Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Wasting Away in Frantic Parentville

There is an enormous difference between the way we parented #1 in the early 1990s and what #6 is getting in the early 2010s. Two decades, six siblings, and thousands of sleep-deprived hours can take a person a long way down the road to Mellow Town. Having resided in both places, I can assure you that Mellow Town is a lot happier place to hang out than Frantic Parentville.

A side-by-side comparison is useful:

Frantic Parentville (FP, circa 1993) - Babies must sleep on their backs. Do not overwrap the baby as to keep from over-heating.
Mellow Town (MT, circa 2013) - Swaddling is genius. So is letting a baby sleep on his stomach if he refuses to sleep well in any other position. I had major mother-guilt about the times I flipped a wailing infant onto his or her stomach in the middle of the night until my favorite pediatrician assured me that a non-smoking home with a modern baby mattress has a much lower risk of SIDS than simply back-sleeping.

FP- Use copious amounts of anti-bacterial gel, soap, wipes, surfaces, etc. as to keep your baby germ-free.
MT - Lay off the anti-bacterial everything. You are making yourself and the rest of us less healthy.

FP - Schedule feedings, changings, and sleeping as to keep your baby from becoming a tantrum-throwing, parent-controlling tyrant (Growing Kids God's Way, anyone?).
MT - Balance, balance, balance. Enjoy your kid, pay attention to his/her cues, follow your instincts, and don't let anyone make you feel like God does not approve of your child's eating/sleeping/potty training lifestyle.

FP- Start saving for college the very day you learn you are pregnant so as to ward off financial ruin for yourself and all potential offspring.
MT - Save if you can. Spend if you must. Junior college never hurt anybody and if your plan is to make certain your kid can support you in your old age, turns out plumbing is a pretty stable and lucrative career.

FP - Begin an allowance for your little darling around the 2nd birthday so as to guarantee financial responsibility. Use the three bank system (giving, saving, spending) or else.
MT - Nothing wrong with allowances, but watch how easy it is for kids to slip into the selfishness of doing a job for pay instead of simply for the good of the family. (Two dollars per week for six kids equals $11,232. Might as well save that and make sure someone gets a year of college. Or that mom gets a good car down payment.)

FP - Avoid baby talk so as to keep both you and your child from sounding silly.
MT - Baby, that lisp is the cutest thing I've ever heard. Don't you dare let your third grade teacher shame it out of you.

FP - Have multiple thermometers handy throughout the home and check fevers of all children often and well.
MT - Thermometer hasn't worked in years. Rule of thumb is: 1. You're warm, take it easy. 2. You're hot, have some ibuprofen and an ice pack. 3. You're burning my hand with your forehead. Get in the car, we're headed to the ER.

FP - How can we possibly raise well-adjusted American children without at least one magical trip to the Magic Kingdom? We can give up Starbucks for five years or so in order to save up.
MT - Summer vacation time again? Call up the grandparents to book a long weekend and frappuccinos for everyone at Starbucks on the way. Cooking s'mores and chasing fireflies in the backyard is all we really need to secure fantastic childhood memories.

Less is more here in Mellow Town.

Hanging out with #1 and #6 on the first day of college.

Can't even imagine how mellow we'll be the day we drop off #6 at college.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The B Word

Tacking up a fresh new calendar always improves my mood after the craziness of the holidays and those fresh pages seem to invite reinvention. Now is as good a time as any to make some changes that might make my life easier, better, or more productive.

One year, more than a decade ago, I decided to quit apologizing for the state of my house. You know how it sounds. “Oh, do come in and just ignore this huge mess. I’m so sorry I haven’t had time to clean up.” In a home as jam-packed with kids and animals as ours has always been, no one ever comes through my front door to a shining, organized living space.

It used to bother me a lot, but I realized two things. One is that it bothers me far more than anyone else. The other is that apologizing for the mess that is life around here just draws attention to it and puts the listener in the awkward spot of reassuring me that my mess isn’t really important. Which, of course, I should already know and therefore quit talking about.

It truly freed me when I broke that habit. Now I’m tackling a new one.

When asked, “How are you?” my standard answer is, “Busy.” I’m not unlike zillions of other people on that. Much has been said about our busy culture and how we should all simplify and relax and breathe. I don’t know about you, but simplifying sometimes seems like just another thing to put on my to-do list.

Is laundry on your to-do list too?
We are all busy. No need to compare our rosters of paying jobs, volunteer positions, kid activities, social plans, hobbies, etc. Comparing my busy to yours just leads us down a spiral of exhaustion. And, because we are so busy, we don’t need anything else to exhaust us.

The problem for me is that the “so busy” refrain sounds like a lament. As in, “I wish I weren’t so busy. One day I hope to be less busy. I only hope I can survive being so busy.” I’m seeing that focusing on my own busy pace, much like focusing on my messy living room, puts the listener in an awkward spot.

We are all busy. That’s worth repeating.  But when I take a step back and look at my long to-do list I see clearly. That list is the result of decisions I’ve made that have led to a happy life full of things that bless me far more than they exhaust me. Though relaxing is important, busy is good. 

Which, of course, I should already know and therefore quit talking about.

I’m going to give it a shot.

Monday, January 19, 2015

On the Day You Were Born

Happy 10th birthday, Samuel Hutchens!

We will celebrate this year on a sunny, mild day in Missouri. Your dad will be the one to wake you up with a tickle and a birthday song. He'll be here soon after you get home from school too and will be the one to light the candles and help you set up your new Lego sets and listen to you explain for the 1000th time who's who in your Minecraft world.

No big deal. He's just a dad being a dad.

But being around on your birthday IS a big deal to your dad. He missed your actual first day, you know. He wasn't late, but you were early. He was just steps from getting on a military airplane, headed home from months in Iraq, when he got the call that you weren't waiting.

On the day you were born, I awoke in labor and thought, "Oh no. No way. Not today, baby boy." Your dad was due to fly home on January 22. You were due to be born January 26. That was a pretty good plan. But the thing about babies is that they aren't all that good at following plans.

Your Grandmama was with me and your big sisters and brother at our home in Germany. Maybe she had an intuition that you might come early, but she wouldn't take no for an answer. Always trust your Grandmama's intuition. It's a good thing she was there on that very cold, very dark, very early morning.

Now that you know us both so well you might think it's a little bit funny that your Grandmama and I got lost in the icy, windy weather. We wandered the roads for a while before we found the right turn for the Krankenhaus (which is a great German word... isn't everyone cranky when they have to go to the hospital?). Thank goodness you weren't in TOO much of a hurry. Just enough to make sure we would all have a really good story to tell.

I called Dad's sergeant and he called Dad. I think he said something like, "I've got bad news, Sir." That scared Dad half to death so when the sergeant told him you were going to arrive before his plane made it back, Dad wasn't as upset as he might have been. Maybe that sergeant knew what he was doing.

You'll have a hard time imagining this, but you were born before cell phones were easy to use internationally. That means your dad and I had no way of talking to each other until he found a land line that would connect to the hospital. You hadn't quite arrived and we discussed for a minute or two what we should name you (I know...we should have had that figured out already). I told your dad that I didn't really care (having a baby isn't easy and I was so tired at that point that he could have named you Big Duke for all I cared). We'd narrowed it down to Samuel or Benjamin. Your middle name was definitely going to be Hutchens, the maiden name of your other grandmother.

The line was bad so we had to hang up. You were born pretty quickly after that. You were so pink and round and adorable. I think you had a smile on your face from the very beginning. It's like you knew you'd pulled a joke on all of us by choosing your own birth date. Your sisters and brother showed up pretty quickly. They took one look at you and said, "He looks like a Sam." And, well, you did. So I signed the birth certificate that made you officially Samuel Hutchens Bartee.

Then Dad called again. As soon as I told him that you were healthy and happy and perfect, he said, "I decided we should definitely name him Benjamin." Umm... I had to tell him that you already had a name. Poor Dad had a rough day. It wasn't until he actually saw you that he agreed you really did look like a Sam.

And, oh, when he actually saw you. Would you believe I remembered to grab the camera and snap this picture?

Look at your dad. He's still in his uniform. He still has sand in his boots and the sweat of two days traveling on a cargo plane. And the exhausted face of someone who has not slept in about 36 hours. And you can't see it in this photo, but he has the proud tears that every daddy has on the day he finally holds his baby. 

He got to you as fast as he could. He's a dad you can count on.

Happy birthday, kid. You still keep us guessing. And you still give us great stories to tell. We should have known from that very first day that you'd be one of a kind. Kind a chip off the old block.

Monday, December 22, 2014

One Less

This year we will celebrate Christmas for the first time without my mother-in-law. We lost her after a swift battle with lung cancer this past summer and are still getting used to speaking about her in the past tense. She was a quirky and boisterous part of so many of our holidays that it seems incomprehensible to plan gift lists and menus and phone calls home without including her.

She was the first grandparent our children have lost. Lucky kids to have held on to so many of the grands for so long. Our oldest kids have never had a Christmas without shopping for Memaw (an avid collector of all things Elvis, she was usually the easiest to please). Our youngest, who will likely not remember her at all as he was barely three when she died, is already being coached by his older siblings about their grandmother’s famous cinnamon rolls and her borderline-obsessive devotion to the Denver Broncos.

Grief seems at its most heart breaking in December. I suppose it’s because we are knee-deep in family traditions more than at any other time of the year. The hole left behind by someone missing looms larger and deeper when we unwrap special ornaments or bake a traditional recipe or take the year’s photos knowing that there is one less than the year before.

Even if you have your own quirky relative still with you, or you’ve welcomed your Soldier home for the holidays, or you have your home so stuffed with family that there’s hardly room for one more, you are still likely missing someone. And whether it is death or deployment or disagreement or the details of a busy life that is keeping you apart, it stings.

I imagine Mary and Joseph could fully relate to missing the ones they loved. After all, the very first Christmas found them far from home, misunderstood, alone but for each other, and no doubt longing for the peace and tradition and warm embraces of home. Yet they received a gift unsurpassed that night and, because of that gift, they heard the angels sing.

I could not compose a more touching prayer for all of us than Edmund Sears when he wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1850. No matter who or what you are missing this year, may you “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 5, 2014

If Only In My Dreams

A friend recently returned home from a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, just in time for Christmas. Is there a more joyful time of year for a reunion than the freezing days of December? He pulled off surprising his youngest at her elementary school and was featured on the local news, which was nice because we are all desperate for some happy news these days.

The whole thing made me think about our own reunion-after-deployment and it seems impossible that it was almost a decade ago.

Christmas 2004 found us celebrating on three different continents. The kids and I remained at our home in Germany while Dad deployed to Iraq in September. I wasn't sure I could pull off Christmas (alone and eight-months pregnant with #5) so I decided to fly us home to Texas for the holidays. My husband was less than enthusiastic. As in he stated, "No way. You're not doing it."

Christmas 2004 in Tikrit.
Thing is he was more than 2,000 miles away and couldn't do much about it. I don't usually just defy my partner in life without some profitable discussion. But I did in December 2004.

Among the long list of crazy stupid things I've done, this is right up there.

Flying to the States out of Germany is no small thing. But when you live two hours from the airport, have four children (one still in diapers), more luggage than can fit in one car, and a seriously-pregnant's nuts.

I honestly thought the folks at the airline would take pity on me. Poor dear. This brave military wife is battling her way back home to provide a magical holiday for her many, many children. We oughta upgrade her to first class just to show our appreciation. 

That's not exactly how it turned out.

Christmas 2004 in Marktbergl
(before the insane flight).
Instead I had to bustle us all in, lugging luggage, and stand in a long line. I didn't even get a smile from the grumpy agent. In fact, I'm pretty sure she rolled her eyes as she clicked through five tickets. I swear she looked at me like I was crazy. As did the security guards. And the gate agents. And the flight attendants who directed our circus to the very last row of the plane.

By the time I got everyone seated and all carryons stowed away, I popped into the airplane bathroom for a quick visit before takeoff. As I washed my hands I caught my reflection in the mirror and looked at MYSELF like I was crazy. But there was no backing out at that point.

I don't remember much about the eight-hour flight except that the toddler spilled a full cup of dietCoke all over her older sister, causing both of them to burst into tears. And the various crayons, pretzels and toys that were dropped onto the floor could not be retrieved because have I mentioned I was eight-months pregnant? And no one slept until the last 30 minutes. Which means everyone was disheveled and sour as we disembarked and stood in line at customs for another 35 minutes. I think I hated the airline, my husband, the Army, and pretty much everyone I could think of at that moment. Not my finest hour.

But God bless my family. The moment we were through customs, I collapsed into my mother's waiting hug and turned over all planning, discipline, effort and thought to them. For two weeks I did nothing but just show up.

At several points during that rough trip I doubted it was worth it. I'd have been better off in Germany with just the kids, I thought. It wouldn't have been that bad to have Daddy gone for Christmas.

But when the phone rang on December 25th at my sister's house because, by some miracle, he'd been able to find a phone line and call to wish everyone Merry was awful. The kids cried. I cried. He cried. I knew I didn't have it in me to pick up the pieces all by myself. Again, it was grandparents and cousins to the rescue. A whole lot of Christmas silliness (that's the year our 6-year-old led the family Christmas dinner prayer wearing his Darth Vader voice-changing helmet) helped redeem the day. No doubt we made memories that year. It's certainly one I will never forget.

And forever after I will deeply appreciate every Christmas spent with my sweetie, a house full of kids, my wonderful family, and airline personnel who find it within themselves to offer even the tiniest of smiles to the craziest of travelers.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Fairy Tale 60 Years in the Making

They say, If it seems too good to be true then it probably is.Probably. But not always. This is the story of a happily ever after that is as true as true can be.

At age 17, Betty King enrolled at Southern Methodist University as a music major. In the first months on campus, she met a fellow music major named Bob Skinner. They had several mutual friends and spent lots of time together. Bob liked Betty an awful lot, but since she was dating his best friend, he contented himself with just being pals.

After graduation, Betty married her beau and Bob found a pretty wife. Life unfolded for both of them as life often doeswith love, regret, happiness, heartache, victory and defeat. They kept in touch over the years, attending New Years Eve parties as young couples and, later, meeting up occasionally to enjoy a symphony concert and reconnecting each year through Christmas cards.

The years passed as Betty enjoyed a long and happy career as a beloved music teacher in the citys school district. Bob put aside his music career to pursue pharmacy and established a successful business. Each of the families grew and splintered as time went by due to divorce, death and growing children. The Christmas cards and occasional visits continued, honoring what remained a deep and lasting friendship.

As each reached retirement age, life toughened. Betty left her teaching position to be the primary caretaker for her aging parents. Her daily activities shrank to what was necessary within the household and telephone calls became her main source of a social life. Bob was dealing with the cancer deaths of both his first wife and then his second. Talking to Betty was a comfort.

Shortly after the death of Bettys mother and Bobs second wife, the college buddies planned a face-to-face meeting to catch up in person, reconnect as old friends, and offer the kind of solace that can only come from an old and trusted companion.

And sparks flew.

Sixty years after the fresh, young students first met, they met again as weathered, wisened old people. And they fell in love in a way that only the deeply experienced can appreciate.

On August 9, 2014, in a church decorated with SMUs red and blue, Betty and Bob stood before 100 guests and pledged to be true for the rest of their lives. Afterward they posed for photos, cut a beautiful white wedding cake, accepted hugs and congratulations, spent the night in a downtown Dallas bridal suite, and then drove away for a two-week honeymoon in the Tennessee hills.

The most unlikely of fairy tales sometimes does come true. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Bob are proof. May their happy ending last forever after.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Chilly Phenomenon


The ALS ice bucket challenge has been an amazing social media phenomenon to observe. To say it's swept the nation is an understatement as everyone from my next-door neighbor to former President George W. Bush has taken to video with some ice water, some words, and some money for research.

It's the stuff marketing and fundraising people dream about. Who can predict what will capture the public's attention and motivate them to give?

And people really are giving. That's the more amazing part of it, I think. People can star in their own "watch me dump water on my head" show for whatever reason. But to actually write the check or click and donate is a much bigger deal. Media accounts say the donations are about $40 million more than the average August. $40 million. 

The most interesting part of the movement, at least on my newsfeed, has been the varying reactions from participants and non-participants. On the one hand, it's fun and it's for a great cause and who are you to throw cold water (pun intended) on a good deed by questioning the filmer/donor's motivation. Does she truly care about ALS? Is he really going to donate? Don't they know about embyonic stem cell research? 

I get it.

I did not want to do the challenge. Mostly because I try to avoid silly things in public. Also because we already donate just about all we can afford on a monthly basis to very worthy causes. Also because I do have very strong feelings about embryonic stem cell research. (Why? Read this.) Or here's the synopsis - 
  • Embryonic stem cells are “starter cells” that can be coaxed into becoming any of the specialized cells of the body, meaning they are “pluripotent.” Embryonic stem cells are derived from eggs fertilized in the laboratory, not in a woman’s body.
If you believe, as do I, that human life begins at fertilization, then you believe that lives are being created and then disposed of for the sole purpose of medical research. If you don't believe that life begins at fertilization then you probably don't see what the big deal is. But of course you'll respect the belief of others and why it motivates them to find another adult stem cell-only research project. 

Side note: from what I've read, the ALS Association  allows you to state your preference for your donation to avoid their embryonic stem cell research project and go solely to the others. It's hard to find that option on its donation page however. So most of the anti-embryonic stem cell crowd has chosen to donate to other places that also support ALS research.

So I had my reasons to be glad that I'd flown under the radar and not been challenged. But then I was. So was my husband. Same day. We thought we'd ignore it. But that seemed, well, rude and snobbish. Also our children were ecstatic about the idea of dumping water on both of us.

Since I was in a dress (and I just hate to change clothes more than once per day), my always-funny husband declared he'd put on a coat and tie and we'd do a classy version. So we did. The kids howled. We wrote our check to the John Paul II Research Institute.

And then my husband said, "Let's upload it to Facebook."

Wait. What? Whoa!

Because, like I said, I don't like looking silly. Especially on a public forum. And this video is silly. Not so much because of the water (and the ensuing hair don't), but mostly because I have my hand on my hip!

I don't know why I have my hand on my hip. I was just striking a comfortable pose. But I kind of find the hand-on-the-hip-to-make-my-arm-look-smaller-in-this-photo fad just, well, silly. So I never do it. Except on this ice bucket video. Argh. So silly.

And then it hit me.

Many of the nay-sayers of the whole ice bucket challenge are poking fun (if that's what you want to call it) at the motivation of people doing it. It's all just so self-centered, they proclaim -- "Look at me! Look at what I did! I did something silly and now I'm giving money!"

I get it.

But if, in the end, one minute or one dollar is focused on helping someone else, that someone else couldn't care less what the motivation was, just that help is coming.

So I stepped away from my own self-centeredness and posted our own silly video.

"I did something silly and now I'm giving money!"

That's about right.