My Blog has moved.

July 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Walkswithstress Readers,

Thank you for following my blog so many years ago. I have started writing again and have moved to a new blog location. Please join me!

Thanks for your support!


Changing Rooms

October 5, 2011 § 7 Comments

This week, my only child turns eight.  While this isn’t a momentous milestone, it feels like a transition to me.  My baby…toddler…preschooler…kindergartner… is now my little boy with his own opinions, thoughts, questions, stubbornness (I have no idea where he gets it), and an incredible sense of humor.  I love him because he is outgoing but also introspective, courageous but with a sliver of trepidation that causes him to reach for my hand or look to me for answers before acting on impulse.  He is cautious but not afraid to try…with friends, with school, and even with himself.  I see him stand along boundaries and question the next move.  And I applaud with my heart when he takes the leap.

With this transition of turning eight, I felt a need for change.  In my home, we have two master bedrooms and two smaller bedrooms.  This past weekend, we moved him to the other master bedroom, redecorated, gave him a TV, video games and video chairs, and told him that was his new room.  He went to my sister’s house the day before while we worked on it until midnight and then the next day we covered his eyes, led him up the stairs and said, “Here you go!”  And he went…jumping on his bed, rocking in his chairs, and laughing, as if to say, “Thank you for letting me grow up a little right now.”

 When we decorated the nursery eight years, we put him in one of the smaller rooms.  It felt safe, like that’s where an infant should be.  Even during the dark midnight feedings when I would be dreary-eyed and wander by instinct down the hall like Pavlov’s dog reacting to his cry in the baby monitor by my bed, that room was a haven.  Sometimes I barely opened my eyes as I lifted him from his crib, fed him and rocked him back to sleep. 

I realized while taking down the decorations from his walls this past weekend that every bit of him was reflected in that small room.  His first drawings of Scooby Doo.  His Tae Kwon Do trophies.  An old Thomas the Train chair sitting ragged in the corner.  An enormous plush Elmo, stuffed with love into a corner of the closet – present but hidden so his friends wouldn’t see it.  A library of books ranging from Dr. Suess to The Magic Tree series.  Oh how he grew in that room! Like a construction crew, my husband and I toiled, taking piles of old toys and clothes to charity and trash to the dumpster.  His old room was transformed into a beautiful new guest room; his new room now the next chapter of his life.

When the dust settled, I stopped and looked around, projecting into the future on a day when he might be headed off to college.  I saw an older, more aged version of myself looking around his room and remembering the day when we led him up the stairs and said, “Here you go!”

What would I wish I had taught him before he left our home?  The very things I believe he has already grasped.  Never be afraid to try…with friends, with love, and even with yourself.  When you stand on the edge of your boundaries, be wise enough to stop and think.  Pull back when your gut says no.  Jump with all of your might and courage when your heart says yes.  And know, no matter what, know that you are loved.

Turning eight isn’t a big deal, really.  No major milestone, right? Yet I feel like I’ll remember this birthday forever.   Over the years I have struggled with guilt, self-doubt and worry about my role as a mother.  I have sometimes belittled myself because I work.  Worried that he somehow lost out because I wasn’t there 24/7.  But I seem him – thriving, and I remember that I’m doing okay too.  Last night I heard him sing to himself in the shower.  A happy kid.  And I sighed, thankful.

I hear that the next ten years are the tough ones. God grant me the grace. The patience.  The love.  And the wisdom to remember that he is struggling to know when to jump, when to leap, and when to hold back.  And also the wisdom to know that as a mother, so am I.

For more blogs on parenting, view my blog at Working Mother magazine:

Running or Fleeing?

September 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

My husband and I always have a joke. When we see some lone soul running along the side of a country road, we pose the question, “Is he/she running or fleeing?”  If you could see the faces of these people, sometimes you would assume fleeing, because running is painful…and hard.  Like why in the hell else would they be out there in sub-zero weather, or equator-like heat, to pound out the cement, putting mile after mile behind them with gritted teeth?

Because sometimes running really is all about fleeing.  Because sometimes when you have woken up 100 times in the middle of the night unable to work through all of the ailments, you lace up and go.  When it starts to hurt, you focus. And when you start to focus, you forget that it hurts.  And at the end of trek, you have finally reached resolution.

Tomorrow I’m heading out to do something called RAGNAR, which is a 200-mile relay from Cumberland, MD from Washington, DC.  I’m on a relay team of 12, half of whom are better runners than me.  And I honestly don’t care.  Because it means I still get to run, and pound the cement, and hand off a baton to someone waiting at the other end who is counting on me to show up.  But moreso, it means that the shadows that haunt all day at work (someone cooking raw onions, a loud coworker droning on and on about her kids, the drama, the politics, the ridiculousness of it all) that folds into the rest of my  life (my kid’s homework, what to pack for lunch, don’t forget to make the coffee) becomes compact and synchronized in my thoughts like a package waiting to be opened during a run.  UPS has arrived! Here’s your life, now open each package and address it.  And when I run, I open the packages like they are gifts…one at a time…because I’m sure each requires its own special attention.  This is my life, after all.

So I took two days off of work to run RAGNAR. Collectively, it has cost my team almost $4000, sans charity donations, just to be in this over night excursion over mountains and into city. We’ll sleep in vans in sleeping bags.  We’ll shower in local high school gyms. Somewhere along the line, a church is hosting a spaghetti dinner.

Why am I going? Why have I packed my backpack? Because I need to flee, not run…and deal with myself, all that is lingering, and all that I can’t resolve.  My husband said he’ll meet us at the end, which I really need.  Because the art of fleeing is discovery, a temporary disconnect to gain perspective. The answers sometimes suck but offer fuel to go on and find resolution.  And at the end, when I’ve pounded (or limped through) that last mile, I know that I will crave what I have left behind.  And the miles in between are beautiful because they help me know the difference.

When you see someone roadside, gritted teeth, are they running or fleeing? Sometimes it is both.  Tomorrow I will run the RAGNAR relay to remember that its okay that it can be both.  And that the art of running and fleeing is LIFE.

Why I Will Never Be a Granola Girl

June 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

I decided a long time ago that I was going to become a granola girl. Just like those earthy REI-catalog women, clad in mountain boots, sporty windbreakers and braided hair, I was going to hike trails, eat freeze-dried food and scale great elevations carrying a big backpack. When friends called to traverse a river in a canoe, I would be the go-to girl. Let’s pitch a tent on a mountainside and subsist on the river stream eating God-given nuts and berries!

The reality check took hold soon after when I realized that nature provided no place to shower, pee, or apply my makeup.

Circa 1989; Spring Break of my sophomore year in college. I had traveled to Myrtle Beach for an outdoor camping adventure with my boyfriend and some other friends – earthy people who wore their hair long and their makeup light, nary a curling iron amongst them. I took pause when I saw the tent pitched yards away from the lapping ocean waves but grew more concerned with I saw a pile of outdoor camping “gear” consisting of archaic-looking pans and utensils. An unopened jar of spaghetti sauce rolled on the sand next to a crackling fire which was no doubt produced by rubbing together sticks.

We had passed at least six or seven decent fast food restaurants within a mile of the state park and I wondered out loud, “Why would anyone cook out here when we can have an Egg McMuffin?” I endured eye rolls, snorts, and even overheard someone whisper, “Convenience Camper” to which I tossed my perfectly hair-sprayed hair, stomped away and sat in the air-conditioned car while my boyfriend assembled a tent.

That evening, lying flat on the hard ground with only a thin, sheer layer of nylon taffeta supported by metal poles to protect me from the imminent gruesome death of being eaten by one of alligators roaming the beach, I realized that I was unable to connect with nature in ways others had achieved. I could not hug a tree for fear that a swarm of ants or a wayward squirrel might get me. I feared the tree snake.

Yet the dream to be a granola girl endured. After college when I was fully employed, I had the means to buy gear and I did so with a fervor. Skiis that were used twice. Hiking boots that only ever hiked the corridors of the mall in search of the perfect sale. Bandanas in twelve colors. Backpacks, rugged jeans and the occasional flannel. I would look the part and then become the part!

But sometimes I would forget and arrive for an outdoor adventure unprepared. My brother, a certified organic boy, once invited me to go mountain biking with his friends. I arrived in a perfectly coordinated outfit wearing white shorts, a pink t-shirt and matching ballcap. One-third of the way down the mountain, I drove through a large dung pile no doubt left behind by a burly bear. It sprayed upward and covered me. I screamed like the girl I am! Frustrated, my brother rode back up the hill to rescue me. He escorted me to the bottom where he gave me a Gatorade and a wet wipe and continued on. I sat on a tree stump swatting at flies, decrying my plight.

Throughout the years, I have continued to live in granola girl denial. Recently, I put down my Eddie Bauer catalog and told my husband we should buy a travel trailer and traverse the country. Our son would know nature and grow up with wonderful memories of camping, Smores and bug bites. We were at the RV dealer the next day, towing home a mobile oasis complete with air conditioning, a microwave and satellite TV. I would finally achieve granola girl status!!

March 2011: The Maiden Voyage to the Florida Keys. After six trips to super Walmart to stock the beast with essentials like a microwave bacon tray and upgraded bedding, we hit the road. Three states and 54 South of the Border billboards later, we hit bad weather in the form of a tornado crossing interstate 95 in Dunn, NC. I didn’t actually see the tornado because my head was between my legs while I straddled my seven-year old son to the floor of the truck. My husband confirmed that we drove through it. Aside from the hail and damaging winds, we survived. We pulled off at the next exit and helped a nice family who had lost windows and a rear view mirror in their rented RV. They were Disney-bound. Fellow granolas in pursuit of Wally World.

Back on 95, as the clouds cleared we continued on, my husband determined to make up for lost time. As I drifted off to sleep in the back of the King Cab sometime around midnight, my son drooling on my arm, I heard cars honking. My husband pulled over. I stuck my head out the window and said, “What happened?” The bumper had been damaged during the tornado and our bikes took the hit: his lying somewhere in the middle of interstate 95, mine dragging behind the camper causing sparks and my son’s holding on for dear life.

I looked at my husband and said in earnest, “Let’s go find a hotel. Preferably one with room service.”

May 2011: The granola girl journey continued. We headed to Delfest, an outdoor music festival in Cumberland, MD. The Delfest web site boasted a lineup of great artists, kid’s activities and fun for all. More importantly, it showed pictures of earthy girls in bandanas and tank tops. My fellow granola sisters! After two trips to Walmart to stock the beast, we headed to the mountains.

Nothing could have prepared me for what lie ahead. The festival fairgrounds sat in a valley, downstream – a cess pool of run-off mountain water. After four days of rain, the ground had turned to a mud river.

Having never learned from my encounter with the pile of bear poop, I walked out again into nature to be among my earthy sisters and bearded men, my husband shaking his head at my pristine white shorts and brand new leather flip flops saying, “Why bother?’” As I sunk into the mud, losing all sight of my feet, I was forced to concede that he was right and march right back into our air-conditioned travel trailer to replace my cute white shorts with a pair of cuter khaki shorts rolled at the bottom with a button on the side, matching tank top and clean shoes.

While I watched TV and prepared microwave popcorn for my son and his friend, I peered out the rain-soaked window at my husband heading to the music festival, sludging barefoot through the mud perfectly happy, never looking back, and at one with the filth. I realized that if I never become the outdoor adventurer I strive to be, I have compromised and married the granola guy. My other half and better half.  Muddy feet and all.

Why The Donner Party Ate Their Kin

January 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

If you know the story of the Donner party, then you know that in 1846, a family called the Donners set out for a cross-country trip to California in a covered wagon train. Story has it that they were caught in a blinding snowstorm. From there, the details are sketchy. Some historians claim that the Donners perished in a frozen heap one wintry morn. Others purport that a select few survived and rather than perish from starvation, resorted to Cannibalism in order to make it to the Gold Rush. I know they were snowbound with relatives and ate each other to cover up the evidence.  Following is a modern day example of what happens when you’re snowbound with relatives.

Captain’s Log: January 2011/Pre-Apocalyptic Snow

Am living in Burl Ives hell.  Weather man says wintry wrath of God to hit east coast.  Have not been to grocery store. Trip to 7-Eleven for mandatory supplies reveals no milk or bread.  Husband returns with beer and Little Debbie snack cakes.  Outside a single, gentle snowflake falls.

 Captain’s Log: Wintry Wrath of Hell (the next day)

5:02 a.m. Awaken to Air Hogs helicopter whirring over bed. Son cracked out on Whoppers stands in doorway aiming AirHog guns at husband. Oblivious husband, sleeps, alternately farts and snores. 

Rations count: 1 dozen eggs, 8 strips bacon; 2 boxes Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls; 12 beers. ½ box of Triscuits (half-open on living room couch).

6:30 a.m. “Mom, can you open this? Mom, where are the batteries? Mom, look at this. No, look at this. Watch this. I’m invincible. What does invincible mean? Yeah, I’m that. Watch. Can I take the cushions off the couch and jump on them?”

“Mom. Watch. This.” “MOM!”

8:30 a.m. Son has built cushion city and trapped cat in pillow jail.

Rations count: 10 eggs, 6 strips bacon, 2 boxes Little Debbie cakes; 11 beers. Triscuits eaten by dog. 4,750,589 snowflakes fall gently on the dormant grass outside our 4-bedroom Colonial.

9:36 a.m. Husband comes downstairs. “Did you make coffee yet? What’s for breakfast? STARVING!”

“Mom! Watch! This!”  Cat flees from makeshift prison wearing Build-a-Bear Batman suit.  

Rations count: 8 eggs, 5 strips of bacon, 1 ½ boxes of cakes. 10…9…beers. Am scooping up Triscuit crumbs and sprinkling over 2% fat cheese stick as lovely appetizer.

12:22 p.m. While others in suburban development are playing board games and making cocoa, I sit half-blind, stabbed in eye by fake, plastic sword whose packaging guarantees “realistic, life-like battle sounds.”  Son runs through house in nothing but underwear and Ninja cape. Attempts to thwart son impeded by my over consumption of rations (beer and swiss cake rolls). Am lying in heap by fireplace, assuming role of roadblock while Gravedigger and Big Foot monster trucks fight epic battle for redneck domination.

Have just settled down for a long winter’s nap.

Rations count: Some eggs and bacon. 4 Little Debbie cakes.   7 beers.  8,968,112 snowflakes gently blanket my neighborhood.

12:44 p.m. Awakened from winter’s nap. “Mom! Mom!”


Husband: “Do you really think this is the best time for a nap?

2:56 p.m. Have now tunneled to neighbor’s house for backup rations (beer) and more cakes. Return with ½ bottle Boones Farm and stale Oreos. 4,822,890,555 snowflakes bury my yard.

6:22 p.m. Using brillient Homeland Security survival skills, have pieced together make shift meal of cheese dogs and ramen noodles. Drunk all liquid rations. Am eyeing cooking sherry.

8:19 p.m. Son sleeps on pile of Legos. Husband gives come-hither look. Like black widow, may kill after mating. Will eat with nice Chianti and fava beans. Visit to pantry reveals no beans. Will eat him with side of peas. No Chianti. Will eat him with peas and cooking sherry.

Captain’s Log: Post Snowmageddon

Work. Work! I’m going to work!

6:13 a.m. Car stuck in snow.

Have returned to house to eat family. Rations count: One egg.

784,822,890,555 snowflakes slowly melt in my yard.

Men and Exterior Illumination: A New Olympic Sport

December 21, 2010 § 75 Comments

Most men complain when the holidays arrive and it’s time for exterior illumination. I know deep down that it’s really a competitive sport. He with the most expensive electric bill in the month of December wins.

I think an Exterior Illumination category should be added to the next Winter Olympics. Men from all walks of life will participate in a race to create the tackiest Christmas displays possible. Contenders will navigate through an obstacle course by running through a wall of attic insulation, leaping over a corpse pile of dismembered plastic lawn reindeer, and climbing a 50-foot ladder held together with lawn bag twisty ties and duct tape. The winner will be the first in the neighborhood to get baby Jesus, Mary and all of the wise men out on the lawn next to the inflatable penguin before the electric company fires up the auxiliary backup power.

My late father should receive a posthumous gold medal for exterior decoration. He was my hero because he would, without fail, haul out the ladder the morning after Thanksgiving, disappear into the attic and emerge with dusty boxes containing items such as a rainbow colored menorah, which was always missing at least two bulbs (why we had this, I’m not sure — we were not Jewish), a yard Santa pulled by four reindeer (I think at one point the other four went to live on a “farm”– AKA hauled off to the landfill), and a glowing snowman who at one point had been kicked in the head and had its carrot nose decapitated.

Following the trip into the attic, my Dad would stand in the front yard, systematically disrobe and then scratch all exposed body parts, convinced that he was suffering from attic insulation allergy. Normally, nothing phased the man. This is the same guy who would blow up like Veruca Salt if he even looked at shellfish, but loved it so much he’d go to dinner at Red Lobster, order the Fisherman’s Feast and take four Benadryl, falling asleep halfway through the cheddar biscuits. Mom always had to drive home.

Like a real man, my father had a penchant for big, glowing Christmas lights. Not the skinny, twinkly kind but rather the fat multi-colored orbs that could be viewed from a satellite on its way to Mars. From a distance, the earth would look blue-gray and peaceful, a gentle ball bobbing in the serene universe. And then the Christmas season would arrive and the blue ball would exude a glowing pimple otherwise known as my house. I was convinced that NASA had tagged it as a potential host cell where travel-weary aliens stopped in for a siesta. Like the Motel 6, we left the light on!

When tackling the exterior of our split foyer, staple guns be damned. My father used a hammer and nails, pounding his way across the roof to get each bulb properly in its place. In the end, a tangle of extension cords hung dangerously outside of my brother’s bedroom window, innocently waiting for a snow fall to spark an electric storm. Meanwhile, my house glowed like the Amityville Horror house for the entire month of December. If Dad was feeling particularly lazy, January got the shaft as well.

Folklore has it that before electricity, when there were no lights within a house after bedtime, people would place lighted candles on the windowsill for travelers. We produced the opposite effect. It was usually during this time that my neighbors invested in window shades and stopped speaking to my parents.

This year I noticed that no one in our neighborhood had decorated their homes. I nudged my husband and said, “We need to do something – it’s like the neighborhood that Christmas forgot out there.” Begrudgingly, he headed to the Walmart and spent enough on inflatable Snoopys and pre-lit candy canes to fund the Walton family well into retirement. The next night, our neighbor’s house was decked out in a brilliant display of red and green Christmas lights, glowing in electric, competitive joy. And without skipping a beat, the Winter Olympics had begun.

Have any good exterior illumination stories? Share them here! Or follow me on Twitter: @joannewallmark

Man Make Wheel. Man Fix Wheel. Oog.

November 23, 2010 § 6 Comments

Although I’m a part-time feminist, which means I am one when I feel like it, my husband and I have been able to come to a quiet, unwritten understanding of who does what in our marriage. In mankind’s earliest days, I would have gathered nuts and berries and produced things like tasty soup and hats fashioned from giant, prehistoric beaver tail. He would have hunted and brought home great meats and bear hides. But since we don’t run from things that eat us anymore, we’ve settled into more of a modern, conventional give-and-take. I decided I will provide clean clothes; food. He takes on the jobs I want absolutely nothing to do with including the following:

1) Anything requiring a plunger
2) Anything left on the carpet that was expelled from either end of the dogs or the cat
3) The killing of things with more than six legs
4) The car

Yesterday morning, while driving to work, one of my tires deflated mid-roll. With my stealth, Andretti-like driving abilities, I maneuvered the car off the road and into a parking lot. I got out to look at the defeated tire and called a co-worker to rescue me. At noon, my husband met me at my car. We stood road side, surveying the damage. He said nothing. I said nothing. Then we turned into cave people. Man made wheel. Wheel break. Man fix.

“Broke,” I grunted, pointing to the wheel.

Affirmative return grunt. (Him)

“What that?” I say, pointing to the small, round, infant-sized tire and pile of rustic tools that he magically produced from a special, Narnia-like place that existed below the covering in the trunk space.

(I peered into the hole, imagining a cornucopia of car-fix-it parts in an Oz world teeming with munchkin-sized mechanics who decided to hang with Glenda the Good Witch rather than face certain annihilation by the Warlock of Retail Tire Sales. The Lug Nut Guild.)

He brought forth the first tool. “That crank for jack,” he explained. “Oog.”

“What that do?” I grunted back. “Ugg.”

“Crank pump car high,” he said. Before inserting it into the jack, he held the tool high, like a mighty warrior who had just whittled the first arrow head. I took a step back, as if he had just brought forth magical fire from twigs and heat from the sun.

(Note: What ensued next is purely the fault of the Swedes. I drive a Saab, and have come to learn that the Swedish believe that all things can be put together with a bent piece of metal and crude instructions involving illustrations with lots of arrows but no actual words. If you don’t believe me, buy furniture from IKEA.)

“Umph.” He made several attempts to get Swedish metal contraption to turn, resulting in the scraping of his knuckles on the gravel.

“What wrong?” I said, peering over him.

“Piece of shit!” he responded.

Grunt. (Him)

Grunt. (Me)

“What for lunch?”

Grunt. (Him) “$#*^#u)!!@{ !!”

“I say what for lunch?”


Over tasty soup, he nursed his scrape wounds while I showed him the paper cut I received while moving a stack of work documents from my trunk into the back seat.

“My cut worse.” I tell him.

Grunt. (Him)

I probably could have changed the tire. In college, I did manage to put together an entire living room consisting of things like an IVAR wall unit, ARSTID lamp, and KARLSTAD modular sofa with a 3-inch Allen wrench and IKEA picture guide. But the point is, I didn’t have to. I called the guy I can always count on and he got dirty hands and bleeding knuckles using rudimentary tools to rescue a cave woman in distress.

If we ever visit Sweden, I’m going to bring along a Philips head screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, maybe some power tools — just to show them how we fix things in America. Ugg.

The Making of a Germ Phobe

November 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

I was convinced as a child that Armageddon, tornadoes, and fiery volcanoes had nothing on the common household germ.  While other pre-schoolers were busy doodling stick people and stick dogs, I illustrated scary, blob-shaped creatures with six arms and ten eyes.  I believed that the demise of the human population would someday spring from a single-celled spore joining forces with another evil-doer.  They would replicate at breakneck speed and plunk us off of the planet, one by one, leaving only the cockroaches to rule the world.

Any psychologist will tell you that it was most likely my early childhood experiences that set the stage for germ phobia later in life. I grew up in a house with six brothers and sisters.  Every door knob, bathroom fixture and surface teemed with microscopic life.  The germ count alone in that house was enough to start a plague in a third world country, or West Virginia. 

My mother spent one-third of her life sitting in a chair at the pediatrician’s office, waiting for the doctor to come out and tell her that my vomit-spewing sibling had a virus and she needed to “let it run its course.”  She would sigh, knowing that “running its course” meant at least two kids at a time making a mad dash for the bathroom until everyone had been afflicted.

These same six siblings thought it was funny that I was afraid of germs and took every opportunity to torture me at great lengths.  I was chased around the house with a freshly licked spoon, my sister threatening to put it in my soup.  I was subjected to wet willies, dirty socks under my pillow and bites taken from my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  The bite mark was there – but no one would take responsibility for the deed.  Even special occasions were trying times.  Most children have pleasant memories of Christmas morning: the growing anticipation of Santa’s arrival, the big event and the ensuing toy hangover.  My fifth Christmas put me into therapy. 

Each year my siblings and I would draw names from a hat to give to each other gifts on Christmas Eve.  These presents went under the special “family” tree, which stood in the upstairs front window — a spindly, silver tree imposter that looked like it had lost a fight with a roll of aluminum foil. (My father loved that tree and would decorate it with red Christmas balls and lights, giving our house a demonic glow from the street after dark.)  

My second oldest brother, Billy, drew my name my kindergarten year.  Gift-giving on an elementary school budget normally yielded gems such as homemade ashtrays (complete with thumb indentations for holding a lit cigarette, which in the 1970s was still socially acceptable), drugstore perfume, and silver-plated “#1 Mom” necklaces encrusted with genuine diamonoids. 

That year, on Christmas Eve, I squealed with delight at the enormous box wrapped in Sunday morning cartoon newspaper wrapping that my brother had placed under the silver demon tree for me.  Something so big must surely yield greatness:  A dollhouse? An EasyBake Oven?  I unwrapped the big box carefully, my siblings looking on.  My tiny arms reached inside and I pulled out a tangle of pipe cleaners and styro foam balls, which were carefully interwined and connected, tinker-toy style.  Two enormous googly eyes were glued to the head of the creation.  I blinked up at my brother, confused.  “What is it?” I asked.  He looked at me and said, proudly, “I made you your very own pet germ.”  That was when the childhood trauma led to full-on germ phobia.

I later found solace in soap, bar-style and then liquid.  Then hand sanitizer.  The birth of my child produced a new level of germ-fearing hormones as I turned into mother bear, protecting my little one from imminent disease.  Rubber ball rooms, Chuck E. Cheese and the McDonald’s outdoor Playland were off limits.  My neighbor once confessed that she didn’t know if she could be friends with me when we first met because I didn’t want to let my kid get dirty.  Meanwhile, her daughter streaked naked through the yard, fists clenched with mud pies. 

(We’re best buds now.)

Eventually, logic and reason won the germ battle in my head and I realized that my neighbor was right.  My son did get dirty. Colds, flus and skin rashes came home from daycare.  The ailments ran their course.  He rebounded.  In time I have learned to put down the bottle of 409 and let the people in my house eat on a less-than-sterile counter.  Sometimes I even push a shopping cart without a thorough scrubbing with a Wet Wipe.

Progress?  Who knows.  Maybe the joke will be on me when the next bubonic plague makes its rounds.  Everyone around me, loaded with the antibodies from touching door handles, will rebound while I flounder from the microscopic blobs with six arms and ten eyes.   I suppose everything, in time, must “run its course.”

Mandatory Fun

November 10, 2010 § 3 Comments

Throughout my career, I’ve been subjected time and again to a practice I call “mandatory fun.” If you’ve never experienced this type of fun, it goes like this: A mass email is sent inviting you to a mandatory, company-wide off-site event.  Clear your Outlook calendars! The Human Resources department markets this event as “The company’s way of saying ‘thank you’ for all of your hard work.”

(NOTE: This is a trick. What this really means is that you have to show up, eat the catered boxed lunch, and participate in team building activities with your co-workers, including those that you sometimes daydream about accidentally locking in the supply closet.)

I once attended a mandatory fun event where we were all ushered by bus to a local park. Upon arrival, I discovered in horror that we were required to participate in “Office Olympics.” For five hours, I hopped through potato sack races, ran in a relay with my leg tied to an intern from accounting, and walked on a balance beam, one foot in front of the other, while carrying an egg on a spoon. I bore bruises from paint ball. The day culminated with me in a sand pit, wearing a Sumo wrestler suit, while being pinned in a headlock by the VP of Sales. Meanwhile, I pictured the HR Director somewhere with a clipboard checking off the box next to my name: DOES NOT PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS.

In adulthood, playing well with others isn’t always easy. There are social graces and power struggles to contend with. Everybody wants to rule the world. It’s a lot like being a kid, only you don’t get to work off your frustration by running around a playground or hanging upside on a jungle gym, imagining what the world would be like if the ground was the sky, the sky was the ground, and the friend that just un-best-friended you was a bug being squashed by the tiny feet running by your head.

I didn’t leave the Office Olympics feeling closer or more connected to my coworkers. When team activities are forced upon you, most don’t engage. Real bonding occurs in everyday exchanges anyway, as a natural consequence of life in Cubeville. I’ve listened to the dreaded, “I need an appointment” conversation one too many times. (Two cubes down someone explains all of the symptoms she’s experiencing to the gynecologist office receptionist IN GREAT DETAIL.) I’ve heard fights with boyfriends and husbands. I know what people eat for dinner because it is inevitably brought in for lunch the next day – the smell of exotic leftovers containing spices I can’t pronounce, raw eggs and fish wafting through the heating vents.

Yet despite all of the challenges of being in a confined space with so many personalities, my coworkers are also my friends. When I went through a rough time a few years ago and wanted to fall apart, they held me up and kept me going. Made me laugh when I wanted to cry. Covered my work when I didn’t have it in me to throw 100% of myself into my projects. Sat with me quietly when I just wanted to talk it out. They remember birthdays and important events. And inevitably, we all always end up on diets – together.

While dunking booths are great for parties, I say leave them out of office functions. Let people learn to get along like we figured out on the playground so many years ago. Some kids won’t play fair or be your best friend. Someone will bully. Someone will always want to get to the top of the slide first. Someone will steal your lunch. Back in the day, we figured it out, fought our battles and then made up and started over. Never, not once, in a Sumo wrestling suit.

Undomesticated Me

November 3, 2010 § 3 Comments

I am starting to believe that we are either are, or are not, born equipped with a gene that makes us want to wake up each day and bake. This same gene fires synapses in our brain like firecrackers, forcing a zombie-like wandering into fabric and craft stores to seek out quilting materials, seasonal decorations and scrapbooking supplies. I write today confessing that I do not own a sewing kit, much less a needle. Moreover, I have never ever baked a turkey in my life. Turkeys have nothing to do with sewing, but as the holidays approach, I am reminded yet again that I’m deficient in numerous domestic areas.

My foray into what it means to be a home girl started early in life. I once made a Thanksgiving dinner for my boyfriend in college, consisting of a round, pressed turkey loaf, Stove Top stuffing, mashed potato flakes, jarred gravy, and canned cranberry sauce (which held its shape and jiggled on the plate). I had tricked him into thinking that I had domestic Goddess potential.

In time, however, I have come to discover that the Goddess chromosome somehow skipped me. I have all of the makings of one: I’m female (check!). I know what I’m SUPPOSED to be doing (check!). I just have ten million things going on at any given time involving a job, a house, a kid, a husband, and a life that distract me to the point where I wake up in the middle of the night to racing thoughts, “You forgot to pack snack. You didn’t clean out the Tuesday folder. Huge presentation at work tomorrow. My blue suit is at the cleaners. Did I brush my teeth?” Insomnia ensues. (Uncheck! Uncheck! Uncheck!) I’ve canceled myself out.

Last year a family member asked if we could host Thanksgiving at our house. “Sure.” I responded. “Can you bring the turkey?”

Awkward pause. “Can’t you do it?”

I shook my head and confessed, “I don’t know how.”

He shrugged and walked away, saying, “You just wait for the thingy to pop up.” Thank you, Butterball.

A few years ago, my son started taking tae kwon do classes. This martial arts practice comes complete with uniforms that require patches. My husband approached the Master about a place where he could go to have them sewn on. The Master, a first generation Korean, looked at him, puzzled. “You don’t have wife?” My husband nodded, saying, “Yes. Just not one that sews.” The master laughed. “Ba ha ha ha ha!” Later that night, he repeated the story to me. I shrugged and said, “The lady at the drycleaner does that kind of stuff.”

When I was a girl, my mother tried to teach me her skills. I remember sitting with her while she showed me how to knit, needles clicking and clacking. I clicked for about five minutes and walked away. “You’re better at that stuff, Mom. Will you just make me a scarf?” She gave me a look I’ve recently adopted myself – sort of an exasperated, “Kid, I’m trying to pass stuff along to you” look.

Her attempts were futile – I never engaged. But I have survived. Although I didn’t get the domestic gene, Darwinism played itself out, allowing me to adapt in other marvelous ways. I am the family member asked to bring the veggie tray because someone else is usually willing to cook the beast. My sister, who inherited my mom’s unbelievable skill for sewing, lives in a home filled with beautiful curtains and refinished chairs. I bought mine from Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Still, these questions linger: Am I robbing my family of memories of holiday feasts, complete with turkey smells and leftovers? What possible heirlooms am I leaving behind if there isn’t a craft or object I’ve carefully crafted as a memoir in years to come? I often sit and worry that I’m short-sighting my family because of the short cuts I take.

Time is precious. I work all day and what time I do have, I want to spend with the people and animals that inhabit my house. Maybe when my child is older, I’ll find time to do all of the things my wonderful mother did for me. But now, while he’s at the ripe young age of seven, I’m happiest just BEING with him, even if it means I can’t pull off a Norman Rockwell moment. Deep down I know that processed turkey loaf tastes almost the same as the kind where the thingy pops up. (Right?) Most people stuff with boxed stuffing these days. And the cranberry sauce, throughout time, has come out shaped like the can. I don’t care how much mashing and slicing people do.

Perhaps my heirloom is something else – I haven’t made a beautiful quilt but instead I provide the memory of a mom who found a bunch of shortcuts to just be there. Every night I read books to my son as he drifts off to sleep. We watch SpongeBob together after homework. I’m teaching him to catch popcorn in his mouth by throwing it into the air. Am I fooling myself in hoping that these moments provide equal warmth? Hugs are hugs and time well spent is just that – TIME, which is invaluable.

Would my own mother be proud that I became the alternative-seeking, undomesticated version of her? She’s no longer here to ask. On cold nights, when I wrap myself in the blanket she once crocheted for me, I wonder: Where is the balance? And am I doing enough? Am I surrounded by warmth through this blanket or rather, the memory of someone who loved me?

My thoughts go back to her being bed side, with a book in her lap, as she reads while I drift off to sleep. It’s what I miss the most. That is when I know that I’m doing enough.

Good Guysha

October 7, 2010 § 5 Comments

My co-worker, Andy, is a guysha – a term coined for him because he is the solitary man working in an office of women. Unlike a traditional geisha (a Japanese woman educated to accompany men as a hostess, with skills such as dancing, conversation and music), Andy has been educated in the art of being a chick. He’s married with two kids, wears a tie and drives a big truck. In a bar, he might get man-punched in the arm by another guy and talk about the waitresses’ thong or world politics. But in our office, Andy is a girl.

It wasn’t always this way. To hear Andy tell the story, he started his career over thirty years ago with the glass floor below, where testosterone ruled and the men carried the big club of power. In his formative years, Andy attended two-hour lunches with the guys swigging Smirnoff with a beer chaser. At the office, women clad in shoulder-padded power suits plucked out memos on IBM Selectric typewriters while guarding the bosses’ office doors – the men were inside holding strategy meetings to which the women were not privy. Andy was a man in a man’s world, which at the time, was enough.

Today Andy can listen to three women engaging in two different conversations at the same time, understand most of what is being said, and chirp in with useful banter. His power lunches take place at the local eatery with his girl clique. “They put raisins in their chicken salad – it’s a nice touch,” he tells me.

Twice in the past week, Andy has used the term “cute” to refer to women’s shoes. Sighing, he tells me that he used to say “cute butt.” What’s more, he says that he notices women’s outfits in meetings before looking at their cleavage or bottoms. He once commented that a co-worker’s Coach hand bag knock-off (which sported the label “Couch”), disturbed him because the logos went in the wrong direction. Yet she got high-fives for her authentic Burberry bag.

On a typical day, Andy will have a gaggle of women in his office, slumped in chairs, leaning against windows, and peering in from the hallway. Terms such as “night sweats”, “the change”, and “Botox peel” hang in the air like radioactive clouds following an atom bomb explosion. He’ll discuss anything, but gossips by one rule: he will not talk about any problems he is having his wife. “There’s no point,” he tells me. “The man is always wrong.”

How did Andy become the good guysha? The preferred BFF? It was a slow evolution fueled by the woman’s movement, equal opportunity employment, and the Miracle Bra. When male-dominated offices went full swing, Andy swung with the times. Andy describes what happened with two words: culture change. The women that he worked with went to school, got degrees, and got promoted. In the government, where chances for advancement prevailed, women were ambitious about getting ahead. As women became his peers, Andy adopted the old adage of “If you can’t beat’em, join’em.”

These days, he joins them at Target (which he pronounces “Tar-jay”) and provides an honest answer when someone asks, “Do these pants make me look fat? “No,” he will respond blithely. “Your fat makes you look fat.”

Viewed as a leader in his field, Andy is an intelligent and talented Information Technology manager. Beyond his career, though, he is the morphed version of the 90’s metrosexual (a heterosexual male with a strong aesthetic sense and inordinate interest in appearance and style). As a guysha, he gets to the heart of communicating with women: having a heart. He listens with empathy. Andy offers an open door when women don’t understand their husbands, want to kill their own off-spring, and become frustrated when their careers aren’t advancing fast enough. He will advise women colleagues in business matters in the same breath that he doles out a listing of great places to eat. “A degree in Post-Modern Spirituality will not help you in the IT industry. But P.F. Chang’s has the best kung pao chicken bar none.”

The guysha sometimes gets lonely. When he wants to comment to his lunch mates about the size of the breasts on the woman that just walked by, he remembers that there are no men in his company to share his joy. Jokes about passing gas go unrequited. “Women no longer flirt with me,” he muses. “That is what hurts the most.”

Aside from the lack of male comrades, however, the guysha is comfortable in his role. After our morning conversations run through the usual banter about how many Weight Watchers points are in a bagel or whether the black or blue team is winning on “The Biggest Loser”, we inevitably start talking about our children. The guysha has two, and it is evident that he is extremely proud of both. The latest report is that his girl has gotten in to the Science, Technology and Math program. She went to space camp last summer. When she grows older, she may never know the prejudice of being excluded because of her gender. She may never doubt herself when it’s time to ask for a promotion or pursue a master’s degree. Secure in a work world where the guys treat her the same, she may just prevail. The truth is her guysha Dad wouldn’t have it any other way.

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