new york city kid in arkansas
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Ten years ago Troy, Huck and I went to the Maker’s Fair in Queens, New York at the Hall of Science Museum. We had agreed to put in some volunteer time with a wonderful organization in our Washington Heights neighborhood called Skraptacular, which promoted recycling and reusing. Within seconds of arriving, we were somehow wearing creative homemade signs around our necks that someone else made and pushing a giant recyling bin around the place shouting things like “Recycle! Reduce! Reuse!” while our six year old scientist followed us around obediently. At one point Troy secretly muttered through the corner of his mouth, “Oh, the situations we get ourselves into …”

This half-sentence has been on repeat for the last decade, and it always makes us cry-laugh. A variation of it came a couple weeks ago as we were frantically shoving Clif Bars down our throats while driving right back to The New School for a 5:30 volleyball game to see some of my yearbook students in action. I looked at my once young husband with his mouth full of organic rolled oats and unsweetened chocolate and said, “What has become of us?” He answered, “We made some choices in life, and here we are.”

The next evening after dinner Huck abandoned us as usual to worship the god of homework, and while Troy did the dishes and I swept the floor, both of us at the exact same time began quoting different lines from George Bailey’s existential crisis medley of “Why did we have to have all these kids?” and “Oh, our car’s not good enough for ya?” What happened next is what always happens next: more “It’s a Wonderful Life” quotes, more terrible Jimmy Stewart impressions, more cry-laughter.

Tonight we can be found in the crowd at the final high school volleyball game of the season, losing our voices as we cheer for students we’ve known since they were first graders, remembering that life’s wonderfulness comes in unexpected places sometimes.

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This is a ten day old portrait of a mother with worry fatigue, caught starting into her smartphone at the Find My app, once again tracking the little circle that represents her timid 16 year old driving himself home in the pitch dark for the first time from an evening choir practice at the high school. Both Worried Mother and Timid Driver have come a long way in the first few weeks of the new school year, growing in confidence and experience. And one of us now sleeps with a specially made, overpriced mouth guard to keep her teeth from grinding.

I’m also someone’s child, and he too worries when I drive alone, especially when it’s six hours to see him like I just did over Labor Day weekend. While sitting around a beautiful outdoor fire in my dad’s back yard Saturday night he asked, “When you drive all those hours alone like that, do you ever fear for your safety since you’re a woman?” I answered, “Of course.” Later I asked him what it was like sending three daughters out on the road to drive alone back in the 1980s. He answered, “Awful. I hated it more than anything. It was the worst thing about parenting.”

There really are so many terrible things about parenting. Sleep deprivation, tantrums, potty training, teeth falling out, friend problems, school issues, perfectionism, gender identity, health scares, personality flaws, arguments … and that’s just up to age six. Things get so much better and worse, easier and harder, and then they’re driving and then college and then what? Do we live out the rest of our days watching their every move on our stupid phones? Do we ever really have an entire week of good, uninterrupted sleep?

On Sunday my dad gave me a break and did the driving himself to my mom’s place 90 miles away. She greeted us with an anxious smile, worried about her medication, apologizing for her hair, nervous for our outing. And this is when the strange and uncomfortable child-parent switcharoo happened. I kept my eyes on her obsessively, helping her in and out of the car, complimenting her hair, willing her to relax and enjoy our day together. After a lunch out, shopping, a coffee break, and some quality time in her room where my dad and I performed a passionate tutorial costarring her TV remote, we got back in the car for the 90 minute trip back to his house, her old house, my old house. At some point we sat in a daze on a bench and ate cashews, apples and his homemade banana bread (which he remembered to make without nuts in my honor). We were a little sad and a little tired. The next day I would drive six more hours to get home to my other stress source and reason to live.

The morning after that strange selfie was taken, Huck drove Troy to work early so that he could have the car for the day. I got distracted emptying the dishwasher and was surprised me when he entered through the garage. “Oh!” I exclaimed, “I forgot to watch where you were on my phone.”

Sounding exactly like these two he said, “I’m so proud of you.”

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Thirty-two years ago today my grandpa unexpectedly died. I had just finished my freshman year of college at Wichita State University across town from where he and my grandma lived. The next day we were all heading to Colorado for a family reunion of his brothers and sisters and their children and grandchildren. My dad had just finished teaching all of his summer art classes and right as he announced “Vacation begins NOW!” my mom appeared at the front door with the devastating news that would change all of our plans and all of our lives.

For one thing, we all became very superstitious about saying things like “Vacation begins NOW!” because you just never know what’s about to happen. I come from Anxious People, or at least an anxious dad and sister, and I raised an anxious child. Having Huck took my anxiety to all new levels, because you would not believe what a mother can imagine.

I’d now like to rewind 11 years:

The other day Huck gave me an extra rough kiss and then said in total earnestness, “Sometimes love hurts, Mommy.”

It got us talking about the ways love can make us feel sad, like when Shannon visited last month and then had to leave.  Or like when Max died last November, to which Huck said something awful like, ‘Well, that didn’t really hurt.”

Now Huck’s a professional kindergartener, walking alone into a classroom full of people he doesn’t know at 8:30 every morning and not returning to me till 2:50.  It’s a pretty big stretch for the two of us, seeing as how we usually spend all our days together.

And while I’m very happy to send Huck off to this next big part of his life and while I can’t get enough detail about his very fun sounding 6 hours and 20 minutes without me, I am slowly but surely falling apart.

About a week before he began school I stopped sleeping, finding myself strangely worried about his lunch.  I began searching my friends and various websites for the perfect lunch bag with all the accessories (like easy to open containers) until finally I found myself on the floor of Target with about eight options in front of me as I tried to make the right decision.  After 15 minutes or so Troy came around the corner and practically whispered, “Is everything going OK?”  It was then that I realized I was secretly very worried about Huck going off to kindergarten, and all my anxiety was being shoved into a compact little lunch box.  With thermos.  (Which he had to get an adult to help him open today, despite our many successful practice sessions at home.)

In one week’s time along with the worry-insomnia I also got an ear infection followed by horrible allergies followed by a canker sore that made eating painful and nearly impossible.  And on my first solo grocery shopping excursion I bought him a cheapo butterfly silly-band bracelet from the gumball machine and it broke within seconds of being worn by him.

Huck’s right.  Sometimes love hurts.

And now I’m back to today. This morning Huck got up bright and early so that he could leave our house at 7:30am to pick up his friend Irene across town and take them both to the high school for a week-long “PSAT Boot Camp” in hopes of becoming National Merit Scholars to help with that other big thing looming ahead called college. (Go ahead, take a moment to react to the idea of a week-long PSAT Boot Camp.) Though he got his driver’s license back in early June, this is the first time he’s actually had a place to go, and so last week I produced and directed a production called “Driving Practice to Irene’s and the High School.” It rehearsed every single day and was the modern version of being on the floor of Target, with slightly higher stakes.

And while I’m very happy to send Huck off to this next big part of his life and while I can’t get enough detail about his boring 5-1/2 hours without me, I am slowly but surely falling apart. This afternoon I will see my regular doctor and later this week a TMJ specialist to try to get relief from the ear/jaw pain I’ve been experiencing on and off for many months now.

Because, well, you know. Sometimes love hurts.

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But not this summer. First there was the 2020 trip to France that never was, replaced a year later by the 2021 trip to Canada that never was, followed by the actual trip to Chicago where we immediately learned of a ban on Arkansas (and its mostly unvaccinated people) from its windy city, which meant canceling Huck’s campus visit to the University of Chicago. We’re starting to take this pandemic personally.

Like so many of you, our summer has seen a lot of car travel to visit family and friends like we used to do. Instead of Paris, Montreal and Quebec City, we chose Iowa, Wisconsin and Chicago for ten days of fun. Before that we celebrated our twin niece’s and nephew’s 11th birthdays and my dad’s 80th birthday in Kansas, even bringing my mom back home for a very sweet overnight visit. While here in Fayetteville, Huck continues practicing driving alone ever so cautiously while Troy continues planting more flowers (sometimes in our neighbors’ yards). I’m spending my summer break reading disturbing books (In the Distance! Klara and the Sun!), listening to disturbing podcasts (Tulsa Burning! 1619! Dr. Death!), watching disturbing TV (Happy Valley! WandaVision! Handmaid’s Tale!), seeing disturbing theatre (Matilda! Twice!) and sleeping in every single day. It’s probably good that summer isn’t forever.

You know what is forever? The time it could take you to look at our summer photos …

Entertaining my mama with ukulele & knitting

Happy 11th birthday to these twin delights

Huck the knitting granny next to his actual granny

Beating Tina at Scrabble

Helping these 2 spend their birthday gift cards from their other aunt & uncle

Father’s Day Starbucks

Dad’s 80th birthday party with the Original 5

Glamorous grandchildren & great-grandchildren minus Lily (in Italy) & Hayden

Best Friends

Our dad’s croquet warm-up ritual

Huck’s #1 Sport

Bittersweet

Annual Lindsborg visit

Back home for the Pride Parade …

Huck ‘n Proud Pals

and a Shana Seabreeze …

and a return to the movies …

and Sunny’s 9th birthday …

and a 4th of July dip in the Mount Sequoyah Pool!

Who needs Canada when you can have this?!

Lawful Brothers: Iowa Edition

Mississippi River

Visit #1 to Here’s the Scoop

Mailing Mom a letter from Davenport

Pontoon Livin’

We tried to steal baby Lydia but her parents said NO!

There’s nothing like capturing yourself looking like you might kill someone on the Walmart security camera …

A Wisconsin Weekend!

They had to lie perfectly still in order to survive this hammock

Don’t let this pretty picture taken outside House of the Rock fool you … inside is VERY DIFFERENT

These pictures capture the feeling much better

Mailing Mom a letter from Wisconsin

Day trip to McGregor, Iowa with beautiful Wisconsin behind us

Another of Huck’s sports

Looking for a pig

Goodbye to Wisconsin

And hello to Chicago! Off to the Botanic Garden with fellow gardeners Alice & Charlie

… while Huck helps Dan test drive a Tesla

Give us beautiful nature …

and give Huck tea and a trip to the Apple Store

Baha’i House of Worship

Rooftop Pool Party

Lake Michigan (or the ocean)

We lived in Chicago as newlyweds 100 years ago

Dan & Michele’s Tea Party for Huck, confirming he was born to the wrong parents

Happy Traveler

Back to Davenport for our final visit to Here’s the Scoop

Lucky enough to get to see Noah for our Vacation Finale

Nothing captures our vacation better than this picture …

(We’re coming for you one day, France.)

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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.