Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Drinking After Dark

It's 8:30 PM on a Wednesday night and I've had 3 shots of bourbon and a peanut butter cup made by the Mennonites at the market where we buy our meat every week. I haven't written in something like a month. Blog post ideas come to me while I'm on the elliptical watching Kathie Lee and Hoda drink wine at 10:15 on a Monday or when Blue is watching a Very Mickey Christmas for the 23rd time. These are not times when I can stop everything, break out the laptop and type out my thoughts. So I wait for him to go to bed and then I stare at an empty screen and think "What the hell do I have to say?"

I want to say that last Thursday I wrote a very sober, completely coherent post about the collective sin of mainstream media and how I feel duped by all of it. I wrote that what I most regret about the last month is how much I listened to Rachel Maddow and how much I ignored the pregnant pauses many friends gave me when I asked them who they were voting for. But none of it is all that earth-shattering. Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, wrote a compelling article for Variety about why our neighbors on the corner hung a Trump/Pence flag over their teenage son's basketball goal. And why the poorest of the poor in our tiny town in a swing county of a swing state are flying American flags with Trump's face in place of the stars over their front stoops. And Trent Lipinksi (who is no relation to Tara...I know...I Googled it) wrote a fair piece for Medium.com about how we got to this place. And then there's this post on The Guardian about how the primary source of information for most of us, Facebook, contributed to polarizing this election even more. They call it a Facebook bubble. I call it effing ironic. And probably something we should have all seen coming.

So, here's all I'm going to say about election night. Neal and I each took Blue with us to vote on Tuesday morning. We both let him push the buttons so he could feel the electrifying rush of being a US citizen, practicing his constitutional right to vote (and yes, it's a constitutional right, the people at USConstitution say so, so it must be true), therefore, technically, Blue voted twice. (Although he's 4 and still pronounces it "bote".  If his account of the day would lead someone to think he had been on the open waters twice, then I'm pretty sure that doesn't count.) Anyone who knows us, knows we are both rule-followers. As in, Neal refuses to drive more than 2 mph over the speed limit and I feel guilty about taking extra plastic forks from the bin at Wendy's to store in the glove box. So, to say that we are who we voted for - someone who is, at best, shady, and at worst, a criminal, would be ridiculous. In the same vein, to say that our friends and family, who have stocked our freezers with casseroles, brought laughter into our home, shared life and coffee and, sometimes, copious amounts of bourbon, are who they voted for...a rich as hell old white man with an embarrassing hairdo, a potty mouth and seriously disturbing beliefs, which gave rise to violence and bigotry...is preposterous. We are not the people we voted for. I honestly believe we all made the best decision we could with the information we were given. We did what we thought was best for our country, for our children, for the future. Hello, buyer's remorse.

But. It is what it is. There's a Daniel Tiger song about this. Stop, think, and choose. 
It's time to make a choice
I don't know what to do
I'll stop, think, and choose
Stop, think, and choose
Stop, think, and choose

I'm assuming that all of us who bothered to vote did this.  
(As a side note, there are all kinds of Daniel Tiger songs that, if played in department stores at Christmas, would make us all better humans.)
 
Most of us were conflicted. And we stopped, thought, and chose. And now we move forward. We all have to proceed in whichever way we feel best contributes to the good of our nation. Some of my friends unfriended their friends. That's certainly one option...although not one that really promotes two-way communication of ideas that may open your mind. And some of my friends are swearing off mainstream media and other organizations with their own self-interest at heart. Others are beginning to call their Congressmen and Congresswomen to make their voices heard. And some are organizing, others are already marching in the streets.

These are complicated times and, just as is true for raising a child, it's not going to get any easier or simpler. Information is pouring in from all sides at an alarming rate and we don't even have to tune in. When I ran my last iPhone update, all of a sudden, it now gives me a stream of news stories that "might" interest me whenever I touch my home button. Somehow it has deemed me a bleeding heart liberal because it doesn't bother to feed me posts from Fox News or Breitbart...just the latest from NYTimes and the Washington Post. Lucky me. I started watching Fox News on the elliptical just to piss off Apple.

But here's the other thing. I turned 38 this year and in a few short months, Neal will be 49. Politics, government, and the future of the country is no longer something that only concerns our parents. Our parents, the baby boomers, are slowing down, needing more help and, yes, dying. And who is left holding the bag? They stopped, thought and elected Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, the Bush Boys. For better or worse, that's who they chose to govern while they raised their kids. Us. That's who they thought would give us a brighter tomorrow. And y'all know what? Bill leaked all over Monica and everyone else ran a foreign affairs shit show but the country didn't implode. We survived. We peacefully protested, we rioted, we wrote strongly-worded letters to the editor and held town hall meetings. But we found our way through. And that's what we are going to do. We are going to reach across that infamous aisle.

My pastor in Kansas City ends every Sunday service with the congregation holding hands and singing the benediction. It is awkward as hell. Inevitably, my hands were all sweaty from having them tucked in my armpits during the sermon or they were ice cold from trying to not make them all sweaty. And it's no secret that I pick at my cuticles so I'm sure that is appalling to many. But we did it. And they still do it. They literally reach across the aisle to hold the hand of a friend, a loved one, a complete stranger. And it is the best feeling ever...to just hold someone's hand for 15 seconds, regardless of their...anything. To just be a human, holding another human's hand. That's what we are going to do. We are going to hold each other's hands for 15 seconds and say "you are me and I am you."

On NPR this morning, there was a story about how alike we are. People, not Americans but people, are 99.99% alike, genetically speaking. I belong to a Facebook page with women from all over the world. Someone just started a thread about peeing. And we all had something to say. I can attest to this...we are 99.99% alike. That .01% difference surely makes us individuals, but it does not have to separate us. It does not have to lead to divorce, abandoned friendships, hate crime and violence. I already know 99.99% about someone. It doesn't seem so hard to find some common ground in that last .01%. Our neighbors are Mormon. That is their .01% So, we can't meet halfway over a fifth of bourbon, but we can over wood-fired pizza. We can laugh over the things our kids say and what the Black Friday sales will be like. And we will listen to each other more than we listen to the talking heads - for the sake of our children and the future of this country.

On election night, I was in despair. I fell asleep on the couch in my sweaty gym clothes, mascara stuck to the throw pillow, clutching an empty Reese's cup wrapper and a tumbler of Maker's. Oh Country. Thou hast forsaken me. But you wake up, brush the fur off your teeth, pour an extra strong cup of coffee (did you know the new Keurigs can do that? Thank you, movers, for breaking all of our crap), and pull up your big girl panties (mine are bigger than they used to be). We all get to work, however that looks for each of us. Write a letter, phone a friend, start a pay-it-forward coffee train at Starbucks, hold the door, sign a petition, write a check, love your neighbor, hold a hand for 15 seconds. Find some common ground and build a country on that. 


Monday, October 24, 2016

This Is Us

Blue is learning how to write his letters. It feels very all-of-a-sudden for me. Just last week he was eating his boogers. No, wait. That was just last week. But here he is, writing letters with a decent amount of accuracy. It helps that every morning, over coffee and whatever he's having, we practice writing the letters he's learning in school (I should mention he's in preschool...which is the quietest 9 hours of my entire week, but also...I can't believe I'm saying this...the loneliest). Occasionally, he will throw a pencil at my head and, in his best 4 year old exasperated voice, scream Why do I have to practice? No more! Never!  Again, this conversation feels like it's coming at me about 8 years too early, but we moms just have to roll with it. In my equally as exasperated mommy voice,
I calmly respond, "We all practice. Daddy practices being a soldier. And he practices making pizza on the Big Green Egg. And Mommy practices. I practice cooking dinner and making jewelry and blogging."

Oh wait. Lies. It's all lies. I don't practice blogging. But he can't even pronounce blogging. So, I got away with something there. But not with anyone who reads this blog.

The truth is, I lost my tribe and my life kind of feel apart.

I will wait for you to dig out your tiny violins from their tiny cases. Oh poor little Army wife...has to move all the time and have amazing adventures while the government pays for it all. Thank God I'm not her. That must really suck.

I know. It's ridiculous. Let me try to explain.

According to this NYTimes article that I read last year, the typical American lives less than 20 miles from their mom. The pretty pink graph under the headline shows that for Kentucky, it's even less. Six miles. I don't judge this tendency to stay rooted near home. It's actually quite the opposite. Sometimes, I'm overcome with jealousy. Especially as the mom of a young child. The article cites two reasons for this trend: the need to provide care for aging parents and the need for help in raising young children. Fortunately, my parents are healthy and self-sufficient so far (although I've made my mother swear that if she discovers one day that she can no longer smell peanut butter - one of the warning signs of Alzheimer's, according to Hoda and Kathie Lee - she needs to call me immediately). They don't need me to move in next door. And we've managed to raise a healthy and happy boy thus far, but a few more date nights would be fabulous. I remember spending a lot of Friday nights with my grandparents. I never saw it as losing time with my parents, who may have been on a date but may have also been home watching the news and eating TV dinners for all I knew. I saw it as special me-time with my Papa and Granny. I wish Blue had more of those.

And that is why we have our tribe.

I didn't really know we needed one until we arrived in Kansas and were inducted into it faster than I could say bourbon balls. I thought I had this. I thought I would join some museums, maybe a spouse's club, walk the neighborhood and let Blue run on the playground across the street. What I got was a group of ladies with a gaggle of kids who met me exactly where I was and kept me company everyday (literally, every day) for a year. I had the holy grail of neighbors. How do I know? Because this is a list of 10 signs and I had them all. I'm glad that both Neal and I knew what we had while we had it. I don't feel like I missed out on building friendships in Kansas. We simply ran out of time. And then we scattered.

It took awhile for me to be able to look through the pictures taken on Graduation Day, the last day we were all together. Even in photos, you can see the dread and anticipation on our faces. Our kids are sad. They aren't trying to hide it. The older ones know this is goodbye. Blue doesn't get it. But he will. It finally hits, on a sweltering day at the beginning of August.

After we had been in the new house for about a week and Blue was in time-out for the third time for going outside without me, he and I had a come to Jesus. Through genuine tears of sadness and confusion, he asked why he couldn't go outside to play with his friends. Because there is no one out there. Where is everyone? I don't know. When will they come out to play? I don't know. I want to go back to Kansas. So do I, buddy. We had this conversation 4 more times over the next month. I got frustrated and then I was simply heartbroken...for myself and for Blue and even for Neal. We missed our tribe. But we were also having a helluva time establishing a new one. It was like trying to put on a pair of jeans in January that fit like a glove last June. But 6 months and a couple hundred cocktails and platters of BBQ later, you're just busting out and uncomfortable. Nothing was fitting. Nothing was easy. No one showed up and said, "We're going to the park. Want to come with?" Blue was confused and I was lonely. And Neal, being a guy who can have friends or not, he's still the same person, went to work.

So, we joined the Y. Then I put Blue in preschool. Then I went back to work. And ever ever so slowly, we've started finding a niche for ourselves in Pennsylvania. It isn't constant companionship like it was in Kansas. The homeschooled kids played until the public school kids got off the bus. The moms supervised and swapped stories from the day until the husbands got home from school The husbands traded gripes and laughs from class until dinner was ready. We did it all again the next day. I miss that battle rhythm. I don't think I'll ever find another one that fits me so well. But life is change and finding a way to ride the storm until the sun comes out again is paramount.

Everyone always tells me that military kids are the most resilient children they have ever known. I'm sure that's true. But that status is hard-earned. They have learned how to say hello quickly, even though there will be a goodbye. They can pack up a bedroom almost as fast as they can unpack it. They find a way to fit in, over and over and over and over. And that's pretty amazing, considering the typical American lives less than 20 miles from mom.

I don't love Pennsylvania, but we are getting along. We are holding each other at arm's length, which I hear is consistent with the culture. We are using the manners our mothers taught us and showing our best selves. We are hoping that we when the time comes, we will miss each other terribly. Time will tell.

I am heartsick for my girls. All of them. My tribe.




Sunday, September 11, 2016

We Have This Magnet

For whatever reason, I can't sleep.

I don't think it has anything to do with the date, really, although today marks the 15th anniversary of a day filled with unimaginable grief. I cannot believe it has been 15 years. It feels like yesterday. And in the most cliched way possible, it feels like a lifetime ago. I was a totally different person living a completely different life, incapable of even imagining myself with a child and a husband. But sitting in the absolute quiet of our house at 2 AM, I'm surrounded by photos and artifacts of our 10 years of marriage...a marriage, it could be argued, that was made possible by 9/11. A terrified 20-something interrupts her sowing of wild oats to return home, to the safety of family and friends and finds a job where she meets a woman who introduces her to a soldier, who is deployed. This marriage brought to you by Operation Iraqi Freedom. This country has been at war for longer than we've been married and for much longer than our son has been alive.

And this brings me to a most troublesome question. How do we, as parents of children who were not there and will never understand the terror we all felt that day (and can still feel acutely if we close our eyes and think about where we were, who we were with), try to explain the importance of this date? The details are gruesome and heartbreaking. The answers are vague and sometimes contradictory. The grief is still hovering, just below the surface. But if we don't talk to our children about this day, then they will read someone else's account of it. It won't be our version and it may even be wildly untrue. Where do we begin and how can we find the words to describe the unspeakable?

When Blue was not quite 2, Neal and I took him to NYC to visit Shana over Memorial Day Weekend. While we were there, we visited the newly opened 9/11 Museum. Neal and I tried to keep Blue quietly entertained in his stroller while still digesting the overwhelming number of heartbreaking stories and first-hand accounts of heroics. Blue didn't know or care what we were doing. He was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, bored. But we wanted to walk the halls and hear the voices because they have shaped our world into what it is today and will continue to do so, even after we are gone. The 9/11 Museum stands as a physical reminder of one of the darkest days in our nation's history. It is there for us to visit, for us to take our kids to, to start the conversation with a generation who feels ambivalent about planes crashing into towers, fields, the Pentagon. And, much to the dismay of many New Yorkers who relive 9/11 on more than one day each year, they also have a gift shop.

As we exited the 9/11 Museum main gallery, Neal said to me, "Let's go into the gift shop." We bought a magnet. Because we always buy a magnet. The refrigerator is a scrapbook of our excursions all over the world. Seeing it everyday is a source of pride for me. We travel, sometimes far, and we have this magnet to remember the trip. Even when the 14,000 pictures of Yellowstone are still floating in the cloud, we have this magnet. On our way out of the museum, we were stopped by a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. In response to the outrage New Yorkers felt about the museum gift shop, she was doing a piece about what items people purchased and why. I gave some long-winded answer about how I didn't take a single picture in the museum out of respect for the deceased but I wanted something to remember the trip. I wanted to have some tangible item to hold and reflect on our visit. My quote got boiled down to "I wanted to have something to remember our trip." As you can imagine, I was skewered in the comments. I don't even read them anymore, although somehow new ones pop up. (I don't know how someone manages to find and then comment on a story from 2 years ago, but...they do.) At the time, Blue was basically fresh from the womb and I knew nothing about raising a child. I assumed, although had trouble visualizing, that someday we would talk about 9/11, even if it was in the most perfunctory manner. He would have questions and I would give him the best and most age-appropriate answers I could. He doesn't have questions yet, which is great because I don't have any answers, age-appropriate or otherwise. I tried looking on Amazon. I searched "Children's Books About 9/11". My search returned several National Geographic kids' magazines about wild animals and one illustrated book called "I Survived." I'm not sure what I was expecting. Maybe just a very basic, highly glossed-over introduction as to why everyone is so damn sad today. Not too scary. Not too complicated. Just enough to teach some empathy for those who find September 11 to be a particularly challenging day of the year.

What I do have is an answer to that reporter. Because I always have the perfect witty remark about 2-3 years after the fact. We bought a magnet to start the conversation. Whenever our son is ready to have it, we can start with this magnet that shows the last World Trade Center beam on it. And we can talk about what happened to the buildings around it and the people in those buildings. We can talk about the firefighters that are surrounding the beam and the flag that is waving from the top of it. There is no greater gift than something that triggers an honest conversation with a child who wants to learn. We have this magnet and someday my son, who was born 11 years after our country was attacked, will ask what it means. It's a reminder of our trip, but also what we've been through. And I will have answers for his questions, I will give him my account of that day.

***For the record, when I searched Amazon for a children's book, it also directed me to the 9/11 Museum Gift Shop, which now hosts an online site where you can view the entire product list. I checked their inventory for a suitable book. Nothing. However, they have expanded their line of 9/11 memorial trinkets to include several woven throws, some imported Italian marble tiles featuring photos from that day (including a "The Muddy Teddy Bear", "The Ghost PATH Train", and a photo of paper confetti...and, let's be honest...ashes, floating through the sky), as well as posters, t-shirts, keychains and bookmarks. At the risk of sounding just as judgemental as the commenters on The WSJ article, I can't imagine setting my sangria down on a coaster with the Ground Zero Bible page on it or curling up to watch "Castle" under a woven throw of the World Trade Center cross. I feel they may be crossing the line of what's appropriate for this generation who is still reeling from the events of that day. I think we should leave the line of memorial housewares to the future generations. It will happen. Our growing collection of battlefield coffee mugs is proof.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Going Dutch

Over the weekend, thanks to a long drive by Blue's grandmothers to babysit while we attended the Sustainment Ball and Neal's last-minute offer to blow off the ball completely so that we could take in some of the lesser kid-friendly sights that Kansas City has to offer, we were able to experience a date night that ranked right up there with that one time we blew our own glass Christmas ornaments and spent the night at 21C. In other words, extraordinary. And, though I hate to say it, far better than any ball we've ever attended.

When we first arrived in Kansas, we acquired 3 memberships immediately: The Kansas City Zoo, Union Station/Science City and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The first two, obviously, were Blue-inspired purchases. I love a zoo and science museum as much as the next nerdgirl, but I seldom felt the need to visit more than once. Children, with their short attention spans and even shorter memories, however, are the prime target for museum memberships. Oh you need to fill an hour after church? Great! Let's just pop into the Nelson-Atkins story time/art hour. No, we don't need to pay for parking. We're members. There's a new baby penguin, you say? Well, we are on that side of town anyway, we'll just run by and check it out! No admission fee for us. We're members. And if Blue loses his ever-lovin mind before we get around to Africa, we can threaten to leave (and make good on it) without much anguish about how much we paid to get in.

As they say, membership has its privileges.

Over the year, we've certainly gotten our money's worth from the zoo and the science museum, but the art museum has been more challenging. Although Sunday's art and story hour at the Nelson-Atkins is well worth it, the art classes for Blue's age always filled before I could get him enrolled. And touring an art museum with a 3 year old is kind of like doing yoga in a room full of naked people; one of us wants to really focus, one of us is bored and in the end, something important is going to accidentally get touched. So, we just tend to avoid it altogether. Or hope that nap time in the stroller coincides with a new exhibit. (Although that's harder, too, because we moved from the jogging stroller to the umbrella stroller a tad late in the game and now his feet drag the floor, often halting the wheels, which he thinks is hysterical.) When we planned our date night in the big city, I was quick to add the new exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins, Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer to the agenda.

I will be the first to admit, I'm not well-versed in the Dutch masters. I can spot an Impressionist painting from 50 paces and I love to judge the contemporary artists with their canvases painted entirely in black or their ABC intestines (no really, it's a thing...)
Claes Oldenburg’s late pop-art sculpture Alphabet/Good Humor, as viewed at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas a few weeks ago. 

And I can usually spot a Vermeer, even if the subject isn't wearing a pearl earring. However, whenever I encounter a gallery of Dutch artists, I usually play Spot the Famous Ones, take a quick picture, if allowed, to prove to Facebook that I was there and move on. This was an entire exhibit of Dutch artists with only a couple of paintings by Vermeer and a handful of pieces by Rembrandt on display. Well, this will be fast, I thought. We checked in at the front desk, picked up our free tickets, two iPod audio guides and headed down the hall. 

I was immediately struck by the size of the exhibition, which examines "17th century Dutch paintings through the lens of social classes". The largest room held paintings of and commissioned by the upper classes (presumably the best represented in the exhibition because the upper class were the most interesting to paint and they could afford to pay the artists). The Princes of Orange (the de facto rulers of the newly established Dutch Republic), nobility and aspiring nobility can be seen throughout the upper class gallery. The audio guide does a wonderful job of drawing your eye to details in each painting - tiny clues that indicate the subject's status in life, like the presence of a slave or a harpsichord or a foot warmer (foot warmers end up being like moles by the end. Once you see it, you can't unsee it. And you see it in everything. Mooooooole). True nobility were most often the subjects of portraits because, y'know, they had time to sit for hours each day and just...pose. But they also wanted to document their lineage and used art as a way of publicly establishing the family tree. Aspiring nobility posed with horses and hunting dogs, alluding to the idea that they filled their day with leisure, as well. They sometimes asked the artist to take some creative license with the painting, adding a slave here or a beautifully imagined and outrageously expensive tapestry there. They posed with coats of arms, albeit recently purchased and not exactly handed down by landed gentry.

And you learn the story of how Rembrandt lost the patronage of the entire upper class, all due to the placement of a single glove. Oops.

Toward the end of each gallery, there are a couple of glass cases that show examples of dining utensils and serving ware commonly used by each class. I paused, in awe of a hand-laced table cloth from 1650. 

1650, y'all. 1-6-5-0. That's almost 400 years ago. And it was in impeccable condition. Let's just allow that to sink in for a moment. 

Visitors also see an elite, but working class consisting of civic and political appointees and wealthy merchants in this gallery. They often headed charitable organizations and were depicted by painters in these roles. It is here that Vermeer's A Lady Writing (not as striking as Girl With a Pearl Earring but still recognizable as one of his more famous pieces) and The Astronomer (another obvious Vermeer that was on display at the Louvre the last time we saw it) hang. 

The next gallery, paintings of the middle class, included men and women who were both professionals and educated small business owners. From ministers and notaries to shopkeepers and craftsmen, these paintings depicted scenes of daily trade in growing Dutch communities like Holland. Rembrandt's The Ship Builder and His Wife hangs in this gallery, as do two lesser known paintings (to me, anyway), Interior with Women Beside a Linen Cupboard and Courtyard of a House in Delft. These pieces, both by Pieter de Hooch, are compared in the audio guide, giving the viewer a better idea of how to distinguish the house maids from the ladies of the house in Dutch paintings. As I stepped back to take in both works, I thought about how, aside from the presence of maids (an important and unfortunate distinction), these scenes could have just as easily shown my life. How often do I reach into the closet to put away or take out towels and sheets? How many times a week do I walk through the courtyard, holding Blue's hand and talking about what we see? By today's standards, we aren't even middle class, but people are people and some of our routines look exactly the same as they did 400 years ago. No, we don't have to wash our clothes next to the well, but we still sing to our children and provide for our families and drink a beer with our friends. We have evolved, but we are still recognizable. 

The lower class gallery takes up much less space than the first two because, although it was the most common sight, it was the least painted. Most of the art shows poverty, either deserved (such as drunks and gamblers) or undeserved (elderly and orphans) in a harsh light. Scenes of hard labor (like the brutal work of laying out heavy, soaking loads of linen to dry in the sun - a step in the linen-making process) are interspersed with drunken brawls, complete with vomit in the background. There is very little to love about how the lower class is depicted, but quite a bit to observe in the details each artist decided to include. 

The last gallery, Where the Classes Meet, looks at situations when the various classes would have encountered one another. From traveling musicians singing at the threshold of a wealthy home, to the winter leisure activities they all participated in on the same frozen canal, to the annual local fair, these paintings show how the social classes mixed while still retaining very distinct and understood rules for each one. It's a bittersweet end to a magnificent art exhibition. You want the lady of the house, who sits in a chair by the door offering a coin to her toddler to give to the street musicians, to invite them in...to offer them tea. But that won't happen. This is a brief encounter, a rare overlap of social class, and a moral lesson, encouraging the wealthy to be more charitable. It's not often that we catch such a clear glimpse of the 17th century, but this exhibition gives us art and a context through which to view it. 

On our way to dinner, we talked about how hard it is for parents of very young children to remember to slow down and look at things. A child's attention span is understandably short; so much to see, feel, smell, do in just 10-12 waking hours each day. There's simply not enough time to stop and ponder, especially on something as one dimensional as a painting. And that's OK. There will be time for that later. But as parents, we must not forget how to stop and ponder or we won't be patient enough when the time does come. Sometimes I feel like it's a sprint to keep up with Blue's interests and questions. The end of the day often finds me exhausted and sprawled out on the couch watching the History Channel. We fill our days with field trips to farms and libraries and, yes, even art museums. Sometimes we stop and look and listen, but never for as long as I would like. I remind myself that this is all practice for the day we wander into an exhibit and as I'm bristling past, he grabs my arm and says, "Mom, LOOK. This was made in 1650!

Photography is not allowed in the exhibit but they do give you a fun selfie photo op at the end...y'know, for Facebooking purposes. 

This exhibition, which originated at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,  includes Dutch art from all over the US and many pieces from Europe (some of which have never been to the US). The exhibition is curated by Dr. Ronni Baer, a specialist in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and a Senior Curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She also narrates the audio guide, which I highly recommend, unless you are also a specialist in 17th-century Dutch art.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Closure

Two weeks ago, as Coldplay and Beyonce and Bruno Mars were thrashing about on stage while millions of Americans critiqued the half-time show between bites of spinach dip and chicken wings, the world went dark for all of us who loved Traci Davis. Although her spirit fought on, her body had said enough. Racked with cancer that spread more rapidly than most of us wanted to admit, she said goodbye long before any of us were ready to hear it.

Knowing Traci was either a "God thing" or a complete twist of great luck. Opening my email one morning, I saw a headline from Milspouse.com. Clicking on that, I found a blog post written by a Marine wife, recently widowed after an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Moved beyond tears, I began following her blog and then her mother-in-law's blog. I began commenting. I became Facebook friends with her mother-in-law, Tami. And then Tami introduced me to her bestie, Traci. I don't remember the exact progression but our friendship simply grew and deepened (mostly through Facebook posts, texts and blog posts) over the next several years. By that point, Traci had already been diagnosed with breast cancer and I knew her as a breast cancer survivor who was in remission. I launched the Pink Campaign through my Daisy & Elm jewelry site and for several years made a unique piece of jewelry for each day in October. The money raised from the Pink Campaign benefited whichever charity Traci deemed appropriate. She was particularly fond of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and the American Cancer Society and was often interviewed by the local television stations as events drew near. She was passionate about fighting and curing cancer.

But she was even more passionate about her boys.

Her sons and her husband were her life. They gave meaning to her days and, I'm sure, gave her a reason to keep fighting sometimes. Watching her 2 elementary school-aged kids bouncing on the trampoline in the backyard while their new puppy ran circles underneath and Blue observed hesitantly from the porch last fall, it seemed nothing could crack the bubble of childhood joy that surrounded us all. As the sun began to set and the October night chilled us, we coaxed our boys inside for Domino's pizza and baths. Blue and her youngest played in their whirlpool tub, all the while spraying water to the ceiling with a basting syringe they had found in the kitchen drawer. When I scolded Blue for soaking the ceiling, I heard a voice from the bedroom. "Hey it's OK to get water on the ceiling at Aunt Traci's house. It's just what you do." She didn't mind because in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a big deal. She had bigger fish to fry.

At some point, Traci was diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni syndrome which causes multiple cancers to form, usually simultaneously. She didn't tell me the details until we met up in Wamego, KS last fall for the Oztoberfest (not to be confused with Ozfest...which, we all agreed, sounded far less fun as they would not have any of the Munchkins or flying monkeys of Oztoberfest). She already had one tumor growing on her outer thigh, which they couldn't do anything about because she was undergoing treatment for a second cancer that had developed. And the worst part...this was genetic. Her babies may someday experience the same agony.

I thought back to February, 2014. Everything suddenly made so much sense.

Out of winter blahs and boredom, I had posted on Facebook that I was going to shave my head for St. Baldrick's, a foundation that raises money to fund pediatric cancer research. It's the only organization that focuses solely on children's cancer research and they are 100% volunteer-run so the money raised goes straight to grants. There is a tab on their website called "See the Impact". By clicking on that, you can view the grants they've funded, read about their research priorities and meet the pediatric oncologists who are evaluating every trial to decide where each dollar should go. Traci believed that if this genetic mutation was fated for her boys, the only organization that would fund the research that might cure them was St. Baldrick's. I got a text within minutes of my Facebook post. I want to shave my head, too.

We had one month to raise as much money as we could before the head shaving in Elizabethtown, Kentucky around the middle of March. Traci and her boys decided they would shave their heads at home and post pictures (although she first spent about 30 minutes looking for reasonable air fare to Louisville, It did not exist.). We got a little a lot of help from our friends. After we settled on our team name, The Pixie Chicks (for 2 southern girls who love some country music, I couldn't think of a better name), Kelly worked her graphic design magic and gifted us the best logo we could have imagined.
Between a Facebook auction (featuring everything from handcrafted burlap wreaths and monogrammed Chucks to Coach purses and It Works wraps) and donated profits from a Thirty-One party hosted by her dear friend, Allison, and random donations by family and friends, we raised over $6000 in 30 days. Our initial fundraising goal was $1000. We had to increase it 3 more times and still busted through our final $5000 mark. We were second only to a team of 15 individuals for most money raised at the event in Elizabethtown. And we didn't look half-bad bald.
On the list of most rewarding moments of my life, this definitely ranked near the top. I spent the next year growing my hair and keeping tabs on Traci as our boys grew and life evolved.

In January of 2015 I texted Traci, begging her to do St. Baldrick's again the following March. She texted me back: Ally, it's much easier to shave your head when you don't have any hair. Let's do it again next year to celebrate my 40th birthday because I'm not supposed to see 40. I reluctantly agreed.

Traci passed away 50 days short of her 40th birthday.

Although we hadn't talked about doing St. Baldrick's again since last October, I know that if she had been feeling better these past few months, we would have already been making plans. I think she was making plans of a different sort...ones that kept her from making any promises to me because she just wasn't the kind of girl to break a promise. It's hard to see that now - that she was always trying to prepare us for this day while still living each moment to its absolute fullest. We only saw her vitality, not the frailty that lay just below it. Nevertheless, I made a promise to her and I intend to keep it.

I asked her husband, Brian, and her sister-in-law, Belinda if they would mind being involved in one more head shaving for St. Baldrick's, in honor of Traci. They both emphatically agreed. I was hoping they would. So, once more, The Pixie Chicks page will spring into action, accepting donations for auction items immediately. The auction will begin Friday, March 25th at 8 AM EST and close on Sunday (Easter), March 27th at 9 PM EST. At that point, I will tag the winners and you will have 48 hours to post your payment directly to the St. Baldrick's fundraising page. As soon as I see your payment, I'll notify the person donating the item that they can ship. I am also open to additional fundraising opportunities. I'm setting the bar at $5000 but I would like to blow through that as soon as possible. Hopefully, on April 2nd, we will be having our very own St. Baldrick's head shaving event at Traci's salon with all who want to participate. I hope I have to wait in a long line.

I invite you to come along on this adventure...to donate, to bid, to shave, to pray, to send love, to tell others. If you know me, then you know a little bit of Traci, too, for she is always in my head and quite often in my words. And she's forever in my heart.






Saturday, January 16, 2016

How Ally Got Her Groove Back (A Review of Style on the Fly with Kat McNeal)

I think I may have posted here recently that I don't have any New Year's Resolutions except to stop saying whatever within ear shot of my toddler.

That's a total lie.

I have tons.

I would like to:
drink more water than wine
stop having a cup of sugar with a little bit of coffee splashed on top
truly get 10,000 steps on my FitBit instead of just walking circles around the dining room table
floss (more than just the week before my dentist appointment...which, I'm pretty sure, is fooling no one)
stop sneak-eating chocolate in our walk-in pantry
spend less time in the Target $1 aisle
spend more time outside
remember that, before Blue, I had style and it had very little to do with black yoga pants, hoodie sweatshirts and baseball caps

It's a lengthy list that I'm not rushing into because there's still 349 days left in the year. And if I master them all in the first month, what will I do for the next 11? However, I've gotten a lot of help with that last one recently and it's rocking my world in some big ways.

My sister once lamented to me that giving birth to 2 kids had ruined her sense of style. I found this completely unbelievable because she had always been one of the most fashionable women I knew. She stayed on top of the trends and knew how to apply them to her own wardrobe. Her make-up was flawless, her accessories perfectly chosen and her overall appearance was completely polished. Even when she was simply junking on a Saturday morning, she still looked as though she had just stepped off the cover of Glamour.
But having kids changes us all. I used to tease her mercilessly about the "Quaker" denim skirts (in her defense, she is a high school teacher but I think she may have worn them out a time or two, as well), the "Mom" jeans, the yoga pants and all the cardigans. Although she held on to several pairs of strappy stilettos and some slinky tops, her closet was mostly geared toward work and relaxation. But that's what you do when you have kids. You work and then you relax, preferably in something without buttons or zippers. (For the record, my sister never lost her sense of style. She can make a track suit from 1984 look glamorous.)

I had been noticing the same trend in my own closet about 6 months ago. As some of the baby weight finally started to come off and I began to feel more comfortable in pants and skirts again, I realized that my jeans to yoga pants ratio was completely off. Especially considering how much yoga I was doing (read: none). But I was OK with petering around the house in Target stretchy pants or leggings and a sweatshirt. The real panic began when I was going out...for dinner with Neal or to a movie with girlfriends or packing for vacation. One cannot live in yoga pants alone. And I am a jewelry designer. Shouldn't I wear something other than my wedding rings and a pair of CZ earrings from Claire's? I had lost all of the joy I once felt from piecing together my look for the day. It suddenly seemed like a waste of time to put on make-up when I was only going to leave the house to run to the commissary. And would anyone really notice if my boots matched my hoodie? I had one purse which was being used well past its natural life.
Before kid...
After kid. I can't believe I haven't deleted this yet. 
More weight came off and while I was still a far reach from my pre-pregnancy size, I could no longer get away with cinching post-pregnancy pants and referring to my billowing sweaters as ponchos. The Empress needed new clothes. But where to begin? Goodwill, of course. It was the cheapest way to completely re-stock...but not necessarily the most effective, as I soon discovered. Although everything fit, it didn't all fit well . My body was, irreversibly it seemed, changed by pregnancy. Even after losing 20 pounds, everything remained a little fuller. My hips were somewhat wider and I had developed some muscle from hauling around a child for 3 years. My waist had become less defined and my butt had flattened. My body had transitioned from hour-glass to apple-shaped and I had no idea how to dress it. The colors I chose were flattering if I stuck to blues and pinks but sometimes I bought a shirt because the cut favored this new body. And I ended up with a lot of black. Thinking I had nailed this style thing once again, I would pull from my new wardrobe, look in the mirror and think At best, I look tired. At worst, I look sick.  I had a closet full of nothing to wear. I threw my hands in the air and waved the black yoga pants flag of mercy.

One warm, breezy Sunday afternoon this past September, my neighbor came bouncing up the walk with a folder and a smile. She had just been to a style consultation with our neighbor down the street, Kat, owner of Style on the Fly. I perused the contents of her folder and the color swatches Kat had given her. That's nice, I thought. But it's not for me. I know how to dress myself, I'm just too lazy to do it. Over the next several weeks, I saw my neighbor put into action the color and style tips Kat had given her. Her face seemed brighter and she seemed more put together, less thrown together. (To be fair, I had always been a little jealous of my neighbor's wardrobe and her waist to butt ratio, however she now played to these assets and I was shiny green with envy.) Clearly I needed an appointment with Kat.
Style on the Fly is the business Kat created based on her training with Christian beauty speaker and founder of Fashion Meets Faith, Shari Braendel and her book Help me Jesus! I Have Nothing to Wear. Ms. Braendel's mission is to help women embrace their God-given beauty. And yes, we all have God-given beauty. The way God created us is absolutely perfect, even though we dabble in hair color and try out colored contact lenses. The consultation is based almost exclusively on eye, skin and hair color so it's best to be as close to natural as possible. I've only had one set of highlights since I shaved my head 2 years ago so my color is mostly me, gray and all. And although my summer tan had begun to fade to my winter white, Kat promised that wouldn't affect my colors at all.
Teaching the importance of color.
The first step was to determine my 36-color palette. To do this, Kat placed me in a chair in front of a window so I was bathed in natural light. She then wrapped several different colors of pashminas around my shoulders until she found the one that made me look the most radiant. You are a light she told me and handed me a packet with 6 layers of swatches (6 colors per swatch with everything from the best shades of blues, reds and purples for me to the size of pattern that best suits me to the color of jewelry that is most complimentary to my skin tone) and 2 cards, one explaining how the swatches should be used and one offering even more style tips for my palette (steer clear of autumn colors, think of watermelon red if you must wear red, if you insist on wearing black keep it away from your face). And at the bottom, most importantly: Remember that you are beautiful...exactly as you are! Your light coloring is a gift from God and you light up a room when you walk into it. 

Oh my goodness how I needed to hear that. Right then and right there. And probably for every day since my belly (and everything else) grew round and ready. I hadn't felt beautiful in 4 years. Pictures from 2012-2015 reflect my increasing apprehension to be digitally immortalized. Thousands of pictures of Blue and Neal, but only random selfies of me and only from the collarbone up. For me, not feeling beautiful affected every other aspect of my life. My confidence plummeted and my insecurity often crept up in the wickedest ways. I called everything into question, from the fidelity of our marriage to the strength of my mother's intuition. All because I felt like a mascaraed potato sack. I did not feel beautiful.

For the next 90 minutes we discussed where hemlines should fall to best flatter my body type and how to accessorize an outfit. Before Blue, I adhered to my Granny's flawless fashion principle: Put on all of the jewelry you want to wear that day and then take one piece off. After Blue, I adhered to the Exhausted Mommy's Guide to Getting Yourself Dressed Enough to Be Seen in Public: You should probably wear a watch so you know what time to feed and nap your baby and your wedding bands because your husband spent a lot of money on them and then maybe a long necklace to show people you still remember what style is. But definitely no dangly earrings of any kind. Ever. Yes, I was still designing amazing pieces for clients and my own wardrobe still boasted quite a few show-stoppers, but they rarely saw the light of day. And who has time for all of that anyway? It will just be more stuff to take off when it's time to nap or bathe or wash dishes. And the only one who will see it is still pooping his pants. Too much work, not enough return.

One of the best pieces of advice from my style session with Kat is a handy guide to accessorizing outfits. It assigns each item a point value and gives you an idea of where your totals should be and how to get them higher (with the idea that a higher number = a more polished look). I use it everyday, even if I only plan to run out and get the mail. I try to get 8-10 points on days where we are at home and 14-16 if we are going out. It seems like such an inconsequential piece but makes a huge difference in how put together I feel when I walk out the door.
Discussing hemlines.
We finished up with some make-up tips (which paid off the first time my BFF said, after seeing a selfie on Facebook, I don't know what you're doing with your make-up these days but you look fabulous!) and any questions that came up during the session. It's a lot of information to take in but all immediately applicable with instant results. I rushed home and cleaned out my closet that afternoon.

New body, new attitude. Not so scared to be in pictures anymore! Also, apparently I can wear gray but not black. Who knew??

Kat just launched her new website, which includes a list of her services (from color analysis all the way to personal shopping), an About Me section and the Style on the Fly blog. If you're local to Leavenworth, she hosts periodic group style classes with the next one occurring Sunday, January 24 from 3:00-4:30. You can email or call Kat to book. If you are reading all of this and thinking I need that in my life! But I live a bajillion miles away, she can complete a color analysis using photos taken in natural light. You can contact her here to get started. Kat is also available for speaking events and has often presented at Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPs) groups and mother-daughter teas (this is particularly effective for encouraging the daughter to dress more appropriately and showing the mother how to help). Her Facebook page is up and running and while she's getting her Pinterest boards in order, you can check out Ms. Braendel's Pinterest page, with many style tips and helpful hints, here

As I wrap up this review, you may be saying to yourself, That's funny...this all sounds vaguely familiar. Like didn't we do this in the late 80's and it was called something else? And yes, you are most likely thinking of Color Me Beautiful. Our mothers spent an afternoon at someone's house and came back flushed with knowledge and declarations that they are a spring! Or a winter! And then a flurry of shopping. Color Me Beautiful still exists, although they are no longer training new representatives. The problem with that program is that within the 4 seasons, there are 4 more sub-categories which makes your palette very specific. A slight tan or a set of highlights would throw your whole wardrobe off. Many women ended up with overflowing closets just to accommodate the slight changes in skin and hair color that occur over the course of a year. And ain't nobody got room (or money) for that. The idea behind Fashion Meets Faith is that less is more and you can go up or down a few shades in skin and/or hair color and your palette still works. Also, your closet becomes more like a capsule wardrobe because everything coordinates, making getting dressed in the morning infinitely easier. I like easy. Because toddlers are not easy. 

I may not be drinking more water than wine (see above statement: toddlers are not easy) and I may still be eating some chocolate in the closet, but I also feel radiant, confident and beautiful, both in and out of the house!

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Sister's New Year's Wish


I meant to write this on Friday, the first day of 2016. But instead, I was grazing on Chex mix and chasing away champagne headaches with a little hair of the dog. I blame my neighbors - one brought the gallon baggie of munchies and the other entertained a total of 15 kids while we washed queso down with wine and critiqued Alabama's defense between runs upstairs to check on the kids. At least I stuck to the clear liquids or it could have all been much worse for me on the first day of the new year. But even through my fog of detox, I could see how lucky we were to land where we did in 2015. We had asked for Newport, Rhode Island, the Navy's approach to this school. We had prayed for Newport, Rhode Island. I found no less than 15 Chip-and-Joanna-approved houses on Trulia...in Newport, Rhode Island. Then one day Neal came home and said "It's Kansas for us." My heart sank. House hunting turned up nothing interesting. I watched The Wizard of Oz after Blue went to bed and leaked self-pity all over my chocolate Cheerios.

I didn't want to live in Kansas. Not for 12 months. Not even for 12 minutes.

Obviously, I was wrong about Kansas. And Missouri, as well, for that matter, since we live less than a mile from the state line. And so I have come to trust the process. Whether it's God's plan for us or the Army's, we are not completely out of control, but we are not wholly in it, either. We must make our wishes known and then accept and bloom in the coming year. And so this note, my 400th post on this blog, is addressed to my fellow Milspouses across the world on the third day of the new year...because my fellow Milspouses made the last night of the last year so knee-walking fabulous that it took 2 days to recover.

Dear MilSisters,
Let me be the first or the twentieth or the eighty-fifth to say Happy New Year! I don't know how 2015 fared for all of you but I hope it was mostly agreeable even if it was rarely boring. Most of all, I hope you awoke on January 1 of 2016 with a song in your heart and a sense of boundless energy for what will be asked of you in the coming year. And if that didn't happen, I hope that at least the neighbor children showed up at your door after you showered and put on a bra to deliver your son's favorite fleece jacket left behind from the night before. I think that's the most any of us can hope for...that the doorbell rings after you've put on a bra.

I know the coming year holds even more changes for our family, most of which have yet to be revealed. We speculate and hope but at the end of the day, we simply don't know until we know. And I know it's the same for yours. Our stages of military life vary so drastically that it seems impossible to feel a sense of camaraderie, to swap similar stories so effortlessly. And yet, we have bonded over something as simple as how much dirt a pair of combat boots can track through a house. (Seriously, I think they looked at tank tread and thought How can we put that on the bottom of a boot?)  But many of us know the feeling of finding a favorite pair of shoes buried under a stack of books in a box. Or the look on your spouse's face when they find us flat on our backs, flapping limbs and making packing paper angels under the dining room chandelier. We are raising kids, gasping at how quickly our kids have grown, moving for the first time or the last, finding comfort in the routine or feeling annoyed that it's interrupted too quickly. We all know what it is to have a closet dedicated to pro-gear and a duty to a mission greater than ourselves. The new year may be full of changes for you, too, or more of the same, at least for another 12 months.

If you are due to move this year, I wish you a flawless PCS. May your driver be on time and not a day earlier or later. May his crew clear the FBI background checks and arrive fresh and ready to work, even when the temperature threatens to hit triple digits and the humidity is already there. May Transportation honor your previously agreed upon delivery date and never once threaten to put all of your stuff into storage for some undetermined amount of time, not to exceed the next time you're due to move. May they not throw your handcrafted burlap tree skirt in the bottom of a box marked "Garage Liquids". May your moving truck be solid, routinely serviced and able to handle the task at hand. And dear God, may they send a truck big enough the first time around. May your new home feel comfy and cozy, even as the unpacking stretches into weeks and then months. May you find the energy to complete your gallery wall, even if you can use number of months instead of number of years to define your time there. May you only need post-it notes to remind you of what's in every drawer and cabinet for a maximum of a week. Unless, of course, you are learning a new language and your cups are now tassens. May you locate the grocery, pediatrician, public library, school, dentist, gym, church, auto repair and no less than 3 coffee shops with relative ease. May they all be conveniently located to your home, just as you had planned. May you find at least one friend who is not crazy, is not trying to defraud the government, understands that their kid is not perfect, will sweat with you, laugh with you, and offer to babysit when all you want is to see Star Wars before it comes to Netflix, will encourage you to take Mommy Time and discourage you from letting the military control 100% of your life 100% of the time. May you never want to leave and when it comes time, may you find the strength to do all of this all over again.

If you are staying put in 2016 but looking at a move down the road, may you find a way to continue to live in the moment, experiencing some things for the second year but seeing each one from a new perspective or diving a little deeper than the first time around. May you finally have your home arranged and decorated exactly as you want it and have enough time to enjoy it in this "finished" state. May you say hello more than you say goodbye. May you see the virtue in helping new families find their way around, asking nothing in return except a tiny chunk of good Karma. May you have the foresight to begin buying gallon baggies in bulk when they go on sale now. May you relax in this state of calm, simply relishing in the routine of day-to-day life as many experience it regularly but is rare for military families. May your best friend PCS the day after you.

If you are staring at a deployment this year, please know that we are a grateful nation. Every single one of us. Even if we don't shake your hand or hug your neck or even say the words. May you always feel lifted to a pedestal that is impossible to tumble from. May you have casseroles delivered to your door, offers to watch your children whenever it's convenient for you, a good cry when you need it and a good laugh when you don't. May you not feel compelled to watch any show produced by Shonda Rhimes until the end of the deployment or any Homecoming videos, especially between Thanksgiving and New Year's. May you always have a project and a bottle of wine to get you through the day. May your days be short and those nights in an empty bed even shorter. And may your children be obedient, patient, understanding and sweet in an unexplainable, almost other-worldly kind of way. Most of have been there, many of us more than once, some of us quite recently. It's Hell but there is always one of us to walk through it with you. Separation makes the heart grow fonder is absolute BS that prints beautifully on a Hallmark card. Separation makes you bitter and resentful and lose sight of why we are doing this in the first place. But many babies are born 9 months after Homecoming so it can't be all bad.

If you are leaving or retiring from the Milspouse lifestyle, let me hopefully be the first to say Thank You for your tireless service and sacrifice during a time when it was popular to be a Milspouse but not at all easy. If you have been serving for any length of time, you've probably endured at least one deployment and several moves. You may have moved overseas or across the country or simply lost track of how long it's been since you've been home. You've probably heard more than your fair share of references to Army Wives or The Unit and you still feel utterly misunderstood by Hollywood and your extended family. You might be packing trinkets that have traveled thousands of miles or discarding furniture that is being held together by extra screws, several layers of duct tape and a prayer to survive one more move. You are leaving a life that has grown comfortable even when uncertainty was the only certainty. And, without a doubt, you will be missed. May your new life be as blissful as you imagined it would be. May you find a well of patience when asked, for the 20th time, where all you have lived. May you resist the urge to move again after the first 24 months, and for every 12 months thereafter. May you stop storing everything in baskets and plastic bins. May your children's first questions of a new friend be something other than, "What's your name and when are you moving?" May you feel the freedom to register to vote, buy a house, volunteer for future events, join boards and councils, feel grief when someone leaves your community. May you find home.

This year, more than ever, I have felt the blessings that military life sometimes bestows upon us. I have made friends, had experiences and discussed ideas that would have never been possible without this year. I've watched our son grow, in all ways, stronger because of the people surrounding us. This life demands much of us but it gives much to us, as well. 2015 was a year of sadness and joy, goodbyes and hellos, love and loss, burnt dinners and the best butternut squash lasagna recipe ever. It was a rollercoaster ride with the very best of my MilSisters riding in the car beside me. Sometimes it feels like a sorority of sacrifice but I hope we always feel more like a sisterhood of service.

With love, admiration and the very best of wishes,
Ally