Thursday, September 26, 2019


My son, Owen, does a peculiar thing when he gets in trouble.

He does this thing often (because I guess he gets in trouble a lot?), but one incident really stands out.

Last winter we were getting ready to have new carpet installed in our basement. Unbeknownst to us, our hot water heater had been leaking for weeks and had completely trashed our floors. But that’s a story for a different day.

To prepare for the new carpet, my husband and I had to move all our furniture out of the way. Imagine our extreme displeasure when we pushed aside the couch and discovered that a sea of candy wrappers had been unceremoniously shoved underneath it.

I’m talking nearly 100 wrappers, friends. Wrap your head around that.

Because Owen has a well-documented candy addiction—and he likes to sit on that same basement couch to watch TV—he landed at the top of our suspect list. We confronted him about the wrappers, which we (correctly) considered to be an alarming sign of three things: 

1. His laziness.
2. His sneakiness.
3. His sugar dependence.

We tried to explain all this to Owen, but instead of listening and apologizing, he appeared to brush off our reprimands. He did it in the most uncanny and maddening way. He did his thing.   

“Owen,” I said, holding up two fistfuls of wrappers. “Do you understand that this is—”

“What?” he said, not unkindly.

“These candy wrappers,” I said. “They’re not—”

“What?” he said again.

“These wrappers!” I yelled, shaking the wrappers like pom pons. “They’re not OK!”

“Buddy,” my husband gamely tried. “Candy wrappers attract bugs. You need to throw them away in the—”

“What?” Owen said. He sounded genuinely puzzled. There was no trace of guilt or defeat anywhere in his voice.

At the same time, I noticed that Owen was failing to make eye contact. He was staring at my husband’s Adam’s apple.

“The bigger issue is all this candy you’re eating,” I said, waving my arms to make him look at me. “Where are you getting it? Where are you hiding it? It’s devious, and it’s not good for your teeth or your body. It’s upsetting on multiple levels because—”

“What?” Owen said. He gazed intently at a spot somewhere along my clavicle.   

I threw my hands up in the air. My husband shook his head.

“How is this possible? How are you deflecting us?” I said. “You did something wrong and now you need to make—”

“What?” said Owen.

It honestly felt like I was trying to communicate with someone who was both vision- and hearing-impaired.  

“I know you can hear us,” my husband shouted. He clamped his hands on Owen’s shoulders. He summarized the problem. He laid out the consequences of Owen’s actions.

“And in the future,” I added hurriedly, taking advantage of the captive audience, “we will impose a fine of one dollar for every candy wrapper we find in the basement.”

The room was silent.

“Owen?” I asked, feeling smug. “Do you understand?”

“What?” he said, one last time. Just for good measure. 


As much as he drives me crazy, I wonder if Owen might be onto something.

Just like him, there are times when I don’t want to look life right in the eye. There are times when I feel frustrated or tired or backed into a corner or remorseful about choices I’ve made—and all I want to do is plug my ears and shut my eyes and be left alone with my feelings. Can you imagine the momentous sense of relief that would come from totally ignoring everyone?

The more I think about it, the more magical it seems.

If I could make myself immune to all the annoyances and aggravations around me just by asking an innocuous “What?” I’d probably do it all the time. Starting today:

Owen: Mom, I need clean socks for soccer. Did you do the laundry?

Me: What?

Owen: The laundry. Did you do it?

Me [keeping my eyes fixed on his left shoulder]: What?

Owen: I need clean socks for soccer, and a jersey too. They’ve been in the dirty laundry since last week and—

Me: What? 

How easily it could go both ways, son. How easily it could go both ways.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Little jerk

My son has always been my easy kid.

Clarification: technically speaking, Owen is not "easy" at all. (He has a checkered past of doing questionable things like this and this and this.) But he doesn’t carry the emotional tote-bags that my daughters do, which means he’s brought some levity and affection to my life for twelve cheerful years.

Things, however, are starting to change.

It appears as if Owen is dipping his toes in the torrid swamp of puberty. Which means he doesn’t like me very much anymore.

In every single one of our conversations, for instance, his non-verbal gestures now consist of eye-rolling, scoffing, shrugging and stomping. He stages a revolt when I ask him to do anything, whether it’s taking a shower or unloading the dishwasher. He uses the word “freaking” when he gets upset with me, even though he knows it’s not allowed because it sounds too much like a different, naughtier word. (A word, incidentally, that I’d love to shout at the top of my freaking lungs.) 

Just last week, I was tucking Owen in at bedtime. After I managed to plant a kiss on his forehead, he told me, simply and without fuss, that he would prefer it if I weren’t his parent right now. “I like hanging out with Dad,” he said. “You’re mean to me all the time, and he’s way more fun to be around.”

Thanks to my twin 15-year-old girls, I have been able to develop the skills to detach emotionally in situations like this. I know that no one, especially me, benefits when I fight fire with fire, so I responded to Owen with a tender litany of That’s too bad, I’m sad you feel that way about me, I don’t feel that way about you, I love you, I’ll see you in the morning, goodnight my darling son. I gently closed Owen’s bedroom door and went off to hide in my closet. 

The fact remains: my easy kid is slipping away like water through a sieve.

It helps knowing I’m not the only one who’s struggling with the onset of nasty boy-hormones. My brother-in-law and nephew came to visit us last month. Mike and I chatted in the front yard while Drew and Owen played basketball. The sounds of their cousinly shouts and laughter echoed down the street.

“I can’t believe how happy Drew is right now,” Mike said. He shook his head. “He was awful at home before we left. He wouldn't stop whining and complaining like a little jerk. I don’t know what’s happened to him. It’s like he’s become a different kid this year.”

“It’s the same way with Owen,” I said, profoundly relieved. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know him anymore.” 

But later that evening, I knew him again. When I kissed Owen goodnight, he wrapped his arms around my back in his idea of an embrace, although it more closely resembled a wrestling move designed to take somebody down. He put his lips as close to my eardrum as humanly possible and said, not softly, “I love you, Mom.”

Being a middle-school boy and all, he refused to release his grip. It was like having a monkey hanging off my shoulders as I tried to stand up. I resorted to tickling his armpits so he’d let go.

But I immediately missed the feel of him clinging to me. 


I can’t play basketball worth shit, and I’m terrible with athletic metaphors. But I know this much: puberty is a long game. Can someone please tell me they've got a uniform I can borrow?

Friday, December 14, 2018

Boulders, acorns and oak trees

Last week I had lunch with a good friend. I was eager for the chance to catch up with her, particularly as it involved eating enchiladas, but our conversation was sorrowful. She’s going through a very difficult time.

I don’t want to share her name, not just because her story is hers—messy, heartachy, depleting and private—but because nearly every one of my good friends is struggling with something similarly big and distressing. 

Life leaves none of us unscathed.

Essentially, my enchilada friend represents all my friends. She’s staring at an enormous boulder that’s been dropped rather unceremoniously in front of her. She didn’t ask for this boulder. She’s tired of the boulder and just wants to get around it and move on. 

[The boulder = adultery, ailing parents, anxiety, children with special needs, depression, divorce, financial instability, grief, health concerns, infertility, job unrest, loneliness, loss, marital discord, mental illness, sexual harassment. Take your pick. Come up with more. They all work.]

“But what can I do?” my friend asked me, with the tiniest suggestion of a wail. A chunk of my heart chipped right off as I heard the plaintiveness in her voice.

I rummaged through my brain for a nugget of advice—something she could say or do to mitigate her current terrible circumstances—and came up exactly nothing. She’s at the point where there isn’t one single action she can take to make her boulder more bearable or pleasant. It’s sitting there, and it’s not going to roll away anytime soon.  

But something unexpected did spring to mind as I was trying to offer comfort. I suppose it’s something I’ve done for awhile without recognizing or acknowledging it, but here it was, bubbling up into my consciousness, an urgent message for my suffering friend.    

“Talk to your future self,” I said, putting down my fork. She tilted her head at me. 

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Really,” I said. “Talk to your future self. She knows you better than anyone and she’s been through all of this already. She can reassure you that you’re stronger than you think you are.” 

I believe this to be true and proceeded to tell my friend as much.

It’s easy to look back over our lives and glean a sense of perspective from past experiences; we embrace our hard-earned wisdom, which of course becomes part of our emotional fiber and self-identity. But why don’t we ever turn our gaze forward, to the clever, prudent, discerning woman we are inherently fated to become? She’s out there. And she knows a lot more than we do right now. At the very least, she can wrap us in tenderness and remind us, It might not be easy, but you will get through this. I’m proof that you will make it to the other side. 

“Just give it a try,” I implored my friend.

And I think she did, because she ripped off a corner of her paper placement and wrote it down: Talk to my future self. She tucked it into her pocket as we hugged goodbye.


I credit Elizabeth Gilbert for shaping my thoughts on this matter. In 2006, when I read her extraordinary memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” I was sweaty and emotional by the time I reached the last page. More than a decade later, I recall Gilbert’s conclusion as being formidable. 

Yesterday, I pulled out my battered old copy of the book and sure enough, there it was. The glorious last page: dog eared, underlined, and unmistakably the origin of my subliminal conviction that our luminous, all-knowing selves persist somewhere in the wide-open future, patiently waiting for us to arrive.  

“[Zen Buddists] say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into the tree… But…there is another force operating here as well—the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity… The already-existent oak...saying the whole time: ‘Yes!—grow! Change! Evolve! Come and meet me here, where I already exist in wholeness and maturity! I need you to grow into me!’”

I’m going to send my friend a copy of this paragraph. She needs to know that although she’s got one hell of a boulder blocking her way, she’s also got an acorn and an oak tree.   

Friday, September 14, 2018


I am so not a millennial.

On Instagram, I follow a bunch of millennials—to wit, they refer to themselves as “influencers” or “lifestyle bloggers”—but let’s be clear that I am firmly entrenched in my Gen X view of the world.

These tech-savvy and on-point young women who pop up in my Instagram feed baffle as much as they impress me. They post dazzling photographs of their hairstyles, outfits, living rooms and children—and they link to the companies and products that make everything look so shiny and beautiful. Essentially, their lives are one big sponsorship opportunity.

Although I follow these ladies to get practical ideas on things like what shoes to wear with skinny jeans, I figure half the stuff they post must be staged or fabricated because I personally don’t anyone who moves through the world with such sustained magnificence. Frankly, I prefer a grittier approach: give me the gray hairs you haven’t had time to color, the dog eating scraps of food from your dirty dishwasher, or the acerbic teenagers who don’t want to be touched. These vignettes are my version of reality, although they aren’t nearly as pretty to look at. Which is why I follow the godforsaken millennials in the first place.   

It’s a mixed-bag, for sure—but it’s just Instagram. I have a good head on my shoulders, and I don’t get emotionally caught up in any of this nonsense.

Well, that’s kind of a lie. There is one thing I’ve been struggling with.

Since mid-August, moms have been posting photo after photo of their cute kids all lined up in a row on the first day of school. They smile broadly while sporting fresh haircuts and new backpacks, and one of them is always holding a letterboard. What is a letterboard? you ask. Ah, Instagram rookie, this is a letterboard: 

Letterboards are the trend du jour. They allow moms to assemble elaborate “flatlays” (like the one above) or place their children against scenic backdrops—all while asserting basic details about their lives in a crisp and tidy sans-serif font. 

This is when I start feeling like a failure. 

Not only do I not own a letterboard, I can't even get my kids to pose for a decent photo. Last week on our first day of school, my sixth-grade son refused to let me take his picture. I had to physically maneuver his body onto our front step, where he grimaced until I threatened to ground him from Fortnite if he didn't cooperate. To compound matters, later I realized that my twin freshman girls had actually snuck out of the house in order to avoid me and my camera. I dashed outside and followed them down the driveway like paparazzi as they rode off on their bikes. I was able to get a few wonky side shots, but their faces were overshadowed by their helmets and you couldn't even see their (clean) hair. 

After they were gone, I took a few moments to appreciate my house, which was dead silent for the first time since June. Then I texted my good friend Liz to tell her about my morning, comparing myself to the Instagram moms who, unlike me, appear to have their sh** together. She made me feel instantly better when she responded, "I can't wait to watch the teenage years unfold for all these millennial Instagrammers and bloggers who pose their preschoolers all day long. There will be a reckoning."


There’s a dad I follow on Instagram who is a world apart from the letterboard generation. He is clever and witty and doesn’t care about making himself look flawless. The wackier the better, I suspect. From his posts, I have gathered that he lives somewhere in Utah and has four or five kids and a spouse with a terrific sense of humor. This is one of his recent photos:

Oh, did I Like this. This nerdy dad, this middle-aged guy in baggy blue slacks, he gets it. To express my relief and gratitude, I sent him a message through Instagram and wrote something to the effect of, “Thank you for being a bright jewel sparkling in an endless line of otherwise predictable posts.” But maybe I came on too strong because he didn’t really get back to me?

Anyhow. From my time spent staring at photographs taken by people I don’t know, I’ve concluded that you must have super-thick skin while dabbling in social media. And continue to rail against the pervasive letterboard standard of perfection. And not let your self-esteem take a massive beating just because you don’t get one good picture of any of your kids on their first day of school. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Raising teenage daughters is no walk in the park.

I wish my twin 14-year-old girls and I weren’t so cliché in this way, but we are. We’re playing our stereotypical roles flawlessly

I try to impart wisdom on them – insightful, profound stuff like “it’s a nice idea to take a shower every day” and “being on your phone so much isn’t good for your brain.” They roll their eyes at me, we bicker, we repeat. They dodge my kisses and prefer I maintain a distance of at least six feet when we are out in public. 

And me? I just want them to pretend to enjoy my company for an hour. And maybe say "thanks" now and then. You know, for all the stuff I do to make their lives as safe and healthy and enjoyable as possible.  

I realize that their behavior is developmentally appropriate: they need to pull away from me as they transition from childhood into their own blossoming sense of self. But understanding the mechanics of adolescence doesn’t make it easier to bear. Some days, my discontent feels as leaden as an anvil strapped to my heart.

Occasionally my daughters will surprise me with a grateful smile or even a side-hug. One of them might tease me about a new gray hair that’s taken up residence along my temple, and I’ll joke back, “I’ve got you to thank for it.” I have become really talented at appreciating these moments of camaraderie. They are fleeting; they are my fuel.

Recently, I was so close to hitting the jackpot with one of my girls, whom I will refer to as “J.”

We had just suffered through a doctor’s appointment together. Visiting this doctor is a necessary evil, but I’m always freshly surprised by how much I dislike him. J won’t ever say that she agrees with me about anything, but I’m certain she feels the same way. As we left his office, we whispered to each other about his ridiculous mannerisms and laughed in a conspiratorial hush, hiding our mouths behind our hands. 

For once, we were on the same team. 

Heading toward our car, I was struck by the dizzying notion that my daughter might actually like me – for five minutes anyway. But my bliss was short-lived. As I reached into my purse for my keys, I failed to observe the yawning pothole at my feet. In a sickening tailspin, I found myself sprawled on the pavement, my knees covered with gravel and my left ankle twisted behind me. 

There are so many words that leapt to my tongue in that split second, most of them wildly inappropriate. So I swallowed them whole. I took a ragged breath, picked myself up, and hobbled to the car door. J had already gotten inside. 

“That’s where you say, Mom, are you all right?” I yelled in her direction. My chest was thudding. “That’s where you say, Mom, can I help you?!”

I tumbled into the driver’s seat and glared at my child. J turned to me and shrugged, offering her flimsy imitation of an apology. 

“Have a nice trip,” she said under her breath, trying to keep the corners of her mouth from curving into a smile.

My jaw dropped.

“See you next fall,” she added. 


I tell you this story not to suggest that my daughter is cruel-hearted or downright rude. She is neither of these things. Instead, she likes to fancy herself a budding comedian, and she has a hard time extending care or concern toward me in front of other people. This painful combination sometimes threatens to break me in two.     

Thankfully, my friend Lisa understands. Call it a love language or whatever you will; it’s tough when a mother and her kid are on dissimilar wavelengths. “I will never get used to the way my daughter shows her love for me. It’s so different from the way I show my love for her,” Lisa says. “Thirty years from now, and I think I’ll still be struggling with it.”  


As I said, raising teenage daughters isn’t a walk in the park.

Apparently, it’s not a walk in the parking lot either.

Get knee pads. Tuck a few band-aids in your pocket. Have your best friends on speed-dial.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll need them all. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cake mix

My friend Liz is a professional organizer.

She works for a company that overhauls ratty old closets and cabinets, grouping things in clear plastic containers and ingenious storage devices I never knew existed. She arranges items – Legos, folders, shoes, boxes of cereal – in ROYGBIV order and labels everything with dainty placards so there’s never any doubt as to what belongs where.

When photographs of Liz’s work projects pop up in my Instagram feed, I literally cannot believe my eyes. She and her colleagues are miracle workers, taking something nasty – say, a filthy garage – and transforming it into a bright, clean space where, inexplicably, I find myself longing to sit and drink a cup of tea.

I’m not even kidding.

If you walked into my house, it wouldn’t immediately be apparent that Liz and I are opposites on the organizational spectrum: this is because I like my rooms tidy and clutter-free. But the reason my rooms are tidy and clutter-free is because I shove everything into my closets. They are my veritable dumping ground. They are my dirty little secret.

A couple years ago I asked Liz about hiring her to help me with my kitchen pantry. But (ahem) I wasn’t organized enough to follow through and actually book her. So it continues to languish, characterized by expired jars of pickles and a distressing amount of cream of mushroom soup. I’ve gotten good at overlooking the chaos. After all, we have to let some things go.


But recently, something alarming occurred in my kitchen pantry that’s caused me to question my approach.

One afternoon, I was looking in vain for almonds, riffling through various tins and packages on the upper shelf. I am short and the upper shelf is tall, which made my search trickier. “A stepstool is always handy in situations like this,” I chided myself, but it was too late. Having shoved a can of diced tomatoes too far to the side, I inadvertently created a domino effect, sending a box of cake mix tumbling off the shelf and onto my face.

An item falling from the pantry onto my body is not surprising; it’s happened more times than I care to count. I was far more distressed by the fact that the box of cake mix was open. The sweet-smelling powder dusted my hair and chest and feet like snow.  

My kids, who were sitting at the kitchen table doing their homework, thought this was funny. And it was. I am quick to laugh at myself when the situation warrants, but something wasn’t adding up. 

"You guys, why was this box of cake mix open?” I asked. “I mean, don’t you use a box of cake mix all at once? Why would we have leftover cake mix in the pantry?” Genuinely puzzled, I was posing my questions rhetorically, but I noticed that my 11-year-old son was avoiding eye contact.

“Owen,” I said, “Why was this box of cake mix open?”

He didn’t answer. He appeared to be weighing his options.

“Just tell me the truth. It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Only, it was sort of a bigger deal than I anticipated, because Owen admitted that he had been eating the cake mix.

“Hold on a second,” I said. “You’re telling me that you opened the box of cake mix and have been eating it?”

He nodded.

How have you been eating it?”

“With a spoon,” he answered. As if this should be obvious.  

“So, you’ve been nipping into the cake mix every now and then, whenever you fancy a hit of Betty Crocker?”

He nodded again.


“I like sugar,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.  

“I see,” I said. I didn’t really see – not at all – but I wasn’t sure where to go from here. How does a good mom resolve a situation like this? I enlisted his help in cleaning up the cake mix, but I had no idea how to address the problem long-term.  

“Buddy, please don’t eat cake mix anymore,” I finally beseeched. “It’s not good for you, and it’s weird.”

“OK,” he said, shrugging his shoulders again.

“It also indicates that you have a major sugar addiction,” I added. “And it makes me feel like a bad mom. I am terrible at keeping this pantry clean. I didn’t even notice you had opened the box of cake mix. Why don’t I organize more? Why don’t I bake more? If I organized or baked more, this wouldn't have happened…”

“I get the idea, Mom,” he said. 

As I dusted the cake mix from my body and Owen swept it off the floor, I resolved to make a change. I would call Liz, and I would ask for her help.

But I am realistic, if nothing else. Liz might be awesome at helping me get organized, but she certainly isn’t trained in preventing 11-year-old boys from making ludicrous dietary choices.

Can someone please find me a consultant for that?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Venn diagram

One of my favorite things to eat in winter is tater tot casserole.

It’s the epitome of comfort food, and it serves a necessary purpose: in lieu of sunlight (because there isn’t any in Wisconsin in January), we need to get our Vitamin D through other channels. And what better channels are there than ground beef and mushrooms?

This is my recipe. You will note that it is unfussy and economical, well-suited for the overextended parent who has difficulties getting dinner on the table. Swap out or switch up ingredients as needed. 
  • 1 lb. ground beef, cooked and drained
  • 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup
  • 1-2 jars of button or sliced mushrooms
  • 1-2 cans of Veg-All, or if you are in a situation akin to mine (read on for details), you might want to deconstruct and use separate cans of carrots, corn, and/or green beans
  • Bag of frozen tater tots
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix everything (except for the tots) in a big bowl. You may be tempted to sneak a bite of the casserole mixture; this is normal and appropriate. Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with Pam and spread the casserole mixture in it. Top with the bag of frozen tater tots. Bake for an hour or until the casserole is piping hot and the tots are crispy and golden brown. Ketchup or hot sauce slathered on top is a nice touch.

You’re welcome.       


When my kids were little, I made tater tot casserole all the time and never fielded a complaint. They ate it without protest, until (perplexingly, alarmingly) their taste buds started to morph. As they’ve gotten older, each of them has declared moratoria on certain foods they used to shove in their mouth holes as toddlers.

I understand that things change and evolve, so I try to honor their new and emerging demands – but only when I’m feeling generous in time and spirit. (Which is to say, most days I tell them to just pick out whatever ingredient they hate from whatever meal I’ve made.) The problem is this: no matter what I do, I can’t make all three of them happy at the same time. Someone always gets pissed off.

Take my tater tot casserole, for example. As I was preparing it for dinner last week, I stared into my baking dish and realized it was no longer my friend. It had become, of all insane things, a mathematical dilemma. I could almost hear it taunting me.

“Do you remember what a Venn diagram is?” it hissed.

“I think so?” I answered.

“I’ve become one,” it said. “Solve me.”

Indeed, my baking dish was correct: to make the casserole edible for each member of my family, I needed to construct it in overlapping sections not unlike a Venn diagram. Of course, my Venn diagram was warped from the start because I was working with rectangles instead of circles. And they were sloppy, imprecise rectangles, because, really, how can one keep uncooked casserole sections from spreading into others?

This was my predicament: 
  • Child #1 and #2 like mushrooms, but child #3 doesn’t.
  • Child #1 and #3 like beef, but child #2 is a vegetarian.
  • Child #2 and #3 eat canned corn, but child #1 won’t touch it. 
Therefore, I assembled my baking dish using a design like this:  

A = set containing mushrooms
B = set containing ground beef
C = set containing canned corn

Are you feeling a little rattled by now? Yes, me too, because this approach to cooking screws with your mind. Case in point: when my tater tot casserole was finished in the oven, I could barely remember which set was which, let alone which kid was eating which set. Who was assigned to AC, AB, and BC? Was anyone a pure A, B, or C? Why had I felt compelled to do this in the first place?

The easy part was ABC, which was just for my husband and me. We ate our set and were satisfied. Everyone else grumbled because, according to them, nothing came out right. Child #3 said his set smelled like mushrooms, #2 found a trace of ground beef in her set, and, worst of all, #1 announced she no longer liked tater tots.

In their eyes, my casserole was a big fat fail. But instead of mentally snapping – as one would rightly expect me to do – I partook in some emergency meditation breathing, which helped me calmly consider my casserole in a different light.

Instead of a meal I had taken the time to prepare and that zero of my children had appreciated, I chose to look at my casserole as a symbol of motherhood. We try to do our best, no? We know that a 100% success rate is impossible if we’ve got more than one kid. What is worth a headache one day might not be worth it another. We mourn the lost taste buds of babyhood and celebrate the discerning individuals our children have become. We devise Venn diagrams to be creative in our parenting and then acknowledge that mathematical reasoning doesn’t apply when it comes to picky eaters.

And sometimes we decide to shelve a favorite recipe until #1, #2, and #3 go off to college.