Sunday, March 01, 2015

I owe you a Christmas letter, possibly two, okay if you include this year, maybe it’s three. Forgive me? Either way, here is a letter, I wouldn’t call it a Christmas letter exactly, it is more of a ‘just now’ letter. It started brewing a little after the New Year when a friend asked me if I had a resolution. I don’t have a New Year’s resolution. A year is a long time. But there is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, mulling really. Life is like glass - a slow-moving liquid you can see through. A billion moments of a life, like the grains of sand that make glass, are forged together to become a molten liquid. In the heat of any moment, life is set. As it cools, it becomes transparent and almost motionless. Clear. All those moments are strung together, merged and inseparable from one another, see through. The heat of it, the heart of it, is now, this molten now. Nothing happens except through time, from one second to the next life unfolds. So what am I doing with this now? With each successive now? Am I in it? Or am I letting it slide by? I’m ruminating on a past fault. I’m glorifying a distant triumph. I’m gnawing on a future. I’m dreaming. Or I’m here. Present. I have a new moment’s resolution. I carry it with me, as best I can from one second to the next. Be here now. Be present now. Like roll call in school. Amy? Present. No looking ahead, no looking behind, just this moment, the one that is right here, right in front of me. This is the best moment of my life. This is the worst moment of my life. This is the only moment of my life. All that came before are done; all that are to come may be; but this is the one I have. This moment. And at this moment ~Jay’s long arms are bent and his hands are drumming against his chest. He is tall and his friendly smile is frequent, his wit quick, marvelous. His drumming hands are like he is; a cadence that changes swiftly, rhythmically, as teenagers do, as he does, becoming grown. ~Ana is long and lean in black lycra. She is studying the atmosphere (not figuratively but truly, in her Earth Science class) and here next to me as I type. There are discarded anime graphic novels on the floor of her room and there is always her joy, never far from her, effervescent in her eyes. ~Henry is intent, knowledgeable in his own esoteric way, chewing on a future that is coming on fast. His amateur status turned pro this year in tutoring. They pay him to teach, to guide others to learning and he has a knack, as if he were called to it, or born to it. ~Eric is laying on the floor playing with our dog Sasha, who hopelessly adores him. The feeling is mutual I assure you. And we are fine.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saturday, October 09, 2010


John Lennon would have been 70 today.
You may say I’m a dreamer…

I tell my kids that I’m a pacifist.
I tell my kids that violence is never the answer.

But I know that I’m not in the majority in this world.
And I’m really lucky to live where I do, that I get to enjoy the very idea of pacifism.

I participated in the Grace Race this morning. I plunked down my money and walked around Sloan’s Lake, somewhere behind Ana who ran with a bunch of other folks mostly for the fun of it. We raised money for World Hunger, part of the ELCA’s One campaign, which in turn is part of the larger One campaign that you can read about at

Or watch this cool video

All of which feels quite surreal.

Before the race Ana and I shared a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – Oroweat Bread, Adam’s natural peanut butter, and smucker’s reduced sugar jelly. We filled our PBA free water bottles with ice from the ice maker in the freezer and water from the filtered refrigerated water built into the refrigerator. We hopped into our Red Honda Odyssey, drove across town decked out in our high tech exercise gear, took a picture on the camera phone and then traversed the 5 kilometers around the lake. We were greeted at the end with bagels, bananas, oranges, and cookies. Ana had four chocolate chip. I had a banana. After the race we went to the Starbucks so Ana could have a Strawberries and Cream Frappuccino. Then we went home.

I’m pretty sure we don’t get the hunger thing.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Christmas Letter 2009

And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. – Matthew 2:11

My mother’s friend Doris has a beautiful pine tree in her front yard--full branches, tall, and a precise triangular shape that comes with being a lone pine; a Christmas tree from the tips of its boughs to its solid trunk. Every winter, Doris has wanted to wrap that tree in lights for Christmas; but the tree is too big for a home job and professional lighting companies cost way too much, so it’s been bare.
This year, shortly before Thanksgiving, a man came to the door. “We’re here to do the tree in lights,” he said and there were two workmen already in the yard with strings of lights and ladders. Doris protested, and the man smiled. “Your son called. He says, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

In my mind, the perfect gift is one that honors both the giver and the gifted with something that the two especially share. Sometimes I can’t do it, I can’t come up with the gift that’s just right; and so a sweater or a tie goes forth instead, standing as some sort of inept apology on my part.
Henry, Ana, and Jay are buying presents this year for the first time. I announced the idea at dinner; and honestly, I was shocked at how they embraced it. Here I thought they were greedy little beggars, and really they just needed a little guidance about HOW to give presents. Since that dinner, they’ve been working away at household chores in order to make money (loading the dishwasher has been deemed the grossest and shoveling snow the most lucrative). I’ve been impressed by their desire to give. I must admit that these three are much more thoughtful than I gave them credit for.
Ana put so many people on her giving list that she asked if she could go on the backside of the paper. Henry realized on his own that the right gift to give Grandma was Christmas Peeps. (This was after she ate most of Jay’s Halloween Peeps.) Jay listed his best friend Joseph first on his list instead of the people that I was suggesting. Each, in his or her way this season, has practiced a new-found thoughtfulness; and it’s been surprising and gratifying.
‘What to give’ has been quite the topic of conversation. We’ve talked about the best presents that we’ve ever given. I love telling the story of buying my brother the Duckhorn Merlot, how I traversed Napa Valley with my erstwhile friend Kim in a desperate search for this illusive wine. Eric tells the story of the year he bought his father eight different colors of duct tape, how he couldn’t wait to give the King of Grey Tape a color assortment.
The special gift is often that way. It’s a touch of whimsical inspiration, or it’s marked by extreme effort, and maybe it’s accompanied by a long story; but most often it’s based on insider knowledge. Whatever it takes, you know it when you find it, something that you can give with love and a particular understanding of the receiver. Often it’s the one thing no one else can or will give.

So I think of Doris this year and know that I won’t equal the thoughtfulness of her son’s perfect gift--most probably in my whole life. She can’t take it with her, this ephemeral gift; but that lighted tree will make this Advent season brighter, longer, and prettier as it shines a path to her last Christmas. And that’s what makes this gift so brilliant because, you see, Doris is dying. Everyone who knows her accepts this truth in some manner whether that is tolerable or not. It’s hard and it makes most gift ideas superfluous. It hitches my breath when I think of it, but then there are those lights on that pine tree, which she can see out her front window. I imagine this has her contemplating her son, Christmas, and gifts. I find I must smile at such perfection--even if my lips tremble.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day... sorry, it’s been some time

I had a hard week at work, generically speaking. One of those weeks where I felt like the list is too long, the tasks are far from easy, and the people aren’t hearing me right. So I came home and we went to the movies, I fell asleep watching Disney’s Earth. I’m not sure that is commentary on the movie but that’s what happened.
In the middle of the night, around 3:30 I woke up to a party breaking up down the street and I worried for a while. It’s a bad habit I’ve gotten into lately, worrying at 4am. I worried about work mostly this time, sometimes it’s the kids, sometimes it’s the lack of a sprinkler system, sometimes it’s the economy, sometimes it’s the family, sometimes it’s the squirrels in the attic, but there’s always something to worry me.
After consulting my husband I decided I needed something to look forward to. And I thought that perhaps there would be a parade for Memorial Day. Denver has them on Saturday – the Memorial Day parades. I like parades. I went back to sleep thinking about the Memorial Day Parade.
So in the morning we went, me in my so-so mood and Eric leading the charge. The kids are always up for a parade, someone might throw candy. We parked and had a nice walk, backing our way through the parade route until we met the parade and then we stopped and watched.
The thing about the Memorial Day parade is that it is a parade in the older sense of the word, in that militaristic sense of the word. Mostly its cars, Corvettes, Plymouth Phantoms, Cadillacs, Model Ts and Model As, or its motorcycles and the Patriot Guard and its also vets marching. No balloons, no clowns, not much nonsense. We waved to the vets, we waved at the Girl Scouts, we clapped for the cheerleaders, and we liked picking out the WWII vets, not as many of those anymore. We got flags, candy, flyers, and a pencil to take home with us.
There’s this thing about parades and me. Almost always they make me cry, especially these kind. Not in a bad way, I’m not sad really at least I don’t think I am. I’m pretty sure that I’m touched by the humanity in it. Here are all these people together doing this thing and they aren’t getting paid and they aren’t grabbing power, they are just remembering something and helping me to remember as well.
And it isn’t like I’m thinking about all these folks who died in the war and feeling particularly sad about it. That is sad, and it’s amazing too, but that’s not what’s getting me. It’s that there are these people, and I don’t know them, but they are all doing this thing and they are doing it together. They are all walking together, driving together, riding together, and being together because they care. And it touches me that they do that.
And mostly that cheered me up.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A Lent Devotional

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

Jesus calls his disciples to take up the cross and follow. The cross was an infamous symbol at the time. The cross was the favored instrument of torture and death among the Roman authorities of the day. Who would want to take that up?

Pick up the cross and follow. It's an invitation to take up that which destroys and humiliates rather than to pick up the stuff we are usually willing to seek: power, authority, and comfort. To deny the self in favor of the well-being of all is countercultural. Then, and especially now.

What are the crosses we avoid picking up these days? What would we rather avoid than confront? ~ Pastor Michael Fick

This is a tough question. There are a lot of things I avoid: eating vegetables (still), balancing the checkbook, wearing makeup but I'm thinking this is not what you meant.

I'm interested in the phrase "deny themselves". In the past this was what I associated with Lent, my Catholic friends would choose something to "give up" for Lent. A good friend of mine has given up all junk food this Lent season, admirable given that it's also girl scout cookie season.

See and that's the thing, I recognize this about myself, the very lush life that I have. Replete with all my favorite indulgences - cheese, chocolate, red wine, good books, film, wifi internet access, yoga pants, the list goes on.

Denying myself is something I've not done a lot of. I have some self control but I exercise that control for my own benefit. I don't spend all my money so that I can put some away for the kids' college but that's so they won't live with me forever. I don't eat all the chocolate chips because I'd rather not have to buy a whole new wardrobe in the next larger size. That sort of thing I do, but to give up something, to deny myself for the greater good, don't know that I can say I've done that.

I was listening to NPR this morning and I heard about all the relief organizations being summarily kicked out of the Sudan. I thought about those people who work in those organizations, in harms way, helping others and I wondered at their lives being so very different from my own. What makes those people make choices that are so very different from mine? I've never felt called to do what they do and I find their lives strange and exotic and frankly unimaginable. How would I do that?

I think that as a society we avoid many things rather than confront them.

As a society we collectively turned the mentally ill out of long term care facilities in the 80s so that we wouldn't have to pay for their care. Thousands of those people were found dead in the same clothes they had been issued when they were pushed out of the door of their closing facilities. Collectively, couldn't we have given up a few bottles of wine a year to help pay for their continued care? I was too young to understand this when it happened but I feel sick about it now. Do I write letters to congress asking them to reinstate appropriate care for the mentally ill in order to combat the homeless problem? Ah, no.

Our last President felt it was completely acceptable to torture prisoners of war. I personally was horrified by this but I did I prostrate myself on the steps of the White House in protest? Ah, no.

I avoid picking up the crosses of social injustice, mostly I think that this is true because it has not touched my life personally. I think about the man in the movie The Visitor and how he got involved. It was after the immigration issue touched him personally. We do a good job in our society of insulating ourselves, of finding ways to keep the horrible parts of our world from touching us. In fact I think we are masters at this.

Perhaps in meeting Christ the disciples and other followers were touched or became uninsulated. Or perhaps they started out that way.

Sometimes people point to our adopted children and credit us for "rescuing" them. That we were touched by these orphans half a world away. And certainly I do feel touched by the plight of the orphans living without families around the world. But adopting our children was how I became a mom, which ultimately was something I very much did for me, it was a selfish act.

I guess some might say that having children is an exercise in denial but I get so much back it hardly feels like I'm denying myself. Sure if we didn't have the kids we could have a condo in Winterpark but what good would that be without the kids there?

Do you think the disciples felt that the denial was nothing and following was everything?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Trees, Mothers, and making it

Trauma has occurred in the backyard.

It was one of those moments where time actually slowed down. I am chagrined to write that but it’s true. Time changed for a moment. It bent or warped or slowed or something and over the stupidest thing too. It wasn’t a family member in danger or anything, it was a tree.

It was a hot day and the weeds in the back yard were threatening to consume the grill and our outdoor seating so Eric rolled out the lawn mower.
I was in the kitchen doing something, I’m always in the kitchen doing something and I can hear the lawn mower. I’m not sure what triggered it anymore. I think it was Ana, standing at the back door softly saying something about her tree.
But this is the part I remember clearly, my brain ticking like the second hand on a pocket watch, slowly, methodically, moving forward one click at a time. And then my body springing into action and the words coming out of my mouth and my ears hearing them like slow action in a film, “Eeeeeriiiic, noooooo, Aaaaanaaaaa’s treeeeeee.” Like OJ Simpson I leapt over the dishwasher door (not the finally jailed murderous degenerate OJ, but the rental car hawking football phenom OJ.) I plowed into the back door just in time to see the lawn mower shred the tree that Mayor Hickenlooper gave to Ana and that she and I worked together to plant. It was just a pencil thick trunk with only two measly leaves but it was our tree and now it was a two inch stump barely distinguishable from the rest of the weeds around it.
Pandemonium ensued. Arms waved, feet stamped, fingers shook, admonishments were admonished but alas, the tree was toast.
In the aftermath I did my best to hide what were unexpected tears on my part. I’m not sure why this set me off. Maybe it was flash backs to planting my own tree with my father and this being the sentimental next generation of tree planting. It might have been that. Maybe my hormones were off kilter throwing me too close to the abyss.

But what strikes me now is not my tears afterward but rather those seconds before it happened when suddenly my brain could see the future. The moment of clarity that said RUN right before I got there a nanosecond too late. I knew what was going to happen, I knew it with certainty that made me successfully leap over our dishwasher door, careen around the counter, and crash into the back screen door. I knew what was going to happen, with certainty, with clarity, with absolute conviction, I knew.
And I reacted.
I missed.
But it was just a tree. A small Red Maple with a pencil thin trunk and two waving leaves, it was only a tree. Just a tree.

Moms have these dreams sometimes. Nightmares where their child is precariously dangerously poised on the edge of some precipice, and their entire motherly bodies leap into action, and they miss - wake up, sit straight up in bed, heart pounding, breathing heavily and then swinging out of bed to walk down the hall to reassure themselves that it wasn’t real.

But it was just a dream. Only a dream. Just a dream.

We could Thank God at that point and perhaps we should although sometimes, I suspect that when it's real, He’s hoping we get there in time too.

Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year

So here we are in the New Year and I suspect we are all doing that New Year thing.

It’s the oddest holiday and I have a hard time not viewing it with cynicism. In the New Year I’ll work on my spelling. In the New Year I’ll stop eating… ah everything. In the New Year I’ll be more creative. In the New Year I’ll write in my blog everyday, no every week, okay, every month. So there are the resolution sorts of folks, of which I tend to be one of. I don’t take them seriously anymore. Or maybe I do. I just try to be realistic about the resolutions that I make. Like those 10 pounds that came out of… nowhere? Okay, they came out of ice cream, cheese, chocolate and a dusty treadmill. I’m pretty sure I’m stuck with them because my resolution to enjoy life trumps my resolution to look better in a swimsuit.
But I think no matter what, if you are a resolution maker or a resolution cynic you can’t ignore the start of the new year if only because you need to write a new date on your checks. You can’t help looking at the dawn of a New Year and think to yourself that either something has ended or something is beginning. There has to be things that you’d like to close the door on, or things you want to open the door to. What are those things? But there I go, trying to convince you to be a resolution maker.
And really it’s just another day on a calendar that some guys a really long time ago made up. In fact it’s arbitrary. I hear they added a second to 2008. Exactly how does that work? Who made the decision to do that and then who did they check with? Who is the administrator of time anyway? Shouldn’t we have been consulted? Why add it to the end of 2008, why not to the beginning of 2009?
I know, lots of silliness here but it’s the New Year and maybe besides the 10 pounds I’ve decided that silliness is the order of the New Year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Christmas Letter that didn't make the cut...

This is an expanded version of the first Christmas letter, the one that felt right to me. Eric liked it but couldn't imagine it actually going out to all of our list and said he'd rather see it on the blog. This is first and always a partnership, so I agreed. Here is the thing, I wrote another letter, it's a compromise letter and that's the one that is going into the envelopes. I'm not completely happy with it but anything I wrote that didn't mention or even hint at Greg's death felt really flat and inauthentic to me. I finally realized that nothing was going to feel right this year. So I wrote a letter and put it out to print - don't get me wrong, I like the letter, it's just not what is in my heart this year... The below post, this is what is in my heart.


Imagine a large open space of any sort ~ empty room, open field, basketball court, fairway. Now put yourself there, put me there too, then add about twenty other people. Put us all in a circle. We don't all have to hold hands or anything like that. Just put us in a circle and put a man in the center of that ring. The man is standing, unmoving and we are staring at him.

Each of us would have a different perspective of that man, not one of us would see the same man. Some of us would see his face full on, some in profile, and some would only see if he combed the back of his hair.

Furthermore, not one of us would see the whole man. That isn't our privilege.

No, each of us would have our own perspective.

And not one of us would have his perspective.

My brother-in-law Greg died this summer. Since his death I’ve met with varying versions of his life story along with various reactions to his death. We all have a perspective. Each of us have a different perspective. Probably the hardest thing to accept is that not one of our perspectives would be the same as his. Again, not our privilege.

We’ll never know ~ no matter if we were achingly close, or viewed him from a distance ~ who he was and what led to his death.

How can we possibly live with this mystery?

It’s against human nature to accept the idea of something staying forever an unknown. We like our mysteries solved. CSI, Nancy Drew, and who will be our next president. Solved. Answered. Easy. We want solutions, clear and precise, so we don’t have to think any longer. Many people knew that my brother in law had died, I missed work, I left the state, the children were pulled from their regularly scheduled activities. So when we returned there were questions. People wanted the mystery of a man dead in the prime of life solved. Those questions could prove awkward but really they were manageable. I'd tell the truth and if shock ensued, well, curiousity killed the cat - ask questions at your own peril.

Those questions aren't the questions I'm talking about though. I'm not talking about what happened, that is painful but easily understood. I'm talking about some really hard questions. Most of these hard questions start with why. And they are not easily answered. In fact, I'm certain that the truth will never be understood by the living. It will stay a mystery, each of us will have a perspective but if we are honest with ourselves we will know that our perspective is only a small fraction of the answer and quite possibly dead wrong.

But aren’t we meant to wonder about the meaning of things? Didn't God mean for us to contemplate ideas as complex as Christ’s birth, his life, and his death. Heady stuff.

Didn't He also mean for us to perplex over concepts as wondrously simple as our own children? I look at my children and wonder, where are they headed, and sometimes even where the heck did they come from? Gifts from God? Really?

A good Lutheran would say it’s all a matter of discernment. I try to determine: What does God want for my Jay; smart, fun loving but with a razor sharp sense of justice? What does God want for my Henry; clever, popular with a delightful dawning sense of humor? What does God want for my Ana; beautiful, diligent, and a dazzling capacity to love? And finally what did God want for Greg?

We struggle with our questions and we develop our own perspectives, each absolutely different from the man’s standing next to us, not one of them completely right. Somehow I wonder if all of those millions of perspectives, jammed together as a whole, come close to making up the perspective of Him.

We each have our own view through the dark waiting season of Advent to the light of Christ’s coming. He gave us each our own perspective and I suppose in some strange way there is some perfection there. Perspective, Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Burning through the sky

Don’t stop me now… Freddie Mercury 1978

So last night I sat at a pre-audition meeting for the Denver School of the Arts with Ana. Snow was flying outside so the drive had been tense and we were a bit anxious, unsure of what to expect. We stood in lines, filled out forms, and listened to admonitions. This is one of the most competitive places in Denver Public Schools, the crowd was big, and I questioned the sanity of being there. The odds of being chosen to attend are daunting.

But then we entered the theatre and I felt it.

I wish I could completely convey the feeling of walking into a theatre hours before a performance. It’s a place where jangling energy literally floats on the air. That energy comes out in strange ways. Somebody is inevitably at the sound board putting something jazzed over the speakers. Some kid is over in a corner mugging for his friends where nervous laughter and clapping erupt spontaneously. Something, a chair or a table is moved onto the stage by someone, then another someone appears and moves it someplace else. The anticipation is sort of hanging there and it gets into you.

So then it’s the next day and I’m on a conference call with work. There is a casual conversation about a client Christmas party that some of us are attending. There is going to be dancing at the party. My boss explains that he won’t be dancing, not that he’s opposed but he was raised in a strict church where there was no dancing so he never got enough practice to become proficient. Now I don’t think that you need an excuse for abstaining from dancing in front of your work colleagues. Seriously, there are some images that nobody wants.

But it got me thinking of all the dancing I’ve done in my life. Theatrical and not. And why I’ve never considered not dancing. Did you know my Grandfather Doc and his brother were professional square dance callers? I don’t think it would have paid all the bills but hey, getting paid for something that you love. No flaw in that. Then there are all the extensions of dancing, there is acting and singing. There are all the plays I’ve seen, standing backstage at Auburn pulling fly lines for On The Verge. Sitting in the booth calling cues for Hair, dirtying up my face to be an urchin in Oliver! Singing in my high school choir, playing saxophone in the marching band. I wouldn’t have missed those experiences for the world. But why? And it goes back to something they talked about last night, it’s the ensemble experience. It’s that feeling of coming together with a bunch of other people and pulling something off and having a good time doing it.

Now I’m sure you can get that experience in many ways, doesn’t have to be theatre, dance, or music, those are just the ones that make an impression on me.

So I sat there in the theatre last night and I wanted that for Ana. Now I’m smart enough to know that this one school isn’t the only place for her to get that experience. I know there are other ways and means and places. I just don’t want to forget about it. And of course I’m entering the danger zone here. That place where my desires for her can’t overtake her own. But if she continues to want it, I sure need to help.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Feli's Cairns ~ first few pages of my novel

I carry these pieces of my mother around with me. I don’t have many pieces. You see, she stopped being my mother when I was four years old. I have few of my own memories, but they stand out because my first four years were so very different from the last sixteen.

I always associate my mother with the lake. It may be that most of my direct memories of my mother surround the lake. Or perhaps it’s because the last few weeks we had together she spent most of her time on the lake. It may be because I sometimes think she died there. But I always feel closest to her there. It’s like she’s on the bottom of the lake somewhere. I can only visit her for the briefest of moments, as long as I can hold my breath and then she’s gone again.

My mother left when I was four years old. It was the height of what would become known as the Great Depression. My grandfather had died, as had my grandmother, so my uncle sort of ran things. My mother had never mentioned my father and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I must have had one. In either case, he wasn’t around and I never knew him.

My mother didn’t work, some women did during the depression. Elfriede did, she sewed birds on hats but we’ll get to her later. My mother was a stone mason that no one would hire. Part of it was that she was a woman and everyone felt that it was rather disagreeable to have a woman laying the foundation for your house. So the only folks who ever hired my mother were the town lesbians. I didn’t know the word lesbian until I was in college. I honestly thought that they were both cousins and old maids because that was the polite story that was told in town.

This book isn’t about polite.

I try hard to stay honest about things because the lies that we tell ourselves and each other to make things go over better? They have a nasty possibility of coming back on you. I once got in the habit of believing the lies. And once you start believing in lies, especially ones about yourself, you can set yourself up for a fall.

My mother disappeared when I was four years old. So to start out, here’s that story:
In the days leading up to her disappearance my mother was building an underwater cairn. I actually didn’t know this until many years later when I tried to find my mother. Back when I was four I only knew that my mother would put me down for my nap and then she would load the rowboat up with rocks and row out onto the lake.

My mother rowed unlike most people. She would set out in the boat, check her destination once over her shoulder and then turn her back on it and start pulling on the oars. She never looked back to see if heading in the right direction. She might glance to the side but mostly she stared straight ahead at the place that she was leaving. The times I rowed with her, she always made her destination, on the first try. My mother was rather sure of herself.

I know that she did all this with the rocks and the boat because I rarely took those naps. I just wasn’t the nap sort. I would lay in bed with my eyes closed, breathing slowly, shallowly until she crept out and shut the door. When I was sure she had left the house, I would creep to the window of the bedroom we shared and I would look out onto the view I had of our small bay on the lake. Once she had loaded the boat with her rocks, and had shoved the boat into the water, (riding rather low because of all the ballast) I would watch her row out of sight.

The view I had was rather restricted, I could see the boat shoving off, but after just a few strokes it would disappear behind a stand of trees. At that point, I would leave the house and resume whatever activity had occupied me prior to being hauled off for a nap. This might be torturing small tree toads by collecting them in a jar. It could be climbing a tree, because even though I was only four, I was pretty good at this. Or it could be ranging off into the woods.
My favorite play spot was near one of my mother’s cairns in the woods. I guess I should explain what a cairn is because it might not be a familiar to you. A cairn is really just a pile of rocks. Now my mother’s cairns are a bit more than that, they are art. And there should be one at the Met in New York City, but they don’t answer my letters anymore. It’s true though, they are art.

Anyone in town will tell you that if you have one of Feli’s cairns on your property it increases the value of the place. They might also make a sour face at the mention of my mother but they won’t deny that the cairns are art.

She would row back into our bay in late afternoon and she would find me wherever I was playing. She would lead me back to the house where we would make dinner for my Uncle Frank. Now I should say that my Uncle Frank is not some euphemism for my mother’s boyfriend. He really is her brother, and he really is my Uncle, they were twins actually. I didn’t know that for a long time either. But I just wanted to be clear on two points about my Uncle. One is that he really was my Uncle. And Two is that this isn’t one of those creepy incest stories. My Uncle was a great guy and a great Uncle and there isn’t anything creepy going on there. I just wanted to clarify because earlier I had talked about lies, and there are some lies, but they aren’t about Frank. No, the lies are about me.

So in the days leading up to my mother’s disappearance she left daily in the rock laden rowboat after I was tucked up for my nap. On the actual day that she disappeared something unusual happened (I mean besides the fact that my mother disappeared never to return.) Oh, and let’s be clear about that too. My mother doesn’t ever come back in this story. I’ll spare you that one. I’ve lived long enough waiting for her to walk through the door and I understand that misery, I understand it so well that I won’t be imposing it on you. No, the unusual thing that happened that day was that I actually went down for my nap.

This isn’t entirely my fault. My Uncle Frank, whom as I’ve said was a great guy, came home from the bar a bit early the night before. He’d been drinking but not so much that it was a problem. But he was drinking enough to think that going owling with his four year old niece was a good idea. On a sober night, there is no way this would have happened. But this wasn’t a sober night, so at 1 in the morning I went owling with my Uncle Frank. We didn’t see much because when Frank drinks he isn’t so very quiet. I was just happy that he let me carry the Niagara 2 cell Red Lantern. He let me carry it because he didn’t want to break it. Apparently a four year old is more trustworthy than a slightly drunk adult man. This is probably true in more areas than just flashlight carrying.

In either case, I didn’t get much sleep that night, nor did I see any owls. But when nap time rolled around, I actually fell asleep. So I never saw where my mother went that day. She wasn’t back when I woke up and I just figured it was like every other day, she was out on the lake doing her thing and I could out to play.

The rules were that if I was on my own, the lake was off limits. Uncle Frank had even gone so far as to establish a boundary of whitewashed rocks that marked the “line of demarcation.” On the house side of the line it was me alone but on the lake side of the line it was me with either my Uncle Frank or my mother. I was known to stand on the rocks but I was always careful not to go beyond them. At that time corporal punishment was not frowned on like it is today. And the one time I was caught beyond the line of demarcation, I was spanked rather hard and the memory did stay with me.

So I didn’t go down to the lake that day. And it wasn’t until Uncle Frank came and found me playing with a group of tree toads that I knew anything was different.
Now the thing is, that morning my mother and I had done our normal puttering around, cleaning up the kitchen and weeding our sad little garden. But we did one thing more that was rather exciting and different which is why I remembered it so clearly.

We packed a suitcase, a bright blue suitcase. We packed it with two of my mother’s dresses, some undergarments, her hairbrush, and her bathroom things. We set that suitcase by the front door to the house. And then we went on to the rest of our normal routine.

When Uncle Frank came home that evening and found me at the cairn, he asked where Feli was. He never called her “your mother” he always called her Feli so that as the years passed I began to think of her that way too. Not my mother, but Feli.

We began to look for her, starting at the lake where the rowboat was in its usual position, moored to the dock. We ranged around the property with no luck. Her bicycle was in the garage in its normal spot. And then I remembered the blue suitcase. I told my Uncle Frank about it and we went back to the house and I pointed to the place where it had been. It wasn’t there. I went racing around the house looking for it but Uncle Frank didn’t. I finally came back to the front door and found him still standing there.

At that point he sort of looked like a Barred owl which always had a wide eyed worried look to me. And I guess that’s where this story starts, on the day my mother disappeared and my Uncle Frank became wide eyed and worried.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Short frantic blog

I should be working on the novel but I have to get rid of a few mind eroding things that are floating on my conscious and distracting me.

You won’t believe what happened on the way to the gym tonight!

REALLY, what happened?

Well, here is the story. It started at the McDonald’s where we were getting our dinner in the drive thru. Our schedule was jam packed and after we got our food we headed back through the parking lot to get to Lincoln Ave. While we were driving through the parking lot Jay dropped his soda. I stopped so he could find it and the car behind me honked. I pulled a little forward so the car could get around me and Jay searched for his soda. We turned on the lights and he finally found the soda. The car behind us honked some more. We reached the exit to Lincoln and we waited for the traffic to clear. A clearly distraught woman pounded on my window. After assuring myself that she didn’t have a weapon of any sort I opened my window so she could share her opinion of my driving. I told her that I felt that she should calm down.

Little did I know that she was a spy and she had secretly stashed very important state secrets in a microchip in her dog’s collar and we were right next to the doggy daycare where her pooch was waiting for her. She had been in a desperate hurry to reach her dog but the few minutes she took to share with me my driving shortcomings were catastrophic because her dog was napped by some evil miscreants who were after the state secrets at exactly that same moment.

Well, we turned onto Lincoln Avenue thinking our night of strange meetings was over but no! We turned left on 3rd avenue just as the light ahead was turning yellow. We slowed, the light turned red and we stopped. Just then a black car came zipping around us and sped into the intersection narrowly missing the oncoming traffic. I looked at the car and realized that it was none other than the evil miscreants with the dog carrying the state secrets. The dog nappers must have been trying to elude the spy in her honking car.

We continued on to gymnastics thinking that perhaps the moon was full and that craziness abounded but when we arrived at gymnastics it seemed all was well.

Except then a car wrecked into a tree near the gym and that same dog that was carrying the state secrets leapt through the broken windshield and raced through the open doors of the gym!

Frantically the dog raced for a hiding place, then sensing a natural born dog lover the dog jumped into the arms of our Ana. With quick thinking Ana protected the dog from the miscreants and the spy by climbing to the top of the gym rope with the dog clinging to her back.

Once the coast was clear, Ana turned the dog over to the FBI, who discovered the state secrets hidden in the collar. Ana was given a reward of $50 and several cheese sticks. The FBI offered to let her keep the dog but alas her brothers are allergic, so the dog was given to President Elect Barack Obama’s daughters and will soon become the First Dog on January 20th.

The preceding is possibly a bit of an exercise in tall tales but the honking crazy woman desperate to get to her dog, the black car zipping around us to run the red light, and the fact that Ana’s brothers are allergic to dogs are all facts humbly submitted for your review…

PS – the moon is not full…

PPS - special thanks to Ana for her help in the formation of this story

Saturday, November 01, 2008


Well this is a tad tedious. I did my words today and then some, so I go to to post them and the website is slow as Christmas, not loading, skipping out, and bottom line not letting me load my words. I'm afraid they are overrun with users. Well I'll keep trying. Just so you know my unofficial word count is at:


Here are my thoughts from my writing time this morning:

So I’m on the first day and it’s weird because the words that have flowed for weeks now seem to have dried up in a way and my arms are tense. My mind is shifting from one focus to another. The election is in a few days and how in the world will I be able to write then? Carrie invited me to an election night party and I’d like to go. I think about other things like the fact that there is Halloween candy strewn across the front hall so that you have to tiptoe your way through it. I’m even thinking about Thanksgiving and turkeys and other garbage like I wonder if there are any holiday tea times available at the Brown. Or emailing Steve about getting Mom and Dad a Wii for Christmas. Sigh, anything but the book. Eric and I even made a pact this morning that we would get up at 5:30am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – he would go to the gym and I would get up and write. He says I’m the double winner though because I get the novel done and I get to be married to a hard body. Oh, the sacrifices that I make. Alright back to the book because these words don’t count.

Other distractions – looking up the word buoy, looking up the history of snorkel gear, when did snorkels and masks become available? In the 40’s, what would you find?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

NaNoWriMo 2008

As you can see to the left of your screen I've added a new item. It's a NaNoWriMo gadget and on Nov 1st (if I've done the HTML correctly) it will start counting the words in my novel. Yes, I'm trying again, I'm embarking on the insanity one more time, I'm chasing the dream, I'm running down a plot and some characters and bringing them to life on the page. As some of you know this is not my first novel. This is actually my third. I don't want to talk about the other two so don't bring them up. I do want to talk about this one. I won't tell you the plot, or the setting, or the characters, or really any details at all because I'm trying to keep them packed in my brain right now where I think they might percolate into something real. The working title for the sake of NaNoWriMo is Feli's Cairns which I already believe is no longer the correct title but we'll let that detail go.

So what is NaNoWriMo? Well, November is National Novel writing month and there are some really crazy folks who put together this sort of support group/website/get famous deal where they ask anyone and everyone to join them in writing a novel in the month of November. They define a novel as 50,000 loosely connected words. So this year I'm taking the challenge. I'm going to write 50,000 words of Feli's Cairns this November.

Here's where you come in. I need some encouragement. I need people to ask me how the word count is going. Not how the plot is coming along or how the characters are shaping up but how the word count is going because the object of this exercise is to get words on the page no matter how crappy they are. Cramming 50,000 words into my already jam packed life is going to be hard, it's going to be near impossible but I really really want to do this so I'm gearing up. Tonight while Ana was in gymnastics for 1 hour and 15 min I hit 1465 words. If I can hit around 1600 words a day for the entire month of November I can reach my goal.

So please, if you love me at all, you'll ask me every frigging day of November - did you hit 1600 today?

Much love,

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Math and FASD

We have started to view math for our daughter quite a bit differently now - she is in 5th grade.

4th grade is when the math gets pretty abstract and FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) kids start to really get out paced by their classroom companions, at least that is what we found. The curriculum that our school uses is Everyday Math - which is great for the average kid - it introduces high level concepts early and circles back to them over and over as the years go on. For our sons the curriculum is great, for our daughter with FASD, the curriculum is a disaster.

We have arrived at a strategy that has reduced our daughter's stress level, continues to educate her in the life skills area of math, and allows her to stay in the classroom for math. During the supported times in the classroom, when the teacher is instructing and working with the students our daughter participates and follows the class curriculum which she is able to do BUT when independent math time comes around she works on her IEP goals - which is to gain independent mastery over the concepts of time and money (about 3 years below the current grade level expectations.) We seem to have landed on a good strategy for us, the school, and most importantly her.

For your FASD child, you may need to ask yourself, what do you really want this child to know on their own, reliably, independently? Sometimes this takes some acceptance of what may be some harsh realities. It took me some time to realize and truly accept that our daughter would not be able to stay on grade level in math, and perhaps in many subjects. Math was glaring though. My husband and I are both engineers and we realized early on that our daughter had very little number sense but it was hard for us to understand why. Trust me, we tried everything we could think of to get her to understand numbers. Eventually we learned about FASD and we are still coming to acceptance of that diagnosis. Not that we don't believe it, we do, but we need to understand just what this means for our daughter and for us.

We hooked up with a neuropsychologist this year and she has really helped us "see" some things. One of the things that she has brought to the fore front for us is our daughter's stress level. We came to realize that our daughter was a giant stressball over school. She ate paper, she pulled her hair out (literally) one strand at a time, she chews her nails, she puts small objects into her mouth, she would cry in the evenings over homework, she would retreat into non-verbal world where she used hand gestures or barked (literally like a dog) to communicate. The neuropsych tuned us in to all this and pointed out that we (and the school) were asking her to do things that she just couldn't do and she sooooooo wanted to please us and her teachers and the combined effect was devastating, it was tearing her apart. So we stopped asking her to do things that were too hard and we started focusing our energy and her energy on the things that were important - life skills.

I mean really, does anyone here use long division in their daily lives?

Since we shifted our focus and have brought the expectations down to where they are just right expectations, we have seen her stress level sink down and she is a happier child. Now that wasn't easy, we had to strip away a lot of our blinders. We've had to face some very scary notions. Will she be able to graduate high school at this pace? Maybe not with her class. Maybe not ever. But the expectation that she somehow maintain grade level performance was causing her too much pain. Once we threw out that idea and started developing expectations that were based on who SHE is and what SHE can do, life got better, for everyone. And she's making measureable progress.

To get to this point I had to be able to say that I didn't care if she didn't work on 3 digit multiplications along with her classmates because I really needed her to be able to tell time and to be able to grasp the concept of relative time. To know that chocolate chip cookies bake for 15 minutes, not 15 seconds and certainly not 15 hours. I had to let go of long division (much less algebra) and realize that if she can't make change (or know about how much change she should expect) she's gonna get ripped off.

So my advice about math is this. First, figure out what your child reliably knows about math. What is a skill that is reliably reproducible? Then go to the next skill that isn't reliably reproducible but is somewhat understood and focus on that. Your child may want to follow along on the classroom instruction like mine does. She enjoys that part. But when left to her own devices she leaves behind the concepts the class is working on and she works on HER next important skill (like telling time). The concept is familiar but not solid yet so she can conceptualize being able to do it and it is work for her. Doing this, rather than working at a goal that is so high it feels unattainable, will keep the child from sharpening a pencil for the third time.

Why does a child sharpen the pencil for the third time? I suggest it might be because sharpening a pencil feels manageable for the child, the expected work waiting at her desk is not manageable but rather, overwhelming.

It took me a long time to really see my child. I'm not saying I'm an expert at it but we're trying. I don't know where this road will lead us but it finally feels right. Throw out the grade level expectations, the standards based metrics, the standardized tests, and the classroom curriculum. Look at your child, consider what they need to learn AND what they can actually do - now write the standards for your child and expect that the school will help your child reach them.

ahem - stepping off soapbox

Respectfully submitted,

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Today is Blog Action Day – Poverty 2008

I’m going to give you some specific memories that I have of poverty that I’ve seen in my life. As an American I’m quite certain that I don’t fully comprehend poverty. I’m just not capable, from my comfortable life, to understand what poverty feels like or means. I can only glimpse hints, wonder at them, and look for ways to help.

My earliest glance

When I was about 11 years old I went to summer camp at Pine Lake Camp, a Lutheran camp in WI. I was in a cabin with a group of girls around my age. We had a dinner one night where only one person at the table got a cheese burger and fries while everyone else got rice and broth. I got the cheeseburger. The other girls in the cabin were pretty angry and downright intimidating. I shared most of my fries and burger even though the counselor said that wasn’t allowed. The point was lost on me at the time. It was supposed to demonstrate how over privileged we are here in the US but I didn’t really get it because I had no real experiences outside my McDonald’s upbringing so the whole idea was rather confusing.

Fast forward ten years

I’m at school at Auburn University in Alabama. The campus is beautiful with rose gardens and southern belles. On a summer day I drive out of town and make a few wrong turns. Soon I’m lost, driving past homes that are so run down they actually sag. I pass one house where a woman sits on the edge of the porch and I guess I’m shocked to realize that people live in these dilapidated shacks. A teacher at school later confirms for me that people do live in those houses and that most of them don’t have running water or electricity. This being 1988 I find it inconceivable.

Ten years ago

Adopting our first child, Eric and I flew to Moscow and then on to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Russia. We land at an airport that has no terminal, just tarmac and a warehouse for luggage. It is below freezing for the entire trip. We take with us a Rubbermaid tub with wheels and a retractable handle that we bought for $35 in the states. The tub is filled with clothes for the orphanage where our son lives. Our adoption coordinator asks about the tub. Do we intend to take it home? No, we were planning to leave it here in Russia. Could she have it for her boyfriend? Sure. We say it without a thought. She is thrilled. We arrive at the orphanage to meet our son. He is brought to us in mismatched hopelessly faded clothes. He is clean, he is well fed but he is detached, aloof. We show his caretakers pictures of our house so they will know that he is going to be well cared for. At that time our house was 1400sf, modest by American standards. They ask, “How many families live here?” We are bewildered by the question. “Do they mean in the neighborhood?” We ask our translator. “No” she clarifies, “In the house.” Just us, we reply, just us and soon, our son. That night we stay at the best hotel in Krasnoyarsk, it is freezing, hot water is only available for an hour a day, the tile in the bathroom is cracked, stained, and missing in places. For breakfast we are served tomatoes and hot dogs. There are no choices, just this. But we are leaving in a few days and really we just want to get our son home safe so we eat tomatoes and hot dogs for breakfast and in the back of our minds we know it is just for a few days. Later in the trip we eat at a Bennigan’s in Moscow and the waitress points out the ten dishes that are not available on the menu because they don’t have that food today.

These images have changed me slowly, none more effectively than our trip to Russia. Our adopted children are a permanent reminder that the world is filled with people struggling with poverty. It isn’t just a lack of money, food, decent shelter, or necessities. Poverty is a lack of clarity, a lack of sight, and a lack of compassion. I’m as guilty as anyone. I like my things, I have a hard time letting go of my own security and my own pleasure in order to share my abundance. I have visions of endless lines of starving people, of orphanage after orphanage of desperate children, hopelessly I think where do I begin and where does it end? We have to do more and yet I fear we can never do enough. And yet I know and believe that I can’t let these thoughts stop the next thing I do to fight poverty. The war may never be won but the battle is a noble one and should go on.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It came to me in a rush. A memory that wasn’t entirely pleasant but it felt legitimate, not manufactured. Eric and I were crammed into the desks of my son’s 6th grade language arts class when it happened. Our son’s teacher stood at the front of the class earnestly describing the curriculum to a bunch of desperate parents. I listened and nodded like the other parents wanting to be reassured that my 6th grader was learning something, anything really. While my recent journeys into writing have taught me what Aristotle’s incline is, I was hopelessly challenged to understand the nuances of the Inductive paragraph that he was describing. Ok, truth be told I didn’t comprehend that part at all. But then he echoed something all of the other teachers had spoken of. The need for the child to appear at the appointed hour ready to work, prepared for class. I nodded vigorously, yes they need to come to class prepared, they should have their stuff together. I agreed with that part, felt that part may be the most important part. That’s when the memory exploded onto the scene, like a balloon popping, it was a surprise and not an entirely pleasant one at that.

I’m 12, crouched in front of my locker on the second floor of Greendale Intermediate school. My hair is cut short in curls and at the moment it’s about the only thing I can think of. I’ve had the hair style for less than 24 hours. Yesterday at this time it had been long and straight reaching most of the way down my back, now it barely grazes my collar and it is sprung into curls due to a bucket of chemicals that smell like chicken soup gone badly wrong. And while the drastic change had been something I had been committed to for weeks I was now feeling a tad queasy about the whole thing. Did I look better than yesterday? What did Andy think? How did the popular girls get their hair to look so good?

I can assure you that the very last thing I was contemplating was preparation for Mrs. Rudik’s social studies class. Nope, no sir, not a chance. My hair obsession lasted for years, in fact, I’m not entirely sure that it is over, although it no longer tends to interfere with my ability to prepare for meetings. Abstractly thinking about distractions I can’t decidedly say that I have moved past them. Today I was on a conference call and blatantly checking to see what the Dow had done. Down 687 points, damn, now that’s a distraction.

My son still hasn’t done his Inductive Paragraph, in fact he is sitting next to me now trying to pound through it while his sister works on her gymnastics skills. He has decided to write the paragraph about Chess. He started out focused on the history of chess which he knows little about and continually peppers me with questions. Straining to answer I think back to the show Chess trying to remember the opening song and then I remember this is his paragraph, not mine. How about writing about the Queen, she is the most powerful piece right? And you know a lot about the queen right? Write about that so I can focus on this blog entry. It seems that many of my distractions at this point in my life have legs. Beyond those very real, living, breathing distractions are the others that I haven’t mastered yet, like the DOW or my hair. Perhaps I've gained some control over those or I just might be a little better at hiding it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Into the night

On Monday night a man walked out into the night with the family dogs. He was carrying a few things with him that night. He was carrying hopelessness and he was carrying despair. He left the dogs at the edge of the yard and he kept on walking.

These weren’t your garden variety variations on sadness. They were a heavier kind, a lengthier kind, a more pervasive sinister kind. They had wrapped themselves around him so tightly; they so fervently blocked his eyes and his mind that when he wrestled with them they only grew stronger.

In the past they had become different yokes for him to wear: addiction, anger, depression, alcoholism but in truth those were all just the faces of that same hopelessness and despair. And no matter what he tried he couldn’t shake them off. They surrounded him like an endless fog, heavy but with no substance, distorting the voices and the faces around him until they had him alone.

In a moment of rage he shattered them. With the last of his will he took his life away from them. With no anchor the despair and hopelessness splintered into a million little pieces, flying up and away from him. They rain down now, on us, those who knew him and we each hold our little piece in our hands.

I turn mine over in my hands at 4am. It is a dirty reminder. And if I’m not careful, it will grow. Already it’s looking for a new place to take hold.

And so I take the small piece that I hold and I craft it into this. My intention is to send it out, a variation on itself, a small bit of poison that serves as a warning, a vaccination of sorts.

Mental illness has no poster child, it has no three day walk and yet it preys like any other disease. Its cure isn’t simple. A blue pill from a bottle once a day, twelve steps, a couch, someone to talk with, someone to pray to, all weapons in the fight. Each weapon with its own inadequacies, sometimes they work better in combination but sometimes they don’t work at all.

We shun mental illness, our medical insurance doesn’t cover it, our disability policies are limited within it, and our life insurance policies are worthless against it. We speak of it in whispered tones even though it resides in the best families. Shame, humiliation, and fear walk in lockstep with its hopelessness and despair.

If it is growing in your house please take care, find your helps and don’t underestimate its strength and tenacity because suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for males and the sixteenth leading cause of death for females in the United States.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Polina Seminova!!!

Just watch - she does this better than I'll ever do anything - just amazing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On Balance

I’ve often said that I won’t write about work on my blog. This statement stands as I have no interest in getting fired. Don’t mistake me, I love my job and for the most part I like the company I work for, so I’d never intentionally express an opinion on my blog that would get me fired but I’ve read one too many articles about the follies of blogging about work so I’ll keep mum.

That being said I’m going to talk about work.

In the past few years I’ve struck a great balance. I’ve pulled back at work, officially, I don’t work full time anymore. I work a few hours less than a full time schedule with flexible hours. In a business built on projects, the one I’m on happens to afford this luxury.

The kids are all in school so their hours are fixed. They do go to after school care and we indulge a lot of after school activities at the school. This year I drop them off at school, staying until the bell rings. This gives me the opportunity to chat with teachers, give extra time with reading, and to witness some of the social elements at school.

I’ve volunteered my time a little too liberally this year and am in the midst of trying to pull back. I headed up the school auction, am coordinating the counselors for camp, and am organizing acolytes and lectors at church. Too much, but I’ve learned and when some of these commitments wind up I’ll not be re-upping for next year.

So it’s all good for the most part and then work changed.

Over the years I’ve had much greed for my career and it never really panned out. I was ambitious and impatient. I think that combination made me ugly at times. It was never the money that I truly craved although that was part of it. It was bragging rights I was after. Then after all the kids joined the family and I was still trying to pull of a magazine cover career it all came together in a train wreck. A long about he same time a good friend teetered and then fell right over the edge. I’m not saying it’s the same or that I know why she splintered. I just watched and felt that I learned something about what was important.

So I pulled back at work, I focused a little more on the kids and things have been smooth. This is for a few years now.

In the past few months, some of those things that I always wanted in work have come calling. I’m resisting the urge use the phrase “siren song.” It isn’t magazine cover stuff, not by a long shot, but it is more responsibility than I’ve had. I work with the kind of people that inspire dedication. Truly I find that I’m getting more out of myself than I ever have and I know that it’s the support of good people that have made that so. And now I find that they want more. Not in a demanding sense, never that with this crowd. Much more of a coaxing, complimentary asking sense. Flattery. And I want to. I really really want to.
What would happen if I did?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hopping in our socks

It was the sock hop tonight. The Spring Fling at our kid’s elementary. We have a second, fourth, and fifth grader. The dynamics are fun to watch.

First off we have the fifth grader who has dressed for the occasion, in what for him is the best clothes he has. A pair of athletic pants, a long sleeved under armor shirt, and a Broncos jersey. His long blond hair falls like to his eyebrows, over his ears and down around his collar. From a friend he has borrowed an over sized ball cap and a pair of wrap around shades. He is ultra cool. He doesn’t talk to the girls. He folds his arms and leans back to strike a pose when I take his picture. No smile. At the end of the night he goes through an elaborate ritual handshake with two of his friends and I do my best to hold back a smile.

Second, we have a fourth grader. She is chatting and squirming and looking everywhere but at the one slice of pizza that’s in front of her. She races from one end of the room to the other in one long giggle. Dancing in a circle with her friends and desperately trying to follow the line dance some friends’ older sisters are doing. I can see flashes of the teenager she will be. For once all of the girls are being friends with no nasty looks, just crazy laughing and careening at top speed toward and away from the boys.

Then we have a second grader. There are no pre-hormonal dynamics going on here, just plain old fun. A little spastic break dancing, a lot of running, and at least three half drank sodas. He and his friend each take one side as they stare into the multi colored light ball that is spinning at the front of the room. Then they race to the back of the room to join up with some other second graders, boys and girls alike who are getting in line for the limbo.

Three or four enthusiastic moms dance all night amid the kids. Most of the rest of the parents sit at the lunchroom tables sipping soda and yelling conversations over the music which has quickly shifted from sock hop to hip hop. One or two parents have dressed for the occasion. Mostly it is those who would be emulating their parents with 50’s gear. Those who would have to mimic grandparents to reach the 50’s haven’t bothered.

It’s a ritual which is becoming fun now that the kids are old enough not to completely melt down at the end of the night. It is still difficult to get them out the door, to the car, into the house, and calm enough for bed without tears but miraculously it is done. And as I finish these words they are all asleep.

Good night my sweetest of peas.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Thought I Wouldn't Get Caught...

What does progress look like? In every child progress is measured differently. I used to think that I knew what that sort of a statement meant but I didn’t. Not really. What I thought I knew was based on my own experience, based on my own growth and development. It was based on the idea that anything is possible if you just try hard enough.

And that’s false. Oooooh, what a dangerous thing to say in this world that worships positive thinking. The truth is that there are things that are out of reach for each of us. And for some of us there is quite a lot out of reach.

My daughter’s development is delayed. If you’ve been reading for a while you’ll know that. There are things that just take longer. Sometimes a lot longer. And we all have to admit that there are some things that won’t ever come.

Because I’m a positive thinker by nature I won’t venture to guess what those things are.
Because I’m a realist I know that they are out there.
Rather than pre-determine them I’ll let her determine them.

That means that even when I doubt I just keep teaching anyway.

Cause and effect is one of those illusive things. Ask her why she is in trouble and she doesn’t know. Honestly, no clue. You can get as angry as you want and she still won’t know why she is in trouble.

So tonight we went to gymnastics and I knew that it wasn’t going to be a good night based on the scant hour I had with her between school and leaving the house. Her behavior was off, verbal functioning was almost non-existent and perseverance was high. But off we go because we don’t stop trying.

15 minutes into practice she is walking up the stands toward me. The teacher has sent her to sit in the stands. Why? She doesn’t know. I nod unsurprised. Do you need a hair tie or something? No. Are you in trouble? No. Are you sure? Yes. A few moments pass. Maybe I’m in trouble. Why? I don’t know. Okay, let’s go ask. So we ask and learn that Ana was sent to the stands because she was on the trampoline when she wasn’t supposed to be. 5 minutes in the stands. So we go back to the stands and sit.

It takes a few minutes to establish what time it is and what time it will be when the 5 minutes is over. Then I ask, did you know that you shouldn’t use the equipment you aren’t working on? Yes. And when you got on the trampoline did you know that you weren’t supposed to be on it? Yes. So what did you think was going to happen?

There is a bit of a silence during which I’m expecting her to answer - I don’t know. That would be typical, and at that moment I believed that I might get that answer for the rest of my life and hers. But because I hope I still have to ask.

And then she said an astonishing thing, she said, I thought I wouldn’t get caught.

I wish I could express just how happy and astounded I was. This is such a large step forward in reasoning and self realization that I am beyond pleased to downright dizzy.

She is having fun in class right now and during the lulls in action she is picking her toenails, chomping her nails, pulling her cuticles, and flossing her teeth with a plucked hair. The stress of the day is tearing her apart from the inside out. What a cost there is to these steps forward.

Progress is different for each child. Very very different and I would never understand that if I hadn’t been blessed with this special child. So I am blessed and I am learning. And Thanks be to God, so is she.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Be the Horse

So it finally happened to me. Yes, I’ve passed yet another one of those Motherhood Rites of Passage. It was Wednesday night just as bedtime rituals were wrapping up when she turned to me, my 9 yr old wonder child. She looked at me as she often does, as if I am the ultimate authority on things, as if I am a magician that makes the world appear. And perhaps in her eyes I meet that expectation. Her face framed with long black waves, her brown eyes fringed with long black lashes looked at me with that world expectation and the following words issued from her mouth. “Mom, I need a horse costume for my play for school by Friday.”

I hear I’m lucky, some mothers get less than the 36 hours notice I got. I’ve heard of all nighters. I’ve heard dramatic stories of staplers and duct tape. So I won’t complain. Much.

The next morning during the mini-van ride I’m stressing. I’m having trouble envisioning the solution to this horse costume problem. All that comes to mind is a complex series of contraptions I’ve seen in the movies. One in particular was a wire cage shaped like a horse head covered in brown mesh with eye holes. Another involved a person standing within a horse structure effectively making the person wearing the costume into a rider. Either of these options exceed the limitations of my craft drawer which contains scrap yarn, watercolors, discarded needlepoint floss, and mass of tangled ribbon. So I ask her. “What did you have in mind for this horse costume?”

Now this is a child whose imagination far exceeds the typical. She spends much of her time in imaginative play, often in fact being a horse or more likely a dog. There are times when she will sink so deep into doggy world that we can’t get her to use her words anymore. She’s quite a convincing dog, I’ve seen dog owners turn their heads when she goes off at an imagined squirrel. But I digress, the point is, I’m expecting something elaborate and impossible.

In answer to my question she gives me a look that far exceeds her years of possible experience with annoyance and says, “I just thought we could use a hoodie and put ears and stuff on it.” This, accompanied with a shrug.

“Oh, well I can do that.” I reply.

At home later, I pull out a skein of yarn and the sewing machine. Without a lot of effort I produce a mane and tail from the yarn and sew them into place. Some felt and cardboard become the ears. When all is assembled and tried on, I realize the depth of her talent for imagination. She gallops off into the living room and she is a horse. She doesn’t need the costume to do the work. She’s doing it herself.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


This started as a funny piece but now I'm not so sure. When it first came to me I was playing ping pong on our new wii. I don’t play the wii much, the kids love it but it seems to fall a bit low on my priority list. But there I was playing against the machine trying to hit 100 shots in a row in ping pong. I was working my way up. 43 then 50 then 65 then 73… trying for 100. I realized partway through that I did better if I didn’t focus on the game. I distracted myself with thoughts of this essay while I hit on autopilot and from there I jumped to 90… I took a break to say goodnight to the kids but I came right back to it. I was… obsessed. Trying to distract the thinking part of my brain and engage the pure reaction part, I tried over and over to get to 100. Sometime later I did it. It didn’t take too long, maybe another half hour, which is good because I’m fairly certain I wasn’t going anywhere until it was done. I was obsessed, compelled, compulsive about the experience. I’ve felt this before. I get there often at work, where it can be an asset, this ability to obsess.

But it isn’t always positive. My first memory of obsession was at the Minnesota State Fair. There was this game on the midway where you could win a huge stuffed pink panther. I was about 13 and I was attracted. Throw a dime at a series of glass plates raised on a platform, get the dime to stay on a plate and the huge pink panther was yours. I was too young to understand how the midway worked. Odds favor the house. Bigtime. I played and I played until the dimes were gone and I was good and frustrated. No stuffed animal and some impatient companions. “Come on Amy let’s go” That particular experience ended with a sour feeling of cheated dissatisfaction.

Last night a friend talked about her brother trying to quit his addictions. She related how as part of his rehab they discussed when the using had started and how. Apparently it had started young for most of the crowd. I thought about my experiences with obsession in my life. Positive work experiences for the most part, occasional silly obsessions like the wii ping pong, but only the one time where my obsession left me feeling hollow afterwards. It seems that obsessions contain a strong element of hope in them. While the obsession lasts, the obsessed one feels hope that a goal will be attained. I’ll get to 100 ping pong hits, I’ll get the data arranged in a way that’s illuminating, I’ll win the big stuffed pink panther.

What makes that different than addiction? Was I really addicted to the game instead of obsessed with it? But the word addicted seemed wrong so I started to think about Addition.

Addiction seems to have an element of satisfaction in it with each step. I’ve known a few alcoholics in my time and a few smokers too. In both cases there seems to be an immediate reward for engaging in the addition. The pull on the cigarette leads to a calmer outlook. Knock back a shot and the brain mellows. It feels good. It fills a need. It satisfies a craving.

Do my obsessions really feel good? I’m not sure that they do. Certainly throwing the dime and losing the game over and over didn’t feel good. It was the image of eventually winning, the hope of obtaining the giant pink panther that held my focus. The ping pong? Well it is fun to play but once I got the goal I stopped. I no longer felt the need to play so I guess it was only moderately fun and it wasn’t addicting.

But more than the satisfaction that comes from the action I think the difference is how it ends. Obsessions can end when the goal is reached, but addiction doesn’t really have a goal does it? An obsession, it seems, can end when the goal is reached and satisfaction is achieved. An addiction doesn’t seem to have an opportunity to end in satisfaction from what I’ve observed. So while both might be characterized by perseverant behavior they have wildly different endings.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I read a memoir this week. It’s called The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and while I liked it I found myself weighing each chapter. Did I really believe it? Or did she just make this up in order to get it published? With one false memoir after another being revealed lately I keep telling myself to just think of it all as fiction and not get wrapped up in the biography piece.

All writing is fiction anyway right? All writing is a reflection of the author. Journalism, TV shows, president’s speeches, hip hop lyrics, picture books, radio shows, biographies – the writer’s mark is indelible. Each truth we try to tell is colored by our perception, which is stained by our personal history, which is affected by our mood, which is perpetuated by the chemicals running through our brains.

Beyond the wild fabrications of being raised by wolves or gangs in south central LA, there is the more typical biography and the small adjustments. How can anyone really be trusted to see the truth of their own life? One of my favorite bloggers Jonah Lehrer talks about the reality of memory in his post Reconsolidating the Future. Essentially what Jonah describes is that every time we recall something we rewrite it and so the memory is damaged. How trustworthy could any biography be with that fact in hand? Most manuscripts are rewritten and massaged any number of times, and how many times are the memories massaged in the mind before the pen is even laid to paper? And so the memoir becomes a Monet, held at a distance a picture is formed but up close the details are sketchy. Maybe that is the way it should be and our sensibilities shouldn’t be roughed up by it.

I think what I liked most about The Glass Castle was the invisible therapist’s touch. Harsh memories were balanced with life lessons. Everything is presented with a over arching softening which says, I can live with this memory, moreover we can all live with this memory. The book recalls not the glare of newly dredged up memories, but the soft light of much handled ones.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Son is a Bastard

He’s eleven now. And I should mention that he’s bright. His IQ is higher than either of ours, which strangely didn’t come as a shock when we found out. In a way it was comforting, an explanation of sorts. But the key here is that he gets things, swiftly and with a confidence that is disconcerting at times. Chess was that way, at five he could beat me, from the moment he was taught the basics of the game he just saw the board in a way that I’ll never see it. I guess I should also mention his heightened fight or flight response, with fight always coming first. We suspect this is a carryover from infancy, the year of institutionalization coinciding with that precious first year of brain development where the neural net is carved in granite. His neural pathway to the fight response is a super highway.

Flash forward to last Monday where a simple game of tag, with the goal of swiping a knit hat ended in the principal’s office. He had the hat. I can imagine him pulling it down tight over his ears before taking off in a sprint. He’s no distance runner but he has good speed in short intervals. I’m sure it was after that initial burst that she caught him. She grabbed for the hat. He pulled the edges down tight. She got a firmer grip on the hat and in the process his hair. She pulled. He yelled. She pulled. He kicked. Let me say at this point that the last time he kicked was just a few weeks ago. He put his toe to his father's shin and succeeded in bending his father over, so I’m sure the girl had a right to be upset.

Warning – bad words ahead. She called him out. “Fuck you, you bastard.” She said. I can imagine the words bursting from her in a bellow, somewhat deserved to be honest. From there they both landed in the principal’s office.

Phone calls to parents were made. (I answered my cell phone when it rang so I got the good news first.) Community service was issued. And all around grumbling ensued. The incident was rehashed at length over the dinner table that night with the younger ones hanging on every word. It took a while to get the story straight and even then he glossed over her role saying only that she used the F word which is what earned her the trip to the office.

As parents we gnashed our teeth over the proper response. Violent knee jerk reactions aren’t unusual with this child but things have been better as of late. He accepted that he was in the wrong and we came up with his “consequences” together. Everyone agreeing that it was reasonable.

I went to school. I talked to the teacher who was quite matter of fact about the whole thing but then she said, “Well, did he tell you what she said?”
“just that she used the F word”
“it was more than that”
I gave her a questioning look and she quoted the exact phrase that was used. The girl had called him a bastard. She gave me a significant look. I stared at the teacher dumbly thinking to myself well he was acting like an ass, so the word was apt. Then it sunk in. She had called him a bastard - a man who didn’t know his sire. Oh.
“Surely she didn’t mean it that way.” I said.
“No, no, I don’t think so but I wanted to be sure he wasn’t upset by it.”

Until that moment I’d never thought of my son as a bastard. It had never crossed my mind before. But standing in that classroom with the 5th grade teacher watching over me I realized it was true. An archaic term to be sure but accurate, if you’re sticking with the literal definition, my son is a bastard. His sire is a mystery.

And so I’m left wondering why he left it out of the story, this very bright child of mine. Was he more impressed by the F word and so the word bastard didn’t seem necessary in driving home her transgression? Or was there another reason, one he doesn’t want to face, that he is something that is so looked down upon in society that we curse it. He is cursed. A boy who doesn’t know his sire and more than likely never will.

The beauty of an adoption that is going right, is that you forget. The fact of the adoption just floats right out of your mind. Eons can pass where it doesn't occur to you. The child is simply yours. And then there are jarring moments when it all falls back in your lap and your eyes are opened fresh again.

My son is a bastard… but don’t tell that to his father.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Migraine

When I look out on the white of a cloudy sky I see the migraine pulsing, swimming in the white, small white circles outlined in throbbing beige. The pain of it is steady though, a round fist pushing out of the very center of my forehead. My nose has that feeling that you get after you’ve smacked it on something, not hard, but enough that you know it. The feeling doesn’t fade. My ears hear everything and the sounds are brighter, some of them impossibly so. My eyes are tired, the sort of sore that comes from sitting by a smoky fire but they see all the details, fuzzed then clear. Seeing all the colors, all the way to the edge of my vision. My thoughts are jagged. My body impatient. The muscles ready to react, too ready and they tremble with it, occasionally startling me by flexing as if they were stimulated by some unknown charge.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Eye Blinks

There's this new study out on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect. The group who published the paper went out to a bunch of 5 year olds with FAE and they tried to condition a response in them.

You remember conditioned response right?
Good ole Pavlov's Dogs.
Salivate at the ring of a bell.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alchol Effect - that's the label given to the brain damage that is done to a fetus when a woman drinks during pregnancy.

Well, these children were supposed to be conditioned to blink at the ring of the bell. Using a puff of air and a bell ringing these kids were supposed to learn to blink except these kids didn't get it. Didn't get conditioned that is. Puff of air, that produced the blink. Puff of air with bell, that produced the blink. After a few times a normal kid would blink on the bell. But not for the FAE kids. Ring the bell, no blink.

Every newspaper article I've read about it talks about how this might be a definative test for FAS. There is no test now, it's syndrome which is a collection of symptoms - meet some criteria, provide the history, and you get the label. So a test would be... helpful.

As I read the article I felt it said something else. This "no blink effect" describes the very essence of FAE. The part of the brain that learns just doesn't always get it. Or sometimes it gets it but then it often forgets it. If maybe it does get it, but it comes ten seconds too late.

I waiting on the full text of the study. I'll be interested in what it says. I wonder if these kids could learn the blink given enough time and enough repetitions.

I'm hoping for the blink, the eventual blink. I have to believe in the eventual blink.

Friday, January 25, 2008

born to be

One child was born to be good. He is one of those children who just knows what is expected at any given time and if it is within his power he will do it. Teachers love this child, they literally gush when they speak of him. Their eyes light up, their hands wave, and smiles burst forth. It doesn’t hurt that he’s smart, he picks up concepts easily and he excels but what makes them swoon is that he is so very good.

One child was born marching to a different drummer. She is one of those children who doesn’t have any clue what you expect from her and she dances away from you. Teachers are baffled by this child. She doesn’t respond to any of their usual tricks. When they speak of her, their gaze slips away, their upper lip’s crinkle, and a sigh ekes out. It doesn’t help that she struggles academically but what makes them shake their heads is her inability to fit.

Every day in the “good” child’s class they spend five minutes at the end of the day assessing their behavior. Each child rates themselves according to a metric they established a month or so into school. Each day the “good” child comes home with the highest score without exception. Often this is accompanied with a white slip of paper called a good news check. If he returns it with a parent’s signature, he is entered into a drawing for lunch with the teacher. It seems like he has eaten lunch with the teacher every week since school started. He is consistently rewarded for what he naturally does, for something that requires no effort on his part. He is rewarded for who he is.

Most days the child “who marches to a different drummer” wouldn’t even be able to assess her behavior, especially not to the teacher’s agreement. She doesn’t see herself the way that the world sees her. Rarely does she get rewarded, often though she is reprimanded, so often. She is sometimes punished for something she doesn’t understand or worse yet she is shunned for being who she naturally is.

And I am astounded because I see so clearly how ridiculous the system is, something I never saw until now. It is essentially the same system I moved through with ease because I am hopelessly like that “good” child. We praise the children who are naturally good, the ones who are good without even trying and we punish or leave behind those who haven’t got a clue.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Joy Denalane feat. Lupe Fiasco - Change

Okay - I'm loving this. I'm taking a dance class and we are using a Lupe Fiasco song. So I was listening to some of his stuff when I came upon this. Had to share. Give it a listen.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Today a carpenter started work in my unfinished kitchen. In a few hours the ragged edges started to come together into something that really looked like what we had originally envisioned. We ordered the last few pieces the kitchen sorely needs, a few doors, some tile for a backsplash. The floor guy came too and we talked about all those places that they needed to come back and work on, they were supposed to come back and work on them four years ago but well I guess I put that off a bit. The carpenter will return tomorrow for a few hours and then again in a few weeks when the other door and the tile have come in.

We’ve been living in an unfinished house and there is something about that which is unsettling. For a long time I didn’t notice. It didn’t bother me that the hardwoods fell short of the baseboards, or that the chair rail in the kitchen had holes in it. But lately it has started to creep up on me and I don’t think it’s really about the esthetics. I think it’s a matter of completeness. Life is always a work in progress but if there are too many ragged edges then things feel, well, frayed (to work the metaphor to death.)

So while this effort won’t finish the to-do list for this house, it will give us a few complete rooms. A friend of mine, Madelyn, suggested this, years ago when we were moving simultaneously (we were moving out of one side of their townhouse while they were moving out of their side into ours – yes, it was chaos) she told me that once she had one room completely put to rights she could make it through the rest of the move but there had to be one room that was a refuge. I think it’s a good metaphor for life. You have to have one room that is in order, one room to retreat to. I think that your home sometimes reflects the condition of your life. So I’m going for a whole floor. One floor of the house that feels put together and whole. So even if here are other places that are ragged and need work there would be one place in our home that is whole, comfortable, and complete.