new york city kid in arkansas
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I have a joke during the first few days of the school year for fellow tired teachers and the occasional stressed out student: “How many more days till Thanksgiving break?” No one ever laughs; it’s apparently too painful. But deep in my heart I smile, because I know that time flies and before we know it we’re saying, “Can you believe it’s already November?” I also know that October stays warmer longer than anyone remembers, daylight savings takes some getting used to, and Christmas season is long enough without beginning it before Thanksgiving.

And I know that even if you’re not doing a holiday season show for hundreds of school children twice a day, this November break comes at just the right time. Our few days off this week have found us together again after a month apart, sharing meals, playing Hearts, sleeping in, reading, cleaning the house, walking the dog and sitting around the fire playing on various Apple devices. The night before Thanksgiving we ran into old Austin friends we hadn’t seen in 20 years, and I found myself awkwardly introducing them to Huck. To think he didn’t exist back then left me confused and frazzled for a minute there. Hasn’t he always been around? Does time literally fly? The next morning he and I half-watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade while I drank coffee, texted loved ones and skimmed through Better Homes and Gardens. I don’t understand my love for this tradition of bad lip sync, cheesy commentary and pictures of amazingly decorated homes, but I know that it always fills me with enough cozy relaxation to get me through another year. Or at least through next week’s 16 performances, which will all be over before I know it.

Can you believe it’s almost Christmas?

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It took two months for Huck to drop his phone and shatter the glass, a painful and inevitable experience for the modern child. Troy picked him up from Quiz Bowl last week, and after Huck got situated in the passenger seat he handed his old man his damaged device and began to cry. Troy texted me the heads up, and after a few back and forths about how to fix it and how Huck should help pay for it, I ended the exchange with something like: “Tell him it’ll be okay. It’s just a thing.” Earlier that day I’d received news from loved ones about the end of a young marriage and the end of a middle-aged life. You could say I had some fresh perspective.

Because I’m rehearsing a play and working full-time, and because Huck has weekend commitments with All Region Choir and Quiz Bowl tournaments, we aren’t seeing each other much these days. He offered to help me run lines the other night, really just an excuse to spend time with me since we were both home at the same time. I was at the section of the play where (spoiler alert) Charlotte dies.  As I sadly said the line, “I don’t have the energy I once had,” Huck ran out of the room shrieking about the story being too sad. “I don’t even want to see this play!” he exclaimed. When we do have some rare time together, I often have a guilt-ridden urgency to make every moment special, which almost always backfires. A friend and father of two once said that when it comes to parenting, sometimes quantity matters more than quality. When I tuck Huck in at night, often a floodgate of anxiety spills out of his mouth. The other night I was groggily trying to clock-out when he said, “I’m just feeling a lot of stress about death right now.” I sighed before telling him I was way too tired to talk about death and he should really please just stop thinking about it and go to sleep. And though this was a terrible response by any standard of parenting, he sort of snapped out of it and said, “Yeah, ok. Goodnight!”

In an ironic twist that belongs in a short story, Huck was the Grim Reaper this Halloween. Gone are the days of Huck and Troy dressing the same; Troy’s back to being a generic farmer. Long gone are the hours and hours of Troy’s homemade costumes; now we frequent the local Halloween store. But most of our traditions are intact, until that moment last night when we dropped Huck off to hang out with his friends sans his Halloween Partners since 2005.

It’ll be ok. It’s just a thing.

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Huck’s at that darling age where he calls everything “beautiful” in a kind of sarcastic, funny tone. If I answer something incorrectly, it’s “beautiful” and sometimes “amazing.” Silly jokes, absurd situations, weirdness in general is all beautiful and worthy of a satirical monologue, especially if he’s with his fellow sarcastic best friends. “That’s beautiful,” he says with delight and ‘tween condescension, sometimes making me long for those days when he couldn’t speak and I was his best friend.

Here’s something actually beautiful. Huck’s been working on transposing his piano songs to the viola. For a non-musical person like myself, it’s a miracle hearing a familiar tune being played on a whole other instrument by my little baby who at one point couldn’t even roll over without assistance. When he gets to playing, he goes into deep concentration and seems unable to hear or see anything else, especially if I’m reminding him of neglected homework or chores. These days he’s experiencing seventh grade stress and the occasional meltdown over things like Civil War questions, sonatina competitions, having to put his laundry away. He sometimes asks me to hug him while he either cries or laughs deliriously, both somehow cathartic. I pointed out that his music seems to bring comfort and relief, and he agreed. Also bringing comfort and relief from life-stress are those friends of his, who yesterday gathered at Wilson Park to complete the silent film they’re making together. Troy, Sunny and I set up camp and read our books, acting as lazy parental chaperones while our son’s happy, non-silent voice echoed through the park and occasional text messages gave us updates on their whereabouts.

This last weekend was nearly perfect. My week-long tongue sore that had me on a liquid diet was almost all healed, Troy and I have today off, and the weather has been positively glorious. Yesterday I sat for hours in the mild fall sunshine reading “Charlotte’s Web” in preparation for tonight’s first rehearsal of the play version. I was instantly taken back to first grade, sitting on the rug while Mrs. Tucker read the story to us six year olds everyday after lunch. The sun started to get lost behind trees and the temps began to drop to incredible levels of cozy right as I reached the ending of the book. Wilbur asks Charlotte why she did what she did for him and this is what she says:

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

Beautiful.

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year again, except for the horrible allergies, and we’ve officially filled our yard with pumpkins, gourds, mums and even a hay bale that Troy sneakily added when I wasn’t looking. The pictures below are a hodgepodge of early fall happenings including pumpkin picking, a sunset boat ride on Beaver Lake, an overnight trip to St. Louis where U2 canceled their concert, the Fayetteville Film Festival, a special 50th birthday celebration, last night’s first fire of the season, and Huck’s 7th grade class picture that he hates and we love. Not pictured: anxiety over mass shootings, wildfires, silent protests, sexual harassment, Bikes Blues and BBQ.

A few nights ago Huck performed in his first junior high choir concert in the enormous Fayetteville High School Performing Arts Center. So enormous, in fact, that I began to have PTSD from Christmas shopping at the Times Square Toys R Us. Huck and his fellow songsters wore all-black attire provided by the school, and when Huck tried on the newly hemmed fancy pants he said, “Something is wrong with these. I literally can’t feel the material on any of my skin.” The whole affair was a few notches up from his early singing days as Babe the Ox in 4th grade music class and last year’s 6th grade “Music Man” extravaganza. He and eight other 7th, 8th and 9th graders beautifully sang a section of “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” and time stood still for a few moments.  (Click here for snippet) The stage was filled first with the Men’s Choir followed by the Women’s Choir, and I think I speak for all of us parents in the audience of 850 when I say we aren’t quite ready to call our children men and women. At least not until their big pants fit a little better.

In the meantime, carry on, fall.

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Sitting in Huck’s doctor’s office a couple weeks ago waiting for over an hour, having missed a morning of work and feeling anxiety creep up my shoulders with each ticking minute, sick Huck began leading me through breathing exercises and distracting games like “I spy with my little eye” to make me feel better. Later that night, having been tucked into bed, Huck could hear my frustrated voice from the living room as I admitted defeat with our Apple TV remote. He got out of bed and came to check on his confused old parents. “Can you PLEASE figure out how to make Netflix work?” I asked in a near panic-stricken voice, as if our inability to watch an episode of “Black Mirror” might be the end of the world.  ”Uh, sure,” said the drowsy 12 year old, handing me the back-to-normal remote five seconds later.

It’s a milestone for every parent to realize their baby has surpassed them in knowledge and coping skills.

Aside from the doctor visit, a broken air conditioner, an onslaught of junior high homework, seasonal allergies, and worries over hurricanes & a bad president, we’ve had a good start to the new school year. My main contributions to Huck’s academic career are as Sack Lunch Facilitator and Backpack Holder while he somehow manages to shove his enormous binder safely inside. He seems to call upon Troy for algebra help, but I should probably mention that I did assist Huck recently in writing lyrics for his new hit song “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Halloween.”

At work yesterday one of the kindergartners had a full-blown temper tantrum during after-school, the time of day when I’m in charge. I tried many techniques to get her to stop screaming and kicking over her “not perfect” art project, even attempting to teach her Huck’s breathing exercises. And while it did nothing to diminish her rage per se, I think it helped me and the college student who had been struggling with her for the past half hour. Once the five year old finally calmed down, we three sat together and made humble paper plate puppets until closing time. Upon seeing my very, very imperfect art project, she forget her troubles and began teaching me how to draw.

Milestones.

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The other day I went to one of my favorite local places and treated myself to a special cup of coffee on my way to work. Once there, I placed it on my desk and immediately forgot about it, so preoccupied with hundreds of tasks, big and small, in preparation for the first day of school.  I discovered it two hours later and screamed in disbelief, promptly chugging the cold, bitter swill that had replaced my delicious plan. That story perfectly sums up the month of August for every educator, school administrator and parent in this part of the country. We can’t even remember to drink our coffee.

The weekend before Huck started 7th grade, the person who hung out in the waiting room while he was being born came to visit from Austin. That’s right, his former magician’s assistant Shannon! And while we did all the things we love to do when we’re with our favorite Texan (drink coffee and wine, play games, talk for hours, laugh hard), we also celebrated the momentous occasion of junior high with other lifelong friends Shana, John, Russell and Cheryl. We had a singalong, planted an ebony and ivory crepe myrtle in the backyard along with a drawing Huck made when he was 3 in an attempt to say goodbye to his childhood, played Telestrations around the fire pit, filled a jar with wisdom, enjoyed a champagne toast, and finally surprised him with his very own iPhone hidden in the piano bench. While Huck read text after text from family and friends around the country, we adults told junior high stories of our own, sure we have the next awkward hit movie on our hands.

After another absurd week in America, NPR asked its listeners this question the other morning: “How are you holding up?” followed by a just-long-enough pause for me to play a medley in my head of these eight months of 2017. Somehow in the thick of painful press conferences, tweets, Nazis and confederate flags, we’ve managed to almost make it to Labor Day still sometimes happy. Like yesterday when I got home at the end of a long day to find Huck working on algebra and Troy working on a puzzle next to him while listening to Weird Al Yankovic rapping loudly. “Hi Mama!” they both shouted enthusiastically as I began putting groceries away. And while I can’t recommend that music choice to anyone, it was a moment of clarity. This is how we’re holding up.

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Earlier this summer I had a really hard morning at work, and it was one of those times when there was no hiding my misery. Everyone who came in contact with me was treated to bloodshot eyes, super-fast hunchback walking, and wild gesticulating. My sweet staff of college students couldn’t bear it one minute longer, and within an hour I had the most heartfelt cheer-up card and a strawberry cheesecake on my desk, along with a steady stream of loving texts and humorous bitmojis full of hearts and romance. I was immediately better. This taught me two things: 1) don’t hide your bad day from people who care about you, and 2) this too shall pass.

Recently in our meditation class a friend spoke of a year long overwhelming problem that was finally resolved so that now he could focus on the “joyful mundane.” In the spirit of this, here are some sweet memories from non-vacation, regular-life moments in our all too fast and sometimes too slow summer …

In Rock Band camp, Huck was given the lead vocals part in U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” mostly because our friend Austin is the teacher and he knew this would really make us happy. For the Friday afternoon concert we somehow managed to surprise Troy as Huck made his way to the microphone center stage and said, “This goes out to my dad.” Our friend Russell took this picture and called it Troy’s Mr. Holland’s Opus moment. (Back then we thought this was the closest we were going to come to hearing this song live, but now we have September 16th in St. Louis …)

While marching down Dickson Street in our town’s Pride Parade as part of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, our bodies draped with colorful streamers as we carried Love Wins signs others had made and generously put into our empty hands, we passed Huck’s gang of girl friends and convinced them to leave their curb side post and join us. ‘Twas the happiest place in town and just right for our rainbow-loving son. Taking a quick break from the joyful mundane to talk about the miserable reality, do you ever feel like we’re all being punk’d by some international TV show to see how far we will accept this lunatic presidency? At least the daily headlines that land in our Facebook feed and pop up on our phones have inspired some of the best conversations between us and our confused, tolerant tween. Huck is most flabbergasted by how far American Christianity is from the real deal, putting power and righteousness before the marginalized people of our sad society. Huck’s reaction to Trump’s views on transgendered people and immigrants (for instance) mirror his long ago reaction upon learning about segregation and women not being allowed to vote. He kind of looks back and forth at the two of us like we’re making this up. I think I need another cheesecake.

Back to summer. There have been many visits to the swimming pool on Mount Sequoyah, a few lemonade stands, a lot of time with friends, Wonder Woman, songwriting, coding, so much Minecraft, so much pizza, computer animation, shaved ice, chimney fixing (see super tall ladder pic below), yard work, Adventure Time, fire pits, dog walks, library concerts, book reading, root beer, summer shandies, margaritas, water parks, hikes, and a watering hole. We are this close to ending Huck’s reign as the last 12 year old in Fayetteville without a cell phone. Soon we will purchase junior high school supplies & bigger sneakers, resume piano lessons, get Troy some real glasses, rent a viola, and memorize a new locker combination. But for now we have two more weeks of good old mundane summertime.

As camp ended last Friday and with it my role as director, those same staff members from earlier in the story gave me yet another love card and a one hour massage gift certificate, their annual show of appreciation. In happy, youthful handwriting were the words: “Ms. Jonny, get your relax ON!  You deserve it!”

Love wins.

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For the last two weeks my sister Jeni and I combined our families, homes, towns, pets & friends for day after day of family fun together. It’s overwhelming to think of everything we did and hard to imagine going back to regular life as a little family of three. They headed north this morning, and about an hour later I said that I was feeling some heart clenches. Huck asked what I meant and I explained, “It’s that thing that happens to me when Jeni leaves.”

I’ll let the pictures mostly speak for themselves, but suffice to say that the Quad Cities, Chicago and Fayetteville have given us an amazing summer. From Lake Michigan fireworks to the Art Institute of Chicago, a Kansas City streetcar to a Mississippi River water taxi, a rooftop swimming pool to the one on Mount Sequoyah, late night videos, coding and art camps, ice skating, dog walking, slime, fire pits, Clue, waterfalls, ambiance, bike rides, riddles, beautiful home tours, highway caravanning, night swimming, and long overdue reunions with friends Kris, Sabina, Ben, Dan, Michele, Tom, Tina, Colleen, Charlie & Alice, Charlie & Debbie, our hearts are full.

Jeni, Nathan, Dan & Michele?  See you at the U2 concert in September.

kings river falls, arkansas

our illinois welcome

tackett backyard, illinois

mississippi river

T4

our 3:30 ritual

our niece Lily has supernatural ability

everyone’s favorite dog lola

walker-nelson back yard, chicago

4th of july, lake michigan

troy & the indivisible chicago podcast

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art institute of chicago

the thorne rooms

high above the city

“I don’t care where we go, I don’t care what we do.”

charlie & debbie, oak park

back to the quad cities

somewhere in the middle of missouri

devil’s den

a week of summer camp

racing robots

sassy’s bbq, fayetteville

kings river falls

brave 12 year olds & their convincing dads

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Not too long ago in the grand scheme of things I interrupted Huck’s piano practice to say, “One week from today is your math competition.” He paused and looked at me blankly. “What?” he asked.  I repeated my completely incorrect sentence. Troy looked up next and asked, “What?” I stared at my dim-witted family for a few seconds before realizing that I thought I was saying, “One month from today is your piano competition.” I just had a couple of key words wrong. All this to say: Come April, life for so many of us is a whirlwind of concerts and tests and awards and celebrations and goodbyes, and it’s hard for some brains to keep up.

Now that it’s June, we have survived the late spring madness that included a piano competition, a Quiz Bowl tournament, two birthdays, an anniversary, a math presentation for parents, a piano recital, a Carnegie Hall concert with the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra & Huck, work stress, a math awards ceremony, many school celebrations, field trips, a trip to Kansas, heartbreaking co-worker goodbyes, the opening of our pool, rehearsals for Troy, and finally Thursday’s awards assembly that ended Huck’s two year middle school career at the quite wonderful Owl Creek School.  Gone are outrageously early mornings and five minute commutes, the Eagle Pod, Power Math with Ms. Vis, GT with Ms. Huneycutt, Student Council and boring after-school. In nine weeks he’s on to Ramay Junior High and algebra, honors choir, orchestra, pre-AP classes and taking the bus home everyday! Between all this, the start of summer camp and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I feel so tense and really need to cash in my birthday massage gift certificate.

A few things of note following Huck’s last day of 6th grade awards assembly extravaganza:

1.  When Trump’s name was read aloud at the end of his letter of congratulations to the recipients of the President’s Award for Educational Excellence that included Huck and all his friends, the middle school section erupted in a dystopian nightmare of boos, groans and aggressive disapproval while the people in charge patiently and awkwardly waited for the noise to settle down. It was equal parts devastating and incredible. The children are our future and let’s get them to the voting booth ASAP.

2. As Huck and I said goodbye to his beloved middle school where his brain, heart and hair grew so much over the past two years, we passed a fellow mom and child crossing the crowded parking lot.  And though it seemed unreal for a minute there, the mom’s large t-shirt in super large font said the following words: “Aliens Are Hiding in My Anus.” This provided Huck and me with deep laughter and discussion for the next ten minutes.  Why does that shirt exist?  Why is it being worn in public?  Why oh why at a school?  We may never know.

On that note, Happy Summer!