Monday, August 25, 2008

Exit Strategy

Oh, we were so close to having a perfect family vacation in Colorado....Our room on the road was great, my Priceline find in Colorado Springs was flawless, and, as we drove north to Estes Park, I felt confident the rest of the trip would be a breeze.

But just two hours before check in at our paradise by the river in downtown Estes, the owner, Mavis, called with news, “My water heater overflowed and there are two dehumidifiers in the house. I just wanted to let you know before you got here.”

Good thing she called first because, had she not, I would have walked in and assumed the government scientists from "E.T." had taken over...there were two big, whirring machines blocking the kitchen and bathroom and hoses strung nearly all over the house, including the kitchen sink and tub. Mavis assured me that everything would be fine, in fact the last family to stay there had a great time. Although, they were Hurricane Katrina survivors. Not kidding.

So I settled into bed the first night there. Well, first I removed the remote control from between the sheets where Mavis had, undoubtedly, left it after washing and changing the bedding. Then I got up and shut off all the flood cleanup equipment. Then I settled in. As best as I could without touching anything.

For the next two days the six of us tried to ignore the large industrial blowers. But that inner voice Oprah always talks about told me something was wrong.

As always, Oprah was right.

On the third morning we were greeted by Mavis’s clean-up crew who, I had hoped, was there to remove the equipment while Dave took Luke fly fishing and I took the girls horseback riding (a whole other story I plan to title “Raw Hide”).

When I hobbled back in after an hour on the horse, I found the workers hadn’t removed the fans after all. But they HAD removed the entire kitchen floor and replaced parts of it with biohazard plastic and tape to keep the mold spores they’d found from becoming airborne. Seriously.

So I did what any other concerned suburban mom would do, I headed up and moved us out. Hee-yah!

Dave returned from fishing with Luke to find our bags packed and reservations already paid for at a cabin across the street. Surprisingly, he was not at all surprised.

When I asked him why he was taking the sudden move so well, he reminded me of the very first hotel experience we ever shared in Colorado, after just seven months of marriage:

We were broke and trying to attend a friend’s wedding in Denver as cheaply as possible. We checked into a dive hotel about an hour before the wedding, smelly from a day of travel, when Dave realized he had forgotten his dress shirt and left for the nearest mall, which was supposedly out the parking lot and south about one mile. After he left, I headed to the shower. But when I pulled back the shower curtain, I found the tub was covered in mildew, the drain surrounded by hair, and, I swear, a dead cockroach was being carried away by a colony of red ants.

Obviously that wasn’t going to work for me for reasons previously mentioned. So I packed all our stuff, donned Dave’s beat-up camo-green jacket and a hat, grabbed the fancy wedding gift, and checked out.

I waited on the hotel steps like a vagabond about 5 minutes before growing self-conscious. So I loaded up, walked out of the parking lot, and turned south, thinking surely I could hit the mall, or at least flag down Dave before he got back to the hotel. Mind you, this was a few years before cell phones hit the free world.

After what seemed like two miles dressed like a homeless person, carrying a duffle bag, a backpack, a garment bag, and a wedding gift, I waved down a police officer for help. As I explained my situation, Officer silently put my belongings in his trunk and told me to get in the car, specifically the back seat. I urged him to swing back around so I could find my husband and get to the wedding on time. He muttered something in his CB about a woman (poor thing was wandering the streets of suburban Denver), and did a quick U-turn. Within seconds I spotted poor, uninformed Dave and squealed with delight to Officer. He flipped on the lights and siren and did another U-turn in hot pursuit of my husband.

I saw Dave look back with panic as Officer motioned for him to pull over, then shake his head after spying me in his rearview mirror.

We all pulled over, and I pulled the car door handle ready to leap into my husband’s arms, but the door was locked. Officer got out instead and removed our things from the trunk while I sat in the back seat of the police car and listened.

“Sir, I found your wife walking southbound on this street. She claims she was looking for you?” Officer was puzzled. Dave was not.

“That sounds like something she would do,” he said.

Officer unlocked my door and let me out. Dave opened his door and let me in, and we enjoyed the rest of the weekend at a Marriott in Cherry Creek.

Yes, we made it to the wedding on time. No, there was no charge at the first hotel.

And, yes, Mavis has offered us a refund.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Days of Yore (from July 2008)

We’re getting ready for the mind-numbing drive across Kansas to explore the beautiful Rocky Mountains. We’ve got books, CD’s, Leapsters, portable DVD players, and Mad Libs for entertainment. We’ve got Rice Krispie treats, Twizzlers, and a canister of nuts for snacking. We have a gas-powered minivan to drive on a well-paved highway, courtesy of Bob Dole. We know we will rest our heads on pillows and beds in climate-controlled rooms with running water and can hit Target for anything we’ve forgotten to pack.

Every time we prepare to head west over the Flint Hills and across the nothingness that is western Kansas, I think about the Ingalls family and their fellow pioneers who traveled by wagon to settle in little houses on the prairie.

How in the heck did they do that?

What kind of stock were they made of to hop off their trans-Atlantic cruise ships and travel from the comforts of the East Coast though the Appalachian Mountains, the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi River, and the ride across Kansas in a horse-drawn wagon filled with kids, dried beans, and cornmeal? And what kind of whack jobs did all of that, only to hit Denver, and decide to see what might be on the other side of the monstrous terrain out yonder? I would have been done just west of Limon. Oh, who am I kidding…I’d still be in Ireland praying for an end to the famine.

I shared this awe and wonder with my dear friend’s girlfriend, Susan, an advertising professional and single mom of five fantastic teenagers. She and I agreed that the pioneer way of life is something few, if any, Americans could handle now. The closest I’ve come to pioneer living was listening to Frankie Lane sing “Rawhide” all the way out to our family’s only camping trip, where we sat in the minivan and watched my dad set up the tent in the rain, only to have one of my brothers pee in it that night. Susan, however, has embraced pioneer living to an extraordinary length.

Susan is one of my favorite mothers, and here is why: Every summer, she shut off the water and electricity and led her children in what she calls “Pioneer Week”. For an entire week, Susan and her five kids led the pioneer way of life without leaving their home in Phoenix, living by the pioneer motto, “Use it up. Wear it out. Make do. Do without.”

The kids were given one change of clothes. They bathed in a washtub by the fireplace in water they “fetched” out of the hose out back, and yes, they took turns bathing in the tub using the same water. Susan had a meager supply of dried goods. To simulate hunting for food, the children had to chase their mother around the yard while she dangled pieces of meat in front of them. Food, whether it was cornmeal cakes or vegetables from the garden, was cooked over a fire. They lived one week every summer (with no A/C in sweltering Phoenix!) confined to a 14 x 20 foot area Susan had taped off in the house, an area the exact size of Laura Ingalls’s family home on the prairie, or outside playing in the sun. They slept there, all six of them, together. They dug their own outdoor plumbing. They were assigned chores to do each day. They learned to live humbly, the pioneer way.

After hearing Susan talk about the success of Pioneer Week in all of its simplistic, romantic glory, I tried to envision how that would fly with our Guitar Hero junkies – and their mom. But I soon remembered the time last winter when our power went out for a few hours one afternoon while I was home with the kids. Coincidentally, Amelia and I had been reading the Little House series book, The Long Winter, that month. So I gathered all the kids around, seizing the opportunity for a quiet, peaceful afternoon and we read about the Ingalls family’s first winter in the Dakota Territory.

Winter lasted seven months that year. The Ingalls family had moved into Pa’s 2-room office building in the budding downtown after the first winter storm, as their claim shanty wasn’t strong enough to withstand the wind and snow. There were blizzards every one or two days. The train hadn’t been able to deliver any supplies since November. By the end of winter, they were surviving on a couple slices of toast and one small potato apiece each day. They spent their days sitting by the stove to keep warm or twisting hay into kindling in the lean-to out back to keep the fire going, as the town’s coal supply was gone. And did I mention Mary, the oldest daughter, was blind? Laura was about 12, Carrie was 7, Grace was around 2. The entire town was in grave danger of starving, there was little to no contact with neighbors, and there wasn’t anything new brought into the house for nearly six months, no new toys, books, newspapers, magazines…

As my children sat wide-eyed with wonder, I began to think maybe they were grasping how easy they have it with warm beds, plentiful food, and TiVo. And then they spoke.

“Why didn’t they just walk to the grocery store?”

“Why didn’t they just move somewhere warm…like North Carolina?”

“(sigh) This is a boring story. Can we watch TV yet?”

Obviously my crew was not ready for “Pioneer Week”. (Truth be told, I’m not either. I know my limits.) But I will think about the pioneers, as I always do, when we cruise along I-70 in the air conditioning, covering 620 miles in just 9 hours. And, as we head ‘em up and move ‘em out, I will give thanks that a hot shower, Heavenly Mattress, and full breakfast buffet are waitin’ at the end of my ride.

Tribute To Ellie

I figured summer was ending soon when Luke got sponsored for his 25th time, officially becoming a true Guitar Hero. Caroline has worn her crayons down to stubs and Amelia has memorized every episode of iCarly. Ellie has nearly finished digging a large hole she plans to use as a tornado shelter in the empty lot behind us, and I’ve almost filled in the tan line from my new swimsuit. Yes, it’s been a pretty productive summer at our house. And now a new chapter of our lives is about to begin.

Tomorrow I will send my baby to Kindergarten. My eleven-year career as a stay-at-home mom to children too young to go to school, where I excelled at leading sing-a-longs in the drive-thru lane and herding cats through the Target parking lot, will officially end. No one will be home with me during the week to ask me for a drink or a snack….or a ball of twine, a blowtorch, and fingernail polish for “a project”. My house, for 7 hours, 180 days each year, will be quiet. Folks, there is a God.

But the tear I (may or may not) shed as Caroline marches through the Kindergarten doors to her unsuspecting teacher won’t be the only one to roll down my cheek. For I will also watch my oldest baby, Ellie, walk into school as a 6th-grader. (I’ll also watch my 2nd and 4th graders make their way into the building, but let’s be honest. Those really aren’t milestones. I’ve had those before, and they’ve lost their novelty. No offense, Luke and Amelia.)

Remember 6th grade? Being the big kid on the elementary school campus? Kindergarteners were puny. Fifth-graders were wanna-be’s. Reagan was president.

The 6th-graders ride the wave of privilege that comes with age all year long. They are the leaders of the school, the most senior members of the student body. Today’s 6th-graders know how to burn their own CD’s, can identify each Jonas Brother, and learn about Reagan during history lessons. Some even carry cell phones. And now I’ve got one of those --- though without the cell phone, MUCH to her dismay.

How she got to this point is a mystery to me. I remember her first day of Kindergarten. Amelia was 3, Luke was 1, Caroline was in the works, and I spent the whole day curled up on Ellie’s bed clutching her teddy bear. She fell asleep on the way home from school that afternoon; turned out it had been an exhausting day for both of us.

Since then she’s made Science Fair, Parent-Teacher Conference, and School Carnival part of our annual vocabulary. She gave an Oscar-worthy presentation on the Chinook Indians a couple years ago. She created a slide show using PowerPoint and had the good sense to store it on a jump drive (whatever that is) right before our computer crashed last spring.

She says she is too old for dresses and loves her new haircut with layers and bangs. She suckered my mom into buying her mascara and Dave and I into buying her a stand-up bass. And she can’t wait to learn to play it, even though it’s twice as big as she is.

We've taught her about the birds and the bees, Santa Claus, and the fine are of TP-ing --- in that order. She’s taught us patience and love and got us hooked on American Idol.

And now she’s about to step into the world of 6th grade. I’m just not sure how she got to be this old, considering I’ve hardly aged. I realize there is much, much more to come, and I look forward to it all. But for now I will simply watch in awe as Ellie, like she has done her whole life, blazes this new path for our family. I know she has all the tools she needs to do it well. I just hope I do too.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bringing (Beach) Sexy Back

Apparently Victoria’s Secret sells a Brazilian bikini, I assume to complement one’s Brazilian wax. How I know this is part of a long story that ends with me accepting the fact that I’m gonna need a lot more than an intimate wax job to pull off a string bikini.

My trusty ol’ tankini had been showing signs of age for some time. I suppose I had too, which is why this summer I decided to invest in a new swimsuit. I needed one that would show the world thirtysomething really is the new twentysomething and, unlike my current one, keep me from inadvertently exposing my top half upon emerging from churning waters (my apologies to anyone I may have offended/confused/horrified in Wrightsville Beach last summer).

My first and only trip to the mall did not go well. I gave my children (yes, they came too) strict instructions not to bring me any suit unless it was tighter than sausage casing on the bottom and padded like a Tempurpedic mattress on top. They took their mission very seriously. In less than 10 minutes my four kids had felt up the cups of every suit on every rack, shouting “Are these big enough, Mom?” from all corners of the sales floor. As stealth as they tried to be, I sensed from the glaring looks on my fellow shoppers that a quick exit was in order. We left empty-handed, though well before security closed in.

I returned home defeated but soon found assurance I would never have to shop for a swimsuit in public again. For waiting for me in my mailbox was the Victoria’s Secret Swimsuit Catalog.

And Vickie was offering a Miracle – a Miracle Suit, that is. One that would push, pull, or drag my anatomy back to its starting point using any Miratex, Ipex, or industrial-grade underwire necessary. One that would seamlessly conceal all evidence of my body’s stint as host to 36 pounds of humans and create an illusion greater than anything Doug Henning could even dream of: Cleavage. Making twin hills and a valley out of dried up flatlands.

But the best part of all was that this Miracle would be delivered to my door, where I could try it on in the privacy of my own gently-lit bathroom. No more scouring the racks only to stand barely-clad and whimpering in front of the fitting room mirror for me. In fact, with Victoria, I could confidently and without fear order any swimsuit I liked, all I had to do was look at the pictures to see what these things look like on everyday, average women.

I immediately got to work, studying each swimsuit, weighing every feature. But even after two semesters of college physics, I still couldn’t figure out how these things were going to work their magic on me. Did I need moderate coverage or a mid-rise scoop? Was the removable wireless push-up padding going to help me pass myself off as a B-cup or did I need the underwire with secured gel-packs to make that dream come true? Am I really ready for fringes and rhinestones or should I push it no further than paisley print? Retro, modern, Greek? Bi-kini, mono-kini, mar-tini?

Overwhelmed, I consulted with my husband. He seemed to show great interest in my search, in fact he couldn’t put the catalog down. “How about these?” he suggested, pointing to one swimsuit with two flotation devices busting out of the top. “What? Where are you going? She looks really happy in that one!” he called after me as I snatched my catalog back and headed to the next room.

After days of searching, envisioning -- and furiously doing crunches -- I finally ordered a few pieces; each promised to push up and hold in all that tried to slide south. Victoria had me convinced that 2008 was to be my summer of “beach sexy”; all I had to provide was a sultry smile, a setting sun, and a credit card number.

Five business days later the FedEx man was at the door with my Miracle and prophetic words, “Good luck ma’am!”

That night after dinner (which I hardly touched), when everyone was well-occupied with Guitar Hero, I snuck upstairs to my room, locked the door behind me, and carefully pulled out each piece as if it were the Shroud of Turin. Only these pieces were waterproof, brightly colored, and in no way bore the image of the face of Jesus. But I prayed over them, all the same. Then I slipped into the closet to change and strutted out to the mirror fully expecting to find a “beach sexy” Julie staring back.

Oh, but the Julie in the mirror looked nothing like the models in the catalog! I grabbed the page I’d marked thinking I must have done something wrong but found I had the thing looped, lifted, and tied just like the lady in the picture. Unlike her, though, I was grossly distorting the tiny floral design on the fabric with my assets large and small.

“How could this be happening?” I asked myself out loud through my quivering bottom lip. I tried sucking in my breath even harder, arching my back, striking pose after pose, but nothing worked. I took a closer look at the picture and had a revelation. “Wait a minute," I calculated, "it’s gonna take three trips to the plastic surgeon and a diet of wheat grass and tapeworms to look like that!" I trudged out of the bathroom and flopped down on my bed. Victoria has a secret, alright, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got it figured out.

***Editor’s Note: Last week Julie found a non-offensive “beach cute” suit at Dick’s Sporting Goods and wants to pass along Dick’s now has all suits 50% off. She also cautions that the swimsuit fitting rooms are located dangerously close to the gun and ammo counter and recommends popping that Prozac before you go.

Endurance: There Is No Crying In Training

I do try to let the Joneses be, but sometimes the urge to keep up with them gets the best of me. I knew a family once, a beautiful, intelligent, kind family, led by the dad who could remodel his own kitchen with a hammer, a tree, and a pocket full of granite and the mom who could run a marathon while breastfeeding the 2-year-old and never lose suction. Our beautiful, intelligent, kind little family calls repairmen to change lightbulbs and dreads even driving 26.2. They taught their youngest daughter to rollerblade and play street hockey at the age of 3; we taught our youngest daughter to sit, stay, and beg at 3 (actually, she learned that on her own).

But this summer I’ve turned to my own personal Joneses for inspiration, rather than self-deprecating envy, as I train our 5-year-old diva, Caroline, to walk an entire mile in preparation for an upcoming hiking trip in Colorado.

No, it’s not a kitchen remodel or a marathon. It’s much, much worse.

Our training regimen began not long after sunrise, at about 9:30 or 10. I rounded up my team of Ellie (11), Amelia (9), Luke (7), Caroline, and our impulse-purchase labradoodle named Mack for the first of our one-a-day workouts.

After pre-walk stretching and a brief, but moving pep talk, my team and I took to the pavement that first morning. We packed lightly for the 1.1, no water bottle, no energy gel. We didn’t want anything weighing us down on our first time trial.

The first 50 feet or so were pretty rough. The sun came blazing out from behind our house as we emerged from the garage, nearly blinding my vampire children.

“I’m hot, and that sun is too bright!” declared the diva, right out of the gate as we crossed the street.
I tried a little distraction.

“Caroline, what kinds of things do you think we’ll see in Colorado?”

“Ugh! I can’t make it!”

“Won’t the mountains be beautiful?”

“It’s too sunny out here!”

“Do you think we’ll see any elk?”

“Elk?!? Do they eat people?”

“Only little kids who whine too much.”

She gasped only slightly as she threw her chubby hands over her mouth.

While she weighed the probability of an elk zeroing in on her for a snack we steadily made our way down and then up a hill. So far the others were sticking with us, but I sensed they were eager to pull ahead.

“Can I bring my scooter next time?” Luke asked.

“Probably not,” I answered the lone boy.

“Why not?”

“Because these are training walks. We’re getting ready to hike in Colorado.”

“But I could go faster if I had my scooter,” he reasoned.

“True, but you won’t be able to take your scooter on a hike.”

“Why not?”

“Because there aren’t any good paths on the Rocky Mountains for scooters.”

“Why not?”

“Because the park rangers ran out of federal funding.”

Caroline chimed in, “yeah, and if you whine too much the ELK will EAT you.”

And that added wisdom got us all the way up the hill and part of the way back down to the main road. This is the point when Ellie realized she was about to turn left along a busy street - with her family. Ellie is going through this really cute phase where she doesn’t want any of her friends to know she has parents who live with her. She’d prefer they all believe she doesn’t even have parents and she lives on her own. We were about to blow her cover, so she asked if she could take the dog’s leash and motor ahead of us.

“I’ll go on ahead so Mack can walk faster and get more exercise,” she explained.

I nodded, making mental note to wear my “Ellie’s Mom” tank top on our next walk.

Caroline spoke again, “Mom, my tummy hurts now.”

I tried to explain the stomach cramping phenomenon with what little I retained from my biology degree the best I could as we made it down the hill and turned west onto the main road.

“…so the more we exercise, the less that happens,” I finished.

“Good…” she said. She had been listening after all! “…the sun is finally out of my eyes.”

We only had .6 more miles to go when Caroline and Luke began their simultaneous and independent litanies and Amelia ran to catch up with Ellie. I wanted to run away to Ellie too.

Caroline began, “Ugh! I’m still sweating!”

Luke followed, “Look at this giant stick!”

“My hair is sticking to my head!”

“Can I keep it?”

“My underwear (sigh) is sticking to my fanny!”

“Can we go to the pool today?”

“My legs are broken!”

“Can we have a lemonade stand today?”

“I have sweat in my eyes!”

“Can I have Spencer over today?”

“I’m running out of breath!”

“Can we make pizza for lunch today?”

“I’m hungry and I’m tired and I have an itchy spot in my armpit!”

She was hitting the wall hard, and I needed to intervene, so I pulled out highlights from the pep talk we’d had minutes earlier. I gave her my best material for nearly .2 miles, quoting all the greats from Lou Holtz to Mary Lou Retton. It seemed to work, as she did, indeed, quit crying for the love of the Almighty and sucked it up and kept walking.

Soon we were moving along the home stretch with Ellie, Amelia, and Luke jumping up and down all the way up the single step to our front door, cheering as the theme from “Rocky” resonated up and down our street.

Breathless and dripping with sweat, we burst into the house to check our time.

1.1 miles in exactly 45 minutes.

Forget about the Joneses, maybe we should look into horseback riding instead.