Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brushing Off the Dust

I decided to start putting myself out there for traditional freelance journalism gigs again lately, and it's gone surprisingly well. This is a piece I wrote for Between the Lines in Ann Arbor - an interview with folk singer William Fitzsimmons, who is amazing.

I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to interview someone truly interesting, and about the little thrill of seeing my name in print. This publication actually still publishes on paper in addition to their site, so it's old school exciting, too. It was a great experience and I even made a little pocket change.

So while I was still feeling semi-confident and buoyed by my small success, I decided to reach out to a couple local publications and managed to get another article lined up that will come out in August. I have some lofty, secret goals for this new trajectory. It's nice to have goals that are frankly purely selfish. Not to get all martyr-y, because I love my life and greatly appreciate the everyday gifts among the chaos, but there are times when I feel a little lost, too. More often than not, I'm someone's wife, and two other someones' mommy, etc. I love those titles, but when I write for publication, it's the only time I still hyphenate my name. It's a ME thing.

I'll still be working on my Pile O'Stuff which includes all manner of writing when I can, but right now, this feels like a good direction to pursue once again. I may even dabble in a little citizen journalism right here on my blog in response to the ever-widening gap in community and neighborhood coverage around here. There are way too many fascinating stories going untold here in Cincinnati. I have a camera and a computer, and why not?

Sadly, the journalism field is pretty blighted at this point, and the printed word, especially, seems decreasingly less important to society on the whole. It's a bit like when I took a black-and-white film photography class a few years ago, the last year the college would offer it before they tore down the whole developing lab to make way for a digital studio. I hope we still have a few good years left where it's not hard to find interesting, printed short and long form journalism. I hope my contributions, however small, are good ones.

Monday, May 19, 2014

I've changed on Change

Super Anderson saves the day. Photo by Mud Goddess Photography.

Someone told me recently, with a sneer, that "mommy blogs" are ruining the internet and to never, ever refer to my own blog as one of these cesspools of self-promotion and exultation of MotherhoodwithacapitalM. It made me really think. Eventually, I arrived at one overarching conclusion: Screw this person. I do a lot of things in my life, but the main thing I "do" is mommying. I'm not obsessed; I'm trying to raise human beings into Non-Asshole Adults. This person should both stfu and also thank me, really. In the immortal words of Cartman, I'll do what I want. I can only hope you read that in a Cartman voice. Now, on with the show.

When I was pregnant for the first time, I vowed to never be one of those people who let the experience of parenthood change them.

In this case, I was the idiot.

Because of course I've changed. Not only have I become a parent, but time has marched on. I have aged 9 years since I found out I was pregnant with our first little guy. I'd have changed either way by now; lucky for me, becoming a parent has helped me to change for the better, or at least I feel it has.

Oh, I'm a mess; don't get me wrong. Every parent I know is a mess in some way. We're all fumbling the ball like morons and just hoping our sloppy plays help to get these creatures into to the end zone one day, despite our best efforts to screw it up at every opportunity. We're basically the Cleveland Browns.*

It might look different from one house to the next, but my limited wisdom has shed plenty of light on this subject. You get a parent to talk, to really talk, and the next thing you know, you're huddling together and sending out hopes and prayers that you just make it through the next 10 years alive.  

I've had many a conversation with near strangers that have gone a lot like this:

There's usually a pregnant pause here, as the parent gathers some strength to actually say this next part out loud.
"Someday... they are going to become teenagers."
You chuckle together while exchanging panicked glances.
"And then, one day..."
"I know..."

Sometimes there is crying during this part of the conversation, and sometimes it's a transparent, joke-y banter about turning their rooms into craft studios and being able to travel without a U-Haul attached to your cavernous family vehicle. But in reality, it's just another session of trying to fool yourself into believing you'll be totally okay on that day, the one where they leave you.
But you won't be.

I mean, sure, you'll be "okay," and you'll develop strong, wonderful adult relationships with them, hopefully, but this part here, where they know no other home but with mom and/or dad, where their small hands still fit inside of yours, this part is special. I don't know yet what it's going to actually feel like when my boys fly the coop on their own, but I know it's going to be a big hit, no matter what happens in those apparently apocalyptic teenage years. Because I'm going to have this part right here tucked away in my hidden mommy pocket for forever.

In the end, if you're lucky, you look back over your childhood and you catch the glint of sunny memories. All those gray in-between days glom into nothing, and the highlights come streaming back. For me, it's Brownies and sleepovers, days at the zoo with my beautiful, young parents and my healthy, active grandparents; hanging out on the balcony of our first, Section 8 apartment when we were still poor; getting a baby brother (and then 2 more); sitting on a lawnchair by my mom in our backyard in our bikinis(!), coated in coconut suntan oil; excruciatingly long road trips in the back of a blue Mercury Topaz, crammed between two carseats, singing to the radio and dreaming of our destination - exotic Tawas Bay, Michigan or the Indiana Dunes. Highlights. If I think hard (too hard?) I can certainly conjure up some pretty bad times. But for the most part, I had a great childhood and it's a gift - a gift I want to pass along to my kids, too.

I guess that's part of the criticism some people level at some parents - it's not a good thing to make your life all about your kids. Giving them a "good childhood" can quickly escalate to spoiling and coddling. And we're meant to have our own lives, our own thoughts, and to make decisions that are inherently selfish sometimes. I get that. There are days I really would like to just go find a space somewhere outside and empty, and think only Sarah Things. And I do try to do "me" things here and there; I'm sure it will become more true as they become more autonomous. However. I'm not going to apologize for prioritizing my kids over me most of the time. They give me more than I could ever give back, if I'm being totally honest. It's just where I've landed as time has gone by. I'm a heart-on-my-sleeve kind of person, and I had no chance of not winding up completely smitten here. I'm a sucker for all of it. Someone has to be the sucker, right?

All of this babble is really just my way of coping with the fact that my Anderson is turning 8 soon. It's one of those ages I can remember very clearly, so I know he's getting up there. But he's not me. He's wonderful - his imagination boundless, his vision clear and limitless, his heart completely open, and his big brown eyes deeper and stronger and somehow ever more magical when it comes to sweet talking his mommy. This kid is going to change the world for good, and I am thankful to be able to watch him do it, and to have such an amazing partner for it all. I love this family a whole, whole lot.

It turns out I'm more okay with change than I realized that fateful morning I realized I needed to buy a pregnancy test. These have been the hardest, happiest, most magical, monumentally mundane 8 years of my life, full of change at every turn. I am braced and excited for whatever comes screaming around the next bend, be it teenage aliens or digging change out of the couch for bail. Maybe not that last part.

*Obligatory Cincinnati dig

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Long Live Erma

Image from, one of my favorite sites.

A renowned feminist theorist, a septuagenarian New York Times bestseller, and the first editor of Ms. Magazine walk into a bar. No. Scratch that.

Three accomplished, poised women sit at an unassuming folding table in an auditorium at a university in Dayton, Ohio. A wide-eyed audience filled with mostly middle and up-and-coming middle aged women stare back expectantly. A few aren't aware of the collective body of knowledge, depth and experience emanating from that table, and they are about to be blown away.

As the moderator steps up to the podium, I reluctantly wrap up my small talk with the fascinating woman to my right, who is both a landlord and an extremely sharp marketing executive with a warm wit, and turn my attention to the panel. I try to engage the part of my brain that is capable of following what I'm sure is going to be a serious, academic discussion. This means switching from my ongoing worry about whether Kurt is lost somewhere in Cincinnati with our assumedly naked, hungry children. He's probably out of gas and stranded in the Bad Part of town. Probably the one that appears on "The First 48" most frequently. Oh, god. 

And then best-selling author, tenured English/Feminist Theory professor, and recent Friar's Club inductee Gina Barreca bares her upper thigh so we can all get a good look at her tights, which are printed with pinstripe stockings, and I'm whisked away for the next hour and a half. The van has GPS and enough Goldfish Cracker crumbs to sustain the kids for a few weeks, and Kurt has been making me look bad by taking them for ice cream and the park all the time while I've been gone, anyway. I am allowed to be here and soak it in fully. And I do.

As the pace picks up, it's a wild ride. Gina frames longstanding feminist debate with a confidence that precludes a need for her to throw anybody under the bus. It's more about empowerment than it is about wasting time on those people who haven't yet decided that women are simply human. And that giggle we do when we're listening to a man tell us a long story about getting his car detailed? She's on to us. We're not listening, and we're not having a good time. We have to stop speaking in the interrogatory. This is not a question? I actually do have a name? It makes no sense to introduce yourself with a question mark at the end? My brain is singing. Oh, to be free for a few days of the endless quest for preparing the next meal, for matching up socks, for ferrying small children. 

And it just gets better. Ilene Beckerman is telling us about how she accidentally published a book, which was turned into a Broadway show, directed by none other than Nora Ephron. And she did it in her sixties. She's wearing a turquoise, sequined head scarf over her long, straight, delightfully lavender hair. Her nose ring glints in the stage lights and I can see her heavy eye makeup eight rows back. She's a beautiful gypsy, and she's hilarious. She assures us that she doesn't deserve to share the stage with these other women, but it's all lies. Her story is incredible and real, and I know I could sit with her for hours and soak it all in and still leave wanting more. 

I'm not sure what to expect from Suzanne Braun Levine. She looks so polished up there, exactly what I'd expect from someone with a list of accomplishments like hers. I'm intimidated, really. She has sat, elbow-to-elbow with Gloria-freaking-Steinem and casually changed the way women are perceived by society. Everyone in this room is in her debt. I'm actually a little nervous. And then she's telling us about how it all went down, about how Ms. started as a one-shot gag, an offshoot of New York Magazine. The editor thought it might be amusing to have a woman at the helm for this one-time publication. But women were hungry for that platform, and they raided every newsstand in town, and as is the case so often, money talks. Just like that, a new era was hatched and our voices grew more powerful overnight. 

Suzanne keeps talking and I can hear stereotypes I didn't know I had shattering in my head. She's real. She's strong and she's hilarious, warm, and self-deprecating. She explains that her kids don't even quite realize that she's an accomplished woman. She leaves newspaper clippings and awards lying around conspicuously sometimes, just in case they happen upon them and are shocked to realize this woman is their mother. I love it; I get it. I'm not going to be editing a groundbreaking magazine any time soon, but I get that dichotomy. No matter what I do, to my boys, I'm always going to be their mother first. It's a powerful realization. 

It's one of my many, many powerful realizations that I hit on during this all-too-short session at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. Many of them come from women in the audience. A woman asks about how to help shepherd the younger generation through the current "geek culture." Why aren't there stronger comic book heroines? Where's the Black Widow movie? Another woman asks how to protect our loved ones when we want to write about them. The unanimous response: just do it, and as Gina points out, your relatives are never going to read what you write, anyway. ;)

Oh, and about that moderator. Because this workshop seems hellbent on giving me value for every second of the full 2 and a half day experience, the moderator could run her own workshop if she wanted. Pat Wynn Brown is incredible. She deftly manages a complicated, rapid-fire discussion, adds her own stories (I'd pay good money for a book about her experiences as one of the first female mail carriers in Columbus), and juggles questions from the audience as well as any TV host I've seen. It must have taken hours to pull together the questions here (and she did this twice, two completely different discussions with the same women). But that's not enough for Pat. She's also our beloved emcee for the whole event. We get to enjoy her introductions and anecdotes at every meal, as if dessert with every meal wasn't enough of a gift. I might be a fangirl for Pat at this point.

And then something happens that I will never forget. Something that will keep me lining up for this conference as soon as the registration opens until they stop having it or until I am no longer here to enjoy it. A young woman approaches the mic. She's shaking, and as the room grows quiet, she says she is so glad she'd taken the leap to come here, because the experience has helped her to find her sense of humor again. She'd been hilarious once before, she explains, and then she adds: "I'm from Newtown, Connecticut." 

Now. Like everyone in the world with access to media, I've thought long and hard about Newtown since that awful day in December, 2012. But I didn't quite understand the weight of what it must mean to be from a place that is now so marked that a mere mention of the town's name can bring a room to tears, instantly. Her bravery and courage fill up that room with compassion and love, and I realize that this workshop is about so much more than networking and developing a so-called platform. 

It's about the why: Why we're compelled to write down the stories of our lives. Why humor is vital to every human, everywhere. Why we're all in this together. 

I could regale you with fantastic stories involving insomnia, wine, and assing it up in front of Phil Donahue. I could recount the incidents leading up to my 3-day investigation into where the hell the hotel housekeeping staff was holding hostage my Erma Bombeck wine glass. I could easily write this much about any of the workshops I attended. I could tell you about the instant bonding that so often occurs among Bombeckians, and how I'm already counting down the days until 2016, but I'm still savoring so much of it, just for me.

I will say this. Wherever writers gather in community, something special will happen. There's an energy we share, and it's capable of changing this world. I am beyond lucky to know so many people who aren't afraid to drag the bodies out into the light and examine them fully. I'm even luckier that so many of them will point out the stray upper-lip hair and the mismatched socks.

Long live the spirit of Erma Bombeck.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This Blessed Mess

Just a glimpse of our blessedly messy, wonderful life.

I figured out how to measure whether I'm "blessed" (define that as you will). I'm not sure why it's been so important to figure this out, but this morning, it hit me like the metric ton of dirty laundry waiting for me in the chute. You know how I know?

Because if I didn't change a single thing about my life at this exact moment, in this exact space, and the ground opened and swallowed up my entire life in one big, chocolate-covered gulp, it would have been a great life.

There's freedom in realizing that none of it is ever going to be perfect. For me, it's never even going to look perfect. My floors will be sticky most days. I may never reach that magical number on the scale that pleases both society and my doctor. My kids will exit our home with bushy hair, snow boots in July, and forever mixing stripes and plaid with wild abandon - and that will be after 20 minutes of cajoling, yelling, and physically prodding them out the door.

Despite my failed attempts, my dog loves you, and she is going to jump on you. One day, we will repaint our trim, but probably not tomorrow. And though I apologize to my horticulturally-inclined neighbors, the weeds in my yard will likely continue their tireless march to the border between our properties for at least another few years.

I'm planning to continue showing up to all these kid activities with my hair still wet from the shower, slightly confused about what's happening this week and how much money I owe and for what. I'm never getting that dent pulled out of the side of the van - the van that apparently signifies my lack of cool to the rest of the world if the internet is to be trusted on these maters. Who are we kidding? I was never cool in the first place. Thank god. I'd hate to undergo the pressure of trying to try maintain some kind of cred in addition to just, I don't know, getting dressed in daytime clothes and leaving the house now and then.

There's a lot we don't have compared to the Joneses (not the actual Joneses I know - I love those guys). But there's so much more that we do have that it's busting out of my garage on a daily basis. Actually, some of those things are hand-me-downs from the aforementioned Jonseses, but I digress.

This house is loud. It's giggly, musical, yell-y and filled with colorful language. It's warm. It's dirty, to be perfectly honest.

If you're a real friend, you'll move the Lego farm off the chair and rinse out a coffee cup and have a seat. Lucky for me, I have those kinds of friends in spades.

Like I said, it's a blessing. A blessed mess. I'm pretty sure many of us have our own version of a blessed mess going on. I gravitate toward those people who embrace it, in fact. This is part of why my weekend at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop was so inspiring, fulfilling, and refreshing. A blessed mess of women (and a few men) who own it, write it down, and serve as cheerleaders for the whole Erma family.

Tomorrow, I'll try to capture in words what a wonderful opportunity this bi-annual gathering of kindred souls really is all about.

I'll also fill you in on how Kurt made me look like a complete slacker while I was away and how my children will never again be satisfied with my lackluster attempts to provide entertainment to them on a daily basis. Until last weekend, sending them out into the yard with a stick was plenty engaging, but no more...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Teacup pigs and possibly misuing the word "stasis"

These were taken like a week ago.
I can't even talk about this weather situation.

Hello, Internet. It's been a while. I should really just strive for quarterly updates here to avoid the constant nagging sensation that my blog is withering on the vine. 

Since I last posted, no birds have entered our home uninvited. The ones we did invite were not available, allegedly. Their excuses were pretty flimsy, if you ask me. Something about wanting to live outside where birds "belong," and not wanting to be eaten by a house cat. Stuff like that.

In other news, I did not win an international writing contest. I did make the top ten, though! They even put my name on the site and everything, and I am inordinately proud; I'm not going to lie. I did a thing! Sort of. I at least caught the eye of someone who had some kind of say in this thing. I'll take it. Since I didn't win or place in the top 3, the essay remains unpublished, which is actually a good thing, because it means I can submit it to places that publish such things. The string of rejections that are sure to follow will bring a good balance to this whole situation. It's all about stasis.

My children continue to grow taller and more smart-alecky. We got a second cat named Merlin; he has quickly become the favorite pet. David has taken to pretending to be a teacup pig named Max for most hours of the day, and Anderson spends much of his free time programming with Scratch and making me feel intellectually inadequate, but in a very sweet way. Kurt has been doing a lot of Kurting, as he is wont to do.

Soon, I will leave this part of the tri-state area and point myself northish, to the land of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop. At this point, I'm counting down the hours, along with hundreds of others, to that seemingly mundane Thursday in April. It's hard to explain the magic, but I wish I could bottle it for those times when this writing pursuit feels like the dumbest idea anyone in the history of the world has ever dared to admit. While other, more poised attendees might organize their notes after the conference and approach their work with renewed vigor, I plan to soak it up, get home and write like a maniac until the buzz wears off. 

What else? I turned 39 and started a new and somewhat subdued countdown to the dreaded 4-0, or at least that's what you're supposed to say, I guess. I really can't be bothered. It may have finally sunken in that I'm mortal, as are you (and you and you). Apart from the occasional grip of tummy panic that I've possibly wasted a lot of time of my limited time on a lot of really pointless worries, it's all good. I'm happy to wake up and greet the day each day. Someone has to feed the teacup pig.