Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Nose Knows

My car, to put it delicately, smells like ass.

It's making me crazy. I have no idea why it smells so rotten. I'm worried that (oh, horror) a rodent has gotten in there somewhere and died. Or that something perishable fell out of a grocery bag and slipped into a crevice in the hatch. Or that Ainsley and I are just that stinky and our funk has built up over time.

I know there's probably a logical explanation. The smell is reminiscent of wet cardboard, and we have been carrying some boxes and leprechaun traps and such. But I have pretty much emptied out the entire vehicle, felt around under seats, and wiped down all the upholstery and the dash. I even opened it up and let it air out yesterday afternoon in the glorious sunshine, breezes, and warm temperatures we were graced with. And yet this morning, when I opened the door, the smell drifted out. Crap.

It might not be as bad as I think it is. I have a pretty sensitive sniffer, a gift from my mother who, as a kid, said, "What's that I smell?" at least once a day and would go around the house like a basset hound trying to figure out what had been soiled, spilled, or left out too long. My dad could never smell what she said she smelled and got aggravated at her "Roman" nose and its overly active synapses (especially when he was discovered somehow or other to be responsible for the odor.) The day Ainsley and I first noticed that the car smelled a little gassy, we were all three running errands in the car and Jason's nose didn't pick it up. We had the same conversation we've had on many occasions in our marriage, and the script goes like this:

Me: What's that smell?
Jason: What's it smell like?
Me: Like (insert some sort of foulness.)
Jason: I don't smell anything.
Me: You don't smell that?? How do you not smell that? Did you do it?

I have been known to tear the house apart, checking under furniture, flipping couch cushions, sniffing carpet and drapes and comforters to locate the source. Usually, the offending agent is a slice or two of month-old forgotten deli turkey growing penicillin in the back of the meat drawer; once it was a potato bin housing liquified tubers. With the car, I am baffled. And quite frankly disgusted.

Tomorrow is the first day of spring break for me. I am sure I will be scrubbing all surfaces of my car, Febreezing like mad, and running to Yankee Candle for a Car Jar. I hope that I find the offending agent so that I am not just covering up the odor of some decaying bit of dropped food; nothing smells worth than decay mixed with cucumber-honeydew.

And you just can't fool my sniffer. My nose knows.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Songs In the Key of Lame

Gosh, I feel old.

Last night on American Idol, the contestants had to choose a song from their birth year. Nothing will make you feel old like hearing someone sing Every Breath You Take, which I recorded off the local top 40 radio station when it was a hit and played in an endless loop for, like, a week. The contestant singing it last night was still a baby bump while I was memorizing every lyric. Sigh.

As always when I watch Idol, I found myself wondering what song I would choose if I had talent and charisma and was an Idol contender. Those kids get a lot of heat from the judges for their song choices, but during the "theme" weeks it can be tougher than it looks to meet the requirements and still pick a great song.

If I had been required to sing last night, this is the list of songs I would have had to choose from. 1974 was not a stellar year for music, it seems. That year supplied Dave Barry with quite a few of his "Bad Songs"; the choices pretty much boil down to disco or cheese.

It's really too bad none of the "classics" from 1974 are choices on my American Idol Encore game. Yes, I bought it. And it's really been an ego boost. Mostly. I am currently tackling the mode where your player can go through the entire 18 rounds of the real Idol show; each song you successfully complete gets you through that round, from the initial audition for the judges to Hollywood week to the final 12 and so on. I have one more round and then I'll (hopefully) be in the final 12. So far, Randy has told me my little digital character has given the best performance in the competition, and my crush Simon has said that I am what this competition is all about! Of course, that was before I butchered "Holiday" (who'd have thought an early Madonna song would be tough?) and was told I was "utterly forgettable." The next "week", though, I was back in form with "Lips of an Angel" (yes, I still hate that song, but it's in a great range for a girl) and Simon gave me kudos for putting my bad performance behind me and moving on. It's too fun. Sony is breaking my heart by not having the downloadable content up yet, so I may have to pick "Come Sail Away" the next time I try to advance. And if that's what I pick, chances are, I'm going to be tempted to sing it like Eric Cartman. I'm not sure if Simon will get that interpretation, but I bet it would earn me a seal clap from the digital Paula.

At any rate, it has to be better than my attempt at "Irreplaceable", which I sang in quickplay mode when we had some friends over to see the game. Beyonce I am not. To the left, to the left...Not a good song choice for me, dawg.

If you had to sing a song, any song, on an imaginary Idol stage, what would you pick? And would you rock Simon's world?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ainsley's Tagline

Friday afternoon Ainsley very proudly handed me a piece of paper.

"Mommy, I wrote something," she said.

Here's what she wrote (with some spelling corrections):

To find out more about Ainsley go to

K1 is her classroom, by the way.

You know your kid has been watching too much TV when she comes up with her own tagline.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday Funnies--Express Yourself

My kid cracks me up.

She has started writing. Not just practicing her letters, which is what she had been doing until the last week or so, but actually constructing words and even (hooray!) her first sentence.

This is not school work, mind you. This is my little pumpkin writing for the fun of it, expressing her thoughts, just like her mama. Awwww.

Yesterday afternoon she grabbed a pen and said she wanted to write something important on a picture she had just drawn. When she finished, she showed me. She had written her first unprompted complete sentence. (Well, I'm counting it as a sentence since it started with a capital letter and ended with a period.) Since, as a former English teacher, I strongly believe that writing and thinking go together, I figured I was finally going to get some insight into how that little Ainsley mind works. I looked at the paper, and here's what it said (with her spelling):

No bedspred.

Whoa. Deep.

I have no idea where this child has even picked up the word "bedspread." We call that thing you put on top of your sheets a "comforter" in my family. I asked her to read me the sentence, and she said, "No bedspread," as if to say, "Duh, mom, can't you read?It's plain as day."


On Monday, Ains had to tell a joke in front of her class. Friday afternoon I went online to try to find a simple kid joke she could easily tell; despite the crazy antics some of you have seen, she's pretty shy and speaking in front of others isn't her favorite thing to do. And if I let her choose, she would have picked her own, um, unique version of the classic banana-orange knock-knock joke. According to Ainsley, that joke goes like this:

Knock, knock
Who's there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn't say banana! (At this point, her audience is completely confused, but she's giggling like mad.)

Sigh. The subtle nuances of the real version of that joke are completely lost on her.

We found a keeper with this little gem, which tickled Ainsley when she heard it and which she could repeat back to me immediately:

What's a cat's favorite color?


Monday on the way home I asked her about her joke. She seemed sad. She said only two people laughed at her joke, and that someone in her class said it wasn't really a joke because it was a question. Seriously, some of the kids in her class need to get over themselves.

When I heard that, I regretted that she didn't tell the joke the way she told our friends Sunday night during a practice run. On that occasion, she asked the set-up question. After we all answered, "I don't know. What IS a cat's favorite color?", she got down on all fours, started meowing, and made a dramatic exit down the hall and to her bedroom. Since she was wearing purple pajamas at the time, it was kinda like performance art. Physical comedy is everyone's favorite.


If any of you have an XBox or PS3, you need to get the American Idol Encore game. I don't actually have it yet (I decided I would rather have it for PS3 than for the Wii, and you'll see why in a moment.) But if I was on the fence about purchasing it, all that changed when I saw the list of downloadable songs you can purchase in addition to the 40 songs that come with the game. Some of the choices are hi-larious when you imagine yourself or a group of your friends belting them out in your basement in front of a digitally created Simon, Randy, and (clap like a seal!) Paula. Click here to see the list. (You'll have to scroll through the other Karaoke Revolution games lists to get to the Encore list.)

Karen--Chattahoochee! OMG!

I will get to unleash my inner Britney Spears! I can duet with the hubby on "You're the One That I Want" and that roller-rink slow-skate classic, "Endless Love"! I will finally see the official lyrics for "It's the End of the World As We Know It"! And the Nickelback! Oh my God, the Nickelback!

Have a great Easter (which I originally typed as "Eater"--got Reese's peanut butter eggs on the brain) weekend, y'all.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

An Introduction to Grief

I'm finding it really hard to write the last 2 days. I started something night before last, but I couldn't concentrate on anything long enough yesterday to edit and post. And in light of what happened at our school, it seemed trivial.

We lost a student at our school yesterday morning. I didn't know the kid by name, but once I saw his pictureI knew who he was and remembered that he'd been in the library quite a bit this year. In fact, on Tuesday afternoon I had sent him back to class after I had found him roaming down here without a note from his teacher. Even though I've learned this lesson many times before, I was a little shaken up by the fact that someone can be walking, talking, living, and breathing one afternoon, and be gone before the sunrise the next morning. It's not supposed to work that way for someone so young.

Our counselors and administrators used the library as a crisis center yesterday. From the first bell through around lunchtime, the library was a place where groups of students could gather to grieve and receive counseling. I've never heard anything like it; his whole first period class gathered here yesterday morning and those who didn't already know were given the news. The sobs I heard were heartwrenching; these kids, in many cases, were being given their first introduction to mortality and loss. I don't think I saw any students "faking it", at least not in the first hour of the day; these young people were genuinely hurting.

When his English teacher came in, visibly shaken and upset, it took me back to my first year teaching when I lost a 9th-grade student. On a beautiful Monday morning in May, I was met outside my room by one of my former school's counselors. She told me one of my freshmen had died Sunday morning in a senseless car accident. I was stunned. I was 23 years old, fresh out of college, and had never been faced with the death of a young person. The counselor patted my shoulder, told me to let the kids in her period talk about it, asked me to send anyone down who was visibily upset, and left. "Jessica didn't have a very big circle of friends," I remember her saying. "You should be fine if you just leave her desk empty for a while and let the kids talk about it if they need to."

Problem was, I wasn't so fine. The counselor hadn't briefed me on what to do if I fell apart. This student had been one of my struggling students, but unlike many I had that year, she admitted that she needed help and really wanted to pass. I had worked with her a little after school and had helped her go through draft after draft on her two major writing pieces that year. Helping her had been one of my biggest challenges that year. And then she was gone. At fifteen years old.

I had Jessica 5th period, so I had practically all day to prepare for her class. What the counselor told me, that she didn't travel in a large circle, didn't matter. Students in my other freshmen classes came in bleary-eyed, solemn, tearful. They had just lost one of their own. Whether they knew her or not, they were in shock. One of her good friends was in one of my morning classes, and when I stood in front of them and asked if anyone needed to talk, or say anything, this poor girl who had hardly said "Boo" all school year tearfully opened up with how much she was going to miss Jessica, and how unfair it was. I felt myself welling up. Oh, God, I thought. I'm not going to make it. I'm going to lose it in front of this class.

But then I was saved. "...and she hated your class," she said, at the end of her impromptu eulogy. And the whole class, myself included, busted out laughing. It felt so good to laugh at that moment. "No, no," the friend said, laughing in spite of herself, "I don't mean that she hated you. She just struggled so much with reading and writing, but she was working so hard and she was trying so hard to pass. She liked you. She just didn't like English. But she was excited because she thought she was going to pass." And then we all grew quiet again; we were talking about her in the past tense.

Later in the day I had to stand in front of her empty chair in the front row of my classroom. None of those normally chatty kids wanted to talk that day, about anything; not about Jessica, not about what we were half-heartedly studying, not to each other when they thought I wasn't looking. But they all kept glancing at her chair.

A few days later when I wanted to go to the funeral, my assistant principal said, "Oh, that's good. We need to be represented there." And then he told me I would have to find my own coverage and use half a personal day for it. Not another of Jessica's teachers came to the funeral.

The way my current school is handling this student's death is so much bettter. They've acknoweldged that more people need to grieve than those who were in the student's closest circle of friends. They've acknoweldged that his teachers are going to need to be checked on, too, and that it should be easy for those teachers to attend his service so that they can pay their respects and say goodbye. They've realized that the first time we lose someone we know who's our own age, it shocks us; there, but for the grace of God, go I. Kids think they're going to live forever, and it's a blow when they see that they're mortal and that their actions can have the worst of consequences.

It was a pretty rough day yesterday, being surrounded by grief. There were times, when a fresh wave of sobs came up, that it was more than I could take and I had to step into the office (which was a different kind of horrible, with parents calling to check on their kids and offer them some kind of comfort.) But today we as a school are teaching the most important lesson of all when it comes to loss: life must, and will, go on.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sleepless in Kentucky

My favorite site to browse during my morning Coke break, Entertainment Weekly, has an interesting discussion going on on its Popwatch blog. One of the bloggers is discussing a book he's reading that has him so scared he's having trouble sleeping. You can check it out here. Apparently, this book he's reading has a bad guy who uses spiders as a murder weapon, among other things; that pretty much insures that I will never pick up that particular tome.

I've talked a couple of times about how I love me a good scary movie. But reading this blog and the readers' comments has me thinking about a few good scares I've had from literary sources.

The grand master of insomnia fiction will always be Stephen King. I started reading him way too young (thanks for introducing me to Cujo in 7th grade, DD!) That introduction, even though it featured a creature I'm a little afraid of (I'll confess, big dogs cause me great anxiety), didn't freak me out. My next trip to King World, Pet Sematary, did.

It's not so much that Pet Sematary caused me not to sleep. It's that it caused what is, to this day, one of the most real and horrible nightmares I've ever had. It pretty much messed me up for the entirety of my 8th grade year.

I read it in the summer before 8th grade. No, I take that back; I devoured it in the summer before 8th grade. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading "just one more chapter." The night I finished I drifted off into the most vivid dream of my life. In the dream, I was walking across my side lawn in the dark toward my house. It seemed like it took me forever to get across the lawn, as if I had weights attached to my legs. I was wearing an itchy pink dress and in the dream I couldn't understand why I was wearing that. I lifted my hand to knock on my own door, and in the pale light, I could see that my skin was a funny color. (Yes, I remember all this. I'm telling you, this experience has stuck with my for a 2 decades.) When my mom answered the door, she didn't exactly look happy to see me there. I didn't get it. She said, "This isn't right. You're not supposed to be here." I realized I was dead, and the pink dress was what I had been buried in, and when I saw my own face in the mirror opposite our door, I could see that I had begun to decay.

I woke up in my own bed, drenched in sweat, not sure if I was awake or asleep or alive or dead. I started to sob. The next day after I had been moping around for hours, Mom asked me what was wrong. I started crying again and explained the dream and cried some more. Mom had heard my sister talk about Pet Sematary after she had read it, and knew the basic plot outline: people die, their loved ones bury them in a creepy Indian burial ground, the supernatural soil brings them back to life but not the way they were before. She told me if I was going to let what I read bother me so much, I shouldn't read scary books any more. Looking back, she had a point.

Instead of seeing that the book was messing with my subconsious and planting ideas into my fertile imagination, I started interpreting this dream to mean that I was going to die. I started telling my friends and family how much I cared about them and even wrote a little will and stuck it in my bedside table just in case (I was really concerned about who was going to get my stuffed animals and Guess overalls.) For the better part of a year, I stayed awake in bed at night thinking about death and our own mortality and wondered for the first time if there really was an afterlife or if this life is all we have. That book really screwed me up. Then I started reading It, and got worried that an evil clown was going to start talking to me through the bathroom drains, but that's whole different story.

Now that I'm a mom, I can't read things like Pet Sematary. If a kid dies in anything I read or watch, that's it; I bail out. Unfortunately, some scenes in Pet have lingered in my brain and re-surface from time to time in my parental consciousness like the skeletons in the pool in Poltergeist; there's a horrific scene in the book where the father goes to the cemetery to dig up his toddler son's body, and the gruesome details hit the maternal-love-bearing centers in my brain like a brick upside the head any time I hear a news story about a child's death. Those are the times that I grab Ainsley and hold her tight and pray that I go a long time before she does.

I didn't get scared in a life-altering way by a book again for a good fifteen years. Then, during radiation, when I was already a little vulnerable to scares because I was taking Vicodin syrup for the pain caused by a radiation-scorched throat, I picked up The Mothman Chronicles. I had seen the movie and was less than scared by that, so when a friend recommended the nonfiction book, I gave it a shot. The image of the red, glowing eyes of the Mothman haunted me during middle-of-the-night bathroom trips; I just knew if I looked out the bathroom window I was going to see those eyes. So I turned on my bedroom light every time I had to get up in the night, driving my husband crazy. I would then close my eyes once I got into our bathroom so that I didn't chance seeing anything out the window. Then I would spring into the bedroom, turn off the light, and bury my head in the covers until I fitfully drifted back to sleep. Vicodin + a scary nonfiction account of supernatural harbingers of death and men in black = paranoia. Remember that.

It didn't help when, shortly after reading the part of the book dealing with government conspiracy, aliens, and the MIB, I reached for the phone to give the friend who recommended it to me a call and heard silence instead of a dial tone. The hairs on my neck stood up because I could tell it wasn't a dead phone line; someone was on the other end. "Hello?" I said, hoping I was wrong. I heard my friend's voice saying, "Hello?" I just about jumped out of my skin. Apparently, she had decided to call me and had just dialed my number when I picked up our phone wanting to call her. Even with that logical explanation, we both got freaked out and were convinced that the little men in black knew we had been discussing Mothman and had tapped our phone lines. We're easily spooked that way.

Now it's your turn. What books have really done a number on you and your subconscious? Has there ever been a book that scared you into sleeplessness? Talk back!

Monday, March 17, 2008

I Feel Your Pain. No, Really. I Do.

Is anyone watching American Idol?

Of course you are. It's only, like, the top rated show. And we're still waiting for everything to reboot from the writers' strike. If you're not watching it, may I ask what you are watching? 'Cause sometimes I just can't handle the Idol.

See, I have this little problem. I get embarrassed for people who can't get embarrassed for themselves. So, during at least one performance every Idol, I get so embarrassed for somebody that I start counting the ridges in our textured ceiling.

I know everyone suffers from cringe-itis to some degree. (Well, maybe not the "reporters" on The Daily Show. Those people have a superhuman tolerance for awkwardness and humiliation.) But I suffer to such an extent that I've been known to tear up at karaoke bars for people who are just so God-awful but think they're terrific and have no idea that the audience is laughing at them. Seriously, my eyes started watering once when Jason and I went for a night out with his co-workers. One clueless girl that he used to work with (she was that person we all have in our workplace who annoys everybody) put her entire heart and soul into a rendition of "Wide Open Spaces" that was so off-key-but-earnest that I had to bury my head into my hands. I could not look at her. When I came up for air, I realized I was crying a little. I get that worked up and uncomfortable for people who are living train wrecks.

It really doesn't matter whether the cringe-worthy act is intentional or un-. I love The Office. And I know it's not real. But I watch about a quarter of each episode through parted fingers because I can't stand the awkwardness. Steve Carrell is truly the master of uncomfortable comedy. Too bad I miss half his work because I have to look away.

For a while there, I was a big fan of Crank Yankers and the Comedy Central British candid-camera import Trigger-Happy T.V. But I think it annoyed Jason when I had to put my fingers in my ears for most of it. I knew it was time to stop watching when I began to fast-forward through all the "good parts" of our TiVoed episodes. There's only so much of the "tricking the ignorant and unsuspecting" that I can take.

It's not just limited to arts and entertainment. As a teacher, I have to sit through a lot of faculty meetings and professional development workshops. There's always that one teacher who believes with all her heart that the only stupid question is the one not asked. So she asks questions throughout the meeting. A lot of questions. By about the third inane question that makes the teachers around me start exhanging knowing looks, I find myself suddenly becoming very interested in my shoes.

In any season of American Idol, I am going to find myself unable to watch several times. There's always the one really, awfully bad audition in the first weeks where the singer starts arguing with the judges' assessment of his awfulness instead of skulking out of the room in humiliation. I don't feel sorry for him because he thinks he's God's gift to the pop world and completely unaware of his lack of skill, but my nature compels me to get so embarrassed for him that I have to leave the room. Then there's at least one time after they've whittled it down to the 12 "best" singers when someone makes a song choice or tackles an arrangement that defies logic. If you watch, I bet you can guess the two performances last week that caused me to stick my fingers in my ears and go, "LA LA LA LA LA LA! I DON'T HEAR YOU!"

There must be an embarrassment gene. I don't know if I've ever seen Jason have to look away from an awkward situation, and I honestly don't think he has a "most embarrassing moment." He can laugh at himself and others easily. And then there's me, who turns red and flees when complete strangers make asses out of themselves.

So, for all of you who are incapable of feeling uncomfortable or humiliated: keep singing on national TV loudly and proudly, continue doing "fake" interviews with crazy people who apparently have no idea that you work for Jon Stewart or that you are getting paid to make of them, and keep making Dunder Mifflin's Michael Scott the bastion of awkwardly confident office incompetence that he is. When you can't get embarrassed for yourself, I will get embarrassed for you. Keep on entertaining us, even if we have to sometimes look away.

Friday, March 14, 2008

To Catch A Leprechaun

When I was in kindergarten, the only "family project" I ever remember bringing home to work on with my family was learning how to tie my shoes. Never terribly gifted in the manual dexterity department, I wore a pair of zip-up boots all winter in kindergarten and into the spring because I couldn't tie my tennis shoes and hated it when they came untied on the playground. My mom thought my boots were cute, and because she was a fairly laid-back parent, she let me wear them every day. Come May when I came to school wearing my brown leather calf-high cow kickers with a pair of shorts, the teacher decided it was time to send me home with the wooden shoe to get my parents' help in learning the elusive art of tying.

It's a new age. In Ainsley's 3 grading periods as a kindergartner, she's come home with several "family projects." As an educator myself, I've been a firm believer that kids should do their own projects. It's painfully obvious when the parent does the project for the kid. I had a child turn in a popsicle-stick replica of the Globe theater once when I was teaching that probably could have won an award in Architectural Digest. I looked at this little freshman girl handing it to me, was about ready to cry because she had been failing and the loads of extra credit I was about ready to give her for putting what had to have been hours and hours of work into this was going to pull her up to passing, when her friend said, "Isn't that awesome? Her dad frames houses and helped her with that." Helped, you say. When the kid failed the Shakespeare test that followed, missing even the question I had about the name of Shakespeare's theater (DUH!), it confirmed that the kid had learned nothing from my extra-credit assignment because her dad did it for her.

Ainsley's first family project was to go out and collect autumn leaves and make a leaf creature. I turned her loose on it, and it only took an hour on one gorgeous Saturday. Her creature was about what you'd expect from a handful of leaves, a 5-year-old, and some glue. When I volunteered at her school a week later, I stopped to check out the display of her classmates' creatures. My jaw dropped. One creature had a waterpaint backdrop that susiciously looked like the work of someome who had taken art classes. Another creature was made with layers and layers of leaves, so the creature literally popped off the page in three dimensional realism. Some creatures had googly eyes glued with the symmetry and precision a 5-year-old does not possess. Then there was Ainsley's "bird", a study in minimalism featuring 5 leaves glued in a T-shape. Go, us!

So we have made the rest of her projects true "family" projects. Which means Jason and I help. A lot. (Don't judge me! She can learn by watching!)

The most recent one was by far the most frustrating. We had to construct (and I am quoting from the assignment paper here) a foolproof leprechaun trap. No larger than 18 x 18. That your child can set up on his/her own and explain to the class. Riiiiiiight.

I thought and thought and thought about it. And before I knew it, it was the week it was due and I was in a panic. And then Ainsley got strep, and missed a day, and we were screwed.

So here's what she went to school with today (get ready to marvel at my genius and creativity):

We (I) "borrowed" a paper box from my school (which we raided at 4:00 yesterday afternoon) and covered it with red, yellow, blue, green, and purple contruction paper to make a rainbow on all four sides of it. Then I constructed a stick from some leftover cardboard from a large shipping box. I tied some twine around the "stick", bought some chocolate gold coins to put in the propped box as bait, and voila! Ainsley thought it was very cool and spent most of the evening practicing yanking the stick out to drop the box and catch the leprechaun. I kept looking at it thinking, "Oh, lord. That's truly pitiful and unoriginal."

I watched her get on the bus today, and saw how proud she was of her trap. She will be proud of it until she gets to class to do her little demo today, and the kid ahead of her shows off some contraption his dad made with steel bars that drop down over a trap made from lightweight virgin pine that's voice-activated and laced with leprechaun pheromones.

I hope that by the time her school projects get to be truly complicated, she's developed some artistic and creative ability that will allow her to turn an ordinary shoebox into something worth of oohs and aahs. Because if she's counting on me to turn popsicle sticks into to-scale representations of English-renaissance theaters, she's SOL. The best I can offer is a poorly decorated paper box and a stick.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Frequent Flyer Miles on the Strep Wagon

I had worked on a blog entry earlier about some irrelevant crap that I thought was making my day so boo-hoo miserable, and just as I was editing it this afternoon my daughter's school called to say she was suddenly running a fever of 102 and not acting like herself. Crap.

So we went to the doctor, who initally didn't want a strep culture, because it was so clearly a virus that's going around. But I know her patterns. She's had strep two other times since last June. Mommies know. When they did the hideous swabbing thing, and the doctor came in the room five minutes later to say, with complete surprise, "Whadda ya know! The first positive today," I almost stood up and cheered, "I frickin' told ya so!" But Ainsley looked like the creature from the black lagoon, so I found it hard to get very enthusiastic.

And here we are. My mom, the usual suspect for sick-day babysitter, is on vacation, so I'll be home with the kid tomorrow.

I started this year thinking I would actually carry some sick days over...what the heck was I smokin'?

Ahh...working mommy-dom.

Monday, March 10, 2008

School Fundraisers and Jello Shots

Sometimes I love being kinda Catholic.

Yesterday afternoon my friend and I attended Ainsley's school's biggest fundraiser of the year, the Spring Stagette. I had heard it was a must-attend thing, with music, cocktails, a catered dinner, silent auction items, door prizes, and raffles. I hadn't heard about the Jello shots.

I was raised Protestant. Southern Baptist/Pentecostal to be exact. But we didn't attend church regularly because my mom, a socially liberal lady who never fit the Pentecostal mold with her short, trendy hair, ample eye makeup, cussing, and occasional imbibing of margaritas, took issue with some of the strict mandates of her childhood church. The churches we occasionally attended when I was a kid all preached about the evils of alcohol. Having a drink was tantamount to dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. My mother's evangelical family eyed those papist communion-wine-taking Catholics with suspicion; any worship service that integrates a sip of wine seemed a little fishy. During my sister's Catholic wedding and liquour-filled reception in the church basement, my great-aunt leaned in to my mom and said, with complete sincerity, "I hope the Lord doesn't come tonight, because I don't think any of us would be called." Drinking was considered evil, church was acred; the two were not meant at any time to blend together.

When I converted to Catholicism, I appreciated what I see as a healthier view of alcohol: moderation. It didn't take long to get used to having draft beer served at most adult-focused church functions like bingo, festivals, and fish fries; after all, I'd been to college. I was aware that people like to drink.

So I wasn't surprised last night when I stepped up to the bar in the church undercroft and saw 2 varieties of beer on tap. I wasn't even surprised to see someone mixing and serving bourbon slushes. I was a little surprised when a server walked around with a tray of Jello shots and encouraged each woman in attendance to have a couple.

This being a charity event that relied on modified forms of gambling, I suppose there was a Vegas mentality; get the people drunk, and they'll be more free with their money. Judging by the sheer amount I saw some of these women tip back, and the outrageous number of dollar-raffle tickets many of the well-marinated were carrying around...I think it worked.

My friend and I had a drink or two before the meal was served; we were there for five hours, so why not? We both stopped several hours before the event was over in the interest of being safe drivers. But I just couldn't get into Jello shots on a Sunday afternoon. After about the third time a volunteer came around with a tray of them, I took a few to stash in my purse to take home to Jason (they were packaged into cute little plastic condiment cups with lids for ultra portability.) When I offered them to him as a thank-you for watching the kid while I had a girls' day out, he looked at me like I was crazy. Either we're too old for Jello shots, or they're not appropriate for a school night, I guess. Maybe both.

It all created an atmosphere I've never encountered at a school function before. It was like a big ol-party. Because it was a big ol' party. I'm starting to wonder what the PTA meetings are like. If they would open the beer taps for those, I would run for president.

It's probably going to start an annual tradition, which I hadn't been counting on. I figured I would pay the admission, make an appearance, and leave within two hours. School functions organized by overly-cheerful PTA moms are generally not my thing.

This was different, though. Those Catholic-school moms really know how to party.

The Pseudo-Blizzard of '08

Wow. We survived. And we only missed a half of a day of school.

For those of you who do not dwell in the Ohio Valley, we got a foot-plus of snow dumped on us this weekend. My informal measurements from our deck indicated that we got 14 inches; some isolated pockets in the area received even more than that. For most of Saturday morning we were under a "blizzard warning", though I don't think we met all the criteria for a full-scale blizzard. But it was close enough for me.

Amazingly, we are back at school today. The sun came out yesterday and heated the roads enough to clean up any icy patches left behind by the plows and the salt trucks. Except for some monster piles of dirty plowed snow at the edges of yards and in parking lots, you really can't tell that we were under a Level 3 snow emergency (Level 3 meaning, "Stay your butt off the roads unless you want to get arrested.")

It was the biggest snow of Ainsley's life, so when the snow stopped Saturday afternoon we took her out to play in it while we dug out the driveway. The first thing she did was to plop face-down in the snow. It's not how I would have chosen to make a snow angel, but she said she wanted to feel the snow on her face. To each her own, I guess.

The worst of it for me was Friday morning. The powers that be in our district decided to plan for an early dismissal rather than a cancellation, even though the forecast was for the snow to start mid-morning Friday and to accumulate to a couple of slushy inches by noon. By the time the snow started falling (and I haven't seen snow fall like that in years), it became painfully obvious that our buses were not going to be able to get kids home safely at the previously scheduled time. So we were dismissed at 11 to navigate snow-covered rural and residential roads. I was fine until the steep hill leading into my subdivision. Midway up, with my little car in the lowest gear and with me trying to stay in the tracks of cars that had gone before, tires started spinning. After a few seconds of panic in which I thought I was going to have to abandon the car and walk, I called my husband for advice. He stated the obvious: put it in reverse, back down a little, and try again, slow and steady. Duh. Why didn't I think of that? (Perhaps because Ainsley had started to freak out and cry by that time.)

Not quite a "big one" like the blizzard of '78, but still one for the record books: it was the highest snowfall total our area has ever seen in the month of March.

Spring cannot get here soon enough.

Friday, March 7, 2008

D-Day, The Conclusion

The conclusion...

The voice on the other end was my doctor's. He seemed grim. The CT scan showed multiple swollen lymph nodes in my chest, with the largest being a 6.5-centimeter mass under my right arm. I was anemic, and my white cell count was alarmingly high. He paused.

"What does that mean?"

"You have cancer. It appears to be some kind of lymphoma. If I had to guess, I would say it's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but we'll have to biopsy it to be sure."

"How long do I have? Will I get over this, or is this it?"

I felt my world shudder. Lights got very bright, and I was very conscious of my students just on the other side of my office window, looking in at me. I knew my assistant had dropped what she was doing and was listening. I grabbed the edge of my desk to keep a grip on something real.I could tell my young doctor, himself a parent of a young child, didn't know what to say. He struggled to say something reassuring.

"Lymphomas as a whole are very treatable. The five-year survival rates are very good."

I latched on to the words, "five years." In five years my baby would be a little girl on her way to kindergarten. Five years was everything and nothing all at the same time. And I might not even have that.

The next minutes are a blur. I was given two surgeons' names by my doctor, told to call my insurance and find out if one of them was in-network, and to call him back as soon as possible with my choice so that he could schedule the surgery for me for the following week. "Time is of the essence," I remember him saying.

I remember that my assistant principal, a wonderful woman who is now my principal, was at my side before I even knew I had told anybody what was going on. She asked if I wanted a ride home, asked if I needed to talk to anybody, asked if there was anythimg she could do.

"I want to go home," I said. "And then I can come back later for parent teacher conferences."

My assistant principal assured me that me coming back for conferences was the least of her worries at the moment, and that I needed to stay home and be with my family. At the time, though, I didn't want to have to tell anyone I loved.

The phone rang again, and the caller ID showed the last person I wanted to talk to right then: my mother. Mom was our in-house day-care provider at that time, and when I saw my own home number, I knew. The doctor had called home before he called me at work. And she was the one who gave him my work number. Mom's smart; she knows what it means when a doctor calls you in person at work three days after a CT scan.

"I'm on my way home. I'll talk to you about it when I get home. Don't worry."

"I'm your mother. I know something's going on. Just tell me."

I did, and I can't even describe the noise she made. It was a quiet, low cry that I'd never heard before. I can put myself in my mom's shoes that day and know what that sound she made was. It's the noise you make when your soul dies a little because you think you're going to lose a child.

For some reason that no longer makes sense to me, I decided to call my husband at work before I left school. His response was just one word: "No." And the way he said it was so certain. No, you don't have cancer. The doctor's wrong. This is all just a scary mistake. I kinda believed him.

I drove myself home, and somehow survived the trip. I had found that both recommended surgeons were in-network, so by the time I got home my mother had gotten another call from my doctor with dates and times for an appointment with the surgeon, pre-op testing, and a same-day surgical biopsy.

Over the next week and a half, I bravely told family and friends that I had cancer. I worked right up until the day of the surgery. I finally let myself break down in the surgeon's office when a physician assistant listed all the areas of swollen lymph nodes, including the one under my sternum that I couldn't see or feel and didn't know was there. I went in for my very first surgery. I reacted badly to the anesthesia and threw up for 24 hours, becoming so weak my mother had to bathe me and dress me. I sat in the surgeon's office with my husband on March 7, and he casually put a piece of paper into my husband's hand. Hodgkin's lymphoma, nodular sclerosing. It finally had a name. I was told it was the cancer you want if you have to have cancer.

Once it had a name, and once we knew for sure that this wasn't just an unfortunate bit of overreacting by a new doctor, I resolved to fight. The same day I got the biopsy results I scheduled an appointment with my stylist to turn my long hair into a pixie cut (and God love her, she didn't even bat any eye when I brought a Bud Light with me to that after-hours appointment and got a little buzz as I got a buzz.) One afternoon, my mom crawled into bed with me as I was napping and brought me a wig catalog, which we looked through together. Okay, I thought. This sucks, but it's not as bad as it can be. I can be treated. I can have some time. Other people have beat it. I can, too.

I was angry for a long time. Angry that my first doctors had failed me. Angry that I hadn't paid better attention to my own body and that I had ignored red flags. Angry at God for giving me the daughter I'd always wanted, then threatening to not let me live to see her grown. Angry at the chemo and radiation that saved my life but for a few months made it close to not worth living. Angry when I developed lymphedema, a complication that probably wouldn't have developed if the cancer had been caught before I had disfiguringly huge nodes that caused scar tissue under both arms.

It's been five years since the diagnosis today. I'm not really angry anymore. I think most things happens for a reason, and there is a reason why my diagnosis was missed. I'm strong, but could I have handled being treated for cancer days after my child was born? And could I have handled knowing I was sick while I was pregnant but being unable to start treatment until the baby had been delivered? I don't know. I was never given the chance to find out. And maybe that's for the best. When I was finally diagnosed, I was in a position to fight, with the most precious thing in the world to fight for: my daughter.

While not the biggest day on my calendar, it's worthy of remembering. It's worthy of a beer (as so many days are.)

Five years since diagnosis...

And I'm still here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Out of the Mouth of Ains, Smart-Ass Fashionista Edition

Because I was under the influence of muscle relaxers yesterday, I had Ainsley stay a couple of hours at her school's after-care program until I was "sober" enough to drive. As usual after a couple of hours of running around, her cheeks were bright red when I picked her up and she was complaining about being hot.

"If you were hot, why didn't you take your sweater off?"

"Because I like the way I look in it."

She's already sacrificing comfort for beauty at age 5.

She showed her smarty-pants side a few hours later at bedtime. She was a little rowdy last night as we went through the night-time routine, frequently dancing and singing and hollering as she got her bath, got PJs on, and got under the covers.

When she started giggling after her bedtime prayer, I said in my sternest Mommy voice, "That's it. It's bedtime. I don't want to hear another peep out of you."

I crossed her room to turn off the aquarium light, and as I was almost to her door, I heard her say, very quietly,



Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Pain in the Neck

I am BUI this afternoon. Blogging Under the Influence. Of a strong muscle relaxer. Woooot.

A couple of times a year, I get muscle spasms in by upper back and neck. Usually a hot corn bag (if you don't own one of these, and have any kind of muscle aches, you really need to get one) and some Alleve knock it out after a day of stiffness. So yesterday when I woke up with the telltale pulling sensation in my trapezius, and a limited range of motion in my neck, I took my Alleve and stretched and heated right after work. But things just got worser and worser.

This morning, I couldn't lift my head off the pillow without screaming. I couldn't look down. I couldn't raise my right arm. I couldn't look to the right. I couldn't look down (wait, I said that already, but that's what gave me the worst pain, so it's worth repeating.) I was in agony. I finally understood why so many celebrities with "back problems" get hooked on pain killers and wind up in Betty Ford. I would have taken any little pill anybody threw at me to make that pain go away. Percocet? Yes, please. Vicodin? If it's good enough for House, it's good enough for me.

I got in with my office's physician assistant, who broke it to me gently.

"I can give you a shot in the muscle," she said apologetically, as though she had just given me really bad news. I know some people have extreme needle issues (looking at you, DD!) and would have gotten their coats and left right then and there. But I didn't care. She could have told me she had to perform surgery without anesthesia right there in the office, and I would have given her my blessing if it meant relief.

So, I got my shot. Which had a numbing agent in it, so for 5 minutes I had bliss. Then I got my muscle relaxers. And, oh, the muscle relaxers.

So, that's as much writing as I can do today. I wouldn't want this to stiffen back up. And I wouldn't want to write anything incriminating while under the influence.

More of my cancer diagnosis flashback tomorrow, for anyone who's been into that. It's more for me than for an audience, to make peace with the hell I went through, but I appreciate those of you have contacted me off-blog to offer your congratulations. Bear with me, then I'll be back to the cranky-mom stuff soon.

Signing off, to enjoy some medicinal side effects!


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

D-Day, Part 2

Continued from March 3

By the time the ball dropped to bring in 2003, motherhood had gotten a little easier. I was still getting up in the middle of the night to feed our rapidly-growing baby, but she was beginning to sleep in her own bed and to give me blocks of sleep longer than the 2 hours that were the norm the first 3 months of her life. But things were about to change: I had to go back to work.

Winter 2003 was the polar (ha!) opposite of winter 2002. From January through February, we didn't have a full week of school. Every week brought bad weather and at least one snow day. For a new mom, this was perfect. It was like working part-time.

Not that work itself was easy. My new library had just been completed, and I only had until mid-February to unpack 10,000 books and a thousand videos and countless pieces of equipment. I chalked a lot of my fatigue to the stress of organizing a new facility. I got out of breath easily; I thought it was because I was out of shape. My body, my legs in particular, ached as though I had the flu; I thought it was muscle strain. Even after we got Ainsley into a good routine and she finally started sleeping through the night, I was tired all the time and wanted to nap whenever she did. I got a terrible chest cold in mid-January that knocked me out and made me miss two days of school; I had never missed more than one day for a cold before. And then the itching started. I felt like armies of ants were moving under the skin on my arms and legs. I scratched bloody welts into my skin. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, running and running and getting nowhere. But what working mom doesn't feel that way?

My insurance had changed with the new year, and by February I was concerned enough about my health to see a doctor. I had called the lactation consultant when by Christmas the lumps under my arms were still sometimes painful and always huge; she referred me to a breast specialist who talked to me over the phone and thought the lumps were probably extra breast tissue still swollen from hormones, recommended a surgical evaluation if the lumps still hurt after I stopped nursing, and mentioned that I should see my primary care doctor. Problem was, my PCP was not on my new insurance plan. I randomly picked a new doctor from a large internal medicine practice close by; the main thing he had going for him was that he was accepting new patients. I scheduled an initial appointment.

I look at that one thing, that random selection of a new primary care physician, basically picking a name off of a long list, as one of the most fate-guided things I have ever done. If I had picked another doctor, I don't know if I would be sitting here writing this today.

I met my new doctor on a snow day in February. My chief complaint was the horrific itching I had suffered with that winter. He examined my skin, drew up orders for some blood work to check my thyroid, and was just about to send me on my way when I mentioned my lumps.

I mentioned them solely for him to put on my chart in the event I needed the surgery the breast specialist had mentioned to me. I remember the look he got on his face when I told him, with complete confidence and certainty, that the growing masses under each arm were breast tissue.

"Did your obstetrician ever image that? Ultrasound? MRI?" he asked. Of course they hadn't. Why would they when it was so obvious what was going on?

I also told him about the "milk ducts" swollen all across my chest. When he felt the knots above my collarbone, his demeanor changed. "I don't think that's breast tissue," he said, "I think those are lymph nodes," and wrote an order for a CT scan of my neck and chest and a complete blood count.

I appreciated his thoroughness, even though I knew it was going to hurt our wallets. We had a high deductible and co-insurance percentage on tests and surgeries through Jason's insurance, and I almost cancelled the CT scan the day before the appointment because I knew we would be out hundreds of dollars from that one test. But I figured they might be able to use those films later if I had to have my "breast tissue" removed.

The Monday after the blood tests and scans, February 24th, I got a call from the nurse that my white cell count was extremely high, and my red count very low, and that to make sure it wasn't lab error, I had to have the test repeated. When she told me my counts, I jotted them down to look up later on everyone's favorite medical resource, the Google. What I read made my heart jump. Counts like those usually meant leukemia. I told myself there was a mistake, had more blood drawn, and prepared for the 25th, which was parent-teacher conference night and an open house for the community to come see our new library.

I was very busy on that day. Too busy to worry about my tests. I decorated the library, made sure all boxes were unpacked, and put the finishing touches on my handouts. With a little over an hour left in the school day, I heard the phone in my office ring.

To be continued...

Monday, March 3, 2008


This week marks the 5-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Hooray?

I've gone back and looked at calendars to try to determine the exact date, because for whatever reason, I can't hold on to those numbers in my head. Most cancer survivors red-letter the diagnosis and remission dates and mark them every year; the only date I am ever able to remember as late winter/early spring comes around is the anniversary of my first chemo, and that's because it's the same date as another landmark event in my life, which the uninitiated can read all about here and here.

So February 25 marks the unofficial diagnosis day, the day that my doctor called me to give me the preliminary results of the CT scan and blood tests. March 7 is the day I got the official results of the biopsy handed to me by my surgeon.

I don't make a big deal out of these days (not big enough to remember them off the top of my head) because for me the big day to celebrate will be the 5-year anniversary of the day my remission was confirmed by a second biopsy(July 25, 2008--mark your calendars! I'm gonna party like it's 1999!) But seeing as how many of you readers have never gotten the full story of the worst surprise I've ever gotten in my life, just my revisionist history of it (I've glossed over some of the gorier details in talking about it the last few years because I don't want to get consumed by bitterness, anger, and regret), let's honor Cranky's D-Days with the true, unabridged story. Can you handle the truth?

Early June of 2002 was a good time for me. Following the mildest, most snow-day-free winter I've ever had in my teaching career, we were out of school before Memorial Day (even with my extended employment days.) I was moving into the third trimester of my pregnancy, and I was thrilled. I knew I was having a girl, my friends at work had already thrown me a shower, the baby was healthy, the all-consuming nausea I had had the first 4 months had gone away, and I could feel the baby move happily around in my swollen (but still small enough to be cute) belly. I was extremely tired, though, and got every cold that went around, but I thought I felt pretty good. My due date was Labor Day (oh, the irony) but I had a feeling the baby would come early enough that I would not be returning to school those first days of the new school year; I was looking at a break from work that could possibly last until after the holidays.

The first week of my super-long summer break saw me lounging in bed well into the morning, eating peanut butter and graham crackers with chocolate milk (my strongest pregnancy craving) whenever I darn well pleased, and buying the supplies to start painting the nursery. One morning that week, though, I woke up in pain; my right armpit felt bruised and sore. I investigated and was immediately in panic mode. I had a lump the size of a ping-pong ball under my right arm. This can't be good, I thought, and called my obstetrician's office. After all, my body was doing some weird things, swelling in a lot of different areas, and so far every oddity had been pregnany-related. I assumed this was, too.

Over the phone, one of the seven doctors in my Ob/Gyn group diagnosed the problem as a clogged milk duct. This made sense to me. My previously tiny chest had gotten rather, um, voluptuous. (Oh, if only it had stayed that way!) I was already having to wear protective pads in my bras because I was already producing milk (oddly enough, from the right side, the same as the lump.) I didn't question. I was told to ice the area, take Tylenol for the pain, and to show it to the next doctor I saw in my rotations through the group at my prenatal visits. And to watch for symptoms of infection.

So, I iced. The lump never got any smaller, but the pain slacked off. And it provided for some fun show-and-tell with my girlfriends and the women in my family. Unlike my other pregnancy side effects, though, I never heard any of these women confirm the doctor's diagnosis by saying, "Oh, yeah, I had that same thing when I was pregnant."

That summer was the hottest I could remember. It was not a good summer to be pregnant. My limbs swole to proportions that stopped strangers in the street who told me on more than one occasion to go get my blood pressure checked. My blood pressure was always fine, but my doctors were a little baffled by how much fluid I was retaining. They never seemed baffled by my lump, though. Every doctor in the practice had seen it by August, and all agreed: milk duct. One doctor alarmed me by saying, "I'm 90% sure this isn't cancer." Was that even an option? For once, the hypochondriac in me hadn't assumed a malady was cancer. He never brought up the option of getting any images done, though, or blood tests, or sending me to my regular doctor for a second opinion. Everyone was so sure. So I was sure, too.

I worked a few weeks through a temp agency to squirrel a little money away to fund my extra-long maternity leave (I always said I would take a full semester off with each baby I had, and hubby thankfully agreed.) When I wasn't at work, or in our friends' well-air-conditioned basement playing darts, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I was pregnant, and huge, so I didn't think too much of it.

During our childbirth classes, I also had a lactation consultant look at my swelling under-arm lump. She confirmed that it was fine, though she did give me a deadline that may have ended up saving my life: if the lump was still there several months after the baby was born, after my milk had come in and feeding had become routine, go have it checked out.

By late summer, you couldn't ignore the lump. All summer I wore sleeveless tops to combat the heat, and when I brought my arms down to my sides the pressure smooshed the lump out to where it popped out under my shoulder. My mother was beginning to get worried.

On a Saturday morning in August, my water broke. Ainsley came almost three weeks early. We were overjoyed, but my body finally began to tell me that something was wrong. Nursing Ainsley was very difficult, and very painful. The lactation consultant I was working with was concerned at the level of fluid I was still retaining weeks after the birth; all this fluid was concentrated in my upper body. She mentioned that I must have a "drainage" problem. I had lumps all over my chest now. Above my collarbone. Below my collarbone. In little clusters above my breasts. Then another golf-ball-sized lump under my left arm, which the doctor I saw at my post-partum checkup said was another milk duct, and possibly mastitis. I was told to keep icing, to massage the lumps while Ainsley fed, to keep trying and they would go away and things would get easier. I was also told my extreme fatigue, frustration, and frequent sore throats and other illnesses were symptoms of severe post-partum depression. And I agree, even now, that that was a huge part of why the first three months Ainsley was in the world, I felt utterly and completely weak and sick and hopeless. But it wasn't the only reason. Not by a long shot.

To be continued...