Privileged; Through the Peephole

You know those essay contests, where they invite you to name something that changed your life, or your Ah-Ha moment, or your biggest regret, or your celebrity crush, or whatever? (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck.) I’ve never considered entering those contests, mostly because I don’t want to write an essay (I left grad school behind long ago, thanks), but also because I didn’t really think I’d had any of those moments. Life-changing experiences, sure. Influential people, absolutely. Middle school ceiling plastered with posters of Charlie Sheen (pre-winning and much more Ferris Bueller), oh hellz yes. But I didn’t think there was a singular moment.

Turns out I was wrong.

It was the summer of 1995, between my sophomore and junior years at Connecticut College. I had signed up to work for the LEAP program, an organization that — back then, anyway (it may have changed somewhat over nearly two decades) — paired up college-aged kids with inner-city children in a summer camp environment… except much more hardcore. Rather than bunking in a quaint cabin or hiking through woodsy trails, we counselors would live in the same housing projects as our campers, spending our days pounding the hot inner city pavements while doing educational and fun activities together. I knew that it would be intense, but I was looking forward to working with the kids, to maybe making a difference. I didn’t anticipate that the greatest difference would be made in my own life.

When I arrived in New Haven to begin several weeks of training before meeting my campers, I quickly discovered that mine was one of very few white faces. Nearly everyone — all but a handful out of many dozens of people — was black or Latino, college students from Conn (like me), Yale, or nearby Quinnipiac University. I had never before been a racial minority, and it was both intimidating and eye-opening. As the days passed, I began to see that difference not as a burden, but as a gift, peering through a peephole to see what it might have been like to be a person of color, someone who is a racial minority moving among white peers. I soon learned, however, that despite my seeming newfound understanding, the brief glimpse I’d been granted was just that: a passing glance, a toe dipped into an enormous lake.

As part of our training, our New London crew (leaders, counselors, and junior counselors) embarked upon an actual camping trip — tent sleeping, cooking over fires, engaging in trust falls and writing exercises, all designed to help us get to know our co-counselors more closely. I thoroughly enjoyed the activities and found my fellow counselors – many of whom were from Conn, but who I hadn’t really known prior to LEAP – to be funny, trustworthy, and fascinating.

On the other hand, I was unsure how they felt about me. Me, the privileged white girl. The girl who had few non-white friends, and whose previous introduction to diversity consisted almost solely of joining a Jewish friend in trying to convince our middle school principal to include Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah alongside Christmas on the school calendar. (The principal had promptly phoned my mother, asking her if I was considering converting to Judaism. She asked if he was insane [but not in so many words], and informed him that, shockingly, friends sometimes help other friends. The Jewish holidays were added to the calendar the following year.) I was keenly aware that I was different, that I’d never before experienced how unsettling it can feel to be in the minority. I liked my fellow LEAP-mates tremendously, and so wanted to be thought of as a buddy and not an outsider.

Doubts continued to plague me until the final night of our trip. Sitting at a picnic table next to the fire, we were asked to share our impressions of our camping experience. When it was my turn, I was hesitant, but decided to risk embarrassment and admit that I’d been nervous, afraid that I wasn’t accepted, that no one liked me. The moment I uttered those words, I felt arms encircle me from behind in an enormous bear hug as David (not his real name), one of my co-counselors, squeezed me tight and said, “Aw, Emily! We love you!” I was elated.

David was a big guy, a tall black student who was also going into his junior year at Conn. I vaguely recognized him from school — an art major, perhaps — but knew little else about him. He had been relatively quiet during our camping adventure, which I initially thought indicated his indifference, or perhaps even contempt, toward me. Now, I knew that he had simply been keeping his thoughts to himself, and – to quote Miss Sally Field – that he liked me. He really, really liked me. I was a buddy. Yes!

Upon returning to New Haven, our training continued for at least another week. At some point, David, two other counselors, and I went out to lunch together, dining at a small restaurant near the Yale campus. I was again the only white participant, but by this point, it had become a non-issue for me — for all of us. We talked about race, about our upbringings, but it wasn’t a problem, merely a starting point for conversation. We also talked about much more than race; we were, after all, friends.

Once lunch was over, we had some time to kill before we needed to return for training, so we decided to peruse a few nearby shops. I can’t remember what they were, but given that they were within walking distance of Yale, they were undoubtedly typical college town establishments: record shops, clothing stores, drugstores, places to buy beer with fake IDs. The final shop we entered had long aisles with numerous shelves and hanging racks at the back, so we split up to check out the merchandise. And that’s when I noticed her.

The clerk – the only salesperson in the entire store, and the only other white person I’d seen in a while – had been sitting at the cash register by the door when we came in. Now, although we were the only customers, and although we weren’t touching anything or asking her any questions, she had gotten up from her cozy chair and begun to walk slowly around the store. I remember thinking that it was so strange, her moving around all of a sudden for no reason. She wasn’t engaging us in conversation, wasn’t hovering to make sure we didn’t unfold the t-shirt stack. Instead, it seemed almost like she was following us.

I soon realized, to my horror, that I was only partly right: she was following. But she wasn’t following all of us, and she certainly wasn’t following me. She was following David. Every aisle he turned down, she was there. Each time he stopped to look at an item more closely, she slowed, keeping him within easy view. She wasn’t blatantly on his heels, but it was incredibly obvious that she had fixed her attention on him and was watching his every move. It was flabbergasting. There were three more of us in the store. We were all the same age, from the same program, in town for the same purpose. If any of us was touching the merchandise, it was me or our other two female friends; David merely kept us company as we window shopped. But he was followed, for absolutely no reason… other than that he was a young black male.

I was dumbfounded. David! She was following David! David, who had bear-hugged me and welcomed me into the group, accepted me as a friend, despite my starting off as an outsider. David, who was no more likely to have stolen anything or committed a crime than my grandma. David, who was spending his summer in the New London projects in order to help inner city kids. David, who would soon welcome my presence as the only white person at a true (and awesome) “Yo’ Mama” contest (my first and only). David, who, later that summer, would help shepherd me into my apartment after one of the residents accosted me in the urine-filled elevator, and my male LEAP counterparts – fearful of my safety – put themselves at risk to make sure I made it home safely. David, who was doing nothing at all except being himself. An artist. A student. A counselor. A son. A friend. A young black male. And that was all it took to make him worthy of close observation.

I’d heard of things like this before, of course. I may have been living as a sheltered white girl, but I wasn’t entirely stupid. Still, I had never seen it with my own eyes – I’d never watched, aghast and mortified, as a completely innocent person was assumed to be up to no good because of his race. At first, I was horrified. As time went on, I became livid.

I attempted to find some kind of justification for her behavior. Perhaps she had recently been robbed by a young black male, or perhaps some kids who looked like David had vandalized her shop or other shops near her, and she was nervous, even prudent. Perhaps, however, she had simply been indoctrinated into the idea that black men do bad things, and so every black male automatically looked suspicious to her. Regardless of her reasoning, the outcome was the same: David was assumed to be doing something wrong simply because of the color of his skin.

I approached him about it, indignant, furious, and shocked. How could this have happened? It was blatantly unfair. It was awful. I was so sorry.

He listened to what I had to say but then, for all intents and purposes, shrugged it off – not because he didn’t notice, not because he didn’t see exactly what I’d seen, but because he had become so accustomed to being viewed as suspicious, it no longer even occurred to him that it was newsworthy. That was just the way it was. Perhaps he seethed inside; maybe he swore under his breath every time he was treated like this. But all I ever saw was him shrug it off, and then go back to being David. We had training to complete, kids to work with, and our lives moved on.

For him that experience was nothing to get worked up about, commonplace. For me, it was life-changing, and I’m not using that term just because I have a flair for being dramatic. Even though the clerk wasn’t being overtly racist – wasn’t calling David names or refusing him admission to the shop – her actions spoke volumes. I’d grown up assuming that such attitudes were long extinct; that woman proved me wrong.
I’ve never forgotten it.

I am not trying to make sweeping statements about race in America, nor about race relations in 2013. I am not tying this to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, although certainly the discussions regarding the verdict have gotten me thinking and led to my writing this post. Since that summer, I have been out with black and brown friends (and, of course, my husband and my daughters) and have seen them treated with respect and kindness, not because of their behavior or their skin color, but because they are human. Likewise, I have seen people of all races and genders — some of them my own students — be presumed guilty of crimes they never committed, because those proclaiming guilt made false assumptions with no facts in place. I am not saying anything is irrevocably broken, nor do I consider myself to be an activist. I am simply talking about my particular experience that day in New Haven, and how it shattered my notion that people no longer judged others because of the color of their skin; and, therefore, how it changed the way I see and move in the world.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the lesson I learned that day had a flip side, one with equally important consequences. I never worry that I’ll be stopped by the police, unless I’m actually doing something wrong (no texting while driving, I promise). I don’t get followed around stores. I have never been instructed to use a bathroom separate from the main restroom, and the only time I’m detained at the airport is when I have one of our service-dogs-in-training with me. I float through life largely unnoticed – by my neighbors, by authority figures, by other adults. Some of this is because I don’t purposely draw attention to myself, and some of it is that I, like many of us, generally find myself surrounded by people who, by and large, look like me. But part of it – the part I’m not consciously aware of, the part that many of us are not doing consciously – is because I’m a white female, someone who, we tend to think, is not up to no good, so there is no reason to pay me any unnecessary attention. I absolutely take this lack of attention for granted; in fact, it’s so not on my radar, I almost don’t know it exists… until I think back to that summer of 1995.

Having only been a white woman (at least, that I remember…), I, obviously, don’t know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, and certainly not those of someone with black or brown skin. But I remember that glimpse through the peephole, that toe in the lake. I remember being the only peach face in a sea of tans and browns, being instantly doubted by my campers’ parents because I was a well-off white girl, and being shown outright hatred (because I was white; they told me as much) by some inhabitants of the housing projects where I’d spend the summer. I can still feel their withering glances and how it almost physically hurt to be called horrible names. I can also still feel my own indignation and confusion: But you don’t even know me. Why do you assume that I won’t be a good counselor? How can you distrust me when I haven’t given you any reason to do so?

It was easy for me to avoid their judgement and persecution if I’d really wanted to; I could simply, literally, walk away. I could return to my dorm at Conn, or even just drive down the street, and I would no longer be the only white girl around. How fortunate for me, no?

Eighteen years removed from my LEAP summer, I am still just as fortunate. In fact, I am privileged. I live in a wonderful, safe neighborhood. My daughters attend a fantastic public elementary school. Nick has a stable job with a good company. We make enough to make ends meet, but still have enough left over to take vacations and buy random apps for our iPads. I am healthy. I am happy. I am privileged.

I know, too, that I am privileged to be a white female. Truthfully, it’s not something I think about often, but perhaps I should. With privilege comes responsibility, and while I don’t feel that I can easily change the world and make it a fairer place, I can change my world. At the very least, I can acknowledge how fortunate I am, and be grateful for it.

I’d rather not do the very least. I’d prefer to do a bit more. I’m not really the attend-a-rally type, and my thoughts on race are too jumbled and discombobulated to turn them into a soapbox. But I do like to think, and I sure as hell like to talk. And so that’s what I’m going to do. Think, and talk – in my head in the shower, out loud to myself in the car, and now “publicly” in this forum. Then maybe I’ll think some more and talk with friends… and, who knows, maybe someday I’ll lead a rally. But for now, this seems right.

I owe it to David to tell this story. (For the record, David and I fell out of touch when our LEAP days were over. Although I haven’t seen him in years, I have it on good authority that he’s a married dad now, and has started his own consulting firm. I hope he counsels women like the one we encountered that day in New Haven.) I owe it to all of the Davids out there to tell this story, not because it’s unique, but because it is so commonplace, it’s often overlooked. I owe it to my friends who have never experienced such judgement. I owe it to myself, so that the lessons I learned are not forgotten.

Perhaps most of all, I owe it to Ella and Annie (who, themselves, are not white) – not because I want them to know how horribly people can treat one another, but because I want them to know how awesome David was, and how his story is too important to be disregarded. Peering through that peephole was an incredible gift; I want to share it with my daughters, so that they, too, can think and talk, and eventually, do.

Maybe, just maybe, one day, that they’ll share David’s story, too… And I hope it’ll begin with, “This is the craziest thing — can you believe it?” We have a long way to go, but the journey will never be made if we don’t start. I’m starting today – with this leap.

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The Young and the Restless

For many (most?) kids, the idea of summer is fantastic. Free time! Sleeping in! Seeing friends! Staying out late! Days with no schedule and nothing to do!

For Ella, the idea of summer is also fantastic. In practice, however, days with no schedule and nothing to do! quickly loses its exclamation point and becomes, DAYS WITH NO SCHEDULE AND NOTHING TO DO OMG OMG OMG.

It’s not so much that she’s bored (a word that, in our house, is regarded with even greater contempt than the curses they’ve learned recently) but rather that she has a very difficult time playing by herself/figuring out how to fill her time, and so unstructured hours make her want to tear her hair out and double-fist caramel macchiatos and fuzzy navels (or maybe that’s just me as I watch her flop around, groaning about not knowing what to do).

In an effort to help Ella feel like something is predictable, we’ve attempted to follow some sort of routine — wake up, put on clothing, consume something, maybe not just lounge around all day, consume something else, leave the house at some point, probably get wet, and be sure that everyone is still alive at bedtime. Very rigid, our days. For the past several summers, we’ve also created a Summer Fun List — a collection of things that we can do to A. have fun (hence, the name) and B. not kill one another.

summer fun list
Feel free to click to see our absolutely incredible ideas, like, life-sized.

Some days, we’ll check off more than one activity. Other times, an entire week will go by and we won’t do a single one, but it’s somehow comforting to have the list available – and I enjoy having everything spelled out for me so that when they beg for the 297th time to go to the amusement park, I can cheerfully point to the poster boards and reply, “Aww, bummer. No time today. But it’s on our list! Check back again later!”

For the most part, the SFL is effective in helping Ella stave off that OMG MY DAY IS A BLANK SLATE feeling, but there are still many times when we don’t have the ingredients to make root beer floats, the kite string is knotted, and I’d sooner gnaw off my arm than make a tinfoil river 30 minutes before dinner. It’s in these moments, the open spaces, when Ella really begins to struggle. She simply cannot entertain herself easily – whether that’s a product of her firstborn-ness (and us having “entertained” her as a baby) or simply an innate part of her personality (yes, I realize it’s both, just thinking out loud here), I’m not sure, but when she begins to pace the rooms, push every one of her sister’s buttons in the span of two minutes, and hover over my shoulder so closely I can feel her breathing in my ear, the emotional temperature of the room definitely takes a nosedive.

To be fair, it should probably be noted that I wasn’t, um, exactly the best self-entertainer as a child. It’s been rumored that I might have awakened on more than one occasion and approached my mother with the delightful phrase, “What fun thing do you have planned for me today?” Ah, youth. These days, my to-do list is not a piece of paper but rather an entire book (literally), so although I can’t entirely remember being unable to find something to do, I absolutely remember that feeling and how itchy and uncomfortable it is. (And, hey, I still don’t enjoy having stretches of time with “nothing to do.” See above: Summer Fun List.)

Seeking to stave off both Ella’s sense of helplessness and the terrible bad mood that accompanies it, I suggested that she make a list of things that she could do to entertain herself. (Coincidentally, I had this conversation with her only one day before Dooce posted about doing something similar with her daughter, Leta. If they ever got together, it could be the perfect partnership — Leta could do Ella’s reading and Ella could eat whatever Leta won’t touch. Symbiosis, bam.)

Upon hearing my suggestion, Ella immediately seemed game. As a big fan of making lists and writing notes, she already had paper and pens set to go, and so she brought her supplies to the living room and sat down, ready. I’m pumped! Let the brainstorming begin!*

But first, she wanted a clarification. “This is a list of things that I can do?” Yes. “All by myself?” Yep. “Like… when I don’t know what else to do, I can do these things?” Mmmm hmmm. “So… I’m thinking of things. Things I can do on my own.” That’s the idea.

And then she sat. And sat. And looked around the room. And sat some more.

Finally, several minutes later, she looked up and said, “Mom?” Yes? “Can you help me think of things that I can do?”

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This is a marathon, people, not a sprint. And we haven’t even crossed the starting line yet. I really hope the oranges taste good at the water stations.

Eventually, Ella did come up with a list – a pretty good one at that. (I particularly like #16: Clean.) So far, summer has been a solid enough combination of busy and relaxing that she’s been able to keep her hand-wringing to a minimum and the list hasn’t really been necessary yet.

Which is a good thing, because the one time she did want to refer to it, she couldn’t find it. Because she’d lost it. She was quite distraught until I remembered that I’d taken a photo of it (again, see above), so I could just print it off for her. She waited patiently while I located the photo amongst my bazillions of other photos, opened it up, refilled the paper tray, and printed a copy… And then took one look at it and declared that she didn’t really want it – she just wanted to know where it was.

Ah, youth.

*totally adopted from one of my favorite lines in Good Will Hunting, “Let the healing begin!” I can’t find a good YouTube clip to it, but if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check it out. Such ballyhoo.

Throwback Thursday: Crazy

It was my cousin’s 23rd birthday last week. Because her birthday is so close to Independence Day and her family visits the lake each year for the Fourth, we actually get to celebrate in person with her annually. As the festivities wore on, it occurred to Nick that, despite not “officially” joining the family until 2001, he had celebrated nearly all of Grace’s birthdays with her, having first joined me at the lake when Grace was just five.

It was my grandmother’s 75th birthday, and her three daughters, all of whom live out of town, were flying into town to surprise her. In turn, they were each bringing their own daughters – so it was to be the six of us all together. Happy Birthday! A girls’ vacation!
And Nick.

We had been dating for a little over a year. The previous summer, I’d felt practically apoplectic because he was in Minnesota and I was in Connecticut. It was that outrageous, blinding, gag-inducing kind of love, where nobody understood us and surely no one in the history of humans had ever experienced a connection as profound as ours. Except for the performers of the songs we included on the mix tapes we made for each another, with titles like “The Long Summer” and “Dreaming of You”. Dire Straits totally got us, man.

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Vintage 1994. A shared love of gigantic bangs will take you very, very far.

Anyway, because I was still in that but he’s my soulmate haze a year later, I brought Nick with me to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. I don’t remember too much from that trip, except that he brought his guitar and sat on the dock and played They Might Be Giants songs for my cousin, which I thought was just the sweetest, awesomest thing ever. Dear God, we were dorks.

What I do remember from that trip was the tumultuousness of being newly in love. The you are my everything feelings, and how very necessary they seemed at the time… but how exhausting they seem now. It’s not that I’m not still crazy about my husband, because I am… but a lot has changed in 19 years, and there’s just way less crazy in the crazy.

It is bigger that it used to be. There are two other beings who we created and need to keep alive, which is, you know, kind of all-consuming. Plus, there are car payments and doctor’s bills, jobs and home improvements and parent-teacher conferences. It is big, this life stuff. But it’s smaller than it used to be, too. We’ve found our spot, the place where we’re meant to be, both literally and metaphorically, and we’re comfortable here. It’s not the place I necessarily envisioned 19 years ago, but it’s a very good place to be.

It is easier. So much of the guesswork is over. I know that he always sits before he puts on his socks, that he’s changed his order from “well done” to “medium,” and that The Jerk never stops being funny. He knows that I sleep with white noise, that I compulsively watch My Cousin Vinny every time it’s on cable, and that I pack the grocery bags according to item type (cold stuff together; dry goods elsewhere; chocolate in my purse). It’s harder though, too. As job challenges and extended-family crises arise, it can be really difficult knowing just how to support one another while still being good parents, good partners, and not relying too heavily on wine and Chopped marathons.

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Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii. Honeymoon style.

It is calmer than it was before. Gone are the moments of Could that conversation mean we’re over?? and impromptu getaways with friends. In its place are impromptu Bruegger’s breakfasts with Daddy and the girls, offered to them after they’ve received disappointing news from their theatre camp and Nick instinctively knows that they need some special attention. It’s also wilder than it was before. You never know who’s going to vomit in your car, require a visit to the emergency vet on the Fourth of July, or when you might deal with a 21-hour flight home.

It’s so much slower. We watch Homeland and Modern Family instead of heading out at night. A feverish child requires hours of couch cuddling, and chores and emails are swept aside. There are days when I can all but promise you that either Ella and Annie or I will make it until bedtime, but not all three of us, and I swear that each minute has been designed to prove to me why some animals eat their young. But it is also ridiculously fast. College memories seem a couple of years old, not decades old. It is impossible that our wedding was a dozen years ago. And if the girls don’t stop growing up so fast – so very quickly that I have to catch my breath to try to hold onto them – I’m gonna have to pull a Superman (the original Christopher Reeve version) and fly backwards around the earth, turning back time to have just a few more all-important minutes.

It’s predictable. There’s nothing to prove, no one to impress. Wednesdays, the garbage goes out. The girls have swimming on Mondays. After work, he’ll retreat upstairs to play games on his iPad before dinner; once the kids are in bed, I’m glued to the computer. And yet, it’s surprising. Nick said he was going to start swimming in the mornings, but honestly? I knew better. Pfft. Until yesterday, when the alarm went off at 6:30 and damn if he wasn’t done with laps by 7:15. His birthday gift this year was a trip with his dad to a Minnesota Wild game, orchestrated by me in secret (including contacting a buddy of his who is a sports writer and, amazingly, winding up with free tickets to the game). Not that I’m bragging, but it was a hell of a gift. Surprise!

It is sillier and more stupid. It’s rapping the lyrics to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” while the girls look away in horror. It’s singing bad 80s music in the shower while the other one of us harmonizes at the sink. But it is so much wiser. It is knowing when is an appropriate time to have an important discussion, recognizing that right after a Wild loss is a poor choice. It is ignoring nasty words that are said when someone is tired, understanding that they don’t mean what they’re saying, and that engaging in a counter-argument would be unproductive and dumb. It is knowing when to offer help and when to let the other person do it alone, when to suggest that another beer is a poor idea and when to join in for the next round, and that, through it all, there’s still no one on earth I’d rather be living this life with, and so long as we do it together, we’ll come out just fine.

It has become repetitive. We have the same argument over and over (oddly, Nick has yet to see that I’m right). I can quote you Looney Toons episodes by heart, not because I have seen them (not a single one), but because the girls have memorized them and quote them to us (please don’t be too jealous). There is the bedtime routine: let the dogs out, take Annie to the potty, check on Ella, finally get some shut-eye; lather, rinse, repeat. Yet, it is also exciting. We fly to New York for our anniversary, eating our way around the city. Nick receives an A in his first MBA class and has a Facebook post go viral; I look for a new teaching job. We’re planning a 40th birthday getaway that will (thank you, Macklemore) be effin’ awesome. Or… maybe there’s even a new Trip Flip on the DVR – and the crowd goes wild.

It is chaste and clean. The girls need to get off to school in the mornings, there is homework and email at night. We share a room with our daughter when relatives visit or we go to the lake. Valentine’s Day isn’t celebrated because (according to someone I know, *cough*) it’s too commercial. But it is also passionate and provocative. It is stolen moments when the kids aren’t around. It’s flowers sent just because and perfume worn because it’s his favorite. It’s knowing that little is sexier than watching him read to the girls before bed or bring the trash cans into the garage without being asked.

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Circa 2002. Borrowed puppies make everything cuter.

It is louder. There is constant singing (especially “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” – betcher bottom dollar that tomorrow, there will be 392 renditions of “Tomorrow” and my head will be sore from all of the banging). There is clomping around in high-heeled dress-up shoes and barking dogs and Stop touching your sister. It is also quieter. It is hearing him bemoan that he needs some desk space to do his homework, and then taking hours that evening to clear out cupboards and rearrange furniture for him so that he has a workspace. It is sweeping the floor but then having him reach for the dustpan and gather up the dust bunnies so I don’t have to.

It is sad. It is losing loved ones and fearing losing others. It is saying goodbye to our Golden Girl. It is the girls’ heartache over a broken foot, a troubled friendship, a lost blanket, and knowing that a kiss will not make things better. But it is also happy. Sometimes deliriously happy, but mostly just content, satisfied – joyful. It is watching our daughters read to one another. It is Annie and Ella giggling as Nick tickles them or I slip into an accent mid-sentence. It is Disney World before Christmas with our best friends. It is returning to Minnesota and showing the girls the bridge where we got engaged. It is card games with family after the kids are in bed. It is attending The Book of Mormon and our mouths being sore from all the laughing (in that omg I can’t believe I’m watching this kind of way, which is pretty much the best way).

It is kisses goodbye every morning and snuggling close every night. It is days when we hardly even see one another, much less have a meaningful conversation. It is hands held in the car and purposeful, over-the-top smooches in front of the kids, because we know it bugs the heck out of them – but also because, you know, we’re still in love and all that. It is acceptance. It is anger. It is forgiveness. It is my heart still skipping a beat when I see him across a room. It is his picking up chocolate-covered caramels on business trips and calling each night to talk to the girls before they go to sleep. It is saying something and having Nick chuckle at it, and feeling a smug sense of pride that, nineteen years later, I can still make this man laugh. Which is a good thing, because he does the same to me every single day.

It is not what I expected it to be; instead, it is so much less… but oh so much more.
Which, when I think about it, is pretty crazy.

Curses!

“Hey, Ella. We can get some big ass gas for the car!”

“I’d love some big ass gas!”

“Hellllooo, Big Gas Man!”

I’m not sure that you understand that commercial.

“I could use some big ass gas savings!”

We all could. But the commercial actually says big GAS savings. Big. Gas. Savings.

“Big ass gas savings!”

No… You’re adding an extra… word. And it’s really a word you shouldn’t be saying.

“Which word?”

The one after big.

“Ass? I shouldn’t be saying ass?”

Yup. That’s the one. Nailed it, Annie.

“So it isn’t ‘big ass gas’?”

Nope.

“Well… It could be ‘big ass gas’ if someone farted really big.”

I suppose that’s true, Ella. And I like how you used such lovely grammatical thinking. But still. Don’t say that word.

“No more ass!”

Super.

—————————–

“Shall we watch ‘Next Food Network Star’ while we eat tonight?”

“Yes, Daddy!”

“Awesome. Em, can you divvy up the dinners?”

Sure. Which one of you has the ravioli?

“I’ve just got to get one thing and… oh, shit!”

(From me: death stare. From girls: cricket-worthy silence.)

“Ah, girls. I’m sorry. I just said a bad word.”

“It’s okay, Daddy!”

“And it’s not a word you can use. In fact, I shouldn’t even have used it.”

Not in front of you, at least.

“It’s just not a word that you should say.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“I apologize for using it. It’s just not a nice word.”

I think they’ve got it now. No need to keep going.

“I’m not even sure if you know which word was the bad one, but…”

“Daddy, we can’t say S-H-I-T, right?”

Looks like they understand which word, babe.

“Sure does. Glad we had this talk.

————————-

Both of these conversations have occurred within the past week. I think we win some kind of parenting award, except it’s more like the booby prize.
Or maybe the booty prize. Aw, snap!

Okay. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.
Or am I already a little behind??

Okay, seriously. Enough.
Annie offered me ten cents yesterday for her lunch. I forgot to give the nickels back, which is a good thing, because now I can save it for her future therapy. Or at least put it toward gas.

You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get

We spent last week at the lake with some of my extended family – a dozen of us in all – a “stolen” week, as Nick called it, because the weather was supposed to be horrendously thunderstorm-y every single day, but somehow, only one day was too rainy to be on the dock. When we’re down for just an afternoon or a weekend, I (try to) keep the girls and myself eating relatively normally — fruits and veggies, snacks devoid of too many unpronounceable ingredients, dessert food reserved for dessert. But when we dig in for a longer stay and my relatives are in town, I officially give up and accept that my aunt will give them chocolate chip cookies and Diet Coke for breakfast, my mother will sneak them candies and sips of iced tea throughout the day, and my cousins will invite them to help finish off entire family-sized bags of potato chips in one sitting. It’s still totally “everything in moderation” with 51 weeks mostly on and one week ridiculously off, right?

I prefer to save myself for Doritos. There is a reason that I don’t keep them in my house, and it is because they are filled with crack and made by the devil. I believe I ate my weight’s worth in Doritos last week, although I did manage to save room for several Magnum bars. And Fourth of July cake (for breakfast). And about half a cup of Helluva Good french onion dip. Daily.

During these weeks together, everyone is in vacation mode, where calories don’t matter and bacon is a food group, and it becomes a snack free-for-all, a mob mentality frenzy to see just how many Pringles or donut holes or Cheez Doodles we can load into the pantry. It is also every person for him or herself, because with twelve people sharing a kitchen, that organic lemonade you purchased just for you, or the leftover chicken salad you were planning to eat for lunch, magically disappears the moment someone else decides it looks tasty. Unless you put your name on it (which I have done, quite literally), it’s fair game.

I do sometimes try to show a little restraint, to ascertain the item’s intended-for consumer, if only because I’m hoping karma will smile kindly on me the next time and save me the one remaining perfectly ripe peach I’ve been eyeing. Hence, when I opened the refrigerator last weekend and discovered a beautiful little blue chocolate box containing just one of its four original specialty chocolates — a bon bon in the exact same shade of robin’s egg blue as the box — I simply closed the door and walked away. Surely, by leaving only one chocolate in the box, someone was saving it for themselves… Also, I could eat the Magnum bars in the meantime. Moderation, people.

When the little blue chocolate was still sitting there the next afternoon, however, all bets were off. I took the candy out of the box and examined it, saying aloud to my cousin, “I wonder what’s in this?” (because a blue-coated chocolate doesn’t exactly scream out caramel [yay!] or cherry [omg, no] or nougat [maybe]). A sniff didn’t provide me with any clues — it just smelled, you know, like chocolate — so I broke it in half and was delighted to discover that it was a perfect combination of milk chocolate and mint. I’d love to say that I savored each morsel, but really, I scarfed that puppy down in a single, satisfied bite, threw away the little blue box, and went on with my day.

It was only much later, after the kids had gone to bed, that my grandmother began to ask about the chocolate. “I just can’t imagine where it’s gone! I gave the rest away when the ladies came for bridge last week but I was saving that one for myself.” When asked why this particular piece of chocolate was so important, she replied that it was a Godiva chocolate, and never in her life had she had a piece of Godiva chocolate (ninety-three years is a long time to wait for Godiva, y’all), and she just wanted to know what it tasted like — but more importantly, she simply wanted to know who ate it.

At first, I didn’t answer because she hadn’t actually asked me the question (I was in another part of the house and was informed by a cousin that my grandma was making inquiries), so it totally wasn’t lying because I wasn’t saying anything at all. An hour later, while we all played cards and my grandmother again bemoaned the mysterious missing chocolate, I feigned ignorance because, quite frankly, I wasn’t so eager to confess being the culprit – and really, I was doing her a loving favor because ignorance is bliss, no? Several hands later,  however, I could avoid her inquiries no longer, and admitted that yes, I had taken and eaten the candy. The little blue chocolate. The specialty Godiva chocolate, the one she had been saving. I had taken away the one opportunity she’d had in her entire life to eat a piece of Godiva. I also might have admitted to clubbing baby seals, allowing hair feathers to become popular a couple of years back, and not properly recycling my batteries, but I don’t think she heard me.

Because they’d become a bit giggly during The Great Chocolate Interrogation, slipping me sideways glances and trying not to laugh as I sat, silent, pretending not to hear my grandmother asking plaintively why someone would deny her this one pleasure in life (she didn’t actually say this, but, c’mon, her one shot at Godiva chocolate!), and also because they’re just awesome like that, my aunts and my mom were not about to let me take the fall — at least, not alone. The moment I ‘fessed up, all three of them piped in, “Actually, Mom… I ate the chocolate.” “No, I ate it.” “Really, Mom, it was me!“, which successfully muddied the situation and offered me a small reprieve. (Are they not wickedly fabulous?!) My cousin, however, was more than happy to chime, “But Emily! I saw you eat it!
Way to be a team player, dude.

In all of the laughing and confusion (and maybe because she was starving, having not eaten the chocolate), I truly don’t think my grandma knew that it was I who’d been the thief. Nevertheless, I vowed to rectify the situation, adding “Godiva chocolates” to the family shopping list that had been lying on the kitchen counter.

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“FOOD” pretty much sums it up.
Doritos. Word.

As it turned out, I had an errand to run, and so I was the designated shopper, a task that is usually reserved for at least two people because the amount of food necessary to feed all of us for a week requires more than one cart (the chocolate chip cookies alone can fill an entire bag. I’m so not kidding). When just one person is doing the shopping, however, you’re forced to stuff the cart to the brim, utilizing every single square inch of available space — and some unavailable space — like some sort of grocery store sherpa.

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The Godiva is in there somewhere…
Yes, the paper plates are balancing on the beer. That’s called ingenious.
And yes, the paper towels are leaning precariously and might have fallen off twice. That’s called stupid.

Because my grandma’s box of chocolates had been a “fancy” collection, I wasn’t able to find its duplicate at the grocery store, and so instead I bought her a bag – an entire bag! – of multi-flavored Godiva truffles. White! Milk! Dark! With so many amazing choices, surely she’d never even miss the little blue mint one that I’d stolen from her.

Upon arriving home, my grandma was presented with the glorious, new, gleaming bag of truffles. She looked at them, seeming puzzled, and I assumed that she was simply taking time to revel in this incredible moment. At last, Godiva for me! Then she looked up at me and said, “What are these for?”

I told her that I was giving them to her. Just for her. Because I’d eaten hers, the one special chocolate. And I was trying to make up for it with this enormous bag of delicious chocolates. Paying it forward. Improving my karma.

She paused, chuckled, and then handed the bag back to me and said, “Oh, Emily! If I’d really wanted that chocolate, I’d have eaten it already! Besides, don’t you think that Godiva is awfully rich for someone with diabetes?”

If anyone would like some Godiva truffles, they’re in the fridge at the lake. An entire bag. Truffles. Delicious. Be sure to put your name on them, though – just use a sticky note; we’ve got plenty – unless you don’t mind sharing.

But save at least two for me, please. I think I’ve used up all my karma for a while.

Throwback Thursday: Eight Fourths

For the past eight summers, we have celebrated the Fourth of July at the lake.

ella baby 4th
Ella, 7 monthsphoof and ella 4th
And her great-grandmother, Phoofsy, 80-something but always game for having fun.

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1.5 years

fourth
Annie, 7 months; Ella, 2.5 years4th cake
Our annual celebratory cake.

matching outfits
3.5 and 1.5 years

7.4 picnic girls
2.5 and 4.5

4th party girls2
3.5 and 5.5, and a lot of orange soda

fourth of july2
6.5 and 4.5

7.04 picnic
and last year, 7.5 and 5.5,
on a day so blisteringly hot, they were already melting by the time this was taken.

Today marks the first time in over 30 years that our annual neighborhood picnic won’t occur… but I’m sure we’ll find ways to celebrate, nevertheless. And at least we’ll have the entire cake to ourselves – which, in a way, totally exemplifies the American dream.

Happy Independence Day, America!
(And happy birthday to some of my bestest friends in the world.)
You’re looking mighty spiffy for 237.

Golden Slumbers

For quite some time, Ella and Annie have been begging to have a sleepover with our next door neighbors at the lake (girls who are significantly older, but with whom they get along famously). They’d never slept over at anyone’s house before, and I wasn’t sure how it would go… But, with us visiting our family’s lake house this week, last night seemed as good a chance as any to give it a whirl. The girls were thrilled. (And, hey, it would mean that Nick and I wouldn’t have to share a room with them give them a chance to develop a little independence. Win, win!)

I expected Annie to maybe struggle a bit, both because she’s the youngest and also because she gets scared at the slightest provocation (taking her to Brave may have scarred her for life; her resulting determination to use bows and arrows in the house may have scarred me for life). I decided it would be a good idea to walk her and Ella next door, check out where they’d be sleeping, visit briefly with their friends’ mom, and give a few reassuring hugs before I returned home for a night of freedom with my family.

After dropping off their overnight bags (they’d been instructed to bring only necessities, so naturally they each brought 286 stuffed animals, two changes of clothes, several blankets, a bag of toiletries, and maybe 63 books), we went upstairs and I chatted with the mom. Then, to my surprise, Ella pulled me aside and whispered that she didn’t think she could do this. (Just when you think you’ve got your kids down, bam!, they let you know what a presumptive idiot you are.) She was too nervous, it wasn’t her own bed, what if she couldn’t fall asleep??

I talked to her for a minute, reassuring her that I thought she’d be fine — but if not, she could come home anytime. This seemed to placate her, and after I gave her a hug, I turned to do the same with Annie – but she’d already run off to play, dismissing me with a single hand wave. So much for my natural motherly instinct.

Like everywhere east of the Mississippi, it had been raining basically all day, and the ground was absolutely soaked. On the way over, we’d eked our way up the (normally grass, now mud) hill between our houses, and so I gingerly started the short journey home, taking painstakingly slow stutter steps to avoid my feet sliding entirely out from under me.

Yeah. You know when you’re holding something, a towering pile of boxes or library books or plates you’re balancing for the circus, and you feel them start to go off kilter… and you try to recalibrate, to calm the swaying, to stop the inevitable, but suddenly you know – there is just no doubt – that everything is going down, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it?

Yup. Behold: the inevitable.
IMG_4097
Shorts, legs, shoes and forearms (where I’d tried to brace myself): covered with mud.
It should be noted that this photo was taken by my mother, who promptly put it on Facebook, saying I’d “hurried” down the hill. Ahhh, family…

It took a good thirty minutes to remove the mud and the stench, but when I finally did, I rewarded myself with a nice big bowl of peanut butter cup ice cream (with homemade fudge sauce, FTW!), half expecting Ella to come walking in any moment… But, for a solid two hours, the doors stayed blissfully closed. I’d just settled in to savor a glass of Sauvignon Blanc when my phone chirped all-too-happily at me to alert me that I had a text. It seems that Ella had borrowed our neighbor’s iPod and just needed to check in…

IMG_4100
8 year-olds and hyperbole = BFFs.

The texts continued for a good half-hour, and although it is endearing being loved so so so so much, it’s even more endearing when your child powers through her first sleepover and actually falls asleep. After a couple of “I might come home but I’m not sure” exchanges, I told her that either was fine — stay, or return — but that she really needed to get some sleep. Amazingly, she agreed, and the texts stopped… so I assume that she fell asleep shortly thereafter. Or perhaps she robbed a bank and then wrote the great American novel – but hey, I didn’t hear from her… so yay, sleepovers!

Although both of my girls usually awaken early, there’d been talk amongst them and their buddies (who, as middle-schoolers, tend to go all Edward and [post-gruesome-Renesmee birth] Bella if they see the sun before noon) that they’d try to sleep until 9:00. I said a prayer to the sleep gods that maybe their friends’ habits would rub off on Annie and Ella, hoping they’d all get some decent shut-eye, and then went to bed myself. Despite the rare opportunity to sleep in ourselves, Nick and I both got up early today – and, as I looked down at the neighbors’ beach shortly before 8 a.m., I saw all four girls, pajama-clad, groggily dipping toes in the lake and checking out the foggy morning. Sleep gods, you totally slacked on this one.

Around 10:20, they finally came home, having had a marvelous time and looking surprisingly zippy.
IMG_4098
Ella’s eyes are closed probably because she’s trying to concentrate on corralling the stuffed animal tribe she brought with her.

I girded myself for the exhausted meltdowns that I was sure would come today… But, again, both girls completely disregarded my superior parental instincts and had a great, cheerful, not-at-all cranky day. They pushed all the way through until 8:00, when I began to notice that they looked a little droopy as they ate their dessert, so I encouraged them to move along and head to bed. They brushed and washed and pajama-ed, protesting that they were just fine, not tired at all… But, a mere three minutes later when I came to check on them and say goodnight, they were both completely zonked, already snoring away.

Looks like mother does (occasionally) know best. Holla!
I’d definitely recommend not following me home, however. At least not after it’s rained.