new york city kid in arkansas
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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

click for podcast

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!

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My dad and his next door neighbor of over 40 years like to sit in their Kansas backyards among their gardens, trees and flowers talking about the meaning of everything. Both are fathers of three, progressive, middle class grandpas who have stayed in the same modest homes on the same street in the same town for most of their lives. They’ve watched friends and family buy bigger houses in fancier neighborhoods while they’ve stayed put with their wives and dogs and visiting children. They call their kind of contentment The Secret.

On my birthday last month Huck woke me up with a sweet hug, kiss, sad pause and finally this: “You’re 47 today. You’re probably more than halfway through your life.” I smiled and said, “Oh, good,” before falling back to sleep. I call this kind of contentment Taking The Day Off For My Birthday.

A few days later Huck came up to me with something behind his back and said, “You know how sometimes you’re really busy and can’t get everything done?” I nodded distractedly, lost in dark thoughts about police shootings, immigration bans, healthcare loss and my grocery list. From behind his back he handed me the small circle he made that you see pictured to the left. “Now you’ve gotten a round tuitt!” He burst into toothless laughter while I took a second to understand what was happening. This joke was not what I thought I was in the mood for, until I realized it was.  

I don’t think I’m the only human to feel like 2017 has been, at best, terrifying so far. To feel less hopeless and somehow in control of things, Troy and I spent April not only turning another year older but also turning our backyard into what we’ve always wanted: our own private place to sit, read, visit, sleep, eat, drink and relax, deeply inspired by my parents’ Kansas oasis. I told Troy I really wanted our cement slab turned into a beautiful patio; 85 pavers and a couple weekends later … ta-da! I can’t stop buying hostas and mulch, pea rock and petunias. Without a landlord to borrow a ladder from, Troy finally got one of his own, donned a wife-enforced helmet and cleaned our gutters with me standing under him. I go back and forth between lazily reading and violently weeding. I think I could drive to Lowe’s in my sleep. Huck occasionally graces us with his presence, though he much prefers to be indoors. Most of our friends know to smile and nod when we begin a Back Yard Monologue or Duet. I’m pretty positive when we leave the room they give comforting smiles to each other as if to say, “One of these days they’ll find something else to talk about.”

Next week we celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary! My best friend Shannon recently found an old video tape of our 10th anniversary party in New York, and she had it made into a DVD for us. We aren’t sure how 15 years have slipped by since that magical evening of our youth, and it’s easy to get deeply nostalgic and maybe even a little pained in the heart region to think about the passing of time, of people, of relationships, and all the new ones to come. But some things never change, as I was reminded at the end of the video with Troy’s solo dance to “Mr. Roboto.” No one said our marriage wouldn’t last, at least not that we know of, so it’s less a surprise and more a predictable outcome of lots of love, luck and comedy.

And I guess it doesn’t hurt knowing The Secret.

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Since last fall Troy’s gotten to know some men on death row here in Arkansas, putting their writing into a script and even reading their words to them in person. Three of these men were scheduled with five others to be executed over a period of two weeks beginning the day after Easter. Feeling numb and powerless under these daily headlines, Troy began spending his evenings preparing a final script for the inmates from their most recent writing. After a few hours of typing up the words each night, Troy would end his day by joining me for a 30 minute podcast on the whereabouts of America’s missing workout darling Richard Simmons. Sometimes you just have to give your heart a break.

For the past two weeks Troy’s lunches have been spent standing silently in peaceful protest at the court house and his evenings at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church vigils, silently praying and waiting with other mercy-minded friends. One of the nights ended in celebration, as both men received a stay on their executions at the last minute.  Two of the nights ended in deep sorrow.  The last of these men was Death Row Stories’ very own Kenneth Williams, whose daughter and granddaughter were flown out by one of his victim’s family to say goodbye to him the day before. Anne Lamott writes, “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

This being spring in the semi-south, we’ve had some incredible thunderstorms lately, like nothing I’ve ever experienced actually. On Easter Sunday the sermon ended with a thunder clap like God was giving a stamp of approval on the message of inclusion and hope, resulting in laughter-applause from the heart-heavy congregation. Two weeks and four executions later, today we’re experiencing darkness, thunder, lightening and heavy rain that feels exactly like God-sobs over Arkansas.

Yesterday I ran an errand before work and saw a friend who asked how I was.  I took a moment and told her I wasn’t doing that great actually. She knew what I meant immediately. We stood holding our baskets for a few minutes talking about our similar stories: we’re both transplants to Fayetteville from other great cities, we each have one son and wonder how they’re taking all this news, we both usually love this place but are now feeling ashamed of our governor, our president, and so many men whose decisions affect our society’s most marginalized people in devastating ways. She’s been listening to Maya Angelou read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s “Hallelujah Anyway” to get through these dark times. By the time my olives were handed to me by the funky guy across the deli counter, I smiled at my friend, thankful to have actually answered her question.

Let the first breath be taken,
A gift the still-born knows not.
Many troubles will surely follow it.
In the end would it all have been worth it
or not?
Let it be drawn with an understanding,
A second or third breath was never promised.
Those fortunate to claim it,
They must make the most of it
To honor those whom never received it.
Let the first breath be taken,
Enjoyed by hungry lungs,
Inhaled then exhaled.
Sweet relief will come.
Let it be said,
After this first breath was taken,
For whom it was given,
Others will be glad it came to be;
Instead of grieved that it ever was given
Among the Living.
Let it be,
that even after a first breath has been taken,
here on earth beneath,
a second first breath
will be taken in heaven someday,
An even greater feat.
-Kenneth Williams

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Our favorite place to spend spring break is Texas, beginning in Austin with our BFF Shannon and ending on a beautiful Gulf beach just the three of us. This year we were joined by city slickers Dusty and Natalie all the way from New York, and in no time at all they too fell in love with our old town. Austin highlights included hanging out together in Shannon’s glorious backyard in perfect weather, riding the Zilker Zephyr, running into Fayetteville friends David & Gwynne(!), hiking the trail from Shannon’s house to Chuy’s for early evening margaritas, visiting Shannon’s parents & receiving bluebonnet themed gifts from a special lady, filling our tummies with chips and salsa everywhere we went and sitting around the fire with old friends playing riddles. Galveston Island highlights included Troy & Huck playing in the ocean like old times, flying a kite on the beach, riding a ferry with dolphins in the distance, more chips and salsa, chewing bubble gum while swimming in the hotel pool, and watching Troy lost in sweet childhood memories of that place. That’s my favorite thing about parenthood: watching Huck create his own childhood memories.  I think he’s going to have quite a few of Texas in the spring-time.

Please notice my beautiful necklace.