new york city kid in arkansas
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I’m not what anyone would call “a survivor.” When I watch zombie shows, I immediately picture myself as one of the people volunteering to be eaten quickly to avoid a nightmarish future being chased by the undead. Troy, in the meantime, has full-blown backup plans in case of a Zombie Apocalypse, which he loves to discuss. The other day I went to pick up Huck at Fayetteville High School following a long morning of the SAT, believing him when he said it would probably be all done by 11:30.  I waited in the car for him until he finally arrived at 12:15, again remembering why I should never, ever be on one of those Survivor shows. For 45 long minutes I suffered extreme boredom, a mild heat stroke, a slight blood sugar crash, restless leg syndrome, dehydration and a near panic attack trying not to wet my pants. Troy, in the meantime, could have set up a tent and slept there in the parking lot for several days without food or complaint. Definitely Sole Survivor material.

But I have survived a few things lately. Number one on the list: The Hardest School Year Yet. I survived Huck getting his driver’s license (which also means I survived the DMV), but so far we just follow him around wherever he goes like a couple of nervous stalkers. I survived a weekend at Beaver Lake where I saw a snake and two lizards, got a tick, hiked forever, and was pulled around in a tube attached to a pontoon boat (though I requested the driver go so slowly that my friends compared it to a lazy river ride). I survived the heartbreak of another canceled vacation, this time Canada, our attempt to replace France last summer, but the border remains closed and the quarantining procedures insane, so we pulled the plug and replanned a vacation in the northern part of the good old USA, reachable by car and including some of our very favorite people. I survived rainouts, faculty meetings and health insurance deductible increases. I survived (so far) three months of chronic ear troubles that led to this afternoon’s allergy testing at the doctor’s office I’ve visited nearly 20 times since March. And right now I’m surviving goodbyes to eight close friends who are leaving Fayetteville, though four of them promise to return in a year.

Back to Saturday morning. Huck finally exited the school and apologetically got into the car as I wiped away the crumbs from my lifesaving Clif Bar. He said, “I’m so glad it’s you picking me up! Dad would have been SO mad.” I smiled and said something like,  “Oh, it’s okay!” thinking what a survivor I turned out to be.

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After 14 months of committed mask wearing, physical distancing, obsessive hand washing and a few canceled vacations, I finally boarded an airplane last Friday and flew to Austin to spend 72 fun-filled hours with some of my favorite people. Right before the trip I saw a headline about liberals who can’t quit lockdown, and it resonated with this liberal as it felt both wrong and wonderful to travel again. We stayed together at Shannon’s beautiful house whose backyard is the Greenbelt that leads right to Chuy’s margarita patio. We remembered our UT drama days, enjoyed Rainey Street, held a sister convention, relished the heat & humidity, explored virtual reality, and celebrated Mother’s Day with breakfast tacos, balloons and wildflowers. And of course we belly laughed most of all.

Now I’m back to normal, wearing my mask all day at work, keeping my distance from students and embracing the lockdown a bit longer while encouraging everyone to get the vaccine so that we can finally quit for good. To quote our friend and retired Episcopalian priest Lowell Grisham in his latest Democrat-Gazette piece, “We are close to freedom from this plague. But that will not happen unless nearly all of us are vaccinated. We already know how to do this. Vaccines have totally defeated smallpox, polio and diphtheria. Rubella, measles, mumps, chickenpox, tetanus and whooping cough no longer rage. I see the vaccines as a triumph of wisdom and love. Human ingenuity and perseverance created these vaccines with great efficiency and passion. I believe that receiving the gift of the vaccine is an act of love – loving and protecting yourself and the precious gift of your own life, and loving your neighbor and protecting them so that your own breath is no longer a threat to their life.”

Hear, hear! (Cue Lasso.)

Longhorn Drama!

Sisters Convention!

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(This was adapted from my May 3rd Cougar Chronicle blog post as Arts Director of The New School.)

On the heels of a very full week that included our school’s celebration of the arts, birthdays for the both of us, and another terrible ear infection for me, I received an unexpected text from our Josten’s representative saying he was ready to deliver the yearbooks.

“Deliver the yearbooks? What’s that supposed to mean?” my tired mind asked.

For me, the yearbooks were something junior high students and I designed on laptops from August until March. For months and months we brainstormed, picked a theme, created layouts, chose pictures, wrote captions, rearranged pictures and captions, collected quotes, gave feedback, and proofread over and over again until finally submitting what we hoped would be an entertaining book filled with pictures of people wearing masks and zero typos. I forgot that all this work was for a final product, actual yearbooks that would one day be delivered to us.

And in a way, that was a relief. As an actor and drama teacher, I’ve had to remind myself over the years to enjoy the rehearsal process and all of its memorization, frustration, discoveries, mistakes, repetition and relationships. The culminating event of actors on a set, in costumes with lights, props and sound should never overshadow all the work that went into bringing the play to life before the house ever opens. Enjoy the ride, I’d tell myself. The destination will be here before you know it.

As it happened on that Friday, the Penske moving truck full of Arkansas yearbooks arrived right as I was supervising a study hall of seventh graders. Nancy, our head of school with impeccable timing, was nearby and happily offered to relieve me so that I could assist with the yearbook delivery. I ran across a little field of grass between buildings, feeling a little like a kid at Christmas who forgot it was Christmas. Within a few minutes there were 17 boxes of yearbooks waiting to be moved to some location that had yet to be determined. Because again, I forgot they were coming.

This year we haven’t had performances at The New School, and so everything has been about rehearsal, practice and imagination. Arts Week felt like one joyful performance after another, albeit on screen after screen after screen, and on the last day I got to hold the 50th anniversary yearbook in my hands. Better yet, I got to share it with the yearbook staff and witness them enjoying the result of all their hard work. Their performance, you could say. One of them even broke out into applause.

Now we are down to the final few weeks of the strangest school year yet, where we communicated in muffled sounds, smiled through our eyes, and often asked things like, “I’m sorry, what was that?” As we say goodbye to 2020-2021, I hope I remember to enjoy the ride.

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Gone are the days when I would post hundreds of birthday pictures the day after, apparently. I blame Facebook, middle age and the pandemic. Here are pictures from Huck’s 16th birthday back in March and our birthdays a couple weeks ago. In summary, there was Aunt Jeni, a chocolate mint ice cream cake, a new laptop, a strawberry cheesecake, perfect weather, a rooftop dinner, maskless get-togethers with the vaccinated, and lots of gratitude. Together we three are 118 now, though we don’t look a day over 115.

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Today Huck is 16 years old! (Well, as of 9:27 EST this evening, which he thinks is a pretty important distinction.) I feel this picture best captures who he is right now: obsessed with technology, loyal FHS mask-wearer, long-haired, still adorable. The only thing missing is a pot of tea. He’s also a migraine sufferer with incredible homework skills and longterm goals who can talk for hours without taking a breath. Prone to stress, he is our resident tech support, and nothing makes him happier than talking about the new Macbook Air he has his fingers on in this photo. He’s got a very part-time job building a website, which he says he could do all day long, and still has his sights on MIT, though he could also see himself at McGill in Canada, what with his love for French and serious winter. He’s a good, cautious, nervous driver who isn’t in a hurry to get his actual license, thank God, because his mother certainly can’t picture him driving alone. He has a very colorful sock and Converse collection and knows everything there is to know about US history, which is helpful in these weird times. He loves the music of Pomplamoose, St. Vincent, Hayley Williams and Dodie. His bedroom is a den of fairy lights, fragrant candles and essential oils. He has a pack of friends who make him very happy, and occasionally they meet up on the town square and walk around drinking tea and taking pictures like a nerd gang. He loves to cook for us (as long as I’m the sous-chef), and most mornings he’s the official smoothie maker.  He continues to play the piano and to sing in the high school A Capella Choir from home (though last week they did meet at the school for a special recording that brought an hour of normalcy to his very abnormal sophomore year). Next up: Aunt Jeni’s 16th annual March visit that no global pandemic can stop!

(Thank you, Pfizer, Moderna and Dr. Fauci.)

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Huck finally got what he wishes for every winter: over a week of snow days and ridiculously cold temperatures. He’s quick to point out that he’s NOT happy about what happened down in Texas, especially since our beloved Shannon was terribly affected in Austin. But he was deeply happy as the snow and the temperature kept coming down. Just like 2013 and 2014, we again found ourselves in a charming Arkansas home with a heat pump, which was someone’s crazy idea. Once it got into the teens, we basically had cold air blowing through our house. Once it got into the negative teens … well, I’m not ready to talk about it. Troy kept the home fires going, literally, day after day and night after night. People close to us worried we might die of carbon monoxide poisoning which prompted an emergency run to Lowe’s for a detector that thankfully remained silent. Our town asked us to please conserve energy and set the thermostat to 65. If we could get our heat up to 65, we celebrated. We actually turned it off for 24 hours so that we could warm up. Thank goodness for our fireplace, my adult onesie footsies, fingerless gloves, and double slanket.

As I write, spring has come to Fayetteville (and Austin) and the snow is gone. Just like that, things are looking up. Troy and I will be fully vaccinated by the end of this week, and in twelve days Huck will be 16, complete with a visit from vaccinated Aunt Jeni! We’ve decided to turn France into Huck’s high school graduation trip in 2023, and this summer we’re hoping to rehearse in Montreal and Quebec City. We have high hopes for a Kansas visit to hug nieces and nephews, celebrate my dad’s 80th, and take my mom to Target. As we approach the one year anniversary of when real life was replaced by screens, I feel as hopeful and trusting as our sweet daffodils that popped up a couple weeks ago and are still going strong.

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The other morning as I was about to go to work the zipper on my warmest coat stopped working. I let out a quick exasperated sigh which seems to be Huck’s cue to save the day. He leapt off the couch and began frantically working on the zipper while I stood there, trapped in my own coat, feeling very short and incapable of basic human functioning. For a minute there I was trapped in a fully zipped up coat that showed no signs of ever being unzipped, until Huck finally figured out how to free me but not necessarily for the zipper to ever zip again. As I hurriedly ran to the car he shouted, “I can fix it tonight!” to which I replied, “What, you’re a coat zipper expert now?”

Our roles are reversing. Because he’s clearly smarter than me in many areas and because of his immediate ability to resolve my constant tech issues, he now seems to view me as a young child who needs his help in every way. Let’s be honest: it’s very important that he never moves out of our house.

And like any mother/teenager relationship, Huck and I have our moments that make Troy appear with a look on his face that seems to say, “Should I call the police?” The other evening right as Troy and I had settled comfortably on the couch in front of the fire to watch an episode of “The Americans,” Huck appeared like a scam artist in Central Park, asking our advice on a sketchy homework situation. Troy handled the trick question much more delicately than I did, and the next thing we knew Huck had stormed out of the room and slammed his bedroom door. We sighed, rolled our eyes and attempted to start the show, only to realize our Apple TV had a glitch that we weren’t capable of fixing because of our ever-growing dependence on you-know-who. There was a very awkward silence that I finally broke with the pitiful question, “Do you think you could go ask Huck to fix this?” Troy then quietly knocked on Huck’s door and sounded exactly like Oliver Twist on the streets of London as he submissively asked, “Please sir, might you help us with the remote?”

We’re finding it hard to maintain our parental status these days. (Especially when he keeps making us meals like this.)

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To celebrate this final day of everyone’s least favorite year, I have cleaned out every closet and cupboard and thrown out things with expirations dating back to 2013. I will watch as many “Office” episodes as possible before it leaves Netflix, and I will eat all the appetizers left over from last week’s holiday. I’ll call my parents, text special friends and family, play games with my favorite two people, and read my delightful book. Before too long I’ll look at photo albums since I still print pictures, watch home movies and read old blog posts. I’ll think about highlights from this year like so many back yard gatherings, Zoom book clubs with people who normally wouldn’t be together, and spontaneous visits to be with my family. This year Huck learned to drive, Troy wrote a children’s book, and I survived eight weeks of shingles and eighteen weeks teaching fourth grade drama. On the last day before this splendid break one of those fourth graders gave me a gift card with this message:

Year Made.

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On the way to Kansas last week, I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast with philosophy professor and writer William Irvine called “Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy,” which I can’t recommend enough. He reminded his listeners that if we live long enough, there will come a time when we look back to this moment right now and think of it as the good old days. I know, I know, none of us think that sounds like good news, what with it being 2020 and all. But we three just spent Christmas with my dad here in Fayetteville and it definitely felt like the good old days. (Well, the good old days missing a few good old people.)

Christmas this year included a two hour outdoor visit with my mom, an overnight in my childhood home, many fireside chats, bourbon, coffee, dog walks, the Fayetteville Square lights, a special musical theatre playlist for the drive, a magical Christmas day appearance on the Markham Hill trail by a white shetland pony, an evening campfire, three hours of gift opening, Zoom with my sisters and nieces, old home movies, constant Christmas music, a ham dinner on my grandma’s china, and of course, oh of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Troy even got to see his family (some for the first time in 13 months!) for a brief outdoor visit after getting my dad home safe and sound.

And speaking of the good old days, a couple nights ago Huck stayed up late and some how, some way found my old baby blog that was lost to the Internet a few years ago. This blog began in August 2004 and ended in September 2010 due to all kinds of problems. Our now 15 year old baby stayed up until midnight reading what I wrote about him while pregnant and a new mom, and he kept reading aloud favorites the next day. This was my final post on the original blog as we prepared for Huck to begin kindergarten:

“In the spirit of embracing the change that is almost upon us, we say goodbye to our sweet red and blue Huck blog. Blog? You’ve been a wonderful companion these last six years, but now it’s time to move on to a place that runs a little more smoothly. For all you Huck Heads everywhere (but mostly for me), this blog will always exist to look at and smile as we remember the good old days. Goodbye to summer, goodbye to full-time stay-at-home-mom-with-a-kid status, goodbye sleeping in till 8AM … and hello brand new life!

Now someone give me a tissue.”

This is the unicorn, I mean Shetland Pony, running down the trail to say hello.

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With our Christmas Card Greetings
And Happy Zoom Meetings
When Friends Come to Call,
It’s the Hap-Happiest Season of All!

Merry Christmas, Loved Ones!