More backhoes

11 Jul

 

Every few feet, I find another piece of loose dog food, each morsel thrown one at a time by my toddler while I was in the bathroom. My hours’ long headache unwavering, I pick up the pieces and also cars, trains and construction equipment left like carnage in my toddler’s room, so I can get him settled for a distraction-free naptime. As soon as it was done, he deemed now the time to resume train-play:

No! No! No! No clean up!

*Takes every transportation vessel out of bin and scatters to floor, carries four trains to other room to “choo-choo!” his way to happiness*

After further stalling to say goodnight to our dog, he finally relented to the nap and I headed into the kitchen to attack a sink full of dishes when all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep off this immune-to-pain-relievers headache.  In this moment, I had never felt more like a full-time mom.

Usually, I can get the dishes done in the morning while my toddler is eating breakfast or playing on the floor. But today was one of those days where he had an eye on trouble and my eyes off of him for a moment meant throwing all his food to our dog or throwing all the dog’s food at the walls. Or eating the dog’s food–I am certain that also happened.  So instead I met him where he was and diverted his mischief into other things, and we played with backhoes! all morning long.

Backhoe is a word I certainly knew but hadn’t heard uttered in possibly years. I now hear that word at least 20 times before breakfast.

Early in the morning: I wan’ play backhoes!

(While playing backhoes): I wan’ watch backhoes!

(While watching You Tube videos explaining parts of backhoe): I want backhoe digging!

(While watching videos of especially skilled backhoe driver dig and fill a trench): I want backhoe!

(While on a walk, one passes us–South Florida is perpetually under construction) Fox: See backhoe? Me: Actually, honey, that’s a front-end loader. Fox: Fron-end yoder! Fron-end yoder!

That is his new daily mantra, and when did I start clarifying the subtleties of tractors?

Before my son became fixated on construction equipment (how many times did I read the book Roadwork? or I’m a Backhoe or Bulldozer’s Big Day?), I was perfectly content to mentally acknowledge random piece of construction equipment without a single care to know which kind it was. Now I have joined in on the fascination–let’s talk stabilizing legs and the difference between an excavator and a backhoe. Do you have a few minutes to discuss the prevalence of front-end loaders in our neighborhood? Or that some concrete boom trucks reach up to 200 ft?

My summer morning routine now includes watching You Tube videos with Fox. A sampling:

Parts of a backhoe / how to operate a backhoe (Informative, but had to overlook the abnormally annoying “just for kids!” host wearing neon suspenders and glasses)

Backhoe vs. excavator: who will win? (Spoiler alert: always bet on the backhoe)

Backhoes rescuing other backhoes in Southeast Asia (Next level stuff)

Backhoe driver steering backhoe onto flat-bed truck using scoop as leverage (I was impressed)

Front-end loaders and dump trucks: best buddies (not actual title)

Garbage trucks with a front-end loader (sounded good, but snoozefest)

Twenty Trucks Channel, aka truck video nirvana. (Videos of yes, 20 different trucks set to original songs that both inform and entertain adults and toddlers. Fox bobs his head in rhythm to lyrics about a bulldozer, and I am still reeling from the stirring emotion of the con-crete pump, con-crete pump, boooooooooooom chorus as the truck dutifully pours the floor of a Seattle Seahawks stadium. Y’all, I am watching these videos on my own because my toddler’s attention span no longer matches my interest. Major pride point when Fox identified a front-end loader without its scoop on a walk today. He didn’t let that grappling attachment fool him).

This brings me to my teacher summer stay-at-home Mom life in general. My first week, I over-planned activities in order to make the most of my time with him! and while I became a master of scheduling and snack prep, I was ready to quit on day #4 (or go to bed at 7 pm). Turns out you don’t have to go to the pool, the library, the children’s museum and take a toddler out to eat all in one day.

My second week I got smarter, took it easy on the outings and took more long walks using the stroller, which meant our dog got to run sometimes and chase more lizards/squirrels and I got to listen to podcasts while talking to Fox about all the world we were seeing while he was eating his snack (I don’t use headphones–I make everyone else in the neighborhood also listen.)

Now I’m fully in it with a good groove and it’s pretty great–I am truly enjoying every moment.  Except the moments at the beginning of this post or when he’s hot and cranky but refuses to come inside because playing with trucks on the sand table is too euphoric to leave and it takes a dangerous mix of sand and sweat to the eyes to bring the tantrum and I have to wrestle his clothes off and hose him off in the front yard to calm him down.

Nothing to see here, neighbors! Level 9 parenting in progress.

Those moments don’t last in my memory–they can feel unbearable in those minutes they transpire–especially if I slam my knee into a car on the floor in the middle of one–but they fade quickly and all I can remember is the hour Fox spent driving cars and backhoes up my arms and legs while naming each one, his unwavering excitement for peanut butter toast or watching him sift through the newest library books, eyes lit with anticipation to read The Magical Life of Mr. Renny. Book-a-read! he shouts after each one, hoping there’s always one more book.

 

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Eat breakfast on Mother’s Day

17 May

File_000 (12)The day of mothers arrived like any other Sunday. Our terrier woke me shortly after 7, and I got dressed to take him out, not a peep from the toddler yet. I crept past the room of the baby we kept up too late the night before who seemed to be sleeping in.

Returning from a brief walk to silence inside the house, I prepared oatmeal and pears in a tiny bowl + spoon. Then I walked toward the silence and opened the nursery door to find a standing 21-month-old and the contents of his crib spilled onto the middle of the floor. It was mostly babas [his word for stuffed animal], plus whatever he could reach from the table next to the crib. “I throw shoes!” he announced as I entered the room. Yes, yes, Mommy’s so proud! 

Here’s an appropriate time to speak to non-parents. It seems insane that you could literally think every new phrase your child utters is adorable. And yet before going to bed each night, Aaron and I imitate his little voice, recap his best-of-trying-to-talk hits. I never understood this before I lived it every day. I was perplexed when parents repeated their mispronunciations. Really? That’s what happens to you when you have children?

Yes, that is exactly what happens. And it is a f**king miracle. I will never grow tired of the almost-rights or not-even-close’s. Moonana = banana (or Nana, referring to his grandmothers); Godada = gorilla. His current favorite book involves a godada eating a moonana, of course. The fruit, not the person (oh my, did that cute anecdote take a turn.)

After breakfast and books, the boy wants to watch “Elmo!” and I want to drink coffee and it’s Mother’s Day, so yes to Sesame Street, especially when it’s raining outside. It seems like a great idea until the Letter of the Day song enters my psyche via earworm and three days later I am still spontaneously shouting “Clap! Clap!” and bobbing my head while doing the dishes. And I may tell myself, this is not my music. This is not my beautiful music. 

Once the rain stops and we are preparing to go outside, Aaron is now awake and stirring. I realize it sounds bad that Aaron is still asleep on Mother’s Day, but we have an arrangement where we take turns on weekends getting up early and Sundays are my days because Saturdays I am so sleep-deprived from getting up at 5:30 am. We could’ve switched but I never saw the need. This may have led to several other assumptions on my part that proved problematic. When we walked into the bedroom to greet Aaron, nothing unusual happened, just cute toddler giggling and him rolling around between us. We discuss that our previous plan to go to the park for a picnic may be thwarted because rain = puddles everywhere for our puddle-loving son to sit directly in. Not relaxing, too many wardrobe changes. Also, we have no groceries yet (Sunday is go-to-the-store day) and not enough time to do all of that before naptime (which is typically when Aaron goes to the store). It’s fine, I say, let’s go for a walk.

At this point, the leftover toddler oatmeal and coffee start to wear off and I start to feel how hungry I am under full Florida sun. I then start to realize that not only did I not eat an actual breakfast, but my husband never actually said Happy Mother’s Day to me and it’s after 11 a.m.. After a flurry of realizations on both our parts, we attempt to repair the damage by agreeing to go out to lunch (not brunch!). We choose a place that opens at 12 to avoid the motherly brunch crowd.

We arrive and order and I decide maybe to feel fancy and more celebrated I should order a mimosa before our pizza comes. Nothing says Mom like pizza and a mimosa. While food significantly improved my mood, turns out day-drinking wasn’t the solution when you still have to parent a toddler. Instead of coming home refreshed, I had to take a nap when the baby did. The rest of afternoon felt like a long march until bedtime + Sunday chores.

Laundry, dishes, lunches. *The drudgery*

When I first started making Fox’s lunches, I thought I had entered into some kind of motherhood nirvana. Cutting up foods into tiny portions into tiny containers: It felt so nurturing, so adorable. When he was 8 months old, I remember stacking up his purees, color-coded like an artform, and packing them into a cooler for a road trip. Sweet potatoes, green beans, carrots, beets, squash, all stacked in Pantone precision. And then once he got to the 1-year-old class, gone were the purees you could freeze in mass and just defrost–it became something I had to do every night. At first, it was a ritual that I cherished: cutting the grapes, cheese, vegetables, strawberries, hard-boiled egg, the ham, the avocado: the nutrients! I placed tiny containers into a cute lunchbox ergonomically designed to look like a snail. Why do people complain about this?

Eight months in, I had only swears for those f*king grapes.

Wash them, cut them in half, no fourths, maybe eights? These are enormous grapes and the internet and my mom keep warning me about grape choking.

It is routine.

It is repetitive.

It is the kind of thing my husband is so good at.

For months, he made our week’s lunches on Sundays. That man loves to chop things en masse. He ordered a 30 quart bowl online to make the task easier. Yes, the bowl is so comically large that it is nearly impossible to wash in our sink, but eating fresh food for lunch every day is such a blessing. When left to make my own lunches recently, I made toddler food. Tiny containers with hard-boiled eggs, shredded chicken, peas and carrots with a side of fruit and cheese. My lunch preparation brain is so wired for child portions, I flounder when asked to cook for myself. Every since Fox was born, Aaron has shifted to doing most of the adult meal prep. I lost that part of my routine–I donated it all to my son, so when Aaron’s not home, I end up eating hummus and carrots or fruit and cheese for dinner: a meal of appetizers!

There’s a line in a book Fox used to love to read that says “some Daddies take care of Mommies so they can take care of you.” The illustration is of a family of foxes, no less. While Aaron also regularly takes care of Fox, there are these routines that I complain about that don’t even make him flinch. He just grabs that planet-sized bowl and chops and stirs and portions while I am folding laundry or putting food into tiny containers.

So when Aaron falls asleep the night before Mother’s Day before putting the card out on the table for the morning, I forgive him.  What he does every other Sunday is far more important.

Next year, I will be more clear that I do, however, want to eat breakfast on Mother’s Day.

Helplessness means you’re doing it right

1 Oct

file_000Picture it: Baby is napping, the laundry is running and I finally have a chance to take a shower before our neighbors’ barbecue. At the end of the shower, I hear a gurgle. Water is slow to drain but I think we’ll have to get a coat hanger and clean my hair out of the drain later. (Not my first clogged drain.)

I am drying off and then it happens.

The rising.

A darkened sludge starts to accelerate its pace from the drain upwards, carrying with it the wriggling legs of a thousand cockroaches.

The horror!

Just as I’ve come to grips with what is in front of my face, the toilet water joins the assault and spills onto the floor. I race to the closet and throw down Aaron’s strangely XXL-sized towels to stop the water from gushing down the hallway. I send a bunch of emergency texts to Aaron because as I gaze upon this sewage attack, I realize I have no idea how to make it stop.

I am instantly helpless and grateful.

That turns out to be the perfect way to explain how parenting feels.

When I think back to those seemingly endless nights of my son NOT sleeping, I was brilliant at spinning it into a positive to maintain my sanity. Here’s an actual thing I said to Aaron one night after sleeping for an hour and over-reading about infant sleep: “He just needs our help more than other babies.”

HE NEEDS US. THIS IS NORMAL. I AM AT PEACE WITH THIS SLEEP DEPRIVATION. NO ONE IS HELPLESS HERE.

This mentality led me to sleeping for, at one point, 30 minutes a night. There’s no spinning that: my demise was near. So I broke ALL THE RULES and slept with him for two months until he was ready to transition to his crib (which remained right next to our bed until he was 7 months old because ARE WE SURE HE’S READY?)

He was ready. He immediately started waking up less when we weren’t right next to him waking him up. Turns out he’s a light sleeper.

Sleep eventually became a dependable commodity in my house, but there was a period near the end of the school year when my stash of frozen milk was dwindling and I wasn’t pumping enough at work to keep up with baby’s appetite. It was May. I had almost finished six months of pumping three times a day and teaching six periods a day with 25 minutes of planning and no lunch because pumping. To be that close to the end and not make it induced panic. Had I started supplementing with formula several months before, this probably wouldn’t have fazed me. But one more month might as well have been a broadsword dealing the final stroke against working moms.

At the time, Aaron was buying formula just in case and reassuring me that it would be fine. That’s nice, honey, but I am too deep into crisis mode to hear rational thought, so just hand me some pumping supplies at 10 p.m., so I can do this for the 5th time today instead of sleeping. 

It became a weird challenge for myself–another moment of helplessness I was trying to control. If I just do more, I can conquer this. Fox would have been fine either way–this was about me. I needed to win this one. The whole school year had been a blur, me trying to balance this thing that kept me connected to my son while away from him, while also trying to do right by my students.

I decided I would not be taken down by 30 days on a calendar, and so I doubled down.

Pump. Teach. Pump. Teach. Pump. Teach. Pump. BABY! Pump. Dinner. Dishes. Grade. Pump. Sleep. Repeat.

Day by day, the helplessness faded and the formula stayed on the shelf.

The cockroach water receded, the towels were washed and a Roto-Rooter visit later, we could flush the toilet again.  It was as if nothing had happened here.

Before bed that night, I gazed down the clean hallway past the door of my sleeping baby and the only thing I felt was grateful.

This is not a Mommy blog

9 Apr
IMG_0847

Baby at 4 months old

Note: I wrote most of this post in November and kept meaning to perfect it, but never did. But here it is, perspective may be fresh off maternity leave, but most of it still applies. Fitting in real reading and writing that is non-work related is still on my to-do list. 

Let’s get this out of the way: I reproduced. I created progeny. I am technically a mother.

That identity feels pretty foreign to me, however. It’s more like I have a full-time job caring for an infant, a job I sometimes outsource during the day to two nice ladies who love babies.

I love this baby. I am probably addicted to this baby. I can be found staring at this baby when he is sleeping instead of sleeping myself. If I am not his mother, I am a creepy baby stalker (or an oxytocin addict looking for her next fix, one of the two).

Despite this, when I get tricked into reading “Mommy posts” that Facebook and Pinterest suggest to me after thoroughly spying on my Google searches, I do not identify with most of the writers. It feels awkward to write about motherhood without swimming in cliches or trying to sound above the entire process.

When a friend suggested I start blogging about motherhood, I thought it would be too much like that story at the beginning of recipe blogs–no one cares about the origins of your eggplant or how apricots make you feel in summer; we are all scrolling down for the recipe. I imagined that unless I was offering practical tips–like how to make flying with a baby easier (lists I did read before our Christmas flight), I didn’t think anyone would want to read it. Having a child is such a common experience after all, and I didn’t feel like I fit these common types of Mommy bloggers:

Crafty, organic, picture-perfect, precious Mommy. These blogs feature gorgeous photography of not only the home-grown foods she will feed her children, but also the children preciously posed in the garden with hand-sewn clothing. Posts use phrases like “grateful she chose me”and “so honored to love him.”

Perfectionist, organized, master of scheduling Mommy. Focus is on how to do everything better because they are definitely doing it better than you and here’s how!

Sarcastic, cool, I’m not taking any of this seriously Mommy. Posts contain profanity, constant jokes, and frequent mentions of hip culture references so you know they haven’t let motherhood downgrade their fashion sense or taste in TV. They have time to parent and watch Orange is the New Black. F**k yeah!

Angry, complaining, no one has ever been this tired Mommy. The writing is aimed outward, never inward–posts focus on the worst parts of parenting and the people who make it harder. These blogs read like advertisements for never having kids or associating with anyone who does.

* * * *

The following topics dominate the discussion in those recommended posts I mentioned above; they unite and divide mothers, yet I don’t have a firm stance on any topic. I say mothers specifically because the expectations are so high for them and the criticism so strong for perceived failures. Fathers enjoy the benefit of low expectations (which are insulting to them, by the way).

A father takes a nap with his baby and it’s precious: he’s #1 Dad! Meanwhile, a mom co-sleeps with her baby and gets a lecture on SIDS.

  1. Infertility 

It took us close to four years to have a baby, so this is a subject with which I am quite familiar. The road was long and emotionally fraught at times, but worth the outcome. Whenever I read that sentiment about the baby choosing the parents, it doesn’t register because in our case, in all the ways we could choose to have this baby, we CHOSE. I imagine that goes double for adoptive parents. The exception of course is when parents adopt a child they already know; in that case the child chose them and the parents chose the child, and I will now stop trying to explain all potential choosing scenarios. We chose, the end. I learned during our journey just how many people I knew were struggling with the same issues. This support helped to see us through and while I don’t have dramatic feelings about our process, Aaron and I are both open to talking about it with others if they ask. When people find out it took a while for you to get pregnant, they sometimes get tragic eyes. It’s sweet of them, but it always makes me uncomfortable. I never felt like we were dealing with something unconquerable, even if we were never able to conceive.

What I learned: You’ll never know how you’ll feel on the issue until faced with this situation. We had to listen to our gut and ignore the rest.

2. C-Sections

Whoa, does this one get people going. One in three babies born in the U.S. is born via Cesarean section and we know they are not all medically necessary. This leads people to doubt reasons why anyone would need to have a C-section, and calls to challenge the medical establishment ensue. So when I found myself with recommendations from both my doctor and a specialist to have a C-section because it was medically necessary, I was crushed at first. Once I accepted it and saw the risks in my situation were too great, I actually felt fortunate to know in advance. A scheduled procedure seemed much less stressful than a last minute surgery plan after a long labor.

Yes, the recovery was challenging while caring for a infant, much more so in retrospect than I realized at the time. During those early weeks, you are head down, plowing through like a bulldozer.

What I learned: I wrote this part four months ago, what C-section?

3. Breastfeeding

Again, four months ago I had much more to say on this topic. Long story short: given our road, this was the one thing I had hoped would be “natural.” It was very it takes a village at first, and I learned quickly why people would not choose this path, but fortunately, we made it to the other side, and I am still going, pumping twice a day in a dark closet in the back of my classroom. There is a light, don’t worry, but it’s less awkward to get walked in on this way.

What I learned: I am willing to pump in a dark, mostly empty movie theater at 10 am to see Star Wars with my husband.

4. Sleeping

When I started this post in November, I had planned a symbolic ending on how parenting is like infant sleep with the image of me taking it one night at a time by holding my baby’s hand until he fell asleep.

How precious. How patient. How only-four-months-in.

Four months later I am not allowed to talk about this topic anymore. Let’s just say I joined a Facebook group about sleep and I recently lol-ed at a parenting podcast that had a segment on naps. My sleep obsession has yielded some results, yes, but at what price?

What I learned: The sleep book was only the beginning.

 

From hospital room to stateroom

3 May

My 2013 was pretty great until August when it sunk into fear and loathing in hospitals. As a result of the clarity that emerges from losing control of situations, I began 2014 with a renewed focus on how lucky my unlucky August actually was. Even worse than last year, it’s halfway through 2014 before I’m publishing this reflection. I am nothing if not inconsistent. Here are three things that happened right when the current school year started:

1. NOT ROUTINE SURGERY, Part One

It was mid-August. Our bedroom was draped in blankets and sheets to buffer the echo of our terrazzo floors. Aaron was talking to the producer of the Judge John Hodgman podcast prepping for us to go live. About an hour prior, I had talked to my mom about my dad going in for hip replacement surgery. They were expecting him to wake up four hours later. She would call me then. Only an hour and a half later, my phone lit up with the words “Mom.” I stepped out of the pre-taping sound check to take the call.

My dad had stopped breathing and they’d sewn him up mid-surgery and rushed him to ICU. My mom was alone at the hospital, the promise of routine surgery now broken along with Dad’s hip. I was 1000 miles away about to tape a podcast about an egg chair. Mom told me she’d call me when the doctors came back to report his progress. I could sit there and imagine the worst or continue with the taping. I walked outside and took several deep breaths and said my first honest prayer in a long time. Fifteen minutes later I was explaining to John Hodgman why I didn’t think a 70’s era pod chair belonged in our living room.

Sixteen hours later I was on a plane to visit my dad in ICU.

Twenty-four hours later I listened to the podcast with my dad in his hospital room. He thought it could use some editing.

One week later, my dad was recovering at home after a successful second surgery.

Five months later,  that pod chair was in our third bedroom. IMG_2100

2. NOT ROUTINE SURGERY, Part Two

At the end of August, one week into my new classes, Aaron woke me up with severe abdominal pain. Within minutes, I was driving half-asleep to the nearest hospital. After an educational middle-of-the-night ER experience that our nurse friend later described as working in the back of a restaurant (completely accurate comparison), a doctor told Aaron he had appendicitis and would be sent to surgery as soon as possible.

At this point we could definitely rule out Aaron’s previous fear that this was just SEVERE GAS.

Early the next morning and a couple of narcotic doses later, Aaron was asleep and I was operating on one hour’s sleep. They moved us to a holding room prior to surgery. I notified our families of the situation and became so tired that I finally crawled into Aaron’s hospital bed with him and took a nap like two cats in a hammock.

Surgery to remove Aaron’s vestigial appendix proceeded normally and we hoped to be home by the next day.

Instead we logged close to a week in the hospital because of the internist’s poor management of Aaron’s type I diabetes post-surgery that led him into Ketoacidosis (DKA).

Without going into the details of the poor care Aaron initially received after surgery, I choose to focus on the excellent care he received when the hospital moved him to more capable nurses and doctors in the IMCU. The surgeon was amazing–in fact, it was her phone call to me in the middle of Aaron’s DKA that got action taken to move him. She had the direct and gruff manner of a surgeon, and was not popular with the nursing staff, but that’s exactly what we needed right then. Someone to take us seriously and cut through the red tape.

I finally resorted to rolling my eyes at the doctor who caused Aaron’s decline, yet continued to defend his actions and treat Aaron as some kind of anomaly. It was a strong reminder of the importance of admitting when you are wrong. That’s been difficult for me to do in the past, and this doctor was young.

Hey doc, the one thing that could have made us feel better about your wisdom being consumed by confidence (to borrow from Julius Caesar) was for you to apologize. At least for what happened to Aaron. I know you see admitting mistakes as permission for us to sue you, but honestly the more you insisted you were right, the more we wanted to punish you.

Aaron’s doctor didn’t listen to him when he expressed his concerns over how his diabetes was being treated. Aaron lives with the disease every day; he understands it better than a doctor.

In an interview with Marc Maron, comic actor and former doctor Ken Jeong (best known for The Hangover and Community) said the most important thing he learned about practicing medicine was to listen carefully to his patients. That internist hadn’t learned that yet. He was still in the “I must project that I am right at all times” phase of not knowing what he was doing.

Our surgeon was the first to tell us when she didn’t know why something was happening. She was blunt with the staff, but she never feigned knowing. She took action to find out instead. That is a trait I admire. (Mostly because younger me did not possess such a trait.)

I realize that should make me feel sympathy for the internist, but NO. *Rolls eyes just thinking about it.*

That week in the hospital feels like a distant place, a pin on the map during a long road trip. Only this pin shredded most of the paper and stabbed us first.

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3. NERD CRUISE

Two weeks after Aaron was discharged from the hospital, we hopped a cruise ship at the Port of Miami and headed for the Bahamas for a long weekend. We booked this getaway long before hospital August, so at the beginning it felt like another thing to endure.

This looked exactly like the cruise we took two years ago. Same port. Same boat. Same destination. Only this time there was a significant faction of cruisers who all listen to the same podcasts. Enjoy the same music. Laugh at the same comedians. It was the Atlantic Ocean Music & Comedy Festival, and they’re doing it again in July if you’re into nautical irony.

The rest of the boat featured typical cruisers. You saw an extended family reunion, a lady wearing a mesh dress, a man forever shirtless, etc.

It was fairly easy to pick out the nerd cruisers with their graphic tees and Warby Parker glasses. Aaron and I looked more like native cruisers with our “we live in the tropics” maxi dresses and guayaberras, so I think we proved a challenge to diagnose.

On our first cruise, we only lasted one night in the main dining room. Our assigned tablemates were a pair of 21-year-olds on their honeymoon and a regular-cruising French Canadian couple in their 60’s who could only talk about motorcycles or nothing at all. Awkward was served with every course.

We fled to the Windjammer the next three nights to gorge ourselves at the buffet instead.

On the nerd cruise, table conversation flowed as freely as the cultural references. We all knew what we had in common before the bread came. And we all had the same reaction to formal night when the entire wait staff stopped service to sing and dance.

“Nobody wants this.”

Instead of choosing between the juggling comedian and salsa lessons, this time we got a private show of comedians and musicians we would pay to see separately, all on one bill. Three nights of talented and hilarious performers who happened to also be nice, generous people.

I still couldn’t deal with swimming in the Caribbean next to people I used to watch on TV. I turned around and Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac was a few feet from my face. *Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…*

But we did meet John Hodgman the first night and because of his brief involvement in our life at the start of this triology, it was a welcome weirdness. Though he plays a snooty, eccentric billionaire on TV, in person he’s incredibly genuine, despite what this photo implies.

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And this is where I leave you. John Hodgman was with me in the middle of a horrifying moment (though he doesn’t know it), and was on the other side of a second one.

All on a giant ship in the middle of the ocean.

We lived life through a porthole window last fall and it’s just the right amount sometimes. It taught me not to worry about the entire ocean and chart the course at hand.

It also taught me to use nautical cliches.

There are always side effects.

 

To live and die in New Orleans

22 Sep

Over the summer, I spent two weeks in Austin, then a few days back here in SoFlo, then joined my husband in his former home of New Orleans for a four-day work trip.  Austin is the fastest growing city in the United States, and I can see why. It’s full of Texas charm laced with live music, barbecue, and taco trucks. To satisfy the influx of new residents, Austin floats at the top of the trends. South Congress St. is sprinkled with cupcake shops, thrift stores, and fashion boutiques. It’s shiny and clean and declares its sense of coolness as you walk by. I found the hipsters to be friendly and helpful and I left thinking Austin was a great city to visit. Looking back, the highlight was seeing Cyndi Lauper perform the entire She’s So Unusual album live at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. That venue was real Austin; the rest of my memories have to do with the other transplanted journalism advisers who were there with me. Now in my rear view mirror, Austin feels more idealized and less alive. It delivers what’s advertised, but for me it’s too much image, not enough heart.

It’s hard to live (or die) in the Big Easy

In contrast, New Orleans’ tourist campaign promises debauchery and a history lesson, but the reality is less beads and textbooks, the truth as thick and murky as the Mississippi.  While the Colorado River in Austin is clean enough to kayak and swim in, the muddy Mississippi, heavy with silt, leaves you clinging to your seat on the ferry. Walk west from the riverbank to the Marigny, and you’ll see people sitting on their porches and chatting up walkers-by. People know their neighbors here, the neighborhood that houses the Bed and Breakfast where we stayed. It’s also the neighborhood that’s escalated in property value the most since the storm.

During our three night stay, we walked regularly down Frenchmen St., home to at least 10 live music venues, most of which host jazz. While Austin claims to be the live music capital of the U.S., I learned the focus was more quantity over quality. A guy + a guitar singing pop music covers equaled “live music.” Every single band we heard on Frenchmen St. injected life into traditional jazz and stirred the dormant loneliness in each of us. The loneliness that once you feel it, makes you feel connected to everyone in the room. Louis CK recently called it our forever empty.

On our first night in NOLA, we ate dinner at local favorite Adolfo’s, a Creole-Italian upstairs nook that only accepts cash. On our way in, we ran into an attractive couple also dining there. He smiled and apologized for his girlfriend who was glued to her phone and stopped in the middle of the stairway, blocking our passage. Later we watched him dine with friends without her. The next night he stood next to us at the Balcony Music Club while we listened to a woman sing Sade. Just 24 hours later, we heard him joking with his buddies at the bar at the venue Vaso. The night before at the same club, we talked to a man with a cognitive disability who we had trouble understanding; that man was now playing trumpet on stage with a brass band. After the song ended, our jovial guy at the bar headed for the stage and took his normal place with The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys. He’d simply given stage time to that gentleman; this was his band, and he was the star trumpet player. That is the beauty of NOLA. Four days in the same neighborhood and we were a tiny part of that community. Aaron felt that way when he lived there, and for the first time I understood exactly what he meant.

The community builds around ruins, around cobbled streets many tourists perceive as dirty. The roads and sidewalks in New Orleans burst with tripping hazards: potholes, cracks that become near ravines, and ever-shifting pavement.

They say the city is sinking. The dead cannot be buried in the ground because of the high water table. People who can afford it have loved ones buried in above-ground mausoleums that house several family members. Once the body of one decays and the remains settle to the bottom (which happens quickly in NOLA humidity), another family member can be added to the top.

The dead do not stay buried here.

Holt Cemetery, land of the rising skulls

My husband took me to what has been deemed a “pauper’s cemetery” or a makeshift public burial ground for those who cannot afford the large stone tombs or community mausoleum plots. photo(34)

You walk through overgrown grass and weeds and handmade grave markers, stones sinking into the earth. You see messages of love and tribute scrawled in Sharpie on a hand-forged cross and a tree stump with a hand-carved epitaph. Synthetic flowers garnish mulch, rocks and garbage bags that house loved ones’ remains. The oaks send down arms of moss to cradle these graves. photo(35) photo(36) photo(37)

Walking through this cemetery you feel the love and loss at its rawest surface. That’s how everything in New Orleans feels. Charmaine Neville, who survived Katrina’s flood on a roof top, spoke to the crowd at Snug Harbor as if she held her community inside her raspy voice. On the night we were there, she called up a stone-faced 14-year-old girl to play bass with the band like a pro. The 17-year-old boy next to us filled in on drums. Sister to the famous Neville Brothers, Charmaine wants to share her stage with young people. She urged a 16-year-old from Seattle visiting with a volunteer group to come down and sing with the band, but she was too nervous.

“We start young here,” she said, after noting the drummer started playing at 5, the guitarist at 7.

Charmaine did her best to make the 16-year-old comfortable. She encourages anyone in the audience with musical abilities to be on stage with her. She has the way of making everyone feel a part of her show, just like her city takes you in and makes you its own.

The higher the humidity, the more you dig in

People in Austin complained about the humidity, but I didn’t get it. Compared to the rest of Texas, it’s steamy I guess. On July 11, Austin was 100 degrees with 25 percent humidity. Meanwhile in New Orleans, it was 78 degrees with 90 percent humidity. Here at home it’s regularly 90 degrees in the summer, but the humidity can vary. You never completely accept the unbearable days. In NOLA, the high humidity hovers and residents have no choice but to settle in. To accept the swamp.

The swamp’s the thing.

When connecting with a community is a choice, it’s easy not to choose. Something about the humidity in New Orleans hangs on you, the ghosts of its past, the struggles of its present. Even as a visitor, you start to embody it. The tourist campaign for the city promises a party, and if you never leave the French Quarter at night, that might be all you find. But if you spend a few days in the real neighborhoods of the Crescent City, you’ll find the community is a living organism that rises despite its geography. Despite the river that tries to swallow it. To live there requires one to connect and to create. The image outsiders have of the city is a lie. The truth is dirtier than Austin, but it’s real. You can tap into the arteries that lead to the heart of New Orleans. In Austin I was just looking at a pretty face.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell”

3 Jul

In the season six finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is making a pitch to Hershey executives that the chocolate bar is synonymous with affection. He threads a familiar yarn about his middle class father who rewarded his yard-mowing with a Hershey bar.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell,” he tells the executives with authority.

Don Draper is always in control of the story. He’s spent his whole life creating that narrative. His career in advertising was built on telling the story people want to hear.

Only it’s not real. It’s a fabrication that tastes like the rush of sugar candy. After the initial buzz, all you can taste are the artificial flavors. After too many Pixy Stix, you feel sick and full of regret.

Draper didn’t have the stomach to control the campaign anymore. He interrupts the satisfied executives with the truth that he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse. He ends his anecdote explaining that the Hershey bar was “the only sweet thing in my life.”

*******

Today the art of professional branding has crossed over into our personal lives thanks to social media. We think we’re in control of the narrative because we craft it so carefully, but is what we’re saying true?

After spending two weeks with journalism advisers as an Association of News Editors (ASNE) fellow in Austin, Texas, I was reminded how much of journalism is listening. The talking heads and hyper-posters seem to miss this. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the less I feel I should talk. This works against my extroverted talky-talky nature. I had to work at this. What is natural for me is listening to people’s stories. But the writer in me needs to write it down.

[The] facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.

                                                       ********

That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

Maya Angelou

In April, I started interviewing people for a personal project on community. I’ve been transcribing these interviews into my Moleskin and trying to decipher them for patterns. This project is a long-game. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to hear people’s tales; I’ve learned more than can be articulated clearly yet. The most important thing this project has done so far is invigorate my love for interviewing and storytelling in general. I am interviewing to understand.

People are relieved to tell their story if they think you want to hear it. I find most people don’t think their story is important or that it’s relevant. Others worry that the truth sounds bad. They’re afraid to say it.

Don Draper’s confession comes at the crux of his own alcoholic breakdown. It took him completely losing control of his own contrived identity to create an honest moment. It was as hard for him to tell as it was for his audience to hear. But never has an audience felt more about a Hershey bar than in that moment. The story told itself precisely because Draper let go of the reigns.

The question then becomes how do you let go? From a journalistic perspective, you can’t have an agenda. You have to listen. If you think you know the story before the interview, you’ll miss the best stuff. My favorite interviews have been with people I didn’t know well, or in some cases had just met. This means the comfort level isn’t there to facilitate free conversation. It forced me to listen deeper. What are they not saying? What do they want to say but are afraid to? What do they need permission to say?

My personal interviews are purely for research and I won’t be citing people specifically in whatever I write in the future. Even in that anonymous context, people still hesitate. Sometimes they feel like they have to make excuses for how they feel. The hardest thing for a person to do is just speak the truth. That’s why stand-up comedians are so important to our culture. The good ones stand up in front of large crowds and say it straight. That’s their selling point. We laugh because we can’t do that. When they hit that nerve we’re relieved.

“She said it so I don’t have to.”

I’m a fairly open person now, but I grew up an incredibly private one. Most of my real thoughts were never spoken aloud. I imagine that’s true of many of the young people I teach. What is not said keeps me up at night.

This is why I’m excited to advise my school’s newspaper next year. I want my staff to tell the real stories of our school. Not the sanitized versions, not the two-minute interview snapshots. The stories that first make people uncomfortable, but eventually help them understand.

One of the first things one of my colleagues said on the first day of the ASNE institute in Austin was “Students aren’t looking for more information. They’re looking for more ways to connect.”

In that moment I knew I didn’t have to change into some kind of Twitter-happy news hound to advise the newspaper. I could be myself and help the kids tell honest stories. As a young yearbook adviser, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I was more concerned with not offending people, and pleasing everyone in the school. I’m sure I missed many chances to connect because I saw the book as a publicity tool instead of communication tool.

Stunned by Draper’s childhood admission, one of the Hershey executives asks, “Do you want to advertise that?”

Draper responds, “If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”

We all know. We just need to see it in print.