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Garage Sale

At 6:30 a.m. Friday, someone was already waiting for us to expose our wares, ready or not. "How much for this top and skirt set, honey?" she asked me fairly patiently as I click-clacked around the garage in a hurry, sliding boxes and topping pricing markers with importance; I had to get to work; I had to feed the kids breakfast; I had to make their lunches; I had to .. to.. . DO... LOTS. OF. important... THINGS. I was busy. "Three dollars. ?" I blurted as if under undue pressure, and then left the rest to John, who was relaxed, detached, and as a result actually accomplishing tasks while I was filling the garage with unproductive, invaluable tension. By 7:00 a.m., the kids' lunch was half-made, their breakfast half-eaten, my earrings half-on, and my shoes still click-clacking with false, forced authority all over the wood floors, the tile floors, the beautiful expensive flooring in the house we're indebted to for generations, the house 50 successful garage sales still couldn't afford, the house we love, but probably shouldn't have bought, the house we will stay in until we've resolved all the other poor choices, and learned all the other late "life lessons".

John braved the constant traffic and occasional haggling with "customers" on Friday, with virtually no comments, other than how much we made by selling junk to others. Saturday morning it was my turn, and I had to get over myself and my irrational fear of the unknown, and the fact that it's also irrational that the "unknown" includes allowing unfamiliar people onto my driveway (how horrifyingly anti-social for someone who considers herself "open" and "liberal"), let alone INTO MY GARAGE, only *feet* from a portal into my home, the home with the mess and dysfunction and reality I have yet to "manage" in any acceptable way, despite my criticisms and my know-it-all, have-a-response attitude about everything until I screw up and see how hard it all is, and how we're all just a bunch of snot-nosed kids when it really comes down to it. But having that realization around my mounds of dirty clothes and pet hair isn't necessary, is it? Even though a lot of the dirty clothes were carried downstairs by my kids at my request with pretty decent attitudes, and the pet hair comes from two of the most peaceful, family-oriented creatures on earth? Yeah, still. Not necessary. Because the peace is always the after-math realization I have. I look BACK and go, wow, the kids are really basically sweet. I shouldn't yell so much. SIGH. Wow, the animals are so amazing and low maintenance. I should appreciate their part in the family more. SIGH.

But I digress. By Saturday morning, it was my turn. After shoving down any remaining human emotion I might have about allowing others near my territory or whatever nonsense instinctively rules my brain, I parked myself in the garage and forced friendly "HI"s to come out of my mouth. I answered people's questions. I negotiated prices. I even had conversations that I was disappointed, YES, DISAPPOINTED to end. People were full of information for me: they'd had a garage sale last week and now here they were buying more stuff, ha, hahaha, ha, ha; they were stopping by on behalf of their aging parents who loved garage sales, did that TV work?, no they didn't want me to plug it in, nevermind; why are you selling the Wii Fit?, did you not like it, oh, you didn't use it to get in shape like you thought you would, yep, they understood that, ha, hahaha, ha, ha; would I take fifty cents for these two toys marked fifty cents each?; how about a dollar for the already priced to sell three-dollar DVDs? When the customer who asked the last question literally STUFFED HER WALLET -- WITH PANACHE -- INTO HER BRA EIGHT INCHES FROM MY FACE AFTER HANDING ME A DOLLAR AND WAITING FOR TWO QUARTERS BACK, I wished I'd studied Zen Buddhism. Or been blind. Or non-judgmental. Or somehow oblivious. But no; I am none of these.

I'm a broke, educated, white mother of two white males in the smack-dab-middle of the United States of America. I have a high paying job and lots of nice things, and I pay for my kids to go to a school that will teach them about a world that exists beyond their skewed, screwed-up house with two-car garage. I have no more hope of perspective or depth beyond what I can claim to pay for. Somehow the white trash bra-wallet lady seems to have something figured out here that I don't, much to my instinctual, consistent dismay.

Mr. In Control vs. Mr. Entertainment

The kids are smitten with the nine-year-old daughter of my mom's next door neighbor, which has introduced us to the phenomenon of what life will be like when they're in high school. Her back yard is not fenced, and neither is my mom's, so the first time they met, and after the obligatory shyness wore off and their natural competition rose to the surface, the flirtation of choice was racing across the length of Her back yard. Quinn always loses when it's a race based only on speed, which means two things: Quinn gets frustrated and moves on to something else, and Bryce demands a race every. single. time. he sees Her.

Last night all the families were out before fireworks started, and Bryce used his trusty "let's race" line to get Her attention. Cue the same rules, the kids in the same line-up, and the same four seconds of all-out sprinting followed by Quinn's desperate attempts to win for once by heading for the finish line before reaching the agreed upon mid-point of the far fence, and Bryce's (legitimate but screechy) accusations of cheating (even though Quinn still never wins). Party music was playing on the back porch when all the kids came up for a drink, though, and She started to dance, which led to Quinn joining Her with his signature hilarious lip-syncing, finger-pointing, disco party moves in perfect rhythm to whatever was playing. Bryce got his drink and said to Her, "let's go race again," but as he ran off, She hesitated and said, "I want to dance, I don't want to race." Bryce didn't even know what to make of this. He had no desire to dance, and no intention of dancing. (I can totally relate; in fact, this is probably a medical condition he inherited from me, much like his desire for control, frustratingly photographic memory, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.) He tried to wait patiently while She and Quinn jammed through all the classics streaming from the digital cable party channel. The entire bottom half of Quinn's head was soaked with sweat and he was probably delirious with fatigue and dehydration, but nothing was going to take this victory away from him. I tried to encourage Bryce to join them, but he just ignored me. He tried a different tact, walked up to Her mid-shuffle and said, "let's play climb the mountain on the rocks over there!" to no avail. She told him to dance too, but he shook his head and I could see his mind racing for something to offer Her that would be more compelling than dancing, and dancing with Quinn of all people! Quinn was lapping it up, performing for the neighbor family across Her back yard, lip syncing to songs he didn't know and pointing frantically, occasionally changing up his points for some air guitar when the songs allowed for such genius.

Finally, She was ready to take a break from dancing and agreed to humor Bryce's constant requests to play a game, any game, any activity involving role playing that might somehow resemble video game life where he could feel in control, directing the activities of all the players and declare the winner according to his pre-determined set of logical rules. Bryce seemed to relax again under these circumstances, although still perplexed by the whole thing: the dancing, ... who can tolerate all that out-of-control, purposeless movement with no defined end in mind? Watching the three of them play and the boys compete for Her attention and approval in whatever way they could, I said, "the teenage years are going to be tough with those two." "Yeah," said my stepdad, " 'Hey Quinn, find out if she likes me.' '...Well, Bryce, I've been out with her four times now, but I just can't tell.' "

And just think: before this set of exchanges, all I was worried about for the evening was firework safety.

If that's not a postmodern expression of injustice, I don't know what is.

The other night in the game room, in lieu of playing another smashing round of "Hangman" on the kids' chalkboard, we played "guess the picture" which is exactly what it sounds like - no more, no less. In the spirit of Calvinball, none of us defined any rules or guidelines, but a pattern of each person drawing two mystery pictures at a time emerged organically. After one round of this pattern, Bryce wanted to play again. I was out of ideas after my masterpieces of "castle" and "crown", so I gave my second turn to John, who drew his final pictures just before we both announced it was time for teeth-brushing and face-washing before bed. Bryce objected, saying it wasn't fair, John had had three turns, so he needed three turns. John opted for a sly approach and threw in a previously unspoken "guess the picture" rule, saying he and Quinn had taken four turns total, and mom and dad had taken four turns total, so the "teams" were even. Bryce continued to wail and we continued to herd Quinn into the bathroom for bedtime rituals. Bryce's rage had to be expressed, so he growled and ran back to the chalkboard and angrily scrawled this in his choppy second-grade cursive (parenthetical, correct spelling, and all):

dad had three turns
mom, 1 bryce, 2
quinn, 2
(no teams)

I read his message and gave him a high five. That kid's going places, I tell you.

Reparations, 2009

In January I made an actual New Year's Resolution. Well, okay; it wasn't exactly "specific" or "measurable," the way real, adult, professional goals are supposed to be. It was more of a theme, but not one that could be adequately described with words. My new year's resolution was more like the artist formerly known as prince's symbol - elusive, non-descript, cartoonish, even. My life by mid-year was going to epitomize peacefulness, genuineness, gratefulness, graciousness, any -ness I could think of that was consistent with my ever-forming "values." At the time this seemed perfectly reasonable and realistic. By not placing specifics around the resolution formerly known as Fix My Life, it seemed somehow doable, maybe probable, and even enticing. I would simply know when a choice presented itself to me to prove my commitment to The Resolution. You see, the past few years have taken quite a toll, and not necessarily in the way you might assume -- not in all bad ways. Good news in the way of a beautiful home, healthy kids, career recognition, and little joys like the barn kitten we brought home from a Thanksgiving visit to my dad's charmed Kentucky life have been probably appropriately (or at least not surprisingly) balanced by bad news in the form of health scares, horrific family strife, near-fatal accidents, and the stress that accompanied the "career recognition" I just mentioned. The Resolution was going to be my awakening from the comatose survival mode of simply reacting to the chaos around me. I was going to consciously choose everything from my tone of voice when I'm saying, "we use napkins in this house" and "stop licking the seatbelt" to my breathing patterns during mind-numbing, politically charged meetings at work.

Yeah, well, that didn't work for long. The tangible results I was looking for would have shown up first in the mirror, when I would glance there without cringing at the reflection of the dozens of extra pounds that the chaos and resulting coping mechanisms of these past years have cruelly deposited. They would have certainly shown up in my closet, where I would have been able to wear 90% of what hangs there limply instead of the mere 10% that is faded and worn and soon to be stretched to oblivion. While I haven't forgone the possibility of achieving the resolution formerly known as Fix My Life, I have woken up to the reality that the vague, artistic symbol communicating The Resolution needs to be shaped more like a treadmill than a cup of frozen custard and Oreos, or a margarita, or a couch. I know losing weight won't achieve all the "-ness"es I strive for, but I'm awake enough to recognize that I have to start somewhere, and the ability to recognize my own face in the mirror and fit into my own clothes would be a refreshing start.

So, at 5:00 a.m. on June 15th, picture me cursing January and my stupid, stupid, undying theme of a 2009 resolution to Fix My Life. I will be heaving and frowning in an attempt to exercise after only sitting and coping for two years, and wishing I'd picked a "SMART" goal per Corporate America's instructions, one that by now I could have failed to achieve and simply look back and sigh over, like, "oh well, that didn't work out - it was just too darned specific!"

For The Birds

Leaving the movie theatre Friday night after seeing "Up," Bryce's voice caught my attention as he called to us: "What is this I'm looking at? Guys!! What is this?" Normally I would have let my impatience to hurry up and live this pesky life override any temptation to exacerbate Bryce's already overblown sense of curiosity, but the tone and message of Pixar's latest masterpiece was still fresh, so in one fatal moment, I turned around and said, "what?" Bryce's usual, seemingly impossible stationary bounce was magnified and exemplified by his wide eyes and pointing finger, and I followed his gaze into the freshly mulched movie theatre garden of prickly bushes and saw two pink, writhing, see-through lumps of flesh topped by dry, open, barely chirping, tiny bird mouths. John tried to keep walking, but now Quinn was involved too, and soon all three of us were guilting him into helping the pitiful creatures. It wouldn't be that hard, I said. My own brother found three nestlings as a kid, I said. My dad raised them on whatever gruel we could find in the house and they lived and flew away weeks later, I said.

Once in the car holding the makeshift nest, a sense of panic and doom came over me. "Uh, this doesn't look good," I said, noticing how truly transparent their less-than-paper-thin bird skin really was. "I don't know if they're going to make it." John nodded his "yeah, I know, that's why tried to keep walking" nod. Pet stores were closed, so we rushed to the nearest open grocery store and quickly settled on baby formula as the method of Bird Life Saving we would try on, like a cheap new pair of shoes or something else equally necessary but unfamiliar when the technical requirements really become important to know. There was brief panic when the grocery store's pharmacy was closed: "WHAT? WHERE WILL WE FIND AN EYE DROPPER?" We searched frantically until we came across a basic syringe, then breathed deeply and tried to keep from exploding when the cashier needed an old-school price check on it: "Can we show the guy where it is on the shelf? Don't you know we have dying baby birds in the car, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PEOPLE?!"

The box from Bryce's serendipitously recently purchased tennis shoes was still sitting out waiting to receive its new occupants, who miraculously lived through the night despite my pathetic attempts to feed them human baby formula with a syringe, despite my almost choking and drowning them in human baby formula, despite my not keeping them warm enough in that huge shoe box on a marble counter top in an an air-conditioned house built for humans a thousand times their size. The little one died a few hours into Saturday morning, simply but tragically still when I came to feed them both mid-morning after being shocked that the night hadn't taken them. Who knew Death liked to hang around 'til mid-morning? And for a harmless baby bird, at that. I spent a few hours looking for a wildlife rehabilitation center, but couldn't get anyone on the phone, and realized that when I decided to "try to save the birds," it was really my decision and not one I could somehow pawn off on the local authorities like I think I'd assumed in the back of my mind outside that theatre. I took the kids to find real bird food and an eye dropper after John suggested the human baby formula might have been too rich and the syringe too aggressive for these tiny, tiny creatures. The real bird food was thicker, and after a few feedings left a paste on the outside of the remaining baby's beak. But, again, despite my horrifying performance as a baby bird rehabilitator, he lived through another night.

He didn't make it past dinner time, and this time Death decided to play it up for us, make the whole thing more traumatic and memorable. When Bryce and I went in for a feeding, the still-naked bird felt cold and looked paler than before. I offered the eye dropper of freshly prepared, bonafide baby bird food, and he opened his mouth, but when I gingerly squeezed a drop in, he sputtered and gagged, and he seized and drew his wings and tiny pink feet as close as possible, until...nothing. Bryce said, "what's he doing? Why is he doing that?" and since he'd been anticipating the second bird's death for the past 24 hours, said, "Is he dead?" "Well....he's dying," I said. The bird's beak opened a few more times, but his breathing had stopped after the first (last) drop of food. Bryce asked, "Should I carry the box in to the kitchen and let everyone know?" When he walked up to John and shared the news, John said, "Well, we did everything we could." I gave him the evil eye, thinking his response was cold and brief and non-responsive, but it was actually what Bryce needed to hear. "Wasn't it lucky that I spotted those birds? They were SO lucky that we found them and tried to help them live longer."

We all participated in the back yard burial and memorial service, which consisted of the kids and I in our pajamas and John in shorts and flip flops with a shovel, the two bird siblings wrapped ceremoniously in official deceased baby bird paper towels, and our dog Pax in the background, perplexed and softly mouthing his chew toy, which all of us thought was a symbolically significant and sudden chirping of neighborhood birds. When John noticed it was only the dog's toy squeaking, we all laughed, patted the ground, and sat on our back porch before having ice cream.

A Taste

A Conversation Wherein I Try to Discern Complex Details from a Six-Year-Old Obsessed With Possibly Misplaced Priorities (AKA "the bubbles vs. the answers")

Me: Quinn, tell me about the tests you took in school today.

Quinn: Oh yeah - Dr. H read to us from a book.

Me: Oh! So, did you have to answer questions about what she read to you?

Quinn: Well, we had to fill in the bubbles and stay in the lines.

Me: Yeah, I know that - you have to color in the bubble next to the right answer. But what kinds of questions were they, Quinn?

Quinn: There weren't any QUESTIONS. She turned the pages and we had to stay in the lines when we filled in the bubbles!

Me (perplexed): O....kay. Well, how did you know which bubbles to fill in?

Quinn (irritated because his mother is a moron): SIGH! You had to stay in the lines when you filled them in! I've told you this already!

Me: Let's start over. Dr. H read from a book, right?

Quinn: Right.

Me: And then she asked you a question, and you had to fill in the bubble next to the right answer -- were the answers pictures, or numbers, or words?

Quinn: She didn't ask any questions! She was just reading! All we had to do was listen and then fill in the right bubble and stay in the lines. I'm tired of telling you this!!!

Me (not willing to let it go): Okay, well let me ask you this: were you filling in bubbles next to pictures?

Quinn (annoyed, losing focus): Yes, there were pictures.

Me (drunk on falsely perceived success): Hmm! Now we're getting somewhere. Were they shapes, or animals, or something else?

Quinn (now looking out the window): ...I can't remember.

Me (face planted in remaining dinner on plate): Oh.

Car Rides: Still Torture After All These Years

I was reading through some of my posts from early 2006, a whole three years ago now, and I was surprised to read a description of driving with the kids that sounded like something I could write today. Something about one hand on the wheel, one hand flailing in the back seat to keep the two toddlers effectively separated from one another. On the one hand, I've been thinking we've come so far in our parenting trek and that some of the infant and toddler hardships are definitely behind us. But on the other hand, I think maybe this is just one of the stories I tell myself to keep my few remaining shreds of sanity intact. Because honestly, just this morning on the way to the kids' soccer game I was one vein-bulging moment away from my head exploding and causing John to, in shock and disgust, careen off the road, all while Bryce and Quinn undoubtedly continue "humming" one single insanity-inducing note at exponentially increasing decibel levels. The blood and guts and crashing metal wouldn't stop them. Believe me. Nothing. Stops. Them. On the bright side, they have great tone recognition. If this apparent talent turns them into a successful two-man band, I think some potential band names could be Incessant, Madness, or Incessant Madness.


Here's the thing: When I was three, my parents decided to put me in ballet lessons. I was a quiet, compliant, blonde, easy child. It seemed like the obvious thing for any well-intentioned parent to do. I went to the lessons, learned my moves, practiced as diligently as a three-year-old can be expected to, and primped and preened for the big day of the recital, where there were undoubtedly hordes of (16?) anxious fans (parents and grandparents) waiting to judge the performance. In my black leotard, face painted whiskers, fuzzy-ear-headband, and stapled kitty tail, I joined my ballet class on stage and proceeded to fixate on the audience while I robotically stepped through the moves I'd faithfully practiced and learned. The girl next to me clearly didn't bother to practice (stupid three-year-old), missed a few steps, and ran into me, which threw off my entire already endangered performance. For the rest of the humiliating time, I stood on stage and looked at the overwhelming number of strange faces in the crowd. I'm pretty sure I remember the bright, hot lights and the feeling of embarrassment and the flushed, red cheeks in which that dreaded combination culminated. As legend has it in my family, I came home after that hideous recital and exclaimed that I would not dance again "until I was a teenager."

Of course, if you've read anything written here by me (I'm shocked if you're still here), you'll know that I basically never danced again AT ALL. Not at my wedding, not when drunk, not at gun point, not ever. I've associated dancing with being watched and humiliated. Really, it's a self-centered fear: who cares what my dancing looks like? Who even knows what my dancing looks like, actually? But it's not the point. I've carried the memory and the stories associated with this feeling with me for three decades. It's why for so long I was characterized as "shy" when in reality, I am anything but shy. What I am, is private. What I am, like Bryce, is demanding of control. The combination results in a personality that resists any exposure to vulnerability that may devolve into what I perceive as embarrassment or humiliation. This same characteristic has so many extremes: it's All or Nothing. Usually, it's All. All of everything, to the point of exhaustion or self criticism / deprecation / loathing / continuous slashes until I get the perfect word. Occasionally the slashes cut me to the bone, and I have to go to the other extreme of Nothing. Of course in our culture, this Nothing doesn't look like "nothing" - it looks like fulfilling responsibilities and paying a ridiculous amount of bills and taking deep breaths when I'm angry and kicking back on the couch to relax with a glass (or however many) of wine before starting over the next day. But for me, and anyone who knows me, it's the survival trek of Nothingness. Nothing to speak for other than getting through one single day / week / month / year / ordeal. My survival trek of Nothingness these past two years has certainly yielded more than nothing: for one thing, here I am; for another, my kids are still amazingly, against all odds, the happiest psychos on earth; for yet another, this family has stepped through piles of life's manure and stands at the edge of the pasture smelling like an exhausted little rose. But as for the little intense ballerina who's faithfully practiced her moves and looks with ire and distrust at her fellow dancers, the survival trek of Nothingness has resulted in only frustration and greater stage fright. Her memories of the moves is rusty, her distrust of the audience is greater, and she's thinking that teenager comment was all too liberal.

There are so many things I've let pass by, and have failed to capture. My All or Nothing approach prevails here as well. Where there is Nothing, there is All, and this includes the expectations and consequences I place on myself. The expectations are All, and the sub-par results are classified as Nothing: I berate myself regularly for so many (all?) aspects of life: I can't keep up with the chaotic demands of monthly financial obligations, not because of a day-to-day lack of money (yet), but because of the sheer madness of it all - who can keep track?; I can't maintain a healthy weight; I can't meet goals of time spent with the kids; I can't learn the intricacies of the politics of my new job; I can't find the supposed "work-life balance" I keep hearing about; I can't not sweat the small stuff; I can't meet a goal to write down what happens in my life, to write down what happens to anything, to write at all. This last bit is evidenced here, and when I sit down to try, or even think about briefly considering trying, this fact beats down on me like those cheap stage lamp bulbs that felt so overwhelmingly bright to the ballerina with the fuzzy tail three decades ago. She looks back at me in the mirror with an unsure glance, wondering when she's going to be a teenager, when she'll have the bravery to risk humiliation again. I'd like to reach over to wipe the black whiskers off her face, but I can't do that either.

So, I'll start here:

Me: I'm tired / overweight / overworked / overstressed. I never have time to write. This is not good.

John: His mangled head has, believe it or not, healed. The cement truck's insurance has agreed to pay off the bills and settle for damages. This is good / great / needed / a relief.

Bryce: One day soon, he will wake up and run downstairs screaming that a hand-held video game has permanently melded to his palms. This is inevitable / consistent / bringing him one step closer to being the creator of our future robot overlords.

Quinn: He is, inexplicably, the most awesome six-year-old I've ever known, and at once, somehow, the combined epitome of Will Farrell and Dr. Dootlittle. I can't wait to say more about him. Maybe in two more days / months / years, huh?

waterfall kiss


saddle pillow

Bike and Basket

mannequin with hard hat II

mannequin with hard hat

While on a walk

I just want things to work: The Cement Truck Episode

This week I found myself in the most unpopulated region of New Mexico that I believe to exist. I was only there for work, as entertaining as it all was. The universe likes to throw these little bonuses my way, you know. Some people travel for work and they go to places like London, Prague, or Sydney (you know who you are), but when I travel for work, I end up in some kind of movie scene - a depressing one, with no sound track and lots of grainy subculture. Thanks, universe! This time John suggested I bring the Garmin along, having heard several times how many ridiculous miles I end up traveling by car, inevitably getting lost and hearing banjo music, wondering if this ill-fated business trip will be my last, and finally heaving a sigh of relief upon pulling up to whatever the highest priced hotel is in the region - a Holiday Inn Express, or a Hampton Inn, if I'm lucky. The team I was traveling with this week couldn't stop endorsing the Garmin, and wanted to know all the details: price, reliability, setup information. "I don't know," I said, eyes darting back and forth between the desert shrubs out the window and the lone pink line on the Garmin screen that stretched for miles, confirming that what my eyes saw was accurate (e.g., there is nothing around here so you better hope nothing bad happens to this rental car), "John takes care of that. I just want the thing to work. I don't want to have to 'download' anything or 'set up' anything or 'read' any 'manuals'. It just needs to do what I need it to do."

People who know me well are all too familiar with this personality trait. It spills over into every aspect of my life, explaining quirks like my near refusal to take medication of any kind. It's like it's just too much trouble for me. Who wants to go to the cabinet, open a child-proof container (after checking the expiration date of course, which takes at least another 30 seconds), walk all the way to the kitchen, get a glass of water, swallow disgusting pills, and then, THEN, after all that, wait and see if relief comes? Nah. I'll just suffer while my body self-regulates. The same applies to buying any new technology. It never works properly the first time, and I don't have the patience to work through it, read and re-read manuals, call help desks, re-boot seven times. I'd rather keep using my typewriter, thanks anyway.

You know what has the potential to change OR confirm your perspective on lots of things? A phone call like this, from your non-chalant spouse:

You: This is Kristen.
Him: Hey, it's me. I was just in a pretty bad wreck. This ASSHOLE cut me off, and then a cement truck rear-ended me on the highway? And, anyway, I'm not sure how bad it is, but I think my head is cut because I know blood is gushing everywhere. And the paramedics just walked up, so I better go. I'll call you when I find out which hospital they're taking me to. *click*
You, at work with no working car, because your new economical vehicle was recently recalled for a fuel pump issue, and although it's been "fixed" would not actually start this morning, leading to an hour of frustrated sighing and stomping while you griped at your husband for convincing you to buy two identical vehicles and griped at your kids for not hurrying up because you had lots of meetings set up all day long at work, COME ON!: .... ..... ..... OHMYGOD! A cement truck?! I don't have a way to get to a hospital! Hello? Hello??

After getting another call from the paramedics telling me where they were taking John, and subsequently borrowing a friend's car and making my way to the ER, I watched as the system broke down before my eyes. "This is really bad," a doctor said, after looking at John's head, or the bloody mass that was his head at the time, having soaked through mounds of gauze and other cotton items, like sheets and his shirt and even his jeans, and had made its way to the floor of the ER and was eliciting lots of shocked comments from the ER staff despite their assumed experience with this type of thing, "he'll need a CAT scan." And then I waited, with John's nervous mother hovering over us and summoning her priest and nun friends to come pray with us, which only made the whole thing more nerve-wracking and surreal, since I wasn't thinking I should actually be in a near death situation right about then. John was conscious and looking around the whole time, and when the sheriff came in to discuss the wreck, re-told it with all the detail anyone without a scalped and spurting head would be able to do, including street names, the color of the truck, the color and actions of the SUV that caused the entire thing.

The ER botched the whole thing. I had to ask multiple times what they were going to do about his pain, when they were going to attempt putting his scalp back together, what in god's name was going on. When they finally started, they didn't communicate anything to me, and ended up stapling the top of his head back together with 30 frankenstein-like staples. When they were finished, even though I was muddling through the fog of shock and emotional fatigue, I was cognizant enough to know he looked horrible, and I asked the ER doctor about scarring, what needs to be done about this? He looked at me, looked at John's grotesque, pathetically-patched wound still literally actively dripping between the staples only moments before applied by an intern who had never done stapling before and was coached by a Physician's Assistant who appeared to be 25 years old and said, "we'll just have to watch it." They sent him out of the ER on foot, with no bandage over his massive head wound, with blood and tissue still clinging to his hair from the original 60-mph impact of the cement truck on his tiny, supposedly safe vehicle that thankfully did not contain our five- and seven-year-olds only because they'd been dropped off at school moments before.

The next day we drove to the wrecking yard where the car was towed, and although the paramedics, fire fighters, and police had been unable to determine what caused John's head to be so horribly cut, I saw immediately that his driver's seat was broken, and had sent him flying back to hit the headrest over the back seat - where Quinn would have been crushed from two directions had he been in the car. The lawyer tells us fighting something like this is a costly exercise in futility, that car companies hedge their bets on exactly this situation -- the driver didn't die, no passengers were in the vehicle, the cement truck company's insurance will be liable for damages, and the car company responsible for a defective driver's seat (and no deployment of ANY of the multiple air bags in the car, a minor detail I haven't yet mentioned) will continue manufacturing this car in exactly the same fashion, assuming that any "fix" to these defects will cost them more than defending the occasional cases like John's, or even the even less occasional cases involving death or persistent vegetative states brought on by similar accidents. We are okay - we now have a bigger, safer car that the kids will be in anytime we're taking them anywhere. John, by some miracle, walked away from the accident with "only" a terrible V-shaped scar and associated lumps traversing the top of his head - but he did walk away. The kids thankfully weren't in the (what I now consider to be) death trap of the car we bought on the pretense of economy, safety, and reliability. And we will have the expenses of this ordeal covered in one way or another by the cement truck company ultimately responsible for the damages. Of course, the unsolved problem for us now is that we still have another identical car in this household, that neither of us trusts. Note to self: don't buy two identical cars EVER. AGAIN.

I went on my work trip this week only after making sure John's energy levels were back to normal and his pain was minimal. During one of the trips with the rest of the team banished to the middle of nowhere, the Garmin got confused. "Recalculating," she said, in her consistently patient and calm voice (and therefore a voice not approaching human to my ears) . My team laughed, entertained by the limitations of the technology. I snatched it from the dashboard and pulled the power source out of the car's cigarette lighter. "This is the part I don't like about the Garmin," I said, voice tight. "It doesn't always work the way it's supposed to." Nothing ever does.

MRI'm not looking forward to it.

In the past several months, there have been numerous occasions where Quinn has been walking along and has literally run smack into something -- a wall, a door, once a parked car.  Almost always this happens on the right side of his body, the same side that has been quirky since birth.  All of his birth marks are on the right side of his body; when he was a few months old, I specifically asked the pediatrician about the shape of his head because it was almost as if his skull were slightly askew inside his skin - favoring the right side.  None of these quirks has ever turned out to be anything of import, even though the birth marks, a large reddish-purple one on the bottom of his right foot and a larger and lighter tan one directly above his right knee, never faded as the doctors predicted.  They are examined at every appointment and shrugged off with no concerns.  My early worries about his skull were explained away years ago, and now I see a perfectly symmetrical skull when I look at Quinn's head, so apparently the mild asymmetry did work itself out as I was told it would.  

Since Quinn has always had more falls than Bryce due to his less cautious nature, it took John and me a while to realize how often he was running into things.  We were concerned, but he never hurt himself beyond a bruise or a scrape, and we went on with our lives as normal.  A few months ago, though, the word "headache" strangely entered his vocabulary.  We aren't headache people, so he wasn't picking it up from us, and we started noticing separately that he brought it up at unpredictable times with no common denominator -- bright lights, loud noises, not wanting to do homework, etc.  Finally we compared notes and determined that we'd both heard these mysterious headache complaints enough times that between that and the clumsiness, we should at least take a trip to the doctor and talk about how to start ruling out the scary options, like latent tumors that provide only mild symptoms but abruptly and life-threateningly rupture before anyone realizes something is wrong.  

We went to the pediatrician over a week ago, and I assumed we'd be laughed out of the office and told to find something better to do with our time than make up illnesses in a perfectly healthy and happy kid.  That's not what happened, which means our doctor takes us seriously and also wants to rule out anything horrible.  But, she didn't have an easy answer for us, either, which is disconcerting while we wait to have the various procedures and tests scheduled to rule out those unlikely but horrible items.  

He had his eyes checked first, with all of us, including the eye doctor, assuming his eyes would be the culprit.  But, no.  They did every possible test they could do with a five-year-old's eyes.  Depth perception?  Perfect.  Vision?  Perfect.  Peripheral vision?  Perfect.  Eye structure?   Perfect.  The worst part of the eye appointment had nothing to do with the results of any of the tests; it was Quinn's repeated and impassioned sob-screaming of "I HATE THIS PLACE!!" after the funny nurse and doctor he trusted held him down and put stinging dilating drops in his eyes.  The staff was pretty unsympathetic, too, and in fact seemed to think that Quinn's hatred of the dilating process was strange and annoying -- something I found strange and annoying considering we were at a pediatric opthamologist's office, a place where I would assume screaming children would not be a novelty.  

The next appointment is for an MRI, something both the pediatrician and the eye doctor (while ignoring Quinn's crying) thought would be a good idea, even though neither of them think we'll find anything horrible or even mildly scary.  Even the very small chance anything is there is apparently enough reason to rule it out, though.  So, the radiology department called me a few days ago to tell me how to prepare for the experience:  "We usually have to sedate young kids because they have to stay still for 40 minutes and he'll have to have an IV for the contrast.  So, is he a mature 5?"  I stopped my hysterical laughter for long enough to tell her no, only to realize the eye appointment was a cake walk compared to even five minutes of what we're going to go through at the MRI.  "He can't eat for four hours leading up to the MRI.  When he gets there, first we'll numb the spot in his arm where the IV will go, then we'll put the IV in and wait for him to fall asleep.  Sometimes they're really cranky for 30 minutes before they fall asleep."  Ohdeargodinheaven.  Sometimes other kids are cranky.  Other kids who like candy and can learn patience and have fear of authority figures and can go five minutes without a snack and not spontaneously combust.  She told me it was my choice whether or not I wanted to be in the MRI room with him, and that she is required to be there to monitor him the whole time.  I don't think she realizes who she's dealing with.  It's not a padded cell he'll be in while he goes through the "cranky stage," after not eating since dinner the night before, right?  Okay, then I think you'll want me in the room with you to help sift through the carnage that was once your MRI waiting room.  

Eating it too.

I'm thankful for my job and everything; really, I am.  I lived through a layoff at age 25 during a pregnancy with a one-year-old on my hip and two dysfunctional teenagers under my roof and a spouse with a fledgling business.  I've worked for some terrible companies that sucked the life out of everyone who made the mistake of walking through the doors day after day, and for some whose culture I could only sum up by combining the worst parts of junior high with the best parts of a Russian gulag.  What I have now is heaven on earth in every way imaginable when it comes to jobs and careers in this part of the country.  I know this, and even after almost three fairly stable years -- a lifetime given my work history -- I remember it consciously every day.  

And that's all fine and good, it's GREAT, actually, if I'm only talking about my career, my job, "success" as defined and recognized by the broader culture.  But if my self has to come into the equation, whoever I am without broader culture's expectations and confinements, all I know is that I feel torn, and maybe a little trapped.  I hate the phrase, "I want my cake and eat it too" because I've always cringed in disgust at its grammatical structure, but it's actually how I feel about mostly everything these days.  I want to conquer every metaphorical hill I approach at work, but still have time to rest under the metaphorical stars and sip metaphorical wine and listen to my kids metaphorically play peacefully (since they would only ever play peacefully in metaphor).  I've made certain choices that can only be sustained by my continuing to work. In an ironic and vicious cycle, there is a way in which I actually DO "have my cake and eat it too."  My kids attend the school they do only because my job affords us the ability to pay for it; we live in a large, comfortable house with nice amenities and we live (to say the least) a life of luxury when compared to most of the world's population exactly because of this job, the thing that I say makes me feel torn and trapped.  

None of us are sick or hurt or in trouble; there are no chronic diseases or unmanageable behavioral crises or stalkers or bullies or fatal allergies to deal with.  Things are taken care of - big and small, important and unimportant, all of the official, bona fide priorities end up addressed and checked off the list.  Bills are paid, deadlines are met by the skin of their teeth, gifts are bought for birthdays, social functions are attended, teaching moments are seized, life lessons are taught, tantrums are endured, relatives are called, paychecks are earned.  But there is a sense of it all being mildly frustrating, even the best times, the times when everyone is fed and clothed and cooperative and at least feigning contentment.  I'm not only talking about frustration stemming from the adults:  Bryce and Quinn feel it too.  Quinn's premature teenage eye-rolling and Bryce's passive-aggressive maneuvers of resistance to school and homework and Tae Kwon Do breathe a whole new life into the finger-tapping and sighing and clock watching and complaining that formerly characterized the malaise around here, mild though it may be.  Sure, nobody's walking around with suicide notes taped to their foreheads, but we aren't playing ring around the rosy, either.  The insanity has died down from a few years ago; there are no longer one or two uncontrollable 25-pound toddler-sized demons shrieking at us because we dared to put the wrong style of noodle on the dinner plate.  We have more peace now, which is what I wanted.  We have the money we needed to have both kids at the school I feel is right for them, also what I wanted.  We have a dog who is obedient and calm; again, what I wanted.  There is simply a blanket of rushed and irritated blah over all of us.  Quinn verbalizes this perfectly on a fairly regular basis these days, most recently when a relative brought birthday gifts over for Bryce and we were all going through the social motions of pre-meal and pre-presents conversation.  Quinn stood up and with a bored expression, announced, "I think it's time for Bryce to open his presents, blah blah blah."  I totally got that.  

Maybe what makes all of this a little tragic, if tragic weren't too strong a word for the more mild irritation and fatigue I truly have about it all, is the fact that I know if I didn't have the demands of my job, and had the ability to be at home always, to have "free choice" like Quinn's kindergarten morning time offers him, if I could "have my cake and eat it too" in what I guess is the traditional sense, I know enough about myself that I can honestly say I'd be complaining about all this cake, there's too much cake, who said I wanted so much CAKE, anyway?!  Get the cake out of my face!  So here I am, back at the beginning - or is it the middle? - of my vicious cycle.  Ho hum, I have to go to work tomorrow.  What they say about all work and no play really is true, blah blah blah.  

Yin / Yang

Over a recent weekend, my mom and I loaded the kids up and drove five hours to see my brother one last time while he still resides in a nearby region. The kids are much easier to travel with now than they were a few years ago, but that is still a significantly relative statement. I went from cursing myself for allowing the kids to drown out reality with movie after movie to cursing the kids for not having the mature, appreciative perspective that kids never have when their days still stretch before them with so much ease that they actually have the edifying option of simply looking out the car window, or taking a nap. Once at our destination, there were relatives to visit and minor family crises to discuss and a goodbye party to administer for my brother, which made the kids' completely normal, age-appropriate bickering and mischief slightly more annoying than usual. 

During one of the several intra-city car trips to accomplish one thing or another while taking the occasional deep breath after telling the kids dozens of times to quiet down and not cause a heart attack or fatal car accident, we were waiting at red light in a busy intersection where a downtrodden, frail old man leaned against the concrete bridge railing holding a cardboard sign scratched with fading black marker, HUNGRY NEED WORK. For the first time in that 20-minute ride, both kids were actually quiet, but I thought it was just a coincidence until, right as the light turned green and my mom drove through, Bryce's intense but (for once) quiet voice came from the back seat, "are we gonna pay that guy?" The guilty silence choked us while we drove through the now green light, I think both of us hoping we wouldn't have to answer his legitimate question.  He asked again, this time more intensely:  "Hey.  Are we gonna PAY that guy?"  I spoke up finally, "Well, Bryce...we probably should have.  I wish I would have thought of it before we went through the light."  I hoped that would be the end of it so I could go back to thinking about whatever superficial things were on my mind.  Now he became adamant, and a little confused as to why this was even up for discussion:  "He doesn't have a job!  He can't even buy FOOD.  We need to go BACK and PAY HIM SOME MONEY!"  

Ummm, yeah.  Option 1:  Tell the ethically observant six-year-old that we'd rather hurry up and order our pasta at the restaurant we were approaching and hope he wouldn't lose that apparently natural sense of human obligation and responsibility.  Option 2:  Turn the car around and pay that guy some money.  We chose option 2 after flogging ourselves for debating over it, which meant we had to turn around and get back on the highway, then turn around again.  When we approached him and handed him the money, my mom told him the six-year-old had insisted we come back to him.  "God bless you," he said as he gathered the few belongings he had with him.  He crossed the street in front of us and waved to the back seat where Bryce was watching intently.  Then he looked down at the $20 bill, the first time he'd checked the amount since receiving it, and his expression of disbelief and gratitude was obvious from a block away as he mouthed "wow" on his way across the street.  He turned back and waved a second time to the kids.  Bryce was quiet the rest of the way to our dinner, and when we saw my brother that night and told him the story, he told Bryce it was good karma, that one day it would come back to him when he needed help or money or food.  We got in the car a few hours later to head home and Bryce asked, "Mom, are you happy that we helped that guy?"   I told him yes, and that I appreciated him reminding us to pay more attention to what is around us, that sometimes adults forget these things.  "Yeah, and you're one of 'em," he laughed.  

We've spent countless hours this summer pulling our hair out over Bryce and his antics.  Right now he is in a phase I could only label as "bullying" when confronted with anything not meeting his exact preferences.  Quinn, of course, receives the brunt of this problem, but he's also not as innocent as he appears in these cases, so if we're not gritting our teeth over Bryce's bossy, impatient, aggressive stances, we're wailing over Quinn's latest manipulative regression attempt to get his way or draw Bryce into a fight.  Bryce's birthday is this week, and despite all the warning signs flashing in our faces, we attempted to have a "fun" and "family oriented" weekend complete with Friday night at the movies and Saturday last minute birthday party errands (Who wouldn't want to pick out one's own party balloons and snacks?  Bryce, that's who.).  Within five minutes of every attempt, one of us was rolling their eyes, sighing, or saying aloud, "I AM SO SICK OF THIS.  JUST STOP IT!"  

At Bryce's birthday party today, one of our neighbors' kids let out a wail about something and I caught his mother's eye and said, "so it's not just us."  She let it fly after that:  "What is it?  Summer?  What is the problem?  They're constantly fighting and yelling and hitting."  We were talking in unison by now, "And the CAR, that is THE ABSOLUTE WORST!  It's like they know they can get away with something back there!"  

They start school tomorrow and frankly we're just hoping the teachers are more disciplined than we are.  Our disciplinary tactics (questionable already) have fallen by the wayside over the past several weeks.  Even our normally poor attempt at a regular routine has completely failed, resulting in kids who fall to the floor and writhe anytime they're required to get dressed and walk out the door and away from a blaring television.  As John suggested tonight, "we either need to go back to an agrarian society where the kids actually have to work the fields all summer, or we need to go to year-round school."  

Economies of Scale

I'm told that more is better, that repetition brings familiarity and comfort. At work, this philosophy dictates behavior that used to puzzle, then annoyed, and now appalls and traps me in others' passive aggressive control cycles. Okay, we understand, you only want to travel minimally since you have young children and are covering the majority of the requirements around here. Um, how about a week-long trip every three weeks for five months when others are staying home all summer? That sounds minimal, right? And it'll be more *efficient* that way, what with the way we depend solely on 10% of our department to do 90% of the work. Well, that's work; I should be used to it already. Hypocrisy, exploitation, capitalism, rah rah.*

But it's not just work: in other aspects of life, "doubling up" doesn't seem to work well for me either. In some crazy scheme we dreamed up within hours of reading up on Consumer Reports' latest opinions, we ended up buying TWO brand new cars yesterday with the justification of --wait for it -- SAVING money. Oh, it made perfect sense, and I can still show on paper how it all works out beautifully. Simply trade in an SUV with poor gas mileage for two cheap, compact, high gas mileage vehicles. Plan to sell additional 10-year-old Honda with 150,000 miles for an extra boost on already legitimately small car loans and be proud to pay off said loan or loans early between old car cash and new-found monthly cash resulting from extra miles per gallon on now doubled up efficient cars; save environment, save money, be happy. But the phone call to the insurance company revealed the nasty truths about all these lovely efficiencies: 1.) brand new cars, no matter how inexpensive and unexciting, are damned expensive to insure, 2.) any attempt at fiscal responsibility involving debt movement from high interest credit cards to no or low interest cards results in doubled car insurance rates within a year (consider yourself warned), 3.) door ding claims, initiated by self-centered leaches or not, are just as bad as running a light and slamming into someone else's car, and said door ding claim will be paid for 20 times over, by YOU, while you wail and gnash your teeth over the fact that you didn't screech away from the leaches with your offending door-slinging four-year-old in tow one fateful day last October.

And let's talk about the philosophy of more kids in a room entertaining each other and thus taking pressure and demands off of whatever responsible adult happens to be in charge. There are no efficiencies here, either -- at least not in this barely functional house. John took Bryce's cue today and invited the neighbor kids over to watch Star Wars and spread tiny Legos through the carpet upstairs while he worked to keep his head from exploding while spending untold hours on the phone with various Specialists, Agents, and Representatives discussing the number of different ways we were being royally screwed by no matter which insurance company we may end up begrudgingly choosing (I'm talking to YOU, Geico, O Creator of Nonexistent At Fault Claims and Yet The Cheapest (Relative to Ripoffs) Option). He e-mailed me (since he couldn't call me, as I was in my boss' office being told about the additional responsibilities that had been chosen for me this year, including an extra week-long trip to yet another middle-of-nowhere, vegetarians-not-welcome town) and said the kids all seemed to be getting along until he heard squealing and, while on the phone with one of the Agents or Specialists, walked to the stairs and saw Quinn naked, and the neighbor kid halfway there. Quinn, of course, was sent to his room, and the neighbors went home. I brought it up a few times tonight (after I arrived home two hours late thanks to my own attempt --stupidly begun in my office as opposed to on my cell phone in my car -- to get a straight answer from an insurance company, any insurance company for the LOVE OF GOD), and Quinn wouldn't address it. At bedtime, when no one else was around, I mentioned informatively to Quinn (since I was just positive he only needed a reminder about this very simple thing) that we need to keep our clothes on in public or when friends are over, and he said, "well, they weren't playing with me. They were only playing with Bryce. I was trying to make them laugh." I told him Bryce said they all played together, and he broke into genuine, awful, real tears of remorse and embarrassment and pain, and covered his face with his recently named blanket, Nixie: "They're [sob] LYING. They didn't [sob] play with me. They chased me. And not for [sob] fun. They were TRICKING me. That's why I don't want to be their friends!!!" I barely made it out of his room before I broke down. I don't know what to do for this kid, this hilarious, sensitive, crazy kid with obviously low self esteem at age five. I can't type any more about this. It's too much to think about, too much to handle, with too many implications for me to address without my innards pushing violently outside my skin.

Economies of scale, not so much. Economies of hell, more like.

*Credit to John: Statement made during our conjecture about how the car dealership would screw us (prior to our anticipation of how the insurance companies would screw us).

High Note

"I was focused today," Quinn proudly told me as he walked out of the Tae Kwon Do studio. I was late, as I usually am on the days I attempt to make it to his classes. Bryce's hour-long class was to follow, and so I scooped Quinn's hand into mine and ushered him to the car so we could have some one-on-one time. On the way home he volunteered information about his experience at his school's summer day camp today: "At first I was pouting in a corner when dad dropped me off, saying, 'I don't want to be here' but then I started doing stuff, and then did more stuff, and BAM! it was over, and I was glad I went!"

"Wow, that's the best possible way the day could have gone!" I said, enthusiastically enough to be genuine, but not so enthusiastic that he would react with the embarrassed, self-conscious, teenager-like pouting he wields like a weapon. "I know," he said cheerily, looking out the window from his booster seat, the milestone seat that the kids begged me for while I waited for their small frames to hit 40 pounds for so much longer than they felt was reasonable. I non-chalantly broached the subject of his classmates; the week before, in fact what became the very reason for his pouting in the corner this morning, some of his classmates engaged in playground pettiness and I wanted to address it without upsetting him. "Mason was there, and Olivia was there, and Olivia found an egg with a chick inside, and I painted a shark, and I told Mrs. S that I didn't want to do the math because it would pass all my time, and she said, 'that's for tomorrow' which was really funny!" He didn't mention the playground girls that had knocked over his sand castle the week before, so I could only assume they're not in his class this week.

When we got home I suggested we walk the dog until John got home, and Quinn wanted to ride his bike, the activity that can practically guarantee red-faced grunting and frustration within a maximum of four minutes. I didn't let on that I thought it would be a problem, and he maneuvered it outside and managed to ride several wobbly feet, several wobbly times. It was hot, and we were tired, so we ended on a high note and came inside, where he promptly told Truman to sit, and Truman did. "WOW, Quinn," I said, "you really ARE having a good day!" He was beaming, and therefore happily took a bath and picked out stories, which he read to me, pronouncing Hound "Holgund" and Something "Smurgen" only repeating patiently when when I offered the correct pronunciations, and at the end, saying triumphantly, "Wow, I'm really good at this!" From a kid who has recently told us we don't like him, we like Bryce better, and he's not good at anything, this was a huge relief to hear. I came home intending to spend time with him and carve out a conversation about his recent negative self-sabotaging statements because it's become enough of a concern that I didn't want to ignore it any longer. But look at that, he found his groove, at least for today.

During our walk / attempt at a bike ride, I did actually touch on the subject I'd been thining about, and I told him I loved him because of who HE was, and nobody else was like him. I brought it back up before his bath while he sat next to me as I ate a quick dinner, and he finished my thought for me, saying, "and you also love Bryce for who HE is, and I love YOU for anybody else!" which was his Quinnglish version of "I love you for who YOU are because you're not like anybody else," his mistaken vocabulary summing up one of the very things I do love about that kid -- the way he sees and says the world. He gets it. He's getting it. He's getting math, and reading, and art, and friendship, and life, despite my neverending concerns. In fact, his statements, incorrectly worded or not, so often contain profound layers. I mean, is this not what I'll be saying when I'm 80? "At first I stood in a corner and said, 'I don't want to be here' and then I started doing stuff and BAM! it was over, and I was glad I went."

Look. Someone *invented* him.

Quinn's feisty nature brings him to the brink of trouble more often than I'd like to think about, and he's only five. I realize this spells disaster for me and my preference for not hyperventilating and having nervous breakdowns on a daily basis as he ages. He is such a joker that most times, people think his shenanigans are riotously funny, and I'm left looking like the grouchy, over-tired suburban parent who can't see past her own manicured nails or tomorrow's lunch appointment and will look up in 15 years and realize she missed all sorts of laughs at her brilliant, hilarious son who no longer cares anything for making her laugh. But I do think the kid is funny, and most of the time I'm only NOT laughing because as a parent I know that laughing at certain behaviors is not going to turn out well for either of us. Example: Last week at my mom's, he was snacking on chips and queso and decided, in his spontaneous and unpredictable way, that he needed to eat them outside on the patio between the 30-second water gun fights he and Bryce were having (30 seconds because they went outside, stood directly facing one another and squirted all the contents of their 3-ounce-capacity miniature plastic water pistols onto each other's shirts, then immediately slammed through the door yelling "I NEED A REEEE-FILL!"). I absent-mindedly helped him carry the bowl of chips because I was also carrying on at least two other conversations with the adults present at the time, and I wrongly assumed my duties were fulfilled and came back inside to sit down. A few minutes later, Quinn swung open the back door and, wide-stanced and furious, yelled confidently, "WHAT is the meaning of NO QUESO out here?!" See? Hilarious, and yet not sanctioned by the Parental Laughter Association.

Tae Kwon Do has been a different experience for Quinn. While most of his borderline inappropriate behavior has resulted in laughter (even if hidden, like it is from me) from whatever audience he has -- grocery store shoppers, movie watchers, innocent bystanders -- the Tae Kwon Do instructors are not fond of Quinn's loud jokes during demonstrations, and his cub-like wrestling with his brother when he is supposed to be listening and showing respect. Because of his age, they are patient in their repeated explanations of the rules, but Quinn has no fear. When he is occupied with a task or learning something he is capable of doing, he is the model student. But when left to his own devices while waiting his turn to spar or practice with the instructor, he reverts to his comfort zone, which is a zone filled with floor writhing and unpredictable, loudly stated phrases about bodily functions. After tonight's class, John was ready to Stop The Madness Already and pull him out of the classes while Bryce continues to work towards his next belt. There is some part of me that wants to give in to what feels like peer pressure from the other parents and go along with with this, but a much bigger part of me completely disagrees and thinks we'd be sending the wrong message to him, that he doesn't fit in, is too challenging to teach, that we'll give up on him just when he's ready to be reached, and a whole host of other long-term self-destructive beliefs.

At dinner tonight after the lecture about his unacceptable behavior in class (during which time he tried to justify his behavior by telling me matter-of-factly, "Look. Someone invented me. God. And that's why God controls me!"), I asked him if he wanted his black belt. He said yes, and I asked him why. To be like the instructor, he said, to be able to do the things he does. We talked about what it takes to accomplish that, and then he said, "you KNOW I'm not good at Tae Kwon Do!" This is Quinn's latest attention tactic: self-criticism or victimization. When he's angry, he tells us that nobody in this family likes him. When he's told to take his toys upstairs or get the dirty clothes off of his floor, he says, "I'm just your SLAVE! You're always telling me what to do!" I try to ignore and deflect these comments most of the time, but tonight I said, "you're so great at Tae Kwon Do that you passed onto the next class, and now you have to pay attention when you're in there or else the instructor won't be allowed to give you your next belt." I braced myself for more self pity from him, but he just said, "okay." Later when he was telling John that he wanted to get his black belt, I said, "but what are you going to do so that you get it?" and he said, "focus." "Do you know what focus means?" asked John. "Yes," Quinn said impatiently, "it means to FO-cus on what the instructor does [pronounced 'dues'], that's what!" and he rolled his eyes and turned away, disgusted. It's a good thing he did, because we were silently laughing.

Inevitable: Back to the Pack (of weirdos)

Two years ago, Chaos reigned supreme at our house. Today it's more like mild irritation and a feeling of succumbing to the Inevitable - whether that's the kids' addiction to inappropriate Cartoon Network programming, the personification of their love-hate relationship in the form of what I would call bi-polar play ("now you pretend to hit me" "okay" "OW! WHY did you do that?! MOM!! He hit me for NO reason!"), the feeling that we're always running late, or the fact that everything we own will at some point or another be damaged or broken by our kids. So, not so much chaos as simple and utter surrender to the forces at work. Oh, we tried to fight it off for a long time. Tried so hard, in fact, that we eliminated as many sources of the chaos as we legally could.

As it turns out, surrendering to it has enabled us to let one of those suspected sources right back into the fold: Truman. My mom fostered him for two years and was at her wits' end for the 47th time when I realized that 1.) the kids are two years older, 2.) Chaos no longer rules our house since we've given in to the Inevitable, and 3.) we're fat and need exercise as much as the high maintenance, formerly assumed to be epileptic, and possibly still schizophrenic dog does. Since his return, John and I have walked Truman daily and have slept with Cesar Millan's book on the bedside table, letting its calm, assertive, magical powers seep into the house and form peaceful dream bubbles over Truman's head while he lies perfectly still on the floor until the morning alarm goes off. We can hardly believe that each interaction with him is so quiet and brief: a look or a stance achieves what yelling never did, once his ridiculous energy level has been at least partially drained on a (very) brisk walk through the neighborhood.

The issue at hand now is the kids' desire to have a "normal" dog. Although we've accomplished what we suspected we could with the exercise and focus on calm discipline, Truman doesn't seem to know how to play. Bryce especially has been asking for a dog for over a year, and has been waiting for the chance to take his dog in the back yard and throw a frisbee or ball only to have the dog return it on Bryce's command. Now that I think about it, this is actually the type of interaction Bryce would KILL to have with any living creature. Obey my commands, minions. But despite the cooperation and peace Truman has shown, he apparently isn't the fetch "type," and only watches Bryce with curiosity as he repeats Truman's name, throws various brightly colored and insanely expensive rubber toys frantically about the yard with the most sincerely excited face and voice Truman could ever hope for, if dogs hoped for facial expressions or sincerity.

Tonight during my complaints about the pet toy industry's squeeze on America (why the high prices on doggie toys? WHY?) and Truman's obsession ONLY with rawhide bones, which will lead inevitably to his aggressive protection of said rawhide bones and also possibly digestive problems -- which I can do without from an 80-pound animal that is unable to defecate into a toilet -- John had the ingenious notion to put a rawhide nub left over from Truman's lively chew session last night inside one of the expensive rubber toys. We threw it across the yard and Truman bounded after it, but despite the fact that we know Truman is familiar with the phrase "bring it to me," he stood over it and pawed at it, sniffed at it, rolled it around with a mix of curiosity and frustration, but never picked it up in an effort to officially retrieve it. John and I thought we'd be really smart and "show" him how to fetch, because apparently we think the dog is a moron, but this only resulted in Truman following John back and forth between me and the spot in the yard where the trapped rawhide kept landing. Bryce, who was supposed to be in bed, peeked out the back door and asked what we were doing. "Teaching Truman how to get the ball," we said, like idiots. "Oh," said Bryce, in the overly mixed innocent/confident tone of voice he uses when he thinks we don't realize anything is odd about him being outside his bed, outside the house, an hour after his bedtime: "Can I help?" He joined us, in his underwear (now the pajamas of choice), jumping excitedly and saying, "get it Truman, get it!" while he twirled Noir's tattered, two-and-a-half-foot long tail through the air during the five remaining minutes it took for John and I to realize that if we were having to give the dog treats to chase after the bone he wanted, we were actually to the point where we were looking for Chaos.

We put an end to that RIGHT THEN, people. We are just fine with the Inevitable over here on the Fringe. Apparently the Inevitable now also includes quirky, peacefully stubborn dogs and mildly disappointed underwear-clad kids holding expensively obsolete rubber squeak toys.

Fewer Volcanoes

I've been feeling like I need to explain or summarize everything that has happened over the past year or so. Like most perceived pressure and sense of obligation in my life, this is purely self-inflicted, and it has resulted in a longer absence than I probably intended. After the move to our new house last year, as life and routines changed and unexpected surgeries loomed and unknown levels of strife surfaced, I found myself unable to write. At first this happened consciously, but it gradually became buried under layers of ash and hardened lava from the numerous volcanoes erupting around me until at one point it had been buried so thoroughly that I stared into space and numbly assumed my chance to write and my ability to write had passed me by. I told myself in my coping attempt that I was experiencing everything rather than recording it, that I'd have to be thankful enough for the experience to make up for the desire to re-live it at a later date. Then I'd blink, turn my head, see another volcano blast, and run for cover. I didn't have time or the emotional wherewithal to focus on writing or not writing, and now the months and milestones have passed unrecorded, and that in and of itself will ultimately serve as a kind of anti-record, non-reminder, shadow.

I've accepted this, or I thought I had. But in re-reading posts from the time I was writing and recording these experiences regularly, I've realized that my return to attempting to write hasn't felt smooth or natural. I know part of it is lack of habit and routine, part of it is recovery from a year of physical and emotional exhaustion, and part of it is that -- and this is the most profound realization I've had, as obvious as it should have been -- our life has really, substantially changed since we had experiences like the ones I wrote about two years ago. I look back on some of the posts about the kids and it all comes rushing back to me: the shrieking, the chaos, the high, high blood pressure, the never-ending guilt and frustration. Wow! Either all of it ultimately pushed me over the edge, or it was merely boot camp preparing me for surviving the challenges that were to come. Either way, our days don't much resemble the seventh circle of hell anymore, and I say that with complete love for my children at all ages they've seen, but also with complete seriousness. We were in hell! Don't get me wrong. Bryce is as intense and quirky as ever, and Quinn has continued to learn from the master. Things certainly aren't what I would call "quiet" or "dignified" around here. Although we have finally entered the stage where they are on the same eating and sleeping schedule, can communicate effectively with one another by using the English language, and enjoy each other's company, this also means that they are like a traveling circus, cracking each other up and performing loud, obnoxious tricks everywhere they go. But this is so much better than the torture they were putting us through a few years ago. And I missed writing about that transition! It's happened, it's done, and here we are. Now I've got to move on to discussing Kid Issues exclusively; Toddler Fiasco Stage is over. I have never written exclusively about Kid Issues, and because some Kid Issues bleed strangely into Family Issues and Adult Issues without necessarily clean and stable lines between each, I'm still feeling my way through it.

I've been at the computer for a little over an hour, and in that time Bryce has come into my office to admit that he didn't brush his teeth ("do you think I should?" "I would if I were you," I said, like a true pick-your-battles parent), and to tell me softly for the third time about his cobra/vampire nightmare from two nights ago. Two years ago the interactions would have been entirely different, and would have ended with me writing something about my ongoing parental failures and the inevitable emotional scars I would ultimately leave on my intense kids as a result, which would be completely unfair to them since their intensity had been derived directly from me and my intense genes. Tonight, the interaction is only noteworthy against the backdrop of the distant past, and the absence of record of the more recent past. What is noteworthy today is a completely different set of experiences, and I am working up to recording those.

I'm remarkably -- as hard to believe as this is -- at peace with the missing puzzle pieces of this record. It took the absence of material for me to realize how profoundly things have changed. It turns out my coping mechanism was actually working; I did experience rather than record for a while, and although there are experiences I'll never be able to read about, I live with their outcomes every day while this new existence unfolds and I find that the ashes and black rocks are being layered over too, but this time, for now, not with more lava.

Monday Night Summary

Back to it.
After my week of pretending I live in a house with some other people that look like my family, I made the death march to my car this morning as John waved goodbye and tried to cheer me up with jokes. It didn't work. Despite the ridiculous amount of e-mail in my work inbox and the "there's one in every office" co-worker who never fails to accost me before I've even finished booting up, the nine-hour day felt more like 90 years. I thrived on diet coke and contests with myself over how many e-mails I could respond to before the next one came through. I'm pretty good at that game. Nobody manages an inbox the way I do. Man, now I'm even more depressed.

Something fishy this way comes.
Remember the scary time that Quinn almost drowned during a swimming lesson? That was fun, huh? I haven't enrolled the kids in swimming lessons ever since, which has only served to make me that much more paranoid about them being around water. I know; it's the stupidest vicious cycle ever. The only way I agreed to let them swim in the gorgeous new pool in our neighborhood this summer was for John to get them actual life vests, which he did technically do, even though they're both about two sizes too small, because John still thinks our kids are three (understandable though that may be, given the whining and tantrums that are still heard daily in these parts). Between the too-small vests and the huge, ill-fitting goggles that Bryce insists on wearing to keep water from going up his nose, I know this is hard to believe, but trust me: we're the freaks at the pool. Bryce, the cautious one, decided to shed the inappropriately named life vest, since it was choking the life out of him and all, and since the pool in our neighborhood has a pretty huge shallow end, he has gradually taught himself to swim. It's a thrashy, explosive swim, which is exactly how you could describe everything Bryce does, so really not surprising, and he's quite proud of his accomplishment. I blew it off the first few times I saw it, because I noticed he would take two choppy strokes and then stand up on the pool bottom and breathlessly say, "did you see me swim?!" just when I was getting excited that he might actually be swimming, and I'd sort of nod and smile and clap, all while thinking, "GAH! Keep going, don't stop!" But tonight he was forced to swim a little further to reach the steps he was going for, and I realized the reason he's been stopping to stand up is because he hasn't figured out how to just lift his head to take a breath. He actually makes himself more tired by taking a few good strokes and then standing upright, breathing several times, then starting over. This swimming and breathing method could sum up Bryce's ENTIRE LIFE. I can't actually even believe it.

Goodbye my love.
Quinn has opted to keep the life vest because floating is easier, smoother, and more entertaining than all that difficult kicking and deep breathing. But, the twisted little kid likes to "play lifeguard" with Bryce, which entails a dramatic sputtering, some "help, I'm drowning"s, and a dose of eye rolling that is only morbidly entertaining because he's bobbing around in a life vest. The kid's a psycho. When it was time for us to leave the pool tonight, he floated to the middle and refused to come out while John and I stood there debating how much we really wanted to 1.) leave, 2.) humiliate ourselves by continuing to negotiate with the little terrorist, 3.) drink. "I live in this pool!" he proclaimed giddily. "I'm never coming out!" Float, blob, splurb, smile. We said, "if you can't cooperate when it's time to go, then we won't be able to come back in the evenings." He paused with only slight concern: "Ever?" I jumped on the chance: "That's right, we'll never come back. Now get out." (We thrive on empty threats over here. Don't judge me.) He meandered over and I wrapped him a towel and gave him a nudge towards the gate. "Goodbye my love, pool!" he squealed with delight. I think I'm onto something here with this "water behavior as a metaphor for the kids' lives" thing.

So much for that bright idea.

My new office is furnished and just needs a few remaining touches. I've inhabited its space every day on my pseudo vacation, getting used to its new feel and looking forward to the next time I can be there. Am I there right now? No. No I'm not. The office, as much as I love it and am proud of what I was able to put together on a very small budget and a precious allotment of time, is up a flight of stairs and down a long hallway. Under normal conditions, I would actually prefer this seclusion. But right now, no. No I don't.

One of the developments of the past six months has been our enrolling the kids in Tae Kwon Do classes. Before we moved to the new house just over a year ago, we were members at one of those high tech expensive gyms, and we were all getting regular exercise, a couple of us with psychotic but effective personal trainers. Last year's move, surgeries, work travel, family stress, and financial demands put an end to that, and we canceled our membership and told ourselves we'd use our treadmill, or jog through our neighborhood in the mornings, or stop eating Ben & Jerry's. Ah, sweet fantasies. The kids' Tae Kwon Do studio offers kickboxing classes, and a few months ago I thought it would be a perfectly good way to start a new exercise routine after a year of not doing so much as even thinking about exerting myself beyond raising a glass of wine to my lips, walking to and from my parking lot at work, or having daily nervous breakdowns (those don't burn as many calories as you might expect).

The kickboxing classes were some of the best and most challenging workouts I'd ever had, but they were done barefoot, and there was lots of hopping, and kicking, and kneeling, and then more frenetic hopping. Occasionally during one of the one-foot hopping sessions I would have searing pain in one or both of my feet, and I assumed I landed wrong or I blamed the extra 15 pounds that refuses to disappear because I refuse to do a whole lot about it. Then I took two more work trips, carrying who knows how many pounds of paper and laptop over my shoulder. One day a few weeks ago, walking to my car in a recently purchased suit (in a bigger size than I'd prefer, which is actually why it was recently purchased, if we're being honest here), with my anvil, I mean laptop, hung habitually over my shoulder, the heel of my shoe landed in a hole in the sidewalk and I crashed to a pretty pathetic heap after my shoe flew off in one direction, my laptop in another, and the left knee of my new suit pants ripped. The scabs on my knees have healed, but the top of my left foot has never felt back to normal, and I think between the kickboxing, sporadic workouts, already bad bones, and the crash landing in my suit, I've got some kind of stress fracture.

So now, I'm on the couch in the living room to avoid all the painful walking upstairs to the comfortable, private office I finally have. This seems pretty typical, and yet a little more cruel and taunting than usual, even for life on the Fringe. It's okay, though -- if it wasn't this that banned me from my own space, it was going to be the "165 bad guys" carefully and strategically placed on every flat surface by Bryce and Quinn during the hour they were supposed to be resting the other day. I limped upstairs still in denial about my worsening foot pain, heard peaceful playing and assumed the kids were in one of their rooms next door to my office. In actuality, they had christened my room as their own, which means whether I'm on the couch with my foot up or in my personalized, cozy, upstairs office, I'll be surrounded by plastic toys and the sound of kid mouth explosions.

The wrong cave, indeed.

In the fashion typical of our trip planning capabilities over the past year, we decided at the last minute to spend at least one day during my week off doing something that would allow us to take pictures and have evidence that we didn't stick our kids in front of the TV for 9 days straight while we did laundry and shopped for storage ottomans to fill the space where the desk used to be in the master bedroom. Knowing we would only have time for a day trip, we scoured the state travel magazines until we found a destination that appeared to be the perfect blend of proximity to our city, opportunity for "enrichment," potential for tiring out the tasmanian devil children we'd be bringing along, and low cost. We prepped the kids for at least a good seven minutes before we got on the road: "No getting upset today! No yelling! No whining! No fighting!" Between Bryce's mean streak of late and Quinn's ever-ready arsenal of toddler-like screaming (and by the way, he's FIVE), within 10 minutes of our 2 1/2 hour drive, these ingenious parenting methods once again shockingly proved ineffective, and we pulled the car over on the side of the road and falsely threatened to turn around and go home. Basically it was all downhill from there.

First of all, let me say what a good job our state has done with marketing its state parks. I'm not saying the state parks aren't beautiful, and I'm not saying the state park marketing materials are actually publishing falsehoods, per se, but I AM saying that "family fun adventure" must mean something different to me than it does to whoever is approving said state park marketing materials. We chose a park with a supposed 19th century hideout cave as its main attraction, but as we discovered when we got there, no documentation of any outlaws using said cave actually exists. Huh, no problem - we don't have to mention that to the kids, it's still an amazing rock formation. Since it was a blazing hot July day and we were going to be walking to this cave with two small kids, we chose the "easy" path, supposedly marked with pleasing yellow tree dots. The "hard" trail was red. Let's stay away from red. Red bad. We no like red. John took the lead, and the kids with their boundless damned energy darted around the trail in front of me while I fought off images of their tiny heads bashed on the sharp boulders we all kept tripping over. I only frustrated them and their attempt at glee with my constant reminders to be careful and not die. Bryce, while tripping: "YOU KNOW I'M A GOOD CLIMBER, MOM!" Quinn, red-faced and picking himself up after a fall: "I'M FINE! STOP SAYING ARE YOU OKAY!"

She can't bother both of us at the same time. Let's split up.

Pretty soon in my out of shape flab-covered, osteo-arthritic left knee cracking misery, I started to wonder why this "easy" path was so flipping difficult. At one point we found ourselves up high enough that the kids were walking along edges. Are these god-forsaken cliffs? Where's the damned cave, anyway? Bryce was constantly asking, "Dad, are you sure we're going the right way?" until finally John started saying, "No." because this was his way of verbally admitting we were no longer on the yellow path, or maybe any path at all. I wanted to sink into pits of despair and start screaming for help, but something startled me out of my frustration: a 50-pound black vulture flying from under whatever John was standing on to a tree branch right in front of us. A VULTURE. Um, hi. We're just a couple of fat white people with some tender veal here, and in just a few more minutes on this baking shelf of a cliff, you can help yourself. Can you tell us where the hell the yellow path is, though? Red bad. Vultures bad.

Creepy flying vulture picture taken during the heart attacks of a couple of unnamed adults.

After another 45 minutes, and with several more heart-exploding experiences watching the kids' lives flash before my eyes while they defiantly jumped from one boulder or cliff to the next, we came around a bend in the "path" to catch a glimpse of the entrance, which means we had circled the entire area and never. Found. The cave.

We brought flashlights to use in the cave, but apparently we won't need them for that; what else are they good for? Periscope? No. Microphone? Maybe.

We spent some time letting the kids explore back at the entrance, which was where the majority of the biggest rock formations were, and I would have been satisfied to leave this state park telling myself THAT was the famous cave, and we had simply, STUPIDLY walked all around it for no reason.

See how much fun they're having exploring? We don't need no stinkin' outlaw cave.

But no. John had to go and re-read the state park literature posted next to the parking lot and confirm that we had not only walked all around part of the formation, but ALSO had not found the "famous" (and yet not) outlaw cave. We can't come all this way and not see the cave. But we did see the cave! We apparently stood on TOP of the cave and I was fine with that because we lived through it and didn't get eaten by huge vultures! No, we have to go back. Let's get some water and go back. On our second attempt at the "yellow" path, we ran into some kind of crazy rock climbing enthusiasts who cheerfully greeted us, and when we told them we were looking for the cave entrance, they pointed up the sharpest, steepest incline marked with red everywhere. Red bad. No red. Bad, bad red. We tried to go around and stick to the yellow, the elusive yellow, the cruel joke of a path the yellow dots turned out to be. Soon we were climbing, or should I say, BRYCE was climbing sharp rocks and ignoring our cries to wait for us and let us go ahead of him so as to make sure he would live to see the next second. My head practically exploded a few times and I saw red dots everywhere, now unsure if the dots were truly painted on the trees or just some horrible premonition of doom only I was seeing.

Note red dot. Bad.

Finally admitting we were officially on the red path, John, Bryce, and Quinn scaled - stumbled - spelunked their way up, and then down to the famous cave entrance while I half crawled, half scraped my way behind them. Victory was ours! Despite the poorly marked trails and the vultures and the near death of my small children, here we were at our final destination. Ah, what a lesson for the kids: we had a goal and we met it, we didn't give up, and we conquered the most difficult path of all!

As soon as Quinn had a clear view of it, he screamed, "THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT CAVE!" We tried to convince him, to point out the clever, clever identifying sign painted in yellow of all cursed colors at the top of the entrance, but he was adamant. "THERE WAS NO SIGN IN THE PICTURE! THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT CAVE." I know what he means. In fact, this is basically how I wanted to respond to the entire experience. THIS IS THE WRONG STATE PARK. THERE WERE NO VULTURES OR RED DOTS IN THE PICTURES.