Sunday, December 21, 2014

Confessions of a Non-Shopaholic At Christmas

If there is a shopper's gene, I was not born with it. In fact, I'd put shopping right up there with a root canal on my list of preferred ways to spend an afternoon. But at least with the root canal, you get some sweet drugs to take the edge off.

Like those who suffer from seasonal allergies, my shopping aversion is particularly pronounced this time of year, especially when it comes to the chamber of horrors known as The Mall. Between the parking lot where SUVs (often driven by women in workout gear who apparently save their precious steps for CrossFit or Zumba class) circle like hungry sharks for the closest spot, the operating room strength lights, and the sickly sweet smell of the Cinnabon stand mixed with the awful stench piped in and out of Abercrombie and Fitch, the mall is one of the circles of Hell in my book.

So it may seem odd that one of my favorite memories of Christmases past involves shopping... with my dad, no less, the man from whom I almost certainly inherited my anti-shopping tendencies.

While not a shopper, my dad was always what you might call a browser. When he and my mom first arrived in this country in the late 60s and lived in downtown Detroit, they often enjoyed taking in the sights of the stately J.L Hudson's flagship department store, admiring the holiday decor and the elegant mannequins in the window. Eventually, they moved to a boutique-y suburb where they pushed my brother in a stroller down quaint city streets. I don't think Dad ever actually bought much- but he browsed with interest.

By the time I came around, we lived in a neighborhood with no stores to speak of. With two parents with very demanding careers and two kids with busy lives, holiday shopping was not exactly a top priority. But every year, as the holiday grew near (really near, like Dec. 23), my dad would put his game face on and SHOP. And I would get to go with him.

Because he was a man on a mission, there was only one store we'd hit.  It was a place filled with gadgets and gizmos galore. A place where technology and imagination came together on every shelf. A place that felt like it contained the Gifts of Christmas Future... a place called The Sharper Image.

Once inside, I'd happily sink into a massage chair with a pair of 3D goggles while a robotic butler dog scooted across the floor in front of me, deftly carrying a sonic toothbrush and an ionic jewelry cleaner on his tray. Meanwhile, my dad quickly but methodically picked out gifts for those on his list: stress-relieving microwavable socks for my hard-working, tired-footed mom. A shower radio for my music-loving brother. And don't forget the talking keychain that spoke phrases in 4 different languages for his travel-obsessed daughter...the one he thought I didn't see him sneak to the checkout.

It was never a big production- we were in and out of the store in under an hour, and back home without any fanfare. On Christmas Day, we'd laugh as we'd open his seemingly random (but actually very carefully selected) items. Recognizing his lack of shopping expertise, the gifts were all the sweeter. I never thought much of it at the time, and I honestly haven't thought about it in years, until a certain catalog arrived in the mail a few weeks back.

Flipping through the pages, I was struck by how much has changed over the years (for instance, why is Heidi Klum on the cover- even she looks like she doesn't know what the heck she's doing there?), and how much still remains the same (A soothing heated gel eye mask...for your dog! A lighted salt and pepper grinder, for your loved ones who face dimly lit seasoning emergencies!).

And that is true in my own life as well. My dad no longer shops at The Sharper Image, or anywhere else at Christmas. In fact, now confined to a wheelchair, he's no longer able to do many of the things he once did. But here's what will never change- at Christmas and throughout the year, I will always try to follow my dad's example with what I consider to be his unspoken rules of Christmas shopping:

1) No matter how busy you are, there is always time to think of others.

2) Sometimes the smallest gestures mean the most.

3) Don't apologize for what you can't do: when love is given quietly and simply, it says everything.

I'd like to think that deep down I always knew all that to be true.

Maybe now, I just have... a sharper image.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Good Things Really DO Come in Threes: Giving Thanks For The Third Child

Yes, I do realize Thanksgiving was yesterday, but since this is all about the third child, it's only fitting my thanks comes late, as anyone with three kids will agree that you are ALWAYS running late.

But recently I've come across a number of snarky pieces which enumerate the difficulties and challenges adding a third child can bring to a family. I'm sure I've made a case for some of those myself. Several years back, my husband and I found ourselves wondering what it would be like if we were to have a third child. We were already abundantly blessed with a boy and a girl, our hearts and lives were full, and our limits seemed stretched. But while we were busy debating the pros and cons of procreation, life took matters into its own hands.

And while I'm not saying our world today isn't many times more hectic, chaotic, and overwhelming than it was 3.5 years ago, I am saying it's so much better. So on this day after Thanksgiving, I'd like to start a new tradition of giving thanks for an amazing gift not available at any Black Friday sale: the third child. And since the poor third child's birthday, accomplishments, and sometimes entire existence is at risk of getting lost in the shuffle, I officially dub today Third Child Awareness Day, a chance to celebrate all the wonderful things the third child brings to your life. Here are a few:

1. The third child is a party animal. From birth and even the 40-ish weeks leading up to it, he was dragged to his siblings' sporting events, ballet recitals, and class parties. He could probably write a comprehensive review of every bounce house within a 25-mile radius of your house, given all the birthday parties he's attended from the comfort of his Bjorn or stroller. He lives to celebrate anything and everything, and turns virtually every gathering into a celebration. There simply is no greater cheerleader than the third child. 

2. The third child will keep you on your toes because he is always...ALWAYS...up to something. But he is so darn cute he gets away with much  almost all of it. 

3. You think your other two kids are cuddly? The third child doesn't just hug you- he squishes his face against yours and hugs the life out of you...or into you. 

4. The third child's expectations are incredibly low. No pressure to personalize his belongings. If you get even one of the letters right, he's thrilled. In fact, he's ecstatic you even remembered to get him a backpack. 

5. On a scale of 1 to 10, the third child's emotional IQ is roughly 456. He feels EVERYTHING, and his emotions- whether joy, or sadness (but usually joy), are just BIGGER. 

6. Hero worship: that's how he feels about his older siblings, who instantly became better people the day the third child was born. 

 7. The third child finds his own style early in life, in part because there are rarely matching clothes available for him to wear.

8. For those lucky enough to be blessed with one, the third child is in many ways your greatest teacher. He shows you every day that hugs, patience, and giggles are renewable sources of energy. He proves that where there is love, there is a way to stretch your resources (mental, physical, financial) beyond what you ever thought possible. Though it never felt incomplete before his arrival, the third child completes your family. And while he may entertain thoughts of one day growing up, rest assured: the third child will always and forever be your baby.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On Traveling And Finding My Way Back Home

I think it's safe to say I'm a seasoned traveler.

I took my first overseas voyage at age 3 months, and my first solo plane trip at age 8. In addition to frequent trips back to the motherland, my immigrant parents were determined to explore this great new country of theirs, so we spent weeks of my childhood summers piled in the Mercury Grand Marquis, armed with a bright yellow highlighted path on our AAA TripTik, a cooler full of Capri-Suns, and a Polaroid camera. Niagara Falls, colonial Williamsburg, the Smoky Mountains, California redwood trees, even the 1980 World's Fair in Nashville, Tennessee- we were road warriors and cultural observers.  

I spent my junior year in college living and traveling through Europe, and then came back to graduate so I could travel through Australia, before landing a job in the (wait for it) travel industry. I married a fellow lover of travel and consider it to be a sign of love, and not one that he's trying to get rid of me, when my he buys me luggage for my birthday. And while many find the mere idea of traveling with children daunting enough to just stay home, our kids have already discovered the great art of collecting (passport) stamps. 
Is there anything funnier than toddler passport photos? 

All that travel has taught me many lessons. I learned to make creme brûlée from a Parisian taxi driver when I mistakenly asked for a "recipe" and not a "receipt." I learned that the water, and everything else, really does go down the toilet the other way in the southern hemisphere, particularly after a rowdy New Year's celebration in Sydney. And I learned that all the planning and organizing and packing in the world won't help if you don't remember a certain toddler's stuffed ladybug on the kitchen table when you leave for a week at the beach. 

Yes, over the years I've gotten very good at leaving; it's the return trip that has always been the challenge. Sure, everyone gets the end-of-vacation, return-to-reality blues, but in my case, they've been... slightly exaggerated. What would begin with sniffles toward the end of the trip would often escalate to hysterical sobbing on the appointed day, which would continue, much to the dismay of my seat mates, all through the flight. My emotional baggage was far too big for the overhead bin and certainly wouldn't fit under the seat in front of me; it exploded under pressure (much like the dozens of baby food jars my parents once tried to bring to Egypt) and left behind a soggy, blubbering mess.

Because here's the problem: instead of just traveling, taking a trip from the ordinary, or a bit of an escape from my routine, for many years I think I was actually trying to take vacations from myself. So deeply dissatisfied with ME, I used travel as my personal ticket out of my own life. In mid-air, or in a different state, a different country, I could even make myself believe I was someone else. Someone better, someone more exciting, more accomplished. Someone with fewer relationship issues, job issues, health issues, money issues.

And then, once the trip was over, reality would come crashing back faster than a speeding 747. We're not talking about a little turbulence- every trip ended with a sudden and dramatic crash landing. There was no use bracing for impact or putting on an oxygen mask; it was all over.

My parents somehow put up with it. I'm sure my college and grad school roommates found it odd, but they helped keep the kleenex coming. And my husband tried to cushion the blow by always trying to plan another trip immediately upon coming back.

But at some point, I'm not even sure exactly when or how, I got tired of my own behavior. Tired of the tears, the drama, the heartache. That's when I decided to change my flight path, and I came home for good.

I didn't stop traveling- not by any means. And it's not like all my problems magically went away: I still have those same feelings of not being good enough, not being exciting enough, not being accomplished enough. There are still relationship issues, job issues, health issues, money issues.

The difference is, I'm not trying to run, or even fly away from them anymore.

I can escape the cold, I can escape from work, but I'm done trying to escape from myself. 

Because all that baggage- it's mine.

This life I've been given- I cherish it.

This path I've chosen- I own it.

And this place called "home"- I now choose to carry it with me everywhere I go. 

It's the best trip I've ever taken.

Our most recent trip: November 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tonight On WMOM: The Similarities Between Parenting and TV News Reporting

Last week at my 3-year-old son's gymnastics class, in an effort to distract myself from the pervasive smell of feet which permeates every gym in the country, and in order to capitalize on one of those rare opportunities for adult interaction, I struck up a conversation with another parent that quickly traveled down familiar territory. It went something like this:

Me: So what do you do?
Her: I'm at home with the kids full-time right now. But I used to be an accountant with a small firm in Southfield. And you?
Me: I'm a freelance journalist and writer, I work from home. I used to be a TV news reporter with...

And before I can finish that sentence the questions and commentary inevitably begin. "REALLY?" "How exciting!" "How glamorous!" with an reflexively raised eyebrow and a questioning glance toward my sweatshirt and jeans.

The very next day, despite it being a weekend, I woke up at 5am to work on a news story before the usual craziness of kids, activities, church, grocery shopping, etc. hit, and while making the obligatory browse through Facebook, I was struck by the number of my friends, most of them parents, expressing their distaste, even hatred, for THE NEWS.

It always baffles me that people have such a fascination with the TV news world, and yet such a disdain for the information it yields. Being a news reporter is a part of who I am, and so is being a parent. And the more I think about it, the more I realize the two worlds have more in common that you might suspect.


As a news reporter, your live your life in ALL CAPS. This isn't because you're trying to sensationalize the events of the day, it's because when you're on a story, it really does become everything to you. It's not just an accident blocking the entrance ramp to the freeway, it's an OVERTURNED TANKER. It wasn't just a drug deal gone wrong, it was a DOWNTOWN SHOOTING SPREE.  Reporters develop a sort of tunnel vision that allows them to sort through and manage the many sides and moving pieces of a story, often in the midst of total chaos, while zeroing in on the essence in order to calmly present it all to you, the viewer.

Parents do the same every day. For example, last summer I was working up in my office when I heard a scream from the playroom. I darted down the stairs two at a time with headlines flashing through my brain: BROKEN ARM! CHILD VS. CHILD MASSACRE. 1ST GRADER IMPALED BY FORK. As it turned out, he had picked the dreaded "Draw Four" card in Uno and would live another day, but any parent will tell you- if you even suspect your kids are in trouble, the rest of the world falls away.

Not to mention the multi-tasking. A mom's brain is like a screenshot from a 24-hour cable news network during a prime-time squawk fest: multiple boxes with different speakers all yelling over each other ("What's for dinner?" "Where are my orange soccer socks?" "What am I doing with my life?") as the ticker endlessly scrolls through household headlines and the never-ending to-do list. TAKE DOG TO THE VET...SCHEDULE PIANO LESSONS...SUBTRACTION TEST TOMORROW ...WE'RE OUT OF ALMOND MILK....WHAT IS THAT FUNKY SMELL IN THE LIVING ROOM?... NEED CUPCAKES FOR BAKE SALE...IS MY KID BEING BULLIED?

3) You Develop A High Tolerance for Mess

My living room is not exactly spotless, nor is any newsroom I've ever worked in. And it's not that either group is, by nature, filthy, it's just that it takes so much STUFF to make both news and parenting all happen. In the TV world, cords and cables are like the Legos and Polly Pockets in your house- they multiply when you're not looking. Much like cleaning under your kitchen table is a scene straight out of CSI: Parenting Unit, archaeologists could study the layers of sediment in a newsroom and uncover great mysteries in buried in the layers of old scripts, shelves of archived newscasts, candy bar wrappers, and assorted pieces of clothing. Because when you put so much of yourself into your work, the rest just kind of gets strewn on the floor. That's also my story for the living room and I'm sticking with it.

It's also not unusual as a reporter that you come home covered in grime. Street reporting is messy work, exposing you to the elements, which may even include vomit should you be fortunate enough to work a shift in a college town during football season. You quickly learn to just brush it off, even if you're not entirely sure what it is. The newscast must go on, and swearing on air is frowned upon by the FCC. It's all good practice for parenthood, where soccer games, mountain bike races, and swim meets leave you at Mother Nature's mercy and the PTA has its own penalties for profanity. And those college campus stories prepare you well for the toddler years, when you will again find yourself covered in someone else's DNA.

4) You Develop A Low Tolerance for BS

Sitting through seemingly endless City Council meetings, interviewing political candidates and elected officials, and spending weeks watching courtroom drama unfold, news reporters develop a knack for sniffing out crap. This of course comes in handy when, as a parent, you must sniff out either literal crap (the dreaded but often necessary diaper whiff maneuver) or the figurative variety ("So you say your teacher told you all homework in 3rd grade is OPTIONAL?"). Reporters and parents both need to be able to ask the tough questions, listen to both sides, and present the facts as objectively as possible.

In both worlds, you choose your words wisely, understanding that each syllable you utter carries great weight. At the end of the day, your brain hurts because you've heard so much, processed so much, and put yourself out there for all to see.

4) Horrific Working Conditions Are Nothing New

My first on-air reporting job paid $8.25/hour, and I commuted 80 miles each way, often leaving my home at 3am on weekend mornings to trudge through unplowed roads in the dark. Not only is there rarely the opportunity to consume an actual meal during a reporting day, I know several colleagues who developed chronic bladder infections because there is simply no time to pee.

Yes, you get to put on gobs of makeup (usually while speeding to the scene of your live shot), and yes, you try hard in winter to find a cute hat to match your parka, but anyone who thinks it's a glamorous gig needs to spend a day outside a meth lab, or sift through the rubble after a tornado levels a neighborhood.

More often than they'd like, reporters spend their days wrapped up in other people's tragedies. Murders, natural gas explosions, bank robberies- nearly every neighborhood on a reporter's beat likely brings to mind some kind of calamity. All while putting in very long hours, often for very little money. Why would anyone put themselves through this kind of torture? Because reporters, the good ones, anyway, have a fundamental and unshakable belief that the work they are doing makes the world a better place.

Parents know exactly what that's like. Let's face it- life with a toddler can sometimes feel like soul-sucking work. The emotional and physical demands can break the best of us, and yet there are no sick days or workman's comp claims I'm aware of. You work 24-hour shifts and are "paid" in hugs, kisses, and various bodily fluids.

5) Timing Is Everything

One of the first lessons every broadcast journalism student learns is that the 6pm news doesn't start at 6:04. In television news, there are a million moving pieces, and everyone is ALWAYS on a very tight deadline. The only way to fit everything in is to work backwards from the desired end result. Say, for example, the news starts at 6:00 pm on the nose and ends at 6:29:30 on the nose. At the beginning of the day no one knows exactly which stories, how many stories and how long the stories will be that can fit into the space. Too much and your anchor is cut off in mid-word. Too little and you will end up with awkward silence at the end of the show. As the live newscast is on the air – producers must hit specific time marks, or else make adjustments on the fly, like telling a reporter to wrap it up, taking some time back from sports, or nixing the story about the fluffy duckling who was rescued from a storm drain. Flexibility and planning are both essential.

It's the same mental gymnastics parents perform to keep their show on the air. Say for dinner you're planning to prepare a roast and some potatoes. You need to have dinner ready at 6:00pm in order to get your daughter to gymnastics 15 minutes away and then drop off your son at the soccer field 10 minutes from there, and still have time to run to the store to get Pull-ups for the baby before returning to pick everyone up. It takes 3 hours to cook the roast. It takes 15 minutes to heat up the oven. The potatoes take 20 minutes to cook and it takes 10 minutes to bring the water to a boil. You need 6 minutes to locate everyone's gear, 8 minutes to play the car seat version of Whack-a-Mole as you attempt to strap in a recalcitrant toddler, and 3 minutes for the inevitable running back into the house to retrieve a forgotten water bottle, binky, or child. At what times do you start each cooking process so everything will be ready and hot for the family to eat at 6:00pm, assuming you somehow remembered to purchase the roast in the first place, and your daughter hasn't decided that today she is a vegan?

6) It's Not a Job

You can take the girl out of the newsroom, but you will never take the passion for news out of this girl. Likewise, just because your kids are grown, are you any less of a parent? Neither one of these are "jobs"- they are part of your identity and that doesn't change though circumstances may.

In both cases, no matter what else is happening in your life, you get out there and give it everything you've got. Sure there are bad days- you mess up your live shot, you miss your deadline, you yell at the toddler until his little lip starts to quiver when you find he made his latest marker masterpiece on the wall.

Because the thing is, you can't always control the outcome. Sometimes, you're given really difficult material to work with. Sometimes things just don't go your way, despite your very best efforts. Sometimes you just can't control your emotions.

But the next day you get right back out there and start all over again, because deep down you know that what you're doing has value.

You hope that you can cultivate understanding, empathy, and change.

You believe that you can shine a light where there is darkness.

And each and every day, you pray that your work leaves the world just a little bit better than how you found it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Life Is A Sticky Mess At The Bottom Of My Purse

While I'm not exactly a fashionista, I do have to admit I've always been a big fan of purses. There's something about an elegant bag on your shoulder or a chic little clutch in your hand that just feels good, especially when compared to an utterly unchic diaper bag which just feels, well, like poop. And given the amount of time I spend in Sherpa Mom mode, carting other people's backpacks, swim bags, dance gear, rock collections and assorted arts and crap around, it feels downright zen to hoist something all my own, something not sold at Target, something completely untouched by the Disney marketing team, on my shoulder.

So that should partly explain why, as I reached into one of my favorite bags (the kind of Coach that has never been pulled by a talking train) to grab my ringing phone and instead found my fingers diving into a puddle of warm, sticky goo, I felt my blood begin to boil.

Given my many years of forensic fieldwork under the auspices of CSI: Toddler, I immediately determined the source of the goo to be orange marmalade. More specifically, it was clear that at least one of those little rectangular diner packets of marmalade had ruptured, forming a jam pool in which my wallet, phone, and keys were now taking a dip.

"I HATE ORANGE MARMALADE!!!" I screamed, to no one in particular, throwing the condiment-laden accessory across the room. "I HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT!!"

This may seem like an overreaction to a condiment, and let me assure you orange marmalade did not deserve it. While I may not be a huge fan of the stuff and prefer to throw away the peel as opposed to spreading it on my toast, orange marmalade is not exactly out to ruin my life.

"But Gido loves it," my 3-year-old reminded me, as he toddled upon the scene of my temper jam-trum.

Which is exactly how, as you may have wondered, the offensive spread ended up in my purse in the first place. You see, every week we take all 3 kids to church, and afterwards we reward ourselves for surviving the experience without committing any major sins by going out for brunch. And every week we sit at the same booth, in the same diner. And every time the kids see the packets of jam on the table they recall that I once told them that my dad (aka, Gido) loves orange marmalade. And every week, because they are sweet, thoughtful beings, they would each take a packet of marmalade to bring to Gido in the hospital. And every week, because they are children and I am their Sherpa, they eventually stick these packets of jam in my purse. And because my brain is, well, jammed full, we often forget to deliver the stuff so it accumulates in my bag. And apparently, my purse has a certain marmalade tolerance level, which was exceeded on this fateful day, resulting in the jamboree at the bottom of my bag.

"I help you clean it up?" the little voice asked.

I looked at him with my hand still covered in orange goo, unable to move. Tears started to roll down my face and for a long time, I just held him and cried. Not for the purse, or the jam, or the eventual dry cleaning bill. I cried for the messes that can't be cleaned, the problems I don't know how to solve, the loved ones who are ill, the sweet gestures of children, the innocence that eventually will be shattered. I cried for a long time.

And then I smiled.

Because this is our life.

It's sweet and it's sticky.

Sometimes it makes a big mess all over our favorite things.

But somehow we always manage to clean it up.

And along the way, we realize what our favorite things really are.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Back-to-School Organization

You know what will kick your back-to-school organizing into high gear? Invite a TV crew into your house to talk back-to-school organizing! (And on that note, maybe I should convince them to come do a segment about toilet cleaning, since goodness knows I have a few that could use a good scrub...) Big thanks to Karen Drew and the WDIV crew for forcing me to get on the ball a little early this year so I could share some tips with you. 

We started our adventure in the kitchen, talking about one of many parents' most dreaded chores: packing lunches. I can't take the "chore" part out of it, but I have found a few products to help ease the pain. 

First, I love these lunchbox inserts from Easy Lunchboxes

They're dishwasher safe, durable, and easy to use...probably because they were designed by a mom! Be sure to follow them on Facebook, as there are some great recipes and ideas there. 

I also showed Karen how we use silicone muffin liners for snack holders inside the Easy Lunchboxes. 

Again, they're machine washable and more "green" (even the pink and purple ones!) than plastic baggies. I found these on Amazon, but you will also find them at most home stores. 

If you want your kids to eat their veggies, you'd better include some dip, and these little condiment holders, also found on Amazon do the trick for us. 

I try to keep all my lunch "gear" in one cabinet, and to also keep all the main lunch-making foods in one bin in the fridge. And I usually make lunches while I'm making dinner- you're already in the food-prep mode, so why not? Plus, the kids are usually roaming around and I can get them involved. After all, if you're always packing the lunches after they go to bed, it gives the impression that the Lunch Fairy is doing the work. If you happen to have a Lunch Fairy, great. If not, and you'd like the kids to be able to take over this task one day, you need to show them how to do it while they're awake. 

Outside of the kitchen, we talked a lot about routines, and how I like to post picture-based signs to remind the kids of what we do in the morning, when they come home from school, and before bed. It makes me less of a nag (I hope!) and (again) starts to transfer the responsibility to them. I found printable morning and evening routine charts on The Benson Street blog. There are some other great ones on I Heart Organizing. I just print them out, stick them in an inexpensive frame, and mount them on the kids' doors. They can use a dry erase marker to check off the items as they do them. 

My best advice for back-to-school organizing is to do as much as possible the night before. I'm sure you've heard it before, but it really does work when it comes to taming morning mayhem. I often have to work evenings, so getting the kids up and ready in the morning can be the bulk of my "quality time" with them and I've made a commitment- I'm not going to waste it or spend it yelling about lost sneakers. 

It's going to be a great year- I hope you're ready for it!! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

I Challenge You To Stop Dumping Ice On Your Head

In recent days, my Facebook feed has been all wet. Wet with the sight of my friends, neighbors, former colleagues, and even a relative or two dumping buckets of ice water on their heads.

I've watched as you've dumped ice water on your own head. I've watched your children and spouses dump ice water on your head. I've even watched (though I'll admit- I probably stopped watching halfway through) as your family has "snuck" up on you in a poorly veiled and badly staged routine, before dumping ice water on your head.

All this is part of what has been called the "Ice Bucket Challenge," a social media-fueled campaign to raise money and awareness for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Here's how it works- you either "accept" the challenge and agree to dump a bucket of ice on your head (AND record it... AND share the recording online, because if you dump a bucket of ice water on your head in the forest and no one is around to see it, does it really raise awareness for ALS?), or donate $100 towards ALS research. From everyday folks to celebrities, everyone seems to be taking the challenge.

So after sitting back and watching all of this unfold, I'd like to issue a challenge of my own:


Stop with the buckets of water. Stop with the ice. Stop with the recording, the sharing, the watching, and the "liking." Stop with what in many cases has become no more than a gratuitous party game with some vague connection to some charity.

It was cute and somewhat entertaining at first, but something has bothered me about this from the beginning.

Ostensibly, the Ice Bucket Challenge is meant to bring attention to ALS, which on the surface, sounds like a great idea. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a horrible, debilitating degenerative neuromuscular disorder for which there currently is no cure. I can still remember writing a report about the disease in 5th grade, tearfully asking my physician father why doctors couldn't just "fix" the people who have it. Author Mitch Albom poignantly described what it was like to watch one of his cherished professors succumb to the disease in his acclaimed book Tuesdays with Morrie. Certainly, we would all do well to be more aware of what those who suffer from ALS go through, what their caregivers endure, what treatments show promise, the state of clinical trials, and where the research stands.

And yet, in watching these Ice Bucket Challenge videos, I am yet to see anyone actually talk much ABOUT the disease. Yes, a few have mentioned having known someone who battled ALS, but no one describes the symptoms, talks about the pain of watching someone's life sucked away by the horrors of this illness, or shares their hopes for what can be done to help. In fact, many people who take the Ice Bucket Challenge, including Today Show anchor Matt Lauer, fail to even MENTION the specific charity in their video. Not once. But the crowd sure did "Oooh!" when Lauer removed his suit coat. And in a pre icing interview, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when co-host Savannah Guthrie posed the tough question to golfer Greg Norman, who had nominated Lauer: Would this be very painful for Matt? Because that's what's important here.

Let's also keep in mind that the majority of the people dumping ice water on their heads have done so to AVOID giving money to the charity. And what's going to happen if you don't take the challenge? Is this like those old chain emails where if you don't pass it along to 12 people in the next 30 seconds, something very bad will happen? Do you think the president of the ALS Association is monitoring all this, taking down the names of those who were nominated, and will send you an invoice if you don't go through with it?

Yes, the challenge has raised money for ALS, which again, on the surface, is a wonderful thing. It's a particularly wonderful thing for the roughly 5,600 newly diagnosed Americans and their friends and families whose lives are destroyed by this disease each year. But we can do better.

We can do better than this glorified wet t-shirt contest. The Ice Bucket Challenge is narcissism masquerading as altruism. It's like the love child of an illicit affair between two of social media's biggest class clowns: the selfie and "hashtag activism." It makes us feel good about all the awareness raising we're doing without actually having to DO much of anything. When the summer ends and the Ice Bucket Challenge stops trending, how many of our chilled friends will still remember ALS? I'm pretty certain for many, they'll tuck this particular charity away with their yellow Livestrong bracelets, red equal signs, and "Bring Back Our Girls" signs. At some point, awareness needs to turn to action, and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but dumping a bucket of ice on your head does not an activist or a philanthropist make. Just ask any high school football coach who has been treated to a Gatorade shower after winning the championship.

My parents, the most generous people I know, have always lived by the Biblical example of charity: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret." Today, before our right hand can even do anything, our left hand has already Tweeted it, blogged it, and uploaded it to Instagram.

Many of us today, myself included, are guilty of over-sharing and under-doing. The line has blurred between documenting our lives and living them. We are so wrapped up in garnering approval and the "likes" of our social networks that we'll do anything, including dumping a bucket of ice on our heads for pretty much any reason. And can I just point out that it is just a bucket of ice water, folks. probably about the same temperature as Lake Michigan, where many of us have vacationed and gone swimming this summer. It's not like this is the Great White Shark Challenge, or even the Festivus Feats of Strength Challenge.

But you know what takes real strength? Having the courage to do something because it's the right thing to do and not tell a darn soul about it.

Perhaps the REAL challenge lies in looking within ourselves and the way we conduct our lives to figure out why this silly challenge has gone viral, and what it says about us. If you still want to dump a bucket of ice on your head when you're done, be my guest.

I nominate YOU.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Oh, The Things People Say When Your Child Looks Nothing Like You

My oldest son joined the swim team this summer, which has made for daily back-and-forth trips to the pool, countless loads of towels in the laundry, and the faint smell of chlorine permeating our house, cars, and general lives.

With so much time in the sun and the water, his skin has turned a deep golden brown (aside from the parts covered by his suit and swim top), and his sun kissed hair now has the kind of radiant blond highlights women rip out of magazines and pay big bucks for their hairdressers to reproduce.

That's right, my son is blond. BLOND. While blond hair is certainly not an oddity in my lovely neighborhood of manicured lawns and pedicured toes, located in a city which according to the latest census data is 94 percent Caucasian, let me assure you this is extremely odd in a half-Egyptian child. 

As you might expect from someone with a full set of Middle Eastern DNA, I have olive skin and an overabundance of dark, coarse, thick, curly hair (and believe me, I wish I was just referring to the stuff on my head). It requires a significant investment of time, money, styling products, and raw upper body strength to be tamed into submission, and God forbid the humidity rises or an unexpected rain shower moves through, as it could easily double in size, horizontally speaking. 

For better or for worse, I always assumed my children would inherit my coloring and hair type due to the obvious dominance of our genetic pool. After all, my peeps have several gazillion years of history going for us. We built the pyramids. We carved a half-man, half-cat out of rock. We staged the largest protest in the history of mankind to overthrow a ruthless dictator, and then staged an even bigger one to overthrow the jerk who came after him. We are EGYPT.

When I married my sweet, pale, Caucasian mutt of a husband, it honestly never occurred to me that our children would look anything but Egyptian. Sure, maybe their skin would be a bit more fair, or their eyes on the lighter side of brown, but that's it. I just assumed that in the genetic World Cup, Egypt would kick the pants off of Team Scotland-Ireland-Germany-Maybe Sweden But We're Not Quite Sure About Great Grandma's Side.

And then came baby, who of course looked like every baby out there: squishy and wrinkled, kind of like a diminutive Yasser Arafat after  a clean shave. Score one for the brown folk!

But within a matter of days he began to lose that dark (familiar) hair and it was quickly replaced with (what the WHAT?) fine blond strands. The slate grey eyes I was certain were going to turn brown instead became huge baby blues (and have since morphed into baby greens).

By his first birthday, he was officially the Golden Child.

During the course of that first year, I began to field some interesting questions when we were out in public together. Turns out people say a lot of funny things when your child doesn't look anything like you. The first time I recall my maternity being called into question, I was at the park pushing Blondie on the swing, when a little girl sidled over and asked, "So where'd that baby come from?"

In my confused state, I stifled my first impulse, which was to blurt out a sarcastic " uterus?" and wondered briefly if I needed to launch into "Well, when a man loves a woman...," but finally settled on "What do you mean?"

"Well, he's not your baby because you're all brown and he's not," she explained, "Are you the babysitter?" 

And that's what many people, even today, take me to be: The Hired Help. "So how long have you been taking care of him?" they'll ask. 

"Let's see, he just turned seven in July, then add in the 40 gestational weeks.. no, make that 42 because he was so stubborn, so that brings us to..." 

Occasionally, people tap dance around the idea that he might have been adopted (without actually daring to say the word, because somehow that would be uncouth), and because I find it so entertaining, I just stare blankly at them and let it all unfold. 

"Sooooo.... how was the whole, you" 
"Was it... difficult? Expensive?"
"Do you have an"

One woman at a local coffee shop praised my generous spirit and offered to connect me with her niece who had "also rescued a child from poverty." I didn't have the heart to tell her that economic conditions in Royal Oak, Michigan, his birthplace, were actually quite stable. 

Oddly enough, we receive no such inquiries when my husband, he of the Mighty DNA who will henceforth be known as The Gene-ius, is around, since our oldest is his virtual clone. 
Mark Shand, age 2
Noah Shand, age 2

But it doesn't bother me a bit. Though we might not look a bit alike, each morning when I watch those big green eyes flutter open, I can see what others might easily miss: the best pieces of myself reflected back. 

I see it in his quest for knowledge, his sweet, almost too sensitive demeanor, his goofy and somewhat sarcastic sense of humor. His love for animals, the water, and music. The way he gets lost in his favorite books. The temper tantrums he uses to cover up hurt feelings. 

Trust me- that boy is mine. 

That's why every night, I run my fingers through that fluffy blond hair and count my blessings.  

Because I've been lucky enough to discover that sometimes, if you take the rough, coarse parts of yourself and mix them with a whole lot of love and way more luck than any one person deserves, they come out soft, fine, and smooth. 

Like they've been kissed by the sun. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Picking Up The Pieces When Life Feels Like A Game of Dominoes

It's Celebration Season at our house: 5 weeks containing 4 birthdays, 1 anniversary, dozens of cupcakes, gallons of frosting, oodles of cheer, and presents everywhere you look. By the end of it all, we are stumbling around in a sugar-induced fugue state, reflexively singing the birthday song with every flick of the light switch, unsure of who or what we are celebrating, salivating like Pavlov's dogs each time the oven reaches 350 degrees. The adults in the house have raw fingers from the wrapping paper rolls, the recycling bin runneth over, and the toys.... oh, the toys.

There are toys that beep and toys that buzz. Toys that glitter and toys that shine. Learning toys, cuddly toys, active toys, e-toys, gender neutral toys, dress-up toys. Toys from friends, and toys from family. Toys made in China and toys made in...other parts of China.

And in order to make room for the semi-annual influx of new toys, we set aside a few hours to go through the current stash of toys for those no longer working and no longer wanted. And in addition to those our birthday tradition states that each child is required to find the same number of toys as his/her age to give away.

In the midst of this process, we typically uncover some treasures of birthdays/Christmases past buried in the bins or relegated to the far reaches of the toy chest (aka The Island of Banned Toys):

"Ooh, Mommy! Remember this dollie that really pees and poops when you feed her??? I wonder how she got stuffed in the bottom of this box!"

"Mom- remember how you said you'd help me put together this 4000 piece 3-D light-up, musical mosaic tile puzzle?"


But occasionally, as my just turned five-year-old daughter and I discovered on a rainy day while eating someone's leftover birthday cake, there are some pleasant surprises.

That was the day she came across a box of dominoes. Good, old fashioned, low-tech, dominoes. I'm not sure whose gift it once was, but the unassuming box hadn't even been opened. And so we happily passed the afternoon together, carefully constructing squiggly lines all across the playroom floor, until that inevitable moment when one slip of her hand set off the familiar clink-clink-clink-clink chain reaction and one by one, end-to-end, they all tumbled over.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! She wailed. "They can't FALL DOWN!!!! Everything is RUINED!!!!!!!!"

"But it isn't," I assured her with a comforting hug as we surveyed the damage. "Just look: nothing is ruined, and all the pieces are still there. It's different, but it's still beautiful."

She walked away, turning her attention to another one of the Ghosts of Birthdays Past, and I was left holding one lone domino in my hand, trying to convince myself that what I told her really was true.

Because lately I've found myself feeling like I'm trying to hold everything up and it's all falling down around me. Piece by piece, one little clink at a time. Because when a loved one is ill, and when you can't fix it, it's hard to make any of the pieces stand up. It's hard to enjoy the the things you once loved when you know that something...or someone... is missing.

But something about that domino in my hand helped me realize that there is beauty in change, even the most difficult kind. There is peace to be found in shared memories, and there is joy in passing them on.

So I put that domino in my pocket, scooped up my little girl and took her over to the couch. I pulled out a weathered, dog-eared copy of a much beloved book my dad must have read to me at least 200 times. I showed her where he'd helped me write my name in the inside cover, a crooked, five-year-old's scrawl using 3 lower case letters and one upper case.

We got out a crayon, and right below it, almost close enough to touch, I helped her write her own.

It was a lot of sweet and a little bit sad all at once: the spot where past and present stood side-by-side. End-to-end.

And so it seems that's the way life will be. A lot of sweet and little bit sad all at once.

So instead of dwelling on what isn't, and on what has been lost, I will do my best to focus on what still is, and what will never end.

And I will take my memories in one hand and my future in the other and place them next to each other.

There they will stand together, almost touching, end-to-end.

And if it starts to feel like everything is falling down, I'll remember: all the pieces are still there.

It may be different, but it's still beautiful.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Mother's Day Role Model For All Moms


Stop what you're doing immediately (all 10,000 things at once) and have a seat. There is something I need to tell you.

I have made an amazing discovery. I found her: the perfect mom. The one we can all learn from, the one who can give us all hope, the one who is the whole package. The real deal. She has got it going on.

And here's the best part: you're going to absolutely love her. I promise, she's not going to make you feel insecure about your house, your wardrobe, or the size of your thighs. She's not going to preach to you, criticize you, or look down on you.

I'm telling you, she is incredible. It's like someone took the best parts of all the amazing moms you've ever met and rolled them into one.

I've only known her a few weeks but she's had such a profound impact on me that I had to introduce you to her. She's really quite camera shy, so that means you don't have to worry about her clogging up your news feed with selfies. While she's not anti-social by any means, she is going through a really hectic time in her life so I don't think she's even ON Facebook. Twitter is probably closer her genre anyway.

So who is this Mystery Mom? The one who has it all together, the one who is that perfect blend of patience, perseverance, energy, discipline, and love?

It's definitely not THIS mom. She's the first one to admit she is pretty much just fumbling her way through.

Believe it or not, I'm not even talking about this Mother.

 And while this mom has many of those attributes...

 And this one has others...

The mother I'm actually referring to is....well, a bird of a different feather. She has 13 children (yes, 13. As in a baker's dozen) with no nanny, no visiting grandparents, no extra hands on deck that I'm aware of. The kids are all well fed, well groomed, and polite. You'd think a household that large would be total chaos, but quite to the contrary. This mom has things totally under control. She is calm and relaxed. The whole bunch- they're not just surviving, they're thriving.

Look closely (like I said, she's camera shy and always on the go) and you just might be able to spot her.

Look again and you might catch a glimpse of a few of her newborn children.

I'm told there are 13 of them, but they move quickly and bear a strong resemblance to each other so I might have counted a few of them more than once.

Yes, the perfect mom is, in fact, a duck.

Now before you stop reading and assume there's nothing you could possibly learn from something so...fowl... and that I must be a... quack...let me just remind you that we are talking about a mom to THIRTEEN children. Just take a moment and let that sink in. Do a quick inventory of your own children, and then consider that Mama D just might be able to teach us something. Did I mention that those babies were just born three days ago? Does she look amazing, or what?

For weeks I've watched her sit on her nest in the courtyard of my daughter's preschool. Day after day, we'd come stomping into the building, me and my 3 little ducklings, usually running late, still tucking in shirts and zipping up backpacks, often times with remnants of breakfast smeared across one...ok, two... ok, fine- three of their faces.

And there she was- right outside the window, just camped out on her nest, day after day. In the midst of the noise and confusion as hundreds of children and their parents paraded past and ogled her, she never batted an eye. I don't know when she ate, or slept, or had any kind of "me duck" time, but she never complained. I don't know much about her background, but I think it's safe to assume she made some major sacrifices to be there for her babies. You'd never know it from her demeanor.

I don't think she was waging any kind of internal battle over her identity, nor do I think she was consumed with decisions about "opting out" or "leaning in." I have no doubt that before she was Mama D she was a duck with a very her own dreams, aspirations, and goals. But there was no bitterness or regret in her eyes, she was simply doing what she knew needed to be done with grace and poise, what she knew only she could do. Through rain, fog, sleet, and even late Spring snow, she sat there contently, just taking care of business. I'm sure that somewhere inside Mama D knew that as difficult as some of those moments were, they were not forever. You might say that in the moment, she was just...well, ducky.

Never once in the time that I've known her have I seen or has she mentioned the babies'  father (and I can't bring myself to ask- aside from the language barrier, it would feel rude) so I think it's safe to say she's raising these kids on her own. They are not even one week old and she has already whipped them into shape: she says "We're going for a walk," and they line up and get moving. She says "Swim!" and they start paddling. Set the bar high and your kids will jump (or at least waddle) for it- Mama D is proof of that.

Maybe if we were all just a little more like Mama Duck we would swim through motherhood a little more easily. Maybe we would just focus on what needs to be done we'd be able to let the rest roll away... like water off Mama Duck's back. Maybe if we followed her lead, we wouldn't let our feathers get so ruffled.

So the next time you start feeling overwhelmed and start feeling like motherhood is too much, just take a deep breath, think of Mama D and her 13 babies, and ask yourself:

"What the duck am I so worried about?"

Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hanging Up On Fear

YI don't have very many pictures from my childhood. Unlike my own kids whose every waking (and the occasional sleeping) moment has been documented, uploaded to Facebook, and permanently entered in the digital records, I'm not sure my parents even owned a camera when I was born. They do have a drawer in the basement crammed with various snapshots from birthday parties and some painfully posed formal pics with the Olan Mills script stamped in gold across the bottom, but that's about it. And among those random snippets of childhood, crammed in between the family trip to Niagara Falls and the creepy late 1970s Easter Bunny was this shot.

Apparently, I liked to play with the phone as a toddler, a fact I find very odd since I later developed a a major aversion to the device. You see, I'm not exactly a phone person today. While you're all comparing apps and gigs and waiting in line for the new leopard print iPhone 87Q Titanium, I am perfectly content to hang with my trusty old not-so-smartphone.

It makes calls and sends texts… and that's only when I can find it… which is usually not when it is ringing or receiving a text.

I've had a smartphone when I was forced to for work, and I didn't like it. Too much of an electronic ball and chain, too much temptation to be Instagramming my life instead of living it. So it's bare bones phone for me. But even still, I have phone issues.

In the past few years, I've grown increasingly fearful of the phone. It seems like in today's text-heavy world of instant communication, the only time anyone ever calls is to deliver bad news, and lately I've had my share. So I started taking my anger out on an easy target- the phone. The mere sound of its ring (and there's only one on my outdated version) was enough to make my heart race. And instead of answering it, I'd glare at it, and then glare some more at the voicemail icon, sometimes taking days to work up the courage to listen to it. Upon entering the house, I'd obsessively check the home landline for both messages and missed calls, convinced that the bad news was just waiting for me to leave the house before it showed up.

But the worst times came overnight, when I would wake to see the phone on the bedside and instantly brace myself for what I assumed was to come. Many nights I stayed up for hours in a silent stare down with the phone, certain that the only way to keep it from ringing was to keep one eye trained on it at all times. I was locked in a tense standoff with myself, living in constant fear of the arrival of bad news… and the phone.

Then last month we took a family vacation- a Caribbean cruise. My biggest fear was not contracting some stomach virus, losing a child overboard, or running into trouble on the high seas (although I do question the cruise line's decision to air the movie Captain Phillips in an endless loop), but being out of phone's reach. You'd think this would be bliss for me, but the thought of being out of range in the event of the bad news I always anticipated, was terrifying.

With no telecommunications to monitor, I found myself with some time to read, and appropriately enough, the first book I turned to was all about phones. Mitch Albom's "The First Phone Call From Heaven" had sat idle on my Kindle since Christmas, but was quickly devoured as we sailed along.

It's a simple story with a powerful message: there are messages we need to hear- messages of hope, pain, love, grief, and forgiveness- and the phone is just one way we receive them, but what we choose to do with them comes down to faith. "What we give to fear, we take away from faith," Albom writes. I read that line over and over, repeating it to myself like a mantra throughout the trip. For the first time in years, I felt a sense of peace and calm, confident that what was inside of me was strong enough to handle whatever  the phone might potentially bring.

As we pulled into port early on the final day of the cruise, I slipped out of our cabin before dawn and took my phone with me on my morning run around the deck, knowing we were finally back in cell service range. With trembling hands and a pounding heart, I turned it on and saw the voicemail symbol spring to life.

I dialed it up, entered my password, and waited.

And then there was nothing. Nothing but a few work messages, a reminder from my dentist about an upcoming appointment, and an offer to lower my credit card payments. Tearfully, I hung up the phone and resisted the overwhelming urge to throw it overboard.

A few days after we returned, I received the call I'd been so dreading. A loved one was very ill, in critical condition. It was a horrible, awful phone call and an even more horrible, awful situation.

As I hung up the phone, it hit me- all those months of dreading the phone, all those sleepless nights, all that wasted energy will never come back. Dreading the calls doesn't allow you to avoid the truth. Being angry at the phone when you should be making peace with reality doesn't serve any purpose. Putting your life on hold for a call that may or may not come is no way to live.

Albom is right- "What we give to fear we take away from faith," and I'm not ready to be on the losing end of that equation.

So I think it's time to say goodbye to my phone-o-phobia and to work harder at muting my fears. When the phone rings, I will answer it. When it doesn't, I won't question it. Most of all, I won't center my life around it. Faith will win out over fear, because if it doesn't, then it isn't really faith.

But I'm still not upgrading my phone.