In defense of throwing your own damned middle-aged birthday party


My beautiful 2018 cake, by Jeff Pavlik at Sunflour Bakehaus.

I remember the first time it really hit me that adult birthdays can kind of suck.

Two years before we had Lily (2006), February arrived, and I told Joe that all I wanted for my 35th birthday was to go out for dinner and to see a movie in the theater, which is something I love to do.

We did that. And as we were driving home, I stared out the window and inexplicably started to cry.

That sounds stupidly childish, I know, but friend-filled birthday celebrations were close enough in my rearview mirror that I suddenly, desperately missed my closest girlfriends from grad school, who were spread across the country. I felt dull and pathetic – and old. As if friendship was something you got to enjoy in your youth, and then you had to white knuckle it the rest of the way with your partner only.

“I don’t understand,” said Joe. “You said you didn’t need a party, or a dinner with friends, and that you just wanted to see a movie.”

“I know,” I blubbered. “I really did think that was what I wanted. But I guess I was wrong?” Continue reading


Adventures in parenting: getting the kids to try Indian food

Maybe our parental hubris arose from spending Thanksgiving week (and the equivalent of a small country’s GDP) at the Disney World parks, thus expanding our sense of where we might be able to go on family vacations in the future.

Or perhaps we’d decided to fly directly toward the sun on wax wings after I’d explained to the girls at dinner one night that our regular push to get them to try different foods wasn’t about being cruel, but rather so we could realistically think about taking them to cool places (with different cuisines) all over the world.

Whatever the impetus, Joe announced to me last Saturday morning that we would be going to our – that is, his and my – favorite local Indian restaurant that night. With the kids. Despite the menu’s complete lack of grilled cheese, hot dogs, mac and cheese, or chicken nuggets.

Uh … OK.

“Have you told the kids?”

“No,” Joe said. “I figured we’d just tell them when we’re about to go. And I’ll sweeten the deal by telling them that if they at least try a few things, we’ll take them to Orange Leaf for dessert.”

Well, this was definitely a recipe for a modest domestic adventure. Continue reading

Disney World travel journal: The Mouse Diaries

IMG_0003So. Disney World. Where was I?

Panicking before we left, right?

Months ago, I’d decided to schedule our flight on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so we’d have Saturday to prepare. (As it happened, though, Lily’s all-day Lego Team tournament landed on that Saturday, as did my niece’s baby shower up near Alpena. Phew!) Fortunately, we were scheduled on a 12:30 p.m. flight, so we got up at our usual, leisurely Sunday morning pace, checked out the forecast for Orlando (70s, a mix of sunshine and rain for much of the week), finished packing up our bags, and drove through snow flurries to the airport.

(As a sidenote, I’d packed a plastic grocery bag with about a half dozen snacks for the girls. By trip’s end, I’ll have wished that I packed an entire suitcase of them. The “general store” and cafeteria at the resort had prices in alignment with those inside the parks – which is to say, HIGH – so we could have saved a bundle right there, had I known.)

The girls have been on a number of flights by now, but they’re usually smaller planes, with two seats (or two and one) on each side of the aisle. The flight to Orlando was on a huge plane, with individual video screens on the back of each seat, which allowed passengers to choose a movie for herself.

The girls were gobsmacked, and prepared, on pretty much this alone, to declare this the best vacation EVER.

So we all happily plugged in: Joe watched “The Hangover,” laughing loudly every few moments (which I was glad to hear – he’s often so stressed and overextended professionally that I don’t hear him expressing unfiltered joy like this much anymore); Neve and Lily watched “Despicable Me 3” (again); and I watched Salma Hayek and John Lithgow in “Beatriz at Dinner” – because nothing says vacation like a film that ends in what appears to be a Virginia Woolf-style suicide. Am I right? Continue reading


Girls’ (snow) day!


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Last Wednesday night, after huge snowflakes fell onto my otter hat and melted in my eyelashes – I had just aggressively boot-plowed my way to and from the grocery a block away – Joe and I received nearly-simultaneous texts, automated calls, and emails telling us that the girls’ school would be closed the next day due to weather.

In the past, when I was part of a newsroom staff, this pronouncement would immediately set me into action. I’d message the owner of the girls’ old preschool, humbly asking if the girls could crash there for the day. (Thankfully, the answer was “yes” every single time.) We’d load their backpacks with their favorite toys and games and books; make them each a lunch; and then, more often than not, Joe and I would have them climb onto a sled, and we’d pull them to the local Montessori on foot. (The girls thought this was the best thing ever, by the way.)

Yes, I’d often end up working at home that day, anyway; but as many contractors know, trying to work at home while taking care of young kids is beyond pointless. It’s like cleaning up the kitchen while also cooking a multi-course meal. And honestly, I loved having the occasional day at home to myself.

Now, though, two years after my layoff, and in the midst of a month-long freelancing drought, the thought of taking them to their former preschool never crossed my mind.

I was even kind of looking forward to spending the day with them.

And let me tell you, that marks a substantive shift in thinking. I used to feel resentful and anxious about these kind of situations; how they, by and large, fell to me more often than not. After all, I was the one with the part-time journalist job (though I worked off the clock ALL THE DAMN TIME), while Joe had the more demanding, high-stakes, high responsibility litigator gig. On paper, it was a no-brainer.

But I still resented it, and worried that the girls would start climbing the walls after a few hours, and turn on each other and me shortly thereafter. Because this wasn’t what we were all accustomed to. It wasn’t our routine. So such situations previously filled me with maternal dread. Continue reading


Desk as time capsule (or, Making the case for a little clutter)

IMG_2699.JPGFinding personal relics in an old desk is such a cliché that when the girls pulled my childhood desk from our upstairs crawlspace on Saturday, I froze up, a little scared of exactly what I’d find in those drawers.

Stylistically, the girls might as well have unearthed a dinosaur bone. A heavy, bulky white child’s desk, with oddly regal, gold-painted trim and accents, the piece matched my old canopy twin bed’s frame (also now in Lily’s room, sans canopy).

“What are you guys doing?!” I asked the girls, as they stood at each end of the desk, in front of the drafty crawlspace’s open door.

“You said we could put your old desk in my room,” Lily said.

Oof. And really, I should have known better than to speak my thoughts out loud. Lily’s messy, modestly-sized room has gotten more and more cluttered over time, in part because she refuses to let me remove the glider that was originally placed there when she was born. You know. When I was NURSING her nine years ago, and there was nothing in there besides a crib and a small dresser. Plus, Lily had recently added a small table to her room to work on her art projects. It’s completely untenable, logistically speaking.

For this reason, I’d recently mulled over offering her my old desk from storage in exchange for removing the rocking chair, footrest, and table from her room. My instincts were right on: when I mentioned this bargain, Lily was immediately all in – a little TOO all in, I guess.

“I didn’t say we’d do it today,” I said to them, exasperated. We’d just spent the morning at Neve’s Lego team exhibition, where Lily was also working a volunteer, and we all needed to pack soon for Lily’s Girl Scout troop’s overnight at the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. We didn’t have time for this project on Saturday.

Lily didn’t see the problem, though, so I explained that she needed to clean out the area of her room where the desk would go (no small task), and that I would need to go through the stuff in the drawers to clear them out.

Reluctantly, she let it go for the day.

But because she was up for much of that night at the Scout event, having a blast, and because there’s ALWAYS a hard comedown from that kind of thing the following day, she threw a hysterical screaming fit Sunday evening about TAKING A SHOWER. (“I hate this family!!!” Perhaps a dirtier tribe would be to your liking, then, sweetie?)

So while Lily was in the bathroom, mumbling a litany of hygienic injustices imposed upon her, I took up residence in the hallway, sure she was going to fake a shower (which she did) by running the water and getting in just long enough to get wet and nothing else.

Since the exhumed desk was a few feet away, I grabbed a drawer while I waited on Lily and started pawing its contents. Continue reading


How I went from ‘easygoing’ to ‘panicky’ before our Thanksgiving week Disney World vacay


When I was a kid, my holiday break from school usually consisted of an early, pre-arranged visit from Santa (as if his office processed individual requests and used second string reindeer); a seven hour drive to Clay City, Indiana to visit my Grandma and Grandpa McKee, where the latter would sit and spit chewing tobacco into a couch-side bucket filled with sawdust, and we kids would eat all our meals on TV trays; and then a single, brutal marathon drive to Panama City Beach (and later Bonifay), Florida to visit my twice-widowed Grandpa Schell.

As a prize for withstanding this feat of vehicular boredom (while 8 track tapes played the music of The Kingston Trio, Roy Clark, Cat Stevens, Anne Murray, Simon and Garfunkel, Roger Whittaker, and the Everly Brothers), my two sisters and I were usually promised a single day spent at Disney World. On that blessed day, we’d leave our hotel room early and take our place in a slow-moving sea of cars in Orlando, waiting for our turn to park and then take the shuttle, and then take the monorail, to the Magic Kingdom.

“How many things do we take just to ACTUALLY ARRIVE THERE?” I remember thinking. It felt like we were working through The Stations of the Mouse.

I was also floored by the $20 admission prices (adorable!), and Epcot was the big new addition. In fact, when I was about 12, I got a black Epcot t-shirt printed with the silver number 82, in honor of the new park’s opening year. Cutting edge stuff.

So I’d gone to the “Happiest Place on Earth” a number of times while growing up, and other than having some bizarre, neurotic breakdowns over choosing a single souvenir at day’s end (fatigued and overwhelmed by choices, I’d finally just grab a stuffed Dumbo or Thumper, certain I’d later regret my choice), I had mostly positive, nostalgic memories of being there. And later, when traveling with the Michigan Marching Band, I spent some pleasant-enough off-hours both at Disney World (for the 1991 Gator Bowl) and Disneyland (three Rose Bowls).

But it had been quite a while since I’d “done” Disney, obviously. As I heard friends talk about taking their families to Orlando, I got the sense that the whole Disney complex had grown and morphed into something I’d now barely recognize.

Cut to 2017. Our go-to annual vacation, Camp Michigania, was instead no-go this year. (It’s a lottery system, and for the first time in a while, we didn’t make the cut.)

“Well, the kids will be 6 and 9 this summer,” I said, way, way back in early spring. “Maybe this is the year we do Disney?”

And so it began. Continue reading


Camped out: the exit interview


During Camp Invention, Lily really got into reverse engineering washed up appliances.

When Lily was in preschool – and Neve was in utero – it dawned on me one day that complicated though our daily life often seemed, it would grow far more complicated when Lily aged out of year-round preschool, and we suddenly had to figure out what to do with her in the summertime. (I was spending my days in a newsroom back then, so my anxiety level spiked just thinking about this not-too-distant future conundrum.)

I asked friends with older kids what on earth they did with them in the summertime.

“We usually do camps, a different one each week,” one said. “So one week is Jedi camp, another is computer camp – things like that.”

I nodded in that way we all do when we’re taking in information and thinking “UH-UH, NO WAY AM I DOING THAT. THAT SOUNDS CUCKOO FOR COCOA PUFFS.”

But guess what? When the time came – Lily returned to her preschool for on-site “camp” the summer after kindergarten and first grade (I registered her for 2-3 camps then, for variety, and to dip our toe in the water), but after second grade, it became clear that Lily was ready, and needed to, move on. 

Yes, there’s a nearby private pool club – that seems to be a culture unto itself – that we may buy our way in to one day, provided we’re willing to swallow the not-cheap bond purchase, as well as the also not-cheap annual membership fee. But even then, I’d still need the time, the quiet, and the space needed to make my freelance work deadlines. The pool would ultimately be somewhere we might go after I pick the girls up from camp, not an all-day option.

So Joe and I finally had to acknowledge the truth that all working parents must face when they’re kids grow out of preschool: you know that crazy weekly day camp thing our friend told us about? Yeaaaaah. That’s probably what we need to do, too. Continue reading