Are you there, Spring? It’s me, Emily.

There are as many varieties of anxiety and depression as there are people struggling with them. For some folks, the weather is a particularly powerful trigger – and for those of us who live in climates that are endlessly gray and snowy during the winter months, this can be doubly so. (Seasonal affective disorder is very real, yo.)

While there are a gazillion things that bring my anxiety and depression to the fore (I mean, with anxiety, it’s every single thing, amiright?!), the weather has – mercifully – never really been among them. That’s not to say that I haven’t been bummed when it’s snowed for 49 straight weeks or we haven’t seen sun since the Bush years, but overall, I like winter. I love Rochester. And spring has never not arrived, so I tend to not fret too much about the weather.

This year, though? I have had enough. I don’t mean that I’m ready to move on from winter… I mean that I am done. DONE. SO EFFING DONE AND UP TO HERE with the cold and the snow and the gray and the ice storms and the utter lack of anything even remotely springlike. If I see one more snowflake, I swear that I will wrestle winter to the ground with my bare hands.

There are the stats, of course: More than 121″ of snow this season (that’s more than 20% above normal). It snowed on 15 out of the first 19 days in April – nothing major, but when nearly every single gosh-darn day is gray and snowy and absolutely freezing (we’re on track for the coldest April since 1874), when it is supposed to be spring, Sweet Baby Jesus why, it’s really, really difficult.

And that’s for people who haven’t tried every antidepressant on the shelf.

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Screenshot of a Facebook Live graphic shared by our local weatherman.

My grandma used to say that it always snows on the daffodils – and that’s been true. So I try not to get my hopes too high that winter is officially caput the moment the crocuses pop through… but I also am reminded that this happens every single damned year, and the daffodils still thrive and the snow melts and spring emerges triumphant, so I don’t need to consider selling the house when there are flurries on Mother’s Day.

The difference this “spring” is that there are no daffodils yet to snow on. MY ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD IS DEVOID OF DAFFODIL BLOOMS. It’s one thing for winter to breathe a last gasp after spring’s arrival, like a grumpy old man reminding the whippersnappers that he was really something in his day; people are sympathetic and pat winter on the head, but it’s spring’s time now, thanks.

But when winter never left – when spring is a full month behind and has not showed up at all – there are no sympathy head-pats. There is rage and despair and threats and day drinking and an uptick in Google searches for “affordable places to move.” My therapist told me her schedule is unusually full because she’s had to take on several new clients; literally everyone who comes into her office mentions the weather and how defeating it is. This makes me feel less alone but not less rage-y.
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We were in D.C. over April break. It was not springy there, either.

I’ve always said that, although I love Rochester, I could live in any number of places so long as there were four distinct seasons of reasonable length. A few months ago, I was chatting with another volunteer on the playground who’d recently relocated from California back to western New York – a move that usually elicits sympathy head-pats. For her part, though, she was thrilled: they are closer to family. Housing is crazy affordable. Schools are excellent. And she was just so sick of Los Angeles weather.

Um, what?

She explained: yeah, it’s great to be warm and sunny, like, 364 days a year. It really is. But she had lost all sense of an inner time clock because there was virtually no difference between the seasons. Seeing me wonder what the heck she was talking about, she asked: What did I like about the seasons? Why were they so important to me?

How much time did she have?

I love the smells – spring rain is so fresh; fall leaves are earthy and cozy; winter smoke is warm and inviting; humid summer breezes carry with them such joy and contentment. There’s such excitement as the new season approaches; after a sweaty August, we’re ready to bundle up… but equally thrilled to ditch our parkas as the days lengthen in April.
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Ice storm trees… from April. When it’s supposed to be, you know, spring.

She nodded with understanding and then added a twist: the changes that accompany each season mentally help us set our calendars. In fall, we anticipate that Thanksgiving is coming when we feel the leaves crunching beneath our shoes. We know it’s almost time for the New Year when we have to shovel with regularity. As we switch out our sweaters for tank tops, we realize that Memorial Day will be here soon. We measure mid-summer by how often we need to mow the lawn and weed the garden.

In Rochester, our activities are season-dependent. We swim in the summer and eat dinner outside. In autumn, we pick apples and get out the long sleeves. Winter is the time for sledding and cozying up with a book by the fire. Spring means opening the windows and firing up the grill.

Without distinct seasons, the months just blend into one another. Whereas we western New Yorkers mark summer with frequent ice cream runs – because summer is ice cream season, by gosh – in Los Angeles, every single day is appropriate for ice cream. Which, she said, is cool at first… but eventually, nothing is special. Without seasons and their accompanying activities, time passed in a strange way, devoid of the usual markers; she felt lost.

Spot-on.

So it’s been this “spring.” Our usual markers are gone. There are no budding leaves, no lawns to mow, no *$(#! daffodils. Although it’s stayed light later, there’s no eating outside because it’s too damned cold. The birds have returned and make a ruckus in the morning, but when you open the blinds and see it’s snowing – again – there’s a total disconnect. Which is followed by wailing and gnashing of teeth and general desperation.

THIS IS NOT HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE.

Arlington was none too thrilled with this snow squall a couple of weeks ago.

We are ready for spring, for everything that comes along with it – and, in its absence, there is disorientation. For those of us prone to depression, this utter lack of normal, of forward motion, of hope that things will be different has been hard. Like, worse-than-usual hard.

Virtually the only thing that’s kept me from completely losing it is that, logically, I know spring will come. I mean, SPRING HAS TO COME does it not? It simply cannot remain winter forever. Some day – really damned soon, for the love of all things holy – it will be warmer. The snow will stop. We will see the sun again. .

Y’all, Mother Nature is a woman and I believe in her. Women are badass. Women persist. I BELIEVE IN MOTHER NATURE.

To everyone for whom this unending bear of a winter has been just awful: you are not alone. You are not the only ones refusing to bring your coat because it is SPRING, by God, and you’re sick of the coat that’s been on since Columbus Day, and you don’t care if you develop hypothermia walking to the car. I understand that you may still feel ragingly despondent, but at least we can be ragingly despondent together. And when spring does finally arrive,  we will celebrate as though we’ve won the freaking lottery.

The first person who complains that it’s too warm, however, will be wrestled to the ground with my bare hands.
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Frosty… but sunny. It’s a start.

 

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Because of Diamond

Our Canine Companions for Independence journey began in October of 2009 when we joined the CCI family as we welcomed Diamond, an 8 week-old black Lab puppy.
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Gah…. little Annie was only 2 years old…

Given that this was our first foray into the world of service dogs, the learning curve was steep. Once Dizey became housebroken, we began leaving her alone in the kitchen… and then were horrified when she would chew through chair legs. She also learned the art of counter-surfing (including a cake to celebrate a friend’s newborn) – a habit that, according to her forever family, proved impossible to break (our bad!). Being consistent in our training – no jumping on anyone, even if they love dogs; no random climbing on the furniture, no matter how snuggleable the dogs look; no pulling on the leash, despite how much longer walks might take to get it right – was tough. But we learned. And Diamond taught us.

Bringing a pup-in-training with us everywhere we went was also an entirely new experience. We soon discovered the best times to visit the grocery store (lest a pup get its paws run over by the cart), how to fasten a CCI cape/vest in blinding Rochester snow, just how many paper towels and plastic bags to have on hand at any given time, which things might spook a dog (automatic doors, floor grates, and mannequins, I’m looking at you), and that, no matter how many times you’ve offered the pup a chance to hurry, there are no guarantees that a visit will remain accident-free.
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These were taken for the girls’ valentines; their cards said, “Puppy Love”

We also learned that there are no “quick stops” when you’ve got a cape-wearing dog with you. This is simultaneously one the most wearisome and most awesome parts of raising a service pup: everyone, and I do mean everyone, wants to tell you their dog story, and especially their dead dog story. A simple trip to grab milk and toilet paper could turn into a 20-minute sojourn when Diamond came along, as we were stopped so people could scratch her head (only with permission, thanks very much), tell us about their black Lab back home, how their best friend’s cousin’s uncle’s boss’s wife once dreamed about getting a black Lab, or about good ol’ Rascal or Butch or Princess who was the light of their life but crossed over the rainbow bridge last week or last month or six years ago. It’s almost compulsory, this desire to share dog stories with us because of the cape-wearing pup at our side.

And, for us, those stories have become almost sacred. Dogs are special. Sharing them is special.

So was Diamond. She came with us to Kiawah and Minnesota, doing a stellar job on the airplane both times. (Our trip to Minnesota did, however, provide us with our favorite dog disaster story of all time: when Diamond left Easter egg-filled diarrhea all over the moving sidewalk at the MSP Airport…) She went with the girls into their classrooms. She joined them in the snow and the water, posed for photos in costume, and never, ever complained.
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After returning Diamond in May of 2011, we knew we wanted to raise another service dog pup. By the time Langston arrived in September, we felt more confident and were excited to put what Diamond had taught us into practice.

We’d been told that CCI could release dogs from Advanced Training at any time; only so many are cut out for a life of service. Nevertheless, we were surprised in October, 4.5 months into Advanced Training, to receive a call that Dizey was being released. (Long story short, she was occasionally, but unpredictably, aggressive with other dogs.)
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We adored Diamond. We would gladly have taken her back.
But because we adored her, we knew she couldn’t live with us. She deserved a home without other dogs to make her nervous. So we put the word out – and, very happily, Diamond became the forever pet of local friends who loved her dearly (even though she never outgrew counter-surfing). Her nickname was D-Money. She graced their Christmas cards. They brought her on countless adventures. And when she became mysteriously ill, they never gave up on trying to find out what was wrong, to help her, to make her comfortable.

Very sadly, despite their Herculean efforts, Diamond passed away three days ago. She was only eight-and-a-half years old.

It’s a strange feeling, losing someone who held great importance during a particular period of your life. Not quite missing; Diamond hadn’t felt like “our” dog for many, many years; Ella and Annie barely remember her. Not quite heartbreak; we loved her then, and remember her fondly, but it’s been a long time and our hearts have made room for 5 other CCI pups since then. There’s a buffer of respect and deference, too; Diamond was our puppy, but she was her forever family’s beloved pet.

Her passing is nevertheless a somber, poignant milestone, and Diamond will forever occupy a unique and significant place in our hearts. She introduced us to CCI – their specific commands, training methods, and approaches. She also introduced us to the world of service dogs and puppy raising, which has become one of our most central and important missions.
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Gabe and Fenwick

Because of Diamond, there was Langston – who, though he flunked out, has become our very best boy. Because of Diamond, there was Jambi, a pup-turned-breeder whose pups have directly changed the lives of dozens of people in need. Because of Diamond, there was Fenwick, whose placement with Gabe has forever made him happier. And because of Diamond, there was Jitter (now in her 5th month of Advanced Training) and Arlington (who has become a gigantic, genius goofball)… and who knows how many other pups yet to come.
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Jitter navigating the LIRR during Advanced Training; photo courtesy of her handler
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Arlington taking in ‘Black Panther.

Because of Diamond, we found one of our purposes in life. We cannot possibly express our gratitude to her, not only for being a fantastic puppy, but for introducing us to the world of service dogs. Diamond brought us into the CCI family, and nothing has been the same. Thank God.

Or, in this case, thank dog.

Godspeed, Dizey. You were a great pup, a terrific pet to your forever family, and you can bet that next time Arlington and I are stopped by someone in the grocery store, I’ll be sharing your story with them.
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Re-Structuring

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s has never exactly been what I’d call “relaxing.” Not only are a bunch of holidays thrown in there with all of their trappings, but also Ella and Annie’s birthdays (see again: I’m terrible with The Math).

Still, the month of December is, for us, the perfect bookend to the year – because the girls and I so love the traditions that that come with it. Cookie decorating, RACKing, Advent crafts, Santa meet-n-greets, watching movies, driving to see the lights, and the bazillion other things that make up our Christmas season aren’t chores we dread but the framework within which our month is built.
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This Santa remembers everything and is absolute magic, I tell you.

Most years, although the weeks go by at a breakneck pace, the mere presence of these traditions ensures order and stability. On Tuesday*, the decoration bins shall come out. By noon on the 8th*, the homemade wrapping paper shall be complete. Sixteen hours before the winter solstice*, we make our holiday donations.
*exaggerations. Mostly.

It’s a little like our own, special holiday “Camelot” – where the rain can never fall till after sundown and the moonlight appears by 9 p.m. – except without the grandiose costumes or singing.

Actually, we wear some crazy things in December and always have music playing, so scratch that.

I’ve liked it that way, having the checkpoints and guideposts to provide much-needed scaffolding in an otherwise chaotic month. This year, with Thanksgiving occurring so early (and, thus, nearly an extra week between it and Christmas), I’d assumed that I would be well on top of things and actually be able to let go, float away, and appreciate our traditions, rather than breathlessly going through the motions.

Instead of providing a jump-start to the fervor, though, those extra days seemed to slow everything down. Why start prepping the Advent calendar when there’s still so much time? Who needs wrapping paper if we’ll ship direct from Amazon? Do we really have to choose the birthday cake theme when there are still 10 days to go? It felt like wading, not floating, but that was okay.
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Then, as December unfolded and I barely managed to squeak in the Advent calendars and dust off the Elf on the Shelf, a dear friend suffered a terrible tragedy. While the community rallied together to support her and her children, I left wading behind and began to tread to keep my head above water. I missed deadlines for mailing packages without forking over the mortgage-payment-esque rush shipping fee. Ingredients that I’d planned to procure for holiday treat-making were forgotten. One afternoon, I literally drove right by the location for Ella’s swim practice until I heard her concerned voice from the back of the car, “Uh… Mom? Isn’t practice at the Y?”

Why, yes it is. Let me show you how to pull a U-Turn.

By then, I was no longer even treading. Instead, it felt like I was underwater, everything a rushing blur, popping my head up only long enough to take in a breath and get my bearings before dipping back beneath.

I began prioritizing the things with hard deadlines; everything else waited. New games? Saved for later. RACKs for our postal workers? Another time. Gingerbread houses? Christmas cookies? Setting out the Christmas village? Not today.

And I hated it. It wasn’t struggling to get things done that bothered me as much as the disappointment over what was falling by the wayside. It wasn’t necessary to send out holiday cards on time but I wanted to, damn it, and each day they were put off added more stress to what was already overwhelming.

By mid-month, I had to face reality: the scaffolding wasn’t there this time around and it wouldn’t be, period. Barring some kind of true Christmas miracle, there was simply no way I could “catch up” and put the guideposts back in place. Instead, I had to just be where we were, taking every day as it came rather than following a plan. What would happen would happen.

So we put things off. We waited. Our annual holiday movies stayed in their DVD cases. The Christmas village remained boxed. The cookies were baked but not iced. Rush, blur, beneath the surface.

I learned that being underwater has its advantages, though. See, when you’re working so hard just to keep from sinking, there is little time for anything beyond what’s necessary in the moment. This meant relinquishing control and asking for help (*gasp*), which were major ego-busters but turned out to be soul-savers. For the first time in 23 years, I asked Nick to take charge of finishing up shopping for our extended family. I asked for help with cleaning and said screw it about everything else. The girls decided on the design for our cards.
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They did turn out pretty cute…

Spending so much time beneath the surface made the moments when I did pop my head up to breathe all the sweeter. Since I was no longer relying on guideposts and was, instead, trying to get my bearings, I really noticed what was happening around me – and when I paused in those moments, it was ridiculously delicious. Somehow, Annie and I made reading our daily holiday books a priority; it became my nightly salvation. When the girls and I finally – less than a week before The Big Day – put up the Christmas village, everything else melted away for that hour.

And so it went – remaining just barely underwater as the holiday crush sped by, reveling in the brief moments when I’d pop my head above the surface long enough to be sure of my surroundings – until three days before Christmas, when the girls’ school break began and my dad and stepmom arrived. Every instant until December 22nd had been spent assuring that What Needed To Be Done Was Done… meaning, amazingly, that – sweet fancy Moses – nothing essential remained. No bills to pay. No presents to buy. No groceries to stockpile. Instead, on December 22nd, I realized there were two entire, empty days between then and Christmas to focus on everything we’d ignored for three weeks: movies, cookies, gingerbread houses, games…

Basically, everything that I’d wanted to be doing all along.

I cleared the surface, stopped treading, and let go of the overwrought water metaphor I’d been indulging all month. Let the traditions begin! We made tray after tray of cookies. We played enough games to buy stock in Milton Bradley. We watched all of our favorite movies and went to see new ones in the theater. When the girls didn’t complete their gingerbread houses right away, I finished them myself on New Year’s Eve – because I love me some gingerbread houses, by gosh.

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Sequence was our new favorite game this year; highly recommend.

This relaxing revelry did not occur only on December 23rd and 24th, but for the remainder of 2018 and a good ten days into January, as absurdly cold weather caused school closures and we were blanked with snow. We wore pajamas. We ignored bedtimes. Heck, even now, as February dawns, there is still a stack of games six deep on the living room ottoman.

Basically, Christmas lasted for a month and I loved every minute of it.

I had assumed that we needed our “usual” structure to create the scaffolding that enables us to honor our holiday traditions. Turns out, the traditions create the scaffolding, timetable be damned, however rickety and below code it may be.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is now that I know that Nick is pretty swell at selecting gifts for our siblings and that watching Home Alone on Christmas day is actually more fun than fitting it in beforehand, I will work at enlisting help and ditching the timetable a bit. LET THIS BE A LESSON TO US ALL. Maybe the structure isn’t so important as just doing what’s important.

But the holiday cards still need to be ordered earlier. Some things just need to happen on schedule, y’all.
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The Case For Facebook

One of the best side effects of my concussion is that I got hooked on podcasts. From My Brother, My Brother and Me to S-Town, The Splendid Table to The Longest Shortest Time, not a day goes by when I’m not listening, learning, or laughing (sometimes with headphones on, which makes people stop and look but that’s cool).

Perhaps most lovely was my discovery of The Hamilcast, a podcast devoted to all things Hamilton (the musical, obvs). The moment I found it, I binge-listened, then began to support the podcast through Patreon, which allowed me to join a Facebook group for likeminded Hamilcast peeps. At first, it was merely an opportunity to learn about upcoming guests in advance and put forth questions that might be asked during interviews. Over these many months, however, the Patreon group has grown into much more. We share all things Ham, of course, but also just… life. Halloween pumpkins. Business trips. Ridiculous memes. Difficult days. It is a safe haven of the internet and one of my favorite places to be.

 

The girls’ reaction to hearing their questions answered by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda himself on The Hamilcast.

That may seem like an oxymoron – “internet” and “safe haven.” And I agree; so much of the internet (like, SO MUCH) is an awful, soul-sucking wasteland. It’s exhausting and maddening. When the virtual world gets really nasty and even dog fail videos don’t help, I turn to my most reliably comforting internet spot: Facebook.

Yes, Facebook. I KNOW. For a whole lotta people, Facebook is the devil. Whether it’s preferring to interact in person rather than virtually; feeling left out or disappointed or intimidated after reading someone’s status update; being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information; growing disheartened or downright furious when you discover that your neighbor doesn’t share your political views; or just not caring that Jim decided to order the cherry finish instead of walnut, Facebook can make people get all up in their bad feelings. And I get that. A lot of what appears on my timeline isn’t exactly fascinating nor does it make me chuckle.

Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s envisioning Facebook as a place for building community and bringing the world closer together, I know that a lot of people feel much lonelier as a result of joining up. I guess I’m lucky in that Facebook has pretty much always brought me exactly what I’ve been looking for: connection and information (and lots of RIPs when celebrities die).

I don’t consider myself a school reunion type. I’ve always reasoned that the people I want most to keep in touch with are the ones with whom I, um, keep in touch… and the others, while nice enough (or not; I can think of several classmates who I still wish were perennially stuck in traffic), were just casualties of growing up and moving on. No biggie.

Then along came Facebook, and I’m friends with a bunch of these very people – folks who were mere acquaintances in 11th grade or who moved away when we were nine – who, in a world devoid of social media, I would probably have never run into again… and I wouldn’t have bemoaned that. Yet because of Facebook, despite having not actually laid eyes on these guys in 20 or 30 years, I weirdly know more about them – their jobs, where they spent the Fourth of July, which of their children or dogs dressed as poop emojis for Halloween – than I ever did in “real life.”

Even weirder? I care. When they don’t post for a while, I wonder how they are. When they succeed, I’m genuinely happy for them; when tragedy strikes, I’m honestly bummed. And, since I consider them to be friends (virtual friends? Vriends?), I value their opinions and experiences. My 7th grade math partner loves their cast iron more than their Teflon? Point taken. That kid from the cross country team had a better experience with Lyft than Uber? Interesting. My buddy who switched schools in fourth grade is talking about what it’s like to raise her adopted daughter? I’m listening.

I may never see these people again face-to-face, but being pals with them online has enriched my life. And brought me whitening toothpaste. So that’s a plus.

It’s not just my relationships with far-flung vriends (it’s gross but I’m using it) that have been enriched, though – I appreciate how Facebook has changed my “in-person” friendships, too. Life is so freakin’ busy, I don’t take the time to contact the slacker Girl Scout moms or my Mothers and More group every time I bring a dog to the vet or watch a soccer game or Nick goes out of town. But if the dog looked super adorable… or my girl scored a goal… or we ate banana splits for dinner because Nick was away… I might have put it on Facebook.
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Super adorable dog.

Which means the next time I actually get together with the Girls Scout mamas or my Mothers and More crew, we have a head start ’cause we’re already caught up on the random minutiae of one another’s days. Consider this: when I haven’t seen a friend for a while but really want to reconnect, we usually spend time with pleasantries (“Read any good books lately?” “Jeez with this rain, huh?”) as we settle in. But when we’ve been following one another’s online posts, we’re ahead of the game (“Was that her first goal of the year?” “What was the whipped-cream-to-banana ratio?”) and get right to the good stuff – the stuff that doesn’t go on Facebook.

See, I don’t use Facebook for everything; I actually keep the vast majority of my life to myself. Ironically, most of my closest friends aren’t active on Facebook (or we don’t use the platform as our primary means of discussion). When something is really important, it sure as heck won’t go on Facebook first. But I do find it an extremely efficient means of communicating, and use it often.

That’s not to say that everything appearing on my timeline is brilliant or enlightening; obviously, there’s plenty of crap. Alongside the photos of someone’s lunch and the rant about fracking, though, there’re also some really substantive things that have taught me about topics I’d never have discovered on my own. Boots for wide feet? Thanks, Facebook! How to self-publish a book? Facebook told me. The neatest sites for following hurricanes? Found ’em through Facebook. Pool liners? Paralympic athletes? Restaurants in Sicily? Secular Judaism? How to be an ally? As seen on Facebook. My timeline shows me what’s happening beyond my corner of the world, from vriends and friends I trust and respect, and I think that’s pretty solid.

Most importantly, Facebook has provided a place for connection when I’ve really needed it. This has never been more poignant than when I’ve shared my struggles with, and thoughts about, depression and anxiety – as well as the daily mistakes I’ve made being a human. After those posts, the number of people who reach out – privately and publicly – to say, “Me too. I didn’t know you felt this way. I’m so glad I’m not alone” – has been astonishing. Because of our connection through Facebook, people I know, and I, have felt stronger, supported, comforted. If nothing else good comes from it, that would be enough.

I know Facebook doesn’t work for a lot of folks because they feel their lives never measure up to the perfect ones scrolling in front of them. Maybe that’s part of why the platform does work for me: I take everyone’s updates with a grain of salt. Just as I’m aware that I only post what I want the world to see, I know the same is true for my vriends. This is especially helpful when a colleague puts up a photo of her brand new kitchen cabinets and I’m attaching mine together with wood glue and rubber bands (literally).
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No joke.

That doesn’t mean I won’t share the photo of my glued and rubber-banded cabinets (ahem); I like to keep it real. Not in an Anything Goes kind of way, but in a balanced way that reflects what’s actually happening rather than creating a shiny, polished version of my story. If it’s been a good few days, my updates will reflect that – but when I lose someone I love or spill coffee all over my purse or wear two different shoes to work, I’ll mention that, too. If the point is connection, my shiny, polished self doesn’t really allow for that.

A friend posted recently that she’d participated in a research discussion asking whether or not Facebook is good for the world. If I’d participated, I wouldn’t have been able to give a one-size-fits all response… but for my world? Facebook has been pretty dang good. Especially where The Hamilcast, dog memes, and self-help quizzes are concerned.
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Listening to The Hamilcast… with cute dogs.

There Goes My Heart

For the past 19 months, Jitter (our 5th service dog-in-training with Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI) was our pup. She went everywhere with us – movies, airplanes, the grocery store, you name it. She especially went everywhere with me; when I didn’t bring her with me, it felt empty and strange, like missing a phantom limb.

This afternoon, Nick returned Jitter to CCI to begin (what we hope will be) six months of Advanced Training, ultimately culminating in her becoming a service dog of some sort (fingers crossed). This is the part that sucks.
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Back in 2011 when it was time to turn in our second CCI pup, Langston, I made that adventure solo (well, my dad joined me for the actual turn-in, which was extremely comforting). Returning the dogs is always awful, but doing it on my own was particularly difficult; this time, I asked Nick to please be the one to return Jitter (I like to share). He generously obliged. I’m sure it was also particularly difficult, despite my dad’s attendance once again. And now, after 19 months, we’ll have to get used to the strangeness not having the incredible Jittsy-Bitsy by our sides.

As I’ve mentioned before, Jitter’s mama was our third CCI pup, Jambi, who was recruited from the service dog ranks to become a breeder. Since doing so, Jambi has had four litters (with a fifth on the way). Her first litter graduated this summer and fall – and, to our amazement and wonder, every single one of her pups (barring a fella that was released for medical issues) was placed with someone in need. It seems that Jambi – who was, herself, a tremendous pup-in-training – breeds some very special dogs.
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Mama Jambi with Jitter’s litter. 

Jitter is no exception. Typically, it takes us a while to truly warm up to our pups. Sure, they’re cute and all… but they also have really sharp teeth. And accidents. And they make meals out of refrigerator magnets and socks. So, our relationship with our puppies is usually quite businesslike until they stop chewing through table legs. Even when we finally fall in love, one of us is generally more smitten with a given pup than the rest of us (see: Fenwick). That’s just how it works.

Within a few weeks of Ms. Bitsy Boots’s arrival, we had all – the four of us – fallen head over heels for her. Yeah, she was super smart and learned her commands in an instant. She was a terrific size – small for a Lab but still solid. She had the most gorgeous, soulful brown eyes.
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But it was Jitter’s personality that drew us, and everyone who met her, in. She was the absolutely perfect combination of goofy but intelligent, playful but serious, sweet but mischievous, energetic but completely unflappable. To wit: last week, as I was talking with folks at the Y about Jitter’s return to CCI, they reached down to pet her – and commented that her single tail wag was the most excitement they’d seen her show. Two days later, I told our wonderful housecleaner/petsitter that it would be her last opportunity to visit with Jitter. She, in turn, told me how much she’d miss her – because of her exuberance and silliness.

She was, in a word, the very best. (Okay, that’s three words, whatever.) It wasn’t just us, either. When we took Jitter to Minnesota last summer, Nick’s sister, Nelle, pulled us aside to tell us that, if Jitter was released from the program, she’d like to consider Jitter for their family’s first dog. Nick’s mom, Karen, had visited us earlier in the summer and had already met our pup. As we we hung out with her and Nick’s stepdad in the Twin Cities, Karen remarked that she was grateful Grandpa Ray could meet Jittsy – because they’d love to adopt her if she were to flunk out. Before we left, Nick’s other sister, Emily, informed us that she’d talked with her husband… and they’d decided they were ready to have a second dog – Jitter, to be more specific.
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Thankfully, should Jitter wind up not making it through to graduation, we won’t have to risk starting World War III with Nick’s mother and siblings – because we decided long ago that she’d stolen our hearts and we would bring her home if given the chance. Even more thankfully, we have a feeling that we won’t have the opportunity to get Jitter back in our lives; surely a dog so smart, so dang purdy, and with such a fabulously versatile personality is meant to be helping people, don’t you think?

Last night, I posted on Facebook that even though this is our fifth go-round, it doesn’t get any easier. At the time, that was true. I cried my way through yesterday and felt nauseated all evening long anticipating Jitter’s departure. CCI is kind enough to provide a live-stream of its matriculations and graduations, so I watched from home as Nick and our girl crossed the stage and received her diploma and a handshake. I kept watching as the current graduating class – the folks who’d been paired up with the dogs – officially took the leashes and began their new lives together.

It was then, through my tears (always with the tears on graduation day), that I remembered our 4th CCI pup, Fenwick’s, graduation last summer. Like, I remembered it – how it felt sitting in those seats with Fen at our feet for the first time in six months, waiting for Gabe‘s name to be called so we could hand over the leash. I felt the anxiety… but also the hope. The pride. The relief. And, most predominantly, the joy of having him become Gabe’s forever partner – and the joy of having played even a small role in that.
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Watching the live-stream, as I felt that happiness and hope wash over me, I was somewhat astonished to discover my sadness over returning Jitter had lessened. Not entirely, of course – when you give a perfect dog your heart for 19 months and send her away, it’s next to impossible for it not to affect you. But when we returned Fenwick, none of our previous pups (or their offspring) had graduated yet. Now that we’ve seen Jambi’s puppies change lives… and now that we’ve seen Fenwick with Gabe… it feels different. More peaceful. Maybe even a little easier.

It has to help that, this time around, Jitter’s departure is not leaving us puppy-less. Seven weeks ago, we welcomed our 6th CCI pup, Arlington, into the fold. He’s still in that climb-into-the-dishwasher, inhale-everything-that’s-not-nailed-down phase, but good grief… is he ever cute. He also needs to be, you know, fed and walked and trained, so he provides a very welcome distraction. And, in another couple of months, he’ll be ready to accompany us to the movies, too (just in time for The Last Jedi – holla!).
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I’m still sad as heck that my little shadow isn’t here anymore, and we’ll be counting down the days till her monthly updates… but I’m going to try to share my heart with Arlington, too.

Go get ’em, Boots! You’ve so totally got this. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
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Concussed… and Changed

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I fell down the stairs and got a concussion. There’s no sugarcoating it: getting a concussion sucks. I hate pretty much everything about it.

Except I think having the concussion has changed my entire approach to life, parenting, and how I treat myself. And I think this approach is better than my old one.

But everything else I hate.

One of my favorite refrains is, “I got this.” It’s a source of encouragement when I’m overwhelmed; a battle cry when I’m underestimated. A 12-hour work day on five hours sleep? I got this. Boot camp, despite a knee injury? I got this. Installing a dishwasher by myself? I GOT THIS.

Most of the time, perseverance is a really good thing. But sometimes, this insistent independence can be a problem. See, I’m super awful at asking for – or accepting – help. I usually try to go it alone because I don’t want to bug anyone. I got this.

Likewise, I am terrible at giving myself the chance to rest. Days after my c-section with Annie, I defied my OB-GYN’s orders, lifted up two year-old Ella, and tore my stitches. Years ago, after pulling a hamstring, I eschewed rest and began to run again almost immediately… which, brilliantly, resulted in my inability to run for a full 12 months.

Resting is anathema to my ADHD self. Even when I follow the experts’ advice and “rest,” it’s a modified version – like when you tell kids not to draw on the walls and they draw on the door instead and are all, “WHAT? I’M NOT DRAWING ON THE WALL!”

Then, I fell down the damned stairs. And everything changed.
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Langston was very concerned about me…

Not that instant, though. Even as I huddled on the floor, bruised and bleeding, I brushed off Nick’s concerns. “I’m fine! Nothing’s broken!” I showered and got the kids off to school as though everything were normal. And then my head really began to hurt.

After posting a self-deprecating story on Facebook , several friends said they were available to offer assistance, so you’d think I’d have taken them up on the offer.
Nah. I got this.
Totally drove myself to urgent care because I didn’t want to be a bother.

Lemme tell you what would have been an even bigger bother: asking a friend to post bail if I’d hit a tree  because my concussed brain couldn’t think straight. SUPER AWFUL AT ASKING FOR HELP.

Honestly, I figured I’d be back to mostly-normal pretty quick – modified, Emily-style “rest.” I told Nick, “People get concussions all the time. It’s no big deal.” “No,” he countered, “People get concussions all the time and they think it’s no big deal, which is why they’re not taken seriously.”

It became apparent really fast that a concussion can, indeed, be a big deal, and that I couldn’t “rest” my way out.

No matter what I did (or didn’t do), exhaustion would overtake me. I hated that.
I hated being tired. I hated napping. I hated that this one little fall, this seemingly innocuous event, had turned me into a version of myself that I didn’t recognize and didn’t want to be.
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Flying + Concussion = VERY SPECIAL

I couldn’t drive. For a week. Not even home from urgent care (Nick got me).
I hated it.

I hated not being responsible for my own self. I hated Nick leaving work to take me places. I hated feeling like I was burdening him.

Nick never once complained. NOT ONCE. Not even when he drove – after a full work day – to the wrong place to pick up the printout of my CT because I neglected to tell him it was at urgent care and he drove to the radiology office instead. This is a man who lays on his horn at least twice daily, and not once did he so much as raise an eyebrow at being my taxi. Which was more than a little humbling.

People like to help. I know this, because I like to help. One of my biggest parenting priorities is showing the girls how amazing it feels to help others.
But receiving help was a whole different ballgame.

The “cure” for a concussion? Lie down, I’d been told. Minimal screen use. Don’t read. Dim light. Limited exercise. Most important: rest. Let your brain rest. It’s been banged up. It needs to heal. REST YOUR BRAIN.

Well, let me be the first to tell you that resting your brain is REALLY FREAKIN’ BORING. “Boredom” is not something I typically experience. I am Energizer Mom, Super-Emily. Even in my so-called down time, I’m multitasking – folding the laundry while listening to the girls read; sorting recipes while watching a movie; painting nails while drinking wine (#fail).

Heck, at least when I’m sick, I get to dive into a good book or watch a Star Wars marathon. I hated not even being able to read a magazine or scroll through Instagram. I hated being unproductive. I hated feeling like I was wasting time.

Still, just this once, I listened. I took it easy. I was tremendously fortunate that last week was spring break because it allowed me the opportunity to rest and withdraw without missing out on work or the girls’ activities.
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Lying on a beach chair is good for a concussion

We headed down to Kiawah and visited my dad and stepmom. I think I now understand what nursing home patients feel like, with their caretakers all up in their business, not allowed to do even the simplest of tasks. My dad would not let me be. “How do you feel? No, you may not ride a bike today. How’re you doing? How’s your head? Lie down. No, you’re not doing that. Yes, you are doing this. How do you feel? Let me help.” 

I hated it.
I hated feeling trapped. I hated being hovered over.
I also hated that I really needed it to happen. 

I’m still annoyed with the whole nursing home treatment, but I know he was right. I’m lucky my dad was there.

Before we left, he admonished me to continue to take it easy and not immediately return to “Supermom Emily-who-does-everything.” At that, Annie piped up, “She really does do everything. She helps with our homework, she listens to stories, she fixes things around the house, she teaches, she exercises, she cooks dinner…” She looked at me, eyes narrowing, and finished with, “You know mom, you really do do everything.” (Well, duh.)

That’s the way that it is for so many of us moms/primary caregivers, isn’t it? We do everything. We got this. It’s an image and a role that I’ve not only assumed, but cultivated – even reveled in. Moreover, I like it. I like showing Ella and Annie that we as women are capable of doing whatever we set our minds to, from designing websites to lifting weights, repairing washing machines to running corporations. I’ve never wanted my girls to think that being female is a detriment, and I’ve done everything I can to lead by example.

Except… in doing everything, in always soldiering ahead, in perpetual “I got this” mode, I’ve forgotten to show them that part of being a badass, confident, capable and healthy woman is treating your body with respect when it needs to heal – and that accepting help from others is not weak, but strong.

At first, I was embarrassed for the girls to see me couch-bound. Pre-concussion, this would have been unthinkable. I was sad and worried they’d see my incapacity and view it – view me – negatively. I’m the Energizer Mom, damnit; I keep going. Instead, they were confused… but then kind of awed. “Whoa. You’re napping. You must really be tired… And you didn’t try to stay up late doing laundry.

Mom. That’s pretty awesome.”

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Also awesome: the sweet shades Annie helped create to help me use the computer.

Rather than see my doing less and giving myself a break as a bad thing, they’ve become my biggest cheerleaders – and leaders, period. Three days ago, I became exhausted attending Annie’s soccer team dinner. Ella told me to sit down. “But I’ve never met these parents! I should be polite!” She physically took my arm. “Mom. You need to sit. No one will care – and if they do? That’s their problem.”

She was right, of course. So I sat. I accepted her advice, her assistance. This is uncharted territory for me – requesting, and taking, help. But since the concussion, I’ve had no choice. I’ve needed help. I don’t got this. It’s difficult and humbling. I mean, I know it’s true that being willing to admit vulnerability and ask for help is not weak; it’s brave.

I know that.
I suck at doing it.
But I’m learning.

I’m proud of the strong, independent, kickass example I’ve been setting for Annie and Ella. But there are different kinds of strong, and sometimes “independence” goes too far. By neglecting to take breaks when my body needed them, by pushing myself too hard, by trying to go things alone and always trying to “got it,” I’ve done us all a disservice.

How can I expect my daughters to respect their bodies and themselves if I don’t do it, myself?

For the past 18 days, I’ve been trying.
It’s a slow process. I’m not myself yet. I still hate it.

But this *%&$ concussion has caused me to change my approach to nearly everything… which is one of the best things that ever happened to me – and to my girls.

(Plus also I’ve discovered podcasts. HOW DID I LIVE BEFORE PODCASTS??)
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A Different Kind of Church

Dear God,
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As you know, when I became a parent, I had hopes and dreams for my kids. Some of those were the usual growing-up wishes (be healthy, learn to tie their shoes, not get suspended, win a Nobel prize). Others were more specifically related to my desire for them to dig the stuff that I dig.
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I hoped they would love snow instead of curse it. I crossed my fingers they’d like games and puzzles, envisioning late night hands of Hearts or all-family Scattergories battles. Enjoying chocolate fell somewhere between a want and a necessity; I could probably have let it slide if they agreed that bacon makes everything better.
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Ella and Annie have fulfilled those hopes, and then some. They have their own interests, of course. And they certainly don’t like everything that I do. (I had to go through some actual mourning when I finally came to terms with the fact that they are probably not summer camp kids and will likely never sleep away at my childhood haunt.)
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This makes it all the sweeter when they genuinely fall in love with something that makes my world go ’round. I mean, their enjoyment of most things Disney has totally made their teething days worthwhile. But it was what happened last Sunday – and my realization that they share one of my passions as deeply as I do – that made me decide to write to you.
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My girls are musicals maniacs.
Just like their mama (and their grandmama before).
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School of Rock, 2015
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Growing up an hour outside of Manhattan, my family and I were fortunate enough to make it to the Big Apple several times a year to see the musicals on the Great White Way.
My mom was a theater major in college – which, in my eyes, made her all-knowledgeable. Whenever possible, we would sit in the front row of the balcony or mezzanine so that she could point out the stage markings. I was fascinated to learn that miniature Xs indicated STAND HERE, thrilled every time I could see someone waiting in the wings.
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It wasn’t just the performances, however. Before that curtain ever went up, this feeling would begin to build. (Not loathing; trust me.) It began with seeing the show’s name glittering on the marquee, increasing as the ushers greeted us at the door and continuing to grow as we stopped at the concession stand (you think we missed an opportunity to grab Junior Mints, Milk Duds, or Peanut M&Ms? Think again).
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My first Broadway musical, 1980
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Every theater in my memory is adorned in velvet, with plush carpeting wall-to-wall, curving staircases, chandeliers, gilded portraits. Although we scarcely dressed up for other more formal locations (*cough* church), we always wore “something nice” to see a Broadway musical. Which, come to think of it, was kind of like church to me.
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When I close my eyes even now and imagine settling into my seat (always too small and uncomfortable), then hearing the opening strains of the overture prior to the curtain rising… that same feeling, that rush of adrenaline, fills me. Something was starting – something organic, something unique to that moment; an exchange between the performers and the audience, where we could be lead into a world that, minutes ago, didn’t exist. It was redeeming and transcendental. I came alive and was made new, whole, believing.

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Yes, musicals were definitely my church. Sorry, God.
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Meeting the cast of the incredible Lion King touring production, 2011
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Over the years, there were hits and misses. We walked out of at least one production but saw others twice out of sheer adoration. I was in high school when Les Mis and Phantom rose to popularity, which meant I was at that perfect, angsty, drama-prone age where it actually sounded romantic to be seduced/kidnapped by a mystical, abusive, masked madman or ponder being forever on my own (pretending he’s beside me). For hours, I listened to those shows’ soundtracks in my bedroom, poring over every heart-tugging word, every climactic chord change, every piercing harmony.
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I prayed over musicals.
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As luck/fate/You would have it, Nick is not a Broadway fan. He tolerates most musicals and, at least once a year, somewhat grudgingly accompanies me to a show – but they’re really not his thing. (He says this is because he acted in so many musicals growing up, he got them out of system. I say this is because he’s a poop.)
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Despite Nick’s lack of interest, I knew I was going to do everything possible to try and indoctrinate my girls to the wonderful world of Broadway. The soundtracks to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Annie, and The Sound of Music were in regular rotation when they were little. Instead of watching cat videos, we’d huddle around YouTube and watch clips from the Tonys. (And, okay, also cat videos.)
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When Ella was four, my mom, stepdad, and I took her to her first Broadway musical (The Little Mermaid). I think she liked it, but really, what I remember most is how I forgot that traffic would be an absolute bear after a matinee, meaning it would take three times longer than usual to drive home and perhaps packing a snack or taking a bathroom break before loading up for the gridlock drive would have been a good idea.
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My ears still hurt from the screaming.
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BUT LOOK AT HER OMG
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That was the beginning. At least once a year when we visit my mom, we are fortunate enough to take the girls to a musical on “actual” Broadway. The girls’ first joint show was the same as mine – Peter Pan, seen up close from the orchestra with Peter (her)self flying overhead. I’m not sure they were hooked, but it definitely made an impression. Rochester is also a super theater-appreciative city, with excellent touring productions coming through. The girls usually look forward to going, but until recently, I wouldn’t have said they loved it like their mama.
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Dolled up for Peter Pan, 2011
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Within the last couple of months, though, something seems to have changed. Maybe it’s general Hamilton mania… maybe it’s just that they’re older… but their musicals radar has suddenly tuned in. They notice which shows are playing and at which theater. They talk about how they’d like to see a particular production, but they’d “really like front row balcony seats because they’re the best, right mom?”
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(Sorry, God. I’m working on humility.)
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I had taken them to see Wicked when it was here in 2012. At 6 and 8 years old, they liked it well enough, but they didn’t truly get its complexity and humor. When I learned that the touring production would be returning, I knew we needed to see it again.
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In advance of last weekend’s show, we prepped (as we always do) – reviewing the characters and plot, listening to the soundtrack, researching the actors’ biographies. As the Big Day drew closer, Annie’s anticipation intensified. Out of nowhere, she’d be standing in front of me, fists clenched in jubilation. “Mama! I Can’t believe it’s only two days till Wicked! I AM SO EXCITED!!!.”
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Aladdin, 2014
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At last, Sunday arrived (none too soon for Annie). Worried that the production’s intensity might be too much for her, I offered to sit between her and Ella – but they wanted me on the aisle, with Annie farthest in. From the flying monkeys’ appearance to Elphaba and Fiyero’s departure, I couldn’t pry her eyes from the stage. She was entranced, for good.
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Ella, on the other hand, routinely interacted with me, pointing out costume changes, unexpected staging, and raising her eyebrows with approval whenever someone nailed a difficult part. She also seemed to be looking somewhere other than the stage, although I couldn’t tell where until intermission when she breathlessly asked me what “the man was doing with all those buttons.” After learning that he was the gentleman in charge of the sound/mixing board, she was enthralled. “He’s making that happen?? THAT IS SO COOL.”
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When the final bows had been taken, Ella slipped her hand in mine as we exited the theater. “Mama. That was so good.”
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“It really was, kiddo, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I mean… it was really good.”
“I think so, too!”
“Can we see it again?” 
“Sure! Next time it comes to Rochester, we’ll get tickets.”
“No… I mean, like, tomorrow…”
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Ohhhhh. I get it now.
My girls have found in Wicked what I found in Les Mis and Phantom. They’ve been bitten by the musicals bug. SWEET FANCY MOSES.
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In the week since the production, “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” and “What Is This Feeling” have been sung nonstop. They’re researching which show they’d like to attend when we visit London next summer. They and some friends are also working on a full-scale backyard production of Hamilton, complete with choreography, props, lighting, and costume changes.
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Yes, they taped the lyrics to the shower. Multitasking at its finest.
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In short, they’ve come to church.
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Thanks, God, for this glorious turn of events. They may never go to sleep-away camp, but if I can share musicals with them, it’s more than a fair trade.
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A Wicked selfie