Thursday, October 30, 2008

Birthday Playroom

When we bought this house 3 years ago, I was most excited about the playroom. In the weeks before we moved, I schemed how to turn it into a real family room that filled all our family's needs and drew kids like flies with its kid-friendly design. It was a gift from heaven when I found wooden cubbies on clearance at Target--just what I had been imagining.

And yet, for 3 years, I've been growling at kids, "Go play in the playroom." It was dark, and jumbled, and no one was drawn to it at all. So I've been saving and plotting a multi-stage revitalization effort for months, and today--my 37th birthday--I unveil it in its bright, current form.

First it was this:

Couch literally shredding into pieces. Too many toys. Red wall that darkened the far end of the room. Then I got the couch:

Last week my father-in-law helped me paint the trim glossy white and paint the walls "celery ice," the palest shade of green. For any of you with trim that isn't glossy white: Fix it now! The white trim alone brightened the room. The paint job is my in-laws' birthday present to me:

Then my birthday present to myself was a trip to Ikea, where I got new pillow covers and this wall art to fill that awkward, asymmetrical space:

The branches and buds are stickers you assemble however it suits you, so this is about 20 separate pieces. I stuck it up with painter's tape to get the right design before I peeled off the stickers' backing. The glue is very light, so it'll be no problem to remove it all when we're sick of it.

Meanwhile, I brutally edited the toy corner. I've always used the furnace room to store off-duty toys, but now I keep only a few things out and rotate much more often. Plus (another trip to Ikea) this little computer desk gets the kids' computer out of the kitchen so I can make dinner without climbing over packs of spectators, but it keeps the computer in a public, monitor-able place. Now the playroom addresses the needs of both big and little kids and is much easier to keep tidy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why is this such a big deal?

Because a dissertation is a big deal!

"In some United States doctoral programs, the term 'dissertation' can refer to the major part of the student's total time spent (along with two or three years of classes), and may take years of full-time work to complete."

Instead Mark has done it in one year while holding a full-time job, fathering (sort of) a family of seven, and acting as the ward clerk. Plus, he's a man who loves to choose the long, careful, meticulously documented path over the short one.

Here's the timeline:

Monday, November 3
Submit "complete, defense-ready draft" to his "format advisor" at the university.

November 19
Fly to Arizona (where he's technically still been a student this whole time).

November 21, 3-5:00 pm
Defend his dissertation before a committee of 3 history PhDs. Whether he passes or fails is completely at their discretion. He'll pass, of course. The question is how many revisions they request. Because it's not done until they sign off.

November 26
The kids and I arrive in Arizona to enjoy Thanksgiving with Mark and his sister's family. If we're lucky, he'll have finished all revisions, red tape cutting, and hoop jumping and be able to drive home with us on Sunday. But if not, he stays behind.

December 6
Mark's return flight home. Unless we are very unlucky, by this date, at the latest, IT WILL ALL BE OVER! No more! No more hoops, no more revisions, no more academic requirements AT ALL! EVER!

All year long, I've let this project be Mark's project. I haven't sweated over the details or monitored his progress. But now I'm in charge of proofreading 400 pages of history with hundreds--maybe more than a thousand--footnotes. Normally an editor would get weeks for this type of project. Me, I'm at the kitchen table trying to plow through a chapter a day. Now his pain is my pain.

Monday, October 27, 2008


One early morning I lay in a hospital bed while nurses and doctors whirled in and out trying to figure out if my baby was being born prematurely or if labor could stop. When it became clear normal life wouldn't be resuming for a while, I said to Mark, "It's time to deploy our moms." A few phone calls later, parents across the country were cancelling appointments and booking flights. By the time Jesse was a month old, our four parents had each come to nurture the kids and run the show.
In the last year, Mark's parents--of their own volition!--have deployed several times to support our family while Mark writes his dissertation. They've cancelled their lives for a week at a time to come support ours.

Skip has done a year's worth of combat against the damage five kids can do. Fixing--again, and again--broken dresser drawers and places where they've slammed doorknobs through the walls. Brenda has read dozens of stories and cooked dozens of meals. By doing Mark's chores and giving me a break from mine, they've really helped this year go a lot more smoothly.

This morning they left from what should be their last visit of this sort. But not before Brenda cooked us a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, complete with pie.

When I headed upstairs to bed last night, Skip was heading into the kitchen with a wrench to fix the kitchen faucet.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Notes from the Underworld: When the masses organize

A new installment in the ongoing series documenting the counterculture and insurgencies effected by my children. In this edition, we see that their countermeasures--though barbaric and anarchistic--are, in fact, organized systems. What will happen when the organized and ever more sophisticated natives come to realize that they far outnumber us, when they begin to see their benevolent dictators as oppressors?

1. Labeling

Here the savages appropriate one of my favorite organizational strategies for their own unsavory exploits. The microwave is labeled "Lake of Tears." I find this somehow appropriate.

2. Anger management

I complimented Haley on this tidy row of happy faces. "Oh, no," she said. "These are angry faces. This one is Daddy, and this one is Mommy, and this one is Roscoe...."

3. Happy little people

Each of my boys has gone through a phase of organizing Fisher-Price Little People and animals into neat little rows. One day, I found this evidence that Jesse has joined the ranks.

4. A void

These are the containers that used to hold chocolate chip cookies, still stacked in their place.

5. An alternate organizational strategy

It appears this stale crust of pb&j was carefully placed here in the domino box. Somewhere, kids are probably sighing in exasperation that Mom removed their snack from its place. "Why must she mess everything up?"

6. Native dances

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What did I do on my weekend away?

Stay up until 2:00 am blogging with Josh.

Take off my earrings, set them on the nightstand, and find them exactly where I left them the next morning.

Eat fried s’mores at the Texas State Fair.

Fear for my life--literally--as I hurled face-first toward the ground because I tried to be a good sport big sister by joining Josh on a scary ride at the fair.

Watch a pig race.

Hear my Dad call me a “raving beauty” and “a lovely person”; enjoy having Dad in my corner—even if he is delusional.

Teach Brant my children's names.

Hear children cry and do nothing about it.

Critique 30 peoples’ resumes at a Women for Hire conference.

Try on every pair of jeans at JCPenney’s and find one that actually fits.

Help Josh choose two new ties.

Eat beef brisket while visiting with 2 dozen cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Play two rounds of Hand and Foot with Grandma.

Run through the neighborhood with Josh delivering flyers for Clear Sky Handymen.

Make pancakes to lure everyone out of bed.

See Josh's Navy commendation ribbons.

Listen to Jesse giggle "Goodnight, Mom" over and over on the phone.

Introduce Mom to Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin; observe that Tina Fey is an equally good Mom look-alike.

Try and fail to carve out time for a heart-to-heart with Joe.

Realize with increasing sharpness that 48 hours at a time with family is not enough.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Long-distance Romance

The Overture

Once last week I was feeling lonely. So I dispatched to my husband at work an email containing a link to this:

Lo and behold, at the unheard-of early hour of 9:00, in walked my husband. I share with you, dear reader, this powerful information. Use it with care.

The Interlude

Today I'm in Dallas on a business trip and visiting family. Last night when I opened my suitcase, I found a CD with Mark's handwriting: "Angel, play this CD to find out what the truth is."

All night I wondered about his truth: I have a brain tumor. I'm having a sex change. There's no dissertation--I have a second family.

In the morning when I played the CD I heard this beautiful song from Coldplay: "the truth is I miss you."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Breaking up is hard to do

Jesse is starting to break up with me.

Time was, I was his moon, his sun and stars. A day didn't begin until he was in my arms. He lived life from within the circle of my orbit. The separation of his body from mine at his birth was never really complete--to him, we were practically the same person.

From the moment he could talk, nearly every word he had to say was addressed to me. "Milk, Mom." "I got helicopter, Mom." "Want binkie, Mom." "See bird, Mom."

These days, he checks in less often, more briefly, and with less passion. He has things to do and a bigger pack to run with.

I spent 2 1/2 years filling him up with sweetness and love, with the hope that sweetness and love will come pouring back out for the rest of his life. Holding him as close as he wanted to be, until he's ready to swing out into the world in circles that grow wider and wider, taking him farther and farther from me.

Monday, October 13, 2008

How to teach your Sunbeam to give a talk in Primary all by herself

1. Choose an appealing and simple scripture story. For boys, this is generally Ammon cutting off Lamanites' arms or Peter cutting off a soldier's ear.

2. Divide the story into short little phrases like, "This is Alma," "Here comes the prophet Abinadi," and "King Noah said no." Draw a little cartoon picture for each phrase.

4. Practice "reading" the talk several times. Give your Sunbeam the same coaching phrases each time--don't say "Abinandi told them to repent" one time and "Abinadi told them to choose the right" the next. Stand up your Sunbeam at the counter and pretend you're the Primary leader introducing her. Make your other children sit down to be the audience.

5. When it's your Sunbeam's turn to give the talk, do not walk up to the front of the room. Stay in the back, proudly beaming as she stands up independently. (This is the same principle as never step foot into the nursery.)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Do you hulu?

Watch The Office the day after it airs--or House or Bones or Heroes. Catch Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. And (if you're sufficiently liberal) fall in love with Jon Stewart, as I have.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Since you asked...

Since you asked, this is what our new couch looked like when it arrived. Each box is one section, and you buy whatever configuration you want and choose the fabric covers. (Notice Buzz Lightyear circling overhead, assessing the terrain.)

This what it looks like now. The corduroy covers are removable and washable. Now I can use the fabric color to determine the perfect paint color for the walls. (Notice Buzz has become quite comfortable with our new couch. Woody apparently couldn't manage the climb.)

No, Jesse hasn't resumed napping since I took his binkie away. This is what he does instead:

What am I going to do? Are naps really and truly over? Because that would be very bad news.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Too happy?

Last night I was a good mom.

When Roscoe was on the verge of a meltdown because he realized he had missed an important school assignment, I gave him open, principles-based advice until he has was able to get his act together, buckle down, and finish the assignment. For Family Home Evening, I gave a riveting retelling of the story of Lehonti from the Book of Mormon. (Did you notice this somewhat obscure story was mentioned twice in General Conference?) The kids were intrigued by Amalikiah’s downright dastardliness. I served dinner. Roscoe helped me clean up from dinner. Levi threatened to throw a fit over a taking a shower, but I convinced him that it could be a short shower and that I would set the timer for him. Logan read the little kids stories while I picked Roscoe up from karate.

When a child had a need, or a comment, or gave me an opportunity for a tiny teaching moment, I was there. I wasn’t stressed out, so I could be patient.

What makes all this a bit noteworthy is that Mark wasn’t home. These days he’s really never home. He shows up around 10:30 every night to shower and sleep. He leads a quick scripture study in the morning and then is out the door again. Jesse often misses him entirely
I’ve long felt that a key to a happy marriage and family is to refuse to allow yourself to be overwhelmed and unhappy just because your husband isn’t home. I’ve done this many a time myself, but it’s a surefire recipe for unhappiness, since husband is bound to not be home sometimes, and you can’t make your own happiness and productivity dependent on anyone else—not even your spouse. So for years we’ve created our little Daddy’s-not-coming-home routines: breakfast for dinner, dinner served from the bar, and other shortcuts. But now the nights when Daddy is gone far outnumber the ones when he’s here, and those stopgap measures aren’t enough. I mean, we can’t get pizza every night.

I’m tired and it shows. I seem to go from perfectly content to about ready to duct tape everyone to the floor in about two seconds and with little provocation. But overall, our family is learning to operate gracefully without Mark. Getting dinner cleared takes a bit longer. The kids work together and support me a bit more. I commit to intensive parenting all the way til 8:30. The number and frequency of complaints about Dad’s absence have gone way done. So I wonder, Are we too happy without Daddy?


Addendum: My sister Nancy reminded me that I need to clarify something. I'm a firm believer in co-parenting. Mark and I have always felt that one of our strengths as a couple is that we're quite different from each other, and that it would be a real disservice to our children if they were essentially raised by only one of us. We've made a lot of sacrifices--usually in terms of money and spare time--over the years to make sure both Mark and I are involved parents. And to be frank, it's been a struggle involving a lot of intense "discussion" (she said euphemistically). It's important to me to feel that my husband is a full partner in the important work of raising a family, that he supports me when he's home just as I support him when he's gone.

But no matter what, the inevitable time will come when a deadline looms, two jobs overlap, there's a conference out of town, someone gets a heavy-duty church calling, or whatever. My point is that Mom can't give herself permission to lose it when that time comes. But neither should those temporary imbalances be allowed to become the norm.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Three Waves of Feminism, a Short History Lesson

The First Wave

Early 1900s. As an outgrowth of the abolition movement, women campaign for suffrage. Because women in our country COULDN’T VOTE until the 19th amendment was passed--in 1920!!!

The Second Wave

The 1970s. Women protest and burn bras (actually they never actually burned the bras) and march to expand women’s access to and equity in the workplace. Huge strides are made not only in the professional sphere, but in terms of recognition of women as people not objects,
Downside: The focus on workplace rights puts motherhood and domesticity in a dark corner. Announcing that you want to grow up to be a mother sounds positively un-feminist.

The Third Wave

The ‘90s and beyond. Some say this is a post-feminist era, but no, no, friends—this is the best feminist era of all. And here we are, right in the middle of it! Now the pendulum swings back a bit. Resting on our laurels of improved pay equity and civil rights, women re-appropriate things like crocheting, lipstick, and sexiness. The point of feminism is that women are empowered to make and act upon their own choices, right? Well, some of us want to do things our allegedly unenlightened 1950s pre-feminists did. Empowered doesn’t have to mean butch. The 1990s sees a huge trend of professional women postponing or scaling down their professional responsibilities to invest more time in their families. Being a homemaker can be hip. (Stress on the word can. Note to self: Let’s work on that.)

Examples of the third wave:

  • Madonna and Gwen Stefani. Message: You can be sexy, vampy, and powerfully feminist.
  • The resurgence of sewing, crafting, crocheting, canning, etc.
  • Slick magazines catering to mothers.
  • Sarah Palin carrying her baby on the dais after accepting the VP nomination.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Today in a torrent of pouring rain, I rushed into Target with six children scurrying behind in my wake. (Yes, we had one extra today.) Our purpose: spend the kids’ allowance money.

Mark has a wonderful system for the kids’ allowance. Your allowance is your age in dollars. So if you’re 6, you get $6.00, and every time you have a birthday you get a raise. In theory, allowance is your reward for all your contributions to the family, including chores. But we keep the link between chores and allowance pretty weak. We feel that in a family everyone should contribute without expectation of monetary compensation. Sometimes when a kid asks me for pay for a job they’ve completed, I say, “Are you going to pay me for making your dinner?”

Mark goes to the bank each month to get allowance money. He gets piles of golden dollars and silver half-dollars and sorts them into envelopes so each child has the perfect change to divide their allowance into 10% tithing, 40% savings, and 50% spending money. He calls each child to the kitchen table—including Jesse--and lets them open their envelope. They plink their coins onto the table and he asks, “Now, how much is your tithing?”

From last August, 16-month-old Jesse counts his allowance with Dad.

As you can see, no one ends up with all that much spending money. Thirteen-year-old Roscoe only gets $6.50 per month. But we’ve had the long-standing rule that Mom and Dad pay half for durable goods. If you want to blow your wad on candy and silly putty, you’re on your own. But if you’re saving for a cool Bionicle or remote control wasp or DVD, we’ll match your funds. This is intended to help encourage the kids to save for more meaningful items. (Our next step would be to up the big kids’ allowance and put them in charge of buying their own shoes and clothing and school supplies. But then, I’m quite sure, Roscoe would turn into a total scarecrow and I’m just not ready for that.)

The negotiations and calculations in Target’s toy section are intense. Today Levi sprawled out on the floor to take each coin out of his wallet and count it—again. I could get two packs of Yu-gi-oh cards. But then I couldn’t afford a Bionicle. I could save for that huge robot, but then I couldn’t buy anything today at all. In truth, they didn’t really need any of the things they finally bought. But they’re learning to balance the desire to spend with the need to save, they’re learning to assess value, and sometimes they’re experiencing buyer’s remorse. All in a lower-stakes venue than a college credit card.

So we went through the checkout with frantic kids shouting, “Where’s my ring pop?” and “Mom, here’s my $2.00!” I piled change into neat $1 piles on the conveyor belt, but the checkout girl wasn’t in my groove and let the coins pile up and then fall onto the floor. Then Jesse dropped his Skittles, and the kids scrambled to sort everything out while I concentrated on looking serene, because there’s nothing worse than a mom losing her cool at the checkout.

On the way home, we analyzed the receipt and realized Logan had accidentally bought the “gigantic” hair ball instead of the “large” one and therefore owed me an extra $4. We recorded our balances in the allowance ledger book. Now Haley and her friend are sucking on ring pops, Levi isn’t totally thrilled with his two packs of World of Warcraft cards, Logan has assembled his new Bionicle, and Roscoe is driving a remote control car across the ceiling.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Cold Turkey

So the aforementioned dentist said--while Jesse was perfectly motionless watching the TV screen mounted on the ceiling --that Jesse's binkie was ruining his teeth. They are a mess, but I'm afraid his genetics (big teeth, little mouth, narrow smile) are the culprit. Nevertheless, the binkie is now gone. Just like that.

I'd been thinking of having a big Throw-Away-the-Binkie party like we did for Logan's third birthday (yes, I know--third!) when we all trooped out to the garage and cast the binkie into the big black trash can and applauded--sort of like Frodo and the Ring. But what actually happened was that I just disappeared the binkies. And Jesse hasn't really minded.
Nor has he napped.
Last night I had a close scrape. As I walked Jesse upstairs to bed, he demanded, "I want my binkie!" Thinking fast, I started to laugh like that was the most funny thing I had ever heard, like Jesse was the world's cleverest boy for saying it. "Binkie! There are no binkies! You silly guy!" (Read that in overwrought mommy-speak.) Jesse bought the ruse and laughed along with me. He giggled, "Binkie!" and I shrieked, "There's no binkie!"
Phew-- close one!