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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Ghosts of Easter Past

It's Easter Sunday. It's that day when Jesus rises again to remind us that winter is over and the living win.

So, why do I feel so beaten? Let me dissect the weekend.

Good Friday
The day began with a college visit. It's an exciting time for our son who is exploring his options. When a friend asked if we wanted to go, we couldn't say no. The particular college happens to be on Cole's short list. In theory, it was a good day. We were with good friends touring a pretty campus with knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guides. The only problem? Cole really liked it. He really liked Iowa State University. The interstate rival of my alma mater. Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy he's beginning to narrow his choices. Very happy. But I won't deny the inner turmoil I feel when I imagine him wearing red and gold.

Holy Saturday
Saturday was lovely and warm. I spent the day with the boys prepping for guests since it was my turn to host for the holiday. By all accounts, it was a nice evening with good laughs, good stories, and good food. I hardly had time to think of Cole's impending college choice.

Throwback Easter. 10 years ago.
But there was something else niggling at me.

The absence of our eldest.

Easter Sunday
It's the first Easter in 22 years that we haven't been seen Alex. No longer are the days of hiding eggs and bribing the kids to wear the cute outfits I bought for them. As a matter of fact, I hardly flinched when Cole came upstairs this morning wearing a maroon winter sweater and shorts for church. There was no reason for us to fight over clothing this year.

Messy bun. My go-to hairstyle for Al.

As always, church was good. But afterwards, the boys kept asking me what was wrong. I was uncharacteristically quiet. I said I was tired. Had a headache. Had an ear ache. I wasn't lying. But I wasn't completely telling the truth either. I was being a baby. I wanted our entire family to be together. And I wanted the kids to be little again.

In other words, I was glum for no good reason. How could I be glum when my son is actually thinking about his future and my daughter couldn't make it home because she needed to cover shifts and focus on the last of her college projects? This is why you raise kids, right?

So dapper in a springlike tie.
The boys and I ended up trekking to The Cheesecake Factory and Barnes and Nobles. Doug and Cole have a way of making me laugh even when I don't want to. (Farts, mainly.) We also ended up taking a detour and saw flood damaged areas which punched me in the gut and made me realize I TRULY have nothing to be glum about. Once we got home, we checked cows and saw four adorable calves nuzzling each other. Then we watched HGTV and dreamt about future vacation homes that hopefully would involve a truckload of grandkids.

As I was writing this post I received a call from... wait for it... Alex Kramer! My glum was dissolving anyway, but hearing her enthusiastic voice that's really too busy to chat filled the little hole that had been needling my heart.

Hallelujah! I say now. Winter is over. Flowers are poking through the ground. The kids are dipping their toes into fresh waters. What better day than Easter to encourage these kids to live their lives with hope and love? As Matthew says in his gospel:

"Let your life shine before others." - Matthew 5:16.

Alex and Cole: Let your life shine. Don't let your mother hold you back.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Spectrum of Anxiety: Prom to India

Cole's Junior Prom is over. Check that most over-celebrated high school event off the list for this year. Don't get me wrong. I love being involved with our kids' activities. And while co-chairing the after-prom party was kind of like having mud thrown in your face (in a good way), it really wasn't all that bad. Not that I'd ever do it again, Mrs. Heithoff. But I have to admit it. Helping to plan the after-prom party was nothing compared to the actual anxiety over my son's entire experience.

Prom Challenge #1: Would his tux be a skinny fit?
Prom Challenge #2: Would another date cancel right before the buzzer?
Prom Challenge #3: And finally, would his awful cold prevent him from getting through the night?

As it turned out...
kramer.cole kramer.
  • Cole's tux fit like a glove. More specifically, it had a James Bond appeal without the pistol.
  • His date did not cancel, and she was beyond lovely. He had a great time despite the fact that her boyfriend was actually at prom as well. (Long story.) 
  • And his nasty cold turned out to be a bit of a blessing! To his parents, anyway. He got through casino night (under our watchful eye). And by 2:00 AM, he was too sick to attend any after-after prom party. Poor kid. (Whew! Thank God.)

worth the hassles.
Now on to other worries. There's this one that's been niggling at me. Especially when I pushed the banality of prom drama aside.

A few weeks ago, Alex casually mentioned she might be taking a trip to India. Just for a few weeks to help her friend with a journalism project.

Say what?

India! No, Alex! Haven't you read what happens to women over there?

Well, yes. She does read. Journalists read.

I get that she's an adult now, despite what our tax returns might say. So, we can't really forbid her from going on this so-called Pulitzer grant project. But certainly, she'll listen to us. I've been trying to formulate a coherent argument. It goes something like this:

"No, Alex. You can't go. We won't let you. Just because you want to experience a new world and write an in-depth article about social injustice in a remote part of an undeveloped country doesn't mean you should...Heck, why don't you join the Marines or the Peace Corp while you're at it?"

This is where I get stuck.

Is it wrong to discourage a child from pursuing a noble cause in favor of eliminating a parent's anxiety? Is it all that different from discouraging your kid to attend an after-after prom party to keep from getting sicker? Okay. Maybe it's a little different.

When Alex was a junior in high school, she saved her money and convinced us to let her go to Amsterdam. It was an amazing, enlightening experience for her while I suffered painstaking heartburn for the entire two weeks. Despite the pain in my chest, my mother's voice would ring in my head. "You raise kids to be independent." I believe that, in theory. I just can't quite let my heart
See that map on her wall?
embrace it.

But I will. It's the right thing to do. If she decides to go, I'll load up on Tums and ensure my fervent prayers reach across the world. And perhaps I'll preoccupy myself by helping Cole to figure out a date for homecoming next fall.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Only the Lonely

I recently read an article by Dave Barry who recently made a life altering decision: to emulate his dog. Not so much to do things like drink toilet water, but to fearlessly connect with others as our canine friends so easily do. I gave the article specifically to my husband and my father. They share a common quality with Dave Barry: they're all a bit skeptical of people. Now that my dad is retired, he spends much of his time with his motorcycles and dogs. And my husband, as a farmer, spends much of his time with his tractors and cows. I worry about the amount of time they spend alone.

I also worry about my daughter. She's fiercely independent and lives three hours away, often strapped to her studies and work. I keep asking her if she's getting enough hugs – of the maternal type. She assures me she's fine, especially after visits to the pet store to hold puppies.

It just occurred to me that I never worry about my son being lonely. I actually worry more about his overactive social life. But that's a story for another blog.

It can be difficult to reach out – especially for the introverted. I worry so much about loneliness. Not for me. (Or Cole.) I'm rarely lonely, even when I'm alone. (This, could be a result of my only-childness, having spent much of my youth reading Nancy Drew, writing screenplays suspiciously similar to Grease, and playing games like Monopoly by myself.) But I obviously worry about it for others – even beyond my family. Whenever I see someone at a restaurant eating by themselves, my heart breaks a little. I say a prayer and do my best to catch their eyes just to say hello. It's probably not enough.

During our last book club, we discussed a novel called The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg about an unlikely friendship between a teenage girl, a widower, and a spinster-ish teacher. It was a joy to read as these three lonely souls found each other. But what has been lingering with me in regard to this book isn't anything about the story itself. It's a comment made by one of my book club friends. "I really get this. It's like how Sundays get so long for me."

Growing up, I watched my mother talk to just about anyone in her path. Sometimes, I'd get annoyed by this. I didn't want to stand there listening to stupid adult stuff. Sometimes I'd even be embarrassed when she'd realize she wasn't talking to who she thought she was. ("Why do you keep calling me Bob?" We still get a good laugh over that.) But now I have a great respect for this ability to connect. Mom opened a shop as a retirement gig. And countless people tell me how they love stopping in to visit with her. I even catch Dad in there! Who knew he liked to visit with my mother!

I think there's lots of remedies for loneliness. Dogs and cattle are an obvious solution. But there's another one that doesn't involve animals. Heed the advice of AT&T's 80's slogan: "Reach Out and Touch Someone." Not literally obviously. But say hi to the lady next to you in the produce section. Tell her how good the mangos are. Take your book club friends to lunch. Hug your daughter every day when she's home on break even if it annoys the crap out of her. Or simply smile and say hi to the elderly gentlemen eating pizza by himself at the next table. As Mother Teresa said, "The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved."

Loneliness is a terrible poverty. But the good news? It can be cured without spending a single penny. Especially if you happen befriend a dog running the ditches. That's worked for us quite well.
Percy, former ditch runner.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Oh, the People You Meet in Key West

There's nothing quite like escaping to the South during the throes of winter.

The throes of winter: it begins on December 26th and lasts until that last, sneaky snowstorm in April or May. Visits to daughter in college town and soccer tournaments have prevented us from baring our pasty white legs in a warmer climate for quite some time. This year, however, we decided to revisit Key West and celebrate some special anniversaries with our in-laws.

I will try not to bore you with details like how good it felt to unthaw our bones in the 80 degree weather. Or how a fresh pina colada is like drinking a nectar from the gods. Or how watching the sun set over the Florida Straits while dining on fresh fish cleanses the soul of all worry. Ok, so I'll bore you a little.

I've always known that I have a problem with giving my full and undivided attention to people and things. (Doug will hastily agree.) It's not because I'm bored of the company, usually. It's because my mind is clicking on a thousand different issues. I believe the universe decided to play a little game  with me in Key West – to help me with this affliction of paying attention.

The first incident took place in a French Cafe where Doug, Judy, Mike and I were having breakfast. I ordered an omelette and asked what type of toast I could have. (I prefer to have my wait staff list off the options rather than just ask for the bread I want.) The waiter, in his French accent said, "vite, veet, bagel, or grrrrrriah." I really didn't want white, wheat, or a bagel. But I had no idea what a grrrrriah was. I politely asked him to repeat. With his French sigh, he said, "vite, veet, bagel, or grrrrriah." Since grrrrriah didn't sound anything close to sourdough (which is what I wanted), I went with wheat. After he left, I asked anyone if they knew what a grrrriah was. Mike informed me he was saying "croissant." Mike obviously learned to speak condescending French on one of their many vacations.

As the sun dropped into the sea.
The second incident occurred on a pier where we decided to drink, eat, and, watch the sunset over the water. We all had a hankering for seafood, so asked our pretty little waitress about the "Catch of the Day." In her sweet, hispanic accent she replied, "It's called the fish." I looked at Mike, who was so good at translating. He said, "It's fish." Yeah. That's what I thought she said. Judy said, "What fish though?" We asked again. Again, she said, "It's called the fish." After a Dumb and Dumber flashback of the "soup de jour" sounding delicious scene, it hit us. She was saying, "It's cod, the fish." The sweet waitress apologized for her accent as we apologized for our inability to hear very well after several drinks. And the fish of the day ended up being quite delicious.

The third incident happened on the night before our departure. We had stumbled across a hole in the wall off Duvall Street. It was carrying an enticing aroma of fire-oven pizza. We approached a young Italian hostess who said something to me which I interpreted to be "follow me." I was, after all, becoming quite good at translation. So, I waved my arm to our group and we followed her in. She turned back, surprised to see me right behind her. "Not yet," she said with a benevolent smile – as if she knew she was dealing with someone who would need extra help. She led us back to the entry to wait. I saw her begin to take names for tables, so I asked if she needed my name. She smiled again and said, "No. I will remember you." Eventually we were seated. And after a close call of ordering something that sounded like bruschetta, but wasn't, we all had spectacular pizza. As we waddled out, with my head in a cloud of mozzarella cheese and sangria, I found myself once again running into our original hostess. She gave me that "you again" look before politely excusing herself and getting on to her busy tasks.
The smallest bar in the world, they say.

Pay attention, Stef.

We noticed throughout vacation that Mike and Judy have a way of running into very interesting people. Broadcasters. Football players. Actors. Old men who know all the best places to eat in Key West. Maybe we would meet some of these people too, if we would just pay attention.

I'll end with one final story. During our tour of the Hemmingway house, my sister-in-law noticed one of the six-toed cats which are believed to be good luck. She quickly petted it, as did I. Then Judy prudently suggested we buy a lottery ticket. So we did. We both agreed that a few more trips to Key West wouldn't hurt anyone.

I asked Hemmingway for some writerly luck.
What I love best about vacation is the sudden opening of time – time to observe and time to reflect. You'd think with all of this weather, we'd have plenty of time for that here in the North. But we prefer to keep ourselves busy – probably to keep warm and to earn a paycheck in case we don't win the lottery.

Just a few hours ago, Judy texted me texted me the winning lottery numbers with the message, "6-toed cat did not help me win." But I wonder. Maybe the cat knew that money doesn't bring you luck. Paying attention sure does though. She also mentioned they met a writer for National Geographic and saw Forrest Whitaker in Miami. Meeting interesting people. Having enriching experiences. That's the best kind of luck.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Winter is Coming. Yay for TV.

"Repeat after me," said my son. "Dae-ner-ys Tar-gar-y-en."

I pronounce as he has instructed. I think the exercise is over. But he goes on.

"Stormborn, House of Targaryen... yada yada yada"

He is annoyed by my lack of knowledge and mispronunciations of the Westoros world.

It was only a few years ago when I told my husband he couldn't watch the show. All that gore and nudity? We have kids for goodness sake! We need to use discretion! Turn it to Family Guy, will ya?

Back in the Family Guy Days

Fast forward to 2019. Amazon Prime and Netflix have opened the floodgate on television programming. As it turned out, Cole discovered Game of Thrones on this own –the very show I prohibited Doug from watching. Now we're all watching it. (Cole is on his second tour.) Undoubtedly, it's uncomfortable watching "love" scenes with your kids. I simply diffuse the awkwardness by turning my head and asking Cole about Algebra or Chemistry. This typically works unless it's a noisy sex scene. Gosh, I never thought I'd be a mother who would watch this type of show with her kids. But, I have to! I'd be lost without my son's guidance. So many characters. So many families. So many realms. Who can really tell the difference between a Baratheon and a Tyrell anyway?

Amazon and Netflix has created a phenomenon that seems part soap opera and part book club. Our family will wear out the remote looking for a series that will engage us all. As many of you probably know, it's not so easy. Certain stories don't always appeal. (I'm only allowed to see Mrs. Maisel once a week.) But there's nothing like finding that magical storyline that enamors your entire family. And when you find out a friend is watching as well? Jackpot! You don't just want to discuss it with others, you NEED to discuss it with others. Despicable characters. (He reminds me of Dad!) The lovely ones. (Don't you just love that whore?) The plot twists! (I'm never watching this show again! Until tomorrow.)

When I was growing up, it was a well-known fact that watching too much television was going to ruin us kids. Now, video games and phones have taken on that role. I find myself saying to Cole, "Get off your phone. Turn off your PS4. Come up and watch some TV with us." Then I giggle, thinking about my wise parenting. It's almost like the time when I was worried that Alex was drinking too much milk and asked her if she'd like a Sprite instead. But I digress. Watching TV didn't turn out to be the worst thing. Did anyone ever quit pursuing a career  because of an addiction to TV? No. I don't think so, anyway. What we were really addicted to is a good story that allowed us to escape and share. And while a good book can serve the same purpose, television and movies do this with a bit more efficiency –as long as you don't spend too much time browsing options.

I'll close this post with a funny clip of one of my favorite GOT characters: Jon Snow, who attends a dinner party with Seth Meyers. If you're not familiar with Game of Thrones, just know that Jon Snow is a very serious man who has had a tough row of it.

Winter is Coming. Actually, it's here, Mr. Snow. The best part of winter? Lots of TV.

And Dad– just kidding.



Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Promise of a New Year

2019!

This year I will wrap up another decade of my life. Fifty certainly seems old on paper. But my middle-aged dreams and goals feel as fresh as the dreams of my twenty-year-old self. I traveled back to my junior year in college to compare my thoughts. The similarities are uncanny.

1990 Stef: Celebrate 21 with a bang. In Iowa City! A party! Bar crawl! College pals! 21 42 pitchers of beer. (Laura turning 21 too. Yay!).
2019 Stef: Celebrate 50. Maybe.

1990 Stef: Figure out a summer job.
2019 Stef: Figure out a summer job... for Cole.

1990 Stef: Find a cute bikini AND wear as much as possible at the beach.
2019 Stef: Find a swimsuit that doesn't look ridiculous. Wear only on vacation in a location far, far away from here.

1990: Find true love.
2019: Celebrate 25 years of true love.

1990 Stef: Get tan as quickly as possible. Begin in May no matter how chilly.
2019 Stef: Avoid skin cancer. Wear pants.

1990 Stef: Lose five pounds.
2019 Stef: Lose five pounds.

1990 Stef: Scrounge up some money for beer and cookies.
2019 Stef: Limit beer. Limit cookies. Scrounge up some money for Spanx.

1990 Stef: Keep the rock star dream alive.
2019 Stef: Sing loud in car.

1990 Stef: Figure out a prestigious career! Add a major? 
2019 Stef: Get out of my basement office once in a while.

1990 Stef: Be the best person you can be! Study! Exercise! Eat healthy!
2019 Stef: Be a good person. Make a difference in others' lives.

I have always loved the hope that comes with a New Year. While my observations are somewhat facetious and somewhat sincere, there's one thing that never has changed – my desire to become a better person.

My 2019 resolutions are simple, but great: to love with all of my heart and find joy every day. I'm sure I would not have professed anything like that as a twenty-year-old. My 1990 New Year's Resolution was probably something like "Get a new hairstyle! Bigger bangs!" And that's okay. My compass has changed. Thank God. But there's a big part of me that hasn't changed: my hopeful spirit, still burning bright as ever. 

Wishing you all have a wonderful and peaceful 2019!


1990: Fun and Friends.
2019: Fun and Family.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Dining Room Table

About 1/3 of table. Plenty-o-room.
I bought a 1000 piece puzzle this year. Time with my youngest is slipping away ever-so-quickly. I thought this would be a good trick to slow it down. I did NOT think it would an easy sell. A puzzle. An old-fashioned puzzle. There'd be no shooting down enemies, performing the floss, or posing for Snapchat. But a funny thing happened. When I showed him the box, he was surprisingly enthusiastic. Of course, I was sneaky. It was a Star Wars design.

When I was a young mother, activities with my kids were items to be crossed off a to-do list – in the name of raising successful kids, of course. We read Honey Bunny Funny Bunny over and over and over again because it was critical in developing mental acumen. We took nature walks even with the threat of snakes because fresh air is important to health. We made utter messes carving pumpkins or decorating cookies because creativity needs unleashing. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to quit thinking of raising kids as a prescribed regimen. Enjoy the messes and re-
Now that's use of a table.
hashings of a good bunny tale.

I used to get out of sorts to come home and find stuff everywhere. Shoe mountains. Seven backpacks for two children. (??) Nearly-full gatorade bottles. I was especially irritated by the dirty socks on the dining room table. Yes, gross. But in less than two years, that dining room table will be collecting nothing but dust. It's gonna be lonely as hell. The table, I mean.

I recently had the honor of writing a recommendation for someone who will be receiving an award that any mother would covet. As I wrote, I considered what a wonderful job this person has done balancing family life and career. About ten years ago, I also received an award. A banking award. My husband barely flinched when I told him. I should've considered his reaction more deeply. Did I shortchange family time by focusing so much on my career? It's a question that burdens so many of us – fathers and mothers alike.

If I could roll back time...
As Charles Dickens teaches us in The Christmas Carol, it's never too late to change. I can still eke out quality time with my kids, even if they're the ones who now need to pencil me in. As a matter of fact, Cole has already picked out a project that will sit nicely on the bare portion of the dining room table: a gingerbread house. It will probably turn out to be a real sticky mess.

 I'll love every minute of it.