Thursday, December 23, 2010

I'm a cotton-headed ninny muggins...

I stood in the shower last night letting an expensive amount of nearly scalding hot water wash over me as I worked to pinpoint what was missing this year.  I have been trying in vain to get into the Christmas spirit, and even though I have done a stellar job at closely following the directions from “How to Have a Merry Christmas for Dummies,” I am still completely lacking any semblance of seasonal cheer. There are twinkling lights inside and out, delightfully decorated tins of goodies to make your pants become two sizes too small, and a bounty of gifts under the tree that would cause Santa to look like a boozing slacker, yet here I sit full of "Bah, humbug".

I put on a good show. I know how to make others covet my (presumed) joy and feel consumed by guilt because they didn't take time out of their busy lives to decorate gingerbread men with the kids like I did.  I have been dutifully quoting "Elf" on a daily basis, buzzing around like Mrs. Claus jacked up on Red Bull with all of the shopping, wrapping, and even cooking up my late mother's recipes in an attempt to craft the Best. Christmas. Ever.

But, that's just it.  I have created a beautiful, fake holiday world, and I'm ashamed to admit that it's all smoke and mirrors, folks.  I began thinking back to my own childhood to see if I could catch lightning in a jar and perhaps release it into the present day.  What made me love Christmas so much as a child?  It wasn't a decorated house that rivaled Clark Griswold's.  We didn't even have lights on the outside of our house.  It wasn't a pirate's booty of gifts because my parents' lower middle class salary meant that we shouldn't expect to get everything we asked for, and honestly, I can barely remember most of my gifts any way.  What I do remember is watching my mom in the kitchen for hours baking for us the sweet treats we were allowed only once a year.  I remember sitting across the table from her cracking the assortment of nuts that were also a beloved holiday treat and noticing that my hands looked just like a smaller version of hers. I remember catching a glimpse of my stoic, hard-nosed father when he actually smiled and occasionally laughed at the chaos of us kids opening gifts.

And, it was then that I had my Grinch moment.  I realized that even though my house looks like the set of a sappy Hallmark original Christmas movie, it could all be stripped away down to the last can of Who Hash, and my kids would still love this holiday anyway, because they crave what every human craves: love (and Legos).   They want to spend time with me whether or not the lighted garland on the banister is perfect.  They want to sing, "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg...", and laugh like it's the first time they have ever heard it, regardless of whether or not my vanilla wafer cake completely crumbles into a million pieces.  Sure, they want presents just like all kids do, but I'm willing to bet they think snuggling with me is pretty awesome, maybe even as awesome as a Zhu-Zhu Pet.

So, Christmas is finally here.  I am slowly getting the picture that maxing out your credit cards at Toys-R-Us doesn't equal love (unless you're Donald Trump's offspring), and even though I can't  beg/plead/bribe my family to spend the day with me, the three people with whom I share this home will be here.  They will hug me, squeal with delight at every treasure no matter the price, and tell me they love me because that is what Christmas is really all about...well, that, and watching twenty-four hours of "A Christmas Story."

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like (an Anheuser Busch-fueled) Christmas (party)

One of my  favorite events this time of year is our annual Office Christmas Holiday Party. It is an evening when co-workers gather ‘round the buffet table to eat lukewarm mashed potatoes, wilted green beans, and parsley-covered baked chicken in an Opaque Sauce of Unknown Origin. Oh, how I love that special night when you get to watch your fellow cube farmers repeatedly tug at their dusty neck ties, the same neck ties that haven’t seen sunshine in three-hundred and sixty-four days, while you cleverly analyze those mythical, rarely seen creatures – The Spouses.  (I guess money can buy love!) It is but a few magical hours filled with poorly executed line dancing, swilling of cheap (but free) wine, and gawking at ladies in their sparkly dresses who look like they just flew in from a Bedazzling convention.

And I can’t wait.

Our Christmas party is more subdued than the traditional office parties you often see portrayed in the media where drunken salesmen are given a pass for spewing their vodka-soaked Christmas cheer all over the Vice President's wife, or where cute, nearly-jailbait secretaries end up giggling and snuggling on the boss’ lap. Oh, no. There is absolutely no canoodling under the mistletoe at our shindig, and in an effort to keep inappropriate alcoholic revelry to a bare minimum, our company hosts their party after work on a weekday. This is a vain valiant attempt to have employees busy working all day and not getting liquored up in preparation for showcasing their Electric Slide talent. Plus, it's common knowledge that even slightly drunk pencil pushers always slow down the food line with their inability to figure out the mechanics of the sweet tea dispenser and their impaired sense of eye-hand-food-plate coordination, so I'm actually very glad the company is looking out for us that way. (A message to Mr. I-Have-Already-Had-Five-Budweisers in front of me at the bread table: Yes, the Five Second Rule may be invoked for those notoriously tricky and hard to handle dinner rolls.)

I once worked for a company whose Christmas party main event was the employee dance contest. I am not even kidding. What made this so delicious can be summed up in two words: Open Bar. The scene looked very much like "American Bandstand" if  "American Bandstand" was predominantly filled with tipsy middle-aged white people who have no rhythm. It was truly a boost to company morale (well, mine anyway) to see the lower level employees and upper level managers shaking their groove things to Kool and the Gang in unison.  However, our beloved dance contest took a somewhat sordid turn when a few of the liquid-courage-filled contestants decided to show off their dirty dancing prowess.  The dance floor looked more like the set of a porno flick and less like a corporate sanctioned holiday gathering. I was forced to avert my eyes on more than one occasion, and I still have flashbacks of the simulated sex acts I witnessed that year.

Thanks to a few over-zealous Solid Gold Dancer wannabes, the dance tournament was quickly abolished and never spoken of again in mixed company,  however they were kind enough to replace it with a karaoke contest.  It was a stroke of genius. This would offer more control for the Big Wigs as they could preview the list of songs available and ensure the selections were family friendly. Plus, who in their right mind would get up to sing in front of a crowd of people if they had no talent?  This would be entertainment of the highest caliber for sure!

The idea that only trained singers would get behind the microphone works well in theory, but they failed to take into consideration a well-known fact:  Plenty of tone deaf party goers need nothing more than a few drinks to believe they are the second coming of Celine Dion.  Our ears were brutally assaulted with classics such as "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "What's Love Got To Do With It".  We were even entertained with one of my all-time favorites, the "Sponge Bob Squarepants" theme song.  At the end of the evening's festivities, I could only say that I was so thankful these folks had day jobs. I staggered out the door with visions of off key co-workers singing "I Will Survive" dancing in my head.  The rules were changed after that year and only those who signed up to sing before any alcohol was consumed were allowed to perform. Bah Humbug!

Unfortunately, I'm not expecting any shenanigans at my party this year.  We will all smile politely, compliment the rice pilaf and wonder out loud who crafted our beautiful table centerpieces.  We'll be good little boys and girls, spreading the holiday spirit by professing our heart-felt affection for everyone in the room regardless of the fact that they don't return your e-mails and frequently make you question your choice of careers. We'll forgive and forget being passed up for that promotion, and maybe - just maybe - if Santa is watching, he will grant us all the one wish we are secretly hoping for this Christmas:  To see a timid, soft-spoken desk jockey throw off his sport coat and, in a beer-fueled frenzy, bust a move.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'll be home for Christmas...literally.

My family has a long-standing, deeply rooted Christmas ritual of never celebrating the day together. This time-honored tradition of avoiding relatives during the holidays goes back for generations. I’d be willing to bet that my entire immediate family hasn’t joined hands around the Christmas dinner table since Nixon was in the White House.

As a kid, our celebration included only my parents and five siblings, and my father didn’t even grace us with his presence during the meal because apparently, Walter Cronkite needed his attention more than we did. The logistics for moving a group as large as ours prevented us from traveling much, so unless some brave soul wanted to be a part of the Holiday Dysfunction Junction, we would spend the day without the company of grandparents, aunts, and uncles. This does very little to promote family unity, although it did mean more leftovers for us to enjoy. (Yay, us!) One by one, each child grew up, left the nest, and kept on walking. Our Christmas Day participation slowly dwindled until I, as the youngest, was the last one standing.

There are days when I feel a little melancholy from dwelling on the fact that my children have first cousins they have never met and aunts and uncles they would have a hard time identifying in a line up, but I understand because I have first cousins whose names and faces I can’t even recall. So, while other families are making extensive grocery shopping lists for their communal feasts, drawing names for a raucous gift exchange, and pulling out the sleeper sofa to make room for that long-lost cousin who showed up at the last minute, my family will be rehearsing their standard lines such as “Sorry, we have other plans”, and “We’re just going to stay home this year.”  Don't feel sorry for me, though. I have decided to put a positive spin on our lackluster holiday attendance and list for you...

The Top Five Reasons to Avoid Your Family at Christmas:

1. You Won't Have to Eat Green Bean Casserole - If I’m in total control of the menu, this gag reflex-inducing dish won’t make it anywhere near my table. I don’t know who decided that canned, gelatinous, gray soup is delightful when mixed with green beans, but I’m going out on a limb here by saying it must have been a stoned, cash-strapped college kid rummaging through his cabinet during an attack of the munchies. He found the beans, the jiggly mushroom soup, and a can of fried onions that was left by the previous tenant, mixed them all together and, DUDE! An instant classic Christmas dish was born. So, if no one is coming for dinner, then that means no one is coming for dinner with an undesirable casserole in hand.

2. Silver and Gold and Plastic – With so many bank accounts in the crapper, who among us isn’t looking for ways to save money? If all of my siblings, their significant others, children and grandchildren showed up on my doorstep, that would be three dozen extra stockings to fill, and with my bad luck in shopping at the dollar store, well, let’s just say I’m dodging a big bullet here. Christmas Cheer doesn’t come cheap, people, and the liquor store wasn’t running any Buy One, Get One Free promotions last time I checked.

3. So…umm…how’s the weather? – If you haven’t seen your relatives in a year (or five), then you should go ahead and make peace with the idea that you will find yourself seated on the couch uncomfortably close to a virtual stranger, and a period of awkward silence that makes you sweat from your upper lip will ensue. Maybe there is a reason you don’t hang out on a regular basis. Maybe the only thing you have in common is your DNA, and the single topic you can agree on is how your power bill will take a hit from the approaching cold front. You will struggle to find words that form even the simplest of chit chat, and you may start to question if you were adopted.  It would be in your best interest to just stay away.

4. ‘Tis the Season to Be Congested – I’m already walking on the wild side by not getting a flu shot this year. I would really hate to spend my Christmas by the sink making sure each and every family member properly washed their hands. (Remember to sing the ABC song!) All of that laughing, hugging, hand holding, and close talking are just the vehicles needed for each and every communicable disease out there. Since I’m sure it’s against the rules of etiquette to require all guests to wear a face mask while not eating, this season you should probably stay home and kindly keep your cough to yourself.

5. One Thing Leads to Another – The whole "Celebrating with Family Thing" is a vicious cycle, really. It starts off with Christmas dinner, but before you know it, you are remembering birthdays and even sending cards. Then, you discover that seeing your relatives outside of government-recognized holidays is (gasp) not so awful, and you plan a backyard barbecue FOR NO REASON AT ALL, and everyone comes. It’s a downward spiral from there as you begin to talk to each other on a regular basis and plan outings that actually include family members. (Oh yeah, you’ll be out in public for everyone to witness.) Very soon you’ll hit rock bottom with all the talking, visiting, laughing, bonding and carrying on, and then the whole lot of you will start to look like a close-knit family, and….oh…wait…

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Christmas Nazi

I sometimes have a really hard time getting into the Christmas spirit even though it’s my favorite of all holidays. I think it’s because I tend to be a little crabby when it’s pitch black at 5:15pm every afternoon, and the kids are whining because they can’t play outside in the dark. Plus, running interference between a giant, bumbling Weenie Dog with half a brain permanently set on“Chew Mode” and all those unsuspecting electrical cords that are plentiful this time of year tends to take a little shine off the silver bells for me. And to top it off, I really hate being bombarded with commercials showing those lovely ladies who run from their well-appointed homes to find a Lexus in their driveway topped with a big, red bow on Christmas morning. Finding yoga pants under the tree for me really does not make for a “December to remember”. I’ll bet those Lexus-driving harpies eat Doritos and wear a size zero, too.

In spite of my decidedly Un-Cindy-Lou-Who-like attitude this year, I declared that my family is going to have a joyous holiday season even if it hurts, damn it. So, as I was on my hands and knees cleaning up a gift left for me not by Santa, but from the business end of a dog, I had a Clark Griswold epiphany. I think Clark summed it up for me best in “Christmas Vacation” when he said, “Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re going to press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f**king Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat, white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.” In that moment, I realized what I had to do. I had to implement a Normandy Beach-style Holiday Home Invasion. I had to become The Christmas Nazi.

I hatched my plan in about the time it takes to spray Lysol on the laundry room floor and scold my dog for his dirty deed.  All I had to do was turn my home into the North Pole of the South and force-feed my kids nothing but Christmas carols, festive outings, marshmallow-laden hot cocoa, and holiday movies every day for a month. (Let me pause right here and give a big shout out to the ABC Family channel for helping me in this endeavor with their "25 Days of Christmas".)  Just as The Grinch launched his assault to stop Christmas from coming, I was on a mission to do the very opposite.  I was poised to inject my family with some hardcore holiday spirit.

My scheme started with the lighting of the family Christmas tree.  Surely this would be an occasion over which we could bond and create beautiful memories, right? As we dragged bin after dusty bin from the garage, I felt my cheer quickly melting like a south Georgia snowfall in March.  Our first "joyous" event had turned into a heated discussion over where the tree looked best, why it was taking so long to string the lights, who got to hang which ornament, and who's fault it was that we were out of brown liquor. By the time the tree was up and lit, the four of us were no longer on speaking terms, and with a healthy Cabernet in hand, I quickly retreated to the bedroom to wrap gifts and sulk.  (Note to family members: Don't be surprised if your present looks like it's from the Unabomber. After a couple of glasses of the grape juice,  my hand was a little unsteady with the scissors and tape.)

After my unsuccessful attempt to bring the family together over the old Tannenbaum,  I decided we should try again with a trip to a local botanical garden that has an amazing light display, a place where we could drink decadent hot cocoa and put in a good word with Santa. In theory, my plan sounded great: the four of us bundled against the unseasonably cold weather, a jazz band playing Christmas favorites, and a merry spirit so thick you could almost hold it in your hand.  Yeah, that would have been such an awesome evening if I hadn't spent the entire afternoon on a fruitless quest to find a pair of size two pink inline skates.  After three hours of searching in a post-Thanksgiving weekend crowd, I was mentally and physically unstable.  I  walked into the house as it was time to leave for our perfectly delightful excursion and went all drill sergeant on the three of them.

"You people need to get your socks and shoes on NOW!"

"Put on your gloves!  Don't you realize it's thirty-five degrees, and we are going to be outside, for crying out loud?"

"What did you people do with my comfortable jeans?"

"Who left dishes on the table?  Can you all not clean up after yourselves?"

I single-handedly sabotaged my own best laid plans.  Once my shell-shocked family was in the car and on the way, I turned around to my children and in my best Mommy Dearest voice said, "You need to have fun, understand?"  They both quickly nodded in compliance knowing that Der Kommisar was hungry and having a bad hair day.

Everyone in the house is on high alert because the Christmas Nazi is actively on patrol.  I have even managed to recruit my six-year-old into the army.  Just last night she came running down the hall and said, "Mommy, do you know what J is watching?  It's not a Christmas movie.  It's iCarly." We marched down the hallway, an army of two, and demanded that the channel be changed to "The Santa Clause" or else.

I am certain that my brilliant plan for the Most Awesome Family Christmas Ever will result in one of two outcomes:  Either I will succeed in creating beautiful memories that we will cherish for a lifetime, or I will find it impossible to wave to my traumatized family as they carry me away in a straight jacket.  Seeing as how it's only December 3rd, and my hands are already trembling, it could go either way.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sanctity of Cornbread Dressing

I never knew cookware could bring out such emotion in me, but somehow it did.  This is no ordinary pot, though.  It's not high tech or new, but it is very special to me, none the less.  You might look at this battered, silver pan and think it's ready to be replaced with a more modern, stylish piece.  I look at it, and my childhood holiday memories flash before my eyes.  Every Etch-a-Sketch, Lite Brite, and Malibu Barbie appear clear as a bell to me.  This metal dish that twice a year held the most heavenly cornbread dressing was as much a part of Thanksgiving and Christmas for me as cranberry sauce and indigestion, and I made an Executive Decision this week that I will not spend another holiday away from it.

Although I am neither nostalgic nor sentimental, I have very strong opinions when it comes to traditions.  You know, such as how there's an unwritten rule that all people (maybe it's just all Southern People) must shoot off fireworks and barbecue some variety of animal on the fourth of July.  If a sparkler isn't lit or a spent bottle rocket doesn't find its way to your rooftop, then you aren't properly celebrating the birth of our nation, people.  Also, I'm fairly sure that if you don't have baked ham and potato salad on Easter, well, then you're just going to hell aren't you? And, those naysayers who balk at a New Year's Day menu of black-eyed peas, greens and some over-cooked pig dish may as well just crawl back under the sheets on January first because their hope for a New Year full of happiness and prosperity just went into the garbage along with the wrapper from a McDonald's Big Mac, bought to quell a queasy hangover stomach.

I would be lying if I said that getting gifts at Christmas as a kid wasn't a big deal, but just as important was the tradition of eating my mom's baked goodies that she prepared for us the whole season through.  It wouldn't have been the same without her haystacks, home made fudge or spicy sausage balls.  And, it would have surely been a downright travesty if we didn't have her extremely sage-y  cornbread dressing baked in this famous pan that probably pre-dates the death of JFK.  I don't remember a single Thanksgiving or Christmas in my life when I didn't either sit around her table for lunch or at least stop by for plate of her good cooking if other plans kept me away. 

After she passed on, I knew my holiday traditions would never be the same. When it comes to cooking, I suck.  There is just no nicer way to say it.  The first couple of years after her death, I prepared the meals on my own following her recipes, and it was mostly fine.  At least I could boast that I did it from scratch even though the dressing was a little dry and the mashed potatoes "needed something".  This year, however, my in-laws were graciously providing the Thanksgiving lunch.  We were invited to "just show up", and no cooking or fretting was required.  It sounded good to me at first, but then I found out that our entire meal would be not-so-lovingly prepared by strangers at a local grocery store, picked up the day before, and re-heated on the Big Day.

No. NO. NO!  My husband's parents are two of the nicest people on the planet, but that isn't what we do for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  A re-heated grocery store meal is utterly sacrilegious! The tradition is that we spend and plan and sweat and bake and mix and worry and mash and check the oven and say that we'll never have everything done in time and funnel Merlot (okay, that's just me), and then we sit down at the table to a Holiday Feast, and everyone eats until their pants no longer fit. 

So, this year we had our Whole Foods lunch on Thursday, but Friday, I took it back to my roots.  I got out that beat-up old pan and made cornbread dressing that would have made my mama proud, along with turkey, gooey, yummy macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, buttery corn, and pecan pie. Even if I really can't eat any of that stuff in real life, I felt like I had just created the Venus de Milo as I surveyed the spread.  Although it was the Friday after Thanksgiving and only the four of us, it still felt right.  This was how it's supposed to be.

So, I'm officially declaring that my family will celebrate the holidays the good old fashioned way at our house with Jell-O molds and a dash of family tension until further notice.  Y'all come.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Sitting at my desk on a sunny late-November afternoon with a steaming gingerbread latte in my hand and Christmas music playing in the background,  I decided to pretend that it's not seventy degrees outside.  Instead, I turned on the ceiling fan and donned summer clothes in an attempt to conjure a little seasonal chill.  (Unfortunately, the only chill happening was down my spine as I listened to Angela Lansbury brutally murder "We Need a Little Christmas".) It seems that I have a borderline psychotic love for all things Christmas.  I love decking not only the halls, but the bushes, my cubicle, the dogs. I can't wait to watch Charlie Brown every other day until we can quote the script from beginning to end.  I get a thrill out of answering my phone at work with, "Buddy the Elf. What's your favorite color?"  (Why do my co-workers not find that hilarious?)  I force my family to watch "A Christmas Story" in July, and secretly tune in to the year-round holiday music station when everyone else is groaning about how we haven't even finished with Halloween yet.  So, when my fifth grade son tried to step on my Christmas buzz by telling me he doesn't believe in Santa Claus, I had to put my foot down. You don't mess with Santa, not in my house.

 Yesterday at lunch I casually asked my kids what they would like for Christmas.  There was a time in my life (a wonderful time) when asking the children what they wanted was never even an issue.  I decided their loot a good ten months in advance and had it all wrapped and ready to go by Labor Day.  I would brainwash them over the course of the year into believing that whatever I had purchased was EXACTLY what they must have.  It worked quite well until they discovered the world outside of commercial-free television.  Now, I wait until the last minute because they will inevitably change their minds with each new Nickelodeon ad campaign.

My son was running through his expansive list of Items He Cannot Live Without, and each time I would poo-poo one of his requests, he would make quotations with his fingers while saying, "Santa can get it for me."   Oh, really?  "Santa", huh?  I had to stop him right there and school him in the protocol of Christmas giving.  First of all, by virtue of the blasphemous act of denying Santa's existence, it's a given that his name automatically went straight to the Naughty List.  Secondly, everyone knows that Santa only brings toys and not stick-built, adult-sized army bunkers for Nerf Gun War Games in the backyard.  And, lastly, I have it on good authority that the elves aren't mass producing commercial video equipment, and if they were, I'm sure there would be age and education requirements which he would not meet.

It's not that I don't understand where he's coming from.  He's a boy who is approaching his middle school years.  Making a wish list for Santa is strictly prohibited under the Unspoken Laws of Pre-teen Coolness.  I remember very clearly the Christmas when I was ten years old.  My family had an unusual tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve.  After supper, the kids and my mom would pile into the car to drive around town and view the light displays.  It always somehow worked out that Santa would stop by the house while we were out.  (Looking back, I don't understand why I never asked my Dad what he and Santa talked about during his visits - probably Old Milwaukee and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom - these were a few of his favorite things.)  That year, my fourteen-year-old brother decided to stay at the house with my father, just in case Santa Claus needed help unloading.  It seemed plausible because I had asked for a large, free-standing chalkboard, and an aging Kris Kringle could always use an extra hand.  When we returned, the porch light was on, indicating that the gifts had been safely delivered.  I burst in to find the chalkboard by the tree.  Written on the board was a message to me from The Man himself: "Merry Christmas!  Love, Santa".  That was awesome, except it was in my brother's handwriting.

Epic. Christmas. Fail.

I told my son that it's perfectly fine if he doesn't believe, but that means  he will only have gifts from us under the tree, and on Christmas morning, he will have to sit back and watch as his little sister bounds down the stairs to find all the goodies Santa left for her overnight.  I also happened to mention that The Big Man would probably leave her extra presents since he wasn't getting any.  Oh, and I imparted a tiny nugget of wisdom known to all adults: once you stop believing in Santa, your gifts are mostly practical, like shirts and socks.

He's keeping his hands in his pockets now when referring to Santa Claus. The finger quotations have disappeared.  I caught him at his desk making a wish list, too.  He's not letting on whether he has decided if Santa is real or not, but personally, this Mom hopes he never stops believing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gag Me with a Spoon

Please, don't ever call me skinny. I just might punch you in the face, and if I hear one more time how lucky I am to be small, I will absolutely go all Tonya Harding on the nearest shins.  I'm neither skinny nor lucky, unless you think a lifelong battle of the bulge is "lucky".  I could have been Mary Kate Olsen's sick and demented mentor, showing her all the tricks of the non-swallowing trade, although she looks like she did just fine without me.  I was a pioneer, blazing the trail for eating disorders, so excuse me when I don't smile at your compliment.  More than likely, I am too busy thinking about salami.

Food is like cocaine to me.  It has that tough of a grip on my brain, my soul.  Macaroni and cheese is my gooey, yummy crystal meth in a crock pot.  (Ummmm, let me savor that for a moment.) And there is no mistaking the adrenaline rush that overcomes me when chocolate-y, melt-y fudge hits my tongue, kind of like if Ghirardelli put out a new decadent line of acid hits.  Like any good addict,  I fight my demons every waking moment of my life.  Just when I'm successfully back on the wagon, some pusher lurking around the office pulls me into a corner and tries to force glazed doughnuts down my throat. Between candy-bearing, butt-kissing vendors and pot-luck retirement luncheons, life on the cube farm can be brutal for a recovering foodaholic like me.

My addiction began in tenth grade.  While my friends were wondering just how much was too much shoulder padding, I had a desperate need to be super model thin or risk losing out on the possibility of actually dating Simon LeBon.  (Keep your thoughts to yourself.  At least it wasn't George Michael.)  Food was in the way of adding "Rock Star Wife" to my resume, and these were the days before Sir Mix-a-Lot gave women permission to sport a big booty, so I started scheming. My plan was surprisingly simple: Stop eating.

So, I did.

Not only did I stop eating, but I discovered Jane Fonda and leg warmers, too.  I lived on crushed ice, fresh air,  and aerobics until my stirrup pants and Gasoline jeans started falling off of me.  Oh, I might pretend to take a bite here or enjoy a meal there, but the food was going any place but my mouth.  If a tiny morsel actually found its way down my throat, I made sure it found its way back out.  This was a closely held secret between the Porcelain God and myself.  My new favorite accessories were protruding hip bones and clavicles.  I had perfected the Heroin Chic look before Kate Moss was even in a training bra. My weight fluctuated during those three years, but every time I felt it getting out of control, I was back in the bathroom faster than you could say, "Gag me with a spoon!"

Once I was sprung from high school hell, I moved on to the "binge" side of eating disorders.  (That part was decidedly more social.)  I binged on pizza.  I binged on beer.  I binged on pizza and beer with ramen noodles and tacos for dessert.  I managed to add seventy-plus pounds to my body in the span of a few years, looking like some bloated version of my former self.  It was after a sobering trip to mall for new jeans that were in the upper double digits that I snapped.  I had a moment of clarity (lunacy), and I made a promise to myself that I would never be The Fat Girl matter the cost.

I ran. I did push ups. I slurped vegetable broth like it was Mother's Milk. I would spend an hour and a half on the stair climber only to  follow it up with sixty miles on the stationary bike.  I doled out for myself just ten grapes per day, and treated  alfalfa sprouts and cucumbers like they were exactly what I wanted for dinner.  I once again found my way back to the Land of the Stick People only to have my doctor tell me that I was going to die if I continued my pursuit of complete emaciation.  I didn't care.  I would have rather been dead than fat.  I was (am) that completely out of my mind. 

Even after all these years, I still agonize over food.  I am, today, a battle-weary foot soldier in the war against eating. The irony is not lost on me: the very sustenance I need to survive is the one thing that I'm desperately trying to avoid.  Don't tell me to "indulge" myself every now and then.   I can't, for fear of not stopping.  It's like telling an alcoholic to have a couple of drinks every day, but don't get drunk.

I have managed to find stable ground these days, and Food and I are in peace negotiations at the moment.  So, when you think how "lucky" I am to fit into skinny jeans, you should know that I am thinking how "lucky" you are for eating a piece of birthday cake without beating yourself up over it.  Wanna trade?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Great Escape

From the moment I decided to throw my daughter a semi-elaborate Princess party for her birthday, I figured it would be some good fodder for writing.  The story was practically written in my head before the party even took place.  It would be sweet and sentimental, chronicling a wistful middle-aged mom’s devotion to her precious daughter born late in life.  I would share how I gently (like a drill sergeant) enlisted the help of my family to pull off the best birthday a six-year-old girl could dream of.  I might even admit to the world that this was really more about it being the party I never had, and that I cooked up the whole scheme myself while under the influence of Disney/Pixar and Seven Deadly Zins. 

I also considered going in another direction with the tale.  It’s no secret that I don’t like crowds or talking to people, or talking to people in crowds.  I can’t stand to be the one in charge of orchestrating any event, and I have serious issues when it comes to my house and cleanliness.  So, invite eight squealing girls into my home for a few hours, and voila! Madcap hilarity ensues.  There was so much good material in this party that the words were writing themselves.  However, this story isn’t about the party.  It’s about my three dogs, affectionately (not) known as the “Bumpus Hounds”  (an homage to “A Christmas Story” and a darn good description of the smelly mutts, too) and what not to do when traveling with Man’s Best Friend.

Party day was meant for Girls Only in our house.  In addition to all males being ordered to vacate the premises, I also declared the temporary Princess Palace off limits for any non-bipedal creature, so the whole hairy crew hit the road for the forty-mile drive up to the In-laws' house. What dog wouldn't be delighted at the idea of a field trip?  There are new trees to pee on and fresh holes to dig, and with a backyard full of unsuspecting squirrels, I assumed the dogs would prefer to spend the day at Grandma's house rather than to spend it locked away in a bedroom while giggling girls huddled just down the hall, taunting them.  I guess I was wrong.

My husband was driving on one of the busiest streets in town as they headed toward the interstate.  It's six lanes across and completely littered with fast food restaurants, strip malls, and pay day loan stores.   It is also home to about seven thousand out-of-sync stoplights, and the only time it isn't crowded is when we have a quarter inch of snow on the ground, and everyone is home eating white bread and drinking up the fourteen gallons of milk they hoarded when they heard the words "frozen precipitation". 

The events that were about to transpire can be blamed in part on my son's insane love of overplayed eighties music.  The three dogs were in the back seat of the SUV, and the guys were up front when "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell came on the radio.  This one hit wonder is a favorite of my little Michael J. Fox/Alex P. Keaton wannabe, so he cranked up the volume.  This is where the madcap hilarity ensued. What the humans in the front didn't know was that the canines in the back were plotting an escape.  Is it because I force them to listen to yoga music?  They seem to like it.  They fall asleep every time they hear it.  Is it the fact that I buy cheap dog food?  They're all well-fed and healthy, so why should I spend big bucks on animals who find cat poop to be a delicious treat?  They obviously have no sense of taste.  Maybe it was just the need for a potty break, and they decided to seize the moment.  
Whatever the reason for their wander lust, once the music was playing loudly, Bumpus Number One quietly stepped on the automatic window button and lowered it all the way down.  When the car came to a stop at a busy intersection, he jumped out, unbeknownst to my husband and son.  Now, he would have gotten away with his well thought out escape plan except that Bumpus Number Two decided to play follow the leader and jumped out after him.  Unfortunately for Number One, Number Two is dark brown and very furry, and as she leapt to her freedom, my husband caught a glimpse of her going past.  Our dogs were running wild in traffic, going as fast as they could in the opposite direction of our car.  

My first thought upon hearing this was how awesome it would have been to be in the car behind them when two medium-sized dogs came flying out of the side window of the car.  How many times do you think the driver told that story yesterday?  My second thought was Holy. Crap.

My husband spun the car into the next parking lot and instructed our son to stay with Bumpus Number Three while he gave  chase on foot.  The good news is that Bumpus Number Three is an enormous Weenie Dog with no interest in life on the street. He was wagging his tail voraciously and thinking, "Yay!  More pepperoni for me!  Those fools don't know which side their Snausages are buttered on!" 

Cars were stopping as some drivers got out to gawk at the spectacle of this forty-something Dad in a Ralph Lauren sweater running down our main drag red-faced and screaming, "Benji!! Millie!!"  My son reported that a couple of "older women" (in their twenties) stopped by to watch the show, and he overheard them say, "How stupid do you have to be to roll your windows down with dogs in the car?"  My son was quick to correct them, and said, "The dog rolled the window down by himself!"  With that one line, my son erased all doubt from the girl's mind that she was looking at a couple of crazy dog people.

The Escape Artists didn't make it very far, just a block or so when they were stopped by a fence at a nearby auto dealership.  A very kind employee helped to trap the wayward hell hounds and escorted them back to the car with my husband.  The windows were promptly rolled up and locked, and my husband wheezed and coughed for twenty minutes from the combination of dog hair, cold air, and involuntary aerobic activity.  

Later that day when my son rushed into the house after the party was over with this wild "Marley and Me" type tale, I knew that any Princess story I might concoct was out the window.  Yes, the party was a success and went off without a hitch, and yes, I got many beautiful pictures of dainty little girls sipping from china teacups.  But the one picture I wanted but didn't get was of my husband sprinting through traffic at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning. Priceless.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Going through "The Change"

Last weekend, my husband was trying in vain to reach a twenty-something co-worker by phone with an urgent change of plans. While he was busy calling and leaving voice mail messages, I was busy trying to remember what we did before the time when everyone was available at your fingertips twenty-four hours a day. (I decided that I prefer the simpler times when friends didn't have the option to call me while sitting on a public toilet in a noisy restaurant.) After hearing that he was having no luck  contacting Mr. Young Guy, I said, “Did you text him? Kids these days don’t always answer their phones, and they most certainly never check their voice mail, but I’ll bet he’ll answer you right back if you send a text instead.”

And, then the unbelieveable happened.

It took a minute for my brain to process what was happening to me. I felt weak. Everything looked woozy and wavy, much like going back through a dream sequence in a bad '70’s sitcom. A wave of cold sweat washed over my body, rendering me weak in the knees. My mind was racing wildly as I thought the unthinkable to myself, “Did I just call a twenty-four year old man a 'kid'?” Oh. Dear. Lord. I really had. As clarity started to return, I came to realize what had just transpired: in less time than it takes to find a rerun of “Murder, She Wrote” on cable, I had become My Mother.

I should have seen it coming. The signs were everywhere, like when I uttered the phrase, “Well, for heaven’s sake” to my kids a while back or when I stuffed some tissues and mints into my purse that I purchased online from QVC.  It should have been clear to me that the transformation was imminent the night I was watching a recap of this year’s MTV Music Awards, and I couldn’t correctly identify a single artist who won. How could I not recognize the shift in my shoe collection from “spiky and sassy” to “comfortable and supportive” as a sign of the coming apocalypse? I even made biscuits from scratch last week. And, to top it all off, my television is on the Weather Channel more than any other station lately. This can't be true!  I'm too young to be warning you about an approaching cold front!

In reality, it’s not like this recent shuffle in hierarchy is really going to affect me much. I don’t go out trolling for college guys or hang out in bars frequented by the I-Have-Never-Even-Heard-Of-Max-Headroom set. (By the way, did you know that they let pre-teens attend college these days? It’s true! I see those youngsters milling about at the university every day.) The last time a cute, young guy even looked me in the eyes was when he was asking me if I wanted whipped cream on my Pumpkin Spice Latte. I’m sure he has no idea how close I came to slapping him for calling me “ma’am”.

There is an upside to this new chapter in my life which, by the way,  I have deemed “The Matlock Years”.  I am no longer required to suck in my stomach when I go swimming. It’s perfectly acceptable for me exhale loudly and let it all hang out as I bend over to retrieve the tortilla chips from my pool bag. I may even grunt when I get up from my lounge chair.  In addition, all thong underwear are now strictly prohibited because no one looks at a Mama’s butt to see if her granny panty lines are showing anyway. And, if I want to blow my nose and tuck the Kleenex into my bra, then I am now officially licensed to do so.

Consider yourself lucky now that you  have me as the go-to person for Starlight mints, old wives’ tales, and neck-pain-induced weather predictions. I have the credentials to decide if you are wearing too much make-up, dating the wrong guy,  or spending your money foolishly. I get to eat dessert for breakfast and watch as many reruns of “CSI” as I choose while “resting my eyes” in the recliner.  I can say without a shadow of a doubt that, yes, your face will, in fact, freeze that way.  Now, tell me… how come you never call?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kickin' and Screamin', Part Doh!: Just call him Juice Box

I was sitting upstairs at the computer diligently scouring the internet for a way to end global warming and human suffering (either that or I was updating my Facebook status – can’t remember which), when I heard the garage door opening. My husband was home from his first ever training session for all newbie soccer coaches. He has me to thank for this gig, by the way.  Of course, not ONCE did it occur to me that by having him as the assistant coach, he would have to attend every practice and every game thus giving me the choice of sitting on the sidelines and watching seven year old kids run laps or sitting on my deck with a nice Merlot, watching the sun set in silence.  Nope, that thought never even came to mind.

When the league director sent out an e-mail to parents asking (begging!) for volunteers to help with coaching, I decided this was my husband’s new calling in life and signed him up right away. He balked at first saying, “But I don’t know anything about soccer other than you can’t use your hands!” The director assured him that all he needed to do is “point toward the goal, and tell the kids to kick the ball that way.” It didn't matter that he wasn't familiar with the rules or that he hasn't really exercised since the Clinton administration because “Hey, how hard can it be to herd first and second graders up and down a soccer field," said the twenty-something guy with no kids.

Being firmly in our forties, my husband and I aren’t exactly the typical parents of a five-year-old, as we have come to find out. During my daughter’s pre-school years, we felt a little obvious being the only parents with gray hair and a solid memory of life before cell phones and Britney Spears. We may not have walked to school in the snow uphill both ways, but we definitely have a stack of dusty vinyl albums in the attic, and we clearly remember the olden days when Music Television (MTV for you whippersnappers) played music videos…all day…every day. Most people think I must have had trouble getting pregnant because we waited so long to start a family. The truth is that we just decided to have lots of fun first – ten years of fun to be exact. Lots and lots and lots of fun, and then, when we started getting too old to have lots of fun, we had kids. Now, we juggle the AARP recruiters on one hand and little girl Princess parties on the other.

Even though I knew my husband would probably seem like the wise, old sage among the other soccer coaches, I figured he could handle it. He has no problem mowing the lawn with a push mower and carrying first graders up and down a few flights of stairs and with only minimal noise from his creaky joints.  I've seen him heave recliners and couches into pick-up trucks with the best of them while suffering hardly any discomfort, and since his back only goes out two or three times a year, there were no worries here! Really.

When I heard him come in from his practice drills that night, I waited upstairs for him to find me and tell me how this coaching thing would be a piece of cake. I waited…and waited…and waited. "Is he on the phone," I wondered out loud as I got up from the computer, leaving your photo album from that fabulous trip to Mexico to be "liked" at a later date.  I decided he must have made himself a snack and gotten sidetracked by a tornado movie or one of those Smackdown wrestling shows, but as I made my way into the den, this is what I found:

"What happened to you,"  I blurted out, doing the best I could to suppress inappropriate laughter. There he sat in the recliner, covered in sweat with his hand soaking in a bowl full of ice.  I tried to muster up some sympathy during my mad dash back upstairs to retrieve the camera.  (I am the Best. Wife. Ever.)  I felt this moment needed to be captured for posterity (and as fodder for blogging).  Strangely enough, he didn't think it was that funny.

"Ummmm, I thought you weren't supposed to use your hands in soccer?"

"We weren't actually playing soccer tonight.  We were learning drills to run with the kids, and I jammed my finger", he said as he lifted his hand to show me the swelling.

I felt terrible.  Maybe I shouldn't have sent him out there with those young guns who have no idea who Frankie is and why he wanted everyone to Relax.  A wave of remorse washed over me as I realized that maybe all that running up and down a soccer field might cause a disc to slip or gout to settle in or angina to strike or whatever other kind of malady that happens to old geezers like us.  Wow, had I just thrown my middle-aged husband to the lions?

Just as I was about to succumb to the guilt, I snapped out of it, rationalizing that profuse sweating and a sore finger were but a small price to pay for me to have one hour of sanity one night a week. 

"Make sure you put the bowl in the dishwasher when you're finished with it," I called out as I headed back upstairs. "Oh, and be sure not to leave your shoes out either."

So, maybe I'll try for that Wife of the Year award next time...

Friday, October 15, 2010

To my son in his tenth year...

From the moment eleven years ago when I found out I was pregnant with a boy, I have struggled over how to raise a son. I knew only a few things about males - they don’t care about the toilet seat position or the arrangement of bed pillows. The clothes hamper is a mysterious contraption to them, and they tell too many fart jokes. I figured a girl would be much easier. You dress her in some pink bows, and tell her to not to hike up her skirt while you hide by the front door with a shotgun ready in case some teenager in a sports car wants to have his way with your baby. Even though the mean girl syndrome is reaching epidemic proportions, I think girls have less to prove than their male counterparts. Boys have to be tough, aggressive even, or they might as well have "mama's boy" stamped across their forehead.  And, it's safe to say that a cute girl in a marching band uniform is more acceptable than a cute boy in the same get-up.  They don't call them "Band Geeks" as a term of endearment, you know.

When my son was a toddler, I bought all the right “boy” things for him. His room was decorated in a sports theme, and he had a basketball goal, a football, and a bat and glove. We encouraged him to learn to ride a bike and kick a soccer ball like typical boys do, but he mostly left the athletic gear alone to collect dust in his closet. More often than not, I would find him creating elaborate “sprinkler systems” in the den with jump ropes and cords while pretending to be a landscape engineer. He would build a zoo with stuffed animals segregated by species. He would feed and water the animals and give you a tour if you showed interest. I thought his imagination was delightful, but sadly, I knew in the back of my mind how hard it is to be Creative Thinker in a Football World.

Now that he is on the threshold of his middle school years, the wall separating the tough guys from the not-so-tough guys is becoming increasingly apparent. I have already seen him teased by the neighborhood boys because he would rather play detectives than football. He brushes it off, but I know it stings. I also know that kids have a hard time seeing past this afternoon, so I want to tell him how it looks through the eyes of a Grown-up Dork who somehow survived public school on the outside of the “In” crowd.  This is for you, J...

1. Organized Sports Don’t Matter: This will be harder and harder to believe as you move through middle school and high school. Athletes are groomed to see themselves as far superior to those boys who can craft a clever work of fiction or perform a complicated piece of classical music but can’t kick a field goal or throw a touchdown. They are celebrated and idolized by not only other kids, but by teachers, principals, and parents. We all know this is true whether it is spoken or not. When was the last time you saw the High School Chess Club Champion on the front page of the local newspaper on a Saturday morning? Here is what you need to keep in mind: Bill Gates wasn’t a football star, but I’m willing to bet that some guy working the assembly line in one of his manufacturing plants sure was.

2. Never, Ever Stop Writing Stories: I’m just going to be brutally honest here. It is not cool to be a boy who understands the subtle nuances of writing an interesting essay. (And I’m sure you know the definition of nuance.) Your English teacher will love you, but that basketball star next to you in the locker room will probably shove you around to make himself feel tough if he thinks you are weak. I know you won’t see it in that moment, but you and your brilliant mind will always have the upper hand. Remember that you aren’t going to blow your knee out pushing your pen across the paper, and J.K. Rowling has more money than Brett Favre. (And more class…)

3. Keep Your True Friends Close: If you aren’t Mr. Sports Guy in school then you need to accept that you probably aren’t going to be Mr. Popular either. It’s just that simple. The class clown may garner attention, but those kids usually have issues. Seek out true friends who, like you,  prefer building robots to building a reputation as the Big Man on Campus. It won’t matter that you aren’t the Homecoming King if you are surrounded by real friends, those people who care about you only because of who you are and not the size of your house, your parents' bank account or the number of people who know your name. Popularity is fleeting and meaningless, but I know that concept will take years for you to understand, if ever. Most people never get it.

4. Be Proud to be a Geek: As strange as it may sound, some kids are going to be mean to you because you are smart. You might even get beaten up because you make an “A” in calculus. Hard to believe, right? Here is the truth about a bully: His mama doesn’t love him, and he has a long and miserable life ahead of him dipping a french fry basket into grease eight hours a day. Deep down, he is secretly jealous of your intellect and ambition. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not to throw him a bone and give him a minimum wage position in your multi-million dollar corporation. Now, lock arms with your Krelboyne Band of Brothers because the Physics Club rules!

5. You are Loved Unconditionally: Never, ever forget that one. It’s the most important one of all. I don’t care if you are an astronaut or a social studies teacher or a garbage collector. I will love you no matter if you can conjugate a verb or find the value of “y” because that is what moms do, even slacker moms like me. There is no problem so big that we can’t handle it together. You will have to trust me on that one. Life can be hard and, many times, cruel, but I am your rock, and there is no pumped up jock or self-hating bully with a meaner streak than me. I've got your back. I know that high school graduation seems like a lifetime away to you, but believe me when I say that it is nothing more than a hormone-and-acne-filled blip on the radar of life. You are destined for great things, and don't let circumstances or envious people convince you of anything else. 

Oh, and about girls…they are bad….all of them. Now, go clean your room.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Thank you, Madame Stambaugh

I recently came across the obituary of my high school French teacher, Madame Stambaugh. Although I was sad to hear of her passing, I can't hold back a smile when I think about everything this woman taught me. She was a bit kooky and eccentric (not unlike myself), but I loved the slow, meaningful way she moved around the classroom. It was as if by her gestures alone, we were to understand that these were words to ponder over, to drink in and savor as you would a café au lait from a quaint Parisian coffee shop. It was obvious that she wanted us to have the same kind of love affair with France that she did. Her graceful way of teaching a romance language to this unsophisticated group of small-town, southern teenagers left a mark on a certain awkward sophomore and ignited a love of All Things French in me that lingers still today.

Growing up lower middle class in the South inherently lends itself to daydreaming. I knew there was a big, ol’ world outside my tattered screen door, but I assumed the only way I would see it was through books and television. I pored over my parents’ musty-smelling, outdated World Book Encyclopedia collection for signs of life beyond the fried chicken and corn bread existence that was mine. For some reason, France spoke to me. Maybe it was the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees. Maybe it was the berets. Maybe it was because I had a date every Saturday morning with Pepe Le Pew, and I figured that if a cartoon skunk could be that charming, I could only imagine what a catch a real, live Frenchman would be! I had visions of cozy book stores and sipping coffee from tiny cups while looking at the lights of Paris with my dark-haired Pierre whispering sweet nothings to me in a thick accent. We would gaze into each other’s eyes as Edith Piaf's songs played in the background. (Ahh, yes, the original emo music.)

When I reached high school, we were required to have a year of foreign language instruction in order to graduate, and I rushed to sign up for French my first semester. Although the day to day lessons weren’t exactly romantic, I delighted in being “Mademoiselle Claire” for that hour. (And what a bonus that I got to select my own name since the one I was born with didn’t translate! Oh, and a message to John Bender:  Claire is certainly NOT a fat girl's name.) I could be a cultured, well-heeled woman of the world, if only in my own mind, during this time with Madame Stambaugh.

I immersed myself in this class.  I joined the school's French Club and was elected Treasurer.  I relished our trips to French bakeries where I could nosh on crusty bread and delicate pastries.  I would close my eyes for a moment and pretend that I was in a bistro across the ocean and not in the armpit of America. I listened to French music and began to groom myself for my exciting adult life as an expatriate in France.

But, somewhere along that road, life got in the way.  I found that I really liked boys, even boys with no interest in discussing the pros and cons of living in a flat in Paris versus a cottage in the countryside.  I realized that I had to get an education and a job if I wanted to be on my own.   Parents became sick and died.  Children were born, and the burden of a mortgage was heaved onto my shoulders.  I began to realize that my feet were soundly planted in my mosquito-filled hometown, so I carefully folded up my dream of living abroad and tucked it safely away under the heading "To Be Opened at a Later Date".

I had mostly forgotten about that dream until reading of Madame Stambaugh's passing.  I wish she knew what her class meant to me, what it did for me, and how it opened a small door to a big  world.  It is obvious now why my all time favorite movie is "Ratatouille", the story of a little rat that finds the big time at a magnificent restaurant in Paris.  I will not apologize for listening to "La Vie En Rose" over and over until I'm spent.  Most of all, I would like to say, "Thank you" to a teacher I will never forget.

Repos dans la paix, Madame Stambaugh.  Repos dans la paix.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Everything you wanted to know about running but never really cared enough to ask...

It’s not unusual to have friends come to me for advice when they decide to start an exercise routine that involves running. I am certainly no expert, but I have been hitting the pavement (under duress) for twenty years now, so I am qualified by my experience if by nothing else. My first instinct is to tell the unfortunate, naïve would-be runner NOT to run at all. I tell them that running is torture, and running is brutal. Running is for masochistic loners who are looking for a way to exercise that doesn’t involve eye contact with other humans or team work of any kind. Running is for people who want to bitch-slap tiny, Lycra-wearing exercise instructors and for those of us who just want to get their cardio workout finished sans conversation.

I sometimes suggest that sweatin' to the oldies with Richard Simmons might be preferable to running, or perhaps they might just forget the whole idea and enjoy a stint in the recliner with the remote.  Even a bikini wax administered by a surly, disgruntled immigrant cursing you in her native tongue is better than running.  They usually laugh nervously at my suggestions.  They think I'm joking.  I'm not.

If you still think the Nike Life might be for you and that running can't be all that bad, then let me fill you in on the darker side of the sport.  These are the harsh realities that seasoned runners usually keep to themselves and that the running industry would rather you not know about. I have picked out a few of my favorites to share, and I'm calling it....

Bad Things That Will More Than Likely Happen To You If You Become A Runner

Chafing: Big deal, right? Chapstick is easy enough to apply.  Oh, how I wish it were the lips! If you make the mistake of taking to the road in ill-fitting shorts or a not-so-supportive jog bra or underwear that are slightly too snug (or too loose for that matter), you will find out just how friction works between cotton/spandex blends and human flesh. Sure, you can use Vaseline or a runner’s gel made especially for this purpose, but what if your tube is empty, and you can’t make it to the store before your next run? What if you are just too damn lazy (like me) and decide to run without it? There will be blood shed.

Case in point: I recently ran gel-free on a morning when the humidity topped out somewhere around 147% and sweat was steadily pooling into every crevice of my body. I could tell that I was in big trouble when I went to adjust my jog bra and the movement sent a searing pain from the bottom of my rib cage. When I got home, I started peeling off my wet clothes only to find that area where the bottom band of my jog bra rests was bleeding. B-l-e-e-d-i-n-g. The skin was gone. The fun didn’t stop there, though. I was also bleeding (bleeding!) from the inside top of both thighs where they had been rubbing together for the last ten miles or so as if to start a fire. When I got into the shower and the soapy water hit the raw flesh, I screamed like a little girl.  My thighs were so sore that I walked around like Popeye for a good day and a half.  The bottom line here is make sure you grease up before you go-go.

Losing appendages:  Okay, so maybe I exaggerate here.  I haven't actually lost a toe, but let me tell you a little story about toenails.  Once upon a time,  there was a tired, old runner who could never seem to find a pair of shoes that fit her properly.  She noticed that her toes were constantly sore,  throbbing, and even turned frightening shades of red, blue and purple!  Oh, my!  She kept on running through the pain (because that's what the little voices inside her head told her to do), and frequently found blood in her shoes and socks at the end of each run.

One day, the pain was so excruciating that she ended up limping home.  In the privacy of her bedroom, she slowly pulled the sock off her right foot, when lo and behold, one of her toenails stayed inside the sock! Her toenail had separated permanently from her nail bed sometime during the run.  Just then, she heard someone calling to her from outside.  She threw open the window, and saw her Prince smiling from down below.  She let down her long, beautiful hair, and he climbed up those golden locks to whisk her away to the Land Where Doritos Don't Make You Fat.  (Either that, or she took a shower and hobbled downstairs to get a Band Aid and eat some peanut butter crackers.)

Runner’s Trots: This is a very sensitive subject and one that a Proper Southern Lady should avoid, but I’m telling you this as a warning, so here I go. If you have never heard the term “Runner’s Trots”, you are probably familiar with the other name for this condition: explosive diarrhea. That’s right. You’re running along thinking how awesome you are for dogging some Granny in a baseball cap on that last hill when, all of a sudden, you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. You start experiencing intestinal cramps akin to the onset of labor, and you realize that you seriously have to go to the bathroom…NOW.  This would be a manageable condition except that you are five miles from home, and there isn’t a single public restroom in sight. Once safely off the road and into the woods, you are trying to remember what poison ivy looks like as you squat and chant, “Leaves of three, let them be”.

Runner’s Trots can happen to the best of us. When your body is working hard to pump blood to your legs, sometimes the intestines are deprived of normal blood flow which can cause irritation, pain and the nearly uncontrollable urge to poop against your most determined will. There are even some long distance runners who carry a wad of toilet tissue with them on race day just in case they have to “do it on the road”.  The bottom line here is, when planning your running route, make sure you are never more than a cramp or two away from a toilet.

Although these are some of the most disgusting side effects of running, let's not forget shin splints,  plantar fasciitis, blown out knees, aching hips, creepy stalker dudes, and rabid dogs.  And no, I have never experienced "runner's high", the mythical state of being that would make all the bad stuff seem like butterflies and ice cream.

Even though I hate it, and even though I would rather be a cashier at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, I still continue to do it every.  So, what's my motivation? That's easy: Skinny Jeans.

Friday, September 24, 2010

School's Out Forever

I am dropping out of the fifth grade. I didn’t like it the first time, and now, it’s even harder. I’m probably going to skip middle school and high school, too. (Although, there were some fun times in high school I wouldn’t mind re-living. There was this one time at band camp…) I have decided that I really don’t like algebra or making 3-D models of cells or learning about the Reconstruction. My half-baked decision comes after only five weeks of school.  The other night as I sat at the computer with my son, searching the web for some obscure political cartoon satirizing the end of slavery, I had an epiphany. This was his homework, not mine. He was being graded, not me. I was completely free to grab some Merlot and catch the latest episode of “Ghost Hunters” if I wanted. So, I did.

As I sat there watching Jason and Grant attempt to provoke a spirit into slamming a door or ruffling curtains, it occurred to me that if I could just get enough parents behind me, I could start a revolution. I know this sounds crazy, but what if parents quit helping their kids with their school projects and homework? It’s an insane notion, but what if children took full responsibility for their work and (gasp!) did it all by themselves?

I’m thinking about starting a grassroots movement to get parents out of schools. I have a feeling that this will be even more controversial than the prayer issue, though. I’m willing to sacrifice my afternoons at Hobby Lobby looking for foam balls and my evenings spent deciphering the value of x and y to find out. My Mad Mom Manifesto will state that parents are strictly forbidden to “help” their kids with their classroom assignments in any way. I’m calling for moms and dads to spend their time planning family-friendly fall festivals and organizing school improvement committees instead of researching the Civil War or creating a time line for Ben Franklin’s early years. I’m encouraging all parents to put down the magic markers and step away from the construction paper.

I don’t have a single memory of my parents helping me with my school assignments, and I didn’t end up in jail or dancing around a stripper pole. Back in the ‘70’s, parents were parents and not tutors or cheerleaders or substitute teachers. (On a side note: Didn’t it seem that substitute teachers back then were Grumpy Old Trolls pulled from underneath a fairy tale bridge somewhere? We were lucky to make it through the day without being eaten.) My parents never checked to make sure my homework was done, and they especially didn’t care if my answers were correct. The teacher would be checking on that. If I didn’t understand it, then I needed to study harder. Their job was to teach me right from wrong, mold me into a good citizen of the world, love me, clothe me, and feed me. (And occasionally smack my rear when I deserved it.) It was their duty to instill in me the good sense to know that it was my responsibility to get my work done and know that I would suffer the consequences if I didn't. When did parents get their job descriptions confused?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m my kids’ biggest fan, but if we never let them fail, just exactly how does this benefit them? Parents seem to think their child's identity is their own, therefore if the child does poorly, the parent does poorly.  I don't think so.  I finished fifth grade with flying colors, and my son's report card isn't going to change that fact.  I want him to excel, but I want him to want it for himself.  I can't hold his hand forever - I have shoe shopping to do!  (Okay...I'm just kidding...sort of.)

Have you seen the caliber of the projects kids bring to school lately?  It’s usually obvious which kid has an Engineer Mom or an Artist Dad, and because of that, the standard is now set too high. God forbid that a ten year old brings in a poster board on our Founding Fathers that doesn’t look like it was designed by a Madison Avenue marketing firm. And, I’m fairly sure that kindergarteners will soon be required to be proficient in Photoshop and PowerPoint. Crayons are for babies, you know.

So, I’m taking adulthood back. I will no longer agonize over vocabulary words. (Hey, I’m allowed to use spell check, encouraged even.) I have decided that I will worry about fractions only when my recipe calls for half a cup of this or a quarter teaspoon of that. I am officially declaring glue sticks off limits for any one over the age of twenty-one. I’m going to use my downtime to relax like a grown up and encourage my kids to be kids, shaky handwriting, misspelled words and all. Now, who’s with me?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Chance Encounter

Saturday morning was dawning as one of those days that give a little tease of autumn. The sky was a brilliant blue, and we were being spared from the unrelenting humidity of the last three months. Even though I harbor a sincere hatred of my weekend long run, being greeted by sunshine and sixty-five degrees at the front door made it tolerable. I turned on the evil Nike + (Sorry, Lance, but our relationship has grown stale), and began my dreaded ten mile trek.

I headed down the road to an adjacent neighborhood of homes that are a good notch or two (or three) above mine on the socio-economic scale. I love running there for many reasons. One: Wealthier people seem to have the upper hand on the middle class when it comes to ravenous dog containment. I haven’t had a single canine versus weary runner contest yet. (Thank you, Invisible Fence Company!) Two: Wealthier people seem to have fewer yard sales. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you have never tried negotiating yard sale traffic on foot against disoriented grandmothers who have been up since four in the morning and are determined to be the first to get their hands on Aunt Edna’s velvet painting of The Last Supper, then you just need to trust me on this one.

The biggest reason I like to run in this upscale neighborhood is so that I can covet the homes I pass. (Yes, I know it is a sin, but so is gluttony, and you only have to go to Wal-Mart on Saturday to witness a sea of sinners breaking that rule.)  I have picked my favorite houses, but I know that unless I come into possession of a winning lottery ticket (or go back to college and make something of myself), they will never be mine. I like to imagine that my favorite house is always clean (unlike mine), never smells like dog poop and fifth grade boy feet (unlike mine), and there is never a moment of discord between its inhabitants (unlike mine). Through a strange twist of fate during my run last Saturday, I found out that maybe Middle-Classville isn't so bad, and that a big house doesn’t always equal happiness.

I was getting into my groove after a couple of miles when I noticed a woman ahead of me. What caught my attention initially was her size: she was impossibly thin. She was walking when I saw her, but judging from her posture, I assumed she was cooling down after a difficult run. She looked beaten down (I can totally sympathize), and I wondered how her frail-looking legs were even supporting her. I was wearing sunglasses which gave me license to stare, so I did.  I just couldn't stop looking at this little pixie down the street.

As we approached each other, I turned down the volume on my iPod in preparation for the obligatory hand wave and “Good morning.” It turned out that our paths crossed directly in front of her home. She walked past, looked right at me, and instead of a smile or nod, she didn’t acknowledge me at all. She simply turned away, and walked slowly up the path to her front door.

Burn!!  It surprised me to be so summarily dismissed by this woman. Runners are a tortured bunch of ragtag soldiers, and we always give props to our comrades. Always. I continued staring at her, taking in the slow, painful-looking gait and the way her tiny shoulders seemed to be too heavy for her to carry. She stared at the ground as she made her way to her house, and then she was gone.

Everything about this brief confrontation bugged me. Why was I snubbed by this lady? Was she sick? Or injured? Did she think I was beneath her, and maybe she could tell that my running shorts are ten years old and that my faded tee shirt came from Target? Maybe she knew I was only a visitor to this well-manicured community and therefore didn't owe me anything.  I continued on with my run, but for some reason, I kept this woman on the front burner.

Two days later, my neighbor received the horrific news that her good friend had taken her own life. Suicide is shocking. It radiates through friends and family in a way that is different from death by cancer or a heart attack or even a car accident for that matter. Those close to the person will always feel some sense of responsibility. There will always be the “what ifs” that linger.  The ones left behind will wonder if there was something they could have done or said to prevent it from happening.  It's a double whammy from hell.

My neighbor shared old photos of the two of them as twenty-somethings smiling with the world in front of them. There was a familiarity about her good friend that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. The pictures made me feel a sort of affection for the woman and sorrow for her loss even though I had never laid eyes on her. Or, so I thought. When the local newspaper ran her obituary with a recent photograph and home address, I realized that I had indeed laid eyes on her, stared at her actually. This was the woman who I encountered on my run Saturday, and in an instant, it all made sense - the heavy shoulders, the blank stare, the look of utter defeat. I had a chance encounter with a person on the brink of suicide and at that moment, the harsh realization was that a hefty bank account and custom window treatments don't take away sadness and depression.   I knew this in my head, but I had just seen it in the flesh.

It’s possible that she didn’t even see me that morning despite the fact that we were nearly face to face. She was fighting demons that would compel her to end her own life two days later, so it's obvious that her outlook was clouded.   It seems so trite of me now to be upset over being snubbed by a stranger when in reality, this woman was literally on the edge and just barely hanging on by her fingertips.  Maybe next time I won't be so quick to judge. Maybe next time I will have a little more compassion for the distracted person ahead of me at the ATM because they, too, might be struggling to find a reason to stick around on this Earth.  And, maybe this time...I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer that this friend, this mother and wife, found her peace at last.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I See Dead People (Ghost in the Machine Revisited)

“I know why I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eye”, my son said to me as I was cooking dinner. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had come up with this time. My son, like me, has some insatiable need to have an explanation for everything. There is no gray area for this child. “I don’t know” simply won’t do. Every mystery under the sun has an answer, and he won’t rest until he finds it. (Or he makes it up, occasionally) “I found out that you don’t get your peripheral vision until you’re around eight years old,” he announced, “so, that explains it.” Yes, it made sense as to why he was seeing strange things out of the corner of his eye lately, but what about me? According to his science, I have had my peripheral vision for nearly thirty-four years now, so why am I catching odd, fleeting glimpses as well?

About a week ago, my son confided in me that since my mother died, he sees flashes of “things” around the house every now and then. He’ll see someone breeze by his doorway, only to find that no one is upstairs with him. He said there are evenings when he thinks he sees his little sister do the unthinkable and enter his room uninvited, but when he goes to shoo her out, she’s in her own bedroom playing with her Barbie dolls. He told me that he gets a feeling like he’s being watched sometimes. (Okay, that was easy enough to debunk…we have high voltage power lines down the street and every good ghost hunter knows they can make you feel creepy. He totally bought it, too.)

He had to find the answer himself for these seemingly paranormal experiences because when he asked me point blank if I believe in ghosts, I gave him a very gray-area kind of response. My ingenious comeback was, “Have you ever seen those guys on ‘Ghost Hunters’ find any real evidence that ghosts are here? Seriously…they are seeking them out and trying to provoke them, but their findings are marginal at best.” I could tell he wasn’t buying it, though. He was hoping I would tell him without reservation that he was simply seeing the dogs waddle past or that it was the television flashing in his peripheral vision. He wanted a stoic assurance from me that the sounds he hears are coming from the dishwasher or the air conditioner, but I couldn’t give it to him. I, too, have had some run-ins with the unexplained in the last couple of years that have left me scratching my head.

I have always been a skeptic and poo-pooer of all things other worldly, but I can’t find a definite source of the weirdness I have witnessed in my own home as of late. One recent night as I was in my dark bedroom perusing the internet for a cure for cancer (or watching Youtube videos…I can’t remember which), I saw my daughter walk by me on her way to the bathroom. I quickly jumped up and went after her to make sure she wasn’t sick, but no one was there. A bedroom check confirmed that both children were sleeping soundly. But, I know I saw her. I know I saw someone in a white gown.

A similar scenario played out another evening while I was watching television. (Don’t judge – I’m sure it was a PBS documentary or something else as wholesome.) Sitting with my back to the bedroom, I heard the very distinctive sound of my glass shower door being closed too hard for my liking. Thinking that a kid (or two) was about to be busted for slamming doors, I got up to go lay down the law about how they are going to end up shattering the glass, and how they know better, and the rest of the Mom Speech they love to hear.  However, the bathroom light wasn’t even on, and the kids were downstairs.

I will admit to being a little spooked, so I diligently checked every possible source of the noise. Nothing fell in the closet. All bottles and cans were upright under the sink. Three dogs were present and accounted for. At this point, I’m thinking I have a toilet-obsessed entity occupying my house. (Or perhaps it likes to primp and is just enjoying the double vanity mirror.) And, it isn't just me.  My husband said he regularly sees "something" in the upstairs hallway, but we try not to talk about it much because that would mean we are certifiably crazy, right? RIGHT?

What really sent me over the edge was an incident last December, though. I was searching the china cabinet drawers for a pile of my mother’s Christmas recipes. My daughter walked up behind me and said, “Whatcha doin’, Mommy?” Without turning around, I replied, “I’m looking for Granny’s recipes. I’m going to make some of the goodies that she used to make for us.” She stood there quietly for a minute and then said matter-of-factly, “Granny says you’re looking in the wrong place.” I stopped cold in my tracks as the hair on the back of my neck stood on end and goose bumps came over my arms. I slowly turned around, and said “Really? Can Granny tell me where I should look?” She seemed to be thinking about it and said, “No, but it’s definitely not in there.” 

I kept up my fruitless search for a while longer before abandoning it for house cleaning. A few days later while on another wild goose chase, I found the recipes, and they were in a completely different room than I was looking before. Granny was right. She couldn't remember where she left them, but she knew it wasn't in the china cabinet.  And,  I was more than just a little freaked out.

I’m pleading the fifth when it comes to whether or not I really believe in ghosts. It’s very hard not to come across as a Sci-Fi-Channel-Loving Weirdo when you declare that ghosts really are among us. I told my kids that even if there was a ghost in the house, it’s just their grandmother, and there is no reason to fear it. I told them to think of it more as a Guardian Angel, and to sleep better knowing she is watching over them. Honestly though, my mom was a no-nonsense kind of woman, and I find it difficult to believe she would be wasting her time in the afterlife floating around the second floor of my home.  Although, it does go a long way toward explaining why my television is always on the Food Network when I turn it on…

Thursday, September 2, 2010

If you are what you eat, then I'm in big trouble...

I am not a healthy eater. Seriously. I’m sure that other people perceive me to be a fitness nut, but that perception couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am vain, therefore I run. I am scared of gaining weight, therefore I eat foods that are lower in fat, but that could be marshmallows, Lucky Charms, pretzels or Tootsie Rolls depending on my mood. I am lazy, therefore I rely heavily on highly processed foods to feed my family. We are white bread, potato chip and Kraft macaroni and cheese kind of people. I know that I should be ashamed, but I never really thought much about it because all of the other Bad Moms in line at the grocery store also have carts overflowing with Cookie Crisp cereal and Banquet fried chicken strips. Plus, cooking isn’t really my strong suit.

However, everything I knew to be true about the food I’m shoveling into my mouth and putting into my kids’ lunchboxes has been changed by a series of events that have transpired over the course of this week. And, there is a strong possibility that I may never eat again. (Okay, so that’s a little dramatic...)

I recently began following the website of a young mother who has decided to eat only real food, and by that she means food that doesn’t come from a package, (or if it does, it has five ingredients or less), locally grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meat and dairy products from area farmers, and nothing with sugar, artificial sweeteners or white flour. Her list of “don’ts” sounds like everything currently sitting in my pantry and freezer. (Again, lazy.)

She challenged herself to stick to real food for one hundred days. When I read about her commitment, I just shook my head and let out a chuckle as I gave a wink and a nod to my good friend, Chef Boyardee. (The Chef and I go way back.) How or why would anyone do this? Wouldn’t it be terribly expensive and time consuming? If I’m out chasing down some farmer for his organic eggs and milk and spending hours in the kitchen making bread from scratch and chopping vegetables, please tell me when in the world I will have time to look at your vacation pictures on Facebook. “Deadliest Catch” isn’t going to watch itself, you know.

I’ll let you in on a secret, though: I was more than a little jealous of this woman and her quest for a healthier diet. In reality, I want to be that person. I want to be the mom with a fridge full of fresh fruit (say that one five times fast) and organic bread in my toaster. But, this is just some woman in cyberspace. Don’t believe everything on the internet, right? So, imagine my surprise this week when a friend tells me about her successful four week trial run on a vegan diet, and that she and her whole family are alive to tell the story.  She’s even getting kudos from her kids on vegan cupcakes. No. No. NO! I wanted her to say that she felt like a terrible mother for torturing her children this way. I needed to hear that she crawled on her hands and knees to the nearest greasy burger joint for a fix. Instead, she decided to carry on for another four weeks. (And, I land squarely on my face from the guilt trip I just took from serving Pop-Tarts for breakfast…)

The last entry in the you-don’t-eat-healthy-enough trifecta was my discovery of the PBS documentary “Food, Inc”. To say that I was appalled and disgusted by this behind-the-scenes look at the food industry in the United States is an understatement. The curtain was lifted between the grocery store and the process by which the food we eat gets there. And, it made my stomach turn. This isn’t a political statement. I encourage everyone to watch it and see if you can ignore the wretched conditions that surround the chickens that eventually become your grilled chicken sandwich or the cows that end up on your child's plate at your Labor Day Bar-B-Que. That whole “locally raised meat” thing is looking pretty good right now.

I have to make a change. It’s as if the Green Goddess of Fresh Produce has shown me the error of my DiGiorno-eating ways. I’m repenting right now for my Pillsbury Toaster Strudels and Fruity Pebbles. I vow to find a healthy alternative to Spaghetti-O’s and corn dogs. I know this will be an uphill battle at first, but I also know that my body and mind will thank me.  (Although, my bank account will most certainly take the hardest blow.)  My journey of a thousand miles will begin with a single trip to the farmer’s market. I just hope there is life after Chicken McNuggets.