Using my words

I thought I was already having an emotional week, especially after reading My Sister's Keeper in 36 hours and being steeped in the emotions of a mother who is losing her child to a terminal disease.  But then today, a 20-year-old kid (the news media have been calling him a “man”) killed his mother, then went to the elementary school where his mother was a teacher, and he killed some of her co-workers and a bunch of children.  Parents have to figure this sh*t out.  How do we figure it out?  Where do we go after something like that?

Many of us imagine in horror what it would feel like if our kids were the ones who were killed.  I was shaking and crying as I drove to school to pick up my five-year-old, hearing the story unfold on NPR.  I find that if I think about it in too much detail, I just freeze and am totally unable to function.

But I know that more than a few parents wonder what it would feel like if their kid was the one with the gun.

My boys are five and two, so I’m still the parent imagining what would happen if a gunman walked into their school.  But I know that someday they’ll be teenagers, and I’ll feel on a lot of days like I don’t understand them, or that they don’t listen to me, and I will wonder in those days, weeks, or years how to help them, how to fix our relationship.  I am sure that this mother, whose son brutally attacked her, wondered more than once how to do that.

For a multitude of reasons, some parents give up on kids like that.  Others pour their hearts and souls and a considerable amount of money into trying to help their troubled kids, and some succeed.  Some don’t.  Some can't spend the time or the money, and mental health care is, of course, expensive and hard to come by.

He needed more, or different, help than what he was getting, but since I know very little about his mental health, I will say what I do know.  He had a lot of guns, and he used them to kill a lot of people very quickly.
I firmly believe that this country can thrive with fewer guns.  Maybe America is already broken enough that fewer guns wouldn’t actually fix our national problem with violence any time soon.  But it would sure as heck make me feel better in the meantime for us to stop acting like guns are wonderful as long as there are applications and permits, or that they are there for us to “defend ourselves” from the real criminals… guns are simply too common.  People are too nonchalant about guns.  Gun owners fear a slippery slope, and so they say, “Yes, I want a hunting rifle to help provide food for my family, so I in turn would like my neighbor to be able to go out and buy an automatic assault rifle that is designed to kill multiple people indiscriminately.”  And we have to be honest that as guns are depicted in pop culture, so some people have started to view reality.  Far too many people turn to a gun when they’re looking for an answer to a problem that has no easy answer.

The gun-control conversation is already playing out all over my Facebook wall and elsewhere, and I think it is a vital (but not the only) piece of this horrible puzzle.  To change the national view on gun control, I'm thinking I need to start a first-amendment niche group equivalent to the NRA.  It could be a group that vehemently defends people’s rights to own pens.  Yes, pens.  Pen manufacturers, take a page out of the gun lobby's handbook (but not the pages about killing people).  Instead of fearing that their guns might be taken away, people could get really worked up about their pen rights, fearing that their free speech might be quashed, and holding massive rallies.  Then people might just use their WORDS.

My two-year-old has very little impulse control, and his first instinct is to hit when he's angry, so we're telling him multiple times a day to use his words.  We're modeling how to talk through emotions instead of resorting to his hands.  Parents all over the world are trying to do the same things with their toddlers.  And yet we're still raising people who believe that words aren't an effective way to solve problems.

I wish that we could say we lived in a world that was actually peaceful.  We have some amazing thinkers, scholars, and writers out there who desperately want peace, but when they get involved in national or international politics, most still fall prey to "might makes right" thinking.  War still seems to be the best way for us to get what we want, so we'll use war to get our peace.  So how are we supposed to convince our individual citizens that war on a personal level is morally wrong, but on the level of international politics, where thousands of lives are at stake, it's okay?  The answer, to me, is that it ultimately shouldn't be okay.  But to put a stop to "might makes right", we need an alternative.  We need to foster communication and openness.  We should seek to understand, not simply to be understood.

Today, it’s hard to figure out much of anything.  So I pray.  And I keep those families in my hearts, and hope for peace for the kids who survived as *they* try to figure it out.

Children.  This has to stop.

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Your vote doesn't count

Okay, I know the standard message is that every vote matters.  But in a recent discussion with my husband, I realized I don't believe this, and I'm betting a lot of the rest of you don't believe it, either.  We rarely hear of a decision coming down to one vote, except maybe in a classroom or a Girl Scout troop.  Or the Supreme Court (um, almost every time).  But in the electoral college system, in a country of 300 million people?  Nope.  Sorry.

Here's the thing, though.  VotING counts.  It's not the individual vote you cast.  It's the act of voting that matters.  It's partly because your voice is being heard; I'm a firm believer that you earn your right to complain, whine, cheer, and basically have an opinion on anything political by actually showing up and saying, "Yes, I'm here, and here's my vote."  But it's also about much more than which box you mark.  It's about the fact that your co-workers and friends know you voted, so you're influencing them and making each of them more likely to vote, too.  Your kids, if you have any, know you voted, and they'll grow up caring about it, even if they end up making decisions that are different than yours.  And every other person standing in line with you on Election Day, though most of them have places to be and really don't want to stand in a long line, know that you are right there with them, voting.  You're keeping each other there.  Everyone stands in that long line because they believe it matters.  They know that we cast our votes together, and we make these decisions together.

I'm bringing Kent in with me this time, because our polling place is the school right behind our house so we're planning to walk over.  Kent is five now, and he is finally old enough to want to come with me since he's been following the election news and cares about the outcome.  He was supporting Romney over the summer, but he is squarely his parents' child now and is supporting Obama after the gay marriage discussion.  We're thinking doughnuts afterward.  I'm just sad that he's going to be asleep before all the election returns come in that night.  I still remember how anxious I felt in 1988, the first presidential election I really remember (I was eight), going to bed not knowing who the next president would be and thinking how hard it was going to be to wait until the next morning to find out.

Casting my vote in 2008 felt good.  Kind of embarrassingly good.  But guess what else felt good?  Standing in line with everyone else from my neighborhood, waiting for my turn.  I had kind of a goofy grin the whole time.  I get an unbelievable feeling of patriotism when I think about those radical souls nearly 250 years ago who fought, discussed ideas, wrote eloquently and persuasively, and often died, trying to make sure that they could form a country where everyone had a voice, not just the wealthy and privileged who were born into it.  And I feel even more patriotic when I realize that small groups of dedicated individuals went on over the centuries to guarantee those rights to every single adult citizen of our country.  100 years ago, I wouldn't have been allowed to vote.  But we evolved.

So do I vote?  Yep.  Even in the most meager of local elections.  And Louisiana seriously wrote the book on meager local elections, so we had a lot of practice in the last nine years.

Do I vote in presidential elections?  Every single time.  And I get goosebumps every single time.  I still have the sweater I was wearing in 2000 when I voted for Al Gore.

Do I believe that my individual vote is going to be the deciding vote?  Not a chance.  But if I stand up and vote, *and* I spread the word, and everyone who reads this makes a plan for how and when they're getting to their polling place on Tuesday, then I'll feel like my voice is being heard in more ways than one.

Plus, there's that amazing high if the person you voted for actually wins.

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When it gets personal

I’ve been wanting to have a conversation with Kent about gay marriage for a long time now, ever since I found out last year about Chick-Fil-A’s “charitable” contributions to Focus on the Family.  We had been regular attendees with friends at Chick-Fil-A’s family night, scoring a free kid’s meal and fun activities and generally enjoying the kind employees and kid-friendly atmosphere.  I thought Chick-Fil-A was fantastic.  And then I found out almost a year ago that whenever I bought a salad or a milkshake or a fruit cup for my kids, some of my money was going to organizations that directly oppose one of my most fervent beliefs, that of the right of two adults in a loving relationship to marry each other, even if they happen to be of the same gender.  This was long before Chick-Fil-A’s owner had made public statements about his beliefs, spurring a nationwide debate—I was having my own private boycott long before that.  When the flames leapt up this summer and suddenly *everyone* was talking about Chick-Fil-A, I felt more than a little vindicated.

My dad was gay, so this is very personal for me.  He and a lot of other people I knew boycotted Cracker Barrel when it became known that the restaurant chain fired any employee it found to be gay.  (Cracker Barrel reversed its policy several years later and now explicitly forbids discrimination against gays and lesbians in its restaurants.)  He also told me about visiting San Francisco and not being able to order Coors in any bar because of the company’s anti-gay policies and contributions.  And while I agree that a company has a right to contribute money to whichever organizations they want to support, and even that the COO of a company has the right to say crazy things, I also have the right not to give them any of my money to use in support of their beliefs.

About a month into my boycott, I found myself hungry, driving past Chick-Fil-A, and I turned into the parking lot thinking, “Well, maybe I can just get a sandwich anyway.”  But then I thought about my dad.  And I realized that I couldn’t stomach the idea of even one penny of my money funding a hate group that saw my dad as less deserving of rights because he wasn’t heterosexual.  It was pretty easy to turn back around and keep driving at that point.

Kent loved Chick-Fil-A, too, and he definitely noticed that we weren’t going there anymore.  But he was four, and I had no idea how to explain it to him.  The issue is just so big, and simultaneously so personal, that I was afraid I was just going to start spewing vitriol about the whole corporation if I got started, and I didn’t want it to be like that.  So I skirted the issue each time he asked if we could go there.  I’m not so proud of that.  But I was kind of stuck mentally, turning it over in my head and trying to figure out what level he'd be capable of understanding.

The conversation finally began yesterday.  I was talking to a friend about how her son Emerson has decided with Kent that they want to live together when they’re older.  Emerson and Kent don’t want to get married necessarily, just live together and possibly marry other people.  (I told my friend that this was a relief to me, since Kent had previously told us he wants to live with us forever and have Dean move out.  She said jokingly that maybe Emerson was just planning to move in with *us*.  Uh.  We’ll hammer out the details later.)

In the same conversation, she mentioned that when marrying someone of the same gender has come up with her kids, she’s explained that some states just have “bad rules”, so they’d have to go to a different state if they want to marry someone of their own gender.  Bad rules.  Yes.  Brilliant.  I had my inspiration.

In the car on the way home from school, I begin.  First I talk to him about how most men want to marry women, but some men want to marry men because that’s who they love.  This makes sense to him (because seriously, why shouldn’t it just MAKE SENSE??).  I say the same is true for women.  Then I say that unfortunately, not everybody believes that men ought to be able to marry other men, even if that’s who they love, because they think that if *most* people are a certain way, they think everyone ought to be that way.  I mention that in Virginia, men can’t marry other men, but I use the word “yet” and convey to him that I think it’ll eventually be okay in every state.  He asks about Louisiana, and I say no, it’s not okay in Louisiana either.  Yet.  Kent seems to think it’s wildly unfair that men can’t marry men if they want to, if that’s who they love, and I tell him that of course I agree with him.  I tell him I think that by the time he’s a grown-up, it’ll probably be okay everywhere, but it takes a long time for people to change their minds.  Then I tell him I would be so sad if I was told that I couldn’t marry the person I love, and then I ask him what if he had to feel that way, or Dean, or one of their friends or their cousins?  He’s still worked up about it and can’t understand why anyone would want to prevent marriage between two people who love each other and want to spend their lives together.

Yes.  Exactly.

We’ve been having another interesting issue in our house lately surrounding the presidential campaign; namely, Kent supports Mitt Romney.  It literally started with me talking about how I want President Obama to win the election, him asking, “Who’s the other guy?”, me answering, “Mitt Romney,” and him saying, “Oh, I like him better.”  I have no doubts that he supports Romney in an attempt to distance himself ideologically from us, which is okay, but it makes for interesting conversations.  Like what kind of yard signs we’re putting up.  And when I got my Obama sticker in the mail, he asked when he could get a Romney sticker.  Hmm.  I don’t want to quash his interest in politics by totally dismissing his perspective, but I do feel a bit like an old codger, rolling my eyes and saying, “You know, these kids today are just totally uninformed when it comes to politics…”

Anyway, back to our conversation about gay marriage: sensing an opportunity that I don’t want to let pass, I then mention that one of the reasons I like President Obama so much is that he believes men ought to be able to marry men if that’s who they love.  Kent asks, “What about Mitt Romney?”  I tell him Romney doesn’t believe men should be able to do that.  Kent asks why.  I reiterate how some people think everyone should be the same, even if that’s not the way they feel or who they are inside.  Kent thinks for a minute, then says, “Then I agree with Obama.”


I tell him it’s okay to like a candidate and not agree with everything he says, so it’s okay if he still likes Mitt Romney, but I’ll be interested to see where this leads, whether we’ll have more substantive conversations about policy and politics in the coming weeks.  That would be very exciting.

I also mention that there are different kinds of love, love you have for your friends, and love you feel for a person you want to marry, and that he might not feel the second kind until he’s a lot older.  But I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand that part at all.  Because at the end of the conversation, he exclaimed, “I’d better hurry up and marry Emerson while Obama is still the president!”

We haven’t talked about Chick-Fil-A yet.  He hardly ever asks anymore anyway, but I figure if Chick-Fil-A comes up, he’ll already have a framework for understanding why I won’t eat there anymore.  And hey, maybe Chick-Fil-A will make some progress, not just the hemming and hawing they’re doing right now, and we might actually eat there again.  I did like their salads.  I would happily reward them for changing their minds, because, as is becoming increasingly clear in our national conversation, it *is* possible to be Christian and pro-gay marriage.  I shied away from calling myself a Christian in high school and college, because I felt like the Religious Right had a stranglehold on Jesus and there wasn’t any room for me.

Thank God, literally, that that isn’t the case.

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Diane Lane

One of the roads into our neighborhood is Diane Ln. It took me about three days of living here to realize that it sounded just like the actress Diane Lane, who I love. Unfaithful? Disturbing story, but freakin' amazing acting. Under the Tuscan Sun? Cute cute cute. A Walk on the Moon? I heart Viggo Mortensen, and she's good in this one, too. Also, she apparently really likes movies about infidelity...

Anyway, we were eating dinner out tonight, and a song by Guster (one of my husband's favorite bands) came on the restaurant's playlist, prompting Jack to enter a stream-of-consciousness journey that possibly only I could follow.

Jack: Guster also has this song called "Diane" that always gets in my head when I'm driving down Diane Lane... which I've just realized sounds just like the name of the actress!

Me: You *just* realized that? (We've lived here for almost five months.)

Jack (starting to giggle): I probably shouldn't drive down Diane Lane. (We both know he's talking about running her down with his car.)

Both of us dissolve into giggles. Vehicular manslaughter really isn't that funny, but we're low on sleep because our two-year-old turns into a crazy person in the night.  And our kids are next to us in the booth, just calmly eating their dinner.  I imagine that when they're older, they're going to start exchanging eye rolls in moments like these, as if to say, "Oh geez.  They're LAUGHING at each other.  AGAIN."

Me (regaining composure long enough to get out a fake newspaper headline): "Local Actuary Mysteriously Runs Down Famous Actress!"

More giggles.

Me again: I'm going to start all the headlines I make up about you with "Local Actuary".

We are really tired. And completely hilarious, even if you don't think so.

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Wherein Kent turns five

My baby is turning five tomorrow. The tiny, curly-haired life that I first brought into the world, who carries my father’s middle name, who made me a mother, who taught me things about myself that I could never have anticipated, who made me cry harder, laugh harder, think harder, pray harder, and love harder than I ever had before, is growing, changing, into a unique little person. He reads by himself, makes origami tables by himself, opens the fridge by himself, adds numbers by himself, orders by himself at restaurants, gets himself ready in the morning, and invents entire projects with cardboard, paper, scissors, and tape by himself. He’s practically autonomous. I asked him if he would like some coffee in the morning with his birthday pancakes and bacon, since he’s almost a grownup and I figure he’ll start liking coffee soon. He said, “I might not like it, but I’ll try it. I’ll just have one cup.”

Of course, he still insists that when he’s a grownup, he’s going to live with us and go to work with Jack. He also insists that Dean will live somewhere else. Every older sibling’s dream: getting Mom and Dad to himself again at long last. Maybe the three of us will sit around and drink coffee together and complain that we wish Dean would call more often, or wonder aloud when Dean is ever going to ask that nice girl to marry him.

I also told him he’s going to be much taller when he wakes up in the morning. He was almost sure that I was kidding. He always asks if I’m kidding, even if it’s the most ludicrous thing in the world, like if I just said I was turning into a cat, or that we would never have dessert again. I never know if it’s because he really can’t tell — I’m very good at dead-panning it and have nearly alienated friends because they couldn’t tell I was joking — or if he just needs verbal confirmation that I know I’m kidding so he can make sure I haven’t lost my mind.

I’m starting to teach him to play the piano and read music, too. This one totally floors me. He played his first piano piece today from the Alfred book, alternating fingers 2 and 3 on the group of two black keys while singing a little ditty about playing notes with one’s left hand. Someday he’s going to play a real piece of music by an actual composer, and I will probably cry.

Oh crap. I just realized Dean is going to do all of these things by himself someday, too. And then he’ll move out, leaving Kent to reclaim their shared bedroom and have all the trains to himself again.

Seriously, where did this guy go?

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Summer of Yoko

One of our kids' favorite books (and one of mine, too) is Yoko by Rosemary Wells. It's about an adorably sweet Japanese cat named Yoko, who goes to school with a bunch of American kids (all other animals) who don't understand why she brings sushi for lunch. The other kids make fun of her, so her teacher decides to have International Food Day, when everyone will bring in food from a foreign country and try everything that everyone else has brought.

The first schoolday lunch described in the story is kind of a regular smorgasbord of American sandwiches — peanut butter and honey, egg salad on pumperknickel — and then there's Yoko on the next page, totally loving her sushi until everyone starts making gross faces and teasing her.

For International Food Day, everyone brings in delicious-sounding things like Nigerian nut soup and potato knishes and mango smoothies. I've always loved this book for the variety of foods described. It's a great book to read with a picky eater to give them a sense of the wider world of food. It's also just a charming story about friendship.

Kent asked me the other day if I could pack him some sushi for lunch sometime. I tried to gather myself up off the floor after being knocked over by the sheer impact of his request, and then I said brightly, "Sure!" This is hilarious to me because when we go out for sushi, he eats edamame, plain shrimp, plain rice, and/or fruit. When he was three, sometimes he ate nothing. If Jack and I even toss around the words "sushi restaurant" close to mealtime, Kent asks plaintively, "Do they have anything *I* like??" He thought he had hit the jackpot when we went to a sushi place last weekend and the kids' menu had a corn dog. The corn dog had also been on his list of foods he wanted to try, so he went for it.

Incidentally, why don't sushi places have a kids' bento box with edamame, fruit, rice, tempura sweet potatoes, shrimp, and other yummy stuff like that? IT WOULD NOT BE THAT HARD, PEOPLE. Parents everywhere would love you.

Anyway, Yoko has intrigued him, and I think he wants the experience nonetheless. I decided it would be silly to pack a bunch of sushi in his lunchbox that I knew he wouldn't eat, leaving him hungry for the rest of the day, but if he was home, like for the summer, and he, Dean and I could all try it together... then maybe we could try some of the other foods from the book, too... hmmmm. And thus, our plan for the summer. We will eat our way through Yoko.

Care to join us? I made you a handy PDF checklist, just in case. Order the book or get it from the library, print out your checklist, and make a plan with your kiddos, picky or otherwise. We'll probably skip around rather than trying to do it in order, but I think this should fill up our summer fairly easily since we won't want to do a new food every single day. I'm excited about trying some new recipes, and I'll try to remember to post here whenever we make something exotic like Nigerian nut soup or Caribbean coconut crisps. Vegetarians can look for alternatives to the Irish stew, use veggie dogs in the franks and beans, etc.

Personally, I think the main challenge for me is going to be the squeeze cheese on white bread. I might make my own gross face that day. But I also know there will be brownies with green tea ice cream... we might do that one more than once, just to be sure we really did it right.

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And an embellished skirt

I tell you, once the sewing machine, fabric, and notions came out, they really came out. I have about five projects on the back burner, a cool log cabin seat cushion that is only lacking binding and ties, the pillowcases of yesternight and this morning... and a skirt that I embellished yesterday!

I have this skirt in two colors, khaki and olive drab. The shape of it has always been very, VERY drab as well. Tea length, with an A-line shape, and fairly stiff fabric so it doesn't look like much, even with cool boots. I've been brutal lately with getting rid of clothes I'm not going to wear anymore — moving will do that to you — and these skirts had been tossed into my pile of Clothes That Can Be Cut Up For Useful Sewing Projects. Then yesterday, I was looking at the olive skirt, and I thought, "You know, this thing still fits me. I just hate the length. But I can change the length and make it into something cute."

My eyes and fingers wandered over my fabrics for a few minutes until I came to rest on possibly my favorite fabric in my whole stash: these strawberries. I made a sandwich wrap out of them; you can see it wedged in the middle of my stack of sandwich wraps toward the bottom of the post. If I ever had a little girl, I was going to make her something that was cuter-than-cute with these strawberries and some kelly green dotted Swiss that looks absolutely perfect with it. But I can't keep fabric around forever for a Someday Child Who May Never Exist. And making something great for myself, in part saying, "My life is enough the way it is," is one way to find peace with this whole "will I ever have a daughter? Maybe not" thing. (Yes, it's a thing.)

Okay, enough about my uterus. Back to the skirt.

It took me about an hour from start to finish. I put the skirt on, placed pins at the length I wanted it to be, then cut it very carefully with the rotary cutter. It amounted to cutting exactly 11" off the bottom, which was easier than trying to measure down from the top and cut it that way. I then cut a 3-inch strip of fabric slightly longer than the entire hem length of the skirt, which meant cutting two strips and sewing them together on the bias. I pressed each long edge in 1/4", then pressed the whole thing in half lengthwise so that it would have a natural straight edge to fit around the raw edge of the skirt where I had cut it. I sewed the strawberry fabric onto my skirt, and since it already had a little vent at the back, it was easy to turn the edges around those flaps and secure them while I was sewing. Incidentally, whenever I sew a binding onto something, I inevitably miss a tiny (or not-so-tiny) part at the back where it's just hanging loose, so I always have to double-check both sides and make sure I caught every inch of the fabric while I was sewing.

Then came the ribbon. And I have a secret: I didn't measure it. I just sewed it straight from the roll, then cut it when I was done. I had come a little too close on the length of the strawberry fabric strip, so I didn't want to cut it too close with the length of the ribbon, and I think it actually worked really well. The vent gave me a fun opportunity to add a little more ribbon in an inverted V, and I just folded it at 90 degrees and went over the corners a few times anytime I got to a place where I needed to change direction with the ribbon.

I tried taking pictures of it on me so you could see the fit. Really, I have about 15 photos that look ridiculous. I should just reread the camera's manual on using the self-timer.

Anyway, I loved this skirt so much when I was finished that I had to wear it for the rest of the day, even though I was going to a park and was going to be wandering along a creek with a friend and our five little boys. We still did it, but I definitely need to be in more rugged clothing for this sort of outing next time. I think I would be smarter to save my awesome skirt for a leisurely shopping trip or lunch date next time. I wish I could wear it strawberry picking. Maybe if I ever went strawberry picking in a magazine ad... yep, it would work then.

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