Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Year In Review

Wowza. You know, every December 31 or so, I've been known to write a letter to myself recapping the year and pondering what the next may bring. Thinking back on previous years, I'm always amazed at how unpredictable they can be - and this one has been no exception.

Think about it. One year ago today, where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? How were you feeling? What did you expect for the coming year? Fast forward 365 days. How'd ya do with those predictions? Are you in the same place, with the same person, doing the same thing and feeling the same way? Perhaps yes, but probably not.

As you may have gathered if you're a regular Writing - It's My Thing reader, this past year was a roller coaster - full of twists and turns, ups and downs. In fact, it was so topsy-turvy, I, for the first time in I don't know how many years, didn't send out a Christmas newsletter. You know, the ones that highlight how great your kids are and how wonderful life has been for the past year? I joked on my Facebook page that mine would have read like a chapter out of a Stephen King novel. No one would believe it and it would be pretty scary.

See, if I wrote one, I'd want to hit all the highlights, which were pretty much monthly: 

January: High hopes for the new year!

February: My Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl!

March: I put my house of 12 years on the market.

April: My otherwise active and healthy mother is diagnosed with kidney cancer, and has said kidney successfully removed, with no apparent residual cancer. Her recovery - which they said could last as long as nine months - is remarkable - just like her.

May: My oldest son is confirmed, has his First Communion, and graduates from 8th grade. We Kennards like to do our accomplishments in threes.

June: My house sells. My family and I take a trip that opens my eyes and changes my life, and results in me enduring one of the hardest summers I can ever remember. I lose 10 pounds.

July: Both sons celebrate birthdays! I discover that two of my friends have breast cancer, and I am somehow drawn to them even more and they become my inspiration.

August: After three weeks of living out of suitcases, we move into our new home.

September: My oldest starts his freshman year at a brand new school.

October: I get a team together to join a volleyball league at the RiverPlex. I begin to gain back the 10 pounds.

November: I celebrate my one-year anniversary of being employed. My sister-in-law suffers a stroke at a Bears game in Chicago. My mother is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which apparently had nothing to do with the kidney cancer. Neither disease runs in our family. I begin compiling blog material to publish my own book.

December: My book is published! The family unites for a thankful Christmas and braces for Mom's surgery and subsequent chemotherapy starting in January. I start wondering what 2012 will bring, and hope I can write more like Erma Bombeck than Steven King at the end of it all.

Happy New Year to everyone, and may 2012 bring you everything you hope for, and nothing more than God thinks you can handle.

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Count your blessings, and forget the rest"

It's two days before Christmas, and this year more than ever, I'm not feeling it. Perhaps it's the ages of my kids - now 10 and 14. Five years ago, I would still have been frantically baking my 12th kind of cookie and making sure each gift was wrapped in different colored paper. I would have test-drove the stocking stuffers to make sure they fit in said stockings, and ensured that my video camera was charged and at the ready.

This year, I've made two kinds of cookies - one from a box. Most of my gifts are bagged, not wrapped, and I didn't even make sure I had even numbers of green and red tissue-wrapped stuffers for the stockings. In fact, I drank for the better part of my wrapping hours.

Inevitably, two days before Christmas, my kids will be watching TV (which is what they will do for the next 10 days on their "Winter Break") and suddenly say, "Hey, Mom! THAT'S on the TOP of my Christmas list!!!" I'll look at this item that I've never seen or heard of before in my life and wonder where the hell this little gem was a month ago when I asked them to list and prioritize their Christmas wants.

The older they get, the more expensive their list items become. And the older I get, the poorer I seem to become. You do the math. My older son has pictures of very expensive drum sets plastered all over the refrigerator. He's not a beginner musician, so trying to get one of those Ronco "As Seen on TV" drum sets isn't going to cut it. I'm also not ready to part with that kind of money, even if it's the only way to get him to smile and perhaps say, "Thanks, Mom! You're the BEST!"

I've tried to adhere to my rule - THREE GIFTS. Just like Jesus got. One big gift from Santa, and two from "Mom and Dad" (even though we're divorced, we share this expense. Thank God. I pity the divorced and/or blended families who are forced to do two Christmases and the kids end up double-dipping.) Anyway, a couple of years ago, I got sick of Santa getting the credit for the big gift. "Santa's so cool, Mom - you never would have gotten us that." and the inevitable, "You can't take that away from us! Santa gave that to us!" Screw that. Santa can give you underwear and socks from now on. You're 10 and 14 now. Mom rules; Santa sucks. Deal with it.

So like every other year, it's less than 36 hours before the big day and I'm worried that a) it's not enough; b) they're not going to like what they got and c) this Christmas will be the one that will go down in history as "The Year Mom Lost It".

I think back to my Christmases as a child - I don't really know what my parents spent on the four of us other than they made sure it was "equal" - as if we were mentally calculating our share of the pot then holding court later that night to determine who Mom and Dad liked best that year. I don't remember ever feeling gypped, slighted, or the least bit disappointed no matter what I got. So, either my parents were AWESOME at satisfying my EVERY need, or in the end, the things I thought I really wanted just didn't matter as much as I thought they did.

I don't know how my parents did it - and still do. Every year, Mom bakes cookies. Not from a box. The ones you make and chill the dough and cut out with cookie cutters and decorate. Yeah, those. She shops all year long for every child, grandchild, great-grandchild and all the other miscellaneous members of our family. She wraps each gift impeccably and yes, still makes sure that the four kids are equally gifted.

I feel like such a loser. To make matters worse, up until last year, Mom made virtually everything for Christmas dinner. We finally convinced her to do the main dish and the desserts, and we would bring the rest - whatever we wanted. Know what I'm bringing? Rolls, Jell-O Jigglers, and fruit. Why? Because that's pretty much all my kids will eat, plus my sister and brother took all the good stuff and are waaaaay better cooks than me.

*Sigh*. I do look forward to Christmas morning. My kids are usually genuinely thankful and pleased. It's nice to get the family together. And to get me through those Christmas night doldrums? Packers vs. Bears at 7:30. You guess who I'm rooting for and here's a hint. It doesn't start with a "B".

Seriously, win or lose, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas experience, no matter where you are and who you are with. A friend of mine offhandedly made a simple remark to me today that really resonated:  "Count your blessings, and forget the rest." I hope you all will take time to appreciate the blessings in your life, and for just one day, forget the other stuff. I know I will certainly try - if not for just one day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dating tips from someone who doesn't really date

It's time for me to be that chick you hate. That chick that tells it like it is like she knows it all. The chick that says what you don't want to hear. Because you've been that guy. You've been that girl. And so have I.

Now I do a lot of people-watching, and people-listening, and I see and hear quite a bit of this little flirty singles dance that's out there. A lot of "He texted me this" and "I told him that" and "Can you believe he/she said/did THAT?" And just for the record, I'm middle-aged. This isn't my first rodeo - and if you're reading this, it probably isn't yours, either.

So here's the deal. I'm going to go all Patty Stanger on you (she's that in-your-face madwoman from Millionaire Matchmaker, who, to me, makes perfect sense nearly every time she speaks) and give you some no-brainer, no-shit dating tips that you should already know, but either you're too wrapped up in yourself to realize it or you're just bat crazy.

First, for the guys. You're all morons. You have no idea what you're doing, and if you think you do, you're full of yourself. If you're looking to get some drunk chick in the sack for a night, keep doing what you're doing and that's probably what you'll get. I guarantee she'll get uglier as the day gets lighter and you'll probably never see her again. Wait, you will, and it will be uncomfortable at best.

If you are looking for a relationship, swap the sexual innuendos for something a little more practical - like being sweet instead of sexy, intelligent instead of ignorant, and perspicacious instead of a prick. If you do by some act of God get her phone number, the texts should be kept to a minimum - a quick "Hi, it was great meeting you last night" or "Can you break for lunch?" or "Call you later!" will suffice. If you want this little bud of a romance to go anywhere, pick up the damn phone and call her. Texting that much is for losers. And it's exhausting to boot.

And if you're the guy on the other end of the spectrum - the sweet, quiet, shy guy who can't even make eye contact? WE DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE THINKING. We can't read your mind, but your face looks like a deer caught in headlights. Man up, because, well, you're the man. And if WE have to be the ones to man up, then there's a problem.

Now if a FWB (Friend with Benefits) is what you're looking for, try having that conversation with your lady friend about it instead of just "assuming" that's what it is, or just riding that train for as long as you can before someone (she) notices. Try this icebreaker: "Hey, I really like you and all, but not really enough to admit to anyone that I'm in a relationship with you. Plus I really want to keep my options open in case someone really out of my league decides that I rock their world. BUT, you're the only action I really get right now, so if we could just keep it on the downlow, that would be great. Here, let me pick up the check." What? You don't think that will go over well with your female buddy? Huh.

Girls, now it's your turn. Quit being such needy pansies. I'm not much for "self-help" books (obviously), but I once read a book that I'm embarrassed to admit to reading, but I've taken the author's advice to this day. Greg Behrendt wrote He's Not That Into You in 2004 (you probably remember the movie back in 2009). Anyway, the book was freakin' genius.

Now while most
of his insights had to do with getting over someone who had broken up with you, they can be tweaked for dating purposes. Like, "If he wants to call, he'll call." There is no, "He must have lost my number." or "Maybe he's in the hospital." or "Maybe I didn't indicate to him enough that I wanted him to call." If he wants to call, HE WILL CALL. So go on about your day and chill. Now, when he DOES call, we are NOT going to analyze every single thing that came out of his mouth. WHY? Because he didn't mean it ANY DIFFERENT OR ANY DEEPER than it sounded. Unless he is one of those incredibly rare, emotionally-available males who are deeply in touch with their feminine side, what you hear is what you get. THERE IS NO MORE.

Here's where there's more, Ladies. You may think that letting him know what other men have done to you is going to somehow endear you to him. IT'S NOT. You may think that if you don't go home with him he'll think you're a prude and never ask you out again. THAT COULD HAPPEN. And I hope it does. And as titillating as phone sex or sexting may seem at 2 am, it's really, really awkward at 10 in the morning. So, like, don't do it. Same for sending raunchy pictures that more than likely will end up on his Facebook page.

If you do make that love connection and start down that relationship road, make sure it's a reciprocal one. If you're surprising him with dinner, putting little notes on his car, or dropping off cookies at his workplace and there's nothing coming back your way, STOP DOING IT. YOU'RE BEING CREEPY GIRLFRIEND STALKER. If on the other hand YOU are getting cooki
es at work and little notes on your car and not doing the same thing, RUN DON'T WALK, and consider changing your phone number.

I'm sure some of this advice sounds jaded, and perhaps it is. But I can't keep my mouth shut when I see this happening all around me - on both sides. Men and women - doing this dorky dance like a couple of mating flamingos trying to figure out if they're pink enough for each other. Here's a novel idea. Talk for awhile. Get to know each other. Go out a couple of times on some fun dates. Go a couple of days in between without talking to each other (OK - a short text is permissible). You'll know if you're on the same page. If you even question it, you're not. If you have to have talk after talk after talk about it, you're not. MOVE ON. Like marriages, relationships do take some work. However, if they take THAT much work, you're better off cutting loose before you tie that knot.

Any other advice for men and women daters out there? Want to tell me I'm a freak? Go ahead. I may seem that way, but in the spirit of Patty Stanger, I know what I'm talking about.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I have a secret....

Have you seen this site?


PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on a postcard. Creator Frank Warren said that the origin of PostSecret started with a dream he had while visiting Paris in 2003, which morphed into a "reluctant oracle" project in 2004, and finally, the PostSecret site emerged in 2005.

The secrets, posted weekly, range from fascinating, disturbing, enlightening, sad, intriguing, odd, and heartwarming... but all very, very real. They're humanizing admissions that make us all realize that no matter how much of an "open book" we say we are, we all have confessions, regrets, thoughts and feelings that we are sure if discovered would be judged unfavorably.

If I had something that secretive, I assure you I'd send it to PostSecret before I'd admit it publicly. But just for fun, I'll share a few secrets with you, if nothing else just to make you feel better about yourself. Feel free to share yours... if you dare.

25 Secrets I Won't Tell Just Anybody
1. I blamed it on your brother, but really - I did it.
2. Sometimes I really wish I would have been a high school English teacher.
3. When I told you that our toddler made that hole in the wall when he threw his sippy cup, I was lying. I punched it because I was frustrated with him.
4. I watch The Real Housewives and Millionaire Matchmaker.
5. If I think about you dying, it literally makes me cry.
6. You want to win me over? Think outside the box. Plan the date. Make me something. Show up early. Show me I matter. The independent front is all a ruse.
7. I totally regifted that.
8. I didn't wash it; I just rinsed it.
9. I worry if I'll ever be able to afford to retire.
10. I don't know which way is North.
11. You think I'm a certain way, but I'm really not. I just only show you that side.
12. I sometimes wonder if you do drugs.
13. I think you made a big mistake but I know if I tell you it will just make you mad.
14. I have clothes hanging in my closet that I never wear simply because I hate to iron.
15. I think about you more than you realize.
16. You don't smell good.
17. I do dance like no one is watching; and usually they aren't.
18. I still count on my fingers.
19. I hope I have the strength to be as tough on you as I'm going to need to be.
20. Your priorities are WAY jacked up.
21. If I had the money and my kids were older, I'd totally have plastic surgery.
22. I know you only text me when you're bored and have nothing better to do and it really pisses me off.
23. I have hidden you from my Facebook feed because I'm tired of reading your posts.
24. Some days, I eat about 1000 calories more than I should, just because I'm bored.
25. I have your password.

Ha - so do I have you thinking? See? Everyone has secrets. Some are no big deal, like the ones above. Some, like on PostSecret, are deeply moving and might be quite life changing if ever truly revealed. Honestly, I think it's great that there's an outlet for those who really just need to get that deep, dark secret out in the open, even if it's anonymously.

So tell me, what's your secret?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Traditions aren't necessarily things you do over and over

Traditions were a big thing in my house growing up. I don't know if they were intentionally planned or not, but they just seemed to fall into place, as opposed to the strategically thought out and somewhat "forced" traditions of today. Now, you read all these articles on "how to create traditions in your family" like it's something you cut out and glue together. I don't know that my parents thought it out quite like that. I think it just... happened.

Maybe they were more like habits. We had a lot of those. Or maybe "established practices" is the better term. I don't know. But some of my fondest memories of my childhood are things we did every year, like clockwork. They were things I looked forward to. Expected. Like picking mulberries in the morning for breakfast. Or strawberries. Or raspberries. (We had a lot of fruit in our yard.) Or jumping in the leaves in the fall (NOT raking them, mind you. I hated that.) Or taking the huge toboggan out sledding in the winter - all of us piled on.

Holidays were of course centered around church. Catholic church. Long, drawn-out Catholic masses, but somehow comforting nonetheless. Expected. Regular. The smell of incense during the Stations of the Cross before Easter. The choir at Christmas. And all those Holy Days that we got off from school (but still had to go to mass).

Whether they realized it or not, my parents rocked holiday traditions. Christmas was especially spot on. I don't quite remember the order of things, but writing it out makes it look like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

I have photos of us all gathered around the piano as each of the four children (and Mom) played selected Christmas tunes that we had been practicing in our weekly piano lessons. Dad read the Birth of Jesus from the Bible, then we had the procession to the manger. No, Jesus did not appear in our manger until Christmas Eve, and I remember being the proud bearer of the tiny ceramic babe to his rightful place in the fake straw of the stall. Then the stocking were hung by the chimney with care and we were off to bed with sugarplums dancing in our heads and all that other stuff.

I guess I just assumed that everyone did the same thing on Christmas and that things would never change. As the kids got older, moved out, got into relationships, had kids, got divorced, remarried, had step-kids, their kids had kids, and so on, and so on, somehow things got really complicated. My own divorce kind of threw a wrench in my traditions all together.

We had it down for a few years. Our oldest was in Sunday School so we attended Redeemer's "Birthday Party for Jesus" on Christmas Eve at 4:00. He sang fun kiddie Christmas songs with his class then we had a Children's message and then all sang Happy Birthday and had cake and ice cream afterwards. Now growing up, we'd go home to chili and oyster stew, but my picky kids weren't down with that, so it was usually Avanti's gondolas. And they usually weren't hungry. From all the cake and ice cream. *Sigh*. So much for that tradition.

Somehow, Christmas Eve ended up being a very cranky evening at our house, and I often felt like I was going through the motions making a big deal out of the stockings and the cookies and milk for Santa and killing time until my little cherubs went to bed. Because once we got them upstairs, the only thing I was thinking of was how late I was going to be up stuffing the stockings and loading up the Christmas tree. And I soon found out why my parents looked so bleary-eyed as they smiled weakly on Christmas morning gripping their steaming mugs of coffee.

Divorce turned the Christmas Eve tradition into meeting my ex at church for services before he headed in to work, then the boys and I going out to Avanti's for Christmas Eve dinner. For six years now, Christmas Eve has to be one of the hardest and loneliest nights for me. When we get home, we usually snuggle in and watch A Christmas Story, then put out the goodies for Santa. Now it's just me waiting for them to go to sleep, and the older they get, the longer I have to stay awake.

Christmas morning they're like toddlers no matter how old they are - and I love that. They're allowed to open their stockings as they wait for their dad to come over after working the night shift. Again, it's great for them that they get to spend Christmas morning with both their parents, and I just have to remember each year, "This is for them. You had your time." After the presents are opened and Dad leaves, we gear up to go over to my parents' with the rest of the family.

That's when I finally feel whole again. The traditions I have not been able to implement are still there when I go back in time and over to my mom and dad's house. Sister and brother, sister-in-law and brother-in-law, nieces, nephews, step-nieces and nephews, their kids... whatever relation that is.... all there under one roof, coming and going all night long.

All those traditions (including taking my mom's wooden blocks that spell out "Merry Christmas" and making inappropriate, non-holidayish phrases words out of them) in all those blended families coming together for a short time. Like clockwork.

I think it's hard in this day and age to have such "structured" traditions as we had back then, and I'll be anxious to hear someday what my kids remember about their "childhood Christmases". I hope above all that they will remember them fondly, no matter how "unstructured" the traditions ended up being. And I hope they'll take some of what their grandparents did for their mom and some of what their mom did for them and someday have wonderful, meaningful, memorable traditions of their very own.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

So what exactly is the damn Plan?

I have been trying to subscribe to this philosophy that "everything happens for a reason" and that "God has a Plan." You've seen it in my posts and though you may think that I have this amazing faith that causes me to put everything in the hands of God because I know He knows what He's going to do with it, that's not the case.

Like now. I'm really struggling with this whole "God has a Plan" thing. Sometimes I think that's what you say when you don't know what else to say. You can't figure out why something like this would happen. There's no rhyme or reason - it just seems grossly unfair. So you just shrug your shoulders and chalk it up to The Plan.

Here's a couple of examples. I have several friends right now battling illnesses. For one of them, it seems SO unfair. She already has so much going on in her life, and is one of the least-deserving (not that anyone deserves it) people I know to be afflicted with cancer. She's trudging through it like a warrior, though, with a full army backing her up. She flaunts her bald head instead of hides it, throws a "Pink" party instead of crawling under the covers, and laughs her infectious southern laugh that I'm sure they're already familiar with in the chemo room. Though her life is probably changed forever, God has apparently chosen her to be a poster mom for breast cancer, and I can't think of a better one.

In that same category is a friend of mine who is a seven-year cancer survivor. I didn't know her during her ordeal, but suffice it to say that the first time I met her she blew me away with her enthusiasm for life, her "devil-may-care" attitude and her genuine excitement for the world around her. She may have always been like that, but I have a feeling that she made a bet with God that if he got her through cancer she would make it worth His while - and she has. Now that's a Plan I can handle.

Then there's the Plans I struggle with. My mom has lived a healthy lifestyle for the better part of her life. She's in her 70's (God forbid I get her age wrong so I'm just going to be general about it) but looks 20 years younger to me. She and my dad takes long walks daily and go to the gym to lift weights and exercise. They've both always been active in some form, eat healthy, and rarely gets sick. So WHY out of the blue did she have a cancerous kidney the size of a small football removed last April? And why are they biopsying "suspicious spots" on her abdomen today? What's in store for her? What's that Plan, God? What's the point in living a healthy, active lifestyle when you're just going to pull this in the end? I just don't get it.

And what about my sister-in-law, trying to make my brother's 40th birthday special by surprising him with Bears tickets? What was your Plan when she had a stroke in the 3rd quarter and had to be rushed to a Chicago hospital? Thankfully, she's home now, which in itself is a small miracle. So are you trying to tell her something? If so, what? Because they have a really good marriage and I'm thinking she's a little freaked out, as is my brother. You want to clue us in?

And I wonder sometimes - is saying "everything happens for a reason" just some lame way of making yourself feel better? For instance, right now there's a little girl named Maddy lying in a hospital room in Chicago, just diagnosed with leukemia. Maybe she will grow up to be an advocate for leukemia research. Maybe there is someone in that hospital who needs to cross paths with her parents. Maybe her angelic presence is going to change the life of someone she meets. I don't know - but telling her parents that "it's happening for a reason" is not going to go over real well right now.

Sometimes we are faced with hard decisions, like I was recently. What got me through it was both "everything happens for a reason" and "God has a Plan". Now I feel as if my faith is faltering. I feel as if I may have used this philosophy as a crutch, telling myself that God subconsciously told me to make that decision because it's part of this special path He has me on, as opposed to the fact that I really just single-handedly jacked up my whole life. I wonder how many people are faced with even more life-changing decisions than mine, and if they ever question if God is really at the wheel.

I hate that I question this; I really do. I don't mean to be a Doubting Thomas, but there are times when I just can't see the proverbial forest for the trees here. I know that every bad thing that happens to someone and the subsequent life-changing result isn't always worthy of a teary, feel-good YouTube video - some are more subtle and not as immediate. Maybe just too many "bad" things are happening around me all at once and I'm miserably failing whatever test God is administering.

I do still believe God has a Plan, and when I realize it I'll probably feel really stupid - like when someone gives me one of those logical brain teasing questions where the answer is really obvious but doesn't manifest itself as such.

Let's hope it's just that simple in the end.

Friday, November 11, 2011

People play-by-plays... in the drive-thru

So I'm sitting in line at the Avanti's pickup window on a chilly Friday night, waiting to pick up dinner for my kids, who opted to stay home and play video games rather than go out to a restaurant with their mom.

As I sit in my car, I watch the people in front of me getting their gondolas and raviolis. I look over to the parking lot and see couples and families walking in and out of the restaurant and carry-out. And I do what I always do to pass the time - I make up their stories.

The older couple just leaving got there just in time for the early-bird special. They'll go home, watch a little TV, then fall asleep during the news.

The man walking out carrying the little boy told his wife he'd go start the car since junior was getting antsy. She brings up the rear holding the hand of a squirmy princess dressed all in pink while lugging a baby carrier. An exhausting attempt at "family night" after a long work week and probably a double-long stay-at-home-mom week.

Two women, a man and a teenager enter the carry-out. The man and woman are married; the teenager is their son. The other woman is the sister, who is going through a divorce. "Come to dinner with us - we'll just get carry-out then go home and talk over a glass of wine."

I do this in restaurants, too. Sometimes my silence may be looked on by my companion as boredom. Not so. I'm merely surveying the room and getting the "stories" of all the other patrons. The young woman playing with her hair across from the guy fumbling with his fork? First date. The couple eating in silence while staring blankly into space? Their kids are teenagers and off doing their own thing tonight. They've been parenting for so long they don't even know each other anymore. And the older woman who automatically picks the onions off her husband's salad while he systematically passes her the Parmesan cheese? Soulmates.

I'm always wondering what's going on in the lives of these people. It's easy to see a family laughing and joking and be envious that they're just the "perfect family". I sometimes can't look away from the couple who stare adoringly at each other and can't go more than a couple of minutes without touching. "They must just have the best relationship ever," I think. The mom and daughter who I can hear in the dressing room comparing new outfits. "How great that they're friends."

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one that does this, and if I'm not, then what do people think is my story when they see me? There could be a different chapter every day. Sometimes, they'll see a kooky mom chasing her kids through the Shoppes at Grand Prairie or trying to shoot basketballs at Dick's Sporting Goods even though they put that plexiglass shield over the basket. Sometimes they'll see an exasperated mom making one boy walk five paces ahead of the cart while the other begrudgingly holds her hand because they couldn't stop wresting and knocked over a display of cereal. Tonight, they saw a lonely single mom who didn't want to be at home tonight, and wished her family was whole.

I try to keep things in perspective when I'm people watching, and not get too caught up in my story of them, knowing full well there's more to it than meets the eye. But sometimes, it's hard to picture the reality that everyone goes through when they seem so "normal" on the outside. It matters not, I guess. I like to watch people, and I like to make up stories. So stick me in a drive-thru anytime - you just may not want to cross my line of sight lest your story be written... by me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My health insurance company is bracing for the worst

I just got a letter from my insurance company telling me that as of January 1, my premium will go up almost $100 a month. Why? Because I turned 45.

This same thing happened five years ago, when I turned 40. It was a different insurance company, but as soon as I hit the big 4-0, apparently the chances of me suddenly coming down with some middle-age malady skyrockets, so my premium follows suit.

I guess if I had health issues I'd understand. But I don't. In fact, I probably take better care of myself now than I did in my 20s and 30s. Not to jinx myself, but I've never broken a bone. I've never had major surgery. I've never had any sort of life-threatening illness. I've never been hospitalized other than giving birth and an unfortunate incident involving a slightly-septic knee injury (and a bottle of rum).

Which is why, at age 45, I balk at the prospect of spending hundreds of dollars a month on this "hit by a bus" medical insurance, which is basically a high deductible plan that sticks me with the first $5,000 of any catastrophic medical malady that might occur, like getting hit by a bus.

Thankfully, this insurance DOES cover wellness checks. Honestly, I think any insurance that doesn't is worthless. If I'm paying hundreds a month to you people, at least thrown in a yearly medical exam, ob/gyn visit and mammogram just to make sure things are ticking away properly. I understand my drop in the bucket is going toward all the other people's claims, but cut me that small break, please. You're killing me.

And dental? Don't get me started. I haven't had dental insurance in years. So what do I do? I don't go to the dentist. Why? Because it's money out of my pocket. And how is that working out for me? It means I have an emergency appointment to look at a tooth that's been giving me so much pain I can't even eat on that side. I have a feeling this is going to cost me.

Same with vision. I know vision insurance is probably a thing of the past, but that's what's going south faster than my health. Do I remember to have my yearly eye exam? No. I'm just glad they can get me in quickly when I realize I can no longer read the signs on the highway.

I wish medical insurance premiums had discounts like car insurances do. I mean, I know you'll get a better rate if you don't smoke or drink or skydive, but hey, give me a discount for exercising five days a week. Or by eating the recommended daily allowance of fruit and vegetables a day. Or by not drinking soda. Something.

When I do my monthly budget, I try to see what line items I can decrease, like my cable, my phone or my grocery bill. Insurance never seems to be a negotiable. It's kind of like property taxes - you begrudgingly fork over the money but rarely seem to see the payout.

I know I'm lucky - there are people out there with major medical conditions that they either can't pay even after insurance or worse yet, are denied insurance coverage all together. I can't imagine having to decide between medications or groceries. So in comparison to them, I'm living the high life with my couple hundred dollar a month premium and few doctor bills.

My point is, I wish there was a better way. A more affordable way. A fairer way. Maybe we healthy people get lower premiums if we agree to help out a sick person in financial straits. Maybe we restructure the whole healthcare system to reflect the fact that everyone's medical plate is different. Maybe we mandate that doctors allow certain percentage discounts to patients who truly need them.

I don't know. I don't claim to be an expert in the health insurance field. But apparently after 45, I'm going to have enough claims that the insurance industry feels I should pay into now, just in case.

Let's hear it for health.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Halfway there

So, I turned 45 the other day. That’s middle age, right? Once you are over the hill you just pick up speed, right?

Hey, I have no qualms about getting older. Plus I really don't want to live past 90. As I’ve said before, my mom once told me her 40’s were one of the best decades of her life and I thought she was crazy. But I can say that so far, it has been the best decade for me.

I don’t mean the best in terms of “all good things have happened”. Certainly not. But definitely the best as far as how much I’ve grown (middle age spread aside), what I’ve learned and what I realize I have left to learn.

It’s hard to describe, really, so maybe I’ll just list some things that I’ve come to realize now that I’m officially halfway through my 40’s. Such as:

1. I’ve never been an optimist, but I’ve gradually embraced this whole concept by renaming it as “Plan B”, as in “always have one.”

2. The high road may be harder, but like exercise, in the end it feels soooo good.

3. Sometimes it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. This is true in work, with kids, family and friends. As they say in the restaurant business, “It’s all in the presentation.”

4. One of the best things to do when you are knee deep in your own troubles is to reach out to someone with their own. In the end, you’ll both feel blessed.

5. Although technology is grand, make sure your kids know how to write a thank-you note, make a phone call or spell without using abbreviations. And don’t feel bad about taking their electronic devices during dinner or when they go to bed.

6. Those that check out your groceries, take your money at the drive-thru and wait on you in restaurants are people, too. Treat them well.

7. Even if you rarely get angry, what you say when you are can have devastating repercussions. You don’t always have to vocalize what’s in your head.

8. I have less than 48 months before my child is in college.

9. People have capacities and they’re all different. Don’t expect someone to “meet you in the middle” – it may not be their middle.

10. No matter how crappy your day is, there’s always something to be thankful for.

11. Writing IS my thing.

12. Facebook is a great way to stay in touch, but nothing beats a phone call or a face-to-face visit.

13. You can punish your kids, but never withhold love and affection. They're usually "over it" waaaaay before you are anyway.

14. Cherish your parents because they truly love you more than anyone else in the entire world, no matter how bad of a teenager you were.

15. Sometimes, the right decision is the hardest decision you will ever have to make.

16. Strong may be the new skinny, but I still have to eat half as much and exercise twice as long to ward off the pitfalls of the middle-aged metabolism shutdown.

17. You’re not always right. But you’re not always wrong, either. The trick is to recognize when each of those occur.

18. Try to do something that challenges either your mind or your body every day. Every once in awhile, do something that scares you.

19. Love isn’t complicated; however, sometimes the logistics are.

20. God has a Plan. God has a Plan. God has a Plan.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your brain grow?

Well it ain't with silver bells and cockel shells.

Guess what? Kids these days probably don't have a clue as to what I'm talking about, nursery rhyme or otherwise. They have no more of an idea as to how their brain grows than who Mary, Mary is. They've got their heads down and their brains on autopilot, navigating through a sea of computer commands and text lingo. Basically, all their thinking is being done for them.

This came across my desk today, and I'm constantly amazed at how these things "appear" just when I've been thinking/talking about them.

The Talent Code: Brainology for All! talks about how these days, kids are learning the basic material - math, English, science, but are lacking the information and skills necessary to make themselves smarter. Like repetition. Like memory work. Like practice.

I have often wondered what makes some people - or more specifically - some kids, more ambitious, or driven, or "accomplished" than others. Yes, I know that everyone is different, and you can't pigeon hole people into successes or failures based on some sort of universal benchmark. But I've always wondered if there was some key ingredient, some parenting method or style, that propagated a type of behavior in a child.

Last year, I was alerted to (and subsequently became involved in) the Brainology Program, instituted by Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. Read about it HERE so I don't have to repeat myself and you don't have to read a really, really long blog post.

As I was reading Daniel Coyle's blog, it reminded me of the Brainology program before he even mentioned it, but he had a little bit of a twist on it. He assembled a
New Bill of Kid Rights. No, it doesn't list out that every kid should have an iPad in order to succeed in school (no matter what my son says to try to convince me). It's more basic than that. Old-school if you will. And definitely something that's missing in today's youth:

The New Bill of Kid Rights:

1. Every child has the right to know how their brain grows.
2. Every child has the right to a teacher who understands how skill develops.
3. Every child has the right to an environment that’s aligned with the way skills grow in the brain.

I got wind that my child maybe wasn't executing his Bill of Rights during middle school. He was doing poorly on tests and I would ask him, "Didn't you study?" To which he would reply, "Yeah, uh, I studied," Then one night I went into his room and asked him to show me how he studied. Turns out, he didn't have a clue. He never really knew what it meant. I suppose he maybe should have figured it out, but it's like anything else. If no one's ever showed you or you've never seen it for yourself, how do you really know?

Now that I have discovered this blog, I'm very interested to read Daniel Coyle's book, "The Talent Code". I think he may have some of the answers to my questions. And while he seems to identify "talent" as the characteristic, I think skills, ambition and drive can also be classified with talent as well. Because it's all cultivated. It's all nurtured. You can't really have one without the other and succeed.

What Coyle basically says in the book is that the key to success includes certain methods of training, motivation and coaching - to teach kids how to acquire skill. No, we're not putting it all on the teachers or leaving it all up to the parents - it should be joint effort by every parent, teacher, coach, guidance counselor, and any other adult mentor in your child's life. Kids have to somehow learn the fundamentals to success - work hard, practice, improve, put forth the effort. THIS is what kids are missing. And it's up to parents and teachers and every other adult they come in contact with to teach it to them, and show them through example. Which means, maybe we have to get our heads out of our a......pple iPods and Pads and Phones and start doing things old school.

It blows my mind that kids today don't know how to look up a word in a dictionary - a real, tangible dictionary. Or hand-write a thank-you letter (let alone address an envelope). Or sit in a library studying for a test using written notes and perhaps flash cards with their friends instead of Googling and Skyping. Or that they ask you to play tennis on the Wii, but have no intention or desire of actually grabbing a racquet and going outside.

Do I need to go on? We wonder why kids are lazy. We wonder why they just skate by and when they're pushed to go the extra mile, ask if there's an "app" for that. They have no idea how their own brains even work, and what they're capable of.

Case in point: The New York Times reported back in September that The College Board said that average SAT scores across the country were down last year, with average marks – all scored out of 800 – of 514 for math, 489 for writing and 497 for reading, a record low. This year’s average composite score was 1,500, down by six points from last year.

I'm not sure what the answer is, because doing what I really want to do - and that's get rid of all electronic devices in the house and forcing my kids to read a book and write out flash cards and go to the library and THINK WITH THEIR OWN BRAINS for a change is going to make me a pretty unpopular parent (but isn't that an oxymoron?) and I don't even know if that would be the wake-up call we all need. I do worry that if they don't learn soon how their brains work and what makes them tick, we're going to be raising a society that is going to be so dependent on having things done for them that talent, drive and ambition will become the exception instead of the norm.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Want a great weekend getaway? Try Southern Illinois.

I think the furthest south I’ve ever been in Illinois isn’t even technically Illinois – St. Louis is about as far as I’ve gotten. I had heard that there was some amazing hiking and beauty in Southern Illinois, but it always seemed so… far.

It’s really not. And it’s well worth the 4-1/2 hour drive.

We left late Friday morning and began our trek. The weather was beautiful on this bright October day. The sun reflected on the changing trees, and the further south we drove, the more colorful they became. The flat plains of Central Illinois gave way to rolling hills and breathtaking landscape. We could almost feel ourselves breathe a relaxing sigh as we made our way to our home away from home for the weekend, The Davie School Inn in Anna, IL.

The Davie School Inn was built in 1910 and served as a public school until 1996. The proprietors, Gary and Andrea Dahmer, bought the schoolhouse in 2002 and completed renovations in 2006. Each classroom has been turned into a suite – 11 in all. What’s amazing is that for as many modern conveniences as there are (fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, kitchenettes and private baths), they still managed to keep the atmosphere of the old schoolhouse. Many rooms still have the original hardwood floors and chalkboards. School desks and even the original water fountains still remain.

Gary was a delightful host, and had excellent recommendations as well as interesting stories. Former students and teachers from the school had actually stayed in the Inn, some in their old classrooms. Every year, Gary and his wife, Andrea, host a party for alumni, the oldest a spry 103 years.

Our suite, formerly the kindergarten room, was an 850 square foot hideaway complete with king-size bed, sitting area with leather couch and flat screen TV, gas fireplace, kitchenette with coffee maker sink, refrigerator and microwave, Jacuzzi tub and shower. A door at the back headed out to a small patio amidst mature trees. The room itself was decorated with lovely antiques,but still had a modern quality that made it quaint and comfortable.

We checked in and had an informative conversation with Gary, who gave us hiking and biking recommendations as well as some restaurant don’t-misses.We headed out late in the afternoon and drove north to Giant City State Park, an impressive 4,000 acre wilderness paradise. Unfortunately, the Visitor’s Center was closed, so we made our way to the lodge to ask for directions. We’re not sure if we got on the right trail or not – we think not, but we did enjoy several miles of “Horse Trail”, minus the sidestepping of equine poop. After some precarious rocky terrain, we came upon some impressive sandstone structures that almost looked like meteors dropped from the sky. We made it back just before nightfall and were given a farewell by an ornery screech owl,who scared the daylights out of me.

Ready for some sustenance, we headed to the Blue Boar Restaurant, which had been recommended to us. After taking a wrong turn down a gravel path (according to the picture on the GPS, we dropped off the face of the earth), we finally drove down a windy road and saw a small, 8 x 10 paper sign with an arrow that said “Blue Boar”. Needless to say, we were not optimistic. How wrong we were. The Blue Boar is a open lodge full of eclectic wall hangings including animal heads on one side, New Orleans-style instruments on the other, and sports memorabilia over the full bar. A one-man band entertained us on the guitar from a balcony perch overlooking the mess hall-style room, which felt cozy with tables of families and friends who all seemed to know each other. We dined on excellent steaks and imbibed in the pumpkin ale that the waitress recommended, and I dare say it was one of the most comfortable meals we had ever had.

The next morning, Gary delivered breakfast to our room at 9:30 am sharp – a bountiful display of some sort of egg and spinach and cheese scramble, spicy hash browns, bacon, and the most amazing pastries. Oh, and fruit. According to him, all of it was fat-free. After breakfast, we ventured behind the Inn to Anna Park and found the tennis courts for a few sets. Amidst the pee-wee football teams playing on the fields next to us and the cool, crisp autumn air, it felt like a piece of Americana.

Perhaps not realizing our limitations, we loaded up our bicycles and headed over to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a 28.7 mile stretch of rolling woodlands and farm fields interrupted (conveniently) by strategically-placed local wineries.

We should have read the full description of the Trail, which says, “Consuming great amounts of wine and bicycling narrow, winding, hilly roads is a treacherous enterprise. Use care when combining the vino with the velo.” Upon commencing our trek, we were greeted by “Hill #1”. I call it that because it wasn’t the only one. There were SOOOO many more. I kept thinking, “We’ve gone up so much; eventually we will have to go down.” We did, but it was always paired with another “up”. I had to walk my bike up many of the steep inclines, and was more than thankful, when, after about 6-1/2 miles, we reached the first winery, StarView.

The tasting room was crowded (a limo had pulled in right before us), but we finally had our Chardonel and Vignoles in hand and ventured out to the lake next to the vineyard and took a break to take in the breathtaking view and watch the koi swim in the pond. We could have easily stayed there all day, but we had miles to go.

About 6-1/2 more treacherous miles later, we arrived (panting)at Blue Sky Vineyards, an incredibly impressive, Tuscan-style winery. Having been to the California Wine Country, I was impressed at how “like that” it was. We sat on the patio and enjoyed a Chambourcin and a White Wine Sangria while munching on cheese and sausage, crackers and grapes. The pavilion overlooked an expansive, grassy area full of tables near a large pond, and a folk singer serenaded us nearby. Again, we could have called it quits there.

But no – we ventured on. Again, another six or so miles later, we made our final stop at Owl Creek Vineyard, a rustic, simple place that was bustling with patrons. A bluegrass band entertained outside in the bed of an old, rusted out pickup truck, singing songs like “Constant Sorrow” from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? We both sampled the Seyval Blanc, and before we could try the “ChardonOwl” or the “Whooos Blush”, we had closed the place down.

Finally back in a vehicle that didn’t require pedaling, we headed to nearby Cobden and found The Palace Pizzeria, famous for their Double Crust Pizza. They also sold most of the wines from our tour, but by then, I settled for the Saluki Porter. After a 20 mile bike ride, the pizza was the best I had ever tasted.

The next morning, our muscles were screaming from the prior day’s exercise. Gary delivered breakfast (thank goodness; I probably could not have made it down to the kitchen). This time it was a dish he said he had finally perfected – a cross between a French toast and a bread pudding, with a nutty caramel sauce. I expected it to be heavy and rich, but instead it was light and extremely flavorful, and served with sausages and melon. After that hearty meal, we checked out of our room, but not before sitting in Gary’s office (the old principal’s office) to hear more stories of the Davie School Inn. We even viewed the old bell clock and the safe where the milk money was kept.

Hoping to stretch out our tired muscles, we headed homeward, but stopped at the Pomona Natural Bridge, one of those “are we going the right way because I’m not seeing anything and we’ve been on this gravel road for miles” treks. We did a short, hilly hike and walked across the sandstone bridge that had been created by years of water erosion. What amazed me most was not only this natural beauty, but the diversity of trees in this forest – far more than what you see in Central Illinois.

From there, we headed home, and the rolling landscape and colorful foliage gave way to flatter plains and less impressive-looking colors. But what I will remember is the beauty of that region of Illinois that I never realized was there. And there’s so much more we didn’t see - the main part of Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods, Little Grand Canyon… all saved for another weekend.

Thanks to Gary at Davie School Inn for giving us an amazing resting place, to my companion who made the weekend one to remember, and to God for creating such a beautiful place so close to home.