into the back of a truck by himself. The guy is Thor dressed up as an insurance agent. When he turns it on, he can hammer some workouts. Plus, he sweats like a whore in a Texas church in August.

The sister.
Dear, sweet, chocolate-covered Kirsten. My sister has six, count ‘em, six little girls. She runs ragged on all the days that end in “y” and the past few months in particular have been heavy with stress. To cope, she focused on what she needed to do for her chick-a-dees and less on taking care of herself. (Raise your hand if the lyrics to this tune sound familiar to you?) When you grow up with the nickname “Skelator,” the concept of having to work for a good weight can be a bit foreign. Kirsten has always been long and lean and now she finds herself in unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, territory. She’s rich in knowledge about healthy eating and so, so short on time, so she has her sights set on regaining balance for sure.

Why she could win: In her own words: “Because I’m too stubborn to let Matt win.” One of my fondest memories from childhood was watching Kirsten chase Matt around the island in the kitchen with a butcher knife after he’d pushed her buttons one too many times. What I’m saying is, there’s a history here. If it’s between cutting off an arm and losing to Matt, she’s severing the limb.

The me.
I have spent so many words in this space talking about my love of sweets and lack of control, it would be silly to steal more real estate expanding upon it now. Other than, just for the sake of transparency, i should mention that Hank brought home five boxes of Girl Scout cookies last week, so the cards are somewhat stacked against me. I hope somebody gets a damn patch on their sash for the internal shit I’m going through right now.

Why I could win: If Kirsten and Matt somehow destroy each other before or at the final weigh-in, my odds are pretty fair. Here’s hoping.

Those are the ponies. Ladies and gents, place your bets!

Mindfulness

Working on my core

February 28, 2017

Let’s start with a game.

I’m going to ask you to pick three words. The first three words that pop into your mind, OK? The prompt is: What drives your day?

Three words … and … go.

Got em? OK, what were they?

Full disclosure, so it’s all out in the open, my three words were: work, schedule and kids

Don’t forget your words.

So, I wanna talk about this book I read. Because we NEED to talk about this book I read. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, the dope pages of “Present Over Perfect.”

Present. Over. Perfect.

This audiobook came in for me at the library on the same day the Lauren Graham book, “Talking As Fast As I Can” came in. I was getting ready to leave for my Florida trip, I wanted something light, and so I opted for Lauren first. Now I’m watching Gilmore Girls because, let me just save you the suspense, the book is likely one trillion times better if you are watching or have watched the series. Which I hadn’t. So now I am.

Anyway, her mouth was really moving because it went super quick. Having wrapped the Gilmore diaries, I looked down the Tuesday after my quick Tampa weekend and saw the other audiobook, “Present Over Perfect” sitting on my passenger seat. I’d almost forgotten about it. I put in the first CD and a sweet voice filled the cabin of my SUV. Minutes later I was crying, clutching my chest and holding my breath. I think I was nodding, too.

Um, wait, did I write this? No, I didn’t write this. I’m not that good. This was instead a classic case of my very favorite thing; when it feels like the author, in this instance Shauna Niequist, chose her words specifically for me, her attentive audience of one. Shauna is, naturally, part of the poignant sorority that boasts the likes of Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton and Jen Hatmaker that I so wholeheartedly worship. These truthtellers have got it goin’ on, you guys, I’m tellin ya.

Sobbing like the latest Bachelor cast-off after just 5 pages is a promising sign. And it proved a match. Completing this book in its entirety was like having a conversation with myself after we hadn’t spoken in years. It drudged up a lot of honest crap I’d been denying or shrugging off for years. It was a mirror I’d tucked in the back of my closet and now I was staring right at all the blemishes and cracks and imperfections.

Let’s dive right in.

“Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairytale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness.”

Let it soak in. Let it marinate and send sweet reflections through your scattered mind. But don’t linger too long. This is good. Really good. But Shauna was just getting started here. She was toying with me; Dangling her heart-squeezing verbiage in front of me like a gorgeous orange carrot to a tired, famished bunny, so I’d wrap my front paws around them and she could just then … at the perfect moment … yank me into her web of truth.

“Many of us, myself, included, considered our souls necessary collateral damage to get done the things we felt we simply had to get done – because of other people’s expectations, because we want to be known as highly capable, because we’re trying to outrun an inner emptiness. And for a while we don’t even realize the compromise we’ve made. We’re on autopilot, chugging through the day on fear and caffeine, checking things off the list, falling into bed without even a real thought or feeling or connection all day long, just a sense of having made it through. … I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and realize that the best thing about me was I was organized.”

Or capable, or a great multitasker, or punctual or anal. Remember your words?

“But what I eventually realized is that the return on investment was not what I’d imagined, and that the expectations were only greater and greater. When you devote yourself to being known as the most responsible person anyone knows, more and more people call on you to be that highly responsible person. That’s how it works. So the armload of things I was carrying became higher and higher, heavier and heavier, more and more precarious.”

My current currency is completion. A demand comes in, I respond and then I’m paid in checkmarks. I can take something off the list. I can crawl into bed knowing I’m rich in lines drawn through the middle of pressing matters like ordering new checks, refilling the dog’s prescription and sending peanut-free, gluten-free, sugar-free cookies in for the school fundraiser. I’m walking through my life collecting chores and calls and duties and no one is keeping track of the gold stars I get in return, how many pieces of flair I have on my lapel. Except me.

My collateral damage can be tallied in many forms, but perhaps saddest of all is my connection with my husband. This is not to say that we aren’t in a good place or we’re having problems, but the life and the routine I’ve built for our tribe certainly has the potential to break what has always been so good about us. The rich stuff. The stay-up-late-talking-and-laughing-over-gin-and-tonics stuff. My hand to God, he sent me a calendar invite to “hang out” this past Sunday. A calendar invite! I accepted and then immediately felt the asshole aspect of the situation rain down upon me.

The other day in meditation, I silently asked myself if I was giving enough to my marriage. On the drive to work that morning, I saw a “Henry’s Plumbing” van. I’ve never seen a “Henry’s Plumbing” van in this town, or in my life and now a toilet tender’s business bearing my husband’s name was turning in front of me. Just 24 hours later, a sign we kept in our bathroom that said, “I love you because _____” fell down. You know, the kind you write on with a dry erase marker? We’d had it for years. We’d leave silly and sweet little notes on it from time to time. Well, it fell off the wall. Gabrielle Bernstein talked a lot in her book, “The Universe Has Your Back” about signs. Ask for them. Look for them. Be open to them. Well, I got three of them in as many days.

I made the comment to Hank that I often feel like we’re business partners, particularly during the week. We are tending to our tasks and checking in on the progress of various projects. “How’s that poop test result coming, Jones?” “Doctor said to have Sloppy Joan lay off the corn kernels, Banks.” And so on. I can’t pinpoint when I committed to full-on ruining all of the things that made us fun and all give-a-damn about everything. I just know that it happened in spite of our best efforts to stay cool.

“It seems to me that one of the great hazards is quick love, which is actually charm. We get used to smiling, hugging, bantering, practicing good eye contact. And it’s easier than true, slow, awkward and painful connection with someone who sees all the worst parts of you. Your act is easy. Being with you, deeply with, is difficult.”

“It is better to be loved than admired. It is better to be truly known and seen and taken care of by a small tribe than adored by strangers who think they know you in a meaningful way.”

“What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret keeping, image management.
And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace”

“The world will tell you how to live, if you let it. Don’t let it. Take up your space. Raise your voice. Sing your song. This is your chance to make or remake a life that thrills you.”

I know, brothers and sisters. I know.

This particular thread running throughout the pages was the big one for me; The slap that jolted the reality to the surface for me. If you think of your social connections like an onion, the center is likely comprised of your husband, kids, immediate family and ride or dies. Next, would be good friends and extended family. Then we’re looking at friends. Then acquaintances and gym buddies, and so on. As you work your way out through the layers, the connections get softer and softer. But what happens, and what has been happening with me for years, is we spend so much time committing, saying yes, donating our time and our talents to the people in the outer layers that we exhaust all our good stuff.

By the time I leave work, take care of any outlying obligations, make dinner and get through the kids’ checklist of “necessities” for the next day, I certainly don’t have the mental lightness to roll around and play tickle torture. I am depleted and primed to fail.

And while this all seems to be the norm these days, and I know that my priorities, in all their backwards glory, are not uncommon for mothers, the whole thing really is super freaking messed up, right? Because I volunteer to help causes that are important but not that close to me personally, I miss hearing JoJo’s recount of her bee experiment that day. And we all know those stories are always best the first time around. Because I said I could step up my freelance game for extra sitter money, I rush through the bedtime ritual and feel annoyed that my five year old dare ask for “one more butterfly kiss.”

It’s a mess.

My flow is all fucked up.

It’s clogged with boulders of bullshit excuses and obligations made to third- and fourth-layer acquaintances. I have to learn to choose no when yes means less of the good stuff. Less cuddles, less sanity, less conversation, less eye contact. I have to learn to say no even though the yes is wearing pretty clothes. Even if it means more money or smart connections. I have to learn that if yes doesn’t feel good in the moment, it’s not going to feel good on a Thursday night at 9:30 when the laundry needs folded and Sloppy Joan has gotten out of bed for the 14th time.

“I almost left her behind. I almost lost her when I started to believe that constant motion would save me. That outrunning everything would keep me safe. You cannot be a mystic when you’re hustling all the time. you cannot be a poet when you start to speak in certainties. You can’t stay tender and connected when you hurl yourself thru life like being shot out of a canon, your speed a weapon you wield to keep yourself safe. The natural world is so breathtakingly beautiful, people are so weird and awesome and loving and life-giving. Why then did I try to hard for so long to get away without feeling or living deeply?”

Go back to your words. Think about what they mean to you and what you wish they were instead. Because, why not wish for what you want?

I want to move work to love, and schedule to passion, and kids to … well, the kids can stay. But I want to stop letting responsibility be my defining asset. So I can get it all done? What’s the good in any of that if I’m miserable? Who’s keeping score anyway?

It’s time to shake things up and slow things down and really, truly, deeply focus on the middle of my onion. People are always saying they need to work on their core, strengthen their core, build from their core. Well … there ya go. This is the kind of core work I need. Screw abs, I want to be present for Spike’s story hour and the chicks’ gymnastics show in the front room, with Sloppy Joan wearing her “bathing soup” as a leotard.

These are the people I so desperately want to hold close to me. Because at the end of the day, I’d rather be focused than frenzied. I’d rather be late to a meeting than missing as a mother. I’d rather be known for my mess than tidy and tired.

I’d rather be present than perfect.

Try That With Matt

Try that with Matt. 90-mile month.

February 14, 2017

I have an ongoing list of ideas for these monthly challenges with my brother. Some of the things are just a matter of time (a bar crawl in kayaks, coming this summer!), while others might never happen (backpacking through Ireland?). The point is their dreams … aspirations … wishes on stars that might actually be satellites. Now, obviously, sustaining this little project – 12 challenges a year – means the entire list can’t be all grand excursions and riding on elephants. We have to pepper in some practical for good measure. These vanilla additions are challenging, but achievable. Adventurous but local. Exciting but not as exhilarating as the biggies. So when my brother picked one of these “practical” items for the first month of the year, I was kind of, unintentionally, a turd about it.

January Challenge: Run 3 miles every day of the month. No excuses. No crying.

It could have been worse. I believe I actually had, “Complete a 100-mile month” on the list, so this was technically an improvement. We would be coming in around 90 miles (should have been 93, but we gave each other one pass). It was going to get real, and it wasn’t going to be fun, and it wasn’t going to be really fun.

**MATT**

Jon Sutherland – who holds the record for running on the most consecutive days – has completed at least one mile every single day for over 17,000 days in a row. That’s 45 years and 2 days, a number that will be outdated by the time you read this post. So, when I suggested we run 3 miles a day every day for 31 days in January, I thought it would be a piece of cake. I’ll spare you the suspense. It wasn’t.

In fact, it was whatever the polar opposite of cake is. Something awful, that smells bad. But despite the fact that it was a complete pain in the ass, now that it’s over, I can look back and say there was never a time I went for a run and didn’t feel like the reset button had been hit after. We all struggle to make time for ourselves, at least that seems to be the trend with myself and my peers that have children. We are all too busy shuffling our kids here and there, and staying after work, and grabbing things at the grocery, and cleaning our houses, that we end up with a million reasons why we can’t make it to the gym. And who can blame us?

I think that this is what I took away from the challenge this month; that I’m full of bullshit excuses. Did I drop some lbs and get in better shape? Yes. Oh, and I have to mention it just to piss my sister off, your boy was a “super user” at the Y for the month of January. You know this shit! (Didn’t see your name up there, DSS.) Yes, my party pants now fit a little looser so I don’t have to worry about them splitting when I am out there on the dance floor dropping it like it’s hot, or … Oh, wait … I’m 39…. I mean I don’t have to worry about my Levis splitting up the crotch when I am squatting down to check out the soft batch cookies on sale. But even more than all that, I realized that we can ALL make time for ourselves if we really want to. And it’s important.

Going to the gym is not being selfish. It’s just taking 30-60 minutes for yourself to set a good example for your kids and for you to get that healthy release so when you do go home you don’t unload your stress on your family. We are all guilty of it. We all have shitty days when we don’t want to go workout, we don’t want to cram one more thing in. We just want to stuff our fat faces with chocolate chip cookies the consistency of pillows and watch 20 episodes of The Office. And it feels good for a second, but 20 minutes later, when you are doing dishes, laundry, etc., and you’re so filled with stress it’s exploding out of your beard hair holes, guess what … someone’s ass is getting yelled at. Then you feel like an asshole. A cookie-eating asshole. Because you know they didn’t really deserve it. And you know if you would have just taken your fatass to the gym, you could have avoided the whole verbal beat down.

We all struggle with the same things, even though we feel alone. You let yourself go and don’t want to feel judged going back to the gym. You’re unsure of how to use equipment. One of the hardest things for me is the voice in my head telling me to grab the chips and the remote. But you have to squash those thoughts and take care of you! Nobody is judging you and people are always happy to help if you just ask. And guess what, after you workout, you don’t want the chips anyway.

You only get one go at this life and you don’t want to spend it sitting on your ass, do you? You don’t have to run every single day for 31 days, but challenge yourself to get to the gym or get a workout in each day, and see what it does for your attitude or how it motivates the people around you. This challenge has helped kick start my cardio workouts again, I know that. I was in a funk for the past year where all I did was work and make excuses why I couldn’t get to the gym. It is so easy to give up on goals, but you know what feels even better than sitting on the couch and relaxing? Unleashing that inner beast you have been hiding under excuses! Anyone can quit, but who wants to be just anyone? Not me.

Note: Do not ask DSS to be your gym buddy if you decide on a consecutive run challenge, we just started talking again the beginning of February. Good job, Sis! Love you!

**ME**

I don’t know how many times he told me, reminded me, that this was technically my idea. It takes a special kind of jackass – my kind, apparently – to propose 31 days of running in a row. Hank and I had company on New Year’s Day and I knew right away this was going to be a bitch. I didn’t want to run. It was the first day of the challenge. I’d been in a dark place during a Try That with Matt before, I mean these can’t all be fun, but unlike the spin class at the asscrack of dawn after a night of drinking, this one was a slow burn.

I always have something to say, this you know by now, but I don’t have much to say for this one. There were points where I was literally angry with Matt for picking it. How messed up is that? I was projecting my disappointment in my physical ability and lack of positivity onto that poor innocent old man.

“Are you avoiding me?” he asked.
“Ugh, kind of.” I said, ashamed.
“I can tell! I feel it.”

It only made it worse that he seemed to be loving it. Loving it! Running! Every day! Every stupid day. It was like he was having some sort of life-altering realization and I was just trying to draft behind him for survival.

**Random interjection**

Speaking of, the Grammy’s are on in the background as I write this. Does anyone else feel emotionally inadequate when they watch Beyonce perform? Her style of musical storytelling leaves me bewildered at times. Like, I know I should be feeling something very deeply but I’m not 100 percent sure what those feelings are exactly. Oh, it’s women empowerment … wait, wait, it’s forgiveness … no, I think it’s about looking like my mom and thanking her for offering me her womb? Oh God, Oh God! The chair is tipping back, you guys! The chair, is tipping, back. OK, she’s down. Phew! I mean, she’s badass, regardless. It’s all just a little confusing for me personally.

**End of random interjection**

Every day we would exchange proof of mileage. I would typically go in the mornings and send him a snapshot of the watch I use to track laps. It takes 27 laps to equal 3 miles. Yes, 27 laps. But it’s OK, you guys, because every other day they make you switch directions. So, I had that going for me. Matt would go in the evenings, so I’d get a pic of the panel on his sweat-soaked treadmill. I always picture the people on the machines next to him squinting and holding up their hands as his perspiration pounds them like a Hummer through a spring puddle. He kept getting faster and faster. I, on the other hand, seemed to be dragging as the days went by.

And I hurt everywhere. I read this article recently about how running just one mile every day was proven to increase mental clarity, creativity and physical longevity. Yeah, maybe. Maybe one mile a day feels a lot different than three. Cuz three hurt. My achilles was tighter than harp strings. My hamstrings were harder than an old man’s beer belly. My lower back ached, the bottoms of my feet were tender and I just felt, generally, like a broken old fart.

It wasn’t all bad, I guess. There was an unseasonable break in the weather and I did a few runs outside. That’s so much better for my soul. I love checking things out, listening to my music. But, no, for the most part I was a miserable, cranky turd for the entirety of the month. Remember, I was simultaneously Whole30-ing, so while Tons of Fun could run and then murder a 2-pound meatloaf burger (That really happened. I know, because I gave it to him.), I was chasing my miles with plantain tortillas and 5,000 avocados. The whole thing, for me, was just really brutal. I’d never been happier for freaking February in my life.

Onto the next …