Monday, December 31, 2012

My bed is your bed and why not: Every living thing in this house winds up in my bed every night already

One day, these googly-eyed boys will demand privacy. Hmph.

One unexpected memory that sticks out for me from childhood is being allowed to stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live with my parents. I can't remember how old I was, but probably not really old enough to get most of the jokes, not that it mattered. We all knew I'd be asleep on the couch long before Chevy Chase tripped over something or Eddie Murphy hee-hawed his way through a Gumby sketch. 

But somehow, this routine really meant something to me. Partly, it was a privilege because my little brothers weren't allowed to stay up that late, but mostly, it was because I got to be with my parents by myself. I'd drift off to sleep to the sound of their laughter, one on each side, and even with my very limited wisdom, I sensed that these routine moments were the important stuff. When you're little, the adults in your life are your assurance that everything is OK.

So now, when both kids wind up in our bed almost every single night, and I can't quite stretch out because the dog has taken up the area where I'd like to put my feet, I can't help but smile a little. Anderson barely fits between us these days, one arm stretched out on top of me, one on Kurt, and David seems to think his feet belong in my ribcage. It can make for a fitful night. But I know how fleeting this is, and I'm struck by the magic power that seems to draw us all together so often, whether it's our bed or a small bathroom, dog and cat included. It's safe and warm, and a little claustrophobic, but mostly, it's a kind of love I couldn't have imagined.

I know in that really, really hot moment - seriously, they are both little furnaces - that they are both content in one of the happiest places they can imagine right now, right between mommy and daddy. I realize sleep-sharing to any extent isn't for everybody, and I've read about all the terrible outcomes we'll all face as a result of this "permissiveness," but I'm not buying it. We have sweet, independent, well-adjusted little goofballs and I'm not sure why their growth won't continue based on where they wake up each morning. I'm sure someone will fill me in via email or the comments below. ;)

At any rate, I have a feeling life will look a whole lot different this time next year. A lot can happen in 12 months. My goal is to keep recognizing the beauty in the seemingly mundane, no matter how much the big picture changes. We can't slow down the fleeting, but new things are always on the horizon. Here's to hoping the new things involve changes for the better, as opposed to angry, hulking grizzly bears that have migrated to the suburbs seeking revenge for all those times they've been excluded from a lovely forest pic-a-nic.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Forward is the only way forward

I've had to spend the past week processing the shooting in Connecticut before I felt able to write about it. While I can't say that I've come up with anything profound, I've at least moved past the initial shock, mostly through a lot of anger, and straight into the sadness that will surely always touch this memory.

As the mom of a 6-year-old, I was going to do a post called "This is 6," but so many fellow bloggers have covered that territory so elegantly, I'll just post this picture and say this: This is 6. It's precocious, innocent, fiercely loving, stubbornly independent, sometimes wild, and free from the pressures the world will bring someday. No longer a baby, not quite a big kid, miles away from the confusion of adolescence. It's a great age.

Of course, if it wasn't 6, it might have been the innocence of 12, or 4, or 16. And sometimes, it is. The fact that children sometimes die, sometimes violently, is a sobering reality every day of the year. Cumulatively, we lose many, many more than 20 kids to violence each year in this country. It's hard not to get stuck right there, to not just freeze in place forever, unsure why we should bother anymore. If this could happen, is there really a point here? It's a sad cycle.

It's hard not to get stuck, and rage against ... well, something, anyway. It feels kind of productive, at least. We can rage against guns, parenting, mental health care failures, the culture in general, security in schools, you name it. And to be clear, there are much-needed national conversations that need to be had regarding many of these things. But it's easy to get stuck on the rage, too, and that worries me. More rage is not what we need to move on, and we must move on, eventually. There is really not another option, if we consider life worth living, but to keep moving forward.

So I think all we can really do if we must do something, is to take stock of how we treat other people and how much honesty we're putting out there. It is really, really hard to live authentically, all of the time, but I truly believe this is a worthy goal. And if we're going to live lives that are true to ourselves, we need to encourage others to do the same, even when we are freaked out by another person's freak flag.

Here are my goals, post Newtown.

1. To reach out to the marginalized wherever I can.
2. To figuratively and literally wear a bathing suit in public, because time is short and we all deserve to just be.
3. To look other people, of all ages and backgrounds, in the eye more, for my own sake and theirs, because we're all worthy of being fully acknowledged.
4. To do more playing, singing, laughing, learning, seeing, and thinking.
5. To do less consuming, acquiring, idling, assuming, wasting, and regretting.
6. To make sure my kids spend the next several years just being kids. More running and playing, less comparing and pushing. 
7. To make random acts of kindness a way of life that I don't even think about as out of the ordinary.
8. To presume good will, most of the time.
9. To not get stuck on the bad parts, so they can't drive away the good.
10. Above all, to keep moving forward. Always.

Once I've achieved all that and I get my Perfect Person award in the mail, I'll be all set! No, I realize it would be impossible to become this ideal, relaxed, incredibly kind person, but it's all about progress. I'm always going to be a bit of a dork with a flair for irresponsibility and bad taste in movies, but even with these sometimes debilitating handicaps, I feel confident I can do good things, that I can be better. We all can. Positive goals are crucial right about now, when we would all like to just curl up together in a heaving sob and stay down for a good long while.

Soon enough, though, we'll have to make a choice - to either allow this tragedy to fade into a surreal, misty memory like so many others before it, or to allow it to change us in a fundamental way. I'm going with the latter, and I'm choosing positive change this time around.

I hope you'll join me in tuning out what feels unproductive and damaging, and focusing on what we can do on an individual level to make this place a tiny bit more kind and beautiful, for the 6-year-olds who left us too soon, for the ones who are still among us, and for the ones we all once were.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wordy Wednesday

Marilyn Crook/Comedy Central press gallery
Stephen Colbert on grief: “The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be OK with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

I found out recently that the great comedian and performer Stephen Colbert suffered an enormous loss when he was young - his dad and two of his brothers were all killed in a small plane crash when he was 10. It's one of those heart-wrenching scenarios too difficult to contemplate. Yet, here he is, decades later, proof that life is ever persistent.

His take on living with grief really struck me. I've never looked at grief through this lens, but I think he's on to something here. Maybe grief isn't something to "get through" and "move past" as much as it is something you have to learn to live alongside. I think we sometimes beat ourselves up for not breaking free, fast enough, from the losses that will dog all of us at various times. After a painful experience, surely it's possible to both heal and also move to a place of accepting grief as a natural component of life. Physiologically, even, there's got to be something important about grieving, since it's such a base, universal experience. When we're "visited" by grief, we'd probably do better to allow it in for a cup of coffee whiskey than to pretend it's probably just that really nice guy in the suit from the Church of Latter Day Saints out there on the doorstep, who won't be terribly surprised if we don't open the door. OK, maybe whiskey isn't the answer.

We tend to place way too many qualifiers and limitations on acceptable emotional responses, at any rate. We're too hard on ourselves when it comes to concepts (and once-pretend words) like "normalcy," and we're way too scared of that wolf at the door. Not only is there not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to dealing with mental stuff, there also isn't an ideal endgame for everyone.

What feels like coping to me might look like not enough progress, to you. But you can't fully understand the totality of another person's process. The older I get, the more I understand that I can't fully understand any other person. I can get close, maybe, in a few, select cases, but we don't get to climb inside other people's brains to check out the mechanics (at least not yet - Monsanto has something new coming out in our national corn supply, I've heard). All anybody can do is to keep moving forward. If we're honest and patient with ourselves, we figure out how to live with pain as we go. Sometimes we need a little help, and that's OK, too, so long as we're working toward fully turning toward the things that hurt.

The best I can do in the  meantime is accept you at face value, and encourage you to live an authentic life, even when that means your authenticity might make me uncomfortable at times. Something about authenticity brings out vulnerability in other people, according to all the BrenĂ© Brown I've read. And that can be scary, but also valuable. In fact, I'd say grief is one manifestation of vulnerability, which is key to fully embracing this imperfect life. It's all part of the sometimes frightening circle of Truth.

It's a lot to contemplate. I'm sure 8 out of 10 psychiatrists would tell me that my B.S. in political science and a lengthy interpretation of a Stephen Colbert quote doesn't actually qualify me to psychoanalyze all of society in broad, sweeping strokes. But 8 out of 10 psychiatrists would also have 8 different answers for why I cry every time I read Green Eggs and Ham to my sons. It's just what I do.

Knowing that I'll never have it all figured out is a gift that never stops giving me the future embarrassment I'll feel when I read this 3 years from now. Future Sarah, please don't be too hard on November 2012 Sarah. This was before that really huge thing happened with Oprah, when we all found out the true meaning of life. And to think we once thought it was free cars and Flamin' Hot Cheetos!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Things and Stuff

Our first Christmas together. The more things change...
I've accumulated a lot of Things in my 37.8 years on this watery orb. Much like a certain redheaded mermaid, I've got whozits and whatzits galore. Few of them hold any real meaning, and even then, it's probably truest to say that only a few of them trigger real feelings or memories. This knowledge won't stop me from pulling the trigger on the next adorable, kitschy owl-themed trinket that catches my eye, but at this time of the year when the ray gun is stuck on ACQUIRE in so many ways, I'd like to reflect on a few material objects that bring me joy on a regular basis. They aren't the most valuable things I own -- that honor would go to my collection of human hair and teeth, otherwise known as my baby books.* Style-wise, these objects are probably the antithesis of modern elegance, but I've always been a big fan of the misfit toy.

For instance, this mug:

I got this from my mom for my 10th birthday, which means my Sarah Mug would be well into its first career as a lion trainer if it had been born to lion training parents instead of winding up in that kiln in Korea. My mug could drink a beer with me. My mug has had a beer with me, actually. My mug has held hot chocolate with big, sticky marshmallows on a cold snow day in 1987. My mug has forced me to smile after reading its cheerful, cheesy poem at 5:12 a.m. while I bounced a colicky newborn on my knee and wondered if it were possible to be more sleep-deprived but technically conscious (it were). Recently, I let my once-colicky, now 6-year-old not-really-a-baby drink grape Powerade from it when he was sick.

Somehow, though I have moved 15+ times since receiving it, I've managed to keep track of this thing and not even crack it. And yes, it's special because it was a gift from my mommy when I was 10, and because they spelled Sarah with an "h," but it's also special just because it has been there as part of the background for so long. 

This squirrel basket:

My Grandma Bricker kept her candy in here. When I was very young and my Poppy Bricker was still alive, he would always bury a chocolate underneath all the Brach's Butterscotch and tell me they didn't have any. So of course I'd dig around in here, and lo and behold, there it was. Now that I'm older, that memory holds increasing weight. I know the overwhelming feeling of making a little kid beam with joy over a simple thing. I'd rather have this silly squirrel basket than any "real" family heirloom.

This tiny red lantern:

At my other grandparents' house, there is this little shelf in the spare bedroom where I'd always sleep when I visited, and on this little shelf are all these tiny trinkets, some of them gifts from me and my brothers when we were very small. My grandma still has an ugly little rock there that I gave her when she was in the hospital at one point long ago, and one of those weird little naked babies that fit in dollhouse cribs. I gave that to her at some point, too. I'm not sure of the origin of this little lantern, but it was there as long as I can remember, so at least 33ish years. I was at their house not too long ago, and we were reminiscing about days long gone, as we often do, and which invariably winds up focused on some childhood antics performed by me and my little brothers. I said something about the little shelf in there, and my Poppy, who is in his 80s, sick, and not always too coherent these days, said that reminded him of something. He'd told me when I was SIX that I could have that little lantern some day. So I took it home, and here it is. Love.

There are some other Things that bring on the Stuff around here, too, like the first gift Kurt gave me (a stuffed weasel) and the $2 sterling silver rings we got together in Chinatown in Chicago almost 13 years ago. A tiny hat that kept my first baby's little pumpkin head warm when he was born. Lots of pictures. My later-in-life college diploma. Monk and Roger, the stuffed animals I carried around when I was 5. My Grandma Bricker blanket. A silver perfume bottle from one of my oldest friends. A little clay vase from Barcelona. A mother's day card where the only word spelled correctly is love. 

I don't need these things to reminisce, and I'd imagine I'll hold on to less and less of them as time goes along. But they are a good reminder that when it comes to gifts and the things that endure, it's the thought that counts. I know it's hokey. But just like that prissy mermaid, there's little more important to me than being a part of the larger world, whether it's family, friends or community. I think that's probably true for almost every single person on Earth, too, no matter our differences or status. People do better when they have other people in their lives, even in the worst situations. Beloved objects conjure up memories of those people.

I hope I don't sound all sanctimonious here. I'm not above snatching up that Cyber Monday deal on a DVD I'd like to acquire or anything. I'm just making the case for the little things at this frenzied time of year, especially after this particularly painful election cycle has finally, thankfully, ground to a halt. We can't predict which little things others will imbue with their own personal meaning, or even if it's our intangible gifts that will mean the most. But it's a sure bet that all that guilt associated with the gift-giving season is a wasted emotion.

Now, tell me about your favorite nostalgia-inducing objects. I'd love to hear about them.

*Why is not creepy to collect your child's hair and first lost teeth in a book, but as soon as you start storing these items in shoe boxes in a dusty cellar, you're getting profiled as a potential serial killer?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gratitudinously yours

Available on etsy.
I like the annual November trend where people spend time reflecting on the gifts in their lives each day in November, a nod to Thanksgiving. But I’m pretty bad about sticking to a schedule (you may have noticed I haven’t updated this blog in 8,000 months), so I’m going after this in one fell swoop and I’ll just trust that you believe me when I say I try to practice gratitude on a daily basis. If you don’t believe me, I can probably live with that, too.

1. Waking up every day as part of my imperfect family. I’m grateful that my little family is healthy, even if we include a hardiness that allows for my boys’ very healthy full-throttled screaming on a near-daily basis. I’m thankful for the Super Nanny, who taught me the proper time-out technique that keeps us all a (relatively) safe distance from the brink of insanity. I’m especially thankful that I am number one on my kid’s top ten list of most beautiful women in the world, including Princess Leia and all of his grandmothers and even his aunt and two of my best friends, Jo and Melinda.

I’m also grateful for a husband who gets me, who loves us in both word and deed, and who is uncommonly patient about irksome quirks. For example, people who have a really hard time sitting in the passenger’s seat and not completely freaking out. I have heard about people like that, and he’s really understanding.

I also count my blessings when it comes to extended family. We are way more than lucky to live a life surrounded by supportive people, who are not only interesting, smart, and loving, but on whom we could call, and have called, for help in even the most asinine situation.

2. Friends, i.e. sounding boards, support systems, hilarious companionship, sources of baked goods and fruity adult beverages. People who care about you, not in spite of your various flaws or just because you always feed the meter when you go downtown together, but just because you are you.

3. The Intangibles. No, not that movie about Al Capone. I’m talking about those often unnoticed bits of human interaction that do more to keep the world turning than anything we could actually measure. Interpret as you will, but I want it noted for the record that I’m grateful for these moments:

That time when I allowed someone else to be gracious and kind instead of commandeering the situation and trying to save face.

That time a stranger stopped by our table at a restaurant, told us we have a beautiful family, and then paid for our meal before she left.

That time we paid it forward.

That time my 6-year-old made my gravely ill grandpa well up with tears when he shook his hand after losing the peg game.

That time my dog visited that same grandpa and just laid her head on his lap the entire time, as opposed to doing her usual routine of leaping around the house knocking things off tables with her perpetually happy tail.

That time my baby boy told me he wasn’t a baby anymore but that he would pretend to be one if it made me feel better. It did.

The sound of crunchy leaves.

The way the hills pop up around my city whenever I return from out of town, from every direction.


The unexpected gifts that grief brings.

Being a big sister, a future aunt, a granddaughter, a daughter, a mother, and more, and recognizing that despite the days when it doesn’t quite feel like it, that I’m a part of something more than this.

But also, I’m grateful that I’ll never have this all figured out, and that I have so much more to see. I’ll never really grasp how tiny our lives are in the grand scheme of the universe, or how fleeting the existence of the human race really is. Astronomy totally freaks me out. I’m also grateful to have grown up in the ‘80s, because phrases like “totally freaks me out” come out so easily.

Really, though, I’m just grateful to be here with you.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Emotional mountain climbing

 (Subtitle: Where you don't even get to burn calories but you still might pull a hamstring)

The peaks and valleys of Glen Nevis. Bods/Creative Commons
"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could."
– Louis Erdrich, The Painted Drum
I came across this today on a beautiful blog post about a woman in New Zealand who just passed away from breast cancer, and the sentiment could not have come at a more poignant time for me. 

Call this irony, or hypocritical, or yet another example of the failure of modern sensibility thanks to the Internet, but I woke up sure that I needed to share on my blog, with strangers from around the world (all 113 of you), that I have been feeling withdrawn. I'm too exhausted from psychoanalyzing myself to decide whether this is an idea I should feel ashamed about, leaving me in the all-too-familiar position of being completely past the point of possessing even one singular shit to give. I am quite simply overflowing with stress, angst, worry, and guilt.

It's what we do. People, I mean. I could probably make a solid argument that it's more a symptom of my X chromosome, but I personally think we are just more chatty. Both sexes tend to take on a heavy burden when we come out of hiding and participate in the world. My participation lately has led me to a place of utter sadness, in so many ways. It doesn't matter how many times I assure myself there's little point in fretting about things I cannot fix, or even improve. My heart is heavy, and it has led me to near total withdrawal. I'm not reaching out to people I love who may need it, because I feel so overwhelmed, and the fact that I'm not reaching out only makes things worse. It's a bad cycle.

Are you still with me? Has my cryptic, angsty vent triggered your involuntary eye roll? I get it. I have a good life, a privileged life versus a full 2/3 of the world's population and most of the population in this country. Things could be a whole hell of a lot worse. I guess this is the guilt portion of our show. I have it good, but I'm so preoccupied with worry about so many people in my life, including myself, that I'm not even enjoying the gifts I've been given (or have earned by way of elbow grease, belt-tightening, and lifting up my mythical bootstraps, depending on your ideological perspective). Any way you slice it, I'm feeling pretty guilty about feeling angsty, and what the hell is that about? I suspect it's my unproven theory that the people around me will be better off if I appear to be keeping it all together.

Somewhere around age 9, I concluded that it was somehow wrong to ever feel anger, sadness, self-worth, or to express any emotion that wasn't 100% positive, or at least carefully measured. Why that is, I don't know. I blame hormones, or possibly Madonna's seminal Live a Virgin LP. I'm sure a shrink would pinpoint some noteworthy experience like getting boobs too early, or a stressed home life, or my dog dying at Christmas when I was 6, or that one time I sipped from a glass of water and discovered it was Sprite. That will leave a scar. The fact is, I don't know and I'm not sure it matters. I only know that it sucks and as I veer dangerously close to 40, I'm pretty weary of feeling that way.

I used to have a big problem with people who make it a point to live their lives in vibrant color, throwing caution to the wind, making an ass out of themselves in the loudest, most public ways they can muster, calling people out on inauthentic BS, all in the name of honoring themselves above all else, at least some of the time. These days, I envy them for holding a spark of something I seem to have lost along the way. I get why the "old people" seem so embarrassing to younger generations. It can be off-putting to share time with someone who has looked at all the social conventions for several decades and concluded too many of those conventions were utter conformist bullshit.

I'm not sure where that leaves me. This isn't Dead Poet's Society up in here. This is my blessedly ordinary life, in which I'm blessed with beautiful children and a doting, brilliant husband. What talents I have, I'm squandering. I'm harder on myself than anyone else ever could be, and that's not a badge I wear with pride. I prize kindness above all other human traits, but I can't seem to muster any for me. I'm pretty sure I deserve a little kindness. I made eye contact with a homeless man the other day when I gave him the 38 cents I had in my pocket, so...

Maybe what I really need is a vacation/whisky bender. Who's in? I'm sure I'd be a wonderful travel companion, what with my penchant for bursting into tears over magazine ads for wholesome snacks your family deserves and my well-honed ability to quietly avoid anything smacking of honest emotion. Road trip!

In truth, I'm probably coming down the other side of my latest exercise in emotional mountain climbing. I'm pretty sure the peak was the day I spent rewriting humorous essays into dark parables about "the collective hopelessness." I suppose it's time to take another stab at the world of antidepressants, but the thought alone exhausts me. I may actually prefer the peaks and valleys to the flat line of meh. I prefer the occasional Earth-rocking thunderstorm to month after month of fog. That said, I'm bone-weary from all the mountain climbing, too. I'd greatly appreciate any insight, dear readers. The options in my comments section will always include Anonymous. So, really, feel free to vent about your own struggle with the mountain, or tell me to suck it up, or tell me how you found balance. I'm listening.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Things they really don't warn you about

Boxes: Fun for cats and kids/Courtesy comedynose via Creative Commons

I know you've seen these lists before, these "stuff they don't tell you about before you have kids" lists. But those were all bullshit cop outs, filled with such informative items as "you're going to love them more than you ever thought possible." I mean, sure, this is probably true, but way to not go out on a limb there. As a fellow parent, I know your dirty secret. This is a worthwhile, but terrible job some days. On the best days, it's only a 4 out of 10 on the Scale of Grossness. I'm going to give it to you straight.

Potty Training Is Disgusting

I don't have girls, who are allegedly easier to train, but I can tell you that there is something innate that occurs when you become a parent, because only a parent can clean up what we have cleaned up, move on nonchalantly when we conclude that it's not coming out of that tiny crack beside the bathtub no matter how much industrial strength bleach we buy at the bulk store, and then allow these foul creatures to kiss us fully (and wetly), on the mouth, only minutes later.

Pro Tip: When potty training, either let them go naked, or go with loose pants with no underwear. Trust me. You'd rather pick that up off the floor than scrub it out of those $4 Batman underwear.

Your Kids Are Uninteresting to Everybody Else

Grandparents and doting aunts and uncles notwithstanding, pretty much nobody cares what your kid is doing beyond a cursory glance and an assessment of their relative cuteness. When it comes to friendly acquaintances, especially, no one is really invested. And honestly, that's OK by me. I'm still going to post pictures of my kid in his dobok on Facebook and babble about their latest dentist visit to unsuspecting strangers. It's just part of what I have to offer to conversations these days. I just wish I could remember that no one really cares when I'm feeling the weight of judgment from the world at large. 

Pro Tip: When you reach the level of honestly not giving a shit what other people think about your baby-raising, it's time to celebrate with family neck tattoos. 

Yep. They Really Do Prefer the Box It Came in.

You will spend a shameful amount of time and money around birthdays and holidays on the perfect gift. Your darling baby will rip it open gleefully, demand you take whatever it is out of its box, toss that thing aside and cram his body inside the box, thrilled that you devoted so much energy to finding the ideal cardboard receptacle for him. 

Same thing with sticks. Since the dawn of time, people have been content milling around outside with little more than a carefully chosen stick. We might call it a baseball bat, or a walking staff, or a golf club, but these are really just sticks with a purpose. I am telling you now - go cheap or go home until they reach the Age of Resentment. Even then, tread cautiously. One big money Christmas and it's all over for you. If you must buy something branded, buy it used, or ask around. There's always someone you know ready to let go of Dora's Talking House or that adult-sized giraffe from Toys R Us. 

Pro Tip: Those commercials that come on 85 decibels louder than the cartoons are aimed at you, way more than your kid. They are yelling "Hey, mom! Stop pinning things you are never going to make on Pinterest and watch this ad!! BUY THIS THING! GUILT! YOU SUCK AS A PERSON AND A PARENT!  BUYYYYY THIIIIIIS!" You'll believe me when you find yourself at the store been pulled by a force unseen toward something called Squinkies and that bowl that can't spill no matter how you turn it (LIES).

You suck at this.

So does everybody else. Yet most of us (many of us? I hope?) are able to look back on our childhoods and conclude it was mostly good. There was love. There was fun. There were people who cared about us despite our very gross and very human natures. We did stuff and learned things, and forged our own warped personalities from the fragments of dysfunction that form the everyday lives of all our lives.

So stop sweating it. If you care enough to try to glean something from lists like these, if you earnestly want you children to be happy and loved above all else, you're probably doing as best you can when it comes to the rearing. There will always be factors out of our control. One day, your child may bring shame on your family via a cameo on the 125th version of Girls Gone Wild or get arrested for bouncing a $13 check at the local drugstore (it happens) (oh the shame), and it won't be because you didn't force them to listen to Mozart in the womb. It will be because people are stupid sometimes, and apparently, these children we're raising are people, too. 

Pro Tip: Your holiday newsletter will be much more interesting for everyone if you include all the dumb things everybody did all year. "Well, the Smiths have had an interesting year, from Granpda's DUI to John's stint with the Inmate Highway Clean Up Crew to that time we let the dog eat an entire head of cabbage because it seemed funny at the time. Wowee - the stench still lingers here at the Smith domicile. Merry Cabbage, we say!" and so on.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Maggie Waggie: Whose idea was this?

Taken by my friend Jo, AKA Maggie's beloved second mother.

"Let's get a dog!" I said. "A dog will complete this stereotypical picture of American living!" I said, like it was a good thing.

I pledged to walk, feed, groom, and love our future furry beast.

Eventually, the powers that be agreed, and we drove out to Hillsboro (where Pride Rings True, apparently) one frigid Sunday in January a few years ago to retrieve our undoubtedly adorable Golden Retriever.

See? Undoubtedly adorable:

Maggie's first car ride.
I loved her immediately. We had a friendly family argument all the way home about what to call this adorable mass of reddish brown fur, and eventually agreed on Maggie, though Anderson insisted her full name would be Aggie Maggie. This was an omen, as it turns out, because soon this creature would devour every small child on the block.

OK, that's probably just a lie.

But it wasn't long before I was battling serious regret over this whole hair-brained (HA) idea of mine. I had read all the warnings. I had ignored all the advice from wise friends about puppy chewing, house training, the vet bills, and the massive amounts of hair that would clog every drain, vent, and slightly open bag of anything in my house. Surely, all that stuff was exaggeration. Surely nobody would have a dog if it was really that much work.

Oh, but no. It was not lies, lies, lies. Soon enough, I hated the entire puppy situation. I wondered why on Earth I had decided it would be a good idea to go straight back into the stuff we'd just moved past when our youngest left behind his early baby stage.

I was up at 3 a.m. coaxing a furry beast off my frozen porch out into the snow to please, for the love of god, just pee already. I was going through 10 jumbo rolls of paper towels a month and damaging hardwood floors with harsh cleaners when the coaxing didn't work. I was retrieving the eyeballs from beloved stuffed animals from organic matter that I won't mention in polite company. I was treating this horrible beast for worms. WORMS. Worms were in my house. Worms from inside my dog. When I wasn't doing these things, I was forcing Kurt to do these things. A fairly annoyed Kurt, who had required much convincing about this dog scenario.

On the other hand, the kids were in mad, undeniable love.

Exhibit A of the undeniable love.

Anderson dubbed her the best dog that had ever existed, and found her antics hilarious. He especially loved the trick where she peed everywhere when meeting new people, or people she'd met 10 times before, or when the mailman brought a box to the porch, or when someone talked to her with slight excitement.

He loved that she was still climbing into our laps when she had somehow grown from 15 to 45 pounds in the course of 3 months.

He loved her "funny doggie smell" when she'd apparently rolled in something dead in the brushy part of the backyard.

He loved her when she was bad, even when she chewed up his favorite books, because he could still read the best words.

But mostly, he loved how much she loved him and David. She was immediately their constant shepherd, their relentless companion. At night, she wouldn't lay down until she'd checked to make sure they were both asleep, and then she'd settle in right on top of Anderson, at first fitting on top of his chest, and later, stretching out longer than him.

Then one day, it happened. I heard it in my own voice first, which had evolved over time from borderline annoyance at her mere presence (especially after one of those long, cold nights of potty training), to the soft, babying tones I'd generally reserved for, you know, actual babies.

 "Oh, there's my Maggie Waggie. You are a sweet doggie woggie, aren't you?" Was this coming out of my mouth? I looked around to make sure no one had heard, lest I get pegged a "dog person," but yes, somewhere along the line, I had fallen for her smelly, furry charms.

It turns out it's hard not to love an animal who has nothing but unconditional love for you, and as a mother, for an animal who treats your children with such unbridled affection and care. Maggie + the boys = joy and love. These days, I understand why people take on this job.

These days, she is truly one of the kids, and I can't imagine a better companion in a four-legged family member.

These days, she is loyal, sweet, and not as likely to pee on the floor when the guy comes to read the electric meter.

These days, Maggie is ours, and we are hers. That's a good doggie woggie, indeed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Walking Up Dry Run Road

My Grandma Bricker, who loved to wear red, in the 1980s.

My Grandma Bricker was born 99 years ago today -- June 13, 1913. A Friday, even. I've never felt particularly suspicious about Friday the 13th, but my grandma would have certainly called that entire concept stupid (though probably in a more measured way).

Growing up, my grandparents were integral. My parents were very young, and I spent lots of time with both sets. When my Poppy Bricker died I was 6, my first little brother was a newborn, and I started spending even more time with her.

She taught me to play gin rummy and Scrabble (and never let me slide with any suspect spelling). She taught me how to make gravy and what a Bob White sounds like. She waged an endless battle with the moles that would leave a fortress of dirty mounds all over the yard, a battle that would eventually culminate in her shooting at the little jerks with the shotgun she kept in the pantry. She was pretty much bad ass.

Women born in 1913 didn't typically have career aspirations, but my grandma graduated high school from the same building I would later attend primary school, and then she became a nurse. She was the head nurse at Our Lady of Mercy in Mariemont when I was born there in 1975, in fact, and one of the first people to ever lay eyes on my newborn wrinkles.

She lived through the 1937 flood of the Ohio River, and wound up stuck on the Kentucky side for a few days while working at St. Elizabeth Hospital. She lived through the Depression, two World Wars, Vietnam, and maybe most important, several incarnations of the Reds teams she would yell at while listening on her AM radio. We did so many things together, but mostly we walked. Up and down Dry Run Road in rural Clermont County, Ohio, up to Galley Hill Rd and all the way down to the bridge my great grandpa built.

And I loved her.

Her presence in my early life, especially, still guides me. She was not one for sentimentality, but we spent an important time together, when I was adjusting from life as an only child to that of a big sister, and she was grieving the loss of my grandpa. She always sang "You Are My Sunshine" to me as we sat on her front porch, and I would lean against her tall, strong body, pretending not to notice the tears when we got to the "the other night dear, as I lay dreaming, I dreamt I held you in my arms" verse.

At her funeral, people came from everywhere to talk about what an amazing woman, friend, example of kindness she had been for them, especially nurses. And the thing is, with my grandma, it was more deed than word. She was unlikely to express a lot of sentimental phooey, but when it came to being non-judgmental and accepting, she simply was. When it came to encouragement, she just expected you to suck it up and live your life right, to not waste your gifts. She was softer with us grandkids than anyone, I think, but even we did not get a free pass in the Suck It Up department. She grew up poor, no doubt, but we never heard about it. She canned the vegetables and fruits from her yard and sewed clothes and quilts from every scrap (we all have at least one Grandma Bricker Blanket), but it was never a big production. It simply didn't occur to her to waste stuff, but it wasn't in her nature to guilt us into following along. You just didn't do that at her house.

I did manage to get what I think is the only Grandma Bricker spanking on record. I really did not take her seriously about leaning way, way, way over that second story railing. I don't think I went within 10 feet of that thing from then on, and it wasn't because I was fearful of another spanking. It hurt so much to realize I'd disrespected and disappointed her, a weight I carry to this day whenever I have a moment of self-reflection after doing something stupid. She forgave me almost instantly for the railing incident, as she did with many other mistakes I managed to make as a teenager and young adult, especially. I shook when I had to tell her I was getting a divorce at age 22, but she didn't flinch. She said "well, things happen" and we went on from there, the breathing on my end much easier.

I don't think I ever heard her express self-pity, which made it that much harder when she lost her sight toward the end. No longer could she spend hours making quilts, playing cards, or working crossword puzzles. It seemed like a cruel joke from the universe to me at the time. This woman had given so much to so many, and her wants were so small. She was angry about it, and I was, too. There's no point or moral lesson I've learned here. It still pisses me off.

As she approached 90, I was approaching 30. I'd been married and divorced, had lived in Chicago and Michigan, and had been remarried 2 years when she died. She made sure she was able to attend the wedding shower my family held for me in town, and before she left she made sure someone found me so she could tell me she loved me. I hugged her harder than you are probably supposed to hug an elderly person, but I think she hugged me back even harder. I'm so glad Kurt got to meet her, though I wish he'd experienced a real Grandma Bricker meal in the house my Poppy built on Dry Run Road.

She died in 2004, just weeks before Kurt and I left for the UK for 6 months to study abroad. It made the trip both harder and easier, and I felt guilty for feeling a little peace about not having to worry about her while we were over there. It was bad timing for my grieving process, in a way, but in another, it was her memory I conjured up while riding ferries off the coast of Scotland and hiking up the hillsides outside Urquhart Castle looking down on Loch Ness. She wasn't there, but we walked together. I knew she would have been proud that I was out in the world, walking beside someone I loved and who I allowed to love me fully.

I'm the sentimental fool she never was, but I've finally forgiven myself for it. I know she'd be proud of that, too. I realize now that my affinity for my grandparents and my emotional attachment to memories of childhood spent with them has much to do with the state of things in my family today. I don't harbor resentment for the way things have turned out, but I would be lying if I said I didn't miss having an intact family without the sadness that seems to touch so many interactions these days. It hurts my heart. But I'm so lucky to still have so much living family, even if they are scattered to the four corners of the country. As dysfunctional as things can get, my heart still bleeds Bricker, and always will.

Miss you so much, grandma.

Me and both grandmas, 1978.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A sad cupcake is still a cupcake

And I thought I wouldn't be able to find a Sad Cupcake picture. On etsy.
I'd like to be able to say that my absence lately is due to something awesome. I was riding down the Amazon on a crocodile named Steve, or finally embarking on that hot air balloon tour of the Northwest Territory. But, no.

In truth, I have just been sad, and when I'm feeling sad, I find it hard to write anything I want to share with anybody.

I won't bore you or publicize family stuff in this space. It's the kind of stuff that happens in life sometimes, just lots of it all at once. My immediate family is actually in a very good place right now, which should make me feel better, but because I'm me, tends to add a thick, fuzzy layer of frosted guilt on my Sad Cupcake. I'm having trouble enjoying the things that make my life good because of the stress and sadness going on in the lives of various other people I love. And in typical WASP-like fashion, 79% of what's happening isn't even being discussed. I'm about to round all these people up and hold a Fight Club in my basement.

Anyway. Enough cryptic stuff. I'm pretty sure the Internet will topple over on its side soon if the continuous influx of emo bullshit doesn't slow down at some point. More cigar-smoking kittens! Less whiny suburbanites!

I'm working very hard to morph from Sad Sarah to Somewhat Morose Sarah, and part of that is breaking through my writer's block of gloom and doom. So expect some weird shit here in the coming days. It's my coping mechanism and I'm dragging you along for the ride. Thank you for sitting shotgun and not berating me about all those stop signs I'm blowing past. Yes, we can put the top down, but I draw the line at travel bingo. We all know travel bingo sucks.

I will leave you with a happy picture from the past few weeks. My oldest son is officially on the cusp of being a "big kid," having turned SIX over the weekend. He is pure love and his smile gives me perspective on a daily basis. It's pretty funny - when he was a baby, we'd have to actually "chomp"* on his side to get so much as a smile out of this kid, and now his entire face lights up with complete joy when he is moved by happiness. Happy birthday, little one.

The freshly minted 6-year-old who kept assuring me his birthday party was the best day EVER.

How did this little guy become a KID?
*In this case, the quotes indicate that we did not actually chew on our child. Yes, I know it's not even funny to joke about things like this, what with all the zombie crimes happening lately. Also, braaaaains.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Burning my mommy wars draft card

Why I will never win the mommy wars: reason 44, letting the cat lick my newborn.
I can sum up my opinion on the "mommy wars" in one short sentence:

Shut up.

Just shut. up. How's about I worry about my own breasts, sleeping arrangements, and food sourcing over here, and you worry about your stuff over there? My breasts thank you.

Because here's the thing. It's a lot like politics in this country.

We are privileged to live in a country where the debate about politics is centered on relatively small issues. "Oh! I don't think we should fund our billions of dollars of infrastructure that make our lives soft and easy like this. It should look like this and you are an a-hole if you vote for the guy who thinks it should look like this." Meanwhile, 2/3 of the world lives in poverty.

Your vote really matters when it happens under the watchful eye of a heavily armed guard and the very real threat of violence.

I'm not saying don't vote. Don't get me wrong here. I'm just saying that it's very easy to lose perspective when you live a comfortable life in a land of prosperity, and when you wind up devoting energy and time to dictating what is "right" or "wrong" to other parents raising apparently healthy children... there's been a disconnect.

I realize I'm at risk for sounding all preachy, sanctimonious and hypocritical. I'm willing to risk your disapproval and eye-rolling anyway. I understand that I don't understand what it's really like to live a life so different from my own, one where it would be a luxury to have any choices at all, let alone endless choices on a daily basis. But I'm trying hard to appreciate those choices.

There are kids without mothers or parents at all, as this blogger so eloquently reminded us last week, who want nothing more than a family. There are women and men living a life of pain without children of their own, through loss or infertility. There are families going through serious illness who have much more important things to worry about than how long I breastfed my children. It's hard to view the mommy wars as anything but petty and needlessly hurtful when viewed through a wider lens of context.

In truth, I used to seriously fret about how I was being perceived as a mother. I beat myself up regularly, sure I was damaging my kids in some way because nothing I did ever seemed to match up with any one method. Then I realized I was contributing to the problem by expressing the opinion that we should all be striving for some idealized version of what a mother is supposed to look like. I think the heart of the mommy wars so often lies with the insecurity that when someone else is doing it differently, we must be doing it wrong.

When it comes to the mommy wars, no one will ever be declared the winner. There aren't any spoils of war for the victor, though there's plenty of collateral damage in the form of a generation of insecure mothers crippled with self-consciousness and shame. So, seriously, TIME magazine, judgmental mothers (and especially judgmental non-parents), and sellers of damaging books: it's time for you to shut up now. I plead conscientious objector, and I encourage you to do the same.

In truth, there's room for all kinds of moms. So far, my children are kind and healthy. My family is happy. So we keep moving forward, with the knowledge that while there are no guarantees in life, we are beyond fortunate to be living this one.

P.S. Join this "Opt out of the mommy wars" Facebook group! Clearly other parents agree with me. Let's keep this groundswell of grass roots "leave me alone" activism going.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What really matters

Phew. It's been a whirlwind of multitudinous... stuff here. Sorry. After coming up with "multitudinous" (which I spelled correctly without the help of Mr. Sheldon T. Squiggly Line), my creativity well dried up like an egg white omelet at IHOP. Those people seriously do not understand omelets. Stick with the cakes.

So anyway. Stuff happened! Chief among the stuff was my best friend's wedding. Note I did not write My Best Friend's Wedding, which is an altogether different, and much more unfortunate situation.

No. My friend-who-was-never-going-to-get-remarried is now a Mrs-who-changed-her-mind, and I couldn't be more swollen with pride and happiness if I finally discovered that Mother of the Millenium Mellinnium Millennium (thanks, Sheldon) award in my mailbox.

It is not easy to take a leap into something scary after you've been through something awful. It would have been easier in 1100 ways for my friend to never take the chance again, and for a while I almost believed her when she said she never would. I had sat beside her during dark days, and she had stood by while I heaved with awkward, room-clearing sobs after my own first, young marriage dissolved. I was more than willing to be there again, but I was pretty sure I'd wind up in prison the next time someone hurt my schmoopie.

And then, one day, she practically floated into my house after their first date, all flushed, her eyes sparkling, the whole deal. The book was written long before she'd own up to it, but a true friend knows. I fretted at first. Cautioned. Worried. Rubbed my temples a lot. Planned for what I'd say if things went south and he wasn't as great as he seemed. It was going to be something like, "OK, here's your passport, a liter of rum, and a bag of toiletries. The plane lands in Jamaica at 8 a.m. and I have a cabana boy scheduled for 10. Godspeed."

Happily, very, very happily, the book just kept getting better and I didn't have to spend my life's savings on a ticket to a coconut island. He was "good people" - generous, fun, easy going, doting, protective, and above all and most important in my book, kind. Eventually I gave my nod, not that it would have mattered, but because I wanted it on record for later, in case they decided to write a will or something.

I was fortunate enough to stand close by and witness these two kind souls confirm and celebrate their commitment, to reaffirm what is important in this short life, to bravely and earnestly own everything that had come before, and welcome with open minds and hearts, whatever is yet to come.

I'm pretty bad at predictions (I'm still scraping that Ralph Nader for President sticker off my car), but in my estimation, two kind souls facing the world together, will result in good. I know these two will inspire more kindness along the way, because it's infectious. I know they will bring smiles and laughter and reminders about cherishing what is important in this life, to the people who surround them. It's what happens when true love is permitted to thrive, and I'm so proud that these two people have chosen that path.

Thank you for letting us be a part of your day, my friends.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This one time in London...

Back in 2004, Kurt and I had gone back to school in Michigan and we decided to study abroad for the semester. We wound up in Derby, England, which is a lot like the Akron of the United Kingdom, but with better architecture and ruder teenagers. Lots of things happened that I will skip right now so I can get to the point of this blog entry.

One time, after imbibing much cheap English booze measured in precise British pints, we decided it would be a great idea if we gathered up some of the other Americans studying with us and leave for London on the next bus, which was due to depart in 5 hours or something. So, we got online and bought bus tickets and found ourselves boarding a bus to London at some ungodly hour.

We arrived very bright and early on a Sunday morning, and it wound up being the best Sunday ever. This is a photo essay based on that adventure. Looking at these pictures makes me want to shove everybody in the van and go somewhere immediately, so if you don't hear from me in the next few days, we're probably in Akron.

My friend Jeff on the right, and Jay "Why with the bright light" on the left.

We boarded the bus in the dead of night, or before the crack of dawn, or something. It was both too late and too early to think coherently, but we were proud and surprised to find each other at the bus stop, at any rate. It was cold and smelly, because it was a bus. On the way back on the bus, some guy decided to gobble up some kind of tinned fish with his fingers, the "scent" of which (the fish, not the fingers, though maybe both) filled every pocket of air in every inch of our rolling hell, so in hindsight, this was the better bus trip.

An even younger-looking Kurt, bleary-eyed because it was stupid early.
When we arrived at 7ish a.m. everything in London was closed because it was Sunday and 7 a.m. We were all incredibly tired, but just the right amount of tired. We were both too tired to give a crap what we did and slap happy enough to ignore the pangs of regret resulting from the horrible British hangovers we'd managed to get. We wandered.

I found this statue on the ground along the sidewalk and stuffed him in Kurt's backpack because I had a feeling he'd come in handy later, because I was incredibly sleepy and everything seemed to contain a mystical quality. The Dude may have even spoken to me. It's all a little fuzzy. We took The Dude on adventures, as such:

The Dude in Kurt's backpack, which was really my backpack.


If they ever make a boy band album, they'll be all set for a cover.

The Dude and his Russian chicks.

The Dude makes a phone call but no one sends any ransom money.
Kurt tried to make me believe this was JRR Tolkein. I may or may not have fallen for it.

Jeff's love interest from afar.
Then we went somewhere by some water and Jeff spotted this talented lass doing some kind of performance art, kind of like one of those silver statue guys but with this Victorian twist. He was totally enamored and we spied on him from a pedestrian bridge as he got up the nerve to approach her, and score an email address.

Jeff, street performer, bemused friend of street performer.

St. Something. Paul?
We split up our group at some point and Kurt and I wandered around Soho. We saw a sign that said "Meet David Prowse today!" at a little bookstore. I was clueless, but Kurt started hyperventilating a little and we went inside to meet the guy who was inside the Darth Vader costume in the movies. He was pretty put off that we wouldn't pay 20 pounds to get a signed picture, but he grudgingly let me take a picture. We were pretty broke. Sorry, David Prowse
Kurt, and the guy inside the Darth Vader costume!
Then we crashed in Hyde Park. Seriously crashed. This was probably the best part of the day. We literally all laid on the grass and fell asleep. It was the perfect temperature, really just a ridiculously perfect spring day.

After this, we found Italian food and eventually, our bus home. Our stinky, stinky bus home to Derby. At one point, overcome by the crazies from the extreme fatigue, I whispered "Come on Derby, let's do it!" Whatever it meant, and I have no idea, really, I definitely thought it had been in my head, so it was pretty surprising when Jeff popped up in the seat in front of me laughing so hard he was nearly crying, and managed to get out, "What did you say?" Then we laughed and laughed, much to the delight of our fellow road-weary travelers. 

I'll leave you with more adventures of The Dude. I did look up what that statue was all about one time, but now I don't remember. The moral of this story, however, is that sometimes the best day ever is the one you didn't even plan on. Since I never plan, every day should be the best day ever, right?