Sunday, December 28, 2008

Word of the Year

For those who may not know, Ali Edwards, scrapbooking goddess extraordinaire, has a blog called {A}. Bracketed typographical cuteness aside, {A} is a great blog with lots of brilliant ideas for exploring one’s creativity. Ali has a son with autism, an amazing artistic eye, and a wonderful take on life.

Last year, her blog inspired me to pick a Word of the Year, one word to be my theme for 2008. Annoyed with my repeated failure in the New Year’s Resolutions department, I found the pick-one-word approach so appealing that I sent an email to selected friends and family inviting them to join in the fun. Eighteen decided to play along and shared their word for the year with me. We planned to touch base via email throughout the year to see how everyone honored their word. Most never responded to my follow-up emails, so I simply assumed they had lost interest and planned to drop it for 2009. I pester people enough as it is.

Besides, my own Word of the Year experiment met with only limited success. My word was Simplify, a good, solid, straightforward verb. I have a teeny, tiny tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. Simplify seemed like a really good theme for me, and other people chose it also, including scores of the hundreds of people who posted on Ali’s blog.

The popularity of the urge to simplify speaks volumes to our modern lifestyle, don’t you think? I mean, isn’t everyone struggling with organizing all the rechargers for the many little high-tech devices we have to have? What about kids’ paperwork from school? Mail? Bills, some of which are automatic, some paid online, and some mailed via USPS? Clothes for children who grow so fast that the hand-me-downs are in really good shape and have to be stored somewhere? Your make-up drawer? Pantry? Basement? Garage?

Couldn’t all this chaos be, well, simpler?

I don’t think so. I’m rather organized, and while my bill paying and make-up drawer function more simply now than at the beginning of 2008, the only way to truly simplify the rest would require bombing my home and starting over again from scratch, dumping my very visual husband who likes his numerous belongings to be “out” where he can see them, and letting my children run wild with wolves. Wolves don’t have paperwork. Or clothes. Or health insurance.

On the whole, I’d rather keep my husband and children and put up with the chaos.

Life is a just a complicated mess. I gave up on Simplify in July when I started this blog, which complicated my life in a very good way. Then came August, which is insane for us given all of Jack’s doctors’ appointments and therapy re-evaluations, back-to-school shopping, meet-the-teacher nights, a trip to see Grandma in North Carolina, and getting ready for Ironman Wisconsin. Then school started, and George and I went to Ironman Wisconsin, and then came volunteering and running around to PTO meetings and class parties and helping with centers in the kindergarten class and making veggie pizza with preschoolers and working book fairs at two schools and meeting with teachers and counselors and the principal about Nick’s math difficulties and so on and so on and so on.

I was back in the familiar territory of Barely Managing Chaos.


Then one friend confessed that pursuing her word led to a depression of sorts, for which I felt weirdly responsible. When others didn’t reply to my follow-up emails about their own Words of the Year, I just assumed they had given up, too.

Never assume. In the past few weeks, five participants have asked me if we’re going to do it again and expressed disappointment when I said no. My mom wants to keep her same word—Organize—because she feels good about what she has done in 2008 and hopeful about what remains to be done in 2009.

Her enthusiasm got me thinking. Maybe people didn’t answer my emails because they were busy, not because they quit or, like me, failed. Maybe a Word of the Year really is a good idea. Maybe the need to start fresh, to try improving our lives even though sometimes we fail, serves a higher purpose. Maybe, like Ali, I should put it on my blog and invite lots of people to try it out.

Well, “lots” may be an exaggeration of my readership, but you get the idea.

If you want to take a chance with this little experiment, having received full disclosure that it may or may not work, I invite you to join me. Just pick a word as your theme for the year. Any word will do…noun, adjective, adverb, verb, interjection, conjunction. Well, maybe not a conjunction. But a preposition might do. For instance, you could choose In as your word, as in “in time,” “in tune,” “in touch,” “in step,” “in the game,” “in style.” Just find a word that speaks to your heart, your goals, and your spirit.

Once you have chosen a word, keep it in front of you all year. You can post it on your bathroom mirror or make it the wallpaper on your computer or create a work of art for your wall. One friend’s word for 2008 was Family so she beaded a bracelet with charms to remind her daily of each family member. Shortly after we started in 2008, my friend Betsy sent me a card with the word Simplify on it, credited to Thoreau, which we both thought was really funny for some reason. I tacked it up on my craft room wall.

If you feel so inclined, share your word and why you chose it in the comments below.

My word for 2009 is Fearless. Fear keeps me from trying new things, rising to challenges, and reaching out to others. Fear of failure, of looking like a fool, of embarrassing myself, of wasting my time, of being laughed at. I want to write a book about autism. I want to submit articles for publication. I want to write a card-making blog. Fear keeps me from doing these things.

I want to fear less and write more.

What do you want for 2009?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Best Gift Ever

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David;)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them. Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:1-14

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Hypochondriac

We’ve already questioned my intelligence in terms of the Logical Me versus Hormonal Me in this blog essay, but another binary opposition reared its ugly head recently and provided more fuel for questioning my intelligence: Logical Me versus Hypochondriac Me. Poor Logical Me is beset on two sides.

You see, as a child, I was a bit of a drama queen when it came to pain. Each little bump or bruise felt like I had been beaten with a baseball bat, and I adored the attention my dramatic responses to these bumps and bruises got me. I had a few trips to the ER for stitches which were legitimately traumatic, but the ER staff had to wrap me up in one of those papoose restraints to get the stitches in my head, and I recall nurses pinning me down until the numbing took effect in my leg. It gave Hypochondriac Me a little thrill for years to recall the doctor telling my mother if the glass shard had penetrated my leg just a bit more, I would have bled to death. When you’re four, it’s sort of romantic to almost die. Years later, my firstborn turned out to be Mini Me in the drama department, and I figured it’s just karma biting me in the butt again. I am getting used to karma’s sting.

I didn’t handle pain well then, and little changed in the intervening decades. It’s a cliché for laboring women, but my first experience of childbirth made me fall madly, passionately in love with the anesthesiologist. Had my epidural guy been a gal, I would have switched sides, if you know what I mean. The absence of pain is such a blessing that Logical Me dominated the rest of my birth experience, which really was a good thing because my doctor ordered the epidural turned off when Nicholas’ heart rate didn’t recover quickly enough after each contraction. Hypochondriac Me was thrilled that she would be experiencing “real” childbirth, but her voice was very faint and distant. Logical Me understood all too clearly that pain isn’t good. I don’t know if I had full sensation back when I started pushing, but it hurt so much that no amount of maternal amnesia will rid my logical brain of the trauma of forceps delivery.

It’s a miracle I ever willingly got pregnant again, and during that second go-round, Hypochondriac Me very dramatically presented the obstetrician with a copy of What to Expect, opened to the chapter on the sixth month. I pointed to the list of “What You Might be Feeling” and said, “I have every one of those symptoms!” The doctor said he could do nothing to ease the agony. Nothing. I hated him with every fiber of my being until a few minutes later when he put the heart-rate monitor on my gigantic bump and let me hear Jack’s strong whoosh-whoosh heart beat. You can’t hate someone who is letting you eavesdrop on the sound of your unborn child’s life blood pumping, no matter how much you want to.

Let’s pause a minute to consider the crap that doctors put up with from people like me. Honestly, this man had patients who discovered at their ultrasounds that their children had horrible deformities or, even worse, conditions “not compatible with life.” He faced life-and-death decisions when patients had uterine abruptions or found out they had cancer while pregnant. How did he not dope-slap Hypochondriac Me when she was so very, very whiny? He never even rolled his eyes at me. What sort of inner struggle did he endure to maintain this level of professional control? Is there a special class in medical school that teaches doctors to be nice to freaks?

Jack was breech, so we scheduled a C-section for my mother’s birthday. But of course I went into labor days before and had the joy of contractions and being cut in half. Hypochondriac Me deserted Logical Me entirely. What a coward. She wanted no part of major surgery while it was happening though she thoroughly enjoyed the aftermath.

Two children are quite enough, don’t you think?

Then came 2005: The Year of Medical Testing Hell. This was Hypochondriac Me’s finest year—vague symptoms, pain (but not too much), and lots of attention. I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), with hiatal hernia thrown in just for fun. Further testing by more knowledgeable doctors ruled out every one of these, and Logical Me was relieved, especially about the rheumatoid arthritis. Even Hypochondriac Me didn’t want that particular disease. I also had a full cardiac work-up, including nuclear stress test, with the happy conclusion that my heart is amazingly healthy. I had that going for me. Of course, Hypochondriac Me knows I will eventually die of some horrible cancer contracted because of all the radiation they gave me for these tests to prove how healthy I am.

Despite the medical establishment’s best efforts to validate Hypochondriac Me, they found only two things truly wrong, neither of which was terribly alarming, much to Logical Me’s satisfaction and Hypochondriac Me's disappointment. First, I had superficial gastric ulcers from taking prescription Motrin for six months for joint pain in my wrists—a pain which, it turns out, had no medical explanation. The ulcers made me mad because I had asked the doctor three months earlier if we needed to be worried about all the Motrin I was taking. She said, “Oh, no. No worries!” She just wrote another script. Stupid doctor. Fortunately, six months of acid-pump inhibitors fixed that problem.

Second, my gall bladder didn’t work. That test forced me to carry around a card indicating the dose of radiation I received so security forces at the base wouldn’t suspect me of making dirty bombs when I set off the Geiger counter. You have no idea the delight that Hypochondriac Me felt over this dramatic development.

If you’re one of the four Americans over 35 who have not yet had their gall bladder removed, you don’t realize how easy this laparoscopic surgery is…unless, of course, you don’t handle anesthesia well and spend hours throwing up afterwards like me. Hypochondriac Me was convinced she would die from vomiting. The unfeeling and irresponsible hospital staff sent me home with blue barf bags shaped like giant troll condoms. Ewwww. Two weeks later, however, I felt great, and a year later, those little laparoscopic holes were nearly invisible. If you haven’t had your gall bladder out, I highly recommend it. Just don’t puke afterward. And don’t eat fried foods ever again.

After my surgery in early 2006, Logical Me, traumatized by a year’s dominance of Hypochondriac Me, studiously avoided the hospital for all but my regular physical and routine mammogram. Logical Me isn’t stupid and knows routine care is necessary, but she censored Hypochondriac Me in front of the doctors, no matter what little aches and pains I felt. If you keep your mouth shut, doctors don’t test you for anything. What a relief!

Until this year.

I had a weird spot in my left breast. Not a lump, exactly, more like a ridge of dense tissue that hurt. At my gynecological appointment, the PA agreed that it warranted a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Even Logical Me was a bit freaked out by that but quickly discovered via Google search that this is a routine response to any and all unusual physical breast exams. During the day, I was fine, not worried at all.

At night, Logical Me went to sleep, and only the scary whisperings of Hypochondriac Me kept me company in the dark. All the vague symptoms I’d read about online for breast cancer started to happen to me. Not for real, mind you, since I only experienced them after reading about them. The power of suggestion works great on Hypochondriac Me. And the specific symptoms, like the scary ones for inflammatory breast cancer, never showed up at all. Thank God above.

Having your girls smashed is never pleasant. After three films of the left girl and two of the right, the technician called me back in for two more shots of the left. For about 30 minutes, I was convinced that the radiologist saw something. Why else would he ask for different views? Was Hypochondriac Me right after all? I wanted my husband by my side. I needed a hug.

When the radiologist breezed in for the ultrasound, his first words were, “I couldn’t find anything suspicious on the mammogram, so let’s just clear the air of that concern right now.” I instantly loved him. Logical Me conquered Hypochondriac Me and for the next half-hour joked around with three people who were feeling me up through a thick layer of ultrasound gel. It was comforting that they all felt what I felt and not one of them was concerned.

My follow-up conversation with the PA pushed Hypochondriac Me even more deeply into the recesses of my psyche. At least once a week, Major Smith says, a patient turns up with some anomaly that is just a variation on normal, no cause for concern, and leaves all the doctors and nurses and PAs and NPs marveling at the diversity of the human form. This was my week. I do so love feeling special.

One can’t tell when Hypochondriac Me will burst forth again and stress me out with her freakish speculation on my impending doom. I’m so relieved she’s put to rest for now, though, because I have way too much other stuff on my plate to be worrying about my health. For now, I’m grateful to God that I am healthy and able, and like the quotation on the sidebar says, I’m doing my best to live my life with love, grace, and gratitude.

Until the next weird little ache.

Public Service Announcement: If you are a woman over forty, remember to get your annual boob-squishing. I know it’s not fun, but Logical Me says this is important. You should listen to her.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Randomly Firing Synapses

Usually, I try to post a thoughtful, coherent essay. This week, however, my brain synapses fired randomly, mainly because I was hugely stressed out over about ten different things. Much of the stress resolved itself yesterday (Praise the Lord!) but has left me totally limp and more than a bit incoherent. Consequently, this post mentions lots of topics that might one day become full-blown essays but as of now sorely lack anything resembling thoughtful development. My apologies for the mental whiplash you might sustain reading this post’s numerous non sequiturs and dangling questions, but I hope you’ll find a few laughs that make it worth the ride. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to identify with my temporary attention-deficit problem.

I love mail. Not the junk and bills and such, but the Christmas cards and packages, letters from friends and family, and even personal, newsy emails. So does everyone else I know. Why, then, do few people send cards and letters and personal emails? Why do I make hundreds of cards a year and send so few for occasions other than birthdays and Christmas? Why is something so simple so hard? Could I use the word “so” more often in a single paragraph? Probably so.

You cannot ask a group of four kindergartners to guess a number between 1 and 10 to determine who goes first in an activity. Their guesses will include numbers like 42, 100, and 11. I think all those numbers are not between 1 and 10. But I could be wrong. Perhaps it’s the new math.

Random Conversation with Jack
Jack: Mommy, is that the number 6?
Me: Yes, Jack, that is a 6.
Jack: Mommy, are you going to turn into a snake?
Me [puzzled by non sequitur]: No, I will never turn into a snake.
Jack: Are you sure you will never turn into a snake?
Me: Yes, I’m positive.
Jack [relieved]: Thank you, Mommy, for not turning into a snake.
Me: You’re welcome.

Christmas trees decorated by children are prettier than Christmas trees decorated by adults. Sure, if you like that cold, impersonal, designer look, get a grown-up to do it. But I much prefer our tree. In previous years, the kids watched while I decorated the tree, but this year, I think I put about five ornaments on it. Nick, who’s 9, has quite a nice eye for ornament placement and did a particularly good job arranging the glass icicles Liz gave me years ago. Jack asked me to hang his big yellow construction-paper star with silver glitter right under the angel on top of the tree, which I, of course, did. You can’t buy precious ornaments like that at Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, and he is ever so proud of it. Jack then proceeded to hang ten ornaments on one branch. It’s my favorite tree ever.

If you are very nearsighted, as I am, take off your corrective lenses, lie face-up under your Christmas tree, and enjoy the beauty of soft focus. You will see angels and sugarplums and the glow of Christmas magic, all without benefit of mind-altering substances. You can’t see these miracles if you have perfect vision. There need to be some perks to myopia, don’t you think?

Why is the perfect gift idea for your mom always on backorder?

After years of addiction, I gave up Coca-Cola in August. Other than losing a lot of weight, I haven’t noticed any miraculous effects from eliminating gallons of high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring from my daily diet. Unfortunately, my boobs have been swelling up for three weeks out of four ever since. Is this causal or coincidental? Should I start drinking coke again for my breast health? I’m really liking the weight loss, so probably not. But dang, I could use a cold one!

Bad guys in movies can be very poor shots. I noticed this while watching Short Circuit, which I recently bought at Target for $5.50. The movie is cute, despite Ally Sheedy’s humble acting skills, but the army dudes waste a huge pile of ammo trying to destroy Number 5. This made me think of Star Wars, in which the Storm Troopers can’t hit the side of a Bantha. Do the Storm Troopers ever hit anything important? Well, I suppose they do kill Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen, but dozens of them are aiming at Han Solo in a hallway on the Death Star and not one blast hits him. And why don’t those robot fighters kill Jar-Jar Binks? He should die but doesn’t. Why, George Lucas? Why? And why did you change the rules at the end of Episode Three and make all the Jedis suddenly transform into pansies who just stand there and let Palpatine and the Clone Warriors kill them? It doesn’t make sense.

Why do dogs always throw up on carpet rather than hardwood, vinyl, or tile?

Safety Tip #657: Never, ever smoosh your middle finger in a door latch. If you do, then definitely don’t yank it out of the closed latch. There will be lots of blood in addition to excruciating pain and you will find yourself trying to decide whether you should throw up or just escape into blessed unconsciousness. Plus, you will look like you’re flipping people the bird as you favor your heavily bandaged, very tender finger for the next few weeks, and you will worry not only about flesh-eating bacteria getting into your violated nail bed but also about unintentionally offending someone armed and dangerous. Ask me how I know this….

I am currently re-reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. Other than the fact that as soon as Anne has children she becomes the least interesting female character in the history of the novel, these books are delightful. The unfortunately bland mommy portrayal is inevitable, however, because at this time in history, James Joyce’s hardcore psychological realism was getting banned everywhere, while Lucy Maud was selling thousands of books that refer to pregnancy as “a soft glow of hope for the spring.” Honestly, you can’t make motherhood interesting without lots of references to bodily function and secretions (titty fairy and post-partum incontinence, anyone?), which at the time were considered vulgar for some strange reason. My, my, how times have changed. Anyway, I’m enjoying my nostalgic visit to the era of repressed Victorian womanhood. I dearly love Anne with an “e” and her children and all the race that knows Joseph.

Speaking of bodily functions and secretions, why do we have ads for erectile dysfunction in primetime television? The ads say, “If you experience an erection lasting more than four hours, seek medical attention.” What, pray tell, are the doctors and nurses going to do? Never mind. I really don’t want to know. But if you haven’t seen Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story, see it soon. It’s a bad movie, really, but completely funny in all the ways that make you say, “This is so WRONG!” while laughing so hard you feel like you’re going to throw up. In it, a character says, “If you experience an erection lasting more than four hours, call in more ladies!” Perhaps this is why such ads exist…to give movies a chance at funny punch lines. That’s a thought.

Speaking of ads, if you get a chance, listen to the non-branded version of the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” If you don’t already know the words, learn them and sing along. Now, don’t you find it hard not to sing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company,” which was the line in the original version of the jingle-turned-pop-hit? Fortunately, the pop song is a great little flower-child anthem full of love and hope and honey bees and apple trees without a mention of Coke anywhere to remind me I can’t have an icy cold Coke while standing on the side of a mountain with lots of other happily caffeinated people. The pop version makes me feel all warm inside, even though I can’t sing a note on key and if I taught the world to sing, the cacophony would be dreadful and wars would break out everywhere. There would be no peace throughout the land. Even in Switzerland.

Why is speculation over what President-Elect Obama will wear to his inauguration considered news? For that matter, why does CNN care even one tiny little bit that Sarah Palin and Oprah Winfrey are sniping at each other? Is the lack of intelligent news coverage a sign of the coming apocalypse? Take a deep breath, Susan, and sing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony, la, la, la, la….”

If God had not wanted us to be happy, why did he put us in a world with mochas, Christmas, red wine, and anti-aging wrinkle cream? I forgot to put on my eye cream this morning and swear I look ten years older. That stuff is a miracle in a tube and makes me very happy.

Another Random Conversation with Jack
Me: Jack! You don’t need to use so much toilet paper!
Jack: But I love you, Mommy!
Me: I love you, too.
Jack: Merry Christmas, Mommy.
Me: Merry Christmas, Jack. [What were we talking about?]

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Greatest Dad Ever

My darling husband definitely qualifies for the title Greatest Dad Ever. Some dads never get their priorities straight, but George got it right from the beginning. When I was pregnant with Nick, one of George’s squadron mates asked him what he wanted our baby boy to be when he grew up. George was astounded that anyone would burden an unborn child with such expectations. As George expressed his outrage over this, I smiled that little, complaisant smile only gestating women can produce. I’d chosen the father of my children well.

The baby years were hard for George, as they are for many dads. Women usually spend more time caring for babies and have floods of estrogen making them baby crazy anyway; consequently, they are often more comfortable with the whole baby phase of parenting. George didn’t want me to leave him alone with either boy for very long when they were small for fear of what would happen if the little one developed an obsessive, immediate need for the booby-lady. I suspect his enthusiastic support of breast feeding had less to do with the benefits to baby and more to do with the fact that it got him off the hook for middle-of-the-night feedings.

George was happier spooning pureed carrots into reluctant mouths, making silly faces, throwing babies up in the air (gently, of course), and very occasionally changing a diaper by himself. While I did the majority of baby care, George brought home the bacon as an officer in the United States Air Force. He flew in the B-1 bomber, moved up in the ranks of squadron administration, worked 12-18 hour days, and even went off to war in a sandy, uncomfortable place.

On his first day back from Iraq, we went to Target to get some necessities. Nick was three, and acted every minute of it. By the time we walked into the store, George looked at me with something akin to awe and said, “How did you do this for four months by yourself?” I do so love being acknowledged.

Basically, the early years are the Mommy Years: I was booby-lady, food lady, hugs-and-kisses lady, short, Queen of Baby’s Universe. As soon as our boys were old enough, however, George transformed from That Guy Who Takes Too Much of Mommy’s Attention Away From Me into Super-Duper Extraordinary Playmate, also known as The Monster. Every evening after dinner, George pretends to be a monster, gets on the floor and wrestles with the boys, throws them around, yells, and generally makes them screamingly happy. He lets the boys lay on the hardwood floor with their hands wrapped around his ankles and drags them around (less mopping for me), he picks them up by their ankles and pretends to drop them on their heads, he tosses them over his shoulder and “spanks” them while they laugh hysterically. In fine weather, he plays dodge ball with them in the back yard.

Where am I during all this, you ask? I am usually in my craft room with the door closed and the fan set on high to drown out the noise. Mommy doesn’t “do” this sort of play. I sit in our home library and read to them, play Yahtzee with Nick or Candyland with Jack or indoor bowling with them both, and help them do homework and craft projects. Children need adult males in their lives for the rough and tumble play that they all (even the girls) need. They don’t usually get it from momma.

While the boys will have lasting memories of this playmate daddy, the most meaningful thing George has done for them is something they may never know, much less fully understand.

Two years ago, George had orders to go to his dream job as an instructor at the B-1 Weapons School. For those who don’t know, the Weapons School is sort of like a super-concentrated PhD program in weapons and tactics. It’s the place the Air Force trains its top aviators to “fly, fight, and win,” and graduates, called patch-wearers, are expected to pass on what they learn when they return to their squadrons. Weapons School is intense—six months of ridiculously long days full of study, flying, and brutal briefs and debriefs for each flight. Mistakes are not tolerated. Plenty of students wash out before they can complete the course, and they don’t get a second chance.

George went through the B-1 Weapons School in 2000 and graduated with the flying trophy. When he sent out feelers for an instructor job in late 2005, the Weapons School’s commander couldn’t wait to get him to Abilene. George’s orders came through, we put our house on the market, and I prepared to move for the tenth time in 18 years to Dyess AFB, in Abilene, Texas.

As George’s dream was coming true, we began to suspect that Jack, who was not quite four, might have a problem. His speech seemed delayed, and he just wasn’t keeping up with his peers in social interactions or fine-motor development. We had him evaluated by a developmental pediatrician, Dr. Zernzach, at Wright Patterson AFB hospital. My mother took Jack to this evaluation because George and I were in British Columbia celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. Dr. Zernzach called us while we were having lunch at a winery on Saturna Island. A bald eagle flew gracefully overhead, and acres of tidy grape vines stretched down to the blue-gray sea sparkling with sunlight as I heard what no parent ever wants to hear: our son had serious developmental delays that required much more testing and might possibly be autism.

George immediately started asking critical questions about the suitability of moving Jack to Abilene. I was totally focused on the move and probably in a bit of denial as well. He had me call the base hospital at Dyess AFB to ask what services Jack could receive there. The answers were not good. The nearest developmental pediatrician was in Ft. Worth (almost three hours from Abilene), and pediatric speech therapy and occupational therapy had huge waiting lists. We already knew the schools in Abilene were not very good. I tried to be positive and optimistic, but George already knew what he had to do.

When George and I met with Dr. Zernzach, the seriousness of Jack’s situation finally hit me. I listened while George and the doctor discussed the Exceptional Family Member Program, which ensures that military families with special needs are assigned only to bases where these needs can be met. George signed the paperwork to enroll Jack in the EFMP. Just hours after Dr. Zernzach submitted the paperwork the following day, George received an email canceling the orders to his dream job.

Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate the character of a man who would, without hesitation, give up his dream job for a son who hadn’t even been formally diagnosed yet. Sorta makes you feel there’s hope for the world after all, doesn’t it?

A year later, it became obvious that George was destined for a year-long deployment to either Baghdad or a garden spot in Afghanistan. Before Nick was born, he would have gone eagerly, but a year’s absence would definitely hurt our two small boys. I wouldn’t have been too happy about it either. George just couldn’t leave his family for so long, especially under the circumstances, so he submitted his retirement paperwork and started looking for a civilian job. He was snapped up by the first company to interview him.

At his retirement ceremony, George said he’d been advised by a friend, “Run out of career before you run out of family.” He didn’t want to retire from the Air Force, from the band of rare Americans who are willing to lay down their lives for something bigger than themselves. He simply realized that two little boys needed his time, his presence, and his love more than America did.

His life is slower now than perhaps he would like. The adrenaline-rush thrill of jet engines and combat and streaking beyond the speed of sound at 400 feet above the ground in a big, sleek B-1 can’t be replaced by work in military consulting. The unique camaraderie that bonds aviators after surviving triple-A and missiles over downtown Baghdad doesn’t develop when you’re sitting in meetings with civilians. And let’s face it, an Air Force flight suit accessorized with a leather flight jacket, flight cap, and sunglasses will always look and feel cooler than a suit and tie.

George did the noblest thing a man can do. He spent the first 20 years of his adult life serving his country in a dangerous job, sacrificing his freedom so others might enjoy theirs. A year ago, he sacrificed a career doing what he loved just to be present and accounted for daily with his children.
You know, I think he actually looks pretty darn cool in that suit and tie.

Nick and Jack don’t ever need to know what George gave up for them, but their lives are immeasurably better because they have a dad who understands that pretending to be a monster every night is the single most important job any real man can have.

Yes, I chose the father of my children well.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


"Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude." --Denis Waitley

When we think of things we’re grateful for, we often think big: our God, our health, our country, our freedoms, our planet, our churches, our communities, our families, our friends. I am deeply grateful for these all the year through, but this Thanksgiving, I’m consciously focusing on the little stuff that makes the big stuff real in my daily life, as well as the little stuff I sometimes take for granted or might occasionally find annoying. So here’s a thoroughly random and definitely incomplete list of little things from 2008 for which I am grateful.

*Traffic lights and the people who pay attention to them

*Gloria at Barnes and Noble who always asks after Jack while she’s making my mocha

*My in-laws for buying Ghirardelli’s hot chocolate mix so I could make mochas at their house last summer

*Stampin’Up!’s 50+ colors of coordinating cardstock and inks

*Binary code

*The mailman, UPS man, FedEX man, and DHL woman who bring stuff right to my door

*The tote bag my mom and sister bought for me at Monticello that says “I cannot live without books”… Thomas Jefferson and I have a lot in common

*Dog fur…because I found a single, six-inch strand of Shemya’s white fur in my leather-bound copy of The Lord of the Rings, proving that she’s really still with me nine years after leaving to wait for me at the Rainbow Bridge

*My new gravy boat from Target

*Sugar, in all its forms, but especially when accompanied by chocolate

*The wonderful pictures of our kids that George takes, his cooking, and the way he plays Monster with the boys almost every night

*Nick’s imagination, enthusiasm, and hugs

*The way Jack says, “Mommy, I love you sooo much!” all day long and how he wants everyone to be happy

*The leather seat warmers in my car…because a warm bottom is a happy bottom

*The cards my friends Angela and Liz and Lois sent for no reason other than to make me smile

*Company, because I love that people will come to stay at my house and it makes me clean the whole house a couple of times a year whether I want to or not

*Pine Sol

*Avery address labels

*Red wine

*The dictionary

*Being able to flip a switch and have light

*Color and the eyes to see it

*Craft store coupons

*The basket I keep all my bills in and the fact we can pay them all on time every month

*The tiny twinkling stars in the night sky…because they remind me of an important thing called perspective and make me wonder all sorts of things, and wonder is very, very good (sort of like thinking, but with awe thrown in for good measure)

*People who read my blog

Happy Thanksgiving!

What are you grateful for?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It’s All in the Numbers…or Not

When I turned 16 years old, I thought, “Wow, I’m halfway to 32.” Thirty-two looked really, really old and far away at the time. Today, I turned 42, so I’m halfway to 84. Weirdly enough, 84 doesn’t look nearly as old as 32 looked then.

Much of what I thought at 16 turned out to be wrong, and not just the idea that 32 was old. I felt like I was just getting started at 32 because by then I realized that life experience is the best teacher ever and I still had much to learn. At 16, however, I didn’t appreciate the value of life experience. All I cared about was acquiring knowledge from books and regurgitating that knowledge on tests and making perfect grades. My life was all about the numbers.

I am not a genius. From early childhood, lots of people told me I was smart—and I was—but my actual IQ score disappointed me. The school counselor gave me an IQ test around age 16, and my score was high but not in the genius range. Since grades were the be-all-and-end-all measure of my worth as a human being (a standard I never applied to anyone but myself, by the way), my IQ score felt like a huge failure on my part. That score became my dirty little secret, a source of shame, something to hide because it wasn’t good enough. At 16, I lacked the benevolent perspective gained only from experience and desperately needed a prescription for Zoloft.

A recent article in Scientific American Mind magazine reported that people with really high IQs and fantastic grades in school are generally not the most successful or happiest in adulthood. Merely good grades, good intelligence, and a good work ethic are more likely to lead to happiness and success. Book learning isn’t everything, so those scores and grades that measure book learning and IQ don’t actually mean much in the grand scheme of life. How is it, then, that so many high-achieving kids and adults never learn this? Why are some—like me—driven to the point where they would rather die than fail anymore at the unachievable goal of academic perfection?

For 16-year-old me, the answer to that question had two parts. First, my personality had perfectionist tendencies and a teeny, tiny bit of OCD. (Those of you who know me are laughing right now; I can hear you.) Second, while everything I did was wonderful in my mother’s eyes, my dad saw me differently. Here’s a random sampling of his commentary on my accomplishments: “No one ever remembers who finishes second.” “You made four A’s and an A plus, so why aren’t they all A plusses?” “You got a 99 on your chemistry test. Why wasn’t it 100? A careless error? Don’t let it happen again.”

Combine my over-achiever personality with years of this sort of motivational talk, and it’s no surprise I felt like a failure at 16. You’ve heard the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Well, George recently encountered a variation on it: “What doesn’t kill you really hurts and sucks a lot.” So very true. Life experience eventually taught me that beating myself up over test scores and grades was pointless and cruel, that those numbers have only limited usefulness in real life, and that they bear no correlation at all to my value as a person.

This enlightened attitude comes in handy these days. Our son Jack has autism, and Jack’s brain just doesn’t understand why he should care a fig about what grown-ups want him to do. When confronted with a testing situation, he doesn’t think, “Gee, this grown-up really wants me to do this, so I better do it well.” He thinks something like this: “Why is this person asking me what letter is on this sheet of paper? There’s a fly buzzing around. Buzz off, fly! Oh, look! The walls are blue. I love blue. Blue is my favorite color. Thomas is a blue tank engine. What’s under the table? That woman is tapping the paper. How annoying. Oh, okay, that’s the letter P. Can I go play with my cars now?” You can see how he might not score very well on tests, especially if they are timed. Fortunately, he’s not bothered at all by his scores yet, and I hope it stays that way.

His teachers, however, have a different attitude. At Jack’s last parent-teacher conference, his kindergarten teacher and special education teacher both dwelled on how low his DIBELS score was and what we need to do to bring it up. For most children, the DIBELS test is an excellent predictor of future literacy success, and our district administers it at the beginning, middle, and end of kindergarten. The test results are used to determine which children need serious reading intervention, which need just a bit of intervention, and which are doing just fine. I volunteer as a tutor for the middle group, while the lower scoring children go to a reading specialist.

Jack’s DIBELS score wrongly indicated he hardly knew his letters at all. His special education teacher said she was amazed the first time she worked with Jack because he really did know almost all his letters. At first, I was confused. Why did these two teachers—one of whom presumably knows something about autism—care so much about Jack’s score? I said, very politely, “I honestly don’t imagine that Jack will ever do well on standardized tests, at least until we can find a good motivator for him. Besides, he’s not going to learn like the other children, and that’s okay. He can learn and is learning. That’s what’s important.” Duh.

I expected them to relax when they realized I didn’t blame them for the low score, but they just kept talking about strategies for getting his score up. Then it dawned on me why they were so obsessed with the DIBELS. The No Child Left Behind Act places insidious pressure on teachers to focus on test scores. Jack is dragging their numbers down. This realization made me want to say unpleasant, very foul words to the universe in general, but I took a deep breath and reminded myself that getting mad about bureaucratic crap and legislative stupidity is a waste of energy. (I learned that lesson through years of experience as a dependent military spouse.) Plus, taking my anger out on the teachers would be horribly unfair. I deeply appreciate their efforts on Jack’s behalf and tell them so as often as I can. They are doing a great job; Jack has made wonderful progress in the last three months. I’m particularly happy that he is finally showing interest in early literacy skills. But I refuse to care a fig about his DIBELS score. He’s not going to be left behind. Lots of people are seeing to that.

My firstborn, Nick, does pretty well in school…except for math. For the last two years, he has struggled with learning his math facts. Those pesky sums and differences just don’t stick in his head. Now that he’s starting multiplication and division, he’s getting particularly frustrated. His third-grade teacher grew alarmed in early October and suggested having him tested. The test results indicate that he probably has a math learning disability.

Unfortunately, Nick fixates on grades just like I used to do. Last week, he brought home a timed test of multiplication facts. He told me and George at dinner that he’d failed a math test. “I got an F minus,” he said. I responded, “What do you mean by F minus? Your teacher didn’t write F minus on your test.” I was certain of this. She’s wonderful and would never do such a thing. “I got them all wrong, so it was an F minus.” In truth, he had gotten most—but not all—of the problems wrong and had written the F minus on his paper himself.

Doesn’t this just break your heart? It sure broke mine.

Early this week, I attended an Intervention Assistance Team meeting to discuss Nick’s math issues. The principal, school psychologist, school counselor, special education teacher, and Nick’s third-grade teacher were there. When I told them about the F minus, every woman at the table gasped in shock and sorrow. I knew we were all on the same page. I also knew we were in a position to do something about it.

After all the discussion of Nick’s scores and grades, the principal concluded, rather boldly and bluntly, “What we have here is a young man of fine intelligence who has a learning disability in math.” I wanted to applaud. If you never attend these sorts of meetings, you don’t know how much dancing around the teachers, therapists, and administrators usually do in an effort to be tactful. To hear someone with the courage to speak the truth, speak it clearly and with great compassion…well, it just made my day.

You see, Nick’s problems with math have been going on for two years now, and finally, he’s getting focused and constructive help. George and I hope he will feel the love and encouragement that surround him at home and at school, and we will do our best to make sure he knows he’s more than a score, more than a grade, more than a child with a math disability. Scores helped us identify a problem, but human intervention and compassion will help him through this.

As for my own numbers…last year, I took an online IQ test, thinking I’d probably grown dumber since age 16, mainly because having children gives you the sensation of having your brain sucked out via your uterus. To my pleasant surprise, my IQ has increased. At this rate, by the time I’m 84, I might even be a genius and am absolutely certain I won’t care in the slightest.

Life is just too rich and complex and wonderful and full to boil it down to a number, unless of course it’s 42, which, coincidentally, is
the answer to life, the universe, and everything, according to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

No wonder I’m gloriously happy to be 42 today.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fighting the Chickens

My sister once told me, “There is no such thing as PMS. People can sense when you’re going to get your period and they do everything possible to irritate the hell out of you.” Of course this isn’t true, but that’s EXACTLY how I have felt for at least several days every month since I turned 14. I’m about to turn 42, and frankly, my hormones appear to be going a little wacky which would explain why this sort of PMS paranoia breaks out randomly several times a month now. Fortunately, it’s only half of what’s going on in my head.

You see, the other, logical half of my brain watches all this nutty irritability like it’s entertainment. When all the little stuff that ordinarily occurs in my life starts irritating Hormonal Me, Logical Me sees exactly what’s going on and smirks in a smugly superior way that just further irritates the heck out of Hormonal Me but also occasionally keeps Hormonal Me in check.

Does this make sense? If you’re a woman, you’re probably nodding yes and you know exactly what I’m talking because you have years of personal experience with it. If you’re a man, you’ve probably already clicked off this webpage.

Logical Me knows that because I have two little boys, a husband, an old dog, and a house with three toilets, I am bound to experience little irritations daily. Logical Me just rolls her eyes at these irritants and gets over them almost immediately. Logical Me is mature, realistic, smart, and happy. Logical Me has a healthy sense of perspective.

Hormonal Me feels like she is being pecked to death by chickens. Keep in mind—nothing in my life has changed from the previous day (or minute) that Logical Me was in charge. But when Hormonal Me takes over, I yell, I mutter under my breath, I scowl, and I clean like crazy because Hormonal Me has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hormonal Me is immature, unrealistic, stupid, and miserable. Hormonal Me is, in short, crazy.

Like my husband says, “I don’t know how you women put up with this crap.”

Allow me to illustrate. Consider Jack. My darling son is the sweetest thing on earth. Whenever I say “don’t stand on that chair” or “don’t jump on the bed” or “no more candy,” my little angel throws his arms around me and says, “But I thought you LOVED me, Mommy!” Awww, how cute is that? This same angel turned into a devil recently when we were waiting for his speech therapist. He wanted to play with the light switch in the waiting area, and I said, “No.” He turned on me with a demonic expression and snarled, “But I WANT to, you IDIOT!”

The very first thought that popped into my head—and thankfully not out of my mouth because Logical Me was in charge—was “What the HELL?” This child worships me. I am the center of his universe. Logical Me, who is a reasonably good parent, responded to this shocking development like a grown-up and immediately told him he was in “red”—meaning he can’t watch movies for three days. Going to red is pure torture and totally traumatic for Jack. It’s also highly effective. He has told me daily since, “Mommy, I’m not going to call you idiot.” He remembers this lesson and will do so for a l-o-n-g time. Logical Me experiences such sweet fruits of victory frequently.

Logical Me also knows that Jack has issues with change, and I usually plan for this. For example, the transition from summer to winter means Jack has to wear new clothes, which really bothers him. With a little planning and patience on my part, he adjusts to dressing appropriately for the weather. Hormonal Me forgets this and just reacts in the moment, which leads to scenes like last Sunday when I yelled at my angel while forcing long pants on his body so we could go to church. He cried “No! No! NO!” the whole time, and when the pants were on his reluctant little body, he threw his arms around me and said, “But I thought you LOVED me, Mommy!”

Grrr. Defeated by my own childishness. Do you think there’s a special circle in Hell for mommies who yell at their children before church? Please don’t answer that.

Another chicken pecking Hormonal Me to death right now is my son Nick. He’s addicted to a hot new toy called Bakugon, which appears to be like Pokemon only on steroids. I’ve been hearing a lot about these strange toys and their levels, abilities, and trips to the Doom Dimension. Logical Me remembers that as a young teen I was addicted to Battlestar Galactica, the old series with Lorne Green, Richard Hatch, and Dirk Benedict—how sad I remember those names! Who am I to complain about my children’s annoying obsessions? It’s entirely pointless to fight karma.

But when Nick learned there was a Bakugon television show weekday mornings at 6:30, Hormonal Me just about exploded with an irrational desire personally to hang, draw, and quarter whatever idiot invented this crap. Then, Hormonal Me thought, gee, if I get him one, maybe I won’t have to listen to the whining. I told you Hormonal Me was stupid. Employees at Target and Toys R Us told me these toys fly off the shelves as soon as they are stocked, which made Hormonal Me shop multiple times in hopes of “getting lucky.”

I remember a time when “getting lucky” really was a lot more fun.

Because Nick’s birthday is coming up and these are the only toys he wants, Logical Me enlisted the aide of my mother, mother-in-law, and sister—who all live in different states—to look for Bakugons. I have received cell-phone calls from Target in Charlotte, Walmart in Grand Junction, and Toys R Us in the greater Annapolis area. I can now report that the Bakugon trend is going strong in the south and west, where none of the individual Bakugon packs are to be found for love or money. Maryland, however, has either moved past the trend or is lagging behind, or my sister just got lucky, because she easily hit the mother lode. She kindly bought a boxful of the stuff and shipped it to me.

Then my sister-in-law asked what Nick wanted for his birthday, and I told her about Bakugons, thinking maybe she’d get lucky, too. She walked into Target, found a Bakugon tin, and reported that “a kid staring at the stuff with his eyes glazed over said that it was ‘way cool.’” So she bought it for Nick.

Thanks to Lisa and Angela, Nick’s ninth birthday will not be a tragic event to be analyzed by his psychiatrist at a later date. Aunts are wonderful, and Logical Me is very grateful. Hormonal Me, not so much, because we did finally find a Bakugon for Nick to buy himself, and I’m still hearing about this nonsensical stuff daily, about trading the cards and toys, about the Doom Dimension. Really, don’t we have enough doom in our own dimension without having to look for it in others? I think after he opens the Mother Lode of Bakugon Birthday Presents on his birthday, Hormonal Me is the one who’s doomed.

Logical Me cleaned the basement a few weeks ago. It’s a really, really good thing that Hormonal Me was quiescent at the time or I would have gone postal by the time my family got home. The basement was a total mess, not only cluttered and disorderly with storage bins vomiting forth their contents onto the floor, but also dirty with dust, cobwebs, dead spiders, and those little round balls that get trapped in old cobwebs and look like mouse poop but aren’t. Eww. There’d also been an accident with a leaf-bag full of shredded paper. I handled this all quite cheerfully, and six hours later, my basement was clean and orderly.

Last Sunday night, however, Hormonal Me couldn’t take another minute of the mess in the family room. It had been there all week, and Logical Me would just glance at it, shrug, and go to the craft room to make something fun. The kids were in bed when Hormonal Me struck, which really ticked me off because they should have been cleaning up their mess, not I. George was trying to watch television while I dashed madly back and forth tossing toys into a bin, picking DVD cases up off the floor and organizing them on the shelves, and toting cups back to the kitchen. The whole whirlwind cleaning process took about seven frantic minutes.

At the end, George asked, “Susan, why do you do this? It’s time to relax, and here you are running around like it can’t wait.” Hormonal Me wanted to scream, “Because it CAN’T wait another MINUTE, you IDIOT! Can’t you see that!?!?” Logical Me intervened and sent Hormonal Me skulking back into my ovaries for some time in “red.” Logical Me sat down and watched something highly interesting on television with my ever-so-logical and darling husband. If we hadn’t both been so tired, he would have gotten lucky that night.

On the whole, Logical Me seems to be winning this war for my soul, which is some small comfort on those occasions when Hormonal Me scores a victory.

How DO we women put up with this crap? Pecked by the chickens as I am, I clearly don’t have a good answer, but I do recommend prayer and deep breathing.

A little red wine certainly won’t hurt, either.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different...

No, you haven’t fallen into a script for Monty Python, the British comedy show that obsessed my darling husband years ago and which still takes up valuable synapses of his brain. No Dead Parrot Sketch today, gentle readers, but we are going to talk about something completely different: metablogging.

Ooooh, what a hook! Metablogging. Makes you want to keep reading, doesn’t it?

If you’re scratching your head wondering what the heck metablogging is, I’m not surprised because I first came across this term in the secure and very strange corners of my own brain. It popped magically into my head Monday after I woke at 5:00 a.m. unable to fall back asleep. Here’s your chance to see the random and bizarre turns my brain takes that lull me away from sleep so frequently. Aren’t you lucky?

Upon waking, it dawned on me that I didn’t have a completed essay for this week, though several are started and will wait patiently for me to get back to them when I feel like it. So I contemplated what I’m doing in my life now that might interest my forty or so regular readers plus the poor innocents who accidentally click on my blog.

Hmm. I’ve been reading several books about brain development and something called “the reading brain.” (Yes, I’m a geek, in case you had forgotten.) These books have me thinking a lot about how we think, otherwise known as metacognition, a term I dredged up from somewhere deep in my brain in synapses formed in college. I think.

Anyway, if metacognition is thinking about thinking, then of course blogging about blogging would be metablogging. Right?

Sadly, I discovered in a quick Google search that I did not coin this clever new term. As usual, I’m entering into a trend late, which is par for the course of my life, actually. Metablogging, it turns out, is something of a hot topic among bloggers. I make no claim that thinking up words like “metablogging” is normal, but at least my brain is not alone in the way it thinks, which is some comfort to me. Oddity loves company every bit as much as misery.

Anyway, the idea of blogging about blogging intrigues me so I thought I'd show you a glimpse behind the scenes.

You, dear reader, fascinate me. You take valuable time out of your life to read my random blatherings, which I try to keep to sub-five-minute bursts. You have no idea how hard this is for me and how many brilliant sentences and paragraphs I delete in the interests of not trying your patience. Having spent years editing other people’s writing does not make editing my own any easier. Because I know how valuable your time is, I really do try to give you my best—and briefest—no matter how painful it is to me.

When I started this blog almost five months ago, I thought only my mother and sister would keep reading past the first essay. They are obligated by the closest bonds of blood, and it would hurt my feelings if they didn’t read it every week. All I expected from the rest of my friends and family (who received pesky emails that first month) was that they check it out. Beyond that, I figured a random handful might stick with it but most would probably roll their eyes and say to themselves, “Susan has waaayyy too much free time on her hands.”

Happily, I was totally wrong and more than a handful of friends and family have offered amazing encouragement and support, which drove me to submit my first-ever article for publication. No word yet from the magazine, but thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting me over my fear and acting on that life goal.

What totally floors me, though, is the number of complete and total strangers who have signed on. That strangers would click on my blog did occur to me; but that those strangers would stay, read, and even sometimes subscribe to Questioning boggles my mind and fills my heart with profound gratitude.

What do I know about you, my kind readers? If you are one of the ten or so who read this blog through various feed services like Windows RSS and Google Reader, you’re just a number on my subscriber count—except for Joan B, who introduced me to Google Reader. She reads and comments, so I suspect she’s one of the Google Reader subscribers. Please check out her
blog. Even if you’re not a stamper, you’ll enjoy Joan’s rollicking sense of humor and wonderful artwork.

Thirty of you subscribe to my blog via FeedBurner, which supplies me with your email addresses. I personally know 21 of these subscribers. One of you (whom I don’t know in real life) has an email address based in Brazil. How cool is that? Hello, Brazil!

If one of you unsubscribes, I get an email notifying me of your rejection. I tell you this so you will feel horribly guilty if you quit me, but I promise not to flood your inbox with pathetic emails begging you to take me back. I’ll just eat chocolate until I get over it. It’ll take a lot of chocolate, though, and if I cease fitting into my skinny jeans, it’ll be all your fault.

Depending on how blog-savvy you are, you may or may not know that bloggers can monitor direct hits to their blogs. I use SiteMeter for this. For many hits, I can see the IP address or server, what country the click came from, what internet page referred the reader to my page, and how long the reader stayed. If you check it out (see the sidebar for a link), you’ll notice an alarming number of people whose stay is 0 seconds. I try not to take this personally.

In addition to my delighted astonishment at the number of hits I get, I never expected the SiteMeter information would be so, well, informative. For example, people from Singapore, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Finland, England, France, Germany, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and even China have clicked in. To celebrate this world-wide readership I tried to find an audio clip of “It’s a Small World, After All” but only came across a creepy video clip of the Disney ride on YouTube, which I will spare you the torture of experiencing. Instead, please chime in with a chorus of “It’s a Small World” yourself—come on, you know that you know the words. Lovely.

Now that song is in your head instead of mine. Thank you.

I also know what Google searches lead people here. The most interesting search hits land on my
Bike Porn essay and show the sad limitations of Google technology. Consider the person who lives in Alkmaar, Netherlands, who searched “juicy backside porn hub” and ended up on my blog. Somehow, I don’t think this person got what he/she expected. There were similar search hits from people in Egypt; Kiskunlachaza, Hungary; Billancourt, France; and Pompano Beach, Florida.

Don’t you feel sorry for these poor souls whom Google let down so badly? When I wrote that essay, I never expected to stand between perverts and their porn, but so far, I have disappointed people on three continents. Why does this make me want to giggle?

Blogging has proven very educational for me. You have no idea how excited I was when I successfully installed the SiteMeter and FeedBurner code. It made me feel very internet savvy when, in fact, I am not. For all I know, the internet is run by squirrels and pulleys. I’m no Al Gore. But blogging has taught me a few interesting skills, like how to name a hyperlink (that’s what the little icon of earth with a chain does—who knew?) and how to follow directions for cutting and pasting code that really just looks like gibberish to me. I’ve also learned to edit html code to make words italic or bold. If you know the code for strike-through, please share. I think I could have fun with that.

Hopefully, reading my blog is educational for you, too. I’ll bet most of you have never heard of
Kiskunlachaza, Hungary, but now you know it exists and at least one pervert lives there. I’ll also bet it was news to you that there is a sub-genre of pornography—not the metaphorical porn I blogged about—that involves bikes. Sometimes in the process of questioning my intelligence, I learn things we’d all rather not know. Instead of dwelling on perversion, why not distract yourself by trying out that little earth-and-chain icon in your next email. It’s, like, totally cool!

And speaking of hyperlinks, let’s end our exploration of metablogging with something completely different…
The Dead Parrot Sketch.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Dog People

What makes some families, including our little branch of the Raihala family, Dog People, as opposed to Cat People, Bird People, or Pet-free People? I’m sure if I googled this topic, I’d find lots written on it, but it’s more fun just to free-associate and figure it out for myself. Here goes.

When I was little, we always had dogs. Sometimes we had cats, too, but only when I begged and pleaded and cried. Dogs were the constant, though. George had no pets at all, not even a goldfish. That’s because his parents were Pet-free People. George’s father is allergic to cats and has asthma—a very scary combination that sort of necessitates pet-free living.

When George and I got married, I knew that I didn’t want to have children with a man who’d never even had to care for a fish, so I campaigned hard for a pet. In college, we were too broke for a dog, but I convinced George we could afford a bunny. The very inappropriately named Snuggles entered our lives.

I came to hate this rabbit. He was evil, an unsocialized full-grown pygmy rabbit, not the sweet little baby bunny I thought I’d bought. As soon as I realized this, I had a serious case of buyer’s remorse but wasn’t sure what to do about it. After all, I’d begged and pleaded for the bunny, and now all I wanted to do was drop-kick him across the room. Generally, I’m very humane and loving toward animals, especially cute furry ones. But this rabbit wasn’t an animal. He was a long-toothed, sharp-clawed, hard-hearted Satan.

George tried to make sure I treated Satan well, let him out of the cage to play, and interacted with him. It’s the only time in our 22-year marriage I lied to him. I felt really bad about the lie, but not at all bad that I hadn’t let Satan out of his cage. I was protecting the universe.

Satan eventually went back to the pet shop, we graduated from college to real jobs, and I set my sights on a proper pet. I wanted a dog, and since George had always wanted a dog, like any red-blooded American boy, this was an easy sell. When George was assigned to an Air Force base in Michigan, it was the perfect time to get a Samoyed puppy.

Before the dog purchase, George talked tough: our dog would live outside like a “real” dog and never, ever go near our bed. People who let their dogs sleep in their beds were pansies. I didn’t argue because I knew better. We picked up Shemya from a breeder in Lansing in February, 1989, when she was a three-month-old puffball and there was a foot of snow on the ground. On the long drive back to Oscoda, George said, “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside. She can sleep in the empty bedroom next to ours.” “Okay,” I said.

When it was time for bed, we put Shemya in her new room with a little bed and closed the door. She promptly tried to scratch her way out, whining and yipping the whole time. When we tried to go into the room to “make” her be quiet, she slipped between our legs and made a beeline for our bed, which she scrambled under, breathing hard and ready to defend her position if necessary.

That’s where she slept for the next year or so, even when she grew too big to fit comfortably. One day, I found George lying on the bed reading, with Shemya tucked comfortably under his arm. I said, “So, the dog is never getting on the bed, is she?” “Awww. Why not?” he responded, and scratched her behind the ears. After that, she slept on the bed with us.

If living with a dog does not have this softening effect on you, there’s something really wrong with you, and you should seek professional help. I’m serious.

Samoyeds were originally bred to pull sleds, herd reindeer, and act like big, furry hot-water bottles. Shemya lived true to her genetic imperative by taking us for “drags” (what normal people call walks), herding us to her food dish, and keeping our feet warm at night. She was the best dog I ever had, and she was mine, all mine. She tolerated George but made it very clear if she did what he asked, it was only because she wanted to, not because he told her to. She followed me around and curled up at my feet wherever I was. I loved her completely.

George eventually wanted a dog who would worship him as Shemya worshipped me so we bought Hoover, an adorable golden retriever pup with a very waggy tail. George was completely ga-ga over this dog, but Hoover was a slow learner, and this did not endear him to me in the beginning. He had two bad habits which rubbed my fur the wrong way.

First, he ate carpet. It cost several hundred dollars to repair the two places he dug up, and since he didn’t worship me, I wasn’t inclined to forgive easily. When he disemboweled a pillow while we were outside doing yard-work, George finally conceded that Hoover needed to be crated when we weren’t with him.

Second, he pee-walked. If he needed to go, he would just walk around the house leaving a twenty-foot long trail of pee drops on the carpet. We tried the “humane” way of house-breaking, but Hoover wasn’t getting it. By the time he was six months old, I had had it with pee-walking. The last time he did it, I had George grab him, beat his behind, and throw him outside. Far from being traumatized, Hoover just looked at George as if to say, “Well, go figure. I guess you don’t like my doing that. Who would have thought?” He never pee-walked again.

When Hoover developed kennel cough, I finally softened toward him. Staying up all night to make sure your dog doesn’t die bonds you, somehow. Hoover, however, didn’t respect me until long after Shemya died. George deployed to Florida in 2005 for more than four months, and to Hoover’s way of thinking, this constituted abandonment. He transferred his adoration to me for no other reason than I was there. Now I love the dog dearly and am quite as goofy over him as I ever was over Shemya.

Dog ownership has brought out behaviors in us that Pet-free People might find bizarre. For example, George and I have conversations where one of us pretends to be the dog. If Hoover is quivering with riveted attention on my spoon as I eat ice cream, George might say in a goofy voice, “Uh, Mom, are you going to give me some of that? Please, please, pretty please!” And I might reply, “I'll let you lick the bowl, Hoover-McDoover.” Sometimes, however, the dog is rude. George might tell Hoover to jump up on the bed, and I might reply for Hoover, in a very grouchy voice, “Screw you, dude. I’m not jumping on that bed. I’m old and have arthritis. Piss off.” Hoover has quite the potty mouth at bedtime.

Then there’s the baby talk. George and I prided ourselves on not using baby talk with our children, who both have excellent vocabularies for their ages. But the dogs…let’s just say our Shemmer-wemmers and Mr. McFuzzykins reacted positively to silly baby talk and leave it at that.

Reading back over this very unscientific essay, I conclude that Dog People just want to be worshipped. Fish, satanic bunnies, and cats don’t “do” worship, so perhaps people who prefer them as pets just don’t need to be considered gods. Ultimately, I think dogs give us unconditional love we can’t get anywhere else, and as long as we can put up with the poop, fur, and general inconvenience, we revel in their adoration.

On the other hand, being worshipped by a dog transforms humans into fairly ridiculous, sappy, love-struck fools who worship their worshippers in return. These canine fur-balls worm their way into our hearts and teach us to appreciate the simple joys in life, such as just being in the presence of our loved ones, getting a belly rub, or barking at the UPS man, who, as every dog knows, has come to kill us all.

Love makes fools of everyone eventually, and at the end of the day, we Raihalas are goofy fools with a fuzzy friend who thinks we’re gods. That’s certainly better than being scratched-up, bitten fools with Satan the pygmy bunny for a pet.

That may be why we’re Dog People.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The China Policy

In this election year, we have heard lots about foreign policy, health care policy, and, most especially, economic policy. The economy is big news right now, and our government, God help it, is trying to clean up the mess which has resulted, at least in part, from too many people trying to keep up with the Joneses.

You know what I’m talking about. Too many people have spent more than they have because they feel entitled to McMansions and expensive cars and riding lawn mowers and iPhones and $5,000 birthday parties for their one-year-old children. They think, “The Joneses have all that, so why can’t I?”

Sadly, Jimmy Buffet was right: there’s no free ride in this carnival world. These tough times call for new policies modeled on common sense and fiscal responsibility. Because we can’t possibly expect the United States government to operate on common sense and fiscal responsibility, we the people must take charge. I propose a new model for personal economic responsibility: the China Policy.

I’m not talking about the upper-case China that just hosted the Olympics. I’m talking about the lower-case china that sits in your cabinets most of the year, pretty but expensive and not terribly useful. George and I developed our China Policy years ago, about the same time we realized that credit cards are evil.

Here’s how the China Policy works: we just don’t have any.

I can hear your gasps of astonishment. After all, isn’t fine china a prerequisite for civilized life? Not really. Despite numerous Thanksgiving dinner parties at our china-less house, no guest ever complained about pouring gravy from a $2 pyrex measuring cup rather than a $200 Wedgewood gravy boat. The gravy tasted great and didn’t have lumps, so why should they complain? If they cracked jokes about our tackiness in the car on the way home, we remain blissfully ignorant of it to this day.

In the interests of full disclosure, we did have Noritake china on our wedding registry over 22 years ago, simply because that’s what engaged couples do. We were young and stupid, and the china didn’t really suit us. We received a few place settings as gifts and used them for a few years, which with china is a huge mistake. You just can’t use it because it chips, cracks, or breaks too easily. Eventually, we had one complete place setting left of the “fine” china, and every time I looked at the pattern, I wanted to barf. What had we been thinking?

About the same time the Noritake was failing us, our credit card debt hit its highest point ever. Then, when George’s grandparents sold their cabin at Lake Vermilion in Minnesota, they gave us their cabin dishes—a plain, white set of ironstone. I’ve never heard of ironstone, but I tell you, it’s pretty much indestructible and just what we needed. The gift of the ironstone dishes allowed us to donate what remained of the Noritake to Goodwill, and shortly thereafter we paid off our credit cards and cut them all up but one. Fiscal responsibility feels great, and we learned our lesson.

A few years ago, my in-laws offered to give us their Rosenthal, mainly because they didn’t want it anymore and hoped to send it on to a good home. George and I declined their kind offer by invoking our China Policy, which is based on four common-sense lessons of economics that can apply to lots more than just china.

Lesson One: Before purchasing anything, think about how items might be handled in the future. If small children, teenage boys, Lowest Bidders, or pets might be involved, refrain from paying top dollar.

Some of you non-military folks may wonder about that “Lowest Bidder” reference. It’s a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of American military families. The Lowest Bidder packs and moves all your belongings from one military base to another. Military families move frequently so the Lowest Bidder has lots of opportunities to break, damage, or destroy your precious belongings. Our friends Cindy and Kevin lost $2,000 worth of fine china in a single box. The Lowest Bidder was supposed to wrap each piece of china in packing paper, but when Cindy opened the box at her new home, she found pulverized china, canned goods, and one single piece of packing paper. Cindy and Kevin got $200 in reimbursement. That’s $1,800 in the trash and an unquantifiable amount of heartache.

The Lowest Bidder could have broken all our dishes, and we would have been out $0 because that’s what the dishes from the cabin at Lake Vermilion cost us. I would have replaced these at Target for about $75, happily and with none of the heartache Cindy and Kevin experienced. If we had taken my in-laws’ Rosenthal, we might not have lost any money, technically, but there would have been heartache. Serious heartache.

Lesson Two: Know your lifestyle preferences. Buy—or don’t—accordingly.

Fine china like the Rosenthal cannot go in the dishwasher. I LOVE my dishwasher. It’s bad enough that our cookware is not dishwasher safe because my darling husband is a cooking snob and insists on expensive pots that must be hand-washed. Given the quality of his cooking, it’s a price I am willing to pay, but dishes…dishes just hold the food off the table.

Lesson Three: Don’t buy something just because everyone else has it. In other words, don’t be a lemming and mindlessly follow the crowd over the cliff of economic disaster.

How often do those of you with fine china actually use the stuff? Be honest, now. Thanksgiving? Christmas? Easter? Is it really a good investment to spend thousands of dollars on place settings, gravy boats, serving bowls, and platters that get used in less than 1% of meals in a year? For us, the answer is no. George and I prefer to spend our money on things that we can and will use frequently, like cameras and bikes and rubber stamps. Yeah, lots of rubber stamps. Just because the Joneses expect us to have fine china doesn’t mean we have to.

Lesson Four: Your money is finite. Set your priorities, and don’t spend more than you have.

George and I prioritize our spending rather than go into consumer debt. That’s why George looked like such a ninny in his patched-up wetsuit at Ironman Wisconsin; we were too cheap to buy him a new one. He’ll get a new one next year, after we’ve saved for it. We learned the hard way years ago that you can’t have it all, no matter how many credit card applications you receive in the mail. We do not have china because we would rather spend what money we have to spend on other stuff. Of course, the Rosenthal would have been free for us, but only until we started breaking pieces and needed to replace them. (See Lesson One.) Then it would get expensive.

Now you know our China Policy. It certainly makes more sense than adjustable-rate mortgages, hedge funds, and keeping up with the Joneses. And wouldn’t it be great if all four of these lessons were adopted as economic policy by our next president?

Oh, my goodness. Did I really just type that? Please excuse me while I laugh hysterically for a few minutes….

I’m back. Whew. That was funny. Or sad. I’m not sure.

As for the Rosenthal, my in-laws decided to keep it, which I think in their case is pretty smart. Despite owning fine china, my in-laws are among the most fiscally responsible people I know. Since they can’t get anyone to pay what the Rosenthal is worth (certainly not in this economic downturn) and neither of their children wants it, they might as well keep it. Who knows, it may still be useful someday. Probably not, but you just never know.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bike Porn

Now, there are two words most people don’t put together. If you read my post HERE, however, you know that things are pretty crazy in my world, and bike porn is to blame, at least in part, for that craziness.

As sex researchers have shown, men are visual creatures. I know this because I read Discover Magazine, which reports juicy little tidbits of this nature. Men like visual stimulation and respond positively to images of things they desire. Bike porn is visual representation of bicycles created to stimulate desire in men (and a few women, too) in the same way Godiva chocolate advertisements stimulate desire in women (and a few men). Chocolate is well-documented as an aphrodisiac, but bikes?

I’m not feeling the love, if you know what I mean.

Unlike regular porn, which for the most part exists only to sell itself, bike porn exists to sell bikes by appealing directly to visually-stimulated sex-drive circuits in some men’s brains. Not all men are attracted by the perverse allure of bike porn; some prefer cars or computers as objects of their desire. Some even like trains or model rockets or cigars, the sexual symbolism of which we can discuss some other time. Men’s brains really are very strange places.

Bike porn, however, is just the thin edge of an insidious wedge. You can’t buy the naked women in magazine or internet pictures (not legally, at least) but the whole point behind most bike porn is that you, too, can ride this beauty, if only your bank account can handle her. Bike porn leads to an ever-increasing need to possess and obsess over the objects of bike lust. Obviously, bike porn is NOT pictures of skanky bikes you can buy at Toys R Us or Kmart. Bike porn aficionados have standards, by golly, and don’t you forget it.

You would think that just a bike frame without wheels or gears or handlebars or a place to put your backside would be, I don’t know, sort of pointless and not worth looking at. In the world of bike porn, however, bare naked frames are sexy. Bare naked frames made of carbon fiber or titanium are the sexiest, because there is a geeky, high-tech aspect of bike porn that is integral to its charm. George once shared with me some porn of a bamboo bike frame, which, I assume, is porn for those bike lovers who prefer exotic Asian looks.

Then there are the accessories. My personal favorites are the Zipp Wheels with a Powertap Hub, George’s gift when he retired from the Air Force. He started showing me porn of the wheels about a year before he got them. At Ironman Wisconsin last month, I guess roughly two-thirds of the bikes had Zipp wheels, so George is definitely on trend with this. Zipps are clearly labeled and easy to spot for an Ironmate like myself, but I’m not sure what the Powertap hub looks like, so I have no idea how many of the racers had them. I bet it was lots. These hubs come with software and measure the wattage the cyclist generates on rides, so they are really, really sexy. Bike porn gets into the collective consciousness of the biking community and just takes over. You don’t even want to know how much the wheels and hub cost us. Okay, about $2,500.00, but George got a heck of a deal. Honestly.

I could buy a lot of paper-crafting supplies with that much money.

George has kept virtually every bike porn magazine he’s bought in the past 20 years and frequently peruses these old magazines, though he usually claims it’s for the articles, not the porn. Yeah, right. I, on the other hand, purge my Discover and paper crafting magazines annually because I’ve learned that I won’t go back through them. But then, I’m not passionately in love with my paper craft tools, either. They are cool and all, and I am very happy to have them, but I don’t stroke them lovingly, talk to them, or dry them with a diaper when they get wet.

George also has numerous valuable brain bytes dedicated to remembering which article appeared in a 1990 copy of Velo News or a tidbit of training advice from a 2001 copy of Triathlon Magazine. How does he remember these things? I had a hard time remembering that I was supposed to make pumpkin-scented play-dough for the preschool this month. I certainly don’t remember a particular card I saw in a 2004 issue of Rubber Stamper Magazine. Sure, it’s buried in my subconscious somewhere, but it’s refusing to be exhumed by conscious thought, which is fine with me.

I’m convinced it’s the porn. Bike porn sears itself on some very conscious and very primitive part of my husband’s brain, making this sort of information recall possible. When George opens a bike porn magazine to a particularly sexy bike advertisement, he shows it to me and says, in a deeper voice than usual, “Isn’t she beeeauutifulllll?” He’s not referring to some scantily clad model, such as you might see leaning provocatively over a car in a car magazine. “She” refers to the bike.

There’s a lot of bike porn on the internet, too. George’s computer is in the dining room, and my computer is around the corner in the kitchen. So when he’s trolling Slowtwitch (a triathlon forum) for bike porn, he’ll call me into the dining room. “You’ve got to SEE this!” The awe in his voice always hooks me, and I get up from reading paper-craft blogs or posting on Splitcoast (a rubber-stamping forum) or writing—you know, things that actually interest me—and go check out the bike porn. I pat his shoulder and tell him, “She’s beautiful, honey.”

I want to support him, honestly, I do. I wish I could share his enthusiasm, but it’s a bike, for heaven’s sake. Two wheels, some gears, a seat, handlebars, a frame…what’s so sexy about that? My own bike languishes pathetically in the basement, disabled by a broken chain, flat tires and neglect. She’s envious of his Cannondale, who sits perkily on a $250-trainer but feels sorry for herself because she’s George’s bad-weather bike and never gets to go out on the open road anymore.

George keeps the rest of his “harem” in the garage now, but that’s only because I put my foot down. He’d be happier if his girls were in a climate-controlled location like the living room. He also used to buy Yakima bike racks for the tops of our cars to transport the girls. He even dressed them in bike bikinis to protect them from bugs that might splat onto them and mar their good looks.

That was before carbon fiber. His girls used to be made out of sturdy steel or aluminum, but due to the irresistible allure of carbon-fiber bike porn, several aluminum girls (except the Cannondale and a Cervelo) got dumped and now he has two light-weight carbon-fiber girls (another Cervelo and a Kuota). Carbon fiber is really strong yet vulnerable to breakage and largely unfixable if damaged. This makes no sense to me—how can something be strong and yet easily damaged at the same time? And why does carbon fiber cost so much? I gave up trying to understand it all a long time ago. I do know that George would rather put our children on top of the car than one of his carbon-fiber girls. One thrown rock hitting that carbon fiber would be disastrous.

I’ve toyed with the idea of staging an intervention to get rid of all bike porn that’s more than a decade old, but what’s the point? As vices go, bike porn is pretty harmless even if it is weird. And if I let him buy all he wants, I don’t have to justify my own magazine purchases or my rubber-stamp addiction. Always look on the bright side, I say.

Besides, let’s face it. I can’t fulfill the same needs as the girls in his harem. The girls roll; I walk. The girls like the open road; I like my craft room. Their accessories are expensive and sometimes even have software; mine are as cheap as possible because I’d rather spend the money on rubber stamps. The girls stick with him on the 112 miles of the bike course at an Ironman race; I cheer him on comfortably sweat-free at transitions and the finish.

The girls cost thousands of dollars; I, however, am priceless. This makes me first wife in the harem, and as long as the girls don’t get in my way, they can stay.

Lately, however, I’ve been seeing a lot of titanium-bike porn and folding-bike porn, and I think George is trying to tell me something. Will this craziness ever end?

Please don’t answer that.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"What Should I Read?"

I fantasize about people asking me this question because I’m a seriously educated reader and would never dream of hiding my light under a bushel so I make darn sure everyone who meets me knows this. But no one ever asks. People seem intimidated when they find out I have a master’s degree in English and want to change the subject fast, but only after telling me how much they HATED taking freshman composition and Introduction to World Literature.


Unfortunately, normal people should be nervous about asking people with advanced degrees what to read, because people with advanced degrees are almost always mentally unbalanced. They often specialize in subjects that most people don’t care a fig about, and by “specialize,” I really mean “obsess.” If your obsession leads you to a career as something useful like a neurosurgeon, people respect you for it because you can save lives and make good money doing it. But what if your obsession doesn’t pay well and never saved a life? What if most people think it is a total waste of your time, effort, and energy?

Welcome to my world. I’m obsessed with almost anything written in the Middle Ages (c. 410-1475). I have a huge bookshelf full of medieval literature. This makes me very happy, but normal people usually avoid medieval literature unless forced to read it by a teacher who, they are convinced, wants them to suffer.

It’s lonely being me sometimes.

How did medieval literature become my obsession? I wanted to be a sophisticated reader and knew that sophisticated readers read books written by dead people like Shakespeare and Homer and Hemingway. That’s what schools teach you in 9th grade, which was when I decided my reading should become sophisticated. I was a budding intellectual snob, and my English teachers encouraged me shamelessly. Furthermore, I was a goody-two-shoes who did my homework without being asked, kept a dime between my knees on the rare occasions I had dates, and always told the truth. Just call me Sandra Dee. All that repression was bound to come out somehow.

In eleventh grade, it happened. I discovered that sophisticated literature could be naughty. We read The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. My favorite was "The Miller’s Tale," a bawdy story about adultery and very literal ass-kissing that actually makes pubic hair the punchline of a joke. I quickly decided I wanted to be a medievalist so I could read more naughty literature and feel sophisticated while doing it. So to speak. This is how we goody-two-shoes rebel; we become geeks.

In college, I majored in English and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The Renaissance was certainly fun—it had Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth the First and Leonardo da Vinci, after all. But for true rollicking bawdiness and sheer strangeness, you can’t beat the Middle Ages. This was the age of faith and the heyday of the Catholic Church. The Middle Ages had the Inquisition, philosophical debates over how many angels fit on the head of a pin, and trial by ordeal (where God settled your guilt or innocence in bizarrely sadistic ways). All that religion ironically highlighted the earthier aspects of human existence. I soaked it all in—the good, the bad, and the just plain weird—like an alcoholic on a bender and kept looking for more.

While doing research for a very serious medieval history class my sophomore year, I stumbled across a book on the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery done in the eleventh century to illustrate William the Bastard’s conquest of England in 1066. It was almost certainly commissioned by Bishop Odo and hung in his cathedral at Bayeux for hundreds of years. In the lower margin of the embroidery, which measures an impressive 20 inches tall by 230 feet long, there is a little vignette which shows a naked man with a huge, um, part reaching out to a naked woman. Honestly, what is not to love about this fabulously graphic juxtaposition of headless, blood-dripping corpses and laughably comic lust? It's just so...medieval.

In graduate school, amidst my more serious papers on Beowulf, Quaker rhetoric, and feminism, I gave a very entertaining presentation on a piece of medieval pornography called The Romance of the Rose, a French poem about a lover who spends a lot of time figuring out how to pluck a woman named Rose. The presentation was a hit with my professor and fellow grad students, especially because I included medieval illustrations of the lover plucking his Rose in a canopied bed.

Like all normal, healthy people, English professors and graduate students are obsessed with sex; we’re human and hardwired for it by Mother Nature. Unlike normal, healthy people, however, English professors and graduate students dress up their interest in highly opaque jargon and tweed jackets. Sex is much more sophisticated and intellectual when it is dressed up this way.

We tweedy geeks instantly fall in love with almost any piece of literature that has been banned anywhere for any reason. Lots of medieval literature has been banned. I wrote my thesis on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a frequent victim of banning even though she’s only a little bit bawdy. Mainly, she threatens uptight religious fundamentalists’ ideas about how women are the root cause of all evil and need to be kept in their place by men. Even Chaucer couldn’t keep the Wife of Bath in her place, and he wrote her. She takes on a vigorously independent life of her own and is openly contemptuous of men’s feeble attempts to control her. She’s a blast.

I could have written my thesis on something more spiritual, like the morality play Everyman. Trust me: no one, not even fundamentalists with book-burning tendencies, would ban Everyman. It’s a complete buzz kill—beautiful, yes, but definitely a buzz kill. The Wife of Bath joins the Canterbury pilgrims on her quest for a sixth husband just so she can be the boss of him and keep him in his proper place, which is in her bed. Doesn’t that sound more interesting than a play in which Everyman says goodbye to Worldly Goods and his five Wits because only Good Deeds will go with him to the grave? I certainly thought so, and because I discussed the Wife of Bath with appropriately serious jargon and proper footnotes, so did every single member of my thesis committee.

Which leads me back to my original point, from which I have badly strayed. If you were to ask me what you should read, my answer might surprise you.

It’s this. Read whatever you want.

That’s what I do. I read great literature of both the bawdy kind and not-bawdy kind because I’m mental unbalanced, but I also read historical fiction, murder mysteries, science fiction, chick lit, and Harry Potter with equal enthusiasm. You’ll even find a variety of nonfiction on my overflowing bookshelves. Technically, I am a “master” reader who could work a room at a Modern Language Association Conference if I had to, but what sophisticated reading taught me is that reading should be…fun.

Right now my mother is thanking the scholarship and financial aid gods that she didn’t pay much for my very expensive college education.

I will leave you with a few wise words from an exceedingly sophisticated source. Professor Lee Patterson, a top-notch medievalist, once asked his class, “Why do we read literature?” When someone offered up the standard answer (“Because it makes us better people”), he said, “I know plenty of people who’ve read great books their whole lives, and some of them are real assholes. The honest reason we read these books is because they are fun.”

Amen, Brother Patterson. Amen.