“What I am Thankful For…”

IMG_0749When the Dude was the little dude, every Thanksgiving I’d get a heartfelt letter scrawled on ivory handwriting paper. The missive was accompanied by a colorful turkey made from his handprint, a pilgrim or two, a tank, Dustin Pedroia, and sharks chasing Peyton Manning in open water.

Reading over prior year’s “thankfuls” I was struck with how little he’s changed. Although he might have a few new items to add to his list, the core is largely the same.

First  is the expected–my family, a house, my cats, decent food. “Decent” food? Really? It must be because I made him eat vegetables.

Next comes the really important stuff. I know it’s important because every word is spelled correctly; The Red Sox, The Patriots, Dustin Pedroia and Tom Brady, Star Wars, and Macaroni and Cheese, but only the orange kind, not the stuff Mom makes with four artisan cheeses. That version is merely “decent.”

Third, we get to the kiss-up phase, where he says whatever he thinks the teacher wants to hear. My country, the galaxy, freedom and liberty, and English. At least I think it says English.

The end is always the same. I’m thankful for Christmas. In his minimalist period, Christmas was the only thing he was thankful for.

My list is pretty short; family, friends, music, words, NPR and my Roomba. Oh–and my cappuccino machine. I’m a simple gal with simple needs.

I don’t get the Dude’s thankful letters any more, so I would have to guess at what he’d include. Frappuccinos and a full tank of gas (provided by someone other than him), Call of Duty, college acceptance letters, his “bros”, streaming television, doughnuts and Saturday.  The Red Sox and the Patriots. His handprint would take up the entire page. He wouldn’t include the tank, but Peyton Manning being devoured by sharks might still make the cut.

I have to wonder what he’ll be thankful for next year, when he’s been away at college for three months. I’m thinking he may be more appreciative of my “decent” cooking. I’ve never served up hot chili Fritos, not even once. Personally, I’ll be thankful to have him home, leaving his dirty socks in incomprehensible locations and interrupting my writing to discuss the baseball trades and the Pats Superbowl prospects. And my cappuccino machine. Some things never change.


Speaking of relationships…

megaphone (2)I’ve tuned my strings and rosined my bow, which should mean it’s time to practice. I know however, that it is time for the Dude to pose some deep existential question we must discuss right now. I barely make it through the first scale when I hear him clawing up the stairs on his elbows. When he’s finished, he collapses in the hallway outside my practice room door.

What will it be tonight, I wonder? The abandonment of scientific evidence by mainstream media outlets? Perhaps the feasibility of isolationism in a global economy? Or the perennial favorite, why do ESPN commentators rank Peyton Manning above Tom Brady?

None of the above.

“How do I talk to women?”

“Your lungs create air pressure which causes the vocal chords to vibrate, and then…” He gives me his best “Why do I ask you anything” eye roll. I’m still holding the violin, although I know it’s a lost cause. I don’t mind. I’m aware the sand is running out on my chick-in-the-nest hourglass.

“I mean beyond, hi, how are you, great party.” He gives a manly sigh. “Guys are easy to talk to. I make a sarcastic remark about Nick, Nick comes back with an even more sarcastic remark about me. Then I make another sarcastic remark, and…”

I stop him before this becomes the conversation that gets on everybody’s nerves, namely mine. “Ask questions.” I used to do this for a living. It’s amazing what people will spill when they believe you’re hanging on their every word. “Everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. Ask about her hobbies, her favorite classes, and her family. Ask follow up questions to get more detail. If she’s an equestrian, ask about her horse. If she plays an instrument, ask about composers.”

“But what if I’m not all that interested in her answer?”

“Do you think I’m all that interested in the history of debt?” My husband reads a lot of non-fiction. For the record, the history of debt is actually kind of interesting,  Maybe not four days worth of interesting, but interesting. “If you’re truly interested in her, you’re interested in what she has to say.”

He’s not convinced.

“Trust me. A–I’m a woman. B–I’ve had enough successful relationships that I’ve had sex.”

“With Dad.” Like that disqualifies him somehow. I’m glad my husband isn’t in the house.

“Still, I’m a woman, and you talk to me all of the time.” Usually when I’m writing, practicing, or about to go to sleep, not that I’m being picky.

“It’s different. You’re like a guy. You can even talk about Tom Brady.”

“I’m like a human being.” I get all woman-power on his ass. We’ve had many discussions lately about feminism vs. humanism, Gamergate, and why I go batshit when someone says they don’t like feminists because they’re “shrill.”

“Women are people. We have thoughts and ideas to share. We don’t just talk about shoes and our emotions. Women care about politics, and current events, and yeah, even sports. We’re just like men, except with boobs.”

He cringes. “You had me until the men with boobs thing.”

“And it wouldn’t hurt to share your emotions from time to time.”

“I don’t have emotions.”

“If you didn’t have emotions, you wouldn’t have crawled up the stairs and flopped the doorway of my practice room to ask me this question. Look Dude, these things aren’t automatic. They take effort.”

Effort. It’s such a nasty word.

“I’ve always heard that relationships should be easy, that if they require a huge effort, something is fundamentally wrong.”

“I’ve always heard one shouldn’t quote relationship advice until they’ve actually been in a relationship, which, by the way, I have.”

“With DAD.”

I know that this particular conversation has reached diminishing marginal returns, and I have a gig the next day I need to prepare for, so I pull out the best conversation killer I know.

“There are a few things I could tell you about your Dad, Dude. Like this one time…”

He plugs his ears and runs down the stairs. “Lalalala. I can’t hear you!”

“…he read this amazing book on the history of debt.”

Photograph : Suessian Megaphone, by Michael © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr


You aren’t your story. Uhm, what?

millertypewriterThe Dude threw himself on my office floor, face down. “Aaaaarrrrggggghhh.”

“Good day, then?” He raised his head enough to give me the look. If he wanted tea and sympathy, he chose the wrong cabbage patch. Still, I’m better at the emotional stuff than his father.

“For a school that talks about preparing us for college, you think they’d give us enough time to actually submit our applications.” He’s been hammered with work. Junior year was supposed to be the big hurt. Apparently it was just the warm up. “I’ve forgotten everything we talked about yesterday.”

I’ve been helping him with the essays. When he speaks, he’s engaging, funny, even poignant (he gets it from me), but somewhere between his head and the pencil his words take a snooze. So we talk. I ask him questions and he takes notes. He writes something heartfelt and his English teacher edits the crap out of it until he sounds like every other kid from his high school. My guess is that he sounds like every other kid from every other high school.

“Dad says my Red Sox hat as beacon analogy doesn’t work.” I knew his father’s critique had bothered him. The Dude had closed up like a hermit crab, arms across his chest, slumped in the teenage hunch of lalalala I can’t hear you. “It’s my favorite sentence in the whole essay. It really says something about me.”

He’s right. It does. His father is also right. As analogies go, it’s a little clumsy. Like something a seventeen year-old might write.

Coincidentally, I just attended a workshop on voice–the unique character of a writer’s work. We struggle with finding our voice, refining it while keeping it authentic and real. It’s the soul of a writer’s work, and what keeps the reader coming back again and again.

Getting critiqued is hard. It helps us grow, but let’s face it. It’s much more fun to hear about how wonderful we are.

Authors often quote the platitude “Our stories are not ourselves.” I don’t find this statement comforting. At best, I hear “We like you, it’s just your writing that sucks.” The real truth is that we are our stories. That’s what voice is all about.

I try it out with the Dude anyway, and he responded, “If we are not our stories, what’s the point of writing college essays? What happened to all that talk about wanting to know who we are, blah, blah, blah.” He’s extra emotive with the blah, blah, blah part.

That, Dude, is an excellent question (he gets that from me as well).

I think our stories are ourselves–as flawed and quirky and beautiful as we are. Perhaps hiding our voice might make us less vulnerable to the sting of rejection, but as the Dude would say “What’s the point?” How else do people know who we really are?

Writing is only one form of telling our stories. We each tell our stories every day in what we put out in the world. Be brave. Share your voice.

And Dude–don’t let the world edit you out of your own story. So far, it’s been a real page-turner and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photograph : Typewriter of Capricorn by Emdot © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr




My son applied to college and all I got was this essay

draftMy son is applying for college and our entire household is on Valium. The source of our stress, however, is not the shift in our family structure or the cost of out of state tuition. It’s the college application process.

I applied to two colleges. The Dude is applying to eight. I’m told this is on the low end of average.  Each application has anywhere from one to three essay questions. And we’re not talking about lame, tell me about yourself, what you’re studying, why you’re buckets of awesome essay questions. These are theses worthy of a philosophy doctoral student or an entire White House Cabinet. Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff than having to outline a position on the Affordable Care Act in 300 words or less, in a way that shows the reader the real you. After all, it works for the Miss America pageant, right?

One of the essay questions is actually “Why do you do what you do?” I’ve been asking the Dude this question for years (although it’s generally worded “What were you thinking?”, and he’s yet to come up with any answer, let alone an articulate one. The best I can get out of him is an indiscriminate mumble and the head hang of chagrin.

Another question gives a quote about momentary connections with strangers that can have profound emotional impact. It asks the student to share a similar experience. We’re talking about a 17 year-old boy. Connecting with human beings would require him to look up from his phone, and compared to his friends, my son is freaking Oprah.

Show, don’t tell. Share something unique about yourself. Show that you’ve done your research. Articulate your career aspirations. Have career aspirations. No wonder the Dude is having a nervous breakdown. They’d might as well ask for the history of ball point pen spelled out in interpretive dance.

I understand that colleges need some means to distinguish between applicants, so let me suggest a few questions that will actually help illuminate the character of prospective students.

You have two critical assignments that will take all day, and both are due tomorrow. You could provide partial work on both, or complete one in its entirety. How long have you been procrastinating and what did you do instead?

Your mother has just asked you to answer her question and you have just realized she’s been speaking for the last five minutes. What is your response?

Which is the greater offense, driving the car home without enough fuel to make it to the gas station, or spilling your Caramel Crunch Frappuccino on the driver’s seat? Defend your choice.

Which is more transparent to you, the mass of  tortilla chip shards surrounding your desk, or the pile of dirty Kleenex next to your bed? Which one will your mother notice first, and why?

Your mother is a writer who churns out 500 word essays on a daily basis. What makes her uniquely unqualified to critique your rough draft?

I tell The Dude that writing is fun, and he looks at me like I’ve told him his Dad and I have sex. He’s actually a good writer, funny and creative. Adults, however, have done everything they can to suck the joy out of stringing words together, transforming meaning and cadence into points on an AP exam. Is it any wonder we tell them to show us who they are and they’re afraid of giving the wrong answer?

I don’t know where he’ll end up going to school. I only know both the Dude and the school are lucky to have each other. I only wish I could be there to see him find what he loves. As for knowing why he does what he does, I’m not holding my breath.

Photograph “Drafting” by Sebastian Wiertz © 2012 Creative Commons/Flickr


I married for tech support

monkeywrenchThis morning, my husband informed me that the landscape lights at the end of the driveway were burned out. I told him I’d email the landscaper and let him know. Maybe I was reading too much into the tone of his breathing (I do that) but I detected a hint of “Gee honey, I could do that myself.” In return, I breathed back “Why don’t you, then?” picked up my Iphone and fired a quick note to the company I paid a small fortune to install the aforementioned lights.

I feel bad for my husband sometimes. He’s the only person in the household that takes any interest in how things actually work. He has a scientist’s mind and an engineer’s soul. He can rewire the house and build a computer from spare parts. He reads Maker magazine and built a model that predicts how long a power outage will last based on prior performance. I think he should sell it to Dominion Power. His assessments are pretty accurate. Most importantly, he ensures the cable and internet work no matter where we are in the house.

The Dude and I, however, have no interest in the inner logic of the universe. My general troubleshooting mode is turn it off/turn it back on/get the hubby. If he’s not home, I might try Googling the problem. I was quite tickled to have figured out how to turn off the shake-to-shuffle option on my IPhone all by myself. The Dude is even less adept at all things mechanical. It took him awhile to figure out that the basement lights weren’t broken–the dimmer switch was turned down.

Yesterday, my husband was doing some plumbing work and asked my son if he thought the water heater would empty with the intake valve shut.

“Yes, he said. I mean no. Yeah. No. No?”

“Do you know why?” my husband asked.

“Because it sounded like the answer you wanted me to give you.”

The Dude is nothing if not honest. I knew the correct answer, but only because that’s why the extra-large Tide bottle has a vent along with a spigot.

It’s not that I don’t understand basic scientific principles. I just don’t care to remember them. This is why I have a masters in business and not nuclear physics.

My husband knows this about me, yet when repair people come to the house, he has a million questions about how they performed the work we paid them to complete. It’s hard to explain how the plumber fixed the upstairs shower leak when I spent the entire time in my office on the first floor. He once asked me if I was even the least bit interested in what the people were doing in our house.

Exactly how big is the micro**** I don’t give? Let me think about that. I’m the woman who loves a robotic vacuum.  If I push the button and it works, I’m happy. If he wants a play-by-play, he married the wrong gal.

I know my husband appreciates me for who I am–Luddite tendencies and all. I’m unlikely to change at this point, and he doesn’t know how to cook. Since I have to do that every day, I consider it more than a fair trade.

That being said, I understand my husband’s efforts to educate the Dude on the basics before we send him out into the world.  One can’t always rocket an email a third party to solve their problems for $100 an hour plus parts. The Dude will need to know enough to assemble IKEA furniture someday and shouldn’t be as clueless as his mother. Since he’s majoring in business, however, I’ve taught him how to cook just in case. Find yourself an engineer, Dude. Trust me on this one. You’re welcome.

Photograph : “Monkey Wrench” by Shaggy © 2009 Creative Commons/Flickr


The Principal’s Welcome to the New Year

backtoschoolWelcome to the new school year, Eastland High School Chipmunks!

We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of a few details in order to make your educational experience and safe and happy one.

Enclosed is a packet of information for your parents (who are we kidding? Give it to your Mom). It includes the annual PTO appeal, along with flyers from a raft of organizations selling tee-shirts, candygrams, bumper stickers, and other items specifically designed  for maximum child embarrassment. Nothing says parental support more than the “Mommy loves her Chipmunk” yard sign.

Please remember that we have a dress code. Enough with the mini-skirts and micro shorts, ladies. Fingertip length–and we don’t believe you have exceptionally short arms, nor do we see bra straps as a fashion accessory. Gentlemen–banning baseball caps is not an infringement on your religious freedom, and contrary to popular opinion, we do know the difference between a marijuana leaf and the Canadian flag.

All students are prohibited from going into the Forbidden Forest. Same goes for under the bleachers, the book storage room, and the teacher’s lounge. Especially the teacher’s lounge. I don’t care what you’ve heard, we don’t have an espresso machine, ESPN, a minibar, or a ball pit. We have a copy machine, a formica table, a table, a dirty microwave and a refrigerator full of Tupperware containers. That’s it. No big mystery. All we ask is for one child-free space besides Latin class.

Speaking of off-limits, lay off the freshman. All those swirlies are a waste of water. Just in case, we’ve installed panic buttons in the bathrooms and escape latches in the lockers. If you’re caught harassing underclassmen, I will invite your mother to hug you at our next assembly.

On that note, I’ve received your petition. While obtaining 3,000 signatures from a student body of 1,200 is an impressive feat, we will not be changing the “Kiss and Ride” area to the “Be My Chauffeur While I Pretend You Don’t Exist Zone.” It won’t fit on the sign.

A gentle reminder–All student absences must be called in by a parent to be excused.  We do not accept texts from prepaid phones, notes written in crayon or messages left by SIRI. I’m not beyond calling parents for verification. I will not call you sir and I know you aren’t Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago. Any unexcused absence will result in a robocall to your parents, which they’ll mistake for a political solicitation or Rachel with an important message about their credit card.

To create time for the new state-mandated Health and Nutrition class, we’ve cancelled lunch. Always efficient, we’re reducing childhood obesity and exposure to food allergy lawsuits in one fell swoop.  From what we hear, you only eat the cookies anyway. To ensure you’re getting sufficient exercise, we’ve cut the period between classes down to two minutes. So get a move on, just remember–no running in the halls. Brisk walkees, my little chipmunks, brisk walkees.

Let’s work to make this the best year yet! Have fun (but not too much), learn a lot (at least what’s on the test) and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for all of the latest Eastland news @chipmunksqueaks.

Best Regards,

Your Principal

Photograph : Reason by Capture Queen © 2005 Creative Commons/Flickr

Getting your child through their summer reading assignment

IMG_0726August is almost over and if your family is like mine, you’re making the most of those final carefree summer days by locking your children inside and forcing them to finish their summer reading assignment. It’s time for them to crack open that paper anvil you purchased in June and delve into whatever moral-drenched tome the teacher has chosen to put the wet blanket on your child’s personal picnic. Here’s a few tips to get you from Once Upon A Time to The End without it turning into a Who Done It.

1) Divide the number of pages by the number of days your child has left for a handy pages-per-day goal. Do the same calculation using the total number of days in their entire summer vacation. This provides your child with perspective on just how much their procrastination has cost them. When they complain, remind them. They love it when we do that.

2) Feed strategically and only when page goals are met. In the interim, Neccos are a great source of energy in a handy wafer form and can be doled out in small doses. Manage the water intake–bathroom breaks kill productivity.

3) Say things like “Have you gotten to where…never mind. I won’t spoil it for you.” The key is to sound really excited. No matter where they are, assure them they are almost to the really good part. When they’ve finish and ask you what good part you were referring to, say “You’re done. That’s the good part.”

4) Skim Wikipedia to find the main characters names and ask them which “team” they are on. “You’re reading Brave New World? Are you team Bernard or team John?” Tell them you’re surprised the school chose the title. Promise them it’s sort of “inappropriate.”

5) Don’t bother telling them it’s a great book, that you loved the book, that it’s a classic, or one of the best ever written. My son is reading The Poisonwood Bible. It’s one of my favorite books. It’s beautifully written, poignant and powerful. It’s also 576 freaking pages long and sort of depressing. Summer reading books are always depressing. It prepares them for the school year.

6) Here’s a radical idea. Go to a library. I hear people can read there. Some even have a Starbucks!

7) Play the audiobook in the car and drive until it’s done. I asked the Dude if he wanted to go to Chipotle. I took him to one in Iowa. Hard to execute with more than one child.

8) Quiz them during dinner to make sure they’re internalizing what they’re reading. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book. That’s what Spark Notes were invented for.

9) Set up a book discussion group with their friends, just like your own book group. Make them actually talk about the book, however. Just like most book groups, a couple of them will have read the thing and will teach the others how to fake it. They can’t drink wine, but you can.

10) Prepare for the all-nighter. Coffee and M&M’s are my standard go-tos. Sometimes I even let the Dude have some. My husband and I join in the fun. We both love reading. My son says he must have been switched at birth and somewhere there is a family at Atlantis begging their kid to put down the book and get in the pool.

Finally, resign yourself to the fact that this will happen again next year, no matter how many times you swear it will be different. No matter what the task is, we all prefer doing what we want to do rather than what we have to do. Speaking of which, I have two loads of dirty laundry to wash and a garden full of weeds. I think I’ll go read a book.