“Three Miles”: A Visceral Response

I was never a podcast person. I barely even listen to talk radio on the morning commute. Listening–in the car, at the gym, around the house–is for music. But that all changed when I started listening to Serial, a podcast by This American Life that took my facebook feed (and the iTunes charts) by storm.  Since finishing Serial, I’ve mostly been complaining to myself that there isn’t more Serial. But this week, I decided to try This American Life. A quick look at the description of the podcast “Three Miles” was enough to draw me in. It was about the connection between education and equity and exposure. They were speaking my language. And with two little children at home, this podcast was sure to be a nice break from playing weebles and filling sippy cups. Ah, fifty minutes where I don’t feel my brain cells weeping.

“Three Miles,” like all This American Life content I’m sure, is superbly made. It’s informational, it’s well-paced, it’s provocative. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I highly recommend it. Since this podcast alone has prompted numerous conversations on my social media feeds, I decided to try to come up with a cohesive response to it. My reaction to “Three Miles” was multi-faceted and visceral at times.

This American Life logo“Three Miles” is about the experience of two groups of students from very different backgrounds and educational experiences interacting with each other through the curation of two English teachers who thought it would be good if their students met. One group is from University Heights, a South Bronx public school and the other group is from Fieldston, a private school three miles away. Fieldston tuition per year = cost of one BMW (roughly).

After writing letters, the teachers decide it would be beneficial if the students met each other. This seems like a good idea. (I still believe it is.) The podcast notes that for the University Heights kids, the field trip to the private school could show them another world, a world where you don’t have to be poor, hungry, angry, on your way to nowhere. And for the private school kids, many of whom will become leaders in the corporate and political world, the exposure to how “the other half lives” is beneficial. Chana Joffe notes “And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.” How can you write policy or affect change (something that you should be doing if you’re privileged) if you’ve never encountered someone who could benefit from the changes? Sounds good, right?

Not really for Melanie. She freaks out when they get there. And you know what? I understood the freak out. Joffe presented it as an odd reaction but I could easily see one of my former students from Preston reacting the same way. I sympathized with Melanie and imagined myself as her teacher. I agreed with her. Yes, why do the Fieldston kids have the idyllic high school experience you envisioned for yourself. The experience where, as one interviewee remembers, you could leave your bookbag on the floor of the library and no one would take it. I left my bag everywhere in my high school. Sure, I had some stuff taken from my locker but I could leave my bag somewhere without fear of someone rifling through it. What would they take? The keys to my 1989 Nissan Sentra? Sure, just make sure you leave me the keys to your mom’s SUV of which she tired after a few months.

The part that hit me the hardest was when the journalist finally caught up with Melanie. (Ten years later…) Melanie described going through the process of the Posse Foundation, a scholarship that provides a full ride to underprivileged kids who show promise. These are the kids who exhibit an alternative set of predictors for college success. Some of these kids I met in my time at Preston.  Melanie made it to the third round of the process, I think. She started crying when she described the rejection. You feel like the whole world your whole future is riding on this scholarship and when it doesn’t happen, you’re crushed.. She says “But it’s a really beautiful thing if you do get it. At least that’s the way it looked. But what you put children through to get there is hard to then be turned down. I’d say, why didn’t I get it? What was wrong with me?”

I’ve been part of the counseling students through a few of these scholarships at Preston. I usually taught freshmen and sophomores so I never saw a student through the process of say, the Gates Millenium Scholarship or the NYT Scholarship. But I’ve reviewed essays, talked to students about what to wear and what to say in interviews for colleges and various programs that would help them finance college or just put another feather in their college application cap. I remember the disappointment students felt so acutely when they got their rejection letters, probably more than I remember the excitement of a student getting accepted to their college of choice or getting the necessary funding to go there.

Melanie’s recounting of her disappointment, the absolute despair she felt, how she felt she must not deserve a better life, filled me to the brim with pity. I wept hearing her voice shake as she retold it. To think that with all the compassion and dedication some educators pour out every year and still Melanie would think that she wasn’t good enough. I can remember having a few emotional conversations with students about their disappointment, about the pain of rejection. In the back of my mind was always the adult voice saying, “Oh this is just life sometimes. But good things will happen too.” But “Three Miles” presents you with someone whose life is such that good things don’t happen. And it’s incredibly sad to think that so many people go through life never expecting something good to happen.

Robert_E_Hill_Fieldston_plaqueIn the end, while I found the podcast interesting, I felt sad. One of the teachers, Pablo, says that he’s an example of someone who got out of the projects and he’s working on his PhD now. He’s “made it.” He says that he keeps telling students that more education, that college is the way out of their current situations. However, he knows that only a handful will cross class barriers. I feel the same way. If I were still teaching at Preston, I’d be doggedly pushing that same message. Get into college. Get your next degree. Move up the food chain.

I started writing this blog post because so many of my friends on twitter and facebook were talking about it. The mention of Fordham was enough for fellow grads to start the dialogue. Everyone had sensitive, sound responses and offered ideas for how to better support the “University Heights” kids when they get to college and have to sit in the same room as the “Fieldston” kids. But what was devastating about the podcast was that so many of these students have such a low sense of self-worth. They don’t expect to succeed. They are literally the opposite of entitled. They have supports and they don’t reach out sometimes. Jonathan, who won the Posse Foundation scholarship, failed out of college. He just didn’t go to class. He couldn’t afford the books. He didn’t ask for help. Jonathan tells Chana: “So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22, because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class, and doesn’t do the work on top of that.” He gives in to this insidious self-fulfilling prophecy that poverty constructs. He tells TAL that he never felt like he deserved this opportunity, that he was scared. How do educators combat that level of low self-esteem? I’m not saying that the programs are not worthy or that they don’t work. I think these are noble pursuits but to hear that someone like Jonathan didn’t make it just breaks my heart.

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Saying Goodbye to Funny Girl

DSCN1236This will be a long post.

This will be a sad post.

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, about the experience of eulogizing a beloved family member. And first and foremost, I’d like to thank my Uncle Kenny for not only allowing me to speak at my aunt’s funeral service but also for giving the okay for this blog post.

My dad called at 7:15 on Friday morning November 21, 2014. It’s not completely unusual for my parents to call early–they know that with two young children that I’m up and caffeinated. But the way he said my name when I answered told me something terrible had happened. I can’t remember the exact phrase he used but it was a wild understatement. Something like “we had a little problem last night.” And his tone of voice and failure to find the right words for that first sentence told me that “little problem” probably meant something unfathomably tragic.

I wished I was wrong. I still do.

My dad barely got through telling me that Arzie was gone and the little information about her passing. My mother, Arzie’s best friend for over 50 years, couldn’t even speak. I spent the rest of the day in a quiet panic. As I waited for information, I went to a meeting at Jackson’s future elementary school (albeit in a daze and absurdly disliking everyone there) and then I put up our Christmas tree. All the while, I was writing her eulogy in my head–before I even realized I would ask for the honor of speaking at Arzie’s services.

IMG_0237I wrote the first draft that night. Don’t even ask where I got the energy. I finished the second draft on Saturday afternoon…at my hair appointment. Ridiculous, I know.  I think of Arzie now, probably shaking her fists at how I wrote a remembrance of her on the Google docs app on my iPhone then texted it out to her family all while getting my roots dyed.  By Sunday, I was on a plane to NY. And my husband and babies were all packed up for their trek from Austin to Jackson, MS for Thanksgiving. And by Sunday, my mother and my uncle Kenny had read the initial text of the eulogy and thankfully, my uncle said I could speak.

The time from Sunday evening to the Tuesday morning service passed in a slow, surreal way. It’s the mixture of shock and sadness and busyness of funeral preparations. I snuck in little moments to reread the eulogy on my phone, change a phrase here or there. I made my sister, my mother, and my father listen to the speech. I thought the more I practiced, the less I would cry the day of. The last thing I wanted to do was blubber through the whole thing on the altar.

My husband called Monday night from Jackson. Darcy had croup and would have to go to the emergency room. I can remember texting with him late that night and then taking out my iPad to read the eulogy again. And the whole time, it just felt like we were in Connecticut visiting the Milio family and Arzie was working or away on one of her Choral Society cruises. She wasn’t there. But the permanence of her death hadn’t hit yet, for me at least.

I sat through the beautiful services feeling much the same way. I was clutching my iPad and every time I looked over at my mother weeping, my sister would gently remind me, “Don’t look at Mom right now.” As the time drew nearer, I prayed that God give me the strength to address the hundreds of people who filled the sanctuary. I prayed for the grace only God can bestow. I wanted to offer some solace to the people who Arzie left behind and memorialize someone who deserved a much better eulogy, a much better speaker.  If you knew Arzie, you’d understand that my last statement is not just fishing for reassurance. Arzie was truly the best of us.

I firmly believe that it was through God’s intercession that I didn’t sob until the very end of the eulogy. And even then, I found the strength to speak the last few sentences through tears and shakes.  There were even a few laughs–Arzie was a funny person; she wouldn’t have wanted all bleakness at her memorial.

 During the recessional and throughout the repast, people would come up and introduce themselves and hug me. Most of them I’d never met before. However, every time someone hugged me I cried and had to really pull myself together. Now that the eulogy was over, I guess I could let go. Surreality became the crushing reality of Arzie’s loss.

One of Arzie’s good friends even told me that until I spoke, the service was beautiful but so tense. “I think it was perfect. We all started to heal,” she said through tears that were almost a little hopeful. I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am for her words. Every compliment or thank you I got was both uplifting and intensely humbling at the same time. Being a part of the formal goodbye to such an incredible human will forever be something I cherish. Giving that eulogy will forever be a formative event in my adult life.

I put the actual text of my eulogy below. Some of Arzie’s friends asked for a copy of it and I thought that since I’ve been talking about giving the eulogy, you might want to read what I said.

For those of you that don’t know me, I’m Arzie’s “niece” Kristin. I use the air quotes because I’m not her blood relation. She’s my mother’s best friend. I’m Marian & Curt’s daughter. I asked Uncle Kenny if I could speak today and I’m so grateful that he’s allowed me to speak about Arzie–a woman who was very much my aunt.

Arzie. That nickname says it all. She was the perfect hostess. But not in a Martha Stewart kind of way–although I think she’d claim to have better cookie recipes. What made her the perfect hostess, the embodiment of Irish hospitality in fact–was how fun she was.

That’s what I’ll miss. That’s why I was so excited to be around her. It was the fun–carefree fun. She was fun in the truest, most infectious way. I started thinking about why Arzie was such an irresistible presence. She could make you laugh. And not giggle. Belly laugh. Pee your pants laugh. The type of laughter where you tell someone to stop because your ribs are hurting, because you can’t catch your breath. You knew whatever story she was telling was embellished, but you forgave the fabrication. Because it was probably the best laugh you’d had in a long time.

She was a relentless buster and fiercely competitive.  Arzie threatened to bring a kazoo to my wedding for a solid year. Said she would get a golden kazoo and hide it under the toilet at the wedding venue like Michael Corleone in the Godfather.

Then when I taught her how to make cosmos (that’s right I taught her and my mom the recipe although both deny it), Arz changed the recipe slightly and claimed that she made the world’s best cosmos. I remember one time at my moms when she asked me to remind her how to make her cosmos. “How do I make my cosmos?”

“How many cosmos have you had so far?”

“Shut up, Krissy. And don’t tell Kenny.”

Of course You forgave her incessant teasing because it was never bitter or malicious and because in the blink of an eye, the teasing would be self-deprecation. She would constantly joke about her weight—”Well, Krissy you’re not as skinny as me so you can’t really wear those jeans”. In these ways, her humor was quintessentially Irish—borne out of nostalgia, and good drink, and good old-fashioned self-criticism.

That good humor extended to her hospitality. And it extended to how much she loved her family and friends and how far she would go for them. I’m sure you all have a story about Arzie doing some favor or going out of her way for you. I have countless stories like that. Many of them have high calorie treats involved. One of my favorites is when she drove down from CT to Long island to help with my mom’s 50th surprise party. She was going to make her famous seven layer taco dip (again, the best dip according to her). But instead she came in like a hurricane–actually she called ahead to make sure that my dad had a Coors Light on ice for her.  So she comes in and immediately sends my dad to the store for cherry tomatoes. Apparently the tomatoes had all tumbled out her car’s back window on the way from CT to Long Island. “Well, I could retrace my steps and rescue each one. But then I’d be back in Connecticut, Curtie,” she laughed. The way she relayed the story about the fate of these cherry tomatoes was enough to make me and Dad (who were in the throes of party stress) stop and laugh and appreciate her friendship.

She loved her friends. Arz and my mom were friends since elementary school–apparently the friendship was started because Arz’s first choice playmate was sick that day. So my mom filled in. But Arzie was the type of person who made you feel so special, that even if you were second fiddle, it was enough to be in the band. And she loved her husband, my Uncle Kenny. And she loved all her boys–three sons with her same light, her same infectious humor. They are three of my favorite people. Arzie loved Bryan’s wife Maryellen, more daughter than daugther-in-law. And I think that family for Arzie was forever changed for the better with the arrival of little Caroline in the world–her little Care Bear.  In Caroline’s story of survival and perseverance we can see Arzie’s light there too.

03_3A 3I know it’s cliché but she could light up a room. And she could make you feel like you were the only person in the world who mattered. Not everyone has this special gift. Not everyone I know is as fun to be around as Arzie. And I’ll think of her fondly every time I fix myself a Cosmo.

My husband lost his father this summer and so my four-year-old Jackson has become prematurely well acquainted with loss. We explained to him that we are all God’s creation, on this earth for a certain amount of time, taking up a certain amount of space, and then we go back to God, our Eternal Father. We are His and His alone. I truly believe that and want my son to believe it. “Why are you so sad, mommy?,” he asked guilelessly. Because we are human and to be human is to be selfish. I will miss Arzie. Everyone who knew Arzie will miss her. If you knew Arzie for even a week, you would miss her. She was indeed a special gift from God, a light from heaven returned home. And if there is any solace in this tragic loss, it’s that a mother is reunited with a beautiful angel that God called away too soon.

*******************************

20_11And now…

Now I miss her more each day. I think this is the opposite of what people feel when they grieve. I don’t know. At least I’ve heard/read that for the first days, weeks, months, every object reminds you of the deceased. And then that sinking feeling subsides slowly over the first year. That was not my experience. I felt a level of acceptance of this tragic loss in the beginning but not so much now. Perhaps the eulogy delayed the stages of grief. Perhaps it’s that my Uncle Kenny is visiting Austin in a few weeks with my parents and I want Arzie to come too. I want to see her sitting my couch with a pillow on her lap, playing Words with Friends on her iPad, calling me “Krissy” and making fun of the uber-Modern chair we just got from Restoration Hardware. (Her house was an impeccably decorated country-style colonial. Decor was always something we agreed to disagree on.)

But I guess I’ll keep praying about it. I’ll lay  it at God’s feet. I know he’s listening…that is when Arzie doesn’t have His ear as she redecorates Heaven. After all, God needed a best friend too.

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On Second Children

I wrote this in April 2014, about four months after Darcy’s arrival. Updates are in brackets. I thought it was worth a share. 

 

“On Second Children”

“The first child gets bathed everyday. The second child gets bathed when they smell,” the pediatrician joked at the one week well visit. But it was a half-joke. I laughed but I thought (rather arrogantly) the second child will be bathed everyday as well. Two days later I kissed my baby on the neck right beneath her ear ready to inhale that delicious new baby smell and got a whiff of cheese. Yes, breast milk had built up in one of the many folds of my newborn’s neck and was fast turning into “breast cheese.” Hadn’t I bathed her just yesterday? No, it had been days. And when I resolved to bath her that day, I peered at my house through bloodshot sleepless eyes and I sighed. She would need a bath in the near future. Yes, “in the near future” was good enough.

12198488666_bf0ce79f12_bOn January 13, 2014, we welcomed our baby girl Darcy into the family. She’s the daughter I’ve always wanted, fourth in the family of four I’ve always wanted, and the sibling I wanted for my first. By all counts, we are blessed.

But Darcy is the second child. Darcy’s arrival in our lives has made me reflect on what it’s like to be second, to come into the world when the veneer of new parenthood has dulled just a bit.

By virtue of her birth order, Darcy gets a mom whose attention is split, grandparents who are happy she’s around but not as giddy about her, and a brother who loves her so much he could just squeeze her to death. Seriously, we call Jackson “Lenny” from Of Mice and Men. He’s just so happy she’s here he can’t even handle it. And he wants to rock her and squeeze her so hard that it’s almost violent. In his little four-year-old brain baby Darcy is the newest love of his life but also the reason his whole world has crumbled. One day I caught him playing Wreck-It Ralph on his iPad. He readily assigns real people to the characters in games. Darcy was Wreck-It Ralph. He sang happily, “Here comes Baby Darcy. Here to ruin everything.”

That all sounds rather grim. Darcy isn’t loved any less. And just because Darcy is here, Jackson isn’t loved any less. And Darcy gets two parents who are more confident and more relaxed in her care taking.

15346881201_4d12a74941_oHowever, Darcy’s whole life experience, especially in these early years, will be informed by her being the second child. Today, I’ve already interrupted two of her naps to take her in the car for Jackson’s activities. I never woke Jackson from a nap.  If Jackson wasn’t awake yet, we didn’t leave the house yet. We ate at restaurants according to his schedule, arrived late to family events,  and left early so he could get to bed.

You would think my new baby would be terribly cranky because of her interrupted sleep, right? Yet after four months of being woken up, Darcy still wakes with a smile and she wakes easily. Then she drifts back off in the car seat.

[Update: At around 6 months, Darcy’s naps and nighttime sleep became an issue. I refer to the 6-9 months as the Dark Ages. She’s since been sleep trained and I bow at the throne of Weissbluth and Ferber. But that whole nap whenever thing got hairy real fast.]

Of course because I wake her up so often, I feel guilty. This guilt creates a habit that I never indulged with Jackson. Darcy often takes naps right on her Boppy pillow after eating.  She finishes nursing and half-drunk on mother’s milk, drifts off for 45 minutes or so, catching up on that nap that was happening when I woke her for Jackson’s soccer practice. My first-born never got this treatment. Driven by anxiety and a competitive spirit, my child was sleep trained perfectly. I once put him in for a nap while friends were over for lunch. It took all of two minutes. The other mom leered at me, “He’s down? Are you serious?”

Essentially what I see coming together is exactly what the birth order book predicted. Darcy is simultaneously easy going and yet thinks the entire world revolves around meeting her needs.  Everyone, young and old, should be delighted by her little smile and gorgeous eyelashes. She has no worries. It will all work out. After all, there are three people bigger than her who will make it so.

Seeing how Darcy’s little personality form has made me more empathetic to my younger sister’s experience as well. As the second child, Maggie was probably always waiting for Mom to finish something, her schedule always planned around my own.  Only when Darcy cries does she have my unfettered, immediate attention. Of course I play with her but it’s not the same as Jackson whose every blink and smile was observed, commented on, recorded on film even.

Portraits : Don Kids : Family-34I relayed this revelation to my sister about a month after my daughter was born. I expected to be met with a defensive response but she seemed pleased. Her older sister finally “gets it.” Is there no greater satisfaction for a second child then to have achieved the respect of the eldest? I see it already in Darcy. There is no one in the world, including myself, who can light up her face like her brother. Her little eyes follow him as he putters around the room with his toys and her whole face reacts when he bestows some of his charming laughter on her.

15002652963_f5140e5fdd_o[Update: She is still enamored with her brother. However, she is now wary of him. And I think she realizes that crying gets him in trouble.]

I think most moms would agree. You go into a second pregnancy wondering how you can possibly make more room in your life and your heart for a new baby when you already love your first so much. But it happens. It’s not that the space in your heart reserved for your children divides. It’s that your heart itself grows. You love them both. You love them differently but you love them the same—passionately, assiduously, wholly. It’s not about more or less love. It’s about time. Isn’t it always?

 

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Revamping my website

Welcome to my new and improved website! Special thanks to my husband who did something technical to make everything load faster and make my dashboard faster while I write. Faster dashboard = Less frustrated Kristin. And Less frustrated Kristin = More posts for you. I know how you wait impatiently for my nuggets of wisdom. Oh, and C.K. put that snazzy twitter feed in the sidebar. That way, you get more Kristin Sample with your Kristin Sample!

80's and early 90s-30What’s new? 

  • a streamlined, modern, and easy-to-read look
  • faster load times
  • my tweets in the sidebar and a place where you can tweet at me or follow me
  • header pictures that change with each click
  • simpler navigation in the menu bar

What should I definitely check out? 

  • Click around to see all the awkward pictures of me as a kid in the header bar.
  • Under “About Me,” click on “Meet My Family” to read about our crazy crew.
  • Under “My Writing” click on “In Development” for a teaser from Stagecraft.

Photo credit: Either Dad or Mom. That’s me on one of my tween birthdays. And yes, I’m rocking an old fashioned cowgirl shirt. I had just appeared as a flower girl in a theme wedding where apparently the bridal party was supposed to look like the cast of Deadwood.

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2015 Goals

Notice how I didn’t call this post New Year’s Resolutions? I hate resolutions. So permanent. So scary.  If I haven’t made the change already, the chance that it’s going to happen just because there’s a new number on my calendar is pretty slim.

Besides, my New Year’s resolution always has to do with losing weight. This could be due to the barrage of Weight Watchers commercials and news pieces about dieting or fitness that tend to gather like media storm clouds at the beginning of each year.  Moreover, the weight loss resolution takes me right out of the positive, hopeful attitude that accompanies the new year. I’m constantly focused on my flaws, on what I don’t have, on what I’m not.

So this time, I’m setting “goals.” Much less intimidating. A goal is something to aspire to, not to fear. And since I’m solidly a millenial with a millennial’s attitude, if I don’t achieve my goals, at least I tried. I’ll still get that little trophy at the end of the little league season whether I got a hit or not. Right?

Pink-dress-lisa-lisa-simpson-7864705-303-550This is not to say that I’m going into 2015 with a laissez-faire attitude. I usually get it done when it comes to my goals. I’m the lady who gave birth to her first child and went to graduate class a week later so she wouldn’t be deterred from finishing her second Masters. (Confession: I also did this to scare impress the professor into putting in a good word for me at her school district.) Yes, I’m that person. I’m a Lisa Simpson.

With an eye toward achieving these goals, I thought I’d make them public.  They are all about self-betterment and therefore have a New Year’s resolution “feel.”  But they are about focusing on adding to my life and being thankful for what I have and how God has blessed me so abundantly.

Not about diets.

Here’s the list (in no particular order):

1. Drink the recommended 8 glasses of water per day. This lady drank a gallon of water everyday for four weeks and look at the difference in her face. I even bought a snazzy pink bottle that holds all eight glasses. I enjoy that it makes me look a little intimidating when I bring it everywhere because I’m all about the branding of my mommyness. Whoa, that lady is such a supermom she gets dehydrated from it.

2. Take real estate apps off my mobile devices & disallow notifications from all social media on my phone. The only notifications I get on my iPhone now are texts or calendar alerts or actual phone calls (<–what a notion!). I took Zillow and Trulia off because we are not shopping for a house until next year at the earliest. Looking at homes just makes me think of something I don’t own: a home. I should be focusing on the beautiful, spacious place we rent, incredible elementary school across the street, and fabulous neighbors like the Sipping Sisters. And as for the social media app notifications, I wish had the fortitude to do away with all of it but I don’t. And I won’t cause I like fotchbook and twitterest. But really? Do I need my phone to have a banner come up every time someone repins my pin about crockpot recipes? No. I’m busy trying to finish this enormous jug of water.

3. Take more iTunes U courses. I think I can replace listening to the same Taylor Swift or Pitbull songs over and over with listening to some podcasts in the car. And while I’m getting ready in the morning or doing dishes, I could be learning something. The course I started on the History of the New Testament is given by a Yale professor and it’s free! When I listen to him talk about Peters travels in Acts or the Gospel of Mark, I feel like my brain isn’t melting from laundry and child rearing anymore.

4. Practice yoga everyday. Even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes, even if it’s a few sun salutations and that’s it, I think this could be one of the more important parts of my day. I started this practice a few weeks before the holidays, skipping only a day or two. My back already feels stronger and I think I’m sleeping better. However, now with the 8 glasses of water, I’ll be getting up a lot more to use the bathroom. Rats! Foiled again!

Blank book5. Finish my novel Stagecraft. I told my agent it would be done by the time Darcy was born. Yeah, Darcy turns one next week. I better get on this. Where’s my Lisa Simpson hat?! There is some editorial interest in the novel so I owe it to myself to finish the book and see where it goes. If you’re on facebook, like the novel’s page and follow my painstaking process.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll post an update in a few weeks. I promise to be honest about my progress.

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Christmas Reflection

Dec. 27th…

This may turn into a 2014 reflection. In which case, I apologize in advance for the long-windedness and waxing sentimentality. This post will also be rambling and slightly incoherent. It’s 6:02 here in Austin. I’ve been up since 4:09 when my 4yo Jackson busted in our room in tears because he had a bad dream. Zombies again, I think. At 4:34, my 11-month-old dragon baby stood yelling at the corner of her crib and pointing at the red lights on the dropcam. On the monitor itself, Darcy looked like she was pointing at me, eyes glowing fluorescently with camera’s night vision. So I can’t promise anything too profound in this barely caffeinated state. Perhaps “reflection” was a bit of a reach.

So…reflecting on Christmas. This was something I tried in vain to do on December 25th but with all the cooking, cleaning, unwrapping, playing, talking, drinking…well, you know how it goes.

For the second year now, I hosted Christmas. This was something I’ve always wanted to do, even before kids, even before marriage. I alway envisioned my fully decorated home filled with good people, good smells of food cooking, and lots of laughter. That tableau is the Norman Rockwell version.

The saner among us (perhaps those who have hosted Christmas before) know that hosting Christmas is not all its cracked up to be. It is an endless “to do” of menial tasks and endless stress about budgets and whether or not your food will suck. To Do Before 12/25: cookies, cards, decorations, gifts, more cookies because you ate the first batches, menu planning, food shopping, cooking, freezing, defrosting, cooking. And somewhere in there, everyone gets sick and you are somehow supposed to make it to church. I totally failed on that last one. Christmas was most definitely an “Xmas” for us this year save a few reminders to Jackson that “IT’S JESUS’s BIRTHDAY!”

Last year’s Christmas was a blur. I was 36 weeks pregnant with Darcy. Unable to bend too much or stand very long, I can remember sitting on a step stool in my kitchen mired in recipe cards and dirty dishes and suffocating from the heat of the oven. I was just waiting for it to be over.

This year was much different in that regard. I made the conscious effort to accept any offers of help, to split up tasks and accomplish them throughout the month, to plan a menu that was simple, and to take lots of deep breaths. The result was one of the most enjoyable Christmases I’ve ever experienced and yet we had more food, more guests, and more wrapping than ever before.

They say many hands make light work. And mom, dad, my mother-in-law Karen, and C.K. did not disappoint. My mother-in-law, in addition to bringing several side dishes and desserts, helped everyday in the kitchen doing too many tasks to enumerate. By Monday we had basically a full Thanksgiving dinner to serve as our lunches and dinners leading up to Christmas. On Christmas day, she stood there washing and trimming mushrooms for about forty five minutes while I pulled together the other dishes and tried to hide my terror. She did so much in the kitchen that I looked at the dishes last night and thought “Oh, I have to do those?” She left early yesterday morning. Yes, Kristin. You have to do your own friggin’ dishes again.

And it was so nice to have her with us this year. This was the first Christmas we combined both sides of our family and I can’t even begin to express how lovely it was to see my children showered with attention from their grandparents.

My parents got here on Christmas Eve…just in time to take everyone out to a delicious dinner at Truluck’s. Last year, I made the traditional seven fishes dinner. And no, I don’t miss it. Dinner out on Christmas Eve for the win! On Christmas day, my parents arrived with three bags of gifts for us and then spent the day juggling an overtired sick baby girl, drifting in and out of the kitchen to clean and help with any extra tasks. Things just get done when my parents are around. A child is bathed. Clothes are folded and put away. A high chair is wiped down.

My husband, like my parents and mother-in-law, does too much to list here. I just give two examples of how generous a heart he possesses. First, he spent 2.5 hours putting together this Marvel Lego battle station thing at the end of Christmas day. When Jackson finished his bath, he strutted out in his Christmas pjs and promptly started taking it apart. C.K. didn’t complain at all. We did take a picture of him with the finished product for posterity though. And second, my husband, in addition to all his support of my “Christmasing” (especially the parts where I go over budget,) he got me basically everything on my Amazon wishlist.

Today we will celebrate Christmas with my little sister Maggie who spent her holiday working in the ER. She will never say it aloud but she is a fantastic physician whose medical knowledge is only outweighed by her compassion. I can’t wait to see her today, exchange gifts…and do more eating and drinking!

So Christmas was great. It was Darcy’s first. She killed it in her red velvet dress and despite being sick, she handled all the hoopla like a champ. And Jackson seems to enjoy it more every year. He is the best “gift-getter” I’ve ever met. Really, if any of you ladies out there don’t want to open all your bridal shower gifts in front of your party guests, Jackson will stand in. Upon opening his yoga mat, Jackson exclaimed, “A yoga mat! Finally! I’ve wanted one for so long. Thank you so much.” Every gift, toy or otherwise, was met with the same enthusiasm and gratitude. When I asked Jackson at dinner what his favorite gift was, he responded matter-of-factly, “my new jeans.”

Aren’t you lucky I didn’t go through the entire year? It’s late now but I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, and/or a Merry Feastivus/long weekend. And may your 2015 be filled with joy.

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The Elf on the Shelf Debaucle

It sounded like a good idea. All my friends on facebook were doing it. All my church pals who had little kiddos were talking about it.

The Elf on the Shelf.

I decided that this year Christmas would be extra magical. There would be decorating of cookies, our annual Nutcracker trip, tree trimming, present wrapping…and now there would be a stealthy elf who would hide in a different spot every night. Jackson would wake up, find him (maybe even with a little note or an advent present), and be the happiest kid ever.

That didn’t happen.

It all started this Thursday. I put Darcy down for her afternoon nap and Jackson and I went and played on his iPad on my bed. (Disclosure: I dozed while he played on his iPad. It happens.) But before we retreated to the master bedroom, a package arrived. I spied inside and saw the box set, complete with cheaply made toy elf and the classic book that explained his mythology. While Jackson was getting out his iPad, I snuck over to the tree and put it in plain sight.

When Darcy woke an hour later, I walked out in the livingroom and the act was on. “Jackson! Something came from the North Pole.” He ran out, little socks trying in vain to grip our parquet wood floors.  “What is it?,” he said, eyes filled with wonderment and glee as he held up the box. I grabbed Darcy from her crib and sat down to read him the book.

“I bet some of your friends already have one,” I smiled. But then I realized that he might ask why we only just got a scout elf . Think fast. “I knew we would get our elf when Darcy came along.” (If you’re keeping score, that’s friendly fib number two.)

I read the book with such feeling. I highlighted all the parts about how the elf is magical and comes alive at night. For those of you who don’t know the Elf’s mythology, here’s a quick run down…

  1. He’s from the North Pole. (or Amazon.com)

  2. You have to give him a name. (Saves money on personalized box printing.)

  3. He comes alive every night and visits his friends in the North Pole then goes all inanimate during the day. He’ll always be in the different place though. (Think Toy Story when humans are around.)

  4. He reports on his child’s behavior to Santa.

  5. He comes every year on Thanksgiving night and leaves after Christmas.

  6. You cannot touch him. His magic will fade if you do.

So I made sure to highlight the magical-little-elf-who-comes-alive-at-night part. I knew Jackson would have a blast looking for him each morning. I downplayed the whole Foucaultpanopticon part. We won’t have any Big-Brother-is-watching-you crap in this house. Besides, Jackson is good–and not because he’s afraid of some fictional portly man who lives up north. Jackson behaves because he has a healthy fear of me and C.K. Duh. Like when I say I’m going to vacuum up his legos if he doesn’t pick them up…NOW. And then I walk to the hall closet. Jackson gets his little butt on the floor and scoops all those precious legos into their bin. Why? Because I actually will vacuum up those little legos. Anyone who has stepped on a lego with bare feet will know how insanely gratifiying vacuuming up legos might be. Eff those legos.

But I digress. We read the story. His face was so precious, so full of awe. He took the directive about not touching the elf very seriuosly, using it as an excuse to boss around his 10-month-old sister. “Don’t touch Mr. Elf, Baby Darcy. No presents for you!”

We read the book a second time. Jackson was still completely plugged in. Then I suggested we call his grandmother to tell her about this most magical event that has transpired. “Yes! Call Meema.”

And that’s when it happened. Not five minutes into that fateful Facetime call, Jackson’s mood changed. “I don’t like him,” he whispered, a grim expression on his face.

Jackson realized it–something we all know about the Elf on the Shelf. That shit is creepy. He’s small. He grins all the time. He wears a ridiculous hat. He watches your every move. And then, the worst of it, he comes alive when you sleep. Now, supposedly the Elf just goes to the North Pole. But Jackson doesn’t know that. Maybe the Elf breaks your toys, vacuums your legos, climbs into bed with you, takes your soul. Who knows?

“I don’t like him. I don’t like his magic,” he cried. Now there were tears. I told my mom I’d call her right back. And then the lies just poured out of me. “He’s a good elf. He’s not a bad elf.” (Shit. Now he thinks there are bad elves.) “The elf is just Santa’s helper.” “The elves are making your Skylanders.”

“I don’t want him!” Jackson screamed, really terrified now. I called my mom back thinking she would help. He adores his Meema. Surely, she would play along with this amazing little fib.

But she was no help. We’ll leave it at that. No, we won’t. Not only did my mom yell at me to get rid of the elf, she could barely contain her laughter that this had gone so horribly wrong for me.

All the while, Jackson is now hollering at the top of his lungs, “Get his magic out of the house!” And my favorite line: “Give the elf to the poor kids.”  This was a clear sign that another advent activity was going wrong. I want Jackson to pick some toys to give to Salvation Army or Any Baby Can. I’ve been prepping him slowly for this painful decision. I want him to know that others don’t have as much and so it’s important to make some efforts to take care of others. Evidently, he’s not absorbing these values.

 After getting off the phone with Meema a second time, I had to come clean. “He’s just a story and a toy. He doesn’t really come alive.”

And that was all it took. Now “Knob” the elf is a happy addition to our home. And every few hours, Jackson asks me to hide him again. He shouts, “Let’s play Elf on the Shelf!”

Jackson did agree, however, that we should keep the magic part for Baby Darcy. And for Daddy.

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The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

My husband and I recently moved our family to a new neighborhood. We were lucky to find a totally redone townhouse in a really nice complex. Soon after we moved, we realized that we had altered the median age of said complex considerably. In fact, most of our neighbors are elderly women between the ages of 75 and 97. Ooh, another man. Oh a young man. So nice to have a young family. I don’t know that I’d use the word “young” to describe either myself or my husband. But to the cast of Cocoon residing in our subdivision, we might as well be in high school.

These ladies aren’t just any old ladies though. They are active (many are still working), vibrant, and charming. I’m fairly sure that they stay up later than I do. And on occasion, they sit on lawn chairs in the middle of our complex and drink wine and laugh and kevetch. They call this impromptu gathering the “Sippin’ Sisters.”

About a month ago on a sticky summer evening, I am lucky enough to receive an invitation from the Sisters. Joan, a 92 year old with two poodles and crazy swagger, told me about the group the day we moved in. I confess that while I said “Ooh that sounds nice” I hoped I would never hear of this again. But there stands Joan at my door, blouse impeccably ironed, wine glass in hand.

I go to this latest installment of the Sippin’ Sisters. My motivation is completely self-serving. I want to appear like a good neighbor; I want a bunch of ladies to hold my enormous five month old daughter Darcy. Certainly, both goals will be accomplished and I’ll be back in the AC in half hour.

To my surprise, I have the best time chatting with these ladies. Let me take you through the cast of characters. And they are indeed characters.

You’ve met Joan already. She’s Catholic. I am asked right away about my religious preference. Would I be Team Joan or Team Everyone-Else-Is-Protestant? I answer truthfully that I grew up Catholic but we attend Methodist church. This answer satisfies everyone and I am tentatively accepted.

There’s Dotty. “I am the queen,” she announces when I walk up. Dotty is the leader of the group. Armed with a glass of rose and tangerine-colored lipstick, Dotty informs me that she was the first person to live in our complex. She moved in over forty years ago after her husband passed. Dotty snatches up Darcy right away cooing, “Ooh she’s darling.” Dotty also notifies me that despite my native New Yorker status, God has certainly blessed me by giving me a Texan baby. Then she jokes, “What do you call a yankee who has lived in Texas for thirty years?… A yankee who has lived in Texas for thirty years!”

All the ladies laugh.

I laughed too. It’s funny because it’s true.

There’s Helen. Helen declares that she is the “second queen.” But before I could break it to her that there is no such thing, Dotty interrupts again, clearly invigorated by a new person to entertain. “You have the choice unit,” Dotty exclaims. It is evident that everyone in the circle had looked through my home when it first came on the market.

Helen thinks she’s 73 but no, Joan gently reminds her that she is 93. Helen sulks a bit at this revelation but quickly recovers. Clearly, Helen feels like she’s 73 and that’s all that matters. And who wouldn’t feel 73 in perfected quaffed gray curls and white capris?

There’s Joan and her daughter Kathy. Joan is sassy. I’ve already mentioned her swagger. She sashays past my home three times a day with her poodles. Joan and her dogs are my pug’s archenemies. Thatcher hates anyone with more swagger than her. (The pug is also sassy. But this post is getting lengthy so I won’t go into it.) Kathy is less sassy. Despite being one of the younger women in the group, she’s bashful. That’s probably because you can’t get a word in edgewise unless the queen asks you a direct question. Kathy tries to offer some neighborly words, “We are always home. If you need anything—“

“If you need anything, just ask. We don’t have what you need. But we will call someone for you,” Dotty cracks up.

Finally, there’s Naomi. She mostly sits there sipping her pinot giorgio (with ice) and giggling. As I leave she lets me know that she shares a wall with me. I shudder as I think of the worst—she’s going to complain about our parrot. But instead Naomi asks if her television is too loud. She’s just had her hearing aids put in and can’t tell if she’s bothering anyone. “I have a four year old, a baby, a pug, and a parrot. You’re fine,” I laugh and Naomi smiles, genuinely relieved.

There hasn’t been another gathering of the Sippin’ Sisters since then. I assume that people are just taking summer vacations, visiting families, tours of beauty, whatever. The Sippin’ Sisters aren’t ones to be driven indoors by the Texas heat.

Or maybe I just wasn’t cool enough to be invited back.

I hope this is not true.

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Our Heroine Goes to the Pool

Recently I’ve added pool time to my stay-at-home-mom daily routine. It breaks up the afternoon and simultaneously gets us out of the house and out of the heat. As I float around today with my two babies, I can’t  help but ponder my pool times before the arrival of these cherubs in my life. Back then, my main objective was to look good in a bathing suit. Now, vanity plays a much lesser role. I smirk as I wonder “Does this count as my shower for today?”

Before kids, I would see how I could weasel another drink out whoever was dry enough to go inside. Oh hey, are you getting out? I’ll take another beer. And then there’s the internal monologue that ensue when nature calls.  Damn, I have to pee. That means drying off, going inside, wriggling awkwardly out of my bathing suit then pulling the wet suit back on. Would anyone really know if I just peed in the pool?


But any young parent knows that pool time with kids is different, much more than sucking in your gut and debating the ethics of swimming pool urination.
There’s the hyper vigilance of having to keep your children alive. There’s the cramp in my left arm that’s cradling my 21 pound six-month-old as she kicks her chubby thighs frantically through the water. There’s the repetitive, ridiculously loud exclamations of my four year old. And then there’s me, pacing back and forth in the shallow end, trying to engage in whatever deranged narrative Jackson has created for today’s play and employing phrases like “use your walking feet” whenever Jackson scampers dangerously around the cement edge.

And you know what? Pool time is pretty awesome. Today Jackson wants to play a live action version of Plants vs. Zombies. Darcy and I are the “plants.” I am equipped with a green beach ball that I pelt at Jackson as he repeatedly swims from the stairs to my location. Even with the aches in my back and my four year old droning on about how he wants to eat my brains, I’m enjoying his laughter. And even though he thinks he’s a zombie, I’m watching him teach himself how to swim as I move farther and farther away each time we restart the game. And Darcy is happy too. She’s floating in my arms, breathing the summer breeze, and feeling the contrast of the Texas heat and the cool water.  As a typical second child, Darcy has no pool toys of her own. Still the baby contently chews on Jackson’s old water wing. And she’ll take a nap when we return home.

I’ll take it.

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Kickstarter Complete: 5 Lessons Learned

This week I sent off the last of it–my limited edition novels funded by my KICKSTARTER backers. Those who paid $25 or more received signed copies. Now that I have some space from the project as a whole, I thought I’d share some tips for those launching KICKSTARTER book projects of their own.

1. Do lots of research first. I mean this both in the empirical way and the soul searching way. I looked at many (MANY) kickstarter projects for books. I saw what others were charging and what rewards people were getting. I focused on successful projects or projects that were almost over and had most of their funding. I also thought a lot about what creative concessions I was willing to make. For example, I offered to change a character’s name for $1,000. You may not want to do that. Some other campaigns (mostly ones for fantasy chap books) offered to let backers decide plot points. That was NOT something I wanted to do. I make all plot decisions.

2. If you can complete your project with less money, raise less money. You can always do an extension. I raised 5,000 for my campaign. Other book campaigns were about that much. Friends who had successful projects said that was a good number and I could raise it. But let me tell you, that last week getting from $4,000 to $5,000 was STRESSFUL. By the last week, I was second-guessing the goal. And you can’t change the goal or the time frame once you set it. And as KICKSTARTER reminds you every step of the way, if you don’t receive full funding, you don’t get anything. Take that to heart. (Sidenote: I’m sure you can tell from the above paragraph that I’m not a business major/math-minded person. I know. I’ve been aware of this for awhile. Maybe I should’ve engaged one of my friends who doesn’t suck at math to help. Might have saved some money on TUMS that last week too.)

3. Utilize the talented people in your life. It takes a village. I mean, that’s basically the guiding concept behind KICKSTARTER, right? I got so many compliments on my kickstarter video. And it wouldn’t have been half as entertaining if I didn’t have a talented husband to film and edit it. My video was a short bit about why I need the money then outtakes of me screwing up. In short, C.K. made me look much more charming than I actually am. One thing I wish I did: get someone do create concept art. Like a picture of the main character. If I could do it all again, I would’ve called in some favors on that front. Maybe even make postcards printed with the art. That way  I could’ve given something tangible to the people who backed me for less than $25. There are lots of folks out there who don’t want another paperback, especially those who have transitioned fully to eReaders. But those people still want to support you and everyone likes getting postcards. (Right?)

Shipment from Publisher’s Graphics

4. Do the campaign in a month. No one wants to think about your kickstarter campaign for more than that. Start revving up interest prior to when the campaign starts (blog posts, facebook updates, tweets), but the actual “I need your money to make my dreams happen” shouldn’t be in people’s feeds for more than a month.

5. Order extras. I’m using the extras for giveaways on goodreads.com and my facebook page. I also had ten requests for full manuscripts from lit agents. No one offered representation because they didn’t think that North Shore South Shore had a traditional niche market. My novel is about emerging adults–a relatively new literary market that appeals to readers between YA and Adult fiction. Agents just couldn’t picture it. I’ll be sending some of these agents copies to help them do just that and prove that the novel is indeed sellable.

Special thanks to…all of my kickstarter backers, C.K. Sample, Glen Edelstein (cover design), Publishers’ Graphics, all my friends who tweeted or shared on facebook, and the good people at KICKSTARTER for accepting my project.

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