Friday, July 31, 2009

Words, Words, Words from a Golden Retriever

"To lead a good life, must have curiosity...even if sometimes the mystery in the bushes turns out to be skunk."

--Trixie Koontz, golden retriever and author of Life is Good: Lessons in Joyful Living

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Smell of Obsession

July is Tour de France Month in our house. The Tour de France lasts twenty-three days and involves several thousand miles of bicycling, mostly in France, by skinny dudes with really huge thighs.

I generally enjoy eavesdropping on the coverage, which is on the stupidly named Versus network. This year, however, the abundance of commercials for male enhancement and baldness products sort of put me off. Still, I never tire of Bob Roll saying “Tour DAY France” with a hick American twang for the 4,000th time, and I have been in love with Phil Liggett’s positively adorable English accent ever since he said that one competitor needed “to open his suitcase of courage.”

Have you ever noticed that Brits can say the oddest things and still sound so erudite?

Cycling, however, is just one third of George’s obsession: triathlon. Swim. Bike. Run. A shocking number of crazy people carry triathlon to its extreme and compete in Ironman races, which consist of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. In forty-six days, we’ll be in Madison, Wisconsin, and I will be cheering George to (hopefully) his third Ironman finish.

He is the crazy one. Not I. I’ll be on the sidelines happily hoarse from cheering for sweaty, exhausted racers stumbling across the finish line to the sound of "John/Jane Doe, you are an IRONMAN."

There’s a Starbucks half a block from the finish line. Heaven above, I love Madison.

Training for a 140.6-mile race takes, as you can imagine, a lot of work and time. It also takes a lot of gear and specialized clothing. Generally speaking, the gear doesn’t bother me, especially now that George keeps his bikes in the garage instead of the living room. And yes, I used the plural bikes because he has four.

I cope with the dozen or so recharging cords for various data-collection devices (heart rate monitors, GPS systems, and such) without losing my cool. George tells me, “It’s all about the data.” I get that.

I don’t freak when inner tubes and CO2 cartridges and empty sport gel wrappers and sweaty do-rags litter my dining room table.

I say nothing when I walk into the garage and find a $4,000 bicycle, stinking of lubricant, leaning against my car. I just breathe through my mouth and gently move the bike to lean against HIS car.

When I got sick of him draping his tri suits and jogging shorts over the bathroom door, I showed my support by hanging hooks in our bedroom. He uses the hooks…sometimes.

I also tolerate seventeen pairs of running shoes (yes, I counted) scattered around our bedroom, and when he tells me he needs a new pair of $160 running shoes, I say, “Order what you need.”

But I draw the line at the smell of neoprene in my bedroom.

Last year, at Ironman Wisconsin, George started the race in a wetsuit that looked like a badly butchered whale skin. Holes, repaired with rubber cement, marred the smooth neoprene. Next to the other racers, he looked a bit shabby. Okay, a lot shabby. I felt bad, especially since I’m the Minister of Finance in the Raihala Republic and had cut the budget for the new wetsuit purchase last year, asking him to eek out one more race in his old Orca wetsuit. I truly had no idea it was in such bad shape.

This year, we saved to replace the Orca, and he ordered a 2XU wetsuit on sale for $400. Woohoo! He opened the box while I was away from the house. When I returned, I kept getting whiffs of something stinky and wondered what child brought tar into my house and where on earth he'd found it. I finally realized it was the smell of a wetsuit and thought, “I just can’t take this!” But I held my peace. The man was excited with his new purchase, and I know how tragic it is to have someone rain on my own acquisitive party.

Later that night, George carried the wetsuit upstairs, and I said, “I don’t want that stinky thing in my bedroom.”

He replied, shocked, “But I love the smell of fresh neoprene! It smells like…racing.” Then, with a beatific expression on his face, he buried his nose in the wetsuit and sniffed. Loudly.

The wetsuit has been draped over the glider rocker in our bedroom for a week now. The stink is terrible. Fortunately, I now sleep in Jack’s bed (I read in bed while George falls asleep and then move…he snores), but I still don’t want that thing stinking up my bedroom. Problem is, I can’t decide where to put it.

Our closet is out of the question. My clothes will stink, and I’ll smell neoprene everywhere I go.

The basement currently resembles Berlin in 1945, and I KNOW George won’t allow his precious neoprene to descend into a chaos firmly under the dictatorship of a nine-year-old with a huge imagination and love of costume play. I can’t wrest back control of the dungeon until the budding theater major is back in school on August 25, which is 27 days away. But I'm not counting.

The only solution that makes sense is putting the wetsuit into a Rubbermaid storage bin. I could get one that slides under the bed, nice and safe and contained. Best of all, I might possibly be able to sell this idea to Mr. Obsession.

Or maybe he just wants me to lay the thing in the bed when I leave each night so he can cuddle it.

Nah. Even he’s not that crazy.

At least, I don’t think so.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gratitude Journal #7

Introducing my new nephew at about 20 weeks:

Today, I am grateful for my sister's pregnancy and that it has been healthy for her and for little Grady, who is due in November. What a wonderful blessing he is!

What are you grateful for?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Words, Words, Words: Pioneer Woman

"Always look on the bright side of life. Sometimes it's the only thing between you and the loony bin."
Pioneer Woman

I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Offensive to the Eye

Readers who know me personally know that high fashion isn’t, shall we say, my thing. I buy most of my clothes on sale after season from Land’s End, LL Bean, and Eddie Bauer, with the occasional visit to JC Penney thrown in to shake things up a bit. When I bother to read the fashion articles in Shape Magazine, I usually spit my mocha on the pages in shock at the prices. Does anyone really pay $1,200 for a skirt? Do you know how many rubber stamps $1,200 will buy? Seriously, where are people’s priorities?

But I digress.

As you can imagine, pajamas are not high on my list of priorities. Early in our marriage, I bought cheap and sexy nightwear, the purpose of which had little to do with sleep or comfort. Then, a few years before my first pregnancy, I purchased two inexpensive, silky nightgowns identical in every way except color: one was dark purple and the other dark green. These perfect, simple, slip-style nighties were slippery and allowed me to roll over in bed without taking covers with me: a critical trait in nightwear for a girl sleeping with a dude who regularly accuses her of being a blanket thief.

The gowns struck that perfect balance between sexy and comfortable, and the fake silk had powers of endurance real silk could never duplicate. They didn’t start showing signs of wear until about two years ago, when the green one developed a hole in one seam of the strap. I kept wearing it. What’s a little hole, anyway?

After all, the only people who see me in my nightgowns are my children, who do not care what I wear, and George, who has seen me naked in all states of non-pregnancy and pregnancy. He even saw parts of me I hope never to see myself when he carelessly glanced over the drape during my emergency C-section after the doctor started cutting. Ew.

When I recently reminded him of this, he said, “Huh. I don’t remember.” I’m not sure if I’m grateful or insulted that my guts are so forgettable.

Once you’ve had a baby, your body changes. If you haven’t gestated, perhaps you don’t know the gravitational consequences of incubating life. Ask your partner to kiss your perky breasts good-bye because post-incubation ta-tas will sag. There’s even a fun little song about this:

Do your boobs hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie them in a knot?
Can you tie them in a bow?

If you answered yes to these questions, you’re probably a mom.

My boobs now hang low, leaving me with the conclusion that trying to recapture my lost perkiness with sexy lingerie is a waste of good stamp money and also sort of pathetic.

In winter, my house contains a climate of frigidity that can best be described as arctic. My darling husband, a.k.a. The Finlander, delights in setting our thermostat at 64 degrees. You read that right. It’s not a typo. I really do mean SIXTY-FOUR DEGREES.

I’m breaking out in goosebumps just thinking about it.

Our friend PJ, upon hearing this little factoid of life in the Raihala household, looked George in the eye and said, “That’s inhuman!” He’s right. Finlanders aren’t human. They are really polar bears enchanted to look like humans.

This frigid atmosphere necessitates a certain level of creativity in the sleepwear department. Silky slips slide pleasingly under the covers but are not warm. Flannel jammies, on the other hand, keep a body warm but adhere to the sheets and make me feel trapped in my own bed. I have a couple of robes, but they have bulky sleeves that make it impossible to stamp while wearing them…and I stamp at night after everyone is in bed.

Whatever is a girl to do?

Layer, of course. My nighttime ensemble last winter consisted of a 12-year-old silky slip under mismatched fleece pajamas topped by a fleece jacket. Oh, let’s not forget the fuzzy pink slippers. The silky slip hung out from under the fleece top and jacket like a long peplum because, you know, tucking it would cause unsightly bulges. I would strip down to nothing but the slip right before crawling into bed and under eight layers of fleece blankets.

I wish I had a picture of this highly versatile ensemble. You, however, are grateful I do not.

One night, George eyed my hobo outfit and said, “That get-up is offensive to the eye.”

I replied, “Bite me.” After all, it's his fault my fingernails are purple all winter; he must accept the consequences.

But then I started thinking my approach to sleepwear probably was a bit, well, cheap and lazy. Perhaps, even though George has seen my forgettable guts and my unforgettable whale-like pregnant self, I should put a bit more effort into my appearance at night.

I delayed until summer, just to show George that he isn’t the boss of me, and then I did what every self-respecting stamper does who would rather buy stamps than clothes: I went to Target. I found a cute little two-piece knit pajama set—very soft and a bit slippery—and a summer-weight robe with no cuffs on the sleeves. The jammies are periwinkle blue and the robe is white, so they coordinate nicely. It’s not exactly sexy, with my boobs hanging low, but it is cute and coordinated and definitely not offensive to the eye.

This winter, I’m going to buy warm—and coordinated—fleece pajamas and a short silky chemise top. That way, I can strip down to the chemise just before crawling into the sheets but still be warm while doing my late-night stamping.

It’s the least I can do to avoid offending my husband’s eye.

The very least.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gratitude Journal #6

Today I am grateful for this, the 72nd post, and the one-year anniversary of Questioning my Intelligence. Yay, me! If you've not read how it all started, click here. But please answer Monday's question first:

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Words, Words, Words from Mary Oliver

Last week, I received an email from my good friend Betsy Hall with a link to a poem by Mary Oliver which eloquently expresses our very human longing for connection in the world and our gratitude when we find it, however fleetingly.

If you feel so inclined, click the link, read the poem, and come back to the comments here to share your impression of Oliver's words.

The Place I Want to Get Back to
by Mary Oliver

What comes to my mind when I think of the peaceful connectedness of Oliver's poem is feeling my babies move inside me. I don't literally want to go back to that place (yikes!), but the memory of my babies moving definitely takes me to that house called Gratitude.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reader’s Digest, Socrates, and the Meaning of Michelangelo’s Stumps

While staying at my mom’s house for my grandmother’s funeral, I picked up a Reader’s Digest and found an article titled “The Story of Your Life” by Joe Kita. Kita explores the value of writing a memoir for the average, um, Joe. According to Kita, you don’t need to have accomplished anything particularly dramatic in life or have skeletons in your closet to write a memoir. Telling your own story helps you gain perspective, see connections, and understand your life in new and often helpful ways. Life is complicated and messy, and writing memoir helps a person organize the mess and make sense of it. Kita quotes Stephen King, who said, “I write to find out what I think.”

I’m sure you see the relevance of Kita’s article to what you’re reading right now. Tad obvious, isn’t it? Questioning my Intelligence, indeed. If you haven’t read my very first blog essay, here’s a snippet from it that illustrates my point:

Having an MA in English predisposes a person to appreciate pithy aphorisms, so my quest to find myself will begin with guidance from Lord Acton, who wrote this little gem:

"Learn as much by writing as by reading."

I’ve read plenty, so now it’s time to write my way out of this existential crisis, to bridge the gap between the competent, educated woman formerly known as Susan Raihala and this Mommy person who wipes bottoms that aren’t her own and says things like “Because I said so!” and “Hands out of pants!” daily.

Welcome to my blog.

By the way, I wrote these words a year ago and still say “hands out of pants” daily.


This random Reader’s Digest article encouraged me in writing this blog, and it certainly helped me write my grandmother’s eulogy. Grandma’s life story was not dramatic or flashy, and she had no dirty skeletons in her closets. She kept a very tidy house full of laughter.

After the funeral service, my young niece, looking quite shocked, told me, “Aunt Susan, you’re bad!” I asked her what she meant, and she replied, “You made people laugh at a funeral.” Oh, the horror! When I was her age, I’d probably have thought the same thing: funerals are serious, sad events, aren’t they? Levity has no place, does it?

I explained to my niece how important it was for everyone to remember the funny stuff about Grandma, before the osteoporosis crippled her. We needed to revisit those happy memories as we said goodbye. Yes, I made people laugh at a funeral. And they were comforted.

My niece, however, seemed unconvinced. Perhaps I should give her a subscription to Reader’s Digest for Christmas so she can learn from its regular column “Laughter, the Best Medicine” just like I did when I was little and living in Grandma’s house.

Words are powerful things, for good and ill. They build up and tear down, motivate and destroy, comfort and lacerate, induce laughter and provoke tears. The words we use create and shape our reality, sometimes unpleasantly if we aren’t careful. Early in my adult life, I talked a lot about my depression and the pain and suffering that went with it. Gradually, as my brain chemistry sorted itself out, I stopped needing to talk about the bad stuff. I got the words out, and they did me the courtesy of going away.

Sort of. During that time, I kept journals. I only wrote in them when I was depressed or angry or frustrated—emotional and in the moment. Anyone who reads them now would think I was a horrible train-wreck of a person because only the bad stuff got written. There was plenty of good stuff going on at the same time, but I didn’t need to make sense of it or to purge it. The bad stuff needed purging, so that’s what I wrote.

I still have these journals. I don’t want to read them again, which some people might say is cowardly. I know better. They are dangerous. As I reorganize my house over the next few weeks, I’m going to shred those journals. I don’t want anyone reading them and feeling hurt by my words. Especially me. It’s time to clean house.

Memoir is different from those journals, anyway. My old journals whine a tedious “woe is me” lament. Memoir, on the other hand, examines events from some distance and puts those events in perspective. Memoir turns memories into meaning. Reflection, perspective, and honesty are critical to this process. So is compassion—for oneself and for others. A healthy dose of humor also helps.

Most people think their lives aren’t worthy of memoir. Socrates—no ordinary man himself—said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Bit melodramatic, Socrates, but he had a good point. Ordinary lives, examined carefully, really do become extraordinary. Many of my essays take ordinary events and show how meaningful and rich they are. The essays take small things—Snuggle-Bunnies, for example, or a piece of Godiva chocolate—and fit them into the bigger scheme of life.

Writing—good writing, at least—isn’t about a great mind putting down great thoughts in great prose. Thank goodness because my mind is far from great! Good writing is about discovery and evolution. The best papers I wrote in college and graduate school started from ignorance, with a question I wanted to answer. I once wrote a twelve-page research paper because I wondered why there were so many tree stumps in Michelangelo’s art. I never answered the question of Michelangelo’s stumps in my paper; I just explored possible explanations for their presence. The professor liked the paper so much he advised me to turn it into a master’s thesis.

You don’t need answers to write interestingly about a topic; you just need questions and a curious mind. In fact, the best questions rarely have an answer. They have lots of answers.

Or no answer at all.

“Learn as much by writing as by reading,” Lord Acton said. He was right. Words—and how we use them—shape our attitude and our perceptions of the world. After a year of blogging my life and writing little mini-memoirs of my experiences, I’ve learned to move more confidently toward the positive, to at least try to see the humor in unpleasant situations, to take a bigger perspective so the little troubles don’t take over, to walk a little further down the road of forgiveness, to examine my life as the wonderful gift it is.

Thanks for joining me during this first year of questioning my intelligence. I’m having a blast and hope you are, too.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gratitude Journal #5

Today I am grateful for YOU, the readers of my random blathering. Thank you so much for taking time in your busy lives to click, read, and comment.

One lucky commenter from Friday's post has won a $20 gift card to Barnes and Noble. The winner is...


She wrote:

Having been raised in England my favorite books were by Enid Blyton. She did a series of "Famous Five" mysteries which I imaging were similar to the Nancy Drew series in the USA. I could read one of those books completely in a couple of hours - just loved them!!
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Twinkletoe, please email me your address so I can send you your prize!

And now to all of you: what are you grateful for today?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Words, Words, Words...and a Give-Away

In a bit of premature celebration of my one-year blog anniversary (July 20), we’re inaugurating a new Friday feature here at Questioning. Welcome to Words, Words, Words. We’re going to start each Friday with a few good words from a variety of sources (music lyrics, poems, movies, books, the Internet, and wherever else I find them).

Last night, Nick and I found this poetic gem in an old, old book he pulled off a shelf next to my bed. It’s one in a series of books for children published in the 1920s called Book Trails. Each volume is an anthology with stories, fables, poems, and lovely illustrations centered on a particular theme. These battered, yellowing volumes exude the nostalgic scent of eau de Carnegie Library (my favorite perfume) and contain random scribblings in crayon and pencil by my mother and aunt and perhaps even my own young self. Nick was enchanted with these books, and amazed that they once enchanted his grandmother, too.


I lost my big Geography
As I came home today.
I laid it down, I—can’t—think—where—
I stopped a bit to play.

It was a nice Geography,
The seas were colored in blue;
And there were bright green valleys
With rivers running through.

Australia’s there and Europe too,
And big old Africa;
But best and biggest map of all
Was our America.

And now my shoestring’s in a knot,
My hair is all uncurled;
I only played ten minutes but—
I’ve lost the whole big world!

Helen Coale Crew

Ms. Crew may not have had Shakespeare’s gift for words, words, words, but she captures the challenges and frustrations and perspective of childhood delightfully, don’t you think? I sure felt like I had lost the whole big world a few times!

Now for the give-away.

Share the title of a fondly remembered children’s book or poem from your own childhood in the comments for a random chance to win a $20 (US) gift card to Barnes and Noble. (If you live outside the United States and win, I will send you an electronic gift card for use at B&N dot com.)

For those who usually read the blog in their email, click on the link to the blog directly, scroll to the bottom of this post, and click Comment to enter.

Contest ends at 12:00 Sunday night, July 12, 2009. One entry per person, please.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Child Abuse

Me: You boys need to take baths tonight.

Nick [wailing]: Noooo! We took baths last night!

Jack: Do I have to take a bath tonight, mommy?

Me: Yes.

Jack: Oh, thank you mommy! I love you! [gives me big hug; the little suck-up]

Nick: Can I ask Dad if I have to take a bath?


Nick [to George in other room]: Do I have to take a bath tonight?

George: Yes.

Nick [wailing]: Nooooooo!

George: The horror! A bath!

Me: Yes, it’s child abuse.

Nick will grow up to write a Mommy and Daddy Dearest memoir of the horrors of being raised by loving parents who

1) do not allow him to eat candy for breakfast,

2) buy him new clothes of his choice each season and then force him to wear these new clothes he picked out himself so he doesn’t look like a hobo in public,

3) make him do his homework, feed the dog, and clean his room,

4) do not allow him put tape on furniture, walls, or bedding,

5) insist that he must throw away the packaging to all the toys he receives,

6) will not let him read T for Teen comic books because he’s not a teen yet,

7) make him play outside,

8) limit his computer time,

9) won’t buy him every toy he wants,

10) make him go to bed at 8:00 on school nights and 8:30 all other nights,

11) have made sure he will be the last kid on the street to get a Wii…if he gets one EVER, and

12) make him take a bath when he is dirty.

Yep. Call Child Protective Services right now. He is clearly being abused.

With your tongue planted firmly in cheek, please share how were you “abused” as a child, or how you “abuse” your own children in the comments. My dad made me and my sister pick up pinecones in our back yard on SATURDAY MORNINGS, when all kindly treated children were inside watching cartoons.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gratitude Journal #4

Today I am grateful for my furry friend Hoover. He turned 12 years old yesterday.

What are you grateful for today?

Edited to add: Due to my technical Picassa idiocy, the photo credit is incorrect. My sister, Lisa Dumont, took that photo in March. She is an amazing photographer...far better than I!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day

"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism." ~Erma Bombeck

I think the founding fathers would be pleased with Erma's take on the Fourth of July. They wanted freedom for themselves and their children, freedom to live, laugh, speak, worship, and think as they wished. Freedom from tyranny, from oppression, from fear, from government interference in daily life. I think the news recently shows us just how fortunate we in America are that the founders fought that fight for us. We must never forget the price they paid, and do what we can to help others know the sweet taste of these basic freedoms as well.

How truly wonderful that an entire nation celebrates its birth by eating, drinking, being a family, and relishing freedom. To all my readers in the United States, Happy Fourth of July!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Snuggle-Bunnies and Little Blessings

One rainy day when I was seven, my father took me for a ride in his pick-up truck through the Georgia countryside. He pulled off the road and, in very serious tones, informed me that he and Mom were getting a divorce. As I watched the heavy rain pushed aside by the windshield wiper blades, he explained that Mom, my sister, and I would move to Charlotte to live with my grandparents.

As I digested this news, it occurred to me that Dad expected me to be sad, and I squeezed out a few tears. Behind those tears, however, was an incandescently happy little girl.

It’s hard to be sad when you’re told that you are going to live with two of the nicest people you’ve ever known in your entire life, two people whom you have wrapped around your little finger, two people who cherish you so absolutely that you feel like you can say or do anything—even push your sister down the stairs—and they will still love you.

Yep, that’s just a tragic situation for a seven-year-old, don’t you think?

When we were settled in Grandma and Papa’s small three-bedroom ranch with a big back yard, I basked in the daily glow of the love of three fabulous adults. Life was good.

What makes life good for a child? It’s not money and prestige and fancy cars and their parents’ high-powered careers. It’s not luxury vacations, first-class seating, or fine dining. Life is good for children when they are loved and have someone to love in return. Life is good when they can take pleasure in little things, like a grandmother who makes play-dough for them and a grandfather who hands them a ball-point pen and lets them doodle all over his grease-stained work shirt because, after all, the shirt is going to the cleaners anyway.

Every night, after Lisa and I were tucked into bed by Mom and Grandma, Papa would walk into the dark room, cigarette glowing in his hand. He sat at the foot of one of our twin beds. He talked with us. I don’t remember a single word of our conversations, the subject matter, or whether he shared words of wisdom with us. Maybe he told jokes or asked questions about our day or told us stories. What he said was not really important. He was there. Every night.

I remember feeling safe, feeling that there was a strong, smart, sweet man who was there for me, dependable and true. I remember falling asleep with a whiff of cigarette smoke and Canadian Mist and Old Spice. I remember feeling loved.

When I had children of my own, I wanted to continue this bedtime tradition, which we christened Snuggle-Bunnies. Both our boys sleep in one queen-size bed, and George and I take turns every night lying on each side of the bed, talking, rubbing backs, tickling knees, and having conversations with stuffed animals. At the end of my time with each boy, I place my hand on his head and say, “The Lord bless you and keep you. Amen.”

Recently, I stumbled on a quotation that struck home with me. Keith J. Thomas said, "Unless we can do little things well we can never do big things. We must ennoble our little duties, and we shall find they grow into big achievements. Little acts of thoughtfulness, little kindnesses, little tendernesses, little charities make up the sum total of a large, generous and lovable mind."

My grandfather had a large, generous, and lovable mind, and he showed me the secret to love. It’s not the grand gesture, the huge vacation, the biggest present under the tree. Love is the little daily gift of time and attention, the dependability and thoughtfulness shown in little gestures, the reflection of God in the small things we do for those who need us.

Snuggle-Bunnies and little blessings make a big difference in children’s lives. After all, what is bigger than to teach someone how to love?

I invite you to share in the comments your version of Snuggle-Bunnies: whatever little thing that lets you know you are loved by someone or that lets others know you love them.