new york city kid in arkansas
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As the pictures below suggest, we had a very lovely Christmas visit with our Kansas family, including snow, many movies, cozy fires, redundant magic shows and laughter galore. Now we’re back to being Fayetteville homebodies in front of our own fire, and I’m doing my usual December 31st routine. You know, reminiscing in my pajamas about the year gone by while daydreaming about the one to come.

Last night we celebrated our beloved priest Lowell Grisham’s retirement from St. Paul’s where our wonderful mayor Lioneld Jordan spoke about Lowell’s relentless loving work on behalf of LGBTQI people and minority people and poor people and every other kind of people that Jesus would have us look after. I whispered to Huck something about the miracle of those two men helping lead a southern town in the corner of Arkansas, and for a split second I felt some hope for this ol’ country of ours that has surely seen better days. At the end of the night we all held onto each other and sang “Auld Lang Syne” as a final goodbye, promising to take a cup of kindness yet.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds or all those days that follow, but I think I’ll just keep holding on to the people I love and chugging from that cup. Especially on this bitterly cold winter’s day that has so far included, among other things, a fireside game of Life that turned me into a pig farmer veterinarian with a $100K salary and a timely $50K bonus for keeping three of my New Year’s resolutions.

Cheers!

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One of my holiday highlights was an afternoon recently in Baum Walker Hall’s balcony at the Walton Arts Center watching and listening to Huck’s orchestra teacher and the rest of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas play lots of beautiful music, including the soundtrack for the short film “The Snowman.” The concert included an audience singalong of festive favorites like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “White Christmas,” and believe me when I say that the son of Troy Schremmer does not hold back when he’s told to sing. The lady in front of us couldn’t resist sneaking a look at the source of such vibrant and loud musicality, causing me to give a humble nod of acknowledgement. I’ve taken Huck to Broadway, I’ve taken him to dance concerts, I’ve taken him to Shakespeare, I’ve taken him to the circus, I’ve taken him to movies, and I’ve taken him to more children’s theatre than he cares to remember. Finally I know what it’s like to sit next to my child in an audience and have my rapt attention and excitement matched, possibly even exceeded. May our stockings be filled with symphony tickets.

Merry Christmas, loved ones!

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Before all the cards are sent, the gifts wrapped and work parties attended, we’re in that magical in-between time when our tree is beautiful, our appetites normal, our social energy intact, and we can still stand Johnny Mathis. I’m the only one in this family who cares about Dixen the Elf anymore, faithfully moving him each night and exclaiming with over-the-top surprise upon discovering him each morning, a lonely soliloquy that rarely gets response. Sunny appears to have eaten our very first card of the year in an uncharacteristic move on her part, making her seem more and more like a real dog. Every few days Huck remembers last minute pertinent school needs (aluminum cans for a science project, canned goods for a food drive, a Santa hat for an orchestra concert) causing us to scramble frantically around town to preserve his status of Good Student. I can no longer keep track of the days or our Amazon deliveries; both keep coming and going without any warning. We light our Advent candle on the nights that we sit down at our table for dinner, Huck with the match and Troy with the words he used to read for a living back in New York. One night recently a mysterious secret Santa left us gifts and a love-note on our doorstep, making us feel like children as we happily tried to solve the mystery of how it happened. There are a few more parties to attend, students to teach, finals to take and shopping to do as we prepare to wrap up the school year and soon enter the last days of December with family in Kansas and friends in Fayetteville.

But just now on this early Friday morning my heart skipped a beat when I realized I’d forgotten to move the elf, as if Huck is a still a toddler whose days depend upon the search for this little red felt doll. And as I went to make Huck some tea, his new addiction that fits nicely with his old man persona, I discovered Dixen stuck in a glass vase high above the stove top. I’m pretty sure who’s responsible for this, but I choose to believe it’s a certain kind of Christmas miracle.

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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.