Last year, I wrote about my nephew, who we call Frog. He was born early, at just 25 weeks, weighing about 2 pounds. I had just come back from meeting him and was feeling assured by his fighting spirit.
I’m happy to report, a little over a year later, he is home and thriving. He had is first birthday over the holidays, when he was still wearing 9 month old clothes, but he’s happy and goofy and a delight to be around.
My sister just sent me this photo of him playing with the felt activity book I made for him last Christmas. Apparently he is a big fan of the red shiny buttons. Can’t say that I blame him; they are mesmerizing.
I don’t know if activity books (I’ve also heard them called “busy books” or “quiet books”) are a thing everywhere. When I was growing up, it was something you gave a baby to keep them occupied during long church meetings. I had kind of forgotten about them until I was looking for a good DIY present for Frog and Matt’s nephew (who also turned one over the holidays) last fall. I purchased the pattern on Etsy from LindyJDesign. I thought, “Oh… that will kill a cold autumn weekend or two.” But I’m not great with the sewing machine and making the books turned into a part time job for a couple of weeks.
Don’t let that deter you, however. It was a lot of fun. Here are a few more photos of some of the pages:
And as long as I’m doing a humble-brag post about my Auntie craft projects, here is another recent photo of Frog wearing a hat I made many years ago for his older brother. This pattern is by Mamachee and can be found here (what would I do without Etsy?). I don’t know how much he weighs now, but look at those gloriously chubby pink cheeks! I know I said I made the hat for his brother, but it really suits our Froggie. He’s a warrior, for sure.
Not that long ago, I often traveled for work. This was when I was single and lived alone. Traveling for work became routine after a while. I would even say I got to the point where I enjoyed traveling solo. I remember one conference in particular. It was in San Diego and I didn’t know anyone at the conference or in the city, but I explored and found fun things to do. I even blew off the “networking” session of the conference because I saw a sandwich board advertising, “One Night Only: John Cleese Live!” It was a great choice; he was hilarious! I just wish I would have bought one of the t-shirts that read, “I saw John Cleese perform RIGHT before he DIED!” (This was in 2008, by the way. He is still alive.)
This was also the trip where I accidentally ordered veal because I thought “scallopini” meant “little scallops.” I felt terrible once I realized what I had done, but it wasn’t like I could give the little guy CPR once it was on the plate. So I ate it. (And goddamn it was delicious.) Then there was the supposedly haunted restaurant in Old Town with the margaritas the size of bird baths. Well, the first one is a bird bath. The second one threatens to become a facial. But I wasn’t driving, and I was without a companion to judge me, so I enjoyed both, completely.
As I said, this was 2008, over ten years ago. Many things have changed. I’m in a relationship. I have a stepson. I had Wensley in 2008, but now he is an older dog with some health issues. (He will be fourteen years old this month.) That’s a lot of comfort and responsibility to leave behind, especially when I haven’t traveled on my own in years. It didn’t actually occur to me that I hadn’t exercised those muscles and therefore had lost all the tone until I went to Austin by myself last weekend.
I made a New Year’s goal to do more with my blog and I searched for learning opportunities. I found an online community of blogging women with a conference coming up in Texas and I bought tickets and booked a flight. I was anxious about the trip, but I have acute anxiety. I am anxious about everything.
The morning of the flight, Ethan (who is six) told me he was worried that I might get lonely on my trip and asked if I would like to take one of his soft friends (his word for stuffed animals) with me. It was such a sweet gesture and it touched me. I even took out an extra top to make space for the soft friend he selected, which was a black bear featuring a radio collar because it was purchased at a national park where bears are tagged and studied.
As soon as I buckled in for the flight, my anxiety went to work. “Why are you doing this?” It asked. “Can you even afford it? What if something happens to your extremely old dog while you are gone and you aren’t there to comfort him?” Tears welled up behind my eyes. I fought them back, but they pretty much stayed right there for the rest of the weekend.
I want to be completely clear: the conference was great and the ladies I met were lovely. I might even go again next year. That said, it was a hard experience for me. From the moment I entered the first event (a cocktail party on Friday evening), women were reaching out to me to help me feel welcome. Obviously they picked up my introvert vibe and reacted by inviting me into their conversations, metaphorically putting an arm around my shoulders and saying, “You’re good; We got you!” But I was not prepared for what a room full of female Texas bloggers (who refer to themselves as “influencers” and “momtrepreneurs” would be like.
These women are poised and glamourous. They are fit and fashionable, and they wear lipstick and high heels on Saturdays. Where I come from, Saturdays are for skiing, or biking, or hiking (depending on the weather). There are definitely no high heels. There may be tinted chapstick, but it has to be SPF 15 or higher.
They sell their makeup and outfits and home décor ideas on their feeds and they make serious money doing it. They have class and style and they will help you have it, too. All you have to do is click and add to cart. And that is exactly what thousands of people on Instagram do, every day. You have to see the photos of their picture perfect lives to understand it. I felt like a fraud sitting with them and taking notes on what makes the perfect Pinterest board.
I know what you are thinking. “Oh, Rachel, we all feel that way! I’m sure half of them thought you were the one that had it together! It’s just a bad case of imposter syndrome, that’s all!” No. Wrong. I can prove it. Here is a photo I found on the photographer’s site (@mandiroachphotography) in a collection of pics from the event.
In case I have to explain, I’m the one in the center dealing with, I don’t know, an entire chicken wing or similar stuck in my back teeth. If you could zoom out you would see one hundred more women just like the ones surrounding me here. Lovely, lovely, stinkin’ lovely. Not one giving themselves dental work.
Feeling out of place just made me feel even more homesick. And then, the last day of the conference, I made the mistake of checking my email and discovering that the coverage I had set up for my day off to go to the conference hadn’t been adequate. I realized that I was in some trouble with my boss and that sent me into minor crisis mode. I felt like the whole trip had been a mistake. This was just before the smaller focus group session where we discussed questions and takeaways. I had been conspicuously quiet, so the group leader asked me to share my thoughts.
“I’m totally overwhelmed,” I blubbered, the tears that I had been holding back breaking forth in a torrent and hitting the floor. “I don’t even know what an ‘instagram story’ is!”
Again, the lovely ladies enveloped me and told me I was okay. They reminded me I just needed to get one actionable thing out of the conference and hold on to that. And someone else told me something that did stick with me. It isn’t about followers, it is about authenticity. What is your “why?” That is, why do you blog? What are you bringing to this space?
So I went to the loo and washed my face. Then I went back to the table and sat down with my notebook to draft a mission statement. I didn’t figure out exactly what it was, but I realized that I do have a “why” (aside from needing a place to write and hoping someone who likes my sense of humor will read it). I want to live an examined life. Writing helps me do that examining. My hope is that sharing what I unearth will help others, too.
Whew! I got my one thing, just before the conference ended! But then it was over, and all the ladies headed off for home. I, however, headed back to my hotel. I wasn’t able to find a non-red-eye flight, and my red-eye days are behind me.
Or so I said when I bought my tickets. My hotel had a spa and a gym, surely I would be able to find something to do that last evening before catching a reasonable morning flight, right? But then I was in the hotel with sixteen hours to kill, completely stressed out about work and needing a cuddle from each of my boys, human and canine alike. As good as it would have been for me, I wasn’t going to go to the gym.
I went down to the hotel bar and started texting a friend to ask her how she got 10k Instagram followers, but we ended up talking about the conference instead. The tears came back and I couldn’t make them stop, not even when my amazing mac and cheese with brisket tips arrived. My poor waitress probably thought my best friend died. I snapped a tearful selfie and sent it to my friend, but I’m sharing it here also in the spirit of authenticity.
And the mac and cheese… (that’s cornbread and bacon butter in the background)
Throughout the trip, I kept an eye out for good spots to pose Black Bear so that I could send photos home to Ethan. I looked through them back in my hotel room and realized that, based on the photos, the bear was on the trip that I hoped to have. It seemed significant and apropos of the conference and the idea of sharing an authentic experience, versus and idea of perfection. I can’t do what those other ladies do. I am not here to tell you how to have the perfect vacation because I don’t know how to do that. I’m here to tell stories about why I spent last Sunday ugly crying in public places. I’m here to talk about how living with acute anxiety is hard. I have learned that it is possible to live a full life with anxiety, but you have to work at it. It won’t always go according to plan, and sometimes you have to force yourself to get out and do it. Luckily, there are also stuffed bears to cuddle while waiting for planes, and there is love and kindness waiting to reassure us on both ends of the trip.
I’m at a conference in Austin for the weekend. Yesterday, I got back to my room to discover that the caps for my contact tray were no where to be found. I can only assume the maid thought they were trash? Bottle caps, maybe? My fault for leaving them on the counter, like I do at home?
Anyway, they were gone. Rather than sleep in my contacts for the next three nights I MacGyvered a solution, using the baggie I packed for my unchecked liquids.
I used to think that traveling for work sounded so glamorous. Then you do it… and you face the consequences of dry contacts (or blindness) and your dog is too far away to cuddle.
I’m going home in the morning. The sun can’t rise soon enough.
Our little family joined up with friends at an Airbnb in Colorado last weekend. We decided to leave our cold mountain and go to a higher colder mountain to celebrate President’s Day because who doesn’t love a long car ride to go to someplace similar but worse?
Actually, I can’t explain why. We are mountain people and it was a different mountain. We went. We looked at it. We sledded down a part of it. And we explored some of it’s microbreweries while the children sampled the mac-n-cheese each establishment had to offer. Mountain people stuff. You just have to trust me, it was fun.
Monday morning, I got up early to get a shower before the line formed and to begin packing up before the long ride home. Check out was 10 AM which I thought was too early for a place that specifically advertised for families, but I can’t help following rules, even when they are nearly impossible.
I was packing up the kitchen while Ethan (age 6) ate breakfast and Matt went up to take his turn in the shower. That’s when the fight broke out. The very near next door neighbors began to shout at one another over who (the man, apparently) is lazy and who (the woman, eventually) should leave. I looked over at Ethan to see if he noticed anything but he looked untroubled. It got louder and louder and until each were daring one another to call the cops.
Of course, Wensley chose this moment to ask to go out for a wee, as the back yard was directly adjacent to the situation. I gave in before having to clean up a mess and risk losing the cleaning deposit that we had managed to retain all weekend. I opened the door and each word became as clear as if the conversation were happening there in the kitchen. “I do every-%$^@ing-thing around here! Why don’t you &(%*ing *$@# yourself? You $*&^@ing @&%$@#er!” Or something like that. Meanwhile, Wensley sniffed the snow, being particularly particular about picking a spot for a 15° morning.
Ethan walked over to stand by me and peered out the door to see who was yelling.
It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to just ignore the fight at that point, so I said, “Well, I’m glad I’m not in that family. They don’t speak very nicely to one another.”
Ethan considered this for a moment and then said, “At least there hasn’t been any contact, I don’t think.”
I was stunned by this statement. I wondered if he even meant what I heard when he said the word “contact.”
“Yes,” I hedged. “That is good.”
“Because the only people who should make contact are professional wrestlers,” he added, sagely. “That’s pretty much the only time it’s okay.”
“I agree,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. “Leave it to the professionals.” Wensley came back inside and Ethan went back to his cereal and that was the end of the conversation.
Oh my goodness, I love that kid. Where does the kid get this stuff?
I love keeping an eye on the wild creatures in the neighborhood, and I don’t mind admitting I have a favorite. I noticed this little dude in a tree’s knothole last summer and now I look for him each time I pass by. I haven’t seen him for a few days. We got a lot of snow and, for a few days, the knothole was overflowing with the stuff. Looks like it melted and Owlbertson (as Ethan named him) was able to get back in there. Good thing, because we are supposed to have another storm tonight. He needs to get his rest!
Wensley had to get a haircut last week. I try to avoid cutting his hair in January and February because it is so dang cold, and he doesn’t deal well with the snow. It couldn’t wait, however. He was getting a bit of a Rastafarian situation on his back end, and it was time.
I brought him home from the groomer and dug through the winter accessories to dig out his sweater. I knitted this for him a few years ago. (There is no pattern to share; I just knitted a rectangle and fashioned it around his body and then sewed it up.) Unfortunately, when I pulled it over his little body, I realized the moths had been at it.
Obviously, Wensley doesn’t care. He doesn’t love wearing sweaters and would be happy to feed the whole thing to the moths of the world. But he stopped shivering once he had it on, and that was the important thing.
I was reminded of a story that David Sedaris wrote in When you Are Engulfed in Flames, where he buys a $400 cashmere sweater but finds it is too nice to wear. He pays a professional designer to “distress” it. Extremely distressed. He writes, “Ordinarily I avoid things that have been distressed, but this sweater had been taken a step further and ruined. Having been destroyed, it is now indestructible, meaning I can wear it without worry.”
This is not a cashmere sweater, but it was handmade. That took a little time. I never felt it was too nice for the dog, clearly. But I used to take it off before I sent him outside to pee. Not anymore! Now Wensley can keep it on and stave off the shivers even while making yellow snow, sweater be damned!
I was having lunch with my girlfriends, most of whom are mothers. Someone ventured down a urinary tract of conversation (insert comedy drum sound here).
“Obviously, I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything, but…” This is, of course, the phrase that launched a million bitches. All totally valid, I’m sure. Children are tyrants. But she went on to say that she was walking uphill when someone or something made her laugh and she “like… peed. Just a little! But, yeah.”
The other mothers in the group shared their own similar stories. In addition to funny hills, there are other situations that my friends admitted to avoiding. Squats, lunges, anything that involves a kettlebell, and sneezing. “I just wear sweatpants all the time,” one Mom shared. “They dry faster.”
I could have sat there, quietly and smug. Implying with my silence that my childless state has left my bladder intact: an impenetrable platinum fortress of pee. But that would be a lie.
“Last week, I was filling up my bird feeder. I went to lift it back onto the hanger and I couldn’t quite get it on the hook way above my head. Then, I suddenly realized that I had to go, and I wasn’t going to make it.”
My friends all laughed, and someone asked if I dropped trou and watered my lawn. I didn’t. I actually did make it back inside. (My snow shoveling session last weekend which has brought this conversation to mind did not end as successfully, damn you snow pants!)
“My point is, maybe having kids made it worse, but I think it’s also just age.” My one other childless friend at the table concurred, but declined to share details.
I’m only 41, for God’s sake. I’m not ready for depends! These are the moments that I remind myself that if I were living in cave times I’d be dead. Or used as bait on big hunts, at the end of my usefulness. Instead I’m lamenting the sunset of my fruitless fertile years and hoping I saved enough for retirement. That’s progress, right?
At some point in the week, a truck (I assume?) came through the neighborhood and collected the discarded Christmas trees. I didn’t see it happen. One day I saw the trees lying in the gutter, a corpse in front of every home, and I thought of the Monte Python line, “bring out your dead!” Then the next afternoon they were gone. One final Christmas magic trick.
My holidays were a whirlwind. As a new step parent, I am learning that Christmas with a child is much more fun, but so much more work! It is possible that we over-do it. The kids don’t need the dozens of elaborate recipes executed to perfection, for instance. They are so focused on Santa and toys and chocolate… and… and… and… But it all feels so important! Who knows what will stick out for them in the decades ahead? What smell, taste, or activity will come to symbolize “Christmas” when they are my age and looking back on it all? That is what we are trying to accomplish here. We simply aren’t baking cookies and roasting turkeys and instigating sword fights with the spent wrapping paper rolls. We are constructing memories! We are making happy childhoods! What could be more important?
I can’t pretend it is only for the kids, I suppose. I always put way too much effort into Christmas. I always expect too much from the day. And I nearly always ruin it for myself by trying too hard and indulging too much. It’s a character flaw of mine, and it burns brightest during the holidays. Do other families have that person, too? The one who goes overboard, wanting everyone to feel her love vibrating through her gifts? The one baking up a storm, wearing light-up earrings, and wearing everyone else out with her enthusiasm? I hope not. I’m exhausting. I wouldn’t wish myself on anyone else’s family, either.
At one point before my family arrived, I started a blog post, but I didn’t finish it in time to post for the holidays. There never seemed to be any TIME! I was too busy putting antlers on things (see below). I’m finishing it now and posting, belatedly. Just in case there was someone else out there who found, once the trees vanished from the street, they weren’t quite ready for Christmas to be over, despite it all.
Every year, I take note of the holiday honking, but then I quickly forget about it. What is that all about? Most of the year, I will occasionally hear someone honking their horn at another car, usually for truly bad behavior. But between Thanksgiving and Christmas, an epidemic of honking breaks out. People are in a hurry, and they are self-absorbed. Everyone has end-of-year deadlines for work and a shopping list the length of their forearm and no time for your bullshit. Each day it hear multiple people honking at cars for making legal maneuvers too quickly or too slowly, or just for existing in space and time. Someone honks at every light the second it turns green. People honk at jaywalkers and bollixed pedestrians wandering aimlessly though a parking lot as if concussed, trying to make sense of it all. Don’t we all feel a little shell-shocked? Can’t we employ a little compassion?
No. This is not the season for compassion. It is the season for douchebaggery. And for grumbling over the line at the post office, at noon on December 19th, when what in God’s name did you think you would find going there on your lunch break? And it is the season for treating retail workers like foam stress balls to be crushed between the fingers and the palm because we are human and therefore terrible.
I was in line at the grocery store’s post office and the woman in front of me was glaring at a the lady at the scale, who was wearing a name tag that said “Hello! I am in training!” I looked over the shoppers shoulder to read the message she was typing on her phone, which said, something to the effect of “OMG, I’m NEVER getting out of here!”
I quickly saw the problem. They woman was trying to save time by posting a package at the grocery store. No big deal. Same thing I was doing. Only this woman was sending something to Myanmar, or Somesuch. And the poor lady behind the counter (who was in her fifties, at her first week of this new job, thinking she was going to be selling eggs and deodorant), was furiously trying to learn how to fill out the customs form. She was asking for her co-workers to help her, but they didn’t know either. Because this is a grocery store! You take complicated crap to a real post office! Especially two days before Christmas! After the woman sent her text, she looked back at me and rolled her eyes with luxurious indignance, inviting me to join in the shaming of the proletariat in the apron. I declined, gazing behind me, as if to see who she was looking at. The man behind me had a shopping cart full of packages; I counted fifteen. This is another shipping mission that, at least during the holidays, should be saved for the real post office, in my opinion. I tried to tell him so with my eyes, but I don’t think he got the message.
After I mailed my small package to an adjacent US state, I wandered back into the store to pick up some chocolates and eggnog flavored salt water taffy to fill up stockings. I stopped at a table for a free sample of brie and sour cherry preserves on a lemon flavored cracker, and as I licked every microscopic crumb off my thumb and index finger I asked myself, “what is wrong with everyone! It’s Christmas! It doesn’t have to be ‘every man for himself!’ Just don’t be an ass-hole. And take deep breaths. Especially in long lines. Keep your sense of humor and we will all get through it together!”
I was still thinking this as I walked out through the sliding glass doors and out to my car, when I passed a white haired lady and her male companion, probably her husband. “Oh, my!” She said to me, and I stopped. I thought maybe she was going to ask if she knew me. I have one of those faces and I get that a lot. “You have a beautiful, smile!” she exclaimed instead, making my day, my Christmas, and my year.
“Thank you so much for saying that!” I said, deciding at the last second not to hug her. “Merry Christmas!” I said to her and her fellow, and I walked to my car.
Here is my Christmas wish for everyone: be that lady. I know, Christmas is Carnage. It is exhausting, and it will kick your ass. Especially if you are a Mom. (Sorry guys, but that’s what I have witnessed. See this Onion article for reference.) But you can focus on the smiles, and call them out when you see them. And if possible, instead of making cashiers go home in tears, make someone smile.