Why Voting Makes Me Cry

sweaty votes count!

Ahhh...politics! Such an engaging, pleasant topic that always brings people closer together.


I don't talk politics on my blog or on Facebook. Many of my friends have differing views and opinions and since I'm both a Libra and a Minnesotan, conflict of any kind makes me twitchy. I will "like" political posts, and depending upon where I am in my cycle, will comment on them (comment sections are like Midol for me)...but I tend to go old school where this type of conversation is concerned: keep it close to my vest. If someone were to ask me, point blank, then yes, I'd spill the beans. But until then, let's stick to generalities.

*starts singing Kumbaya*

I am an Easy Weeper. Tears don't need much coaxing from me, they seem to be at the ready 24/7. It's not really a surprise then, that I found myself dabbing some of those salty droplets from my eyes a few nights ago, after exiting the local polling place.

I had just voted in a seemingly "unimportant" primary: the one which will determine who gets to be on the general ballot for the Minnesota Supreme Court election. My friend Andrea, who is an attorney, sent out an email urging people to vote and I'll be frank: if it wasn't for the email it might have slipped my mind, entirely. Come on: it's August, the summer air is steamy and turbid, we're all already sick and tired of hearing about elections.

But her words touched me, and after I was done with the evening's carpool duties I dragged my swampy ass (sorry, no a/c in my car) to the tiny fire station where I have been voting for a better part of my adult life.

I was the sole voter in there, the election judges and other voting day personnel seemed bored but delighted to see me. The entire process took about two minutes, they gave me my sticker and then I got into the oven/car where I promptly began a soft weep.

Crying a little after voting is nothing new, so it wasn't completely unexpected. I'm one of those moms who proudly dragged a herd of writhing children into the polls with me, daring anyone to make a comment about the audacity of kids being in such an important, adult-ish place. Showing my brood that their mom made her civic duty a high priority was key. And also it was always fun to have them fight over who got the "I VOTED" sticker. GOOD FREAKING TIMES. Bless the hearts of the kindly sticker-givers who handed out more than one, right? More than once I cried in my car after those experiences.

My mom might not have done a stellar job protecting me as child, but one thing she did do was stress the importance of voting. As a teacher and a rider of the Women's Lib wave of the 60's and 70's she was obviously a liberal-leaning Democrat and that's what I soaked up. Imagine her surprise and delight, then, when my succession of boyfriends and then eventual husband/baby daddy were staunch Republicans. And imagine her disappointment when I decided they were right in more ways than one.

As life wore on I learned that my father was a diehard Republican. Aha. Freud is pursing his lips and stroking his beard somewhere right now, I tell you. Vy don't ve discuss your fazzer some more, Jenny.

After my divorce, I no longer had someone there telling me why "we" should vote one way and not the other. During the time I was a financially comfortable SAHM certain issues which didn't affect me weren't even blips on my radar screen. When I became a financially uncomfortable single mom struggling to raise 4 human beings on my own, those same issues not only showed up on my radar, they invited themselves in and had a seat. Shortly after I cast my vote in the 2008 presidential election, and proudly announced it, my former-BFF burst through the front door of my house. She was livid, screaming at me for making such an idiotic choice. She leaned against a wall and sank down onto her haunches, crying "When my family is homeless in four years, I guess we'll have you to thank." Seeing as how now, 8 years later, she and her hubby own two homes, she doesn't work and their kids drive nicer cars than me, I'm thinking they're doing just fine. 

But anyhoo. Let's not get into left and right and all other angles and sides here. As several annoying memes have told us, we aren't going to change anyone's mind with silly things like words and facts and ideas on the Internet.

What we can do, though, and I wish more people would, is TALK ABOUT VOTING. Brag about it, take selfies, share polling locations and times, email, text, post. Social media is such an odd beast, right? Who would have thunk that there'd come a day when we'd be taking pictures of our dinners and putting it out there for all the world to see? If we can use this medium for such trivial things, why can't we use it for more pressing matters? Don't get me wrong: I love a good shot of a cheeseburger just as much as the next lady but I also love to see people flexing their 'Merica Muscles. It may feel as though we don't have voices in this system, that we are less-than cogs in a bloated, vile and corrupt machine but dammit: people died for this right. Women? We have only been able to vote since 1920. For some of us, that means our grandmothers were alive when women had zero say in who represented us in the government. Can you even imagine? I can't.

Maybe that's why I cry when I vote. Thinking about all of those brave, strong ladies who sat there in their un-airconditioned houses, taking care of a million kids and husbands and elderly relatives and doing it all without a single one of the modern conveniences even the brokest of us now enjoy and said "WTF? My voice doesn't matter? Umm...bullshit, fellas." Okay, so they probably didn't actually say that but they did eventually say something, and thank goodness they did.

Or maybe I cry because there are women in other countries who just recently, some as recently as THIS YEAR, were granted the right to vote. Yep. 2016 and women in Saudi Arabia can finally vote. Still can't drive, wear makeup or open up a freaking bank account without their husband's permission, but baby steps, right? (spoiler alert: this might be why I cry because as I typed this out I started bawling. Tell your daughters how LUCKY THEY ARE!)

I do know they aren't tears of regret. Not once have a looked back and thought to myself, Jenny? That was a total waste of time. Even when the results aren't what I wanted, I know that by voting I earned the right to bitch about it.

This upcoming election is already proving to be one of historical importance, even if only for the amount of chaos and mudslinging produced thus far- and we haven't seen the worst of it yet. Just wait until Saturday Night Live comes back!

This fall, I will be casting my vote for our next President. Three of my four children will be doing so, as well.

I predict the tears falling after this one will be monumental. Whether they're happy or sad tears, that's up to us.



It's Just Like Riding A Book

One of my earliest, clearest memories is sitting down, book in hand, and reading. It was Richard Scarry's Busytown and the name "Lowly" confounded me. What kind of name is that? How do you say it? In my mind, I have never not known how to read. It came naturally, just like walking and talking.

Lowly wasn't the only bookworm. I was right there, too. Devouring tomes from the library, from my ever-expanding bookshelves at home and those at school. I read whatever I could get my hands and eyes on...even the musty, outdated Encyclopedia Britannica set we had in the basement.

I remember being so stoked for the annual MS Readathon. This was back in the Stone Age, remember, when everything was done via snail mail and when that packet arrived in our mailbox I'd rip it open, grab a pen and start canvassing the neighborhood for pledges.

It was 5th grade, I was ten years old and we were living in a brand new neighborhood. My parents had been divorced for a couple of years by then, and my mom and her new husband had bought a little house in St Louis Park, Minnesota. My already-bookish tendencies were becoming deeper and bookier thanks to the discovery that the new stepdad was a real 'hands-on' kinda guy. When everything you do, including breathing, has the potential to set someone off you learn pretty quickly to try and disappear, to fade into the woodwork so as not to draw attention to yourself. Books, more than ever, became my escape. The portal to places safe and less scary. Or, in the case of the Stephen King novels I discovered that year, places with even more terrifying citizens- which was oddly comforting.

After all, would you rather be dealing with the meaty fists of a mentally deranged mere mortal, or a teenage vampire hovering outside your bedroom window?

Back to the Read-a-thon. If you're not familiar with the premise: kids had a month to read as many books as they could, which they'd record in a folder from the MS Society. Prior to that, they'd go around and gather signatures and pledges from family and friends and neighbors...people usually pledged a nickel or a quarter per book. Sometimes you'd get a real high roller who'd go up to a buck. All the money raised went to the MS Society. So, the month began and I dove in, rarely coming up for air and when I did it was to mark another book on my list and to grab a new one. I read 55 books that month and when it came time to collect my pledges, people were astounded. "Wow!" and "Great job!" and then, from one nasty old coot, "Liar." I was standing there, on her front stoop, my collection-gear at the ready: my reading log covered in the titles and author names and number of pages in my hand and the collection envelope provided by the MS Society. I'd given her my results and explained how much her pledge amount came to and "we take cash or checks, ma'am". Again, she said: "Liar. How dare you say you've read that many books! I don't believe you. I'm not paying." The screen door she slammed in my face was decorated with scrolled aluminum curlicues, which I looked at while quietly stating, "But, I did."

I'd been book-shamed!

That didn't deter me, however, it only taught me that even kindly looking matronly ladies could be dicks. Later that year I received a letter from the MS Society informing me that I'd read the most books in my age group, along with two complimentary tickets to ValleyFair, a nearby amusement park. Suck it, mean lady.

As I grew older, the reading continued and eventually I began writing, too. When I was in the 6th grade the Star-Tribune, official newspaper of Minneapolis/St.Paul, announced that they were starting a weekly pull-out section. It was called The Smile Factory and it was a mini-paper for, and by, kids. I was hired as a reporter and contributor and it was the first time someone paid me for my words. Writing became second nature to me, and in the pre-computer days I filled up journals and notebooks with handwritten ramblings. Of course once Al Gore and his Interweb came along, I set up shop here.

I went through reading phases: poetry, Oprah's picks, historical autobiographies, self-help. Eventually I ended up married with kids and it became my job to instill a love of books into my soft and impressionable babies. Which I did, and succeeded. All the while, I still read. Not at the pace of my youth, of course. Who has time in the midst of homemaking? But the nightstand always held at least one book and when there was energy and quiet, I'd read.

Then, the divorce happened. And just like that, it seemed as though the reader in me died.

Actually, a lot in me felt dead then. It was the equivalent of a deforestation, a clear-cutting of my soul. When you go into survival mode, the tiny luxuries of your past life fall by the wayside and your vision becomes tunneled. I had one goal, and that was to make sure my kids had what they needed. When I wasn't with them or working or sleeping or crying in the shower, I was burying my head in the soothing sands of coping, of getting by, of making it to the next minute/hour/day/week/month/year. Reading was replaced by mindless Netflix binges, nights out (or in) with friends, wine and food being gobbled up instead of words. The old me no longer existed and for a long, long time I didn't crack a book.

But like those decimated forests, the old me wasn't really dead. It was just sleeping. And slowly, as the pieces of our lives started falling into their new places and the matter of the kids and I surviving was no longer up for debate, it woke up. It's almost as if something inside of me switched off in order to conserve power, like the SuperSaver switch on our air conditioning unit. Somehow I knew that for me, reading a book was a little bit like falling in love- and I didn't have it in me to do that.

The ALL CLEAR finally sounded and old me tentatively peeked out...checking to see if it was safe. One book at a time- page by page and chapter by chapter- I came alive again. I had forgotten what it felt like to get lost in another world, to let someone else tell their tale and take me by the hand as we traversed the roads they'd been on. I found my reading spot, which is our porch, and although I now either have to wear my drugstore readers or else take out my contacts in order to see the print on the page it's just as easy as it ever was to submerge myself into those pools of prose and float, peacefully.

I knew I was back when I found myself sobbing, as softly as I could, one night. Over something in a book instead of something in my life. 

This has been my summer of reading. My summer job is a lot like my school year job (secretary) except this summer we are in a different location and there is nothing for me to do aside from help the occasional walk-ins with enrollment questions and to buzz the door open for the summer school families. At first I killed the time by perusing Amazon but after I found a 2 lb bag of Gimbal's gluten-free licorice in our mailbox I knew there had to be a better and less-fattening way to while away the hours.

It all started with a battered copy of Where'd You Go, Bernadette which was languishing in the staff lounge and went from there. I dug out a Jodi Picoult book from the back seat of my car, pried off the grape Jolly Rancher that had adhered to the page edges and ate it up (the book, not the candy- gross!). A lovely parent at school loaned me her copy of The Widow. A blogger friend wrote a steamy novel, Beyond the Break and much to my lonely libido's dismay, I read it. My daughter and I hit the thrift store one day and there was a Jennifer Weiner book I'd somehow never read, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

You wouldn't believe how many pages you can get through when you're tethered to a desk and all the fun websites are blocked (about 250 pages if you really want to know, figuring in lunch and bathroom breaks and the aforementioned "work").

Next week, it's back to the normal grind: back to school time means a crazy-busy couple of weeks for those of us in the office. I'll be losing this forced quiet time, these rare and beautiful hours with nothing to do but bounce on my ball-chair, greet people and let myself get lost in someone's story.

I won't stop reading, though. Not this time.


August is National "I'm Bored" Month

Really. Look it up. Except it's pronounced differently than it's spelled.

You pronounce it, "I'm booooorrrrrrrrreeeeed." Usually prefaced with "Moooommmm".

Remember that scary and dark section of the clock, usually about 4:30 in the afternoon or so until about 6:00, that's lovingly referred to as the "arsenic hour"?

Welcome to my arsenic month.

Here in the great midwest, our kids are on summer vacation from the beginning of June until about the first week of September. That's three months. The first two months usually fly by, filled with Park and Recreation activities, camps, vacation Bible school, etc. You get the idea. Sleepovers during the week are still fun and exciting, there are hours of shows on Netflix you haven't watched yet, days and nights are spent blissfully schedule-free.

And then August rears her humid, bitchy head. Hello, my pretties, I imagine her cackling.

August. The month when all of the activities are finished, the lakes start to stink, the mosquitoes are more prolific and annoying than the Kardashians. The month when it's a pretty safe bet that most moms you run into are getting desperate for something, anything, to fill the hours that make up the long, endless days. It's also a pretty safe bet that those bottles of "Diet Coke" they're toting are actually bottles of "scotch". Seriously...watch those mommy reflexes snap into high-alert when a kid tries to mooch a sip. "That's MINE, honey."

This is the month when every flat surface in your house is coated with a fine, sticky film made up of powdered Cap'n Crunch, Capri Sun and dried tears.

Time moves slowly in August. Slower than the bowels of a child who has ingested nothing but string cheese, GoGurt and bananas for a week. Tick. Freaking. Tock.

In my house, this is the month my child whom I secretly worry is a future basement dweller starts becoming fixated on one of his online games. I find him standing next to my bed at midnight, mouth-breathing and pleading, "Just $9.99 mom, please, I can get new armor for my character!!!". The youngest of my crew starts roaming the neighborhood with his little tween boy posse, I can hear them yelling from a few yards away right this second. They beg me for daily trips to the hardware store to procure duct tape and scrap lumber. I am afraid to ask what they need it for.

I stay in my pajamas until noon on these days. Just because to get dressed is to give my kids the signal that I'm ready to go somewhere. Somewhere that costs a lot of money and is sure to be non-air conditioned.

But don't worry, this isn't all doom and gloom. August is also the month that you can walk through the front doors of Target and are greeted with a whiff of Eau De Crayola. Big cheery signs that say "School Supplies Ahead!" lead you to the corner of the store that's crowded with sweaty weary ladies clutching supply lists and pushing a cart filled with crap that we swear we have at home somewhere. The registers are like bar closing time back in the day except the only thing we're going home with now is a ten-foot long receipt and seventeen plastic bags full of hope.

You start to go through the kid's dresser drawers, looking at and touching longingly, the corduroys and the sweaters. Soon, my loves, you whisper to them. Soon.

I stop to remind myself that as summer winds down it means the onset of alarm clocks, homework, kids reminding you that they're out of lunch money as they walk out the door in the morning. It means endless curriculum meetings, choir concerts, conferences and book fairs.

But that's ok. Because we need this balance, this yin and yang that makes up our parenting-calendar. These stop-motion days of August will be the days I dream about in January, when every single mitten and glove I've ever purchased has mysteriously disappeared and wet boots are flung hither and yon throughout my house and I'm trying to psych myself up for the daunting and painful task of hauling the bone-dry Christmas tree out to the curb.

And so, as hard as it may be, I will put on some pants, make another jug of lemonade and see if I can find the duct tape. All while giggling to myself: Fall is coming

Originally published Aug. 11, 2010 (oh my how times have changed...)


The Best Parenting Advice You'll Ever Get: Be Really Lucky

Unless you've been stranded on Mars or trapped in a cave somewhere, you have heard and read about the tragic accident that took the life of a sweet 2 year old boy in Florida. And unless you've not been on the internet for four days, you've also read the innumerable essays and posts about it. And then, oh sweet mercy...there are the comment sections.

Comment sections have always been an insidious slice of our societal pie; the one place people seem to have zero trouble letting their true colors run like an overflowing toilet at Taco Bell. For whatever reason- maybe the political circus that's happening in our country, perhaps a nation already at maximum grief bearing weight over yet another senseless mass shooting- the boy's death in Florida brought out the comment section militia in droves. You thought the mom from the gorilla incident in Ohio caught a shit-ton of indignant, self-righteous flak? The couple in Florida got what she did, and then some.

There have now been pleas for the world to stop judging and be more kind. To show compassion instead of superiority. It's basically all been said, and done so a thousand times better than I could say. I decided to take a little break from the whole of it, to take Facebook off of my phone for a bit and to avoid reading anything below an actual article. Except then I cheated. I read one last post regarding the Disney incident and then, oh yes...and then....one last comment thread.

This thread contained the by-now familiar opening argument: "they shouldn't have" followed by either "had their kid in the water at night!" or "had a 2 year old up that late!" and of course the always soft and gentle "had kids in the first place if they weren't going to watch them." Those remarks are part and parcel of any accident involving a minor now. Parents suck, don't you know? Well, at least some parents do. Except, of course, for those who chime in and let the world know that this kind of unfortunate ugliness will never happen to them.

Which brings me to the last comment thread I shouldn't have, but did, read. A woman named Jen was spouting off, in the usual grammatically challenged manner many of these perfect parents display. She employed the good old Social Media Backhanded Compliment Comment technique, whereupon one begins their novella-length, no-paragraph breaks tirade with a general sympathy statement.

"I am so sorry for this family. I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child this way.


There's always a but, right? God forbid someone expresses sympathy and sadness and ends it there. Jen didn't. She went on to rake the parents over the proverbial coals for what they did, and didn't do that fateful night on a dusky beach in Florida. They were, she decided, the ones who placed their babe into the mouth of that alligator and then waved as he was dragged away.

Then, she dropped this little bomb:

"I have a three year old. And I guarantee that something like this will never happen to her."

Oh Jen. I'm not laughing at you, I promise. Wait: I totally am laughing at you. Because you are effing hilarious.

You've been a parent for three years? Honey. That's like, 10 minutes on the parenting timeline.

I have old kids. Like, "could get married and have babies and mortgages" old. And I'm still a freaking novice. Just as I was guffawing at Sensible Smart Jen and her 30-odd months of parenting expertise, there are women chortling at me with my 22 years of it.

Parents? We may feel as though we've rocked it. We high-five ourselves, humble-brag about our mighty accomplishments and roll around in our successes like Garfield in a pan of lasagna.

But what none of us talks about, or even readily admits?

Most of parenting is just being lucky. Dumb luck, luck-of-the-Irish, lucky ducks. Whatever you want to call it, we gots it. Luck by the truckload, my friends.

That's the difference between Jen Almighty and the Nebraskan parents who lost their child. Jen's had it, and for one awful moment, they didn't.

Sweet Jesus. Even the act of getting, and staying, pregnant? May the odds be ever in your favor because that is a feat in and of itself. A friend and I had tandem pregnancies for our first two babies. Not because we timed it like that, you guys. It just happened. And then, we found ourselves pregnant together again, with our third babies.

She lost that baby via miscarriage. I didn't know what to say, sitting there watching her weep while trying to ignore the pregnant elephant in the room. She finally spoke:

"You are so lucky." She was right, of course. I was lucky. Luckier than a leprechaun riding bareback on a pot o' gold.

Now I know some of you are sitting there, claws extended, parenting books and child development pie charts and Venn diagrams at the ready. Ready to tell me that NO! Not luck! We are aware and educated and take steps to ensure the safety and growth of our babies. LUCK HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, JENNY YOU BIG FAT LYING LIAR!

I agree with you. To a point. There are different levels of parents, that's for sure. All you have to do is watch the news for a few hours to find that out, and find it out in spades. There are abusive and neglectful and absent parents. Dumpster babies and kids chained in basements and duct-taped into Rubbermaid bins. Those parents are obviously terrible human beings and despite whatever excuses they may have (their own miserable upbringings, mental illness, addiction, etc) bad luck had nothing to do with the fates of their children.

But for the rest of us? The Average Joe and Josie you rub elbows with everyday? Our successes and failures have as much to do with luck as with anything else.

What if that doomed family in Florida had decided to pack it up just five minutes earlier? What if their four year old daughter had fallen and started crying just a few seconds before the alligator swam up? What if Mom or Dad had been holding the little guy in their arms instead of letting him walk?

What if.
What if.
What if.

It didn't happen that way and they have proved that sometimes the universe and the planets and the luck fairies line up just so and the absolute worst-case scenario is played out like some macabre production.

So to all the Parenting Gurus out there like Jen, you need to just reel it in a bit. Take a seat, and then take a look at the luck you've been blessed with. Accidents happen and they do so without warning. The neighborhood dog that snaps, the huge tree branch that falls, the space heater that shorts out, the texting/drunk driver who happens to be on the road at the same time as you.

None of us, and I mean absolutely NONE of us can know if our guardian angels are on duty or if they've fallen asleep or sneaked out for a smoke. We should continue to be watchful, and vigilant, and educated about all things parent-y, of course. Keep outlets covered, baby-proof the cupboard doors and get your kids immunized. Look both ways, wash fruits and veggies carefully and lock up the house at night.

But never, ever should we become so arrogant as to presume we are exempt from experiencing a moment of bad luck.

It could happen to anyone...even you, Jen.


So Your Kid Isn't Going To College...

This is an insane time of year if you happen to have a high school senior in your family. Senior year, from a parents' perspective, is like a giant, out-of-control, no-brakes freight train...a powerful, soot-stained steel bullet careening towards you, black plumes of smoke billowing into the sky and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.

This is it. This is the moment we all see off in the faraway distance when we strap those wee little backpacks onto wee little preschool or kindergarten backs. This is the end goal, the level-up. The last year of school.

According to social media, this is also the time when parents proudly announce which college their progeny will be attending come fall. Your Facebook feed becomes a veritable avalanche of pictures featuring smiling kids donned in their future alma mater colors. Hearty congratulations are passed around like cigars in an old-timey maternity ward. Their futures are so bright, so shiny! Parents talk about how proud they are, and rightfully so. College is indeed an honorable next step after high school. Some might say the natural, right one.

But guess what? Not all kids go to college. And that's okay, too. In fact, sometimes it's the best, smartest and most reasonable step.

This year, I am the parent of a college-bound kid. As I was two years prior. Four years ago, however, I wasn't. My eldest child did not go to college. In fact, he didn't even apply to any. Back then, I felt something that was an awfully close cousin to embarrassment. Failure even. Not on his part- no! I felt like a loser parent who hadn't pushed hard enough, who hadn't followed the carefully laid out steps to get my kid into college. What I wish someone had told me back then, was what I'm laying down for you now.

Not all kids go to college. And that's okay.

Our world is changing at a breakneck speed. What was once an easy choice to make is now one fraught with scares and complications. Money, of course, is the biggie. There are articles and essays everywhere about the cost of college and who's supposed to pay it. Some parents have had the good fortune and the foresight to put money away for their future scholar. Others, like yours truly, couldn't have done it no matter how good our intentions were.

College is expensive. Horrifyingly so. Even if your kid goes to a local school, a state school, it isn't cheap. If you are one of those who have been socking away a bit of each paycheck, good for you! Way to go. You've given your kid a great head start. Even luckier is the child who has grandparents or other relatives who want to foot the bill. What a gift.

There are countless scholarships and grants, but most of the time those just take some of the squeeze out of that tuition bill. The unfortunate reality for many college students now is having to take out loans. I don't know about you, but the thought of sending one of my kids out into the world with a huge debt on their shoulders doesn't sound awesome. Especially when you look at what fresh college graduates are making (depending on their chosen career path).

There is also the matter of readiness. Some kids are, some aren't. Don't we all know of the boy/girl who left for school only to come home after a semester or two? When I was 18 I was nowhere near ready for college. I was immature and spacey and had so much growing up to do. I took a year off but that proved to be not quite long enough. Dropped out midway to pursue a career as a flight attendant. Again, nothing wrong with that profession but guess what? That wasn't my calling either. I kind of fell into my longest-running gig, motherhood, and put my education on one of those out-of-sight back burners. Which, once I found myself divorced and poor, was not the best choice I could have made. I am a life lesson, folks.

I wish I could go back in time and be a bigger cheerleader for my firstborn. He knew he wasn't ready for college and, armed with that knowledge, he took his time. What we used to call "taking a year off" is now called "gap year" and in my son's case, it was a gap-and-a-half. Almost two gaps.

He lived at home. He worked his ass off. He saved money and grew up a little and took time to think. And when he was good and ready, he signed himself up at the local community college. Most of it was covered with grants and scholarships, the rest he paid for. Eventually he applied to transfer to a private four year college here in Minneapolis and that's where he is today. He's not on the four-year track, or even the five-year one.

He's on HIS track. And I couldn't be prouder.

I have one more kid left, and I'm beginning to gently encourage him to look into other post-high school options. You know why? Not because I don't think he's "college material", but because I don't think he's ready. Not by a long shot. Who knows what the next two years will bring for him, though. He might wake up one day and be all rah-rah about it, and if so, I will support him 100%.

But, he might not. And that is something I will also support completely.

Look. This isn't an anti-college rant. I believe in education and it's something I've harped on about for so long my kids can recite the speech verbatim (it goes something like "look at me! Don't be me! Find something you like to do and finish your education!! USE ME AS YOUR WORST CASE SCENARIO!!").

Nobody can argue against getting educated. A degree is never worthless...this is something any of us who work for a living can tell you. I've seen people get jobs simply because of that piece of paper, beating out other candidates who are armed with many more years of experience. And if degrees talk, then advanced degrees shriek, people.

But. There are so many other options out there. Options that might not strike our college-happy society as brag-worthy, but are honorable and smart nonetheless.

Like I tell my kids: there will always be things that need fixing. Cars, plumbing, appliances, houses. People will always need haircuts and clothing and food. Our military is all volunteer. I know people who work at Costco making more money and with better retirement packages than some people with advanced degrees. A quick Google search will show you endless success stories of people who have made it big without college.

It can happen. And for some people, it does. That doesn't mean I think college is irrelevant or a waste of time and money. Quite the opposite. But it depends upon the person. It's a very case-by-case scenario and a very personal one at that.

So to those of you who aren't already thinking about dorm room purchases or how it's going to feel when you hug your college freshman goodbye, know that your kid has probably already made one of the smartest decisions of their life.

Be proud of them.


The Prince of Minnesota

When someone of note passes, it's become de rigueur for anyone with internet access to write a tribute of some sort. Not more than 40 minutes after the news broke, Huffington Post had at least two Prince-memorial pieces up. It's not surprising, given the ripples this diminutive life-force created in his lifetime. I normally don't care for the navel-gazing posts that litter cyberspace after a "celebrity" crosses over (are you ready for the "10 Prince songs that made me a better parent" articles?) but this time it's different, at least for those of us who communicate primarily via writing here in Minnesota. Even for those of us who do so lazily and as a hobby. We need to share our Prince stories, as we would have had this happened a hundred and fifty or so years ago- we'd have sat around a fire telling our kinfolk about that time we ran into Prince at the City Center food court. "...and he was so tiny I probably could have tucked him into my purse! Okay, kids, back into the covered wagon."

If you're from Minnesota, you don't ask your fellow citizens if they like Prince. It would be like asking them if they enjoyed breathing. "Well, yeah, you know, if the mood is right." Nope. Not saying every Minnesotan is a Misery-style fangirl or boy, but still. Growing up here, in PrinceLand, you know things. You learn his lyrics via osmosis. When a song of his pops out of the speakers at the grocery store or Target it isn't novel or surprising, it just is.

One of the many rites of passage here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes is driving around town, preferably around one or two of those aforementioned lakes, windows down, your friend in the passenger seat next to you with her feet up on the dash and a perfectly fitting Prince jam blaring on the radio. His songs? They were all pretty much fitting. Even when it was discussing how many positions there are in a one night stand or fighting parents or horses hanging around watching a kid lose his virginity in a barn, his music just fit. Perfectly.

My peers and I came of age during the 80's. At the time there was no indication that it was a magical point in history, a beautiful chunk of years to be alive and young and free to roam the streets. Looking back now, as various icons leave us and move on to the next place, it fills me with both a grateful joy and a profound sadness. The joy is because we were able to drench ourselves in their talent for such a sweet stretch of time, the sadness is because it's over and no matter how much fun was had, it will never feel like we got enough. Just one more song, just one more movie, just one more concert...just one more, please.

When we Minnesotans get braggy about our state, we mention several cultural standouts. Betty Crocker! Paul freakin Bunyan! Post it Notes! Bob Dylan! And always, always our sweet Prince. He is as Minnesota as the Vikings, only he won a lot of things and he built his own mother effing stadium.

It's a routine in our home to have music playing while whichever kids who are around and I gather in the kitchen either preparing dinner or asking when it'll be ready. The night we lost our Prince was no exception and of course, it was him and his lyrical gift filling the room. As one son prepped the burgers for grilling and the other stood by the fridge observing, the observant one said: "Mom, one of my favorite memories is you and me in the car, singing along to Raspberry Beret really loud. Man, I'm sad."

And that sums it up. I can't properly express what a loss this is to the world. Especially our world here in Minnesota. There aren't enough words...so I'm just going to echo what my son said.

Man, I'm sad.


Basic Instincts (and coffee)

On a cold November morning in 2009, a bad thing happened.

My coffee maker died.

Since it was one of the relics from my marriage, it was top-of-the-line as far as java cookers go. That thing was yuuuge (go ahead, say it in a Donald voice) and sleek and looked like something you'd see on a counter-top in a swanky Euro kitchen. It made espresso and cappuccino and frothed milk like a mother effer. My ex loved shiny expensive things and this workhorse was no exception. How it ended up with me, and not lovingly ensconced in his starter love-nest is a mystery.

Anyway. It died. I remember going through the motions that morning: filling it up with water, grinding the beans, pushing "BREW" and then gasping in sleepy horror as a pool of water started spreading out from beneath the vessel. I did what every self-respecting addict did in those days and immediately posted on the facebook about it.

LOL@ Angie

Juliana, a friend for a long time, came to my rescue and dropped off a gently used machine that morning. It was a Krups, just like the now-expired beast in my kitchen, but a much more basic model. It did one thing: make coffee. It also told time but I never did get around to setting the clock. It was white, had seem some life and many brew cycles. I took the gold mesh filter from the dead machine (of course it had a gold mesh filter. OF COURSE IT DID.) and placed it in the "new" one, went through the motions and pressed "BREW".

And there was coffee. Not espresso, not cappuccino, not a frothed concoction. Nope. Just straight coffee. Hot and strong and gloriously basic.

Fast-forward 7 years. Different house, different kitchen, different life. Same coffee maker. Every single morning, without fail, that hand-me-down Krups coffee maker does what it was put on this Earth to do. It makes my coffee. I can't vouch for how decent of a brew it makes, since I have atrocious taste in many things, coffee included. But one of my kids has started pilfering it, so it must be okay.

I am firmly entrenched in the Ain't Broke? Don't Fix It camp. Always have been and probably always will be. When you think about it, that may be one of the reasons my marriage didn't work. Aside from the adultery and all that stuff, but still: I was married to someone who wanted more. Newer, better, prettier, fancier. Always on the lookout for the next big thing, he was. While I was the opposite. The polar opposite: why buy new when you already have one that works? Older doesn't mean obsolete, it means quality. To me, spending time and energy to replace something that works JUST FINE is silly.

I get it, though. I understand wanting to make improvements and being lured by the promise of something just a bit faster and edgier and better. That's why I don't have a flip phone, people. A now almost antiquated iPhone 5, yes, but it's still kind of smart even though the guys at the AT&T store regarded it with mild amusement/curiosity and warned me to avoid doing any more updates on it: "Lady, it will just stop working. Don't do it!".

As some of you here have reminded me, other people's money is not ours to spend. If you have the means, or even just the desire and decent credit, go for it. I'm not judging those of you who do want shinier and newer and possibly more efficient. Gadgets are fun. Buying stuff is fun. The smell of newness is always fun. I will admit to feeling something that is probably envy when I see someone with a nice car and I'm sitting behind the wheel of my well-loved, still-running vehicle that is held together with duct tape and solidified mid-life sweat thanks to the non-functioning air conditioning. But then I remind myself that as long as the car drives, it's all I really need.

Just like my beloved hand-me-down coffee maker. And really, I guess, just like a lot of us.

Basic. Gently used. Been through a few brew cycles. But we do what we're supposed to do. So don't write us off just yet.


If You Give A Broke Mom a Tax Refund...

Tax time. Those two words have been daunting to me over the past several years. With the exception of one exciting April many moons ago, I have owed money to our government every single year. I don't know how I scraped up the cash, honestly. Somehow, like everything else- they got paid, and miraculously, paid on time.

The irony of the poorest chick in the hen house having to pay Uncle Sam wasn't lost on me. It made me roll my eyes at all of the election-year hyperbole even more...people complaining about their precious tax dollars going to help the lazy freeloaders of society and all that. There I was, squatting at poverty level, contributing what little I had to all of those precious tax dollars being grabbed at by those "leeches" like game show contestants in the Wind Tunnel O'Money. please note the quotation marks around leeches...personally I believe corporate welfare is a far bigger shame than helping those who are in real need. Let's not get into that though.

This year held a glimmer of hope, however, due to the end of alimony in late 2014 and the addition of child support from then on. You see, my ex-husband is pretty smart when it comes to all things financial and long ago he and his lawyer went to great lengths to ensure that any money he sent my way was counted as spousal maintenance versus child support. Because, tax benefits. Back then I was overjoyed to be getting anything other than an ulcer from him, so of course I agreed. That is what ended up biting me in the arse over and over again at tax time. Maybe an ulcer would've been better?

It was with tentative optimism, then, that I sat down in front of the computer and loaded up the old Turbo Tax. I had all of my receipts, all of my records, all of the social security numbers organized and in order. I clickety-clacked, entered numbers and reconciled all of it. Dependents and educational expenses and rent paid, oh my. The dollar amount under the words "YOUR FEDERAL REFUND" increased as I went along. I tried to not look at it but couldn't stop, my eyes wide like they get when it's 1:30 on Friday and I see the word "martini".

When all was said and done I sat back and exhaled. Then, I ran the numbers again. And once more just to be sure.

I've heard stories of big huge fat tax refunds, but thought they were legends like Big Foot and low cost cable television. People always went on about what they were going to do with their refunds and I'd be crying in the corner, writing a check to the IRS and cursing the family court system.

This time, though. Boy howdy. It was big, by my standards.

Believe it or not, I didn't cry. I might have let out a big whoooop and I also may have texted my bestie.

And then, I got scared.

Here's the bizarre thing. Being poor effs with your head in many ways, and one of the weirdest is what it does to your relationship with money. Now, I'm saying poor as in "one mishap away from being homeless" poor and not "aughh we can't afford both a winter and a spring vacation this year" poor, okay? When you spend a bit of time worrying about feeding your kids and keeping a roof over your heads, money becomes like this big evil alien spacecraft, not unlike the one that hovered above the White House in the movie Independence Day. Fretting about it consumes every waking moment, and most of your sleeping ones, too.

So this little windfall was as terrifying as it was exciting. Maybe a little more the former than the latter.

I thought about it, during the days before it was deposited in my checking account. I considered the things that needed to be paid for, the things we really needed but could never afford, the fun stuff a broke ass mom and her kids could do for once, without the mom chewing her lower lip to bits trying to avoid thinking about the financial repercussions.

My god, I thought. I can get the stupid broken handle on my car door fixed! No more would I have to leave the window open only to haul ass out to the parking lot mid-rain to roll it up!

I could help my eldest with his car repair bill! I could get my poor dog's ear medicine! I could get new contacts and throw away the trial pair I've been wearing for way too many months! We could go out to dinner, all five of us and we could order whatever we wanted! Oh mah gah. I could maybe even afford to get a second car for the kids. A beater, of course, like my little silver tuna can Ford Focus, but just think...a second car!

Fantasies traipsed through my brain like fleet-footed nymphs: I imagined walking into a liquor store and saying in my best Gery Poupon accent "I say, good man, please point me in the direction of your finest wines within the 8-10 dollar range!" and then "Benson, I have procured several bottles. Please pull the car around so I may take leave of this fine establishment."

I even caught myself standing in front of a 40" Smart TV at Costco one night. It was marked way, way down and I stood there for a good five minutes, picturing myself in bed with a big shiny tv on my dresser and how nice it would be to watch my British shows on something besides the wee little chromebook. My days (actually nights) of falling asleep on the couch could be history! What could be better than dozing off in the comfort of my own bed, the dulcet tones of Netflix rocking me to sleep?

Luckily, I bitch-slapped myself right out of that one. I said out loud, "Who do you think you are, Beyonce??? Get real, Jenny." And then went on to get the milk and eggs and bulk pack of Hawaiian Sweet rolls I went there for in the first place.

What I did, and am doing with it, is this: I let us have some fun. Nothing crazy, of course, but there have been dinners and some new clothes and yes, a big linen-scented candle. I splurged on some gluten-free licorice from Amazon and am planning my 18 year old's graduation party without wincing and my daughter is finally going to get contacts (shh, that one's a surprise).

But that's it. The rest of it is remaining untouched. If I could find an old-timey Folgers coffee can and bury it somewhere, I would. Because being poor doesn't only make you afraid of money...it teaches you that you can't be trusted with it. That somehow, you are to blame for the financial mess you're in. You've made bad choices, dumb decisions and if only you'd somehow been just slightly smarter with your dollars, you wouldn't be in straits so dire.

I'm trying to get over that one. I think a fear of money is okay, to some extent, but I need to prove to myself that I am responsible, I am smart enough to handle this stupid chunk of change and I won't blow it. I was married, for a long time, to someone who had holes in his pockets and every bonus or gift horse was spent within days: new cars, new suits, new golf clubs, new kitchens. My first instinct then, when confronted with any excess money is HOW CAN I SPEND THIS AS QUICKLY AND FRIVOLOUSLY AS POSSIBLE? Girls? Learn how to handle money wisely. Parents? Teach all of your kids how to do it. Please. 

I guess, in hindsight, dealing with financial stress for so long afterwards has been kind of a blessing/baptism by fire. It has taught me that new doesn't necessarily mean better. It has definitely hammered in the differences between wants and needs.

But perhaps the most important lesson learned is, sometimes it's okay to splurge. Even if your definition of splurge is much different than it used to be. Where there used to be fancy clothes and granite counter-tops, there are now Old Navy sale sprees, scented candles and Saturday movie dates with a kid or two.

I think this definition better. Better, but I'm still scared.


I Am That Goose

The search history on my computer isn't too scary. It's more boring than anything else. It goes like this:

"gluten-free licorice"
"FedEx drop locations"
"costco hours"
"linen tunic 3/4 sleeve"
and then, there is this one:

"do geese mate for life"

I live in Minnesota, which for several months out of the year seems to be Goose Country. We get them in our yard, I see and hear them flying overhead and when out with the dog, encounter large groups of them by the trails and the ponds. Some people hate the geese but I have grown kind of fond of them. Except when my dog eats their poo. Then I curse them and their apparently irresistible droppings.

Some people would call me a bleeding heart animal lover. If it was within my means to buy a giant farm somewhere and populate it with injured and sickly animals, I would. So when I see a goose kind of limping, or one with a janky wing, I will worry about it.

I also worry about the lone geese. You know how, you will see a big gathering of geese (gaggle? flock?) and while the majority of them are coupled up you will see a few solo geese off to the side, staring off into the distance. Or as I like to think, rolling their geese-eyes and muttering "Jesus h Christ, Denise and Larry, quit your hysterical honking...everybody sees your precious gosling snowflakes, okay? We get it. They're adorable. Calm the eff down." 

So the next time I was at my computer I entered "do geese mate for life" into Google and found out that yes, for the most part, they do. And being the bleeding heart, I thought about all of those lone geese and wondered what their stories were. Did they have babies? Or did their mate disappear before that could happen? What if they had a nest of eggs and were all alone? What happens then? Do they feel lonely standing there with all the couples? How about when they're flying? Who watches out for them??

That's also when I wondered if perhaps it was time to go back on the Adderall.

And then it hit me: sweet Moses...am I a goose? Did I mate for life? Because I'm going to just put it out there- I almost always feel like that lone goose. The one standing there trying to look cool or at least not awkward in the flock of couples. The one thinking "yeah it's fine. I'm totally okay standing here, just me myself and I! We're good!"

I am that goose except my mate didn't meet the front end of an impatient/distracted SUV or a bullet or a hungry fox. Mine flapped off into the wings of another goose and never looked back. (and this also made me wonder, but not search, "do geese screw around"? and "what would you call a goose homewrecker?") (my answer to the second one: loosey goosey. LOL)

It was a chilling moment, sitting there in front of a computer, images of geese and goose factoids glowing before my eyes.

Did I mate for life? Holy shit. Maybe so.

Because it's starting to feel like perhaps mating for life is what I did. And I have become the human counterpart to all of those solo geese. When I have my head down, eating grass or whatever, there's no protective lover looking out for cars or foxes or middle aged ladies with dogs. When I sleep at night there's no warm bundle of feathers next to me. When I tend to my own goslings, and the one or two who can no longer be classified as goslings but are still adhered firmly to the nest, there's no backup or reinforcement. No manly goose who says "baby you look tired. go sit down and watch an episode of Happy Valley and I'll get dinner started". And no Plus One when I get invited to gatherings where one would normally go with another.

The scariest part of all, though, is this: I'm kind of okay with being the lone goose. Oh, don't worry, I still have those pondering moments, usually at about 2:00 a.m., when I think gee it would be nice to have someone here next to me. Or like yesterday, when one of my kids had a health scare and I was alone in the waiting room of the pediatrician's office trying really hard to keep positive and wondering what the hell kind of pediatrician's office waiting area doesn't have boxes of Kleenex on every table and also, when did parents get so young??

But for the most part, it seems to be fine. I seem to be fine. It's been so long that nobody bothers with the usual Single-Lady small talk anymore. You know, the "so are you seeing anyone?" conversations or even the "I know this guy..." talks. Although there is one person at work who insists that I need to mate up and is pushing me to go online and find The One. I don't have the heart or balls to tell her that I do have a couple other solo geese in my life, who make me laugh and who sometimes ruffle my feathers and that's pretty much all I have the time or desire for right now. I humor her by going onto Match.com and pretending to work on my profile but unbeknownst to her I never save it.

I still think about the life-stories of those alone geese, though, and wonder how they're doing. I wonder if geese get lonely or if there's not enough room in those tiny brains for such frilly emotions. I wonder if they look at the couples surrounding them and think "damn I miss mate" or if it's more like "almost time to fly south" or "I smell fox, must honk!".

All I know is that now when I walk by a group of them and I see Mr or Ms Single Goose, I mentally kiss my fingers and give him/her a good old Katniss solidarity salute.

I feel ya, geese.


Incredibly Worthless Superpowers

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Pffft. I believe we've all been blessed with superpowers. Some are just a little more super than others. And some, like the ones which have been bestowed upon yours truly, are absolutely worthless.

As much fun as it would be to be able to read minds or grow long indestructible Adamantium claws out of my knuckles (hello, bumbling-stumbling Costco shoppers, get the eff out of my way), there's something to be said for having extremely unremarkable abilities. We aren't constantly getting into epic battles, bad guys aren't trying to kill us and we don't have to come up with alter-egos in order to "blend in".

One of my worthless superpowers is the somewhat creepy ability I have to remember not only the names of the 700+ kids at the school I work with, but I have a 95% success rate when it comes to telling you who their teachers are, too. And about half of them, I know the parent's names. This power loses all strength once the kids graduate 6th grade and leave for junior high, though. When they come back to visit all I can see is the little baby face on top of a gangly young adult body and I'm forced to sit there and think of a polite way to say "Tell me your name again???".

My hair is another amazing thing. No, it's not beautiful but guess what? It doesn't get dirty. Scratch that. It does get dirty but it never looks like it. I could go weeks without washing my hair and I'm pretty sure it would just look better the longer I put it off. Of course the same can't be said for the rest of my body. If you've ever walked through the Beauty aisle at Walgreens and wondered who in the world buys those awful pink frilly shower caps...it's me.

Unfortunately I didn't procreate with another non-dirty hair person and only two of my four offspring "in-hair-ited" my hirsute abilities. The father of my kids had the kind of hair that looked greasy a couple hours after washing it, and actually left head-prints on our pillowcases. Prints of his head made from hair oil. One of the first things I did after he left was get all new bedding. #IkeaDivorceStory

Here's another worthless power I have: I can look at a pan or dish of leftovers and accurately gauge the exact size of plastic container we're gonna need to store it. Like, fish that little tub out of the Tupperware sea and every last bit of edible goodness will fit, right up to the brim. And I can find the corresponding lid in mere seconds. If I die tomorrow, it gives me some peace knowing I'm not leaving behind a drawer full of containers without lids that fit. We will talk about the horror that is known as "the last drawer on the left" in my bedroom at a later time.

It took a contest at work for me to fully realize another gift of mine: finding doppelgangers. We had a celebrity-lookalike thing and turns out I really do have a particular set of skills and if you give me a martini and an uninterrupted hour with the internet I will find YOUR celebrity twin. Here's mine:

This is me at work. Telling a parent it's okay. Whatever they're worried about, it's okay. Just drop their lunch/trumpet/boots/inhaler/backpack off and we'll get it to them. Promise.

Word of this talent spread, and before I knew it, throngs of teachers and staff were lined up next to my desk, begging me for assistance. Okay, maybe not throngs. But at least three people asked for my help. I found Partridge Family-era Susan Dey (there was absolutely NO indication of the timeliness of the celebs) and a couple more that I can't remember now. But believe me, they were dead on. Sometimes we play this game with the kids at school (on the down low, of course). We have a little Tori Spelling, a pint-sized Robert Pattinson (thanks Renae), Quentin Tarantino Jr., an even ittier-bittier Aziz Ansari and yes of course a miniature Shemar Moore (I actually dubbed that kid "Eyebrows" in honor of Derek Morgan/Criminal Minds). Find Your Doppelganger...it's fun. And I'll help you.

Do you need a little down time? A little chunk of the day where you are actually forced to stand still and just be? Come grocery shopping with me then, and I promise you I will find the slowest checkout lane. There, you will have generous amounts of minutes to check your Facebook, scroll through the Groupon deals and maybe just maybe perfect the art of the disapproving sigh/eye-roll/foot-shifting. It doesn't matter if the person ahead of me only has two items vs. the lady next door with the overflowing cart. Odds are, the person I chose to get behind will be using their credit card for the first time and can't understand all the buttons to push and/or the cashier will accidentally input the wrong price or maybe they will run out of register tape. Meanwhile, Full Cart lady is laughing and on her way out the door. On the bright side, I did have time to delete all of those emails from Groupon.

And the last superpower I have to share is one that I no longer claim to excel at...that honor goes to my best friend Danielle. For a long time I was reigning queen of WebMd, the diva of self-diagnosis, the high priestess of pairing symptoms with ailments. Many nights were spent in bed, laptop burning the tops of my legs while I dug through the internet armed only with the search terms "bloated stomach" and "thigh pain". I dubbed that mysterious abdominal pain "pancreatitis", my disappearing eyebrows as "hypothyroidism" and a throbbing ear as "spider laid eggs in there". In reality the real culprits were "half a tub of artichoke dip", "middle age" and "cracked tooth". Only one of those scenarios ended with medical intervention and vicodin.

Oh but did the tables turn on me when I turned to my BFF for medical advice. It was then that I learned of her magical medical prowess, and believe me when I say she put my Quincy MD abilities to shame. During a flurry of late night texts wherein I described my symptoms (cramps so bad I spent the night in the fetal position, crying), my homie sent me a malady I'd never heard of: Twisted Ovary. Oh how I wish I'd taken a sreenshot of that text...it probably glowed. Since then, she's been my go-to when I have a list of symptoms and my hypochondria is raging. Dr. Oz? Nah. More like Dr. Danielle. (of course, it wasn't really a twisted ovary, just perimenopausal menses and half a tub of artichoke dip, both treatable with time and self-loathing)

One thing I haven't added to my repertoire of worthless skills is knowing exactly when to stop writing. So I'm going to go out on a limb and end this post right here...but not before asking:

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