Life in the Desert

September 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm (Community, Faith, Kids, Politics) (, , , )

We celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary on Sunday, so that means it’s been 12 years since 9/11/01. There are lots of posts about 9/11 on my Facebook feed this morning, prayers for peace, and “I will never forget” badges and the like. Me, I’m going to be spending the day trying to get organized for the kindergarten party on Saturday, getting the Battle of the Books stuff done, and paying bills. I think that’s ok. Life goes on.

I was in Arizona over the weekend. It was 80 bazillion degrees the day we got there – the heat was so intense as soon as we got off the plane, it felt like being punched in the gut. The desert is beautiful, albeit not beautiful in the way my Wisconsin soul typically imagines beautiful. We climbed a mountain, a little one anyway, on Saturday morning. I took pictures of every cactus I saw, fascinated by their foreignness. On Saturday night it rained, just a little, and by Sunday morning, the brown and seemingly barren mountain was green. It had exploded with life in the space of 24 hours.

20130911-073232.jpg

I think we humans are the same way. Give us half a chance, and like the desert with that tiny bit of rain, we won’t just choose life, we’ll seize it. There are moments when life seems fragile, but paradoxically, it’s tenacious at the same time. We’re tenacious. We have to be.

So here we are, 12 years on, and our country is considering military action in Syria. I don’t have the answer. (Wouldn’t that be awesome if I did? Middle-aged suburban housewife solves Syria question. Sigh.) All I can tell you is what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to teach my children to do: Choose life. Choose peace. Grow.

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Baseball Blues

August 22, 2013 at 3:50 am (Community, Kids) (, , , )

Tom Hanks famously said “There’s no crying in baseball” in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not exactly true. It’s possibly a prepositional problem. There has been plenty of crying over baseball Chez Belfry today. There has been crying about baseball. There has been crying concerning baseball. Here’s what happened.

My eight-year-old son, the one who wakes up and reads about baseball in the newspaper every morning, the one who has spent all summer playing baseball, the one who goes to bed listening to baseball, the one who is absolutely convinced that he will be a Major League Baseball player when he grows up, ideally for the Brewers of course, tried out for a club-level team on Sunday. And today, after three of the longest days of my life, (“Mommy! Did you get an email yet? What about now? Can you check again?”) he gave up hope that he made the team. (Note to The Powers That Be – go ahead and send an email to the kids that don’t make the team too. Don’t just make them wait. Seriously. They’re eight. Henry said at dinner tonight, “well, maybe there’s still a chance?” It’s bordering on child cruelty, you guys.)

Baseball Boy

Baseball Boy

Henry, a pretty practical kid, asked me what his chances were the night before he tried out. “Well, you have no chance if you don’t try,” I said, copping out.

“But do you think I’ll make it?” he asked earnestly and seriously and thoughtfully, the way he asks all questions.

I looked into his sweet face. “I don’t know, Henry,” I said. “Of course you have a chance.” I paused, wondering how honest I should be. “But you’re not the fastest, or the hardest hitter.” His face fell. “Wait, listen. What you are is the hardest worker…the most determined…the stubbornest. I love that about you…but it might be hard for the coaches to see in an hour-long tryout.”

Well, they didn’t. And he didn’t. And I had to tell him.

I hated telling him he didn’t make it…because I wasn’t just telling him he didn’t make a baseball team. I was telling him that the world is a little less shiny than he thought. I was telling him life is hard, and sometimes you can want something with all of your heart and still not get it. I was telling him that I’m not actually magic – I can’t make all of his hurts go away with a kiss and a hug anymore. It’s a lesson we all learn eventually – I’m not sure I learned it at age eight, but Henry sure has.

I do have to tell you what happened next though, especially since I’ve written about Henry and sportsmanship before here. This morning after finding out his good buddy made the team and he didn’t, Henry swallowed hard and said, “Way to go Mason. Good job.” And you know what they did this afternoon? They played ball, the way they have all summer long, and the way they will for many summers to come, I hope.

But I’m sorry, sometimes there will be crying in baseball.

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The Lesson of Martha – take 2

July 21, 2013 at 5:48 pm (Faith) (, )

I had Children’s Liturgy of the Word today, and why that always happens the morning after a late night, I do not know. I was grateful though, because as I drank a few cups of coffee and looked over the readings for today, I had a new thought about today’s gospel story about Mary and Martha.

I’ve written about this story before. And I have a draft of another post about it too. So it’s obviously one that sticks with me. And if I’m totally honest, it has always kind of bugged me.

Luke 10:38-42
Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”

I’m such a Martha. I recently saw a sign somewhere, probably Pinterest, the source of all stress, that said “Good moms have sticky floors, messy kitchens, laundry piles, dirty ovens and happy kids.” I’m a terrible mom by that yardstick! I can’t abide a mess. Can’t we all be happy in a nice clean and tidy house? In fact wouldn’t we be happiER in one?

Anyway. The same goes for today’s gospel – I always find myself sympathizing with Martha. I’m certain that Martha made Jesus and Mary and the other guests more comfortable with her efforts. I’m sure that she fed them well and saw to their needs. You can just tell. And I’ve always felt like Jesus was saying in the story that Martha shouldn’t have done that stuff and should have sat and listened with Mary. But today I wondered if maybe I’ve been reading it wrong. I think Jesus rebuked Martha not for doing the serving, her job, but for not valuing it, for not recognizing her contributions.

Well, and maybe a little for being a whiner.

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Why I Am Still a Catholic

July 9, 2013 at 12:59 am (Faith, Kids, Politics) (, , )

It’s a question I get asked a fair amount. How can you stay in the Church, after the child abuse scandal? when they won’t ordain women? with their stance on homosexuality/health care/contraception?

I sometimes feel like I’m targeted in a special way since I’m a political liberal, and that’s supposed to make me above religion, or beyond it, or something.

I answer that question differently based on the questioner, the day, and maybe especially, my mood, but today my answer would for sure be “the personnel.”

I was sitting with my oldest child before her audition. She was calmly flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine, (and how do I have a child old enough to care about fashion magazines?) and I was freaking out. Not outwardly of course. Outwardly I was able to maintain some semblance of cool thanks to a miracle of multitasking, as I both looked at these shoes, that bag and especially this nail polish, and simultaneously offered up prayers to Saints Genesius, Vitus and Cecilia.

Genesius was a 4th century Roman actor who was performing in a play satirizing Christian baptism when he himself felt the truth of what he was mocking and converted on the spot. Unfortunately the emperor Diocletian was not amused and ordered his execution. Talk about a bad review. Ba dum bum.

Vitus was also executed by Diocletian as it turns out. He wasn’t a performer himself, but became known as the patron of dancers when a cult from the Middle Ages prayed by dancing before his statue. Rather more unfortunately, it also gave his name to a neurological disorder, but nobody’s perfect.

Cecilia is the patroness of music and musicians, also a martyr, and the most well-known of the three I expect. However, I didn’t know until just now that she wasn’t a musician herself, but rather she heard “heavenly music” in her heart. The dates aren’t right for that music to have been J.S. Bach, but whatever. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Anyway, I passed the fifteen minutes before my daughter went in for her audition, and the half an hour it took until it was over, saying a few prayers, researching who Saints Genesius, Vitus and Cecilia were, and writing this post. I texted my Jewish husband, asking him, “What do non-Catholics do in situations like this?” He ignored me, being well practiced in that art. But seriously, I was so grateful to have some company while I waited. And there is a saint for every situation and every occasion, always there for the asking. Before I knew it, she was done, it was over, and I had only sprouted two or three new grey hairs.

So you can keep your lonely religions, and your no religions. That’s totally fine by me, I promise! Me, I’m too much of a basketcase. I need at least a saint a day – look, today I needed three in the space of 45 minutes! So I’m a Catholic. Check in with me a different day and I’ll give you a different reason.

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The Vietnam War and Critical Thinking for Kids

June 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm (Kids, Politics, Uncategorized) (, , , )

Setting: The parking lot in front of a Vietnamese restaurant, with posters in the window advertising colorful mixed drinks.

Dramatis Personae:

Emma: Forty-ish mother of three. Possible commie; certified elitist, liberal
Riley: precocious ten-year-old. Reading obsessed.
Henry: precocious eight-year-old. Baseball obsessed.
Lucy: near silent five-year-old. Obsessions as yet undetermined.

Scene 1

Henry: Hey look! A new smoothie place!

Emma: No that’s the Vietnamese restaurant. I haven’t eaten there yet, but we should try it.

Henry: Vietnam! There was a war there that lasted for 19 years.

Riley: Yeah, we didn’t win.

Henry: What was it about?

Emma starts to answer, despite not having ever had a history class ever that made it all the way to the Vietnam War: Well…

Henry: OH!!! I know. Freedom!



Emma, recognizing that a smarter person might avoid these deep waters entirely, but dipping a toe in anyway: Can you explain that answer a little bit more?

Henry tacit

Riley, with the assist: Part of the country wanted a different form of government. Communism, I think. We went over there to stop it, but we didn’t.



Henry: Oh yeah! Communism is really bad.



Emma, clearly possessed by the spirit of Socrates: What’s communism?

Henry: It’s when the government can tell you what to do.



Emma: Can’t our government tell us what to do?

Henry: Yes, but it’s bad when they do.

Emma, wondering when her son became a Republican and going ahead and opening the can of worms: I don’t know about that Henry. But we were talking about communism. Listen. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who came up with the theory that communism was based on? They looked around and saw rich people with a lot and poor people with a little, and they thought it wasn’t fair.


Riley, Henry and Lucy: That ISN’T fair!



Emma, thrilled that the kids appear to be paying attention in church, and really getting rolling: Some people don’t think that the government should be in charge of distributing wealth, and they think that communism stifles ambition. And we can talk about that. But maybe another question is, why should one country get to decide what kind of of government another country has?

The thinking from the backseat is palpable.



Emma, en fuego now: Here’s the most important thing, you guys. Listen up. I can tell you to go to school. I can tell you to do your homework. I can tell you to practice your instruments.

Henry: we get it!

Emma, enjoying the soapbox: I can tell you to go to church. I can tell you to sit down for dinner. I can tell you to go to bed.

Henry: WE GET IT!

Emma: But I can’t tell you what to think. People will try and try and try to tell you what to think, but you have those good, big brains in those enormous heads for a reason. And you have to listen and learn and make up your own minds. It is just so super-duper important that you use your good brains to decide for yourself. I can’t even tell you what to think. I can share my opinion with you if you ask me, but you have to have to have to make up your own minds about things. So when you learn something in school, fine, you maybe have to put it on a test, but I want you to really think about it, and realize maybe it’s not the full story.

End Scene 1

I was thinking about this conversation on my way home from work the same day, and feeling bad that I don’t make things easier for my kids, when I had a revelation: that’s not my job. It isn’t my job to do the heavy lifting for them, unless we’re talking about actual, not metaphorical, heavy lifting, in which case it totally is my job, especially for the five-year-old. I want them to grow up to be critical thinkers, so it is in fact my job to challenge them. They can do the heavy lifting themselves.

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Porch Time

June 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm (Uncategorized)

This one is from deep, deep in the archives. Seriously, it’s twenty years old. And other than the fact that I am now one of those “matrons” rushing around, the horror! my opinion hasn’t changed in the slightest.

In summer, every neighborhood has one perfect porch, one place to which the whole flock of friends migrates. Perhaps it is the coolest, being conveniently shaded on three sides by artfully planted trees. Perhaps it is the most comfortable, boasting two easy chairs, a sofa, AND a hammock. Or perhaps it is the most central, the point where all the radii converge and no one is more than five minutes away. Most likely it is a combination thereof, with an indefinable x-factor thrown in to confuse the issue. It has something to do with whose porch it is, although one is never quite certain to whom the perfect porch belongs. Somewhere in the menagerie of sun-browned skin, sweaty limbs holding sweatier beer bottles, and plastic debris from a carton of flavor-ice popsicles, lurks a host or at least someone who answers the phone, but it is enough that the porch be provided, and questions of ownership are relatively unimportant, as are questions of aesthetics. Some of the most perfect porches I have known were much less appetizing than the Better Homes and Gardens model across the way, yet that one porch on the block always attracts a gathering of friends, no matter how homely it is.

Porch utopia has something to do with the way lazy talk, and lazier silence, float on the fan-made breeze; the way people drop by to say, “hi,” and six hours later bashfully shuffle down the steps, mockingly shouting to one another, “what a waste of a day/afternoon/evening,” all the while aware that they will be back tomorrow. This is no gathering of stiff-assed matrons who wait to be offered tea before politely declining and rushing off to the next destination on their list of things to do. This is summer in a college town, and none of us has anything better to do, or any place better to be, than the front porch.

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Teaching the Kids to Cuss

June 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm (Kids, Silliness) (, )

My ten-year-old had lice during Easter break. It was kind of funny actually, by which I mean not funny at all, but rather skin-crawlingly gross. But I did have to laugh when I described it to a friend as “biblical” and then went, “No seriously, it’s biblical! Lice was one of the plagues during the Passover.” So Riley’s timing continues to be impeccable.

Anyway, we had a good decade of kids before having lice in the house, so I feel like we had a pretty decent run. Riley found a louse right before bedtime on the Wednesday before Easter. Sam ran out to get stuff to deal with it. I’m pretty crunchy, but when he called from the store asking whether he should get a treatment with or without harsh chemicals, I yelled into the phone, “We’re going nuclear here, Sam!” I hate to toot my own horn, which is awkward for a blog-writer, but I quickly became a lice expert, and while I can’t guarantee my methodology for anyone else, it certainly worked for us.

This blog post wasn’t meant to be about lice, but in case you have to deal with it, here’s what I did. I used the nuclear-strength treatment, which annihilated all the living lice in her hair. This was the worst step by far, one. because it was really expletive disgusting combing dead bugs out of my child’s hair, and two, because the chemicals are really strong and they hurt her scalp and stung her eyes. Then I combed out all the eggs using a special lice comb and the crunchy organic non-chemical lice treatment. Then, and this was my own innovation, I flat-ironed her hair. I just thought, “What can it hurt? I’m going to try and fry those expletives.” The next morning, I went through with the comb and the crunchy stuff again, and then the flat-iron again, and by the next morning she was lice-free.

Ok, back to the regularly scheduled blog post. This whole process took a really long time, and since we started at bedtime, Riley was up really, really late that first night. She was weeping with exhaustion, but she’s such a good kid, she couldn’t help but see the humor in the situation. She’d cry a little, and then crack a joke, like “Oh, no big deal, my mom is just combing dead bugs out of my hair at 11 pm. Hair’s dead anyway, so she’s combing dead bugs out of my dead hair.” I was DYING, she was so funny. Come to think of it, I may have been a little slappy too, but I think I probably would have done what I did anyway, even if I hadn’t been. Poor Riley sat there in the bathroom, while I picked through her hair for nits, and she was so unhappy…I said to her, “Riley, this is why God invented swearing.”

“Mommy, God didn’t invent swearing.”

“Fine, this is why people invented swearing, and God invented people, so basically God invented swearing.” This is of course terrible logic, and will probably get me into horrible trouble later on with my steel-trap-mind of a daughter, but as I’ve said, it was late…and gross. “So which swear words do you know?”

Her brown eyes, squinty with tiredness, opened wide. “The “s” one?” she asked.

“Let it rip,” I said.

“SHIT!!!!!” she hollered, and fell apart giggling. “Oh my gosh Mommy, that felt amazing!”

And like that, my daughter learned a little more about the power of the spoken language, and the timing of a good four-letter word. So, you know, I’m teaching the important stuff over here.

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The Coach Gaveth, and the Mother Tooketh Away

June 12, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Community, Kids) (, , , )

I feel like the worst mother in the world. Henry got the game ball at his baseball game last night, and I made him give it back. But you know what? If I could rewind, I’d do it again.

Henry’s in his second year of playing Little League. Henry loves baseball like the Pope is Catholic. He reads the sports section over his breakfast in the morning, looking both like my husband and my father as he pores over statistics. He watches Brewers games on TV when we let him, and listens to them on the radio as he goes to bed. He has it all planned out – he’ll play baseball at Notre Dame and then in the minors and then in the majors. (I looked up the 2013-2014 tuition at Notre Dame when he told me that. Let’s just say we’re going to need that baseball scholarship money). I had this bedtime story I’d tell him of how the Yankees would want him, would pay any price for him, but he’d want to play for his hometown team, so he’d stay a Brewer. He liked that one, and so did I. He’ll play outside in the backyard with the neighbors for hours, and when they’re done, he’ll keep playing on his own, throwing up high balls and diving for them, pitching grounders and running to scoop them up. “Mommy/Daddy/Baba will you play catch with me?” is his incessant refrain from when the snow melts to when it flies again.

Henry got in trouble once this year at school for getting into it with a classmate on the playground. He was mortified when the recess monitor didn’t believe his account of what happened. His teacher was sympathetic, but banned him from playing team sports for a week or so, because he just “cared a little too much.” (Luckily for Henry, that week coincided with a bout of bad weather and indoor recess). He is uber-competitive, and he cares deeply about whatever game he’s playing, but especially baseball.

Henry plays for the Durham Bulls. It is a great group of kids, and a great group of parents, and a great group of coaches. They move the kids around quite a bit at this age so they get experience all over the diamond. Henry played the last two innings last night at first base. These kids don’t know what they do to us – I couldn’t sit still on the bleachers and wandered over to the fence next to first. I guess I’m glad I did, but I saw some things I didn’t want to see while I was there. A kid threw wide to him, Henry couldn’t grab it and he got visibly frustrated with his teammate. And then it happened again on a couple of plays he wasn’t involved in.

His team won, though really I shouldn’t even write that, because it doesn’t matter. Henry plays baseball because he loves it, yes, but also because his father and I believe that playing team sports can teach you important life lessons. You have to work together, because no man is an island. (Who’d a thunk John Donne was a baseball fan?) You have to work hard, because other people are depending on you. And you have to be a good sport, fercryinoutloud. I get it, I promise I do – it’s hard to be a good sport when you feel it so, so much. It’s especially hard when you give your all every single time – perhaps Henry’s finest quality – and you suspect others aren’t doing the same thing. But that’s a rotten way to live. I want Henry to assume that the people he meets are doing their best, even when it seems…unlikely. A quote made the rounds of the interwebs a while back: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It was attributed to Plato, but I couldn’t find it, not that you should imagine me exhaustively reading my Greek. I don’t care who made it up, it’s one of my favorite sayings ever, and I want my son to believe it with every fiber of his competitive being.

Anyway, after the game and after the team meeting, when the coaches gave Henry the game ball, I pulled him aside. I asked him if he’d been a good sport during the game, and I asked him if he deserved the game ball. My brave boy answered no to both questions. I told him he could earn it back, not by playing well – he’s a decent little ballplayer, and that’s not the point – but by being a leader on his team. By cheering on his teammates. By setting a good example. By being a good sport. It was a tough talk, but he took it on the chin…I was proud of him. He’s a good kid, and he can learn this. He has to.

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Honey, I shrunk!

May 6, 2013 at 7:22 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

I went to the doctor this morning for a physical and I was shocked to find that I had shrunk over an inch since the last time I was measured.

“Five eight-and-a-half,” said the nurse as I stepped off the scale, oblivious to my look of horror.

“Gravity’s a bitch,” shrugged my doctor, when I complained. (I love my doctor). “You have to start taking vitamin D and calcium. You’re still tall.”

But I’m not, not really. I’ve described myself as just under 5’10” since I unexpectedly grew two inches my first year at college. “That can’t happen,” said my 5’2″ mother at the time. “Five nine-and-three-quarters,” said the nurse at the doctor’s office.

I agonized over my height when I first shot up in high school, relegated to the back row in choir, towering over my friends in ballet class, cast as Charlemagne in Pippen. I would have gladly shrunk an inch then. “Laurie, come out from behind that Amazon,” said my ballet teacher. “Maybe try jazz,” said another, as I was well over six feet en pointe.

Something funny has happened since those long ago days. I started to like being tall. I could care less that I’m an inch or so taller than my husband. I wear heels as often as my wretched feet let me (thanks again, ballet). My oldest daughter, one of the shortest in her class, envies my height.

Be careful what you wish for. And I guess I’ll just buy higher heels.

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Why I’m looking at Property in the North Woods

May 2, 2013 at 6:53 pm (Kids) (, )

My daughter asked me if her legs were fat yesterday.

We were in the car, on the way home from soccer practice, which was directly after tennis, which took place after choir, which was right after school. (And I still persist in thinking that I’m winning the fight against over-scheduling. Let’s just say I have a rich and full fantasy life…but I digress).

My perfect girl

My perfect girl

“Mom,” I heard from the back seat.  “Are my legs fat?”

Don’t worry, I was cool.  I didn’t rear-end the car in front of me, or rupture a vein screaming to the heavens above, or drop a string of profanity so blue I scarred her for life…although all were very possible and even likely reactions.

“No,” I answered, with the “oah” vowel peculiar to my Upper Midwest peoples, and in the tone of Bart Simpson saying “Duh.”

“Why?” I asked, trying not to make a big deal out of it, and grateful that the other two kids weren’t in the car.

“Well, when I sit down, my legs just sort of…spread out.  And there’s all this jiggly stuff.”  She was utterly sincere.  I felt like crying…and raging.  Again, I did neither.  Who knew my acting background was going to prove so critical to my parenting?

“Riley, those are your strong muscles, that helped you walk to school today, and run at recess, and play soccer and tennis after school,” I said calmly. “They’re not fat.  You’re not fat.  You’re perfectly made, the way God meant you to be.”

She believed me I think, because she’s only ten, and I haven’t gotten completely stupid in the way that teenagers’ parents are completely stupid.

Did you get that?  She’s ten.  My ten-year-old asked me if she was fat.  My ten-year-old, who has never been higher than the 25th percentile on the weight chart at the doctor’s office.  My ten-year-old, who was a baby so slight of frame that my dear friend called her the “Pilates Baby.”

So my ten-year-old (TEN!) has entered into the ranks of the (by some accounts) 97% of American women who are dissatisfied with their bodies. (I’m not making that statistic up. Google it.)

And here’s my question…Where did that come from?  We watch almost no television.  I don’t subscribe to Vogue, or any of those magazines filled with pubescent girls modeling women’s clothing.  Her diet of movies is by and large animated.  She was never a big Barbie girl.  I would swear on a stack of Bibles that I haven’t ever, ever, EVER mentioned the word “fat” when talking about myself, at least not in her presence.  Where is it coming from?

I knew this was coming, because I have two daughters and I live in America…I just didn’t realize it was coming so soon.  And I have to admit, I don’t know how to combat it anymore than I already am, except for maybe by throwing in the towel and moving off the grid Up North somewhere. And actually, that would solve the over-scheduling too.

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