Monday, February 27, 2006


People say that it's hard to parent a four-year-old because of the incessant, hammering "Why?" I have discovered that "Why" is small potatoes, simply the warm-up for the next round of juvenile interrogation. My daughter started talking at thirteen months, which is well within the norm. That was the last conversationally average thing she did for the next five years.

Mom, can I show you how I leap? Can I do this, where I stand like this, and then do like this with my arms, and then leap onto the couch like this? Can I do it if I move the coffee table here? Can I take the cushions off the couch? Why not?

Did you know I can do a flip in gymnastics? Can I do flips at home? Can we get a high bar? Can we get a balance beam and put it out in the back yard and get mats and put them under it and I can bring them all inside if it rains? Why not?

Can we do paper dolls tonight? Can we watch Wallace & Gromit? Can we watch 101 Dalmations? Do you know how many dogs there are in 101 Dalmations? Did you know I can count to two hundred? Did you know Peter can count to twenty? Do you want to hear me count to a thousand? Why not?

You know how I always wanted to know what was inside the fireplace? Can I take this nail and scratch right here and take the brick out and see what's inside? Can I take it out and then we can glue it back? What's under it? What does the floor look like under it? Can I just look at it? Why not?

What are we having for dinner? Do I have to have the meat part? Can I have some outside the bun? Can I have cheese outside the bun? Can you cut it with that little flower cutter thing and make flowers? Do I have to have French fries? Can I have those curly chips instead? Did you know I can feel the curly chips through the bag? Do you want to feel the curly chips? Can I open it? When is it going to be time to eat? Can I have noodles like we had yesterday? Why not?

Is he going to throw up? How come he does that? Do I have to watch? Are you going to clean that little bit up? Does he have to eat the part he threw up on? Are you going to make him more dinner? Do I have to eat the rest of my dinner? Can I have a treat? Can I have two treats? Why not?

Are we going to take baths tonight? Can we take a bath together if we don't splash? Can I have a pink towel instead of a green one? Do I have to get my hair wet? Can I wash Peter's hair? Why does he have a bottom like that? Is his going to be like mine when he's six? Why not?

Do we have to go to bed tonight? Can we watch Beauty and the Beast? Can we sleep outside? If we bring lots of blankets, can we sleep outside then? If we wear all our clothes can we then? What if we wear all the clothes in the house? What if we wear all the clothes in the world? Can I go to other people's house and get all their clothes and then can we sleep outside? Why not?

"Why not" turns out to be a much more difficult question to answer. Sometimes it's pretty straightforward. Because you would break your arms and legs if you did that. Because it's forty degrees outside. Because I don't even want to think about the damage your brother would do with a brick.

Other times, though, the answer is shorter, but much more complicated. It usually comes out as a matter of principle: "Because I'm your mother and I said so, and that's a good enough reason when you're six years old." But the real answer maybe isn't so nice. Because it makes a mess. Because I'm too tired. Because I just don't want to. The other answers make me smile, and I know that I'm making the right choice as a parent when I tell my daughter that no, she may not attempt to sell small wadded-up pieces of craft paper to the neighbors to make money. These answers, though, the "no" and "no" and "no again" that spring from selfishness and exhaustion and preoccupation with the thousand urgent and mundane details of life, these answers raise questions that echo in my head long after hers are forgotten.

Am I just saying no because I'm worn out? Will the memories it makes be worth the hassle of cleaning it up? Do the dishes really matter that much? But if I don't do them, will it make me too cranky to enjoy playing with her? Will she only remember me never saying yes, always tired and busy and selfish, or is she even that aware of me as a person?

Am I too tired? Am I too busy? Am I too selfish?

Am I a good mother?

Her questions are hard. Mine are harder. Even if I had all the answers I couldn't write a book and become rich and famous, because every mother has her own questions, her own set of inadequacies and hidden weaknesses.

I don't know what my daughter will remember. She'll probably remember that I made her a paper doll tonight and that I wouldn't let her eat the whole bowl of cookie dough. She probably won't remember that I was so tired I wanted to go straight to bed and let her stay up until midnight watching movies because it was easier.

Whatever else she remembers or forgets, I hope she always knows that I love her. I won't worry so much about being a "good" mother if that's one question she always has the answer to.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Because I want to.

Have you heard of the game called "I Have Never"? It's a party game I remember playing as a teenager in the late eighties, and the point was (happily for me) to be the least experienced. You'd go around the circle trying to come up with something that you thought everybody else would have done, and at the end you'd see who had the most non-experiences.

I won a lot. I'd never been to Disneyland. I'd never been waterskiing. I'd never been snow skiing. I'd never broken a bone. Most kids had experienced at least a few of these, if not all. I had a couple that I could have used, but didn't -- high schoolers can be unbelievably cruel to those who haven't been around the block quite enough times, so I found elaborate ways to avoid mentioning that I had never been kissed.

The other one I tried not to bring attention to was the fact that I could not swim. Well, I could, sort of, but it was pretty sad. I knew how to dog paddle well enough to navigate the ten feet from the diving board to the ladder in the lake at camp, but there was no way I was "swimming" any farther than that. I had no intentions of putting my face underwater for any longer than it took to jump off the board in a spectacular cannonball, knees tucked up and nose firmly pinched between my fingers.

Part of this was due to the fact that we did not happen to own a lake. The pond in our back field was seasonal (you'll understand this if you live in the Pacific Northwest), and even then it was more mud than water and I doubt it ever surpassed a depth of six inches. The neighbors had an aboveground pool, but its primary purpose was for splashing. I don't think it ever occurred to us to actually try to swim in it, since that would have severely cramped the style of the serious splashers.

The only time I had access to a significant quantity of water was summer camp. Camp Glendawn was a delightful expanse of forest and field that wandered from a country road to the shore of a lake. I believe the official designation was "Five Mile Lake", but I never heard it called anything but "Root Beer Lake" due to the unique color of the water, in which your feet disappeared once you were in past your knees. I suppose I could have learned to swim at camp, but there was so much flirting to be done that I never quite got around to it.

I graduated from high school, left my summer camp years, and went to college. My college was small, and while it was intellectually rich, it was less materially wealthy, and there was no thought of having a pool. After graduating with the bare minimum of phsyical education requirements (Independent Study Walking and Jogging covered half of it), I entered adult life, still essentially unable to swim.

It's not really a skill you need all that often. In my small world of home, church, and grocery store, there weren't that many floods, unless you count the time we attempted to bathe the cat. I was more interested in perfecting my melodic minor scales and my chocolate chip cookie recipe than my backstroke, and I never felt the lack.

Then I walked the marathon, discovered that my body could actually do something besides read and cook and play the piano, and a whole new world opened up. I started thinking that if I could do a marathon, maybe a triathlon wasn't so out of the question. There were the minor details of not owning a bicycle or knowing how to swim, but reality hadn't stopped me for a second while I was training for the marathon, so why get bogged down in the details now?

I got a bike for Christmas, theoretically speaking. It took over six weeks for it to stop raining long enough for me to take a few test rides, but I finally got one. So far so good.

The swimming wasn't going so well. I had started taking lessons last November from a local college student, and while she was encouraging and upbeat, I was too cynical to ignore the fact that I seemed to sink every time I put my face in the water. Since triathlons are not conducted six feet below sea level, this was a problem. I had practiced my rapidly degenerating freestyle stroke until I was convinced that the next time I got into the water, it would surge up in a giant wave and drown me, just to save me the trouble of doing it myself.

I told my swim instructor that if I had to do any more freestyle, I would quit. By this point she was familiar enough with my strong opinions to know that I meant it, so she taught me the backstroke. To our surprise, I turned out to have a killer backstroke. Unfortunately, doing the backstroke during a triathlon runs the risk of you blindly swimming off-course (best-case scenario) or crashing into another swimmer and knocking yourself unconscious and having to be hauled out of the water and resuscitated and then throwing up lake water all over your rescuer and probably ending up on the front page of the Oregonian looking like a dead fish (worst-case scenario). We tried the breaststroke next, and while it was less natural for me, I did manage to learn it without actually drowning, so that was progress.

I have another swim lesson this Friday, and we are going to attack the freestyle in earnest this time. It scares me silly. I have no reason to learn to swim other than this triathlon, and I have no reason to do a triathlon other than that I want to. I am learning, though, that whether or not I can articulate it any more clearly than "Because I want to", sometimes that's a good enough reason.

So I will practice this week, try not to drown, and try to cross one more thing off of my "I Have Never" list. I'd like to see if maybe when I'm 81 years old or so, I could lose that game every time.

Reasonable goal? Probably not.

Interesting goal? You bet.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Welcome to the new home of my blog! I finally finished moving my essays from their former home on a less user-friendly site, and today marks my new site's grand opening. I'm glad you're here, and I hope you like what you find. I invite commentary, positive or negative, as long as you know that if it's TOO negative, I'll sic my cat on you.

I love to write. Lots of people out there love to read. I hope it ends up being a good match.

stay-at-home mom

I am a stay-at-home mom.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to eschew employment outside the home, believing that it is best for our family if I am at home for my children. I understood that it would mean a certain level of sacrifice, but I felt that these years spent at home would be beneficial for all of us. My mom, who stayed home with us for most of my growing-up years, had a running joke with my dad about stay-at-home moms who lie around and eat bonbons. I wasn't picturing anything quite that luxurious, but it sounded pretty good to me when I quit my job for the at-home life.

On an average school day, I start by driving Peter to preschool (3.9 miles, 15 minutes by the time I deal with the lights, the school zone on Pringle, and the inevitable Buick going 27 mph in the 40 zone on 12th.) I get him settled and head out to the health food store for my fresh fruits and vegetables (1.2 miles, 5 minutes). Then we're off to the regular grocery store for everything else (2 miles, 6 minutes).

I come home, unload the groceries, check e-mail, toss in a load of laundry, and go back out to get Peter (3.9 miles, 13 minutes -- no Buick this time). We hold hands and walk down the hallway, examining the same pictures that capture his attention every week: "Look! Fish! Lots of fish! Look! A train! Peter's train!" "No, it's like Peter's train, but that's not Peter's train." "Look! Fish! Lots of fish!" We meander through the parking lot, marveling at pinecones, the bulldozers at the construction site next door, and the bus driver who looks just like Santa Claus. Eventually we get to the car, and as usual, I need to get gas (.4 mile, 3 minutes -- is that light EVER green when you drive up to it?) at our favorite friendly gas station.

We head back south via the bank (1.5 miles, 6 minutes due to that wretched left turn) and home for lunch (2.5 miles, 7 minutes). We eat our jelly sandwiches and cheese sticks and pickles and grapes, and we have a Hershey kiss if we finish all our food. I change Peter's diaper, set him up with a Veggie Tales video, switch the latest load of laundry, fold it, and start ironing the stack of shirts that has been glaring at me from the ironing board for the last two weeks. I check in with my online parenting forum as Larry the Cucumber issues my two-minute warning: "God made you special, and he loves you very much!"

After taking care of the lunch dishes (I know, I know, I should have done it earlier), I change Peter again and locate my shoes, and if you know me well, you'll understand how that just added five minutes to my routine. I have an extended discussion with him about how many toys he can bring with him, and I bundle him into the minivan. We drive out to Mary's school, which is still technically in Salem but is past downtown, over the river, through the woods, and actually in another county (8.7 miles, 22 minutes, and that's only if everybody doesn't come to a dead stop at the apparently fascinating sight of the blinking yellow lights at the school zone by the Dunkin' Donuts).

I negotiate the mud, the stairs, and fifty screaming grade-schoolers to retrieve Mary and Madison from their classroom. I return to the car with the kids, two carseats, and all the papers and YOU HAVE TO SIGN THIS MOM! and lunch boxes that were inexplicably too much for two budding young gymnasts to carry and still be able to walk at the same time. I am easily talked into buying the fifty-cent hot chocolates at Fastlane Coffee (5.1 miles, 12 minutes) before driving Madison home (3.3 miles, 10 minutes by the time this cowardly driver manages to get across Commercial). Madison is unloaded with much giggling and waving, and we head home (1.2 miles, 4 minutes).

Like millions of other mothers across the country, I get the kids calmed down from the day, change another diaper, sort out the homework from the construction paper crafts in the backpack, toss in a load of towels, and start thinking about what to fix for dinner.

It's a good life. I'm not complaining about it. But would somebody please tell me when it's time to eat bonbons?


My thanks to for the mileage information. I am trying not to be too depressed that I averaged 19.6 mph while driving on roads whose speed limits ranged from 20 to 55.

small words, big ideas

This was originally posted on January 18, 2006.

Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and Mary didn't have school. She's only six, so her main focus for the day was getting to watch videos on the couch and wear her pajamas half the morning. I confess I wouldn't have given the day much more thought either, except that she asked on the way to the YMCA that afternoon why she didn't have school.

I thought a minute, took a deep breath, and told her.

A long time ago in our country, when your grandmas and grandpas were as big as you, things didn't work quite the same way they do now. A lot of people thought that if you had a different color of skin, you weren't as good of a person. So kids who looked like your friend Olivia had to be separated from kids who looked like you, just because of what color they were. Pretty silly, huh?

If you had lived in that time, you and Olivia couldn't sit in the same seat on the bus, you couldn't go to the same school, and they wouldn't even let her drink out of the same drinking fountain as you! It was kind of like they thought people with black skins had germs or something, which is really goofy. But a lot of people thought it, and that was how things were in a lot of places.

Well, there were some people who didn't think this was how God meant people to act, and that it didn't really matter so much what color you were. There was one man named Dr. King who thought this, and he thought about it and prayed about it and talked to his pastor about it, and then he started talking about it. He talked to a few people, then a whole bunch of people, and then he got to talk to hundreds and thousands of people right by the Capital Building of the whole country.

He said "I have a dream." Now he didn't mean the kind of dream you have when you're asleep, but the kind of dream where you really, really want something to happen. He wanted our country to be a place where people who were different colors could go to the same schools and sit together if they wanted and drink out of the same drinking fountains and get the same jobs, no matter what color they are. He told all these people about his dream, and a lot of them thought it was a really good idea.

That's where the story was going to end. But then, with the odd clarity young children sometimes have, she asked, "Is Mr. King still alive?"

And I had to tell her the rest of the story.

No, honey, he isn't. Some people didn't like the things he said. Some people got very, very mad about it, and one man got so mad about it that he shot Dr. King with a gun and killed him. That was a very bad thing to do, and they caught the man and made him go to jail, and later he said he was very sorry.

But lots of people were paying attention to the things Dr. King said, and they kept doing the things he wanted to do, even after he was dead. They changed laws and made it so everybody could do the same things no matter what color they were. It's not all the way fixed, but it's a lot better because of the people who listened to him talk that day.

And then we were to our destination, and her rapidly-moving attention shifted to the clock tower on the church next door to the Y, and Dr. King was forgotten.

I hope some seed of that conversation stays in her mind, though. I hope that for now, she is thankful that she and Olivia can be in the same class. I hope that when she is older, she takes her fierce energy and uses it to fight the things Dr. King fought, whether for her life's work or just to make a habit of righting a few of the daily injustices that will still be part of her world.

America is a melting pot, and we will never be fully colorblind. But little girls like Mary and Olivia sometimes grow up to be women like Rosa Parks, and that's something any mother would be proud to see.


This was originally posted on January 4, 2006. Thankfully, my mood improved by the next day.

My cat is an egocentric, temperamental little personality, which makes her like virtually every other cat in the world. Lucy, however, is more than usually averse to being picked up and petted. She is exceptionally pretty, with long fur that's almost as soft as a kitten's, perfect little white paws, delicate features, and the most amazingly large pale green eyes I've ever seen. She makes you want to pick her up, cuddle her, and pet her all over. I still try it, even after being owned by her for ten years, because she's so pretty you just can't believe she's really that unpleasant.

She is, though. If you pet her on her own terms, and you're very very lucky, she might break into a gentle purr. She doesn't do one of those full-body V6-engine purrs that some cats do, but it's a purr and it's a delight to the ears. But I tell you what, if you pet her too much or try to pick her up when she's not in the mood, she'll let loose a hiss that makes you think the devil himself has set up camp on the living room couch.

I have often wondered why humans can't purr. It seems like a useful skill. If God created us in His image, I assume He doesn't purr ... but wouldn't it have been nice if He threw that in as a bonus? And if you take the view of evolution, explain to me why that one got filtered out, would you? Sure, it'd get misused just like winks and smiles, but I think it would be so nice if when we were really, really happy, we could close our eyes, smile with the little corners of our mouths turned up, and purr.

Today, though, I am sorry to inform you that I have a raging case of PMS. I hate pretty much everything in the world, including but not limited to my dishwasher, the neighbors' 35-foot-tall tree hedge, the moldy olives in my fridge, and the Republican Party. (Never mind. It's a long story.) My head hurts. My back aches. I'm hot and then cold for no apparent reason. I feel like calling up computer customer service hotlines and being rude, just to make them be nasty back, just to have the pleasure of being REALLY awful to them and then hanging up. Not that I would ever actually do such a thing, but it sounds like fun at the moment, and that's not really all that good a thing, now is it.

I'll be fine in a few days, I promise. I'll be back to my nice sweet self, or at least as nice and sweet as I get. It's temporary. I keep telling myself this. I'll feel better soon, and I won't feel like slapping people when they tell me to have a nice day.

Most days I envy cats because they can purr. Today, though, I envy cats because they can hiss.

Home Sweet Home

This was originally posted on December 19, 2005.

My husband had business out of town tonight, and I decided to use the time for a nice evening of bonding with the kids. I had everything I needed to make chocolate fudge (just in time for Christmas) and it seemed like that would be a fun thing to do together before I bathed them and put them in their pajamas. I'd let them stay up for a while playing with some new toys they'd gotten as early presents from family friends, and I'd finish up the Christmas cards.

I turned on some Christmas music to set the mood and had both kids wash their hands with the gingerbread soap that makes everything smell like the holidays. Mary carefully poured the ingredients into the pot on the stove and Peter stood on his little wooden chair to watch it thicken as I stirred. It reached the optimum temperature on the candy thermometer just as I finished explaining the science behind it, and I set it on a back burner to cool while I gave them their baths.

They're still young enough, so I let them bathe together as a special treat. I got them both soaped and shampooed, and read them a story as they played with the brightly colored educational bath toys we've had since Mary was a baby. After the story was over, I gave them a final rinse, toweled them off, and put them into their warm winter pajamas.

The Christmas music still playing softly in the background, they played together with Peter's new train as I finished off the last fifty Christmas cards and organized them by zip code for the post office. I told them it was bed time, so Mary took Peter's hand, led him up the stairs and walked him to his clean and tidy room, kissing him on the forehead before returning quietly to her own room to read a book until I tucked her in. Stories read and lights out, I changed the music to some light jazz, sampled a bite of fudge, and settled down with a good book and a warm blanket on the couch, revelling in the cozy room with its booklined shelves and toys neatly stored in baskets.

Now, my question for you: At what point did you realize this story was fictional? Was it the science lesson over the boiling sugar water? The story being read while two active children played in several gallons of water without a lid? Or did I have you going clear up to the toys in the baskets?

I completely forgot about the Christmas music, so we've already lost the soundtrack to this tender scene. Mary washed her hands with the gingerbread soap, but for some inexplicable reason, Peter's attempt to wash his hands ended up with him sitting on his bottom in the hallway outside the bathroom, crying and blazing mad at his sister, who claimed complete innocence. He lost interest in the fudge shortly after I got out the first measuring cup, and directed his attention to a glass jar sitting on the mantel over the fireplace with its brick hearth. I bet that combination set off a warning signal in your brain -- it didn't in mine, because at the time the water and the sugar were behaving exactly like water and sugar normally behave over high heat. It looked like a holiday version of MacBeth's witches' brew, including the trouble.

Peter pulled the coffee table up to the mantel and climbed on top to reach the jar, and just as I looked up in horror to see him drop it onto the floor, the pot boiled over. I bit my tongue before I expanded my daughter's education in a way that I didn't intend to (I made up the bit about the thermometer, by the way), slapped the pot onto another burner which it promptly covered with a fresh layer of pale goo, and started swiping ineffectually at the mess with a hastily dampened dish towel.

Completely frustrated, I bundled both children upstairs into the tub. I got them both washed, issued dire warnings about excessive splashing, and retreated to my office to check e-mail. I relaxed a little to the sound of their laughter, right up until Mary came out and said, "Mommy, we kind of both threw up." They had laughed so hard that their dinners had landed in the tub, and I will spare you further description of that scene.

After an aghast survey of the disaster area, I abandoned it and put both children into pajamas and plunked them down in front of a video, which they watched until I decided that it was really quite late enough and put them to bed. No playing with trains. No kissing. No light jazz.

In the next twenty-four hours I will boil or launder upwards of twenty bath toys. I will clean out the tub while holding my breath -- I am fortunately not a sympathetic vomiter, but I'm not looking forward to the task. I will gingerly remove several sodden towels from my sink and run an extra load of wash. I will scrub the sticky remnants of the doomed fudge off of the stove top and dispose of a pot full of something that does not even slightly resemble food. I will tidy up the ravaged family room, balancing books onto more books in the futile hope that they will not fall off before they are attacked again. If I have the energy, I'll start the Christmas cards.

Idyllic scene of hearth and home? Not on your life. But I look in on my sleeping children, and I see a couple of kids who are loved. I see a damp-haired little girl who learned tonight that not all recipes work the way you expect, and that you can still have fun trying. I see a pink-cheeked little boy who learned that it's possible to laugh too hard, but that's actually kind of fun too, in a sick sort of way. I see a mom who's tired and sticky and maybe a little cranky, but who doesn't doubt for a minute that she picked the right profession.

This home is sweet, and it's home.

Homeschool Mom

This was originally posted on November 28, 2005.

I thought about it. Really I did. My friend Tracy homeschools her children, and does it brilliantly. One full wall of her living room is covered with books, organized by subject, full of projects and facts and kid-friendly stories. I visit her home in the summer when they're technically not having school, and I'll find the kids playing with really cool geometric block games that are clearly teaching them all kinds of stuff without them even knowing it. Her oldest two children learned to read early and well, and her daughter explained fractions to me at an age when most little girls are focused primarily on whether Barbie needs a new ponytail holder or (heaven forbid and don't let Mommy catch you) just a haircut.

I thought, "How hard can that be?" It looked easy. I'd buy some of those cool books, the ones with interesting covers in primary colors and science experiments you can make with things out of your pantry, and maybe some of those geometric blocks, and we'd be off! Right?

Hmmm. Not quite. It turns out that the patience of a saint is also required. I put Mary into pre-school the year I had Peter, partly to "socialize her", but mostly so I could spend a couple of mornings a week with the baby without having to answer questions for three hours straight. (And if you think I'm exaggerating, I'll pay you $5 an hour to babysit this Friday night just so you can find out.) It wasn't real school, just a little fun thing before the real business of homeschooling began.

One month. That was all it took to realize that Mary and I were not an ideal homeschooling match. Part of it was that I was tired from having an enormous toddler who didn't want to be put down for more than about a minute at a time. Part of it was that I was starting to realize that Tracy's apparent ease with homeschooling was actually the product of careful planning and a gift for communicating with young children. But mostly, it boiled down to this: I am essentially an introvert. Mary is so extroverted that I'd think she'd been switched at birth if she didn't look exactly like me. And if she didn't go to school pretty damn soon, I was going to go around the bend.

So she went to kindergarten, I stayed home, she got even more socialized, and I stayed sane. It was a good choice. She can read now, it turns out that she fully inherited her dad's ability in math, and she gets lots of people to talk to All Day Long. Every once in a while I feel the pang of defeat for not being up to the task I'd dreamed of. However, we do get the occasional shot at homeschooling, and it's just enough to make me realize that we made the right call with her education.

Mary had a long weekend at home over the Thanksgiving holiday, and we covered every subject.

English: "Butt" is indeed a synonym for "bottom". It is, however, not one that we use at our house when we are under the age of thirty.

Math: One pancake plus one pancake plus one pancake plus one pancake equals four pancakes.

Health: Four pancakes is one too many.

History: If it wasn't OK to pour water out of the bath onto the linoleum last year, and it wasn't OK to do it in July, and it wasn't OK to do it last week, it probably still isn't OK tonight.

Economics: If you swallow that penny, I'm not giving you another one.

Science: Just because the sun's out, it doesn't mean it's summer, and Mommy is NOT going to let you go outside and play with the hose no matter how many times you ask.

Physics: If you lie on the couch directly under your brother's kicking feet, the arc of his moving legs will intersect with your head.

Music: Banging on a piano with both hands is called dissonance, and (like much of the music from the time period favoring this tonality) it drives Mommy nuts.

All things considered, tuition's a small price to pay for sanity.

Mother, heal thyself.

This was originally posted on November 22, 2005.

It's probably nothing, really. I had some very unpleasant dental work last week that requires me to be on antibiotics for a while, and my insides don't much care for the penicillin. But this afternoon I was feeling more than usually wretched so I decided to take my temperature.

I wasn't sure it was going to be accurate. It could be apparently on the high side because I was on my feet and folding laundry while I was taking it, and I think you're supposed to lie down and think restful thoughts while you have a thermometer in your mouth. Even if you leave out the part about potentially raising your temperature from activity, it's better not to walk around with glass-enclosed poisonous chemicals clamped between your teeth.

On the other hand, it could be artificially low because of all the air blowing past the mercury. It's a little hard to keep your lips firmly closed around the thermometer when you're very vocally engaged in keeping an aggressively energetic toddler from crawling on the laundry, throwing pillows on the floor, and removing books from the bookshelf. If you throw in the answers to questions like "Mama's bubbles? Peter's bubbles? Daddy's bubbles? Mary's bubbles?" when there are NO BUBBLES in sight, it's lucky it didn't tell me I was hypothermic.

So I took my temperature again, with the digital thermometer this time. I'm not sure this effort was an improvement, since I had to put away the laundry before he unfolded it, replace the cushions on the couch for the third time today, retrieve a ball of clay from a cooking pot soaking in the sink, flush a toilet and silently beg it to magically unstop itself (it did!), and look despairingly into the fridge in hopes that a fully prepared dinner would materialize. (It didn't.)

As I've grown into the job of Mother, I've discovered that the requirements for sick days are remarkably similar to those regarding missing church in my childhood. Church attendance is a high priority for my family, and the unwritten rule was that you must have a broken bone, a real fever (not the suspicious 109.5 temperature acquired with the use of a bunkbed and an overhead light), or be throwing up real vomit in order to miss church. It was a good rule, and I didn't miss much church.

When you're a mom, your list of acceptable maladies is similar, but shorter. Fever? Well, if you're upright, you can make dinner. Broken bone? Hey, that's what casts are for! Throwing up? Just don't do it during story time.

Now, there are a few things that are completely unavoidable, which is one of the many reasons why dads come in handy. A combined total of ten months of constant and permeating pregnancy-related nausea meant that I didn't do much laundry or serious cooking during those phases of my life, thanks to a very sympathetic husband. I've had a couple of cases of food poisoning where if the house burned down, I would have simply sighed with relief that I didn't have to fix dinner that night. And if you're actually in the hospital, you get some time off. Theoretically.

Of course I'm not all that sick, and it could be worse. I don't usually play that game, since I've always subscribed to the philosophy that my hangnail hurts me way worse than your broken leg hurts me. But if you don't have small children at home, the next time you're sick just keep this in mind -- it could be worse. You could be taking your temperature while folding laundry, ten hours into a fourteen-hour workday while entirely at the mercy of a tyrannical three-foot-tall boss whose first language appears to be Squirrel and who can completely dismantle a room in a quarter of the time it takes to clean it.

My temperature? 99.5. Nothing life-threatening. Too bad ... if I was at death's door, at least I could lie down for a while.


This was originally posted on November 3, 2005, two days before I did my first 5K race.

You've seen them. You know the people I mean, the dedicated athletes who are out there running on the downtown sidewalks and the shoulders of the back roads. They run in the dark, in the rain, in the fog, and in the blazing heat of a summer afternoon with their sweat-shiny bodies reflecting the merciless sun. Some are old, some young, men, women, the occasional teenager who's not just running because his coach told him he had to. They all somehow look alike, though, because under their baseball caps and ponytails and bald heads they have the same focused, determined expressions on their faces, mixed with a satisfaction that is inexplicable to the rest of us.

I always just kind of assumed they were crazy. I mean, honestly, getting in shape is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Wait for a nice day and go for a walk, folks. Get in out of the rain, take off your windbreaker, and go to the gym like normal people.

Be like me, with my exercise philosophy: All things in moderation. Rest, pasta, good books, good music, good movies, high-quality chocolate, and perhaps a bit more rest. If I need some fresh air, I'll go read on the porch. I might take a walk now and then with the kids to get a change of scenery, but none of this foolishness with running shoes and track pants. I get plenty of exercise chasing my kids, right?

All right, so I walked a marathon. Your point? It was moderate! You didn't see me rushing about hither and yon, sweat dripping in a most unfashionable way. No, I walk -- fast, I'll grant you, but just walking, like sensible people have been doing for millennia. You'll never catch me running.

I finished my marathon, and started looking for other walking events online. I kept seeing the phrase "walk/run". I wasn't really planning to start running, but it seeped into my thinking and after a while it didn't seem so unreasonable. Maybe just a little bit of running. I checked with my doctor, and she said my hips and ankles were recovered from the summer's attempts at running (see, I knew it wasn't a good idea to overdo things) and I could speed up a bit if I wanted to. Just for some variety, you know.

Last week I tried incorporating some jogging into my walking routine, and wasn't too sure I liked it. The speed was nice, feeling the wind in my face and watching my too-familiar landmarks fly by in a most unaccustomed way, but my ankles protested and it was hard to breathe. See, I was right. Only crazy people do this. But rock-headed stubbornness was what got me through the marathon, and it hadn't disappeared at the finish line. I decided to finish out the week that way. It got a little easier by the end of the week, so I thought I'd try another week's worth of moderate running.

This morning I realized that I could not tolerate another three miles' worth of abuse to my ankles, and did something somewhat counterintuitive: I sped up. All of a sudden, my weight moved forward, my breathing fell into a comfortable rhythm, and the scenery started sliding by instead of bumping dizzily up and down. I finished my workout with more energy than I'd ever had after running, and if I'd had time to hold still, something would have clicked into place in my mind -- but I'm a mother, and there were lunches to make and hair to braid and oatmeal to prepare to order, and the breakthrough didn't quite happen.

Later this morning, I got in the car to pick Peter up from school, and as I drove down the familiar road from which most of my walking routes begin, I wasn't thinking about much of anything. It was one of those Northwest fall mornings that I have always enjoyed from the inside of a car -- 48 degrees outside, 72 degrees inside, comfortable seats, radio playing softly, and the windshield wipers making a pleasant counterpoint with the splashing rain on the windows. "A good time to be indoors," as my mom liked to say on a cold, wet day.

However, I found myself with my head oddly cocked, watching the sidewalk. I snapped my eyes forward when I realized my attention had wandered, but my subconscious had had enough time to produce the following highly unexpected thought: "I'd rather be out there running."

The clouds didn't part, angelic music didn't issue forth from the heavens, and I didn't stop the car to absorb this epiphany. Instead, I drove on, rather more thoughtfully than before, and pondered what madness this might be. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true, plain and simple. I wanted to be out there running, in the rain, in the cold, in the wind.

It appears that I may need to reconsider my definition of insanity.


This was originally posted on October 15, 2005.

A friend asked me after the marathon if I felt different.

It was a good question, and I had to think about it. I didn't at first, and I confess I had expected some kind of self-esteem-boosting epiphany, some burst of confidence that would make me a Better Person overnight. Nope ... still me, just with sore feet. But when I was going out to get the mail a few days later, I found myself swinging into my accustomed walking pace without even thinking about it, in spite of my tired legs and aching joints. And all of a sudden it occurred to me in a new way: "This body did a MARATHON!"

Lots of people say they were the last one chosen on teams in grade school -- I really was. THE last one. Not second to last. Last. Intellectually, I understand the rationale behind letting "team captains" choose the teams. The brutally honest value system of the playground results in perfectly balanced teams, each child with real athletic talent snatched up in ruthlessly accurate descending order of ability. It was probably easier for the teachers, and I've spent enough years teaching to understand taking the easy way out now and then. But for those of us who were a little smaller, a little younger, a little weaker, I have come to believe it was inexcusable.

If any of those miniature jocks, the undisputed playground royalty, had been told that the desperate-looking child trying to catch their eye would someday finish the Portland Marathon, they would have laughed until they wet their side-striped Adidas parachute pants. Understandably so -- if somebody'd told me that, I would have gotten mad at them for teasing me. This was entirely uncharacteristic of me, both then and now, and that's half the reason I'm so pleased at having done it.

I'm not going to say I was forever warped by my experiences in grade school P.E. I hope I'm a better and more well-rounded person than that, and that my successes in other areas of life have more than made up for any humiliations on that childhood battlefield. But neither will I say that it made no difference to my early years, and I will not say that I have forgotten it. I might not have actually been that much slower or less coordinated. But it was enough to convince me to my bones that if I was going to do anything real in life, it was not going to be with my body. My brain, my music, my sense of humor, absolutely. The rest of my body, though, was only useful as far as getting me to school and back and providing the leverage I needed to wrest those enormous sounds out of the beloved grand piano in my high school choir room.

The last several months blew that out of the water. I have incontrovertible proof now that my body is good for something. Yes, I had two babies, and that made me feel a bit more generous towards it in recent years, but lots of women have babies, so it was hard to get too worked up about that as a bona fide athletic accomplishment. Most women do not do marathons, and I did. One of the signs I saw along the way said, "You are an athlete!" To the amazing men and women who ran that entire 26.2 miles, that was probably like informing me, "You are a musician!" My response to that would be, "And the sky is blue, but we don't put that on the front page of the Oregonian either." But to me, the non-sports-minded mommy with funny feet and jiggly thighs, this was news. I had been slowly realizing it over the course of my training, and when I saw that sign, I thought, "Yes. Yes, I am. I like the sound of that."

So, Darius, in answer to your question -- yes, I feel different. I have a pinched nerve in my left foot. My hips ache. I am sleeping a lot, and when I get up in the morning my brain wants to go for a walk but my body is not yet up to the task, and right now I am letting my body win that argument. (Not for long -- it's not going to be happy next week, but that's just too bad.) I also have a hard-earned blue shirt, a medal, and the memory of having crossed a finish line.

The White Queen told Alice in Wonderland, "Why, I believe six impossible things every morning before breakfast!" It wasn't six, it was just one. It wasn't technically impossible, it only felt like it. And it took eight months and one week and two days of training, so it didn't exactly happen before breakfast. But this day and every day, I carry with me the knowledge of having done something I could never have dreamed possible for myself, and that kind of different is worth the effort.

Twenty-Six Point Two Miles

This was originally posted on October 15, 2005.

I did it! When I got to the finish line, my 6-year-old asked, "Mommy, did you WIN?" And I said, "Yes."

I had to explain it a little, the concept of finishing and winning, and how the "real" winner was going as fast as we drive in downtown traffic, except he did that for more than TWO HOURS, and without a car. I tried to explain how everybody else just tries to finish and still be standing upright. I don't know if she got it or not, but as far as I'm concerned I won.

Of the handful of things I forgot this weekend, the one I am the most upset about is my watch. I have trained with the same stopwatch for months, and use it quite a bit to assess my pace. I am trying not to think too hard about what my time might have been if I had been aware of my too-slow pace in the first four miles. Next time, I'll safety-pin it to my shirt before I leave Salem, I guess. As a result of not having it, I don't have the nice mile breakdowns I had hoped to have. I'll write as much as I can remember about the different miles, though, and NEXT year I'll bring my watch!

Pre-Race: I woke up at 5 a.m., and while I hadn't slept all that soundly, I was ready to get up because I was so excited about the day FINALLY being here. This was when I discovered that I had left my watch at home, and I was not a happy camper for a while, but there wasn't a single thing I could do about it. I got packed up and checked out, and headed out to find my coach (Troy) at the street corner where we'd agreed to meet. I had been a little worried about knowing exactly where to go, but as soon as I got a block or two down the street, it was pretty obvious -- just follow the other several hundred people with orange papers safety-pinned to their shirts. I found Troy without any trouble, and he was so completely pumped that it started rubbing off on me, which helped considerably with my nerves.

I got headed in the right direction, and then suddenly realized that it was also the right direction for thousands of other people. I found my area, for walkers who were planning a certain pace, and got chatting with several other women who were also doing their first marathons. We waited and waited, and then people started cheering and it was time to go!

Mile 1: There were a LOT of people! Got started slow because of the crowds, couldn't find my pace. Passed a drum corps that was clearly having quite a bit of fun.

Mile 2: Awesome surprise -- didn't realize at first that this loop would mean we could see the runners coming back, already on mile 5. I almost fell into a hole since I was watching them instead of where I was going. Managed to find a very focused-looking Troy as he passed, before doing myself any serious injury. I'm sure the people around me thought I was a little weird: "That's my coach! With the purple hair!"

Mile 3: Got chatting with a social studies teacher from L.A. on this mile. She was walking a bit faster than I had been, and the mile we walked together helped me find my stride. Nice little handbell choir during this mile -- I was surprised at the number of musical groups along the way.

Mile 4: Made the mistake of taking a bathroom break here. Long line, and I could have waited another mile -- didn't realize then how many opportunities there would be later. I'll know better next time! Passed a couple of nice jazz combos in this mile.

Mile 5: Got a few "you go girl" type looks when I politely but firmly informed another participant, "I will not be trained during the marathon" after he started criticizing my form. I figured, hey, if my coach is OK with it, I don't need input from the peanut gallery. I was a little startled on this mile to be walking over rocks and skirting puddles -- seemed a little odd, and one gal said, "THIS wasn't on the bus tour!"

Mile 6: Had definitely found a good pace and was feeling good. Managed not to slap the person who said "Only 20 more miles!" at the end of this mile.

Mile 7: This was another section where we went two miles out and back on the same street, and could see the faster participants coming back on the other side of the street as we went back. Surprisingly, it was encouraging instead of frustrating -- I had never expected to run this, and it was AWESOME to see people running who were clearly having a great time.

Mile 8: Got a little bored, started looking at bib numbers of the returning runners to see how many people might be in the race. They seemed to end in the high 8000's, and I heard later that it had been capped at 9,000. That's a lot of people!

Mile 9: Time to turn around! There was a high school cheerstaff at the turnaround point, and that was nice.

Mile 10: After the turnaround, I started counting the people on the other side of the street -- I was curious about how close to the end I was. There were about 450 behind me at this point. By the end of the race, I was finisher #6658 of 7398, so if you count the thousand or more who dropped out, I had passed a lot of people by the end.

Mile 11: There was a worship band at the end of this mile playing a song I knew well, and that gave me a nice boost.

Mile 12: This mile curved around a bit and went up and down more than the others had, so I had to get pretty focused for a while. I found that my training on hills in Salem made it so I was passing people a lot on hills. This was surprising, and very encouraging.

Mile 13: Trying not to think about it only being halfway!

Mile 14: Bathroom break -- faster this time. This section was boring -- industrial area, not much to see. The musicians weren't as good, either.

Mile 15: More boring walking. It was all flat, which was nice, and I got into a very good rhythm at this point. There was some Brazilian-flavored music blaring out of a speaker on this mile, and if I could have taken it with me, I think I'd have finished half an hour faster -- it really got the blood flowing!

Mile 16: Another bathroom break before THE HILL -- I think I drank a bit too much over the last couple of miles. It went fast, but I would later regret having needed three breaks, given how closely I missed being under seven hours.

Mile 17: THIS WAS IT. The hill up to the St. John's Bridge. I had driven up it to see how bad it really was, and while I didn't have nightmares about it, it haunted my thoughts during training. And you know what? It was a breeze. I had trained well, I was ready, and I passed quite a few people on it. I got to the top of that bridge, and I was walking on air. (Several hundred feet of it, if we're going to get literal.)

Mile 18: Oh -- we have to keep going, don't we. *sigh* Checked in with Michael to let him know how I was doing -- he and the kids were on the way up, and it was nice to hear from them!

Mile 19: Reached Troy on my cell phone to tell him I'd conquered the bridge. He was headed out to have a beer. Tried not to be very, very jealous.

Mile 20: Getting very tired. There were two women ahead of me with large bottoms in hot pink pants, and their walking form looked like they were just strolling through the mall window-shopping -- I half-expected them to be carrying sodas and giant pretzels. But those girls were FAST. It bugged me, and I got moving pretty quick trying to pass them, just so I wouldn't have to watch them.

Mile 21: This section was beautiful, since the road followed the edge of the bluffs by the river, but the sun came out and it was pretty warm. At this point I was still not entirely sure I was going to be able to finish.

Mile 22: Passed a kick-butt classic rock band that put some fire in my step again. Also had a strangely inspiring conversation with two other mommies -- I realized that I was on a pace to finish the race in less than half the time it had taken to deliver my son. (8 lbs., 13 oz., no pain medication. The marathon was way easier.)

Mile 23: This is where I realized that a sub-7:00 time was a possibility. I jogged down a hill partway through this mile, knowing I'd probably have sore hips later, but figured that if it knocked me under 7:00, it'd be worth it.

Mile 24: This is where I realized that I was going to finish it, and I wasn't going to be sitting on the roadside crying because I was too tired. (I had really been worried about this.) Passed a few people who were headed back to their cars wearing their Portland Marathon 2005 shirts and finisher medals -- very inspiring!

Mile 25: Still doing the math in my head as I went, trying to figure out if I could get in under 7:00 -- it all depended on how many minutes it had taken to cross the start line.

Mile 26: This one seemed to be about three miles long. I was so tired.

Mile 26:2: Michael met me right at the end of Mile 26 and paced me as best he could on the other side of the barrier. The end was in sight ... going to do it ... did it!

I crossed the finish line and got my medal -- woohoo! Michael brought the kids over to the barrier so I could see them, and that was also very nice. I was a little woozy, and had a cup of orange juice. I picked up my race shirt and got my picture taken, and then met my family at the end. My coach had seen enough sick athletes to realize that I wasn't doing too well, and he was right -- I came very close to passing out cold right there in the street. I got the help I needed and got back on my feet, and while every single muscle in my whole body hurt, I'd never felt better in my life.

Because they weren't posting times right then, I didn't find out my official finish time (7:02:16) until the next morning. That was a bit of a bummer, since a sub-7:00 time had been my personal goal that I hadn't told anybody about. It was very close, though, and it's a good goal to shoot for next year.

Yes, I did say "next year." And no, I'm not insane. I had to laugh at myself -- I had expected that I might maybe possibly want to walk next year's marathon. Maybe. After I had forgotten about this one. (You know, kind of like babies. Nobody wants to have another one until they've gotten sleep-deprived enough to forget the last labor.) But I was surprised to find myself sitting gingerly in my office chair the day after the marathon, trying not to breathe in the wrong direction and make random body parts hurt, and looking online to see if there was another marathon I could do this winter since next October was just too long to wait for the next one.

Crazy? You bet. Sometimes crazy is good. It goes really well with rock-headed stubborn, which is what got me through this in the first place.

Do you drink coffee?

It's such an innocuous question, isn't it? If you're one of the 107 million people in the United States who drink coffee (and that statistic only counts those over age 18), you probably don't notice how often you're asked about it. But as one of the three non-coffee-drinkers within a 500 mile radius of Seattle, I can tell you it gets asked a lot. And when I answer "No," I get reactions similar to what you might imagine if I announced that I did not eat food because I didn't care for the taste.

Coffee is an acquired taste, and I have never been able to manage it. My best friend started drinking coffee in her mid-teens, and we had an ongoing joke when I stayed over at her house -- she would fix herself some coffee (this became increasingly sophisticated as she discovered fresh-ground coffee and the associated paraphernalia) while I leaned against the counter and chatted with her. She'd ask, casually, "Do you want a cup?" I'd pause for a second as if considering it, and then say, equally casually, "No, not today ... thanks, though!" I don't know why that kept being funny even fifteen years later, but she still asks and I still answer the same way.

She tried giving it to me black, with cream, with sugar, with flavorings, with very high-class fresh-ground coffee beans, every way she could think of -- it never worked. The closest I've ever come to liking any form of coffee was an almond-flavored granita from a dark, quirky little hole-in-the-wall of a coffee shop in town that was razed to make a new bus station. I glare at the bus station every time I go by it, just because of The Governor's Cup being gone. I know it's not the bus station's fault, but that place had personality. On second thought, the positive experience with the granita might have had quite a lot to do with the devilish smile and intriguingly curly hair of my date (AND he played classical guitar), but I suspect it probably really was a well-made drink, regardless of my mental state at the time.

Anyway, I do not like to drink coffee. Like many people, I love the smell of it. If it wouldn't give people a subconscious urge to sprinkle sugar on my head, I would wear it for perfume just so I could smell it in the mornings. When I first had my own kitchen after college, I seriously considered making a pot of coffee every morning, just for the smell, and then pouring it down the drain before I went to work, because who wants cold coffee sitting around the kitchen, right? I didn't do it, but the fact that it occurred to me should tell you something about my love-hate relationship with coffee.

When I wake up at 6:45 a.m. and it is cold and black outside and I have two small children to pry out of bed, I sigh and think, "What I really want is a good strong cup of coffee." Because I know that's what I need -- something hot to warm up my insides (since I am cold from November to March), something with a good jolt of caffeine (since even I have to wait until 10 a.m. to face a can of diet Coke, and I am an avowed addict), and something that smells lovely and tastes of far-off lands with a hot bright sun that comes out more than three times over the course of the winter.

The long and short of it is that if it did not taste like hot water run through an old work boot and liberally flavored with iron shavings, I would love coffee.

This was originally posted on October 3, 2005.


This was originally posted on September 30, 2005. I never did find out what the lesson was.

Somebody somewhere said that the only wasted lesson is the one you do not learn. (I'm not in a very researchful mood, sorry, so I don't know who it was.) Yesterday was definitely what my camp counselor training would call a Teachable Moment.

A normal Thursday afternoon for me is spent at home. Mary's best friend Megan lives close enough that we carpool every day with her family to their school. Connie (her mom) usually drives them to gymnastics after school since their classes are at the same time, and I do the pick-up run on other days. It's a good system, and it saves a lot of gas and time.

This Thursday, though, Connie was out of town on business and had asked me to do the Thursday run. "Sure!" I said, thinking, how hard can that be? Yeah, OK, so I'll have Peter with me and I'll need to pick up both girls and Megan's little sister Kenzie, and all their carseats and backpacks and lunchboxes, and get them herded into the car, and make sure they eat their cheese sticks instead of seeing if they will fit into the gaps between the seats, and drive over to the gym and get my dear distracted daughter into her leotard and into class on time, and keep an eye on Kenzie, and keep Peter from going totally ballistic with all the activity and noise of the gym ... um ... whoops, too late, I already said yes.

Deep breath. Sure! I am Supermom, right? I gave birth to an 8 lb. 13 oz. baby without medication, I can certainly handle a measly little carpool run. Yes. I can. Definitely.

Somebody else said, "Pride goeth before a fall." (This time I know, it's King Solomon, but I'm not going to quote chapter and verse. If you want to know, that's what Google's for.) Apparently the universe thought there was a concentration of pride at my house and decided to shift things around a bit.

It wasn't my fault that the minivan didn't start, really it wasn't. This time I didn't leave the lights on or the back door open or the overhead light on or ... well, you get the picture. Anyway, it wouldn't start on Wednesday evening. My husband and his brother came and got it running again over Thursday lunch, and we were good to go! Right?

No. We were not. It turned out that it needed a new battery, but I didn't know that at 2:55 on Thursday afternoon. All I know was that it went rrr, rrr, rrrr. Rrrr, rrr, rrrr. I thought, maybe some gas? Rrrr, rrrr, VVRRRRRMMMMM, rrrr, rrr, rrr. Nope. A few bad words? Whack it on the dashboard to teach it a lesson? Perhaps a well-aimed kick to the tires? None of these really seemed like good ideas, so I simply sighed. (Well, all right, I thought the bad words.)

I called my friend Tammy, the only other person I know who has a minivan and was not using it at 3 p.m. on a school day, and YES! she was home and we could borrow it. So, I hauled a protesting Peter out of the minivan, did the contortionist's act required to get his carseat into the back of my beloved 1968 Mustang (2-door, unfortunately), and drove over to Tammy's, where I did the whole routine in reverse. By this time, Peter had settled into Tammy's front yard with her children, and he was NOT pleased to have to leave. It wasn't negotiable, though, so we left.

I called ahead and had the girls moved over to the school's day care, since I was going to be at least half an hour late. I called Megan's dad to tell him the Kenzie-swapping meet-up was probably going to be delayed. I managed to get to school without doing anything dire to Tammy's beautiful Honda Odyssey (didn't I just write something about coveting?), found a parking spot, and mentally armed myself for the inevitable battle of extricating the girls from the excitement and color and potato chip intensive world of after-school care.

OK, so far so good -- I had all four kids, all of them had their craft projects and backpacks and carseats and THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT MOM papers and lunch boxes. Wait! Kenzie! Did I leave ... nope, I got her. *phew* All right. We got to gymnastics, and nothing worse happened than Peter dropping several small pieces of equipment into a 4-foot-high vertical plastic tube that was bolted into the floor. (Don't tell, please. They'll find them one of these years. They didn't look all that expensive.) Everybody was with their appropriate teacher or parent, and I could go home.

I drove through the horrifying traffic of I-5 at 4:30, in which everyone is trying to beat the looming spectre of rush hour by driving ten to fifteen miles over the speed limit. In the slow lane. I cringed every time anyone came close to Tammy's paint job, sure that I was going to be the one to wreck this beautiful vehicle, in which the children were not allowed to eat and a towel was laid across the most high-traffic area of the carpeting. I won't vouch for my blood pressure, but we were otherwise safe and sane when I got to Tammy's, thanked her profusely, switched the carseats, once again pried Peter away from his playmates, and drove home, nearly two hours later.

Could it have gone worse? You bet. The van could have broken down at school instead of at home. Peter could have put his ARM in the tube instead of the little loops of cloth he found by the high bar. The tiny smudge of chocolate that landed on Tammy's pristine seat cushions could have been my entire diet Coke instead. (It came out, and she thought it was pretty funny that I was so stressed -- of course, she hasn't seen the inside of my minivan.) We could have gotten sideswiped on the Marion Street Bridge and gone crashing through the guardrail and fallen into the Willamette River and had to be rescued by heroic bystanders, and I would have been trying to cover up my tatty bra that would have been showing through my white T-shirt. Of course you'd be wearing a white T-shirt if you drive into a river, it's part of the nature of things.

It could have been worse, and a professional pessimist like me can always come up with several entertaining scenarios to prove it. But you know what? It could have been better, too. And it wasn't. And to be honest, I'm not sure I see the point.

Maybe I'm just too narrow-minded, too tired, too busy, too cynical. But days like this just seem to pick away at my soul without giving anything back. If I ever find out the deep lesson in yesterday afternoon, I'll be sure and let you know.

In the meantime, I'm going to make sure I always have good-quality chocolate in my purse. You never know when you're going to need it.


This was originally posted on September 27, 2005, shortly before I walked the Portland Marathon.

I didn't actually set out to tell you about Robin McKinley, but once I got started, I just couldn't help it. Here's the quote that got me started. In context, a vampire is talking about how it feels to touch the magical web of light that the master wardskeeper has given to the untrained magic handler who ... um ... never mind. You don't need context, do you? Context is highly overrated.

It's about change and growth, and when I read it, it felt right.

"Does it hurt you?"

"When you are a little too hot, a little too cold, does it hurt? Or if you pick up something a little too heavy for you, does it hurt? It is only a little pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself."

A week from Sunday, I will tie my shoes and put on my hat and walk 26.2 miles. The understood boundaries of myself have changed as I have trained, and while their moving has indeed been painful from time to time, I would not put them back if I could.

Robin McKinley

This was originally posted on September 27, 2005.

Another favorite fantasy author -- not sure what it says about me that there are enough fantasy authors that I like that I have more than one favorite, but she's one of my favorites of any genre so that's all right then.

She's not as rampantly quotable as Terry Pratchett, but then she's a bit more subtle in general. Pratchett's dragons roar and glitter and stride about; McKinley's lurk and emit evil and then burn you to a crisp without observing the usual niceties of knight-to-dragon combat. Pratchett's heroes wisecrack and stumble through the shifting realities of his world without losing their interestingly pointed hats; when McKinley's heroines wake up in the morning, they have tangled hair and pillow face, and they might not be in a good mood. Pratchett's magic flashes; McKinley's shimmers and glimmers and settles quietly into your soul.

Her early books are supposedly geared for teenagers, mostly girls (I think the boys probably read them too, but only when nobody's looking). The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown are delightful fantasy that I read for the first time when my hair was just growing out of the middle school layers into the high school spiral perm. I read them most recently as a grown-up mother of two, and I liked them more after the passage of (mumble) years.

As she continued to write, her books grew up too. Deerskin addresses horrifying realities without immersing the reader beyond hope. Spindle's End (Sleeping Beauty, more or less) gives us a heroine who is not entirely sure who she is, and she is stronger for it. Rose Daughter, her second retelling of the Beauty and the Beast legend (Beauty is the first), is a fairy tale that is most definitely not for children.

Sunshine, which I am currently reading for the fourth time since I bought it in 2004, is for grown-ups. She takes a world that's almostbutnotquite 21st-century America, drops some magic and vampires into it, stirs in cinnamon rolls and Bitter Chocolate Death, and serves it up with a dash of slightly bone-chilling romance (I'm not going to tell you any more than that). I don't have favorites of her books, since it's like trying to decide whether I prefer eating or breathing, but I do like this one. Quite a lot. I see different bits of myself in all her heroines. In Sunshine I see some of my very best and some of my very worst, so she appeals to me in a way that gets under my skin and stays there.

I'm not going to tell you to read McKinley's work, since I don't know if you'll like her or not. Not everyone does, and that's all right -- not everyone likes Shakespeare either, if you can find anyone honest enough to admit to it. I will say, though, that her work is worth a try if you like being grabbed by the back of the neck and yanked into a fantasy world and meeting yourself when you get there. I happen to like that. Maybe you will too.

"One of my children"

This was originally posted on September 27, 2005.

I grew up as a preacher's kid, and my sister and I made regular appearances in my father's sermons as everyday examples of the principles he was teaching from the Bible. Since there were only two of us, he did his best to preserve our anonymity by starting the often-humorous stories with "One of my children ... "

It never worked all that well. All the congregation had to do was look up in the second row on the left-hand side and see which sister was laughing and which sister was blushing. It was a kind attempt, though, and in that tradition, I will leave a thin veil of secrecy over the identity of the child I am referring to.

One of my children spent the morning drifting in and out of the room I used to use for piano teaching. It still contains my piano and a large collection of music, but has little else in it aside from a few plants on a small table, a desk against one wall, and plenty of sunlight. It has become the home base for the kids' train set. (You didn't think a train set needed a home base? You'd be amazed at how far a 30-piece wooden train track set can migrate.) I assumed that this was what kept drawing my child's interest, since that is a frequent activity on sunny mornings.

It was a faulty assumption. It turned out that I had left a very large bin of raisins on the kitchen counter after fixing breakfast, instead of returning it to the childproofed cupboard where it normally lives, locked away from inquisitive little fingers. One of my children had spirited it away into the piano room out of my line of vision, and made several trips to visit it over the course of the morning.

Do you have any idea what a cup of raisins will do to a child who is still in diapers?


If you want to make me a happy woman, please explain to me what fundamental law of the universe demands that a professionally cleaned carpet be immediately baptized by a glass of orange juice, random sprinklings of sand (we don't even have sand!), and a pile of cat barf.

Thou Shalt Not Covet.

Now, I figure that since they didn't have grand pianos when that command came down the first time, grand pianos should be exempt. Doesn't that seem reasonable to you? It does to me.

I own a Yamaha upright that I purchased new when I started teaching full-time. It has an oak finish, keeps its tune nicely, and it has been exactly what I needed for my private use and my years of teaching. It retailed somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 in 1996, and since I worked at the music store I bought it from, that was knocked down to $2,400. It was the nicest instrument I could afford, and even that was stretching it a bit. It has served me well, and I have never regretted the purchase.

However, as anyone who has the faintest appreciation for cars can tell you, the fact that you like your reliable Honda does not keep you from getting whiplash watching a Shelby Cobra drive by, or a perfectly maintained '57 Chevy, or one of those Corvettes -- yeah, you know the ones I mean. In the much smaller world of people who appreciate pianos, it works a lot the same way, and with surprisingly similar price tags.

I was in Costco the other day in pursuit of chicken, and maybe some of that nice crab dip or some chocolate-covered almonds if they had them in quantities under ten pounds, and I wheeled around a corner to come cart-to-keyboard with a grand piano. Not exactly what you expect to find between the children's videos and the mayonnaise, you know?

It turned out to be a special sales event hosted by an area piano dealership, and (as always seems to be the case at these things) the featured instrument was one of those irritating monstrosities that plays itself and has a recorded backup band. It's great if you want Liberace's ghost in your living room, but otherwise it's a little creepy. Regardless, the incessant noise was an excellent deterrent to playing the other pianos, just in case you missed the polite little sign balanced over the Middle C on each keyboard. I wouldn't have, but it still kind of bugged me on principle that I couldn't. I wandered down the aisle, seeing if anything caught my eye, only looking with half my attention.

And then, there it was. A 7-foot grand, black with a subtle, soft finish, lid up, bench positioned just so, and Bosendorfer stamped across the front. Who? Oh, I'll tell you. There aren't many of them out there, and they're in a class by themselves. They're best known for their concert grand that has 92 keys instead of 88, adding four extra bass notes that (due to the quality of the piano) actually sound like notes rather than very expensive growls. I had never actually seen one. I had also never seen a piano that had been marked down to $60,000. From $90,000. Really. I'm completely serious, and I suspect the piano dealership was too.

So, can you blame me for changing my mind about the silliness of a piano show in the middle of Costco? I had to play this thing. It was not optional. I had to play it. Unfortunately, the salesman was in full Sell-Things Mode, and he had an interested audience. Since it said RIGHT THERE not to play without asking, and the electronic horror had moved onto "White Christmas", I just didn't have what it took to sit down and start playing. But I also couldn't bring myself to interrupt a potential sale just to ask if I could play a piano that I, in my jeans and T-shirt and scuffed tennis shoes, was clearly not planning to buy.

I waited. And waited. I walked away. I came back. (A Bosendorfer! I have to!) I smiled nicely at the person being sold to. I waited. I walked away again. I came back again. (But it's a Bosendorfer!) Finally, finally, he was free, I asked, he said yes, I sat down, and then my mind went blank. All those years of classical training, GONE. So I picked up the jazzy line the techno-thing had been playing, got into a groove with it, and oh my ... I was in love. People were probably listening. I have no idea. There were no people, there was no Costco, just the perfect action of the keys and the pure trebles and the rich middle tones and the heartbreaking clarity of the bass (I knew it was coming, but you're never really ready for it) and I accelerated that baby up to sixty in no time flat.

I had to stop before I got drool on the keyboard. I came back to earth, smiled ruefully at the salesman, patted it good-bye, and paid for my chicken and went home. I thought my poor faithful little piano would look small and worn and sad when I saw it, but instead it beckoned to me. The few minutes of bliss on that beautiful work of art had reminded me, paradoxically, of why I do this -- it's not the instrument. It's the music. So I played, Bach preludes and Schubert impromptus and a little bit of blues, all pouring out of my soul into my fingers and back into my soul again.

I don't need to covet. I have all I need in my heart, my hands, and my stack of beloved and battered music. I have all I need.

This was originally posted on September 22, 2005.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Multipurpose sewing machine?

This was originally posted on September 22, 2005. It cost $130 to fix.

Multi-purpose ... sewing machine??

If you had asked me the primary purpose of my trusty old Viking sewing machine yesterday, I would have looked at you a little oddly, and then answered that it was meant for sewing. Mostly I've sewn clothes for my kids, aside from some maternity clothes for myself (including a well-intentioned but unfortunately patterned summer dress with little green frogs that turned out to be a lot ... well, greener after the dress was made). If I had to think of a secondary purpose, I probably would have mentioned its ability to produce bad language, as evidenced by the first and last project I did using stretchy fleece.

I haven't done any sewing for quite a while. My creativity goes in spurts -- some months it seems to dry up completely, and other times it goes in cycles, running through the now-predictable pastimes of sewing, hand-quilting, cross-stitch, baking, scrapbooking, and the odd fling with hand-dipped chocolates. Then some months it runs riot, and it's all I can do to keep up with the drive to write-music-write-stories-sew-clothes-invent-recipes before all the creative energy threatens to tear me to bits.

Recently, I've been writing a bit, but it's been a dry spell on the whole. However, Peter has grown out of his pajamas, and I had two pairs cut out on the sewing table from the last round of sewing madness, so it was becoming unavoidable. I located matching thread, plugged in the iron, replaced the needle, sighed, and started in.

Now, you have to understand that in the months when I wasn't using the sewing machine, Peter was. Not for its intended purpose, naturally, but for purposes only known to the mind of Peter and occasionally shared with the rest of us. The most comprehensible was "cooking". He would turn on the sewing machine light (just like Mommy turns on the range light when she cooks), prepare all his ingredients (also like Mommy, but with rather more plastic and less pasta), and carefully arrange them on the flat bottom section of the machine. He would painstakingly cook his little plastic knight, seasoning him with cardboard game pieces if Mommy was watching, and her good-quality pins if she wasn't.

Naturally, the production of flannel pajamas required the dismantling of the cooking operation. I expected Peter to be upset about this, but the cool pictures of footballs on the flannel seemed to balance the loss. I started to sew, and as I got into the rhythm of it again, I remembered how very much I like to sew. Peter was playing quietly, the fabric was moving smoothly and confidently beneath my hands, and the sewing machine itself was emitting a cheerful jingle.

Jingle? That's odd. Usually it's more of a hum. Oh, well, it still works, and I wonder if it's really going to make that big a difference if I use dark purple thread instead of dark blue on a section that isn't going to show, and oh, didn't that line up nicely ... and I forgot about the jingle.

Right up until there was a big noise and a small explosion, and a protective plate broke and dropped clean out of the machine followed by two pennies. Apparently the machine had an extra, hidden purpose: Piggy bank.

You know ... they didn't mention this in What To Expect When You're Expecting.

a quote that made me laugh

This one's from Terry Pratchett's Men at Arms, my current source of too-late nights and incurable giggling. As always, the funny story and incessant puns are sprinkled with thoughts that zing through your consciousness, the literary equivalent of static electricity.

I guess this is one reason to believe in a deity ...

On dwarves and their gods:

"...they'd seen the need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it's nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, 'Oh, random fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!' or 'Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!' "

Say that one more time?

This was originally posted on September 13, 2005, as a much-needed follow-up to "Somebody Else's Kid."

Today, Peter's penchant for oft-repeated phrases took a delightful turn. I was in the process of cleaning up one of his larger messes (I didn't tell you about that, did I?), this time in the laundry room. He had moved a bucket next to the dryer, used it as a step stool to climb onto the dryer, and from there managed to get into the laundry detergent and liberally sprinkle the dryer, the washer, the floor, and his hair. I was heading down the stairs with the cleaning equipment and said, for no particular reason aside from habit, "I love you, Buddy!"

He responded with his usual, "Wuv oo too." Then I heard a slightly eerie but very sweet echo of myself as he said, in my precise inflection, "So-o-o much." It warmed my heart, every single one of the seven times he said it.

Somebody Else's Kid

This was originally posted on September 12, 2005. On a whim, I printed it out and gave it to Peter's teacher and shared it with a few other parents. I was surprised and deeply moved by the chord it seemed to strike with these people, and it made it more than worth the anguish of writing it. Not all endings are happy. I think that's OK sometimes.

It's always somebody else's kid, the one who looks almost right but isn't quite, who cries a little too much or doesn't make enough eye contact, who asks the same question one too many times, even for a three-year old. Somebody else is in the grocery store with a screaming child, protecting her body from his frantically kicking feet while she tries to hold him, all the while looking at other shoppers with a slightly desperate air as she prays that they'll just leave her alone, please don't stare, he'll be all right in a minute. Somebody else leaves the playground with her struggling toddler in a practiced full-body lock, praying that nobody will call Child Protective Services.

I am somebody else, and he is my son.

And when you see that mother, consider this -- yes, he's loud. Yes, he asked that eight times already. Yes, he cried at the top of his lungs over something incomprehensible from the produce section clear to the canned foods. And when you get in your car, it will be quiet. When she gets in her car, he's still there.

Don't get me wrong, I love my son. I love him with the fierce passion that only mothers and poets can understand, and even the poets I'm not so sure about. He has my blood, he lived in my body, and I love him in a way that I can't explain, even to myself. This isn't really so much about love, though. It's about frustration and exhaustion and foreign languages without translators.

Last week, Peter wandered around the house crying pitifully, "I want to go home! I want to go home!" We heard the words and gave the best answers we could. A typical conversation would sound like this:

"I want to go home!"
You are home, Buddy. This is home.
"I want to go home!"
This is our home! This is where we live. Yup, this is home.
"I want to go home!"
We live here! This is our house. It's a nice house!
"I want to go home!"
This is Peter's house. He lives here. Mama lives here. It's a good house!
"I want to go home!"

We finally realized that he meant he wanted to ride in the car. Whenever we left his grandmother's house, we would say, "Peter, it's time to go home!" and we'd get in the car and go for a ride. Same words. Completely different definition.

We're on Rounds Two and Three of this linguistic battle this week. He looks out the window in broad daylight when it's 55 degrees outside, and says, "It's hot outside! It's dark outside!" And the conversational loop begins again, the same inconclusiveness, the same frustration. What does he want when he says it's hot? Ice cream? The wading pool? Sidewalk chalk? His sandals? What does it mean that it's dark? He's tired? He wants to have his teeth brushed? He needs his blanket? Maybe the earth's rotation is making him dizzy?

I don't know. Nobody knows. I hope that some time this week we will have the translator's breakthrough that gives the key to yet another set of concepts. He speaks English, but it is not the English I speak, and there is no dictionary, no vocabulary list to work from.

In the meantime, I will go in his bedroom tomorrow and wake him up. I will dress him in long pants and a flannel shirt against the chill, and I will open the shades to let the golden light of morning spill into his room. He will say, "It's hot ouside! It's dark outside!"

It's dark in here too, little buddy. It's dark in here too.


This was originally posted on September 7, 2005.

I hadn't intended to post any follow-up to this, but I changed my mind today. Thank you, with all my heart, to those of you who posted here and e-mailed me privately about the "small" post. Your thoughts were welcome and deeply appreciated, and your friendship even more so.

I am still feeling a bit smallish today, but my friend's gracious forgiveness helped me to pick up my stuff off the floor at least. It turns out it wasn't quite so badly stepped-on as I thought.

I wish I could say I had learned my lesson and I would never offend someone again, but I know better than that, unfortunately. I can say, though, that I will try to be more thankful for forgiveness and friendship, since the last twenty-four hours have given me far more than my fair share of both.


This was originally posted on September 6, 2005.

I am 32 years old. I have a college degree. I am a proficient musician. I am a good teacher, a decent mother, and I think not a bad writer. I send thank-you notes and compose music and grow beautiful roses in my yard. I have, or so I thought, grown past the insecurities of my teenage years and can stand up straight and be a grown-up.

And then I hurt the feelings of a friend today, and I am suddenly thirteen again, with unruly hair and braces and spotty skin. I feel small and embarrassed, and the bottom has torn out of my bookbag and my papers have fallen under the feet of the big kids in the hallway, and now they are dirty and unmendable.

How does that happen? How does a competent, confident adult suddenly lose nineteen years of her life? I don't know. All I know is that I am sorry, and I am still not quite old enough to know how to say it right.

I swear, she was here a minute ago.

This was originally posted on September 5, 2005.

When I was in college, I dated a very nice young man whose primary flaw was that he was almost as absent-minded as I was. The relationship ran its course before we were even close to being in danger of marrying and procreating, and I used to laugh that it was a good thing -- between the two of us, we would have misplaced kids right and left. "I haven't seen the girls in a while, have you?" "No ... not since we left the beach." "Oh dear."

I did eventually have my own children, and I worried about losing them as easily as I lost my keys. I've always been bad about keys. Some people lose their glasses -- that was never my problem, since I was so near-sighted that I only took my glasses off after I was in bed and had turned the light off, because I might not be able to FIND the bed without them. I've lost schoolbooks, fully completed Social Studies homework (that one lost me a straight A in 1987 and I've never forgotten it), purses, day planners, cars (but I always found them) -- pretty much anything you could possibly want the next day, I've lost it one time or another. But keys were the worst.

Losing my keys was the only one that sent me directly into a raging fury, automatically bypassing all the intervening steps of concern, frustration, renewed determination, exasperation, philosophizing, anger, and foot-stomping. If the keys were lost, I could pretty much guarantee that this was not going to be one of those calm, reasonable searches in which the lost item would turn out to be in the second-most-likely place, or perhaps in my jacket pocket. No, if it was my keys, they were equally likely to be in my laundry hamper, behind a stack of classical piano music, or in a soap dish in the bathroom. It wasn't all that effective to rampage through a room, crying and swearing and doing the full Insane Burglar treatment, but it sure felt good.

When I was pregnant and discovered that my new baby would weigh slightly less than my purse, I think you can understand my immediate concern. She was going to be so small! Smaller than the cat, and he hid from us all the time! I mean, I'd lost stuff WAY bigger than that without even trying. What if I put her in the laundry basket by accident, or set her on the counter and stacked papers on top of her? (Oh, you don't want to know. The stack on the counter involved regular cursing.) What if I put her in the closet with the clean towels? I had nightmares about this.

Well, not too surprisingly, it is very, very hard to lose a baby. For one thing, they're LOUD. For another, they don't balance on counters very well. For another, they smell bad at regular intervals, so even if you did set one down for a while, you'd find it again in a hurry. Mostly, though, it's because you love them so much. I discovered that I was no more likely to lose her than I was to lose my own self. At any given moment, even if she was napping, you could have spun me around with my eyes closed and I could have pointed unerringly to where Mary was. I may have wanted to get a full refund on her now and then, but I wasn't in any danger of losing her.

Then time happened. Six years' worth, actually. And I can't find the baby. I distinctly remember putting her to bed in her crib, and now the crib's dismantled in her little brother's room under the Mr. Incredible poster. She was wearing a little blue and white nightie with puppies on it, I can still see it, but it's down in the basement in a box labeled "3-6 months clothes -- KEEP." She liked to sleep with a stuffed plush dog, rather mundanely named "Doggie" -- he's still around, but he's not quite the same color now and his nose has been almost entirely worn off.

I looked in her room tonight, and there was no baby -- instead, there was a long-legged colt of a girl, dark blonde curls still damp from her bath, face buried in her new Tinkerbell comforter, wide awake with anticipation for tomorrow's adventure into the first grade. I kissed her forehead through the floppy tangle of growing-out bangs, and she sat bolt upright and gave me an update on the cat's most recent foray into her room. I smiled and told her to sleep, and closed the door as I have so many times, so many nights.

I'm excited, too. She's bright and funny and social, and her first year of all-day school will be a much-needed outlet for her quick mind and energetic friendliness. First grade is a good thing.

Every now and then, though, I still catch myself looking for the baby. I don't look behind cushions any more, but into the fine bones of her sweet face, memory overlaying her perfect nose and wide grin with the soft cheeks and tiny lips I spent so many hours admiring. I wouldn't want her to stay tiny forever, as some mothers claim to wish for ... but every once in a while, I miss the baby.