Here’s to the Nice Guys

One of the best gifts any parent can get is a sign that they’re raising a nice guy or gal. The boots drying by the woodstove yesterday morning were my signs.

Thing1 came home from college for the day Friday to schlep his brother home from school and to help out around the house while the Big Guy and I were at the hospital. He had the wood bin loaded by the time we got back and, with the Big Guy, helped get me up the front stoop into the wheelchair.

He’ll go back to his glamorous life of studying (yeah, studying, all weekend 🤪) later this afternoon, and I’ll keep the picture of his boots drying by the woodstove as a reminder what a nice guy he’s become.

Thanks Mom

I am spending my Saturday evening working on my first response for my first assignment for my first class in my masters degree program. As I was working through my outline, I suddenly realized a piece I had printed out two years ago and saved because it might be useful had suddenly become useful. I laughed, not because a well thought out plan had come to fruition but because I have finally become my mother. It’s a good thing.

My mom is a history nerd. She will happily stay up until two in the morning researching the most arcane facts about the former Soviet Union or the Gilded Age. When we were kids we used to giggle about her DIY library of notes xeroxed from various Library‘s and her wall of timelines (I would steal that timeline for my classroom now if I could). What sticks with me as an adult, however, is how Curiosity made her so creative. It made her a great teacher, and it’s still putting life into her life.

So as I was going through one of my binders of notes that once had me worried that I would be on an episode of “Hoarders – Teachers Edition”, I had to giggle a little. My curiosity tonight prompted a discovery and even a little creativity, and I realized I have my mom to thank for it.

System Change

We were all reasonably crabby by the time we got the car packed and rolled up our icy driveway, hoping to get to my sister’s house in time for the Christmas Eve service. Thing2’s laundry hadn’t magically loaded, washed and folded itself over the weekend. The remaining presents on the Hoosier chest still needed to be wrapped, and we all had needed showers badly even before the packing chaos began.

Somehow, we managed to get out of the house only 30 minutes late (a road trip record for us) and (at the time of this telling) having forgotten only a few minor items. Thing1 was driving and, even though he’s skillful, his right foot, heavy with youth, makes me and the Big Guy happier to sit in the back seat.

We drove mostly in silence for the first 30 minutes. I did my makeup. Thing2 slept, and the Big Guy fidgeted with his wedding ring which he still wears on his right hand, as we both did when we lived in Europe.

“I’m thinking about switching it back,” he said innocently. In the front row, the kids had started chatting about something inappropriate. “I can’t get it off, though.”

The boys paused their conversation and then erupted.

Better parents would have reprimanded them for the quick trip to the gutter, but we both started laughing too. The humor on our ‘Group W’ bench got even more middle school for a little bit, and I didn’t even cringe inwardly.

We’re heading to see grandparents where the boys will need to be on their best behavior for several days, so I knew they needed to get it out of their system. But, after a hectic, crabby morning, the Big Guy and I also needed to get things out of our system and get in the mood to celebrate with family.

Holiday with a Side Dish served Dark

It takes more than a perfect menu to make a great holiday. It takes at least one good tradition, and sometimes those come from the craziest sources.

Thing1 had graciously offered to spend his first afternoon home from college helping me with the big shopping trip for the big meal that was coming up on Thursday. The sentimental part of his brain (coincidentally attached directly to his stomach) had apparently suggested that any Thanksgiving dinner would be incomplete without now just one or two of his favorite recipes, but all of them, and he had ideas about the shopping list.

The final list included ingredients for his favorite green beans, the boys’ favorite cranberry relish, enough stuffing ingredients to feed an entire village, and, finally, burnt bottoms.

Yep, you read that right. With Thing1’s help, I finally realized that our family’s signature recipe for every holiday meal includes a big basket of buttery, flaky, burnt bottoms.  Here’s how I make them:

I start with only the best ingredients:

  • Enough tubes of Crescent rolls to meet the real and imagined capacity of two average teenaged boys (I just get what’s left in the freezer case).
  • A functioning timer
  • One too many irons in the fire (or pots in the oven as the situation permits)
  • Optional ingredients (one, maybe two, glasses of wine or a good conversation)

I roll out the crescent roll dough from the tube and then re-roll the pre-cut dough from the fat end of the triangle to the skinny end (The boys and/or their cousins often volunteer).

We then put rolls on a cookie sheet after a good debate over whether eating rolls baked on a non-stick coating or a greased metal sheet will be worse for us 20 years from now. We set the oven to recommended temperature, put the sheet in and set the timer.  I used to be tempted to set the timer a little early to keep the bottoms nice and golden, but this strategy somehow always backfire.

Someone usually pours a glass of wine, and I go back to preparing the rest of the meal, often talking with a family member or other guest about food or some other non-distracting topic like politics.

When the timer goes off, I check the oven to confirm that rolls are almost but not quite done. I set the timer for another minute or two – or, actually, I don’t – I know I’ll remember to check them again before they get too well-done just like I’ve never done for the last 23 years.

This year I deviated from the routine, setting the old-fashioned timer with the bell along with the timer on my phone. It was Thing1’s first Thanksgiving as a college man, and I wanted the dinner to be perfect. But the bell rang, and the bottoms weren’t even done.

I set out the cranberry relish and the stuffing and completely missed the buzzer on the phone. It was only as I pulled out the green bean recipe that a distinctly smoky smell made it clear that I’d done it again.

“Oh man,” I moaned and then laughed as I pulled out the first cookie sheet. To be clear, I am not the only hostess in my family cursed with the inability to serve anything but burnt bottoms in the bread basket, but, I was sure this Thanksgiving would break the curse.

I hollered the bad, but expected, news to my oldest son who blurted out what he had asserted in the grocery store when I presented the option for an alternative starchy side dish just a few days earlier:

“It wouldn’t be the holidays without a burnt bottom, Mom! Now Thanksgiving can officially begin!”

And when I thought about it each time, it wouldn’t be the holidays without at least one good inside joke.

What’s your signature dish?

 

P.S. The burnt bottoms get eaten every single year – every single one.

Selfless self-care

One of the things I’m loving about teaching is that it takes every fiber of your being to do it well. It takes your creativity, your intellect, and your physical input. There’s no way to half-ass it and have any worthwhile outcome. One of the things I love about the place where I teach came as a bit of a surprise to me. During our orientation, the different presenters emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers and caregivers at our school.

All of the students at our residential come to us because of an emotional disturbance due to some sort of complex trauma.. Being affective with the students means being present, and, often, it means hearing stories that, when you get home, bring you to tears. it means having kids yell at you as they vent their frustrations with life and remembering not to take it personally. It means thinking about the people who have done these kids harm and trying not to become hard because becoming hard means you can’t be there for those kids.

I haven’t gone to an hour of the school organized group self-care sessions, but, about a month ago, not knowing why exactly except to save money on health insurance, I decided to start going to a gym. I hit the big 5O back in April and knew that keeping bone density up means doing some resistance training, but the desire to work out was something else. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized what it was.

I’d behave myself all week, hitting the gym for each of my routines every single day before going home. Sometimes that means getting home a bit late, especially on the days when we have professional development after classes. It also means feeling a little guilty that, in focusing on self care each day, I’m not doing right by one of the two kids who is the most important in my life. I get home feeling more relaxed, but I’m spending less time with him to do so.

This weekend my husband, Thing2 and I have been stacking wood. we have a pretty good system of me carrying logs from the wood pile to a wheelbarrow where Thing2 hands them off to the Big Guy for stacking the way he likes. Ferrying logs, two and four at a time, is it pretty good workout. normally I’d be pretty tired and ready to quit after 15 or 20 minutes. Yesterday and today, however, I was able to keep it going until the boys are ready to quit, and I was happy not just for being able to keep up but because it was another hour each day that the three of us had to talk and joke and sing along to the Beatles albums that were playing as we stacked.

When we finished up for the day a little while ago, we looked at the work we’ve done and then at each other and said to each other, “We done good.“

and I realized that self-care isn’t just about being able to help the kids at school every day, it’s about making sure that when I’m home with my kid, I am really present.

Full Circles

I’m taking a step back from oil painting in October to participate in Inktober. It’s a good time to do some drawing, and, anyway, my studio is about to be torn apart as I claim a larger space.

Today’s prompt is “ring.”

I’m sitting in one part of a ring — on the couch with the Big Guy as I draw. I’m trying to get Thing2 to do Inktober with me, but he’s over at the piano teaching himself the Beatles song book and making our eyes sweat.

It’s almost Thing2’s 13th birthday, and I’ve been thinking about the first few minutes after his birth. I’ve been remembering that perfect round baby head and those early days when nothing seems as pure as the love that we felt for them.

Now all these years later, we know his triumphs and follies, and the love is anything but pure. It’s stronger and better because we know that each day will reveal some facet that makes it stronger still.

We are shy one kid. He’s away at college, and it’s been an adjustment. As broken bars of “Imagine” drift over from the piano, however, I keep thinking about how full our little family circle, with its faultlines and reinforcements, still is.

I sat with a student today who is trying to navigate from adolescence to adulthood with only support from the state. She has little help from the adults who brought her into the world, but her courage and determination to help people she still loves is nothing short of heroic. I know she should have enjoyed — that they all should enjoy — that same kind of parental love we take for granted, and I know the only thing I can do is support her and show her that I expect great things from her during our last few months together.

But, now, sitting on the couch as the first bars of “Let It Be” begin to echo, I think about the other things I can do, and I make a point to never take our small circle for granted.

The Living is Living

Thing 1
Thing1 Keeping his Eyes on the Future

Summer camp hasn’t started yet, so the boys are enjoying the fully unscheduled portion of summer. They go to bed, mostly, when they want. They get up when they’re done sleeping, lately, only time to binge watch Avengers movies together until friends call or dinner time.

This morning Thing2 was finishing up the umpteenth viewing of Spiderman – Yet Another Spider-Man Origins Movie and getting ready to move onto The Unknown Hero – A Filler Episode About A Guy we just made up but that You Need Your Parents to Buy If You Want to Understand All The Sequels when I realized I hadn’t heard the gentle sounds of found two boys not arguing all morning. I checked the clock and realize it was lunchtime.

Thing1 is normally very good about getting himself out of bed early enough in the morning to make sure he gets enough food to get his medication. At ten I had texted him it was time to get up. I saw the text was delivered, but by noon, it still hadn’t been read, and I knew today he needed a push.

I called up the stairs to his bedroom but got no answer and climbed up as quietly as possible. When I got to the top, he was curled up on his side, and, knowing he usually favors sleeping on his back, I got nervous. I called him again and still got no answer. Resisting the urge to channel my inner all Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, slapping my kid awake to be sure he hadn’t croaked in the 4 hours since I’d first called to him, I went over and gave him a gentle nudge on the shoulder. He didn’t answer, and I called again.

I knew he wasn’t dead. Very few people die from his disease. I did know his medications have been as reliable as my first Pinto, and if his flare up was turning into a scorcher, we might need to take a drive down to the ER to treat the acute symptoms until the pharmaceuticals and cannabis oil could regroup in his intestines.

Six months into his flare up, and Thing1 has learned that he’ll never not notice it. What’s changed over the last six months,though, is how quickly we let it derail a day or a life. Without being sanguine about the need to address and treat symptoms and stay in touch with doctors, we’ve also learned when to race to the ER and when it’s okay to wait for a call from the doctor. We’ve learned to distinguish the signs of a little more inflammation merely exhausting him into extra naps for the days and when the disease is firebombing his insides until he’s on the road to anemia again.

Most mornings, my main concern is that he gets good about getting himself out of bed before he moves out in the fall. We’re still making plans for fall, not always sure if we’re being determined or a little foolhardy. The reality, however, is that anything could happen between now and September, even things that have nothing to do with a chronic illness. Those things could help him on his way or completely derail him, but until those possibilities become realities, we keep plotting the points on his journey through the summer and into his future.

A Secretly Real Identity

The paunchy gal here is a figurine brought to me years ago from Mexico by a friend. He must have seen a resemblance, but in all fairness, she’s actually a little less paunchy than I am. She’s taken up residence on our new deck. Before the deck, our weedy patio hid her exposed body, but I like that she’s now shamelessly sunning herself, embracing life and the world, not hiding in fear among the weeds, and definitely not worrying if society will disapprove of her brazenness.

Anyone who’s read this blog for more than a few months at a time, knows I have a penchant for redecorating. I change banners and colors. Sometimes it focuses more on painting and then on cartoons and back again to writing with pictures. So, you won’t be too surprised to read that I’m thinking about a new banner.

What may be surprising is that, unlike previous PickingMyBattles banners, this one may include my brazen friend and also may not have more than a tiny a tip of the hat to the bad parenting and even worse housekeeping that have driven so many posts over the years.

Thing1 was still nursing when he started toddling. He went through the crawling stage and the pulling-himself-up stages. Then he’d reach out for our hands and walks with us for guidance.

And then he didn’t reach out. He figured it out, and our help was no longer needed.

For that.

And then he didn’t need to nurse, and he took another step away.

And now he’s getting ready to take a giant step away. Thing2 is taking some of the same steps as he starts middle school and finds his own identity.

And I’m questioning mine.

‘Mom’ was, for a long time, the primary (and sometime only) way I identified myself, and I was happy about it. I didn’t like myself before Thing1 was born. Being his mom, meeting his needs changed my perceptions about boys, about the world and about myself.

But there was a person there before he was born. That person evolved, but she’s still there.

She’s still bi-polar as hell, still eating too much and the owner of a bleeding heart. She’s no longer afraid of hard work or committing to others. She’s a techie, an artist and a writer. And she’s demanding to be as much a part of my identity as the person my kids know just as ‘Mom’.

There is no such thing as ‘just a mom.’ That phrase strips motherhood of the depth of its responsibility and meaning as thoroughly as it reduces women to one of the other popular one-dimensional labels of angels or whores. I’m a bit of all of them and more.

There are still battles to be fought on behalf of Thing1 and Thing2. Thing1’s hair trigger colon still threatens his independence while Thing2’s creativity combined with his pack-rat sensibility could give new meaning to Vermont’s image as ‘the Green Mountain state’ with more of a green glow. I’m grateful to be the one fighting along side them. They’ve helped me see how much stories about family do matter as much as – maybe even more than – the stories about politicians and generals. I will always write those because they are the stories about people coming together, they are ultimately stories about hope.

But there are otherbattles, my battles, to fight as well – battles for creativity and a life of contribution and meaning beyond the laundry pile. They are just as important, and all of those battles can only be won by embracing every aspect of my identity – the loving mom, the bleeding-heart angel and even what the world may see as the bi-polar whore.

They are what combine to make what any seasoned veteran truly is — a fighter.

How to Raise a Parent


Thing2 is sitting across the couch from me right now tapping on an old laptop my parents bequeathed him when they upgraded theirs. He’s working on a project, talking through the lines as he taps and proving I know nothing about parenting.

I’ve worked in some sort of IT for the better part of the last 25 years. I’m the last person to tell a kid they shouldn’t play on a computer, but Thing1 got sucked into Minecraft in middle school, torpedoing his grades for over a year. It’s safe to say, the Big Guy and I are wary of Thing2 acquiring a tech addition.

Thing2 missed a fair amount of school this winter due to severe pain from inflamed lymph nodes. The pain intensified with each bout of flu or strep he contracted in the petrie dish of elementary school, and we were worried he would fall behind.

Most sick days he rested on the couch with an iPad or Harry Potter book while I worked on support tickets. I’d check during the day to make sure his latest YouTube obsession was PG-11, but for most of the day I let him take responsibility for his own amusement. They weren’t my finest parenting hours.

Thing1 got into video games about the same time, solely on the strength of his test scores, that he also got into a middle school accelerated program. He’d coasted through elementary school math, aptitude compensating for apathy. Except for mathy-science stuff, he needed serious prodding to stay on track.

When he started the more challenging program, I asked the program head how I could help him stay more organized. Her answer surprised me.

“I don’t want you to help him. He’ll learn to rise to expectations.”

So we took the hands-off approach. Bad report cards led to loss of privileges, but when he failed, he failed. When he did well, the success was his. That experience guided him like a river winnows out earth and rock to find the best route. It’s helped him learn to stand on his own two feet and, even if he stumbles, to keep trying.

I know telling the world that I let my kid spend two months playing on the iPad is inviting slings and arrows from parenting experts. Left to his own devices, however, Thing2 scurries from couch to boy-cave, moving laundry hampers and draping sheets over his top bunk to create a movie set between naps. The iPad was soon burgeoning with special effects app and ‘screen tests’. By the time he got back to school full time, he had written a script for a Star Wars fan video, complete with a mental cast list consisting of his classmates.

It’s almost Thing2’s turn to apply to that program, and, watching him create and rise to his own expectations, I’m pretty sure we’ll use the same approach. We’ll call it good parenting even though he’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting.

Strange Territory

The other Friday night, Thing2 had a school dance.  Thing1 went over to SuperGal’s house for a quiet pre-prom night hang out.  The Big Guy went to play music with his traditional music band at the Wayside Country Store. For a few minutes, work was finished, school was out and I was somehow alone.

Then at 6, Thing1 texted he was starting home early, so he and I went to a new food truck discovery in Cambridge, NY. We got back just before the Big Guy finished up his gig. Thing1 went to bed early as he has been these days with his hair-trigger colon still sapping his endurance.  The Big Guy and I suddenly had the giant sectional all to ourselves. I had to keep reminding myself that Thing2 was going a sleep over after the dance since, even with the TV turned up to 50, the silence blared, heralding a new era.

When I started this blog about 6 years ago, Thing1 was just starting to pull at the fraying edges of my apron strings.  This year, despite the needs created by an acute episode of his illness, he’s been shredding the one on his side. What I hadn’t expected — but should have — was that Thing2 would start chewing at his share of the strings at the same time.

I’m wearing my UMass Mom t-shirt as I write this. It’s my new apron. There are no strings on it. Like that apron, it’ll get a few tears on it over the next few years, and, hopefully it will have a companion when Thing2 flies the asylum in a few years.

The geography of our new lifestyle is similar to when we were double-income-no-kids (DINKS) even if the absence of money reminds us that no matter where our kids are, there it is. Still, penniless or not, it feels like we’re entering new territory.

A Birthday Oddity


I honestly wanted to do nothing more than absolutely nothing yesterday. 

Yesterday, I woke up as a square.  An odd square.  A product of two odd primes. It’s the fourth time I’ve been the square of primes, and, in all probability the last, as I’ll have to be 121 to celebrate the next truly odd birthday.  For this birthday oddity I’d planned a trip to the University of New Hampshire for the last college visit before my first son has to figure out which dotted line he’ll sign. 

But that wasn’t what made it odd — or wonderful.

For the past two weeks Thing1 has been dealing with anemia brought on by his disease. He could not tolerate a drive of any length, so we had postponed the UNH visit already.  The newest drug, however, seemed to hit pause on his symptoms, and his affable nature had re-emerged over the last day or two. We knew this was the last best chance to go.

We got Thing2 to school and then headed down to the hospital. Thing1 needed bloodwork to check trough levels for one of the five drugs trying to control his auto-immune disorder.  It was already 9 by then, and Thing1 was ready for Breakfast Number 2 — a side effect and a sign he was starting to feel more himself. 

Treating the day like a field trip day (if it were run by an really over-indulgent teacher), I took him to our favorite diner in Bennington (my next blog will be titled ‘Diners I have Known’). We’ve been going there since Thing1 was in a car seat carrier, and my eyes started sweating as I watched my gentle giant pick out two entrees for a ‘snack’ (although it could have been tears brought on by the impending dent in my wallet). 

“Mom,” he said in that tone that said other people could see me getting emotional as my baby prepared to leave the nest.  There would be a few more warnings.

After breakfast we headed east toward the other side of Vermont and then to the east side of New Hampshire.  

We stopped for a break during the three and a half hour drive. A girl playing scratch tickets, reminded me of a failed lesson in probability from another road trip a decade ago.  On a whim, I bought a ticket, thinking he’d be my good luck charm again. Ten years ago, I’d told him we’d paid a tax on people who are bad at math and wound up winning on three $50 scratch tickets in a row. I’d chalked it up to some ‘magic’ which had everything to do with being with my seven-year-old and nothing to do with Math.  Yesterday I lost, of course.  Thing1 is too old and skeptical to channel that kind of magic anymore, but we were both laughing as I scraped the silver goo off the losing numbers. He’s still my good luck charm.

It had been a long time since I’ve heard Thing1 really laugh. 

We got UNH and asked our questions before walking around.  Thing1 loved it and was even more undecided about his future. A few more drives around the bucolic campus, we headed back to meet the Big Guy and Thing2 in Vermont for dinner. 

It poured most of the time until we got near the Vermont border.  It rained from Bellows Falls to Londonderry and got foggy as we headed over Bromley mountain to Manchester. 

My body was getting weary from the travel and from the constant travel and worry of the last few months. It was as if a day of not worrying — of seeing Thing1 happy and debating over pleasant aspects of his future —  had let my muscles relax too much for a moment. 

When we got the the restaurant, Thing1 mentioned a worrying symptom that had appeared, and we knew the tension release was temporary.  In reality it’s always temporary, but it is always welcome.  

When we got home, I got my sketchbook, planning to doodle and promptly passed out on the sofa with Thing1 next to me and eleven year old Thing2 draped over the cats that came to sit on my legs.  I woke up long enough to send Thing2 and myself to bed for the dreamless, satisfying sleep that only an exhaustingly perfect day can produce. 

And the oddest thing was that it was the best present I hadn’t even thought to ask for.

Authentically Unconflicted

You’re It, Watercolor, 9×12 – SOLD

Prints can be purchased on Etsy here.

I started this blog about 6 years ago as an assignment for a writing workshop. It started as a way to share writing and drawings and evolved into a search for an authentic life that still continues.

I spend the majority of my time working at home. Most days, the only people I see are the Big Guy and 17-year-old Thing1 and 11-year-old Thing2. Our family conversations are hardly devoid of any meaning, but tend to focus on “what’s for dinner?“ and “can you pick up the kids?“

The only other regular conversation I have is with my blog. It has helped me deal honestly with bipolar disorder and embrace the dinner table stories that I once pooh-poohed. Over the years, however, that conversation has also led me to question if I was living in my truth and how to get to a place where I could.

One of the truths I discovered over the last few years is that I need to write and draw. When my life gets too congested to allow for a regular time for art, I have resented it.

Last fall, I reorganized my life to carve out time for creativity while building a new career that served the greater good. I started working weekends so I could go back to school, temporarily bowing out of a weekend writing class that had helped keep the spark lit for several years.

Murphy’s Law, however, is still in effect. My precise work schedule surrendered to the chaos of the holiday shopping season. And the bottom dropped out for Thing1.

Thing1 was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder a year earlier. Despite promising early results with medication and severe diet changes, Thing1’s body began shutting down a few days after Christmas. It was barely a week into winter when, knowing which battle mattered most, I withdrew from classes.

Thing1 was hospitalized near the end of January for assessment and treatment. As he lay in recovery after a procedure, I struggled not to cry as his doctor told us that his illness was quite severe and laid out his options. Some required injections or infusions. All of them carried a risk of lymphoma, one of them fatal, especially in young men.

When we got him home, we focused on getting him back to ‘normal’ but quickly realized ‘normal’, like much in life, is an ever-moving goal post. We worked with the school to make sure he stayed on track. We worked with doctors to get him through flu season, keeping them on speed dial through nervous nights.

And, when time permitted and sanity demanded, I blogged.

I still get weepy at night in bed when everyone’s asleep or in the car when no one’s around, even though I know we’re incredibly lucky. Every time I pick up a prescription with an $800 copay that’s been covered by my insurance from work, I know we could also be sitting at our round kitchen table trying to find things to sell to pay for each drug or worrying about bankruptcy.

Long before this blog reignited my creative spark, Thing1 was teaching me patience and determination as I had never understood them before. The self-doubting, self-hating person I had once been before his birth was dissolved in the breast milk and tossed out with a meconium-filled diaper, leaving only Thing1’s mom who had happily reorganized her entire life around his needs.

So when my college sent out spring registration notifications, I knew I would not be signing up. I also knew I will be carving out creative time around my current career until I’m sure Thing1 can fully stand on his own and obtain his own sufficient insurance,

And that’s okay because there are two truths in my life. And, as Darth Vader once said to his offspring, “There is no conflict”. Not for me.

My truth is that creativity matters to me. My bigger truth and the key to living an authentic life for me is that without being true to Thing1 (and now Thing2), I don’t know that anything could keep that creative spark lit.