Monday, December 30, 2013


While we were home for Christmas, a lot of folks asked us what are plans are, as in "Where are you guys going to be living in the near future?"

This wasn't a surprise: we have been quite vocal about how we are prepping our very lovely condo for market, working with an organizer, Susan (who has quite frankly made this house so wonderful, it is even harder to consider moving). We don't have a good answer, though, and we were asked so many times where/when/how/why, we realized it is well past time for us to make some big choices.

Knowing you don't want to stay where you are is only the first step, but wouldn't it be nice if that was all you had to know? If the universe aligned to give you a cosmic sign, if your guardian angels whispered your next step in your ear, if all signs and opportunities led to one fateful place, where everything would make sense?  If wishing made it so, we'd already be moved and settled in the place we need to be. 

Being an adult so rarely relies on wishing, though—as my friends and I have chatted about quite a bit recently, this whole "When you grow up you can do whatever you want!" sentiment was way oversold by our parents, and it is not the theme-park fantasy we imagined when we were ten. Sure, you can live wherever you want, if you can afford it, have job security, have people in your network to help you, etc. When it is your home, you can certainly make all the rules, but of course, you will also pay for all the repairs, do all the cleaning, and be shocked over how much it costs to buy things like lamps and rugs. When you have choices, you will have gains and losses, and the big magic trick of adulthood may be learning how to settle in and deal with both simultaneously in an upbeat and practical way.

So, where will we go? We don't know. Chicago has become home, as all places do, but especially places with as much to offer as this one. We've been spoiled by kind neighbors, a gorgeous neighborhood, and access to everything—EVERYTHING—we could possibly want to eat/do/experience/purchase/explore at our doorstep. We have also come to realize that living on the fourth story is not a good fit for us anymore—older relatives will soon no longer be able to visit us, and others who are not ambulatory have never been able to do so. What we purchased as a temporary place for the purpose of attending graduate school has served its purpose, and now, we must find the next spot.

We've learned that, at least for us, it takes roughly seven years to make a place truly home. Seven years can help you find friends, establish routines, learn all the sneaky routes to all the stores and activities that you frequent, and generally feel a part of a place. We did it in DC. We did it here. We can do it again. Years two-three can feel slow and sad, but seven years goes surprisingly fast. 

How do I feel about this? Terrified. It's one thing to know something doesn't work well anymore, it is another thing entirely to launch into the unknown. Again, if I could just get some tea leaves to speak to me, this would be so much easier, and I find it very aggravating that a) I don't like tea, and b) no one else's cup has given them any signs we could use.

Our post-holiday schedule now looks something like this:

1) Evaluate our finances (again)
2) Set some goals/actions for savings
3) Contact realtor (again)
4) Finish up house projects/staging
5) Get pre-approved for a loan (so we know what we are looking at)
6) Continue to conduct widespread job search (for me) in areas where we want to live, including, but not limited to, the Chicago area
7) Breathe, try not to overeat from stress, breathe some more
8) Do a big whiteboard exercise where we exhaust all the pros and cons of every possibility, and then just take a giant leap
9) Breathe some more
10) Pray for patience and insight, then ask for help on the ground.

But if anyone wants to read our palms or have a vision on our behalf beforehand, we'd gladly take it. 

Friday, December 27, 2013


I'm writing today from a room in the ambulatory care department up at a hospital in Milwaukee. At the moment, my dad is in a suite a floor away getting a catscan, nothing serious. The procedure won't take long, but he needs to do an infusion after it is done to flush out all the dye, which will take about seven hours. As my mom is recovering from a leg injury, I volunteered to come up and be dad's companion for the day. 

When we left this morning before the sun rose, my mom suggested that Dad and I could use today to have some good bonding time. I said, "Hey, I volunteered to go with him, I didn't say anything about bonding." Then we laughed. All my time with Dad is bonding time, of course. 

Once we arrived up here and settled into his room for the day, I pulled out the iPad and keyboard and started to type, in fits and spurts. Dad asked what I was working on, and I said I was trying to think of something to write. I told him how I've committed to writing on this blog every day, but today, nothing was coming to me. He suggested that I write, "I'm at the hospital, looking at my dad, let me tell you how good-looking he is."


In the hour and 15 minutes we were here before he left for the scan, he danced and sang with two nurses, who conveniently have names that are featured in 1950s songs. He kept everyone smiling, all while getting an IV and prepping for his procedure. The man is as fun as ever, even in the hospital room in the early morning. Should I be shocked? Look at his picture from a year ago, right before he went in for a carotid endarterectomy:

If he can be that entertaining when going in for surgery, just think how hilarious he can be for a simple outpatient procedure.


When he gets back from his scan, and is hooked back to his IV, I'll fetch him some breakfast and lunch, we'll turn on the TV, and will probably just chill out. We'll chat occasionally, but we'll be quiet, too. When staff members come in, we'll both joke with them. The thing is, as much as we tease Dad for being friendly and silly with people, I am now exactly the same way. Mike sometimes calls me Rogerina (dad's name is Roger), particularly when we show up at a store or restaurant, the staff remembers me, and we get great service. Being friendly and silly is a fun way to go through life, and I don't need a day in the hospital with Dad to know that showing me how to have fun every day is one the best lessons he ever taught me. I'll take the refresher course, though, every time.


<<Just as I finished this up, the nurse that took Dad down for his scan popped in and asked, "Was that your dad that I brought down?" When I said yes, she said, "He's a hoot! I'd take him to get a catscan everyday!" Mr. Fun strikes again.>>

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cold Quiz

We had a white Christmas, and even a scrooge like me about winter will admit that a snowfall like this—a real, Wisconsin snow covering—makes for a pretty idyllic scene. Here is the from view from my parents' front porch in the woods this morning, only an hour and twenty minutes away from our condo in Chicago, but a world away into something worthy of Currier and Ives.

Gorgeous, right? Yeah, I agree. I chuckled yesterday on the ride from my cousin's big Italian afternoon feast to my in-laws gift opening/dinner feast thinking about how the road conditions would have shut down Northern Virginia/Washington, DC (where we lived for nearly a decade) for a week. Here, the ride was holiday business as usual, taking our time and enjoying the views on our way. Wisconsinites don't stop for snow.

All this glorious scenary aside, it is cold here. Very cold. No-joke cold. And yet, just like in their response to snow, folks who live in the Great Lakes region soldier on in the cold, bundling up and going about their daily errands. 

Can you be too brave about bad weather? I suppose being content with your cirumstances is the best approach for maintaining mental health, but in the past week, I have discovered three clues that might help all of determine that we might be in too cold of a climate. I don't want to go too Jeff Foxworthy, but here is one northerners' version of his famous schtick:

1) If, by Christmas, it has already been so cold (in the single digits for several days) that when you attend an outdoor event in 36 degree weather, it feels warm, you probably live in too cold a climate.

2) If your parents' new washing machine is delivered the day after Christmas, and the delivery person says, "You need to wait several hours before running this. The manufacturer ships this with some water inside, and it may have frozen solid on the way here," you probably live in too cold a climate.

3) If you are watching the news and hear about an exploratory cruise to Antarctica that has been trapped in the ice, in temperatures "that feel as low as nine degrees," and you realize, "it is often colder than nine degrees here, and no one is coming in an ice-breaking vessel to save me," you probably live in too cold a climate.

Have more? I'd love to hear them.

Stay warm out there, friends.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Schriten!

Family legend tells us that my granddaddy, when he was very little and still learning to talk, came out on Christmas morning exclaiming, "It's Schriten! It's Schriten!" His new word for Christmas stuck, and in our family, Schriten lives—it really isn't Christmas for us until someone declares that it is Schriten.

That's the thing about family folklore: you never know when the stories that stick will be written. You can't manufacture them, they just arrive, and then live with you and your loved ones, weaving their way through generations, bringing a potentially different meaning every time they are unearthed. Schriten used to be a funny thing Granddaddy said to us as kids, but now that he has passed away, it has morphed into a sweet reminder of him, his humor, and his smile. My mom, who shares his smile, passed Schriten on to us alongside her father, and we, in turn, are pushing it forward alongside Mom to his great-grandchildren. When I hear EJ say it to us, I feel him right there in the room. I don't think anyone guessed at the time that a small boy's mispronunciation would mean so much in the next century.

Poignant or silly, simple or convoluted—the legendary moments that make up the stories we hold most dear just show up when we are in the moment, being present, taking it all in. May we all have a holiday season filled with the joy of presence.

Merry Schriten, everyone, from me and Grandddady.

EJ and Granddady at my grandparents' home in Denver, Colorado, fall 2005.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Daring Daughter (at the Dryer)

<<This post was written with the express permission of my daughter, EJ, and approved of by her before publishing. She came up with the title, in fact.>>

It started when she was a few months old. A good friend had given us an exersaucer, one of those not-inexpensive baby containment devices that most of my friends' kids had loved. I put EJ in it, and after cautiously exploring a few pieces of the toy, she started to grin and giggle, bounce up and down, and turn herself to discover every bit of her new toy. It was all happiness until she got to a little clear barrel, filled with hard red beads inside. As she spun it, and it made a loud noise, her face quickly changed to fear, and she started screaming.

After that, she would panic and wriggle in my arms if I even attempted to put her near it. Several months later, when she was secure on her feet, she would stand next to the exersaucer, only on the side that did not have that barrel. If it shook even a little bit, she would revert back to avoidance.

Aside from this reaction, though, the kid was (and is!) fearless. She was always willing to launch herself into new environments, and generally didn't mind most noise-makers, so long as she was controlling them, like in her music class. As she got older and headed to preschool, I was amazed at how happy she was to be dropped off, without so much as a tear or whimper, even as kids around her were wailing and clinging to their parents' legs.

Given that her exersaucer days were well behind her, and she was so bravely independent in so many things, I thought that we were in the clear for this fear. But she had not yet encountered the automatic toilet—a torture mechanism for many potty-training kids, as they are not large enough to stop the sensor from flushing LOUDLY over, and over, and over, while they are still trying to go to the bathroom. We had also just entered the age of the screaming, jet-engine, pulls-skin-away-from-muscle-and-bone-with-its-strength super-dryer (think Dyson), a device created to help the world go green, and as such, installed with frequency in many of the various museums and kid-attractions where there are plaques to teach important lessons (save the earth!) even in the restrooms.

By kindergarten, EJ was terrified of bathrooms. Her fear about the noises had become a generalized worry about entering public bathrooms at all, which her father or I made her do as she sobbed and protested. People encouraged us that if she faced her fears, they would go away, but parents know the difference between a simple fear, and something much more devastating. She got better and better at facing bathrooms and using them as she got used to them at school, but as she did, a somewhat elaborate routine of checking at the door for bathroom components (or having an adult scout it out first) ear-covering, body-placement relative to the dryers, etc., began to take shape. Our pediatrician told us to hang in there until around eight, at which time, if her anxiety wasn't significantly better, we should get some help.

This summer, after two years of what felt like steady improvement, everything seemed to get much more painful for her, all of the sudden. All those rules and routines were making things worse, not better, as they could not always be followed. We were losing patience, and didn't know what to do as she fought us not to use the restroom while out on excursions, or about to get on an airplane, or when stopping in the bathroom right before a movie was about to start. 

We felt stuck. She felt miserable. I told her that I could contact our doctor to find someone who could help us with this, because we didn't know how to help her anymore, and were worried we might inadvertently be making it worse. She said, "Please, can you do that as soon as possible?"

Yes, sweetie, we could.

In August, with the recommendation of her pediatrician, EJ started cognitive behavior therapy, using a program called "The Coping Cat" with an excellent child psychologist. In this work, EJ has learned an entirely new way of dealing with her anxiety, not trying to eliminate her feelings of fear, but rather, to employ tools to address it when it comes up. In essence, she has learned to go from "Scaredy Cat" to "Coping Cat" by listening to her body, listening to what her mind tells her, doing activities that relax her physically, telling herself things that counter what her worried brain might say, and rewarding herself in the end.

My first reaction to our introduction to this technique was, "Why don't we all learn this as kids? This stuff is genius!" Imagine someone pulling you aside as a child and saying, "Hey, things are going to be scary sometimes, but here is what you do when you have those feelings, so you don't have to worry or push them away." Revolutionary, right?

A few weeks ago, after many sessions of learning her tools and doing homework where she exposed herself to less-scary things, we worked with her therapist to have her use a hand-dryer at the doctor's office. We stood in the bathroom for 40 minutes, and I watched as EJ's therapist showed me how to encourage her without letting her create rules and routines. She worked through her tears, and eventually turned on the dryer and put her hands under for 5 seconds. We had big high-fives all around, then I got a hug from the therapist—it was so hard to watch, but so exciting to see EJ conquer her worry.

With that under our belts, her homework task was to use a loud automatic dryer (again, think Dyson) twice before her next session. With an appointment at 1:00 p.m. today, at 10:30 a.m. I took EJ to the loud, loud hand dryer at Whole Foods, hoping we could get in our task prep, the task, and her post-task homework, as well as some lunch, before her appointment. Having that hard deadline would help us make sure the task got done, or we moved on before it got too long and scary (for both of us.)

The first attempt was hard. I had to enforce the "no making rules and routines" policy, so I couldn't let her back away from the dryer, I counted down to the attempt (even though she asked me not to), etc. I knew it was the right thing to do, but it felt merciless in the moment. It took about 20 minutes of continual effort before she did it, counting with me, then holding her hands in the dryer for longer than necessary. You could see the anxiety leaving her as we walked out of the bathroom, where we hugged, high-fived, and then sat down so she could do her homework sheet describing her experience. 

We both got some pizza, had a nice little lunch, then knew it was time to try again. We both needed to use the bathroom, too, which meant that using the hand dryers would be a natural part of washing our hands.

I'm not sure what changed for her that second time around—she said that she just knew she could do it—but without any help from me, she walked right up that dryer, and stuck her hands in. She smiled. I grabbed my camera.

Success, all by herself.

We walked back out to a table, practically bouncing with joy the whole way. She sat down to fill out her homework, this time writing, "NO!" at the top, when asked, "Feeling Frightened?" Stuart Little, her helper, pitched in.

Reporting the happy results.
Then my brave girl did something I could not believe—she asked, "Can we do it again, this time just for fun?"

Yes, sweetheart. We can. Two more times. (Which she did.)

"Can you show it to Daddy?"

Yes, I can film it. We could do this all day.

Is this the end of all her worries? I'm not naive. This is a big beginning though, and a place to build upon as she faces the next dryer, and the next bathroom, and the loud noises that come up in situations she hasn't yet expected.

EJ is beaming with pride, as she should be. With Christmas in two days, I don't know if the glow of this accomplishment will stand out to her in the way that a stack of presents will. But in a year that had a lot of wonderful, I can tell you right now, December 23rd, 2013, is the greatest day I have had all year.

Friday, December 20, 2013

And It's Too Late, Furby, Now It's Too Late

Last night, before going to bed, EJ decided that instead of straightening up her room (as I had asked) or putting away her homework (again, me with the asking/her with the "forgetting I asked"), she was going to write a letter to Santa.

You know, on December 19th. In the evening. On the eve of the last day of school for the year, at which point she would be on winter break and with me almost every moment, watching closely for Christmas gift-related subterfuge. On the same day that I had come home just a few hours before, happy with my definitive triumph of that "one last, big exciting thing" that I had helped Santa to secure.

At the fancy whiz-bot technology store (you may know the one), I took a picture of an item I thought EJ would really love, then texted it to St. Nick. He instantly appeared, disguised as a store clerk, and after we exchanged holiday greetings, I told him, "Yes, I know this is pricey, but she really earned it, and we can help to defray the cost if you and the elves can't cover it." He was so appreciative, saying, "Thank you, Kori! The recession hit the North Pole very hard—we invested heavily in real estate, and now we are underwater on condo developments on both poles—and since I insist on providing affordable health care for all my elves (instead of forcing them to work part-time with no benefits), every little bit helps."

Okay, he didn't say that, but he did take my money, then jiggled like jelly and magically disappeared just as quickly as he had arrived, with me holding the (pricey) receipt.

Yes, it was on my day of holiday hubris—remember parents, NEVER BE SMUG—that EJ wrote this little gem to Santa Claus:

Okay, A+ for manners, apologizing twice for the lateness. And hey, look at that cursive! She taught cursive writing to herself with a book her godmother gave her, and it looks pretty sharp. Creativity points also go out to her for changing the end of the word Furby to Furbie to match her own. But I must protest: A FURBY BOOM? Have you seen these things? Worse yet, have you heard them?

She mentions to Santa that her Furby permanently died, which is smart, because it plays on both his practical and his sympathetic sides. It also might put the hubby and I on his naughty list, because...well, let's just say we didn't work very hard at reviving the Furby she received last year. This toy/instrument of parental torture was so insidious that it needed to be housed in its own basket, deep in the closet, so that it could not be touched/nudged/breathed upon in anyway, lest it awaken by shrieking in loneliness, then break into evil laughter that scared our child to the point of tears. (Oh yes, she adored it through her sobs and her pleading with us, "Please make it stop laughing at me like that, it is so scary! It looks like it wants to hurt me.")

So, to sum up: a) the kid only wants one thing from Santa, b) Santa has all her gifts covered and was unaware of this request, and c) this is the only gift EJ's parents expressly asked Santa to leave off the sleigh, because we aren't particularly partial to toys that spring to life to give our daughter the evil eye.

If I were to be Santa's ghost writer—and I'm not, I'm just being hypothetical here—I think I might have to reply,

"Dear EJ,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. It is never too late to write to Santa, but of course, promptness is appreciated. 

I know that you would really like a Furby Boom—I understand, because they are covered in pink hearts, and like to talk and be snuggled—but unfortunately, we have had an outbreak of boomistis hit the North Pole, affecting toys with the word 'Boom' in their name. The Furby Booms are okay—please don't worry about them—but if they touch a child under the age of 10, that child gets a sudden and devastating case of the naughties, making them unable to receive any presents from me.

Your mom and dad have reported that you have been a real joy this year, and I would hate for a case of acute boomitis to ruin your Christmas. As such, please accept the other gifts we made for you. One of them was picked out by Mrs. Claus with you in mind—can you guess which one? She was so touched that you asked about her in your letter, and sends her warmest thoughts on this chilly night.

One last thing: if you find out that one of your friends has received a Furby Boom from me, rest assured that he or she is not at risk for the naughties—at least not through their Furby Boom—as I must have fulfilled their Christmas wish order before the boomitis outbreak. All Furby Booms being delivered for Christmas 2013 are guaranteed to be perfectly safe, as they were placed in sealed gift bags on my sleigh prior to the onset of the disease. I'm sorry I was not able to get a healthy Furby Boom for you this Christmas, but we are confident that by next year, our medicine of gingerbread-flavored tea mixed with powerful anti-virals will do the trick.

Ho ho ho! Be a good girl this year, and remember, whatever you do: DO NOT GET A NEW FURBY BOOM!


Santa Claus

PS: There is a rumor that boomitis can affect grandparents, too, making them unable to spoil their grandchildren. Make sure to tell all of your grandparents not to play with or purchase Furby Booms, either."

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Tomorrow will be our last major day of work with the professional organizer we began working with in the spring to get our home—just on the cusp of becoming a cramped rental storage unit that just happened to have three people in it—into shape to (potentially) put on the market.

Working with an organizer was a revelation for me, a gal who has always craved clear, uncluttered spaces, but has lacked the basic understanding of how to make that happen. I know, if you are really neat and organized, this makes no sense: how do people not know how to pick up? What can I say? Even my attempts to straighten—which made the house look neat and organized—only made things more chaotic, as they multiplied the number of items put away with the "stick this thing in that spot because it fits even if it has nothing to do with anything else there" method.

I did say I was clueless about organizing my home, right?

I'm not exactly sure how I have always been able to stay really organized at school and work, but have had a messy room since I was a kid. As I've learned more techniques from Susan, our organizer, I've realized that I have used these same organizational skills in other areas of my life for as long as I can remember. Even in my work doing organizational development consulting, I preach, teach, and help to establish the same kinds of practices with human beings that Susan uses to help me make my closet something useful and inviting all the time. If I can do it with people, you'd think purses wouldn't pose a challenge, but the brain is a complicated and fickle instrument that does not always use a universal skills translator. With Christmas looming presently, and the promise of a bunch of new things coming to the house, I wonder if I will need to hire an interpreter to make sense of how to find a home for everything coming in.

Working with Susan has been wonderful, and I would highly recommend hiring an organizer (especially her!) based on our experience. Our home is so much more manageable, our space is easier to straighten, and we are now able to find 90% of our stuff in a snap. This does mean, though, that we can't find 10% of our stuff easily, and when this happens, we have discovered the missing items are well and truly hidden. My sense is that these things are either sorted/labeled/packed up away somewhere clever (but out of sight), or more often, "gone" because one of us did not remember their new designated spot, and put them in the wrong place.

This past week, I thought I was going to lose my mind looking for clean underwear. Yes, UNDERWEAR, namely MY UNDERWEAR. I knew that I had put underwear into the wash not once, not twice, but three times the previous week. There was none left in the hamper, and yet, based on what I was finding in my drawer, I was becoming dangerously close to hand-washing my undergarments at night just to have something clean the next day. I didn't want to chance placing any more pairs in the wash again if they were just going to go missing, too—I hate laundry enough already, I don't need the added concern that my dryer has become the Hotel California. By day three of "Where have all the undies gone? (Long-time washing)" I resorted to wearing "that one pair of underwear that fits, so you don't throw it away, but is really uncomfortable." I followed up the next day with "that older pair with the elastic that isn't very reliable, so it must be pulled up 55 times a day." When I reached D-Day---the day no underwear could be found at all—I asked Mike again, as I had every previous day, "Have you seen any of my underwear? Did you put any of it away when you put the clothes away?" He had nothing but blank stares and shoulder shrugs for me, but looked sympathetic, then headed to his office to start work for the day.

At that point, I went on an underwear-finding rampage, putting all my previous attempts to find them to shame. Have I mentioned that I am terrible at finding things? When other wives comment on how their husbands can't even find a thing, I just bow my head, trying to avert eye-gaze; in this house, Mike is the finder. I knew I might need to call him in eventually, because I tend not to see things right in front of me, but wanted to avoid bothering him as long as I could.

I checked my underwear drawer three times, as if either my eyes hadn't worked the first time, or magical underpants gnomes were going to pop in and deliver them while the drawer was closed.  I went into my shirt drawer, my sock drawer, my jewelry drawer, even pulling things out and checking all around. Finally, when I opened my pants drawer, I found the treasure trove: next to the lone drawer-divider I use in my drawers (to separate summer from winter pants), hidden under a pair of July-weight yoga pants, were at least eight pairs of undies, waiting for me all folded and ready.

At first, I felt happy that I had found them. I don't find anything! Then, I wanted to get down to the bottom of this, as I knew—or at least I hoped—that I wasn't the one who had put all the underwear into hiding. I called Mike in to ask him where my underwear drawer is, and sure enough, he pointed to my pants drawer. Aha! This is what I should have done a week ago. I showed him my underwear drawer, with every other bit of underclothing in it, in a totally separate piece of furniture on a different wall of our room from my pants. "Oh," he said sheepishly, and then we started laughing. "Yeah, I guess I did put that away, didn't I?" Wait---your underwear drawer is the same as it has always been? You didn't move it?"

Yes, that is the trick of the organized house. One of the only places in our home that truly did not change in any functional way once the organizer came was my underwear drawer, so therefore, it was the hardest place in the house to find.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Not All Together

On Sunday evening, my husband looked at me and said, "I am bone tired, and I have no idea why."

"Really?" I asked. "You have no idea at all?"

Then we just looked at each other and started laughing hysterically.

With Nutcracker performances all weekend for our kiddo, two sets of grandparents in town to see those shows, CCD to teach bright and early on Sunday, and not to be left behind, a sick old dog to care for, who just that morning had woken up the whole house, houseguests included, by sneezing blood all over the the place—the walls, the floor, herself, etc.—requiring a call to the emergency vet, with all that going on, the idea that we weren't tired seemed laughable. The fact that I hadn't taken my thyroid pill that morning while trying to contain the massive canine bloodspray was now starting to take effect, making me even more slow-moving and foggy-headed.

'Tis the season for exhaustion, I suppose, but it is really okay. 

I've discovered that some years, I feel like I have this Christmas thing all under control. Gifts are purchased ahead, then wrapped and hidden, the budget makes sense, holiday cards are sent out by the 10th of December, etc. I have it together. Last year I felt like this, and I was overflowing with Christmas spirit and basking in the Advent season.

Other years, though, like this year...well, other years, it just feels tiring and out-of-sorts, as if nothing is going to come together. Our holiday cards were supposed to arrive on Monday, for example, later than usual. They didn't. I called in, and there was a printing snafu, but they fixed it, and they would be overnighted for Wednesday delivery. When I checked in the next day, they were still listed as "printing." Another call relayed another snafu, so tomrorrow is hopefully our golden day.  The Christmas presents for EJ seem pretty uninspired this year, and when they arrived via Amazon Prime yesterday (bless you, Amazon Prime), the box was so much smaller and less impressive than I expected. And our budget—well, our budget is so blown from hiring an organizer to help us with our house, and travelling to California last month, Mike and I have agreed not to buy each other any presents.

Ho, Ho, Ho!

You know what, though? Not one bit of this matters. As it turns out, whether I feel prepared or not, whether every item on my checklist comes with a hiccup or flies by without a problem, and whether our budget is tight or stretched to its end, Christmas comes, and everything is great.  All the running about and worrying doesn't make a difference, so even though I feel out of sorts, I'm reminding myself that I don't have it have it all together in order for Christmas to be wonderful.

Those holiday cards, so late in being finished, now are coming to me with free shipping via the one carrier who tends to deliver the most reliably, and with a 20% rebate on top of a 30% coupon I used at the time of purchase. That box of stuff for EJ did arrive—that's a blessing in and of itself with our spotty mail delivery—and if it takes up less space (read: CLUTTER), all the better, as it will make all the money we spent on the organizer more worthwhile. And as for Mike and I not buying anything for each other, that is about the nicest thing we have done for each other in years, reducing stress, financial strain, and "unnecessary buying for buying's sake."

So, as I sit here and type this during my 20 spare minutes today, sitting at a Target near EJ's school, waiting to drive over and hope I get parking to see her school holiday concert, I can just enjoy the time to myself, my gingerbread latte, and the knowledge that Christmas comes to the happy and the harried all the same. Namaste.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

So Precious

Here's a lesson learned from our weekend watching the kiddo release her inner toy soldier in The Nutcracker:

If you sit in front of a small kid sitting on her dad's lap during a Saturday matinee, and that kid spends the whole time coughing on you—un-ending, "mouth not covered, enjoy my typhoid/plague/black death coughing," making your skin start to crawl as you feel her spray on your neck, face, arms, etc., don't say, "That couldn't have been worse."

If you do, the next day, for the Sunday matinee, a cranky, nursing toddler will be behind you, kicking you and screaming, all while her very exhausted mother tries to watch her older sister dance for 3 minutes in the pre-show for little ones, then collect that preschooler from backstage and try to keep her entertained for an hour and a half while snow angels and mirlitons whirl around on stage. The yelling of the toddler and the loud questions of the preschooler fighting for some of her mom's attention will not enhance the dancing, but hey, you aren't get bathed in germs, so is it worse?

Kick, kick, scream, kick...we'll call it a tie.

Bless the children, our precious, precious future, spreading bronchial disease, backache and headache since the beginning of time.

(Woke up this morning with the sniffles and scratchy throat. Take heart, adorable—she really was—little coughing girl. Your work here is done. Please give credit to your dad, too, though, who would not cover your mouth—despite us asking politely sometime in Act II—and let you at times stand directly by our faces, or lean over onto the seat in front of you while hacking.

As for the mom on day two, well, I just felt sorry for her. We've all been there, I just wish she hadn't been there directly behind us that day. Day one wore me out on "behind the seat kid drama.")

Monday, December 16, 2013

Can Do

Since I posted about the effect of pushing standardized test improvement on one third grader in the system (aka, my kid), I learned this: if you want to triple your readership in 24 hours, write about how much you are frustrated when your kid is not only privy to her standardized test scores, but asked to set goals to improve them.

Thank you, readers, for all of your thoughtful comments and messages to me. It feels like we can't change the system, but it is nice to know we have the numbers—not test score numbers, but hoards of parents wondering how to fix this before their kids go bonkers—to speak up and be heard.

When I picked up EJ from school on Friday, fired up by your response to my post, I asked her how her day was, hoping that testing was now wiped clean off her plate, replaced by a busy day of fun December activities planned at school. She told me that her class spent time during the day graphing out all their test scores, and then writing new goals to improve them. I started to fall deeper in the "this makes me so angry I could..." pit, but then—hurray!—she said "I'm not worried, Mom, because for reading, I am CLEARLY in the margin of error." Small victories in the big, weird war are always appreciated.

Since Friday, I have been pondering what we can do for our kid in the climate of school testing madness, how we can make things better, how we can try to turn the ship around when it is heading into icy waters (and the captain of the ship is going too fast to stop for icebergs.) Then the anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown happened, and our dog got even more gravely ill, and my brain went back to the place where it says to self, for sanity's sake, "Well, testing stress isn't the worst thing in the world."

Sigh. Perspective can be a killer to activism. All wasn't lost, though, and I haven't put down my flag, yet, thanks to what happened the rest of the weekend. 

Friday through Sunday, EJ spent the majority of her time either rehearsing or performing in The Nutcracker, and because of that, we spent hours with family, neighborhood friends, and kids who would just make your heart melt as they danced their feet off up on stage, having practiced and prepared all autumn, excited to perform in their beautiful costumes to sold-out crowds.

Watching them up on stage, I was reminded: these kids shouldn't be worried about standardized tests. Seeing them feel so accomplished underscored how ridiculous, and how downright counterproductive, it is to push kids to improve test scores in order to feel successful. This was success: working hard, practicing, and then getting to tangibly see/feel/experience/encounter the reward. No tiny test-score increase, well within the margin of error, can make the same kind of impact for a kid. On the way home from the last performance, EJ was already talking about next year, how hard she wants to keep practicing, how she can't even guess which part she might have if she keeps at it (but someday she really wants to be a policinelle, and who wouldn't?)

I also talked to so many parent friends and acquaintances, several of whom had read my blog, and had similar concerns about where all this testing was going. A common theme was, "WHAT THE @#*$)@*(%&! IS GOING ON HERE?"

When I had downtime, between putting up ballet buns with sticky hair gel that feels, at best, like snot, and keeping everyone in the house fed, I read my friend's work. Marta wrote beautifully about what it really looks like to treasure your children—in real life—in the wake of a tragedy like Sandy Hook. Carrie followed suit by quoting the president, suggesting the best way we can do something to help right now, given that no one individual can figure out how to mend our country's affinity for gun violence, is to be kind. I thought again about how I wanted to live a kind life, not just a nice one.

When we got home from the ballet, and our guests were gone, EJ's homework was done, and our dog looked stable and resting, I sat down to catch up on email, and then just relax once the kiddo was in bed. I noticed that more people had RSVPed to our annual New Year's Eve party, and I remembered: kindness is right around the corner.

Every year, we host a family New Year's Eve party, where "make your own" homemade sushi rolls are the main event. Kids love it, parents love it, we love it, and everyone fills their belly and generally runs around and has a good time. In lieu of bringing champagne, we ask our guests to contribute canned goods, pantry items, and toiletries for one of our local food pantries, St. James. We started this tradition of donation the second or third year we hosted the party, mainly because we had so many bottles of wine and champagne left over as host/hostess gifts, and we are not big drinkers, so we couldn't get through them all by the next year's party. "What if we asked guests to bring food for the pantry, instead?" one of us asked the other, and the rest is history.

What we have learned through this practice is that replenishing the available food supply after the holidays is critically important for those who are food insecure, especially as our harsh Chicago winter continues after the Christmas lights have been taken down. The week after the party, when we gather the goods and bring them to St. James, we are always met with smiles, gratitude, and the parting note, "We wish everyone could collect pantry items at their parties." Churches and organization have big food drives, but individual people throwing parties do not tend to ask for donations—what if all of us had a party this year where we provided the food and drink for the guests, and all of us provided food and drink for the hungry?

No, it won't improve the testing dilemma—we'll each have to follow-up at our schools for that—or the even scarier school-shooting/gun-violence dilemma, for which I don't even know where we start. Collecting food will help, though, and it will be kind, and if we all did it—if all of us had our own "Fill the Pantry Party" in 2014—it sure would be a good thing.

Sushi school, our house, every New Year's Eve.
Feel free to wear a crown, and you can eat what you make.
Bring your food donations, and we'll see you there!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Wretched Numbers (I'm Looking at You, CPS)

Yesterday morning, I woke up early to make a really healthy, warm breakfast for EJ, as it is cold outside, and she had the reading portion of her NWEA test, and wanted to do her best.

Unlike in past years, when this has been "just another thing they do" at school, with little fanfare, this year we have gotten notices about when the tests are happening—math, then reading—with suggestions to make sure the kids get adequate sleep, relax the night before, etc.

We have also had to sign papers that the kids developed with their goals for improving their test scores, and what they were going to do to make this happen. I may be mistaken on this, but I think I saw these papers—or some version of this—posted on a bulletin board in her classroom when I went in for conferences. I didn't have time to take a close look; they looked familiar to me, though.

Sigh. I feel bad that she is being asked to focus on improving her test score, write goals to do so, etc.; her goal for reading is the same as it was for math: 2-point rise from last spring, which seems nuts, as it is likely within the margin of error, and her scores are already so high, well beyond grade level, the whole push seems pointless.

When I picked EJ up, I realized she wasn't talking about her test; earlier this month, she had been so thrilled to come running out to tell me she had exceeded her math goal by two points, so I knew her quiet wasn't a good sign. I asked her about it, and she got sullen. "It was fine. I don't want to talk about it. Math is more fun."


By the time we reached the car, I had discovered that she didn't meet her goal; her score actually went down. By how much? Three points. "Now I'm five points away from my winter goal, and my spring goal is even higher," she said, with actual anguish in her voice.

At that point, I felt like punching out every single school reform specialist or administrator who thinks that my third-grade kid should be on the verge of an anxiety attack because her mean average reading score has dropped from "middle of ninth grade" to "beginning of eighth grade," especially since both scores are, once again, likely within the margin of error. 

She's doing the equivalent of middle-school reading. MIDDLE SCHOOL. SHE IS IS EIGHT. Why is she leaving her classroom feeling like a failure?

This test isn't something being administered by a team of CPAs, hoping to use it to inspire a jump from "excellent" profits into "outstanding" profits on a corporate spreadsheet. My kid is a tiny human being taking a test, with all of the human variability that comes with that, and all of the psychological import that comes from a) being evaluated and b) being asked to score better and better as her main educational focus, even when she is well beyond scores that are necessary.

I asked her what her teacher thought about her score, knowing she had been so happy to be praised by her teacher for her math score, and she said, "She looked at my score and said, 'Huh.'" I told her I'm sure her teacher is proud of what a good student she is, then took a big deep breathe. Her teacher is a lovely person who I can tell really cares about these kids, but who I can only guess is also under tremendous pressure to ensure that every kid's score always rises. The flurry of messages in email blasts and classroom newsletters certainly underscores how testing is the thing we all are meant to focus upon. "Huh," might be the best thing she could come up with in the moment, but it may have left my kid feeling like a disappointment.

At this point, I explained—AGAIN—that a test measures how you do on a particular day, and that is all. The fact that EJ had a cold could make a difference, or the fact that it is so cold outside and she was already more tired/worn out by the time she got to school could have mattered, too. I also explained that, even with the best conditions, a person could score three points up or down on a test, easily, if they took it three times in a row. Margin of error, margin of error, MARGIN OF ERROR, why must my kid have to know about margin of error?

She tried to understand, but she was still upset enough to say, "I wrote down that I have to get better at drawing conclusions once I saw my score. I am really terrible at drawing conclusions. TERRIBLE, Mom."

I then pulled the car over, even though we were racing to get home to get her hair washed and in a bun for Nutcracker dress rehearsal, stopping on the way at her piano lesson—I make it a point to keep her schedule light, but dress rehearsals for this once a year monkey with that plan. I pulled over, because I knew I couldn't drive well and pay attention to this conversation. I also took more big, cleansing breathes.

I explained that she was not, in any way, TERRIBLE at drawing conclusions. When I asked her why she said this, she told me "I just know I am."

Heartbreaking. I explained that "terrible" is relative, and that while it is great for her to identify things she wants to improve, that doesn't mean that those skills are terrible. I tried several ways to describe this finally coming up with an alphabet metaphor on the fly, that went something like this:

"Let's say I'm a little kid learning to write my letters. I learn to write them all, but I have trouble with the letter Q. I practice a lot, and I can finally write it clearly, but it takes me extra time, and it doesn't look quite as beautiful as the other letters. Now, some of the other kids my age can't write a Q at all, and there are others who don't even know what a letter Q is when you show it to them. So, I might think that my letter Q is terrible, but it isn't—it is just the letter I have to work on, and it is actually pretty good that I can write one at all."

That wasn't all though. I had to point out the flaw that plagues the system she is in, comparing skills to grade—and children to each other—unfairly based on development.

"EJ, here's the other point, though. If I'm a really little kid, it might be totally appropriate for me to have trouble drawing a letter, or even recognizing it. So even in my story here, all of the kids—the ones who write Q perfectly, the ones who write it shakily, the ones who can't write it, and the ones who don't even recognize it—could all be doing perfectly well, not terrible at all, because all of those levels of skill are appropriate for their age. Nothing there is TERRIBLE."

She seemed to get it. I told her that the analogy could work the other way, too: if you are a beginning at something new, let's say piano lessons, and you have to practice a bunch of skills, even your best skill after one year of playing wouldn't be considered "expert." It doesn't mean it is terrible, it just means that you couldn't go to the symphony and play a solo, because you hadn't practiced enough years, learned enough, etc..

"Terrible and excellent are relative terms...blah blah blah...," and then I remembered she is eight, and just turning on the Christmas carol CD and telling her I think she did terrific and I'm sorry that she is feeling frustrated was enough. I probably babbled for a bit about how kids shouldn't be taught to worry so much about test score numbers—she shouldn't even know them, from my point of view—but she likely tuned that out to listen to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" instead. She'd heard my rant against worrying about test scores earlier that month, the morning of the NWEA math test.

Yes, on that morning, on our way to school, our carpool had a conversation about the NWEA math test that day. "Math is so fun...math is you like math?"—all typical kid banter, at first, but then they started talking about their goals, the scores they wanted to get, etc.. I suggested that they do their best, have fun getting to use the computers and having a day where their schedule is all funny because they are doing something different, and not worry a bit about their scores. At this point, the boy who rides with us from EJ's class reminded me that, "The test we really have to worry about is the PARCC next year, because the stuff that is on the test for SIXTH graders on the ISAT this year will be on the test for FOURTH graders next year, so we all have to do SIXTH grade math by the end of this year so WE WON'T FAIL THE PARCC next spring."

This was followed up by both of them with worries that the whole school would fail, and that they didn't want to do badly and hurt the school, and that they really had to prepare because it was going to be so hard.

As we pulled to the side to wait for the kiss-and-go drop-off, I explained the following:

1) The PARCC is fifteen-months away, they shouldn't worry about it a bit. 

2) They should never worry about "failing" a standardized test; it isn't like failing a math quiz, it is just an evaluation with numbers that helps the school, on average, figure out how well the kids are doing with the way that they are being taught. At this point, I explained AGGREGATION.

3) Every school switching from the ISAT to the PARCC may have lower scores at first, and this means that, statistically speaking, that drop won't mean anything: it won't mean failure, it won't mean that their school is in trouble. It just means that the test is different, and that they can't compare the scores from two different tests that are set up in two different ways and make any use out of it. GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF HOW AND WHY TESTS ARE MADE, delivered.

4) The PARCC will only tell them interesting things once it has been used for a few years, and they can see if scores go up from year to year; I told them that clever, hardworking kids like them had nothing to worry about, because their scores would go up just by doing what they normally do. CONSTRUCTIVIST AND ENVIRONMENTALLY-BASED DEVELOPMENTAL LEARNING THEORIES, here you go.

5) I then said, "And guess what?  After a few years, not only will the schools be evaluated, but the TEST will be tested. That's one of the things you learn when you use a test: how good the test is! So, if after a few years, no school's scores are ever matching up to the grade level the test is meant to assess, they might change the test, and adjust the mean." I then EXPLAINED A MEAN ADJUSTMENT to TWO THIRD GRADERS and a FIRST GRADER, you know, like everyone does on the carpool ride to school.

6) The PARCC is fifteen-months away, they shouldn't worry about it a bit. 

I know that superior test scores have become as prized as the holy grail, and that earning them in the system we have means job security for principals and teachers, potentially better funding and reputations for schools, and protections against mass closures or program cuts.

You know what, though? My kid—NO ONE'S KID—should develop an ulcer (or any generalized anxiety disorder) worrying about standardized test scores that are IN NO WAY MEANINGFUL TO THEM. Scores do not demonstratively expose a child's hard work, skills, or intelligence TO THEM in a way that tangibly encourages an intrinsic love of learning. No, this score obsession makes them care about numbers, which are completely extrinsic and unsatisfactory rewards. Numbers do not, ultimately, encourage life-long learning, but rather, inspire "success at all costs, my value can be measured, if my measured value is not worthwhile, I AM NOT WORTHWHILE," soul-crushing.

All this anguish over three points, and a test to be rolled out in 2015. Really? I have one thing to say:

Chicago Public Schools, please stop making me have to explain the principles of statistics, developmental psychology and learning theory to my kid.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

All Made Up

Even though I barely ever take the time to put it on, I love make-up. I have a ton of it—tiny kits with multiple colors of blush or eyeshadow, soft creams and silky powders, and of course, my Achilles heel, lipstick in shades from sedate to saucy. This week, as I've sorted the bathroom cabinet, readying the space for one of our last meetings with the professional organizer, Susan, who has been helping get our house uncluttered, I was like kid in a toy store, revisiting all of my favorites."Ooh, look what this can do! So fun!"

Earlier this fall, when we got to my bedroom closet, Susan asked me about shoes: how many did I have, did I have a "thing" for showing off my shoes, etc. Ha! I'm a gal who tries as much as I can to never wear heels, and my main requirements for a shoe are a) is it wide enough, b) is it comfortable, and c) will it match most of my stuff. I went positively geriatric on shoes by age 32, tops, which (from what I hear) makes me uniquely ungirly. Girls are supposed to love shoes, but I didn't get that memo.

Then she wanted to know about clothes—did I have a lot of dresses for different occasions? Suits? I really love it when Susan assumes that my life is more glamorous than it really is, or that the stretchy "almost pajama" clothes I wear while working with her aren't what I wear all the time. No, I don't have a lot of any type of clothes, really, except things that have been given to me as gifts.

I wish I could say that my concise wardrobe is because I am somehow beyond vanity, or just incredibly frugal, or not materialistic. My truth is found in a spot where sensitivity and practicality intersect: most shoes and clothes don't fit me, and when I go to find them or try them on, I can feel terrible about myself.

My very smart friend, Brynn*, wrote a great blog post recently that got picked up by the Huffington Post, "10 Things I Want My Daughter to Know About Working Out." In this piece, Brynn was prompted by an exercise teacher's attempt at motivation mid-workout ("Come on! Get that body ready for your winter beach vacation! Think about how you want to look at those holiday parties! PICTURE HOW YOU'LL LOOK IN THAT DRESS!'") to provide her daughter with a list of reasons why exercise has enduring value, beyond looking great in clothes. I loved her piece, in no small part because I love the idea of completely pulling activity—which includes, but is not limited to, exercise—away from vanity; at the same time, reading those fitness instructor's words, I realized how totally disconnected I already am with that line of thinking, for reasons that teacher would probably never suspect.

I rarely worry about fitting in to cute, attractive things any more, because I no longer assume that they are there. In the world we live in now, once you reach a plus-size, anything size 16 or up, you no longer shop with the "normally-sized" consumers. You may have a small section of clothes set aside in a nook at a department store, but those are typically segregated from everything else, away from the rest of women's clothes, often by appliances, or pre-teen outfits. In a whole mall of shops selling women's clothes, there may be one or two boutiques that sell plus-size outfits. If you have a wide foot, often the case if you are heavy, there are only a few shoes available in store. When sales or deals or clearance rack opportunities pop up, you aren't able to take advantage—there is usually nothing there for you.

One of the consistent things I hear dieting women say who have passed back under the plus-sized threshold is the joy—the absolute bliss, the incredible relief—of becoming small enough to shop in "normal" stores. It is a goal in and of itself, as in "I think once I lose 10 more pounds, I'll fit into normal stores."

Motivational? Maybe. Full of shame? You bet. Who wants to be segregated, excluded, and told that 80% of what is cute, feminine, and fashionable is not available to you? Who wants to go shopping with girlfriends, and just pretend that you don't need anything, or that you are finding cute things that you just don't want to try on, simply because nothing in the store is in your size? Who wants to worry about forgetting anything when you travel, because you know finding a store in which you can actually replace your clothing could be a ridiculously hard task? (I become practically manic about making sure I pack my swimsuit in a carry-on when we go on vacation, knowing if my luggage is lost, I will have no chance of finding another.)

Unfortunately, lots of people are heavier now, and even if they embrace a healthier lifestyle, or more activity for non-vanity related reasons, they could spend a long time waiting to get into the stores with the cute dress for which their spinning instructor is encouraging them to sweat. I have to admit, as I read Brynn's words, that is one of the thoughts that popped into my head: even if I lived an activity-rich life for all these other benefits, how many days/months/years would it take for me to fit into anything that is worthy of working out? 

When people stress exercise just for the sake of looking good in your clothes, they also may be alienating a whole population of people like me, who already feel incredibly vulnerable exercising, and are not entirely sure if the physical pay-off will be worth it. If we are trying to just feel better, or move better, or break sedentary habits so we can get out there and live, inadvertently reminding us while we are in the act of working out that this is all about looking good in hot outfits that a) we wouldn't buy and b) are sold in stores that exclude us, is not only demotivating, it may hint at just enough shame to make us walk out after class and never come back.

And of course, if you are reading this and thinking, "Kori, I just saw you in a pretty dress on your birthday, what are you talking about?" yes, there are some really cute clothes at plus-sized stores. But I have to ask, why don't we have clothing stores that range from size 0 to size 26, with the same clothes running from smallest to largest on the same racks? It seems crazy that we don't, especially given the population breakdown by dress size. Why do we live in a world where people go to extra workout classes simply so that they can purchase clothes in stores that make them feel like they are no longer being shunned?

Like my dress? I'm sorry, skinny friends, but it isn't sold in your stores.
There is nothing about it that makes it look good only on ladies size 16 or above,
but as we all know, skinny and fat ladies aren't allowed to shop together.
Successful fashion thrives on exclusivity—if years of watching Project Runway and reading magazines have taught me nothing else, I've learned this. It makes sense: if something is precious or hard to attain because it is expensive or exclusive, consumers will want it more. The problem is, this can trickle down in a really damaging way for women who want to feel beautiful, and aren't able to access what they need.

I see it in my inability to peruse clothes alongside my smaller-sized friends, but I think that everyone may sense it when they try something on, it doesn't look right, and their immediate reaction is to criticize themselves. "I look so fat in this, look at my hips/boobs/stomach/thighs/arms/[insert least favorite body part], I look like an elephant/walrus/mack truck/[insert hyper-critical insult comparing person to gigantic animal or industrial machine.]" The clothes only look good on certain people—beautiful people—and if they don't look good on us, it is because we are deficient in them.

Which brings me back to make-up, my go-to feel-good purchase, the great equalizer for shoppers (it fits everyone!), the colorful palette through which you can make yourself feel like a brand new character every day. In my experience, if you try on a lipstick, and see that it looks horrendous, you don't say, "I'm so ugly, I can't make this fuchsia work!" No! Make-up takes all the blame, as in "Wow, this pink is truly awful," at which you have a laugh about how ugly it looks, wipe it off, and move on. Make-up that doesn't work for you doesn't reinforce a judgement about yourself; it simply doesn't work, so you don't use it.

It's not surprising that my cabinets are lined with paints and potions, even when I don't use them all of the time. I like having them, knowing that they are there to make me feel a part of the world of "looking good," without all the self-doubt that comes with sizing myself up. And until all of the made-up rules about how ladies can find that dress that they want to look good in disappear, I'll rely on occasionally being "all made up," to bring me a bit of the joy we should all get to feel about our appearance.

*Today is Brynn's birthday.  Happy Birthday, Brynn!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Experiment Check-In

It's time for a check-in from last week: how's that "experiment to test the potential benefits of being decisively polite" going?

Thanks for the great feedback on the post, both in the comments, and in private messages, conversations, or emails. You gave me a lot to think about, and I loved it! Hopefully I can return the favor by passing along some of the very insightful things the (clearly clever) readers of this blog let me know:

1) Sometimes we truly don't know what we want, or we have no skin in the game, so how can we speak up, or better yet, why should we? Kori, WE HAVE NOTHING TO SAY, and even if we did, THE DECISION WON'T AFFECT US. WHY ARE WE EVEN BEING ASKED? 

My thought: Be honest: "I don't know what I want—may I have a minute or two to think about it?—and/or this decision doesn't affect me. No matter what, I am happy to help brainstorm."

Brainstorming doesn't require preference; in fact, brainstorming with an open-mind might be the best kind there is.

It occurred to me more and more as I thought about the discomfort of group indecisiveness that the key might be in simply breaking down group disconnection; offering help connects us to each other.

2) Patterns of known behavior can make speaking up feel futile, or worse, humiliating. If you always ask for help with XYZ, and you are always met with blank stares, or more directly, assertions that either a) you won't get help or b) you don't need help ("you won't get help" + a little bit of shame mixed in), why be direct about your needs?

I'm not a therapist. I don't know anyone's situation, or how to best address. I can't say what the consequences might be for anyone who suddenly disrupts a long standing pattern of behavior.

I'm sorry if speaking up makes you feel unheard, or unhelped. It must feel awful.

If you have people in your life you can talk to to make a plan for changing those patterns, think about it. Talk about your feelings with people who listen and care. Take heart and know that using your voice is not the problem, and the problem can be addressed.

3) Different places have different levels of ambiguity and indecisiveness as their norm. California friends chimed in immediately that their culture is so chilled out, sometimes being decisive is downright uptight. I would imagine that, in other areas, if you are the type of person who prefers thinking things through, or needs a minute or two to determine your feelings on a subject, you could get swept away easily in a sea of verbal, decisive people.

My best guess at addressing culture? Ride the wave, but when it counts, say what you think, even if it makes you look uptight, even if you chime in ten minutes later and must explain that you needed additional time.

My experience this week, saying what I really feel:

1) I sometimes judge myself as cranky or picky when I am specific
2) I don't always respond as kindly to those giving me their preferences as I'd like; taking a moment to breathe and think, "That's how he/she feels, it isn't good/bad or right/wrong, it just is, and I hear it," helps (but I'm not perfect)
3) Saying what I want/need/prefer/request does not validate my feelings, the people to whom I express them to do not validate my feelings: only I can validate my own feelings. 

Also learned: it's nice not to eat pizza when you aren't in the mood for it. If speaking up means that can happen more often, I might chalk that up as enough of a win for this experiment to keep it going. I'll call it a workshop now. Do you think I can charge money for this, bringing people into a room full of various take-out foods, then asking them to "workshop their decisiveness" and "come to consensus?" You can always charge money when you take a noun (workshop) and use it as a verb, right?

I'll leave you with a great animated segment of a Brené Brown talk that I saw yesterday; I've read her work on empathy and vulnerability, but rehearing this (with the visual) was a wonderful reminder. Haven't read any Brené yet? Oh, please do, her research will ROCK YOUR WORLD—"Daring Greatly"is a good way to start.

As this video suggests, maybe if we just all put our empathy hats on, and give more bear hugs, being decisive or clear about our feelings won't be nearly as risky.

Hugs to all of you.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


On Monday, heading out to the car for school pick up, I fell down the stairs. Don't worry---I'm okay, I'm just sore, twisted around, and shaken up. My right shoulder is a little strained, and my back is wrenched, but given my weight and my wobbliness, it's amazing I didn't hurt myself more.

I fell down the outdoor stairs at the back of our home, the ones that lead to our parking lot, and which seem to be icy the whole winter long, even when we haven't had precipitation in days. With our first really slick snow the day before, it was inevitable that a fall would come soon; at least one happens every year. While climbing up the four flights to get to our condo is usually our hardship, in the winter, coming down can be even more frightening. Yesterday, despite taking cautious baby steps in boots with great traction, I somehow lost my footing two and a half flights down, and fell hard, careening into garbage cans 4 feet below. Once I got my balance back, I still had more stairs to go, and since I couldn't very well leave my kid at school because I was having trouble on the ice---who in Chicago wasn't?---I steeled myself and went down to the car. Small step, grip the railing, small step, grip the railing, small step. Suck it up, shake it off, drive away.

Welcome to winter weather, day one.
Care for a fall? It's a long way down!

I don't have a good attitude about winter anymore, I'll fully admit it. Snow can be beautiful, and the cold can be very still and peaceful, it's true. Winter moments of beauty and peace aren't lost on me. For me, though, winter weather has become mostly about worry and discomfort. Will the car, which has sat out all night in below-freezing temperatures, start in time to get my kid to school? Will I make it down the stairs without falling? Will our sweet old dog be able to make it back up the stairs on the ice from her walk? Will our house be a sauna from overactive radiators, or will it be freezing, because the wind still manages to whip through, no matter what we do to secure the fourth-story windows? Will we all go crazy with cabin fever? If we do leave, will we be caught in a squall (it happened getting EJ from school at the start of the blizzard a few years ago, when we took Lakeshore Drive home right before it was shut down, stranding hundreds of people)? Will we be able to park, with (sometimes complicated) restrictions posted on signs everywhere, and lots of spaces lost to piles of snow?

I'm over it.

I grew up a good Wisconsinite, believing my ability to withstand freezing temperatures and drive in blizzard-like conditions earned me a badge of honor; as a forty-year old, I find this weather miserable, and I'm still waiting for my badge.

I know it does no good to complain, especially when I can't snap my fingers and move away. All I can do is to try to be in the moment, appreciate everything I love about the city—the activity, the variety, the friends we've made, the family nearby—and save my pennies until we can make a big move to a more temperate place. I can look for opportunities in warmer climates, and make my intentions known widely ("Hey, friends in warmer places! Do you know any killer jobs for me that would help me move? Thanks!")

Guess what? I don't feel like that right now. I don't want to ruin your "look at all the lights, pour some yummy cocoa, aren't we in a frosty wonderland?" buzz, but I'm not going to join in. Forgive me, please: I just fell down a flight of stairs. I don't want to be a good mood about ice crystals.

The night before my own fall, while EJ and I were out braving the snowy streets with our neighbors to attend a birthday party at the mecca for young Chicago girls—The American Girl Place—we had another crash in our home. While Mike was quickly doing the dishes, getting ready to head out to go to the gym and enjoy some time to himself, he heard a crash in our dining room, and came running. What he found was that a board from the beautiful credenza my father made us over a decade ago had split, and all but three pieces of our sushi porcelain—bowls, plates, serving dishes, chopstick stands, tiny plates decorative plates, sake cups, and soy sauce bowls—had all crashed onto the floor, shattering into shards that spread into the dog's bowls, down the hall, and in nooks and crannies we couldn't have imagined.
One broken board = a lot of broken porcelain.
All that remains: A flower, a fish, a cobalt soy sauce bowl.

Improbably, the Waterford crystal glasses we received to toast at our wedding, directly underneath this shelf, were totally unharmed. We can't actually figure out how that happened, but we are grateful.

Board missing, crystal completely spared.

The loss of our sushiware was very sad. Of all the items for which we registered when we got married 14+ years ago, this is the one we spent the most time picking out together, and were the most excited to receive. Mike had studied Japanese both during college and privately afterward, and we love to make sushi rolls, as well as other Japanese dishes, together. We love it so much, in fact, that every year for New Year's Eve, we host a big sushi-making party—more of this will come in a post later this week—where we take out all of our sushi porcelain, and enjoy thinking of our 25-year old selves, walking through Crate & Barrel with a registry list, adding items, imagining making sushi together for years to come.

In an unfortunate twist to this story, because we have worked so hard with a professional organizer this year to get our house looking spiffy to put on the market should we, you know, have the opportunity to move somewhere warmer, all our sushiware was placed together on this shelf for the first time in years. Typically, we hunt and peck around to find our pieces; had we been less organized, we may have lost less of this set; of course, who knows what else might have been on that shelf instead.

If I was being philosophical or thoughtful about these two crashes, or if I was listening to a friend reporting that this had happened to them, I might try to find more meaning in all of this. Of course, I could have been much more hurt, but I wasn't; EJ or the dog might have been with me, but they weren't, etc. If I'd broken a leg…I can't even go to that horrendous thought, even in speculation.

Our sushi porcelain was just stuff, and stuff is just that: stuff. It only holds the value we place on it, and we can still remember all those plates and bowls, and think about the years of their use, and be happy with our thoughts about them. And of all the times for the shelf to break, the sushi smash was nearly perfectly timed. It was only at the last minute that Mike decided to go to the gym that evening, in lieu of heading down to Water Tower Place with us to shop while the birthday party took place, so we caught a ride with our neighbors. Had he left with us, our dog might have walked straight through all the broken shards, cutting herself up. Had I not asked him if he could do the dishes before he left, himself, and had he not been sweet enough to do them, he may have already been gone, as well, and again, the dog might have been hurt. And of course, EJ wasn't home, sitting at her desk, practically underneath all the falling dishes. The whole thing could have been truly terrible, not just disappointing, and as bummers go, this one seemed set to a divine stopwatch.

Yeah, if I was zen about this, I might even find a metaphor linking this all together: the three, fragile but unharmed sushi items that remain are like the three of us; it doesn't matter how cold and icy our winter is, or how many pretty things we may lose, we always have each other, and isn't that enough?

I don't really feel philosophical or thoughtful right now, and I'm certainly not zen, so I won't be taking my own counsel, at least for a day or two. Right now I am cold, sore, and without sushi dishes—that's the unsugar-coated truth, and while I am grateful that things aren't worse, I don't feel like using the "grand comparison technique," otherwise known as, "no matter how much you hurt, things could be worse, just think of (insert truly horrible, painful thing)" to make my disappointment disappear. Some things just stink, and there is no fixing them; other things must be felt as painful in order to be spurred to change. That's where I am right now, and I'm sticking with it.