Chugach, Bears and a Suburban Mom

Bears
These were bears we saw from a bus, several hundred yards away. When you know you’re protected, they’re a lot cuter. Awww.

The first Saturday morning of our family vacation found the four of us at the Albert Loop trailhead near the Eagle River Nature Center of Chugach State Park, Alaska. This was supposed to be an easy, well-kept, three mile loop that would take us past crystal clear streams to a spectacular view of a mountain valley. We assured our nine and seven-year-old that they would be able to handle the hike by showing them through phone apps how far we had hiked other days: one and a quarter miles around University Lake next to our hotel, one and a half miles on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Anchorage. Just wandering around the fourth of July fair was probably a couple of miles when it was all said and done. We all felt pretty confident.

We showed up about an hour before the nature center actually opened and read the notices pinned to the door to get oriented. There were bears nearby, and what we needed to do was to stay together and stay loud. You never want to surprise a bear, but he will steer clear of you if you are noisy and generally annoying. If a bear approaches you, you should stand your ground, and never ever run as they may begin a chase. Another chart explained all the reasons why standing your ground is helpful. A guidebook I had assured us that only polar bears stalk humans, and we were thousands of miles from polar bear habitat. As a last resort you could use your bear spray if the bear charged. We didn’t have bear spray (before researching this trip I wondered if bear spray was for spraying on ourselves to repel bears or if it was for spraying at the bears-for the record it’s something you spray in a bear’s face).

I

Got

Nervous.

We live in the suburbs of Chicago. When I camped as a little girl the most you had to worry about was a raccoon in your tent. A goose coming at you aggressively. A squirrel getting a little too familiar with humans and peeing all over your gear. No bears. No moose. Nothing really… deadly.

And here I was about to march my kids through bear territory for a vacation memory. Without a guide. Without other people on the path. Without bear spray (God help me, if I ever had to use it I’d probably spray myself in the face instead and just be putting a peppery garnish on the bear’s next meal).

But, I do tend to get anxious when there is nothing really to be afraid of. My husband looked like he was still game, so I swallowed it down and we started off. He didn’t look nervous until we were hemmed into a narrow pathway with very high grasses on all sides of us.

Up until that moment we had been talking casually, searching the trees and shrubs around us for less intimidating wildlife. Once we got to the grasses the need to keep noisy became something we both felt strongly about. The boys were confused as to why we needed to keep chatting about nothing, so my genius husband got them talking about the app “My Singing Monsters”. I swear to you that they did not stop talking over the next hour and a half. About two minutes into the boys talking, I realized that they would keep us constantly conversating, but they weren’t particularly loud. I added in claps, loud cheerleading claps with an ever-changing rhythm. We trudged on, past the grasses and through thickets of trees and mosquitos, scaring away every animal within earshot. Except a Great Horned owl. He did, however, seem annoyed.

About three quarters of a mile in we came across a path sign saying that the normal trail had been washed away by recent rainstorms. We could retreat or follow a bypass route. Hoping that the bypass wouldn’t take us back into low-visibility grass, we stomped forward. The trail became a mass of tangled roots that we couldn’t ignore, so our attention became divided between watching the forest and watching our feet. I clapped even louder and faster, exhorting the boys to be careful as we still had a long ways to go and we could not carry them if they got a twisted ankle. My husband was leading the way, and the boys followed him and I brought up the rear, listening to chatter about how to get new monsters on an app and clapping furiously “We will, we will, rock you.” This was definitely not the serene, life-affirming communion with nature we had been promised. At one point I know I was singing Macklemore’s “Ceiling Can’t Hold Us” at the top of my lungs.

Then off to my left I heard something. It sounded like the loud exhale of a very large creature at about the height of my shoulder and ten feet away. I tried to explain to my husband that I heard something. He looked around, decided he hadn’t seen anything and kept going. Between the mosquitos and the large mammal I was sure was right next to me, I wasn’t about to stop and get super quiet to find out what it really was. (Later my husband would confess that he looked in the trees far away, not the shrubs near me, and excitedly said, “Aw man, I wish you had explained where to look, I bet something was there, that would have been awesome!” to which I replied, “Are you insane?!?”)

We advanced on a bridge and were able to relax for a moment, me shaking out my hands, my husband asking the boys to pause on the “My Singing Monsters” talk for a second. There were crystal clear streams, and interesting birds, and most importantly less trees so we could tell that at least here there were no bears within a hundred-yard radius. We took pictures and trudged on.

Finally we finished, unscathed if a little jumpy. The nature center was finally open and we overheard a worker explain that lots of people saw black bears on the path just in the last day or so. Later on I would tell my husband, “And no one will see any today, you’re welcome other hikers. I did the heavy lifting of scaring them away for you.” He guessed that they were probably the sort of people who were hoping to see a bear in his natural habitat. To that I shrugged and gave a look as if to say, “Sucks to be them, I’m all about the self-preservation.” And I’ll be damned if some hikers think that them seeing a bear is more important than me not seeing my baby boys being eaten by black bears on a family vacation.

We ate granola bars and went to the bathroom and set back out for the half-mile hike that EVERYBODY takes. A lady in a skirt and flip-flops preceded us, holding her iPad up to take pictures on this fifteen minute, totally cleared path. A bunch of other tourists like us walked up and down the trails, totally sure that they would not be part of a bear attack that day. And we were finally able to get quiet for a second and actually enjoy the view.

Chugach.JPG

And as much as I was eventually teased for looking like a crazy lady, clapping and yelling through a state park, the kids and my husband and I all decided that that was enough adventure for us for one day. Possibly for the whole summer.

Orlando

FullSizeRender (3)

When horrible things happen I want to circle the wagons. I want to take the people I love and hold them next to me. I begin to imagine a new life where I take my children to the highest loneliest mountain cabin to keep them away from the world, or at least the world of humans.

The day of the Newtown shootings we were packing our bags to go downtown, to see the Christmas tree at Daley Plaza. I spent the day with a hole in my heart and a fake smile on my face trying to make our trip fun and breezy. It was meant to be a time for my two boys to explore the marvel of Chicago, the wonder of what can happen when millions of people come together to build and create. I hid in my heart the knowledge that just one stranger coming together with one small safe school could destroy, could obliterate everything. I don’t want my children to know that.

Today I dropped them off at camp and am relieved for a few hours to grieve for Orlando, away from having to explain why I am grieving. I am not hiding them away from the world, but I am hiding them away from the hateful things I have seen, read and heard. There is a deep pit of disgust in my stomach knowing that there are people in my own country who have said, of innocent people being murdered, that because they were gay they deserved to die. I am scared for my Muslim friends and neighbors who must have heard the identity of the shooter with a horrified gasp, knowing that they would be put on trial for crimes they did not commit. I am furious that a Republican “friend” is almost gleeful that the shooter was a registered Democrat because that “proves” something. I am enraged that people who want to restrict gun control laws are now saying, “This guy was on an FBI watch list and we didn’t stop him?” Our government’s hands are tied, we cannot block even highly suspicious people from access to guns because that might restrict the rights of responsible gun owners; the CDC is not even allowed to study what might possibly cause so many gun-related deaths because Congress will not allow it. We aren’t allowed to even mention limiting access to military grade guns or extending background checks, because, we are told, it is a slippery slope and all guns would be pried out of citizens’ hands. If we suggest ugly homophobia may have contributed to this, we are pushing some sort value-diluting agenda. I want to scream. I don’t want my children to see me scream.

Because I want to have a plan when I see them again.

I want to review what I have tried to instill in my boys. Have I taught them to celebrate love and to be as wary of hate as of a rattlesnake? Have I made sure to teach them to love people both similar and dissimilar to them? Have I told them that when horrible things happen people are scared and want that fear to subside-which means they may hurt people in an effort to feel safe themselves? Have I taught them that people are capable of horrors, and that stemming those horrors is often the responsibility and duty of ordinary people bearing witness and being a force for good? Have I taught them that we should grieve, but we cannot let grief overwhelm us because our ability to make the world a better place would be stunted? Have I taught them that they matter, and that what they do day in and day out can change the course of history? That drops of kindness in a bucket, once enough have gathered, will spill over and cleanse us all? Have I taught them to speak up, and taught them that it is hard work to do so, and that hard work is often necessary in life?

If I have not done these things, I haven’t done enough to help. I need to make a plan to teach them these things. This is my path forward, the only thing that keeps me from hiding myself and hiding them so far away that no one can touch them. A life without being touched by another human being isn’t a real life. We have to figure out how to live in this world one way or another.

In a Land of Twelve Kinds of Cupcakes…

IMG_3031

For my younger son’s seventh birthday we had an experimental bake-off as one of his presents.  He is always coming up with flavor combinations he wants to try, be it a lemon peanut butter cup (which was actually amazing) to an apple orange soymilk smoothie (a lot less amazing). He has wanted to experiment with cupcake flavors forever, so when he got home from school we had a whole table of ingredients and sprinkles and frosting ready to mess around with. We whipped up basic vanilla and chocolate batter and set out all of our extracts (vanilla, almond, peppermint, orange, lemon, coconut and anise) all of the fruit in the house, nuts and candies and toffee bits and chocolate chips and marshmallows and food coloring and Teddy Grahams.

He was beside himself. The four of us, him, me, my husband and my older son would make three different experimental flavors each, and we started plotting and planning and dicing and mixing. In no particular order we ended up with…

  • Peanut butter-banana-chocolate with chocolate frosting
  • Lemon-banana-vanilla with yellow lemon-vanilla frosting
  • Maple-pecan-vanilla with cream cheese frosting
  • Chocolate-marshmallow with chocolate frosting and Teddy Grahams
  • Peppermint-chocolate-sprinkles with chocolate frosting and holiday sprinkles
  • Vanilla-strawberry with vanilla frosting and red sprinkles
  • Chocolate-Rice Krispies with purple-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Orange-chocolate-chocolate chip with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-almond-cherry jelly bean with pink-tinted vanilla frosting and a red jelly bean
  • Lemon zest-chocolate chip-vanilla with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-orange-pine nut-freeze dried strawberry with orange marmalade vanilla frosting
  • Classic chocolate with teal-tinted peppermint vanilla frosting and pastel sprinkles

The cupcake production was going full tilt…until it came grinding to a halt. In the midst of us all being excited about trying our cupcakes out for dessert that night, my husband casually mentioned that we could have friends and family test them out the next day at the huge family birthday in our little guy’s honor. That stopped him dead in his tracks. He suddenly refused to do any more – even though he had only come up with two of his three designs. Even though he had been so bouncy before. Even though the only reason we had to come up with this idea was that we knew it would make him extravagantly happy. He stopped.

We should have known. Our seven-year-old is terrified of other people’s reactions to his creative work. He has been known to throw Lego creations when they don’t work out, or to literally not move once he feels he is being watched too closely. He dances joyfully at home and messes around with a guitar, but the thought of taking lessons for either paralyzes his fun.

He sat angry on the couch as first I tried to coax out of him what was wrong, then his father took a turn. Eventually my husband was able to get him to admit that he was worried other people might hate his cupcakes. We first reassured him that people would love them, and if they didn’t it would be okay. When that was met with a skeptic scowl, we then reassured him that only our little family of four would ever taste them if that would make him happiest. My husband got him to design his last cupcake-the classic chocolate one with the elaborate topping.

 

IMG_3027 (1)

 

He is my child, for sure.

I am the one who procrastinated on writing papers until the last moment because if they turned out badly I could blame it on the time crunch. I am the one who was given an opportunity to write the introduction to an online curriculum series in college and turned it down because it made me too nervous. I am the one who decided I would rather be “well-rounded” than put all my energy into ballet. I am the one who got solos, but would then show up to voice lessons and even competitions woefully underprepared. I am the one who refused to let anyone coach me on my monologue audition I would perform just once for over twenty colleges’ theater departments.

Sometimes my fears honed my actual work into a fine point – my almost late papers taught me how to get an “A” even with limited time by using my (not-often-used) laser focus, my monologue got me admission into ten different theater departments. But then I kept shooting myself in the foot. I didn’t go into theater for fear of a lifetime of rejections. I don’t dance or sing anymore except in my own kitchen. I still write though, and I am trying for my youngest to show him that putting your creative work out there in the world is incredibly difficult, especially for him and for me, but that it really is the only way to be happy. It is the only way to be true to yourself, to be honest with who you are and what you bring to the world – putting your work out there for other people to see.

The beauty of living in a land with twelve kinds of cupcake is that you haven’t put all your hopes and dreams into just one cupcake. When you make just one, you are scared of your aunt who doesn’t care for chocolate, worried about the cousin who is allergic to nuts, terrified that another cousin will think it is too boring or that your grandpa with think it too crazy or that your grandma will say she likes it even if she really doesn’t.  When you have twelve different kinds of cupcakes, twelve experiments of flavor and texture and color it is okay that the jelly beans fell out of the bottom of one but left a delicate delicious flavor. It is okay that the peanut butter banana was too dense, it’s a great surprise that lemon and banana together is light and airy. It is more than okay to make a classic chocolate cupcake perfectly simple and beautiful decorated.

I am trying to take my own lesson from this. Right now I am grateful I am letting myself send so many cupcakes into the world, because I am less worried about each one being perfect.

I have, out there in submission-land and in no particular order…

  • A very short piece about school shooting fears
  • A very long piece about a hurricane evacuation while I taught high school
  • A medium piece about being mistreated as a patient with chronic illness
  • A rewrite of a blog piece about speech delays, open heart surgery and one-syllable words
  • A rejected piece about science fairs and art that turned into a blog post

And

  • An accepted piece about baby food, insecurity and watermelon

 

Eventually, in the sixth hour of his family party, our youngest let other people try out his cupcakes, once the big cake had been served, once the numbers of guests dwindled and he felt happy and content and comfortable with sharing his creativity. I think it went well, and I hope both he and I remember that while sharing can be scary, there are tricks to make it less so. And, ultimately, even if you are temporarily paralyzed with fear, moving forward anyways is worth it.

IMG_3029

Essay at Mamanomnom.com

Ripe Watermelon

 

Hi! I have an essay published today at mamanomnom.com called Watermelon Mush.  It is about feeling inadequate as a new mom and how that DOES NOT lead to culinary greatness.  I’m excited to be a part of this new food writing offshoot of Mamalode, to combine culinary and parenting writing in one place. If you know me you know I love my kids and I love my food, so this is a perfect fit!

Hope you can check it out!

Love,

Kristin

S.T.E.A.M Punk

Science Fair

 

Our public elementary school calls itself a “Math and Science Academy”. It is a great petri dish for the sons and daughters of all sorts of engineers, a starter culture for future scientists and mathematicians. There is a heavy emphasis on STEM here. STEM is an effort to add more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into the curriculum. Our school has integrated engineering lessons into each grade level, and prides itself on its science fair. Pardon me, its STEM fair. Oh wait, I stand corrected. As I look at our application packet I found out that its name has changed again. This time it will be a STEAM fair.

What does the “A” stand for, you may be wondering. Arithmetic? Archeology? Astrophysics? Nope. It stands for Art. We are trying to cram all of Art, the entirety of anything that could be called artistry into one little letter.

My husband is an engineer, and my two sons are scientifically inclined. But, they are also my sons and I have been, and still am, a singing, dancing, writing, literature-loving, theater-going, right-brained kind of girl. Believe me, I don’t want them to go through school so focused on data and numbers that they don’t see the beauty of the world around them. To be fair, their school has dedicated art and music teachers, and my six-year-old asked me the other day if I knew who Piet Mondrian was. I asked back incredulously, “Do you?” While I appreciate the idea of adding more art to my kids’ lives, Art shouldn’t be a token subject, shoe-horned into a science fair.

While Science, Technology and Engineering are considered distinct subjects in their own rights, Art (as just one letter of STEAM) is jammed together as if it only encompassed one discipline. Right away I could break “Art” into, at the very least, visual and performance art. On the visual side of things, I can think of the distinct crafts of sculpting, painting, drawing, makeup and hair design, animation, cinematography, photography, interior design, fashion design, floral arrangement, graphic design, lighting design, illustration, weaving and ceramics. On the performing side of things, I can think of the distinct crafts of acting, dancing, singing, improvisation, playing an instrument, directing, stand-up comedy, puppetry and motivational speaking. This doesn’t even include the artistic endeavors of creative writers that don’t fit neatly into the above categories: poetry and memoir and novels and graphic novels and screenplays and plays. What a disservice to shove all of that into the single “A” that is allowed.

But my main criticism of trying to create a STEAM fair is that pesky requirement of all science fairs – that students learn and apply the scientific method. Each project must propose a hypothesis, set up an experiment with multiple controls and just one variable to see if the hypothesis is correct, record the findings and report your conclusions. It is a rigorous and disciplined METHOD for examining the world, and if it is not as rigorous, disciplined and objective as possible, the experiment is at best a waste of time and resources. I have great respect for the scientific method as a critical tool for examining and bettering the world.

And I had a great time mocking the scientific method as I tried to figure out what an “Arts” based project would look like.

For my STEAM Fair project, my hypothesis is that my impression of Hillary Clinton is funnier than my impression of Bernie Sanders.

In controlling the variables of my experiment, I have already decided to pick two candidates of the same political party and level of fame.

I will perform impressions thirty seconds in duration, for the exact same audience members on two separate days.

I will have three assistants record notes, one will record the number of people who laughed at each impression, the second will record the duration of laughter from the first guffaw to the last sigh with a stopwatch and the third will have a decibel meter to record how loud the laughter gets.

I will be only varying my voice, facial expressions and mannerisms to reflect each character – the words spoken in each impression will be identical.

Update: My results were inconclusive as no one laughed. For future experiments I would perhaps vary the words spoken by each candidate to reflect a satirized version of what they might normally say.

Now, let me be clear – All great artists, in every field of artistry, experiment. None use the scientific method.

There are far too many variables to account for. When an improv troupe skewers Clinton and Sanders they use different actors, different mannerisms, and different lines for different audiences as they experiment. Every variable changes and shifts, and more often than not they still get a laugh. They get to the same desired outcome with a million different formulas. The opposite is generally true of a baking soda papier-mache volcano, where only one formula will give you the desired outcome – a giant mess on the elementary school gym floor.

It is very rare that an artist would want to, or be able to, test one variable at a time. When Picasso painted “The Old Guitarist” he did not present us with an expressionist version in a full spectrum of color alongside his blue-toned melancholy piece to see what effect color had on the guitarist’s emotional impact. His blue period might be the closest we come to seeing an artist experimenting with one variable at a time, but his subject matter over those years was far from a scientifically sound control. He didn’t tint photographs of fuzzy ducklings blue to see if simply “the color blue” was enough to alter our perception of the duckling. He still experimented with subject matter and perspective and materials and negative space, while he experimented with the color blue.

And what is the measurement you can use to see if your hypothesis for a work of art was correct? Public reaction? Favorable critiques? Popularity? Unpopularity? Anger, sadness, longevity, laughter? Art is, above all, subjective, not objective. There is no objective experiment, nor any objective measurement for a work of art. But, in spite of its subjectivity, data can still be taken, the results can still be analyzed, and new experiments performed, new ground broken and new power discovered. I would LOVE to see an art fair like that, one full of experimentation, of breaking new ground and new forms, and exploring new talent.

Art doesn’t deserve to be shoved in next to scientific experiments, just because we haven’t made the room for it. The value of the scientific method, or teaching children to critically explore the world around them for concrete and actionable solutions, shouldn’t be diluted because we didn’t give Art any room to breathe. And you are just making it awkward for everyone if I have to explain my Clinton/Sanders experiment again, especially next to the second-grader who just won first place with his wonderfully thorough presentation of which liquid cleans a penny best. (Coca-Cola, his hypothesis was proven out by his experiment, it’s Coca-Cola).

 

Play

Play

A few months ago I had to put a writing project on pause.

It was going to be an essay about my first year with an undiagnosed pain and fatigue disease. In my head I had named it the year everything almost fell apart. Everything was in tatters, held together with the barest of threads. I felt like, in our little family, that I held all of our lives in my arms, while my body felt like it was literally being ripped limb from limb. My boys were just four and one, and on the heels of the recession my husband was traveling internationally almost every week-making sure to do everything that was asked of him so he could never be seen as expendable.

I paused my writing because I suddenly didn’t have the distance I needed to delve back into that year. A new undiagnosed problem began taking over, and emotionally I didn’t think I could relive “The Year Everything Almost Fell Apart” in real time and in retrospect all at once. I am still undiagnosed, but thankfully have started to be able to manage the problem so that I can get back to normal life.

And the story has started knocking on my door again. It won’t leave me be. The year, the whole year, wants to have its story told. Every time I try to divert my attention to something lighter, something fun or frivolous or at least shinier and less tattered, the year comes back. It looks at me the way my oldest son did at the time, wide eyes, furrowed brow, sadness that shouldn’t weigh down such tiny shoulders, asking me to make sense of everything. To please put life back in order, to explain why and how things went wrong and how to fix them. I couldn’t for him then, but the year is asking me to please do so now, to make amends for failing him.

Notebooks 2010

These are my notebooks from that year. Each post-it note is flagging a journal entry with a clue to my illness. The pages in-between are my journal entries describing the different colors suffering took for each of us, the way thirty-year-olds and four-year-olds and one-year-olds process fear and uncertainty and sadness and anger. It’s time to read them again. It is time to try to tell the story of a year in a few thousand words, so that it can be put on a shelf, ordered and meaningful and done. This will take time, but what choice do I have? The year won’t let me be.

Valentine Gifts

Valentine gifts

It is time for gifts again, smaller gifts than at Christmas, but it’s time to show our loved ones how much we appreciate having them around.

My younger son is squirreled away in the playroom and has commanded us several times, “Do not come in here.” I know this is his order when he is working on a present for someone and doesn’t want to ruin the surprise. With Valentine’s Day coming up, it is very possible that he has three presents he is working on in there- one for his brother, one for his father and one for me. We get a little nervous when he emerges an hour later and there is smudged ink all over his arms, and a stamp like a tattoo on his right wrist. My husband asks him, “I won’t invade your privacy, but if you look like that, is the room pretty messy, too?”

He nods, “A little.”

He tells us he will clean it up, and my older son offers to help, as long as he’s allowed in the room. He is, and the two of them go back and forth with wet paper towels, and assure us that everything is cleaned up. It could be a sketch, or a 3-D paper sculpture of a caterpillar, a comic strip, or a handprint. Last Christmas he made a series of diagrams: instructions, to go with a handful of Legos. He had created a Lego set he and his brother could build together. I was so impressed!

And I am so curious about my gift.

I’m the sort of person who wants to know what a movie is about before I see it. I’ll watch trailers, read think-pieces about how the director felt or what the actors endured, listen to gossip about backstage antics. My husband does not. He wants very much to be surprised. He even gets annoyed when the opening credits to a reality show give away almost everything that is going to happen, yelling, “We’re already watching it! You don’t have to sell us on it! Mute it, and tell me when the opening’s over.”

Sometimes I’m glad he is so strict in his I want to be surprised point of view. A few years ago my oldest son wanted to buy me a Christmas present, and he was confident he had thought up something perfect. My husband was the one to take him shopping, so of course he knew what I had gotten. I pestered my husband a bit, trying to get him to reveal what was bought, because my curiosity had gotten the better of me. This was the first time either of the boys had wanted to buy me something, and that my guy had something specific in mind. I wondered what he thought of me, how well he knew me, what he got me!

My husband put me in my place quickly saying, “I am not going to let you ruin his surprise. He really came up with something perfect, and I want him to get your full reaction as you open it.” That Christmas I opened up two brand-new cardboard-sided notebooks, with blue and white patterns on the front. Exactly the sort of notebook I used for writing in, the same kind I often stockpile since I go through them so quickly. Just the right decoration, and in my favorite color, too. I could not believe how perfect his three dollar present was, and how thoughtful he had been to come up with the idea in the first place. And as an added bonus, my husband got an extra present of me admitting that he had been right.

My husband also got the chance to surprise me with a gift, one I didn’t see coming at all. He was going to be out of town when some important blood test results of mine were going to be coming in. It was going to be emotionally rough, no matter which way they went. If they were positive, I would finally know what was wrong but have to deal with curing a disease – a tumor, or kidney disease, or adrenal failure. If they were negative there would be no big disease to handle, but also no answers as to why I felt horrible. A pair of soft flannel pajamas came in the mail, the perfect way to comfort someone when you can’t physically be there to hold them. A gift that would be appropriate to use in a hospital bed after surgery or to cuddle on the couch researching alternative medicine. It was such a lovely surprise.

So, I won’t peek to see what present is being made in the playroom. All three presents, and the surprise of getting them, make me feel so very loved. And that, I’m pretty sure, is supposed to be the point of gift-giving, and Valentine’s Day, in the first place.

My Social Media Confession

Social Media Confession

 

I don’t consider myself to have a diagnosable issue with OCD.

I have a lot of rituals and routines that seem to provide me with some relief from anxiety, but they are largely invisible and don’t cause problems. Does it really matter that I turn on the playroom light every time I turn on our house alarm, or that I take the empty hangers out of my husband’s closet the moment he travels so that I don’t have a visual reminder that he’s gone for the week, or that I have to eat my frozen enchilada meal oriented in the right direction? Is it the end of the world that I have parking spots I prefer (the ones that are directly next to a sidewalk, for instance) or that I like to arrive at important doctor’s appointments at least ten minutes early? Our household philosophy is “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.” That may sound silly, but what it means is that we try to give ourselves leeway about our quirks. If they start to get out of hand, then we give it our undivided attention to try to get it back to manageable. It’s a little like when you know the house is gotten a bit messy, but you don’t obsess over it. Then you trip over a basketball and land on Legos and yell, “This is why we don’t let it get this bad around here! Time to clean up, now!” All of our family quirks are like that, when it is a problem we fix it, but we don’t consider it a problem until it really is one.

Well, my OCD tendencies are becoming a problem, in one very specific area – my phone.

I am going to confess something I’m a bit ashamed of. Every morning I have to check my social media. HAVE to. It has become something that causes me a lot of anxiety and distress if I

A. Don’t do it at all.

B. Do it out of order.

Or

C. Don’t complete my rounds.

I HAVE to check Facebook, then my e-mail, then Pinterest, then Timehop, then Instagram, then WordPress, then Buzzfeed. It takes a ridiculous amount of time. Most mornings I am up too early anyways, so my rounds don’t interfere with anyone or anything else. I’ve tried to slow down but I find myself extremely anxious at not completing this routine. It bothers me immensely. I feel very unsettled and cannot move on with the other things I need to do. There is no good reason for this compulsion, and the interference with daily life – this is when you get into diagnosable territory. This is when it becomes a real problem and not just a “quirk”.

This morning, though, was the worst. My oldest had to wake me up at seven because I needed to get up and make lunches and give my youngest a bath. I knew I was running late. I knew I had forgotten to plug in my phone, so it was on very low battery. I knew that my oldest had been sweetly responsible in waking me up, and that he had been up for an hour and wanted to chat. What I did, instead of making breakfast or actually talking with my son, was I stood next to the charger with my phone plugged in, checking my rounds and ignoring him. I nodded and didn’t make eye contact, and I said, “uh-huh” in response to every question, and I left him out. He barely seemed to notice how much I had just invalidated him, how I had just demonstrated how much more important my rituals and my phone were than anything he had to say. That was the saddest part of all, his acceptance that he should play second fiddle to my anxieties and to a stranger’s comments on Facebook, and that he still loved me and felt no resentment towards me over it. It’s not a problem until it’s a problem. It is a very big problem.

I don’t have a resolution to this problem yet. But it sure as hell has gotten my undivided attention now. I am going to fix this, because my son shouldn’t have to be happy with scraps of divided attention; he shouldn’t have to share me with an iPhone.

I’m Fine

I'm fine

My oldest had a rough day at school last year. He ended up throwing up in a bathroom and was weaving around the hallways when a teacher who knew him noticed he looked green. She guided him to the nurse’s office and asked him how he was feeling.

He replied, “I’m fine,” in a nonchalant and off-handed manner. The teacher was stunned and amused, because he obviously was not fine. When she later told me the story of how this had all played out she felt so bad for him, but also thought it was endearingly funny. I did, too.

My youngest has a swollen cheek right now, and we think it’s from a six-year molar coming in and there being a little infected gum tissue. Yesterday he told me his jaw hurt, and when I asked if it still did today he said, “No.” I asked him if he was sure and his answer was, “If I distract myself it doesn’t hurt. As long as I don’t think about it.”

A bit exasperated I pressed further, “If you think about it, how does it feel?”

“It hurts.”

“So it does hurt?”

“Sure, it does. But not if I’m distracted.”

I think this is the legacy of having a parent with a chronic illness.

The boys have seen me throw up suddenly and move on with my day. They’ve known times when I was having trouble walking but still stayed with them at the park after school. They know that a lot of the time I don’t feel great, but I cope as well as I can. They say to listen to your body, and I absolutely do, but I have the added dimension that sometimes my body is a straight-up liar. It sends unnecessary pain signals all the time, it tells me I need a nap when really I need to exercise, it tells me I need tons of sugar when that will make me crash harder. So I ignore it. I power through. I tough it out.

The boys have started to do the same. We use the phrase, “It’s not the end of the world,” a lot in our household, that and, “It could always be worse.” We’ve gotten philosophical about pain and illness around here. I think our collective pain tolerance has gone up, unintentionally, and recalibrated. My oldest started out as a toddler who screamed bloody murder at the smallest scrape, and now throws up and claims, “I’m fine.”

But, surprisingly, now my boys also trust me when I tell them that they should probably stay home from school, or see a doctor, or get a flu shot. They used to try to tough everything out, going to soccer practice with a fever or pushing and crying for a playdate when they had been up coughing all night. They don’t do that anymore. It doesn’t seem heroic, it seems like suffering unnecessarily. Maybe they’re just older and wiser. Or maybe it’s because of what they see.

They see me nap, and rest, and exercise, and check my blood sugar, and prepare healthy food. Taking care of yourself when you are really too sick to power through is absolutely normalized. This is life, this is what people do. We push on when life isn’t that bad, when “it could be a lot worse”. When it gets worse we stop and rest and give our bodies a chance to catch up.

Since I have been having such a dysfunctional time of it with my body, I worried that the boys were going to end up with a dysfunctional relationship with their mostly healthy bodies. One day they will be the only ones monitoring the state of their health or illness. They should be off on their own some time ten or fifteen years from now, without a mom to check up on how they really feel. Luckily, I think we are inching towards balance, and I think that is because they have a sick parent, not in spite of it.

The Joy of New Clothes

 

New Clothes

“Nicholas just opens his drawer and takes whatever shirt!” Christopher is incredulous that his older brother, the one he looks up to, the one who was his first hero and the first person who was able to make him laugh, would be so cavalier about what he would wear.

Nicholas truly does not care much about clothing; his daily uniform of t-shirts and track pants changes only on special occasions, when we might be able to get him into jeans and a sweater. Even when he asserted his independence as a toddler, he truly didn’t fight us in the arena of “what to wear”, even though he was a fierce competitor in every other way. So, as he grew through to the eight-year-old he is today, we decided to take advantage of his not really caring all that much. When we go clothes shopping we have a plan that involves multiples of the basketball shorts, track pants and t-shirts he likes to wear. We hit one store for about an hour and a half every six months. Done and done.

Christopher gets these hand-me-downs, an extensive collection of not really well-thought-out, functional but not fashionable, interchangeable clothes. For a while he seemed to feel okay about them, as they were comfortable and usually were decorated with cartoon characters he liked. Then it wasn’t okay. Then came the showdown.

It was before a gymnastics class in the dead of winter. With polar vortexes and sub-zero temperatures, we would layer up like crazy before heading out somewhere. That particular day he had on thick socks, boots, long track pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a hoodie, a double-layered overcoat, a hat, a pair of gloves and a scarf.

Once inside the too-warm gym, (an environment well suited to keeping muscles from cramping and keeping little girls in leotards from getting a chill, but horrible for wearing sweatshirts) he took off his jacket and gloves but would not take off his hoodie. The flow of our morning stalled, and I was not thrilled about the ramifications of his refusal. Christopher can be incredibly stubborn, and we had been having a long winter of uneasy truces. I was picking this battle, and would see it through.

He crossed his arms and just stopped. I began by joking, “Christopher, you need to take your hoodie off, you silly goose, or you’ll roast to death during class!”

A grunt.

“Christopher, you are going to feel too hot and get too sweaty.”

Another grunt.

“Christopher Wagner, you are not going in there with that sweatshirt on, I am not going to let you.”

An anguished growl half under his breath.

“That is it! I have had enough! Why in the world won’t you take off your sweatshirt-you do every other class, every other time, what is going on with you today? And we’re not going to just stand to the side the entire class. You have one more minute to take that off or we are going home, young man!”

Tears.

“Are you taking off that sweatshirt?”

“NO!” He finally answered me in a yell. I grabbed his jacket and started feeding his arms through the sleeves, and silently sat at his feet shoving feet into boots. With a tense, almost whispered, “Get up,” from me, he got up. I zipped him, grabbed his hand and went out the doors. He didn’t protest leaving, and he tends not to. Christopher is fatalistic and grim when he accepts his fate, when he decides that he would rather accept the consequences of his stubbornness than acquiesce. I will say this for him, he has some sort of internal integrity that will not allow him to buckle under threat of missed classes, or no dessert, or zero screen time unless he knows he’s being ridiculous. When he sticks to his guns, I know it is very important to him. Once we got back to the car, I kept quiet and used the silence to cool off and hear myself think. After a few minutes, I ask him more gently, “Why, child, why? What was that all about?”

Finally unclenching he gave me an answer, “I don’t like football.”

What football had to do with anything I could not figure out. Then I realized that in a rush I had grabbed clothes for him that morning. We had little time to quibble about what he might or might not want to wear, so I ran upstairs, grabbed his brown track pants and the only brown shirt that went with them. The brown shirt had orange cleats on it and proudly proclaimed just one word in all caps “FOOTBALL”. And apparently my youngest does not like football.

And apparently he is very, very tired of misrepresenting who he is and what he likes. Because his options are limited to what his older brother liked just well enough to shove into a shopping cart two years ago, Christopher has had to lie about who he was. Our clothes communicate for us, and Christopher couldn’t take this miscommunication any more.

My husband, Greg, was the third of four boys and said, “Yeah, hand-me-downs save a lot of money, but it does stink. I never had new clothes, except for family pictures when Mom wanted us all to match. Let’s take him shopping, let him pick out things for himself.”

I introduced the idea to Christopher, and he was smiled and covered his mouth with his hand and then squeaked out, “Really?”

“Really.”

As we all stepped through the doors of a department store, Greg suddenly remembered, “Oh wait, guys. I need to get a couple of new dress shirts, can we head over there first? Then we’ll go to the kids section?” He looked to Christopher for the okay. Christopher nodded in agreement. The boys and I wandered around racks of leather belts and blazers while Greg held up a windowpane patterned shirt and asked, “Is this too much? Should I get it in a different color? Or the same color but a different pattern?”

Christopher found the tie rack and his eyes widened. He touched the vibrantly colored ties gently and showed me a swirl of color here or polka dot pattern there. Greg’s attempts to pick a shirt were interrupted with, “Daddy, you should get this one!” and “Daddy, you should get that one!” Christopher wanted so much that someone, someone he knew, would get to wear these beautiful, soft pieces of fabric he couldn’t contain himself. When Greg politely skirted the idea of buying ties one too many times, Christopher sighed quietly, “I wish I could use my money to have this.”

Wasn’t that why we were here in the first place? To get for Christopher clothing that he loved, that he wanted, that he felt wonderful in? I bit my lip trying not to smile too broadly and scare him away and said, “Sweetie, do you know that they make ties for little kids? And dress shirts, too? Do you want to go look for those?”

There have only been a handful of times in Christopher’s life that I have seen his face light up the way it did in the midst of the menswear section that day. A new possibility flashed into his consciousness that had seemed remote and unattainable before, and now he was told that not only did these clothes exist, but that he could get them for himself right then. There would be no waiting to see if a better coupon came in next week, no declaration that he probably didn’t need any more clothes because he had enough. I took his hand and guided him to the boys section of clothing, wooshing past the hoodies and track pants and athletic-themed t-shirts and right to the dress clothes put out for Easter. “Here we are!” I declared triumphantly and here we were.

We loaded our arms with multiple colors of dress shirts, a bouquet of clip-on ties and a couple of pairs of slacks and marched right over to the dressing room. I felt nervously excited as I helped button him up, as I tucked his shirt into his pants and clipped on his tie. He stepped back for a moment, looked himself over top to bottom and smiled, a huge, broad, unbelievable smile. He was amazed with himself, with the transformation he had gone through in the space of a minute. He pouted his lips and grabbed the knot of the tie with one hand, the length with his other and straightened it saying, “Men do this.” I covered my mouth with my hands and let my eyes keep smiling at him, “Yes they do, they do that.” A moment later he straightened his shoulders and said proudly, “I look like a scientist.” I suppressed a little laugh because I didn’t want him for a second to believe I was laughing at him, but my heart was jumping out of my chest. I had not realized that he had been quietly studying the clothing of the grown men around him, admiring how they held themselves and what their clothes represented. I hadn’t realized how completely happy he would be to wear that himself.

We left that day with white undershirts, three dress shirts in light blue, burgundy and white, five different ties, a pair of black slacks and a Lego watch, because his new mature look would have been incomplete without a watch. We left the store with a very, very happy five-year-old.