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Waiting for Perfect

Azalea 10K...goes by a lot faster with friends

I have to admit I have a love-hate relationship with running. I love the idea of running and the feeling when it’s over. The rest of the time, not so much. But for some reason I keep coming back for more. Or at least I pretend to.

You see, I really only like running when all conditions are perfect. Not too hot. Not too cold. Not too sunny. Not too dark. Not too windy, but not too still. Not too many neighbors hanging out in their yards, but not so few neighbors that I feel like there might possibly be a natural disaster looming of which I’m unaware. I can’t be too hungry or too full. My knee can’t hurt that day and my kids can’t need me. I get that these are really lame excuses, but waiting for perfect is the way I roll.

Today, I was actually feeling pretty motivated. Kids doing homework. Check. Cool, but not cold temps. Check. Dusk, but not dark. Check. A healthy dose of stress that needed releasing. Bonus check.

So I head outside, walk across the grass, turn on my Garmin watch and iPod. Hmmm, a little cold and maybe it’ll get dark in a few minutes. But then a distraction – my friend Whitney is headed my way, and she is (ahem!) walking. We exchange hellos, and then I announce as if anyone cares that I’m going to run three miles. Wow, she says. She tried to run, but it was too cold. And off I go.

Soon I’m gliding past neighbors, singing aloud to some great tunes (yes, I know this is not socially acceptable, but I was in the groove). I pass Whitney a couple of times going the opposite direction and she gives me a thumbs-up – and I keep on keepin’ on. Three miles pass pretty easily. I even start to question why I don’t do this more often. Oh, yes, the waiting for perfect.

As I cool down, my favorite song from college starts on cue: “I’ll stop the world and melt with you..” Also, on cue, I stop and think of how many times I intended to wait for perfect. The perfect time to get married. The perfect time to have a baby. The perfect time to have a second one. The perfect time to buy a new house or start a new job. If I had actually waited for the Norman Rockwell painting in my head to come to life, I wouldn’t be married to my best friend or have two wonderfully quirky kids just two years apart. We wouldn’t live in our beautiful house that sat on the market a bit too long and really needs a bit more attention than we can give, or a job that is both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.

I think how like running, life is hard. And with each stage, it’s the best when it’s over. I mean, have you ever noticed that the moms who say they just love the toddler stage are old ladies who have been renamed “Nana”?  Or the guy who gives you the “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life speech” is not so much working now, but instead playing a lot of golf? Marriage is hard. Babies are hard. Pre-teens are hard. And moving just plain sucks. But we do them, because they’re the things that keep us moving forward. And bring us unbridled joy from unexpected moments.

So back to the running. I think I’ve decided to try it a little more often. Even if it’s a little too warmish. Or windy. Or my knee can tell rain is in the forecast. Because while the running itself is hard, skipping it means I miss out on the really good stuff – Whitney’s thumbs-ups, the moon breaking through the clouds,  a song that takes me back to my sorority days.

For now, perfect is just going to have to wait.

As new parents, we hear the speech. “Enjoy this time when your kids are little. It goes by so fast.” Over and over, every time that complete stranger/grandma squeezes your baby’s cheeks (you know the one), you get the speech.

I’m not sure about other moms, but I always had trouble believing that. I was exhausted. In a good way, usually, but exhausted nonetheless. I had a hard time imagining these babies would ever get bigger, let alone become self-sufficient. I halfway believed that I’d be filling sippy cups and vacuuming up Cheerios for the rest of my life.

But that stranger/grandma was right. And nothing reminds me more of the fleeting chaos that is early childhood (aka good ol’ days) than Halloween.

My first few Halloweens as a new mom were spent sewing. And I don’t mean just a little sewing, I mean full-blown ALL DAY sewing. I think I spent about 17 hours making Jack a cow costume when he was 15 months old. Then I watched with glowing admiration as he toddled from house to house collecting a plastic pumpkin full of candy (that I would rummage through later). When Gillian came along, the costume-making really got into full swing. At age one, she was Madeline. I made her a blue felt coat, sprayed a straw hat yellow and attempted to teach her to say “merci” upon receiving candy (to no avail). That year Jack went as Doug, a character from a favorite Disney program. At only three years old, he was already really getting into this costume thing, so Joe and I spent hours trying to help him create Doug’s hair – fashioned out of pantyhose and pipe cleaners.

There was magic in those Halloweens. The kids and I would spend all day getting ready, filling candy bowls and anxiously awaiting Daddy’s arrival home from work. When the race for world candy domination began, Joe and I dutifully chased behind them as they ran door to door, shouting instructions like “Don’t push!” “Don’t run!” “Don’t forget to say thank you!” The two of us would laugh, realizing that Jack couldn’t hear a thing through the giant astronaut helmet I made out of paper mache. Or that no one really understood his costume the year he chose to be “Abraham Lincoln dressed as Cat in the Hat”.

As I sit here on Halloween Eve, I am not sewing. Not a thing. I am instead pleading with Jack to hurry up and finish his World History homework, and watching Gillian get her backpack ready for tomorrow. Now that they are in Junior High and High School there are no more school Halloween parties, no more cupcakes to bake and no one even asked me to sew a costume. In fact, our trick-or-treat plans are not plans at all (although Gillian does have a hot pink witch’s hat and tulle skirt on stand-by). But she has dance class tomorrow night and Jack will likely have marching band practice. Joe will probably get home from work later than he hopes, without the pressure of little noses pressed to the window, waiting.  

I am, however, looking forward to Halloween. As we all trickle home in the evening, the first one here will make sure to turn on the porch light. Both kids really love answering the doorbell and passing out candy. They are awesome at complimenting the little ones’ costumes while making sure the big ones don’t get too greedy. We’ll smile at the parents chasing sticky toddlers house to house, shouting reminders not to run or push. I might even think about telling them to enjoy these days…they go by so fast.

But they probably wouldn’t even believe me.  

G as Madeline 2000

Astronaut Jack 2002

The Gift of Literacy

We moved to Tyler, Texas 14 years ago this week. Expecting our first child, the decision had already been made that I would be a stay-at-home mom. After setting up the new house, taking many naps and watching a LOT of Oprah, I realized I needed to use the next few months to make myself useful.

I knew that Barbara Bush was a big proponent of literacy programs, and I loved to read, so I looked in the phone book (yes, the phone book) to see if Tyler had such a program. I didn’t even call – instead I showed up the next day and said I was interested in volunteering. Nancy Hill and Nancy Crawford (Executive Director) met me with open arms and went to work matching me with a student. Their enthusiasm for the Literacy Council was infectious and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Soon I met Steve. He was in his early 30s, held a job and had a 7-year old son. He came to the Literacy Council for help because his reading was so poor, he didn’t like going to a new restaurant for fear of not being able to order off the menu. It was a terrible secret he carried with him. He was embarrassed and lacked self-confidence. Most importantly, Steve wanted to read to his son and be an example to him.

Over the next few months, we met once a week for our one-on-one tutoring sessions. He practiced reading passages, much like my kids were later assigned in 2nd or 3rd grade. He read aloud, slowly sounding out each syllable, and we answered comprehension questions together. Like many people that come to LCOT he needed someone – a mentor – to tell him that he could do this. And he could. And he did. His reading improved by leaps and bounds, as did his confidence. One day we walked to the library together to get a library card. Steve had no idea that he could go to the public library and check out books for free. He couldn’t wait to take his son.

One day, Steve didn’t show up. Nancy Crawford told me that sometimes this happens, and that’s okay. I made a difference in a virtual stranger’s life. And he in mine.

Life got busy with another baby, play-dates, part-time writing and more. I’ve stayed connected to the Literacy Council, and Nancy, even serving on the Board of Directors. In fact, this past December ended my second board term. I wasn’t sure I could walk away from this organization, this awesome board or the work they were doing to cure the rampant adult literacy in Smith County.

Serendipitously, 14 years to the day after moving to Tyler I was back with my LCOT friends Nancy Crawford and Nancy Hill, attending a Donor Luncheon. But this was different. I was there as the new Community Relations Coordinator. And part of my job today was to place thank you notes written by students at each place setting. Of course, I read all 127. With tears in my eyes I was reminded why I walked into the Literacy Council in the first place.

You see, this organization doesn’t give people money. It doesn’t hand out food or clothing. It gives a much bigger gift. It’s the gift that allowed 35 year old Tammy Clements, a high-school dropout earning minimum wage and single mother of four to earn a GED, then a Bachelor’s Degree, now a Master’s Degree – which in turn has led to a very successful career at Mother Frances Hospital. It’s the gift that gave Steve the confidence to read to his son and try a new restaurant. It’s the gift that allows 2400 East Texans the confidence and skills to get better jobs and provide for their families – the gift of literacy.

Before I left the cards behind, I wrote down some of my favorite notes from students. I think they speak for themselves:

Because you gave I am learning to read. I am enjoying it. I am sticking with the program. – Charles, age 56

 
Because you gave, I can move on with my dreams of changing the world through helping people. I am going to be a nurse, then get my teaching license. Afterwards, I plan to go into politics. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you. God has blessed both of us. – Darren

 
When I started attending GED classes I was on a third grade reading level, now I am on a twelfth grade level. I am more confident than ever. I will be attending college. I am a 52 year old woman. You have made a life-long dream come true. You’ve given me the gift of a secure future. Thank you. – Linda, age 52

When Art Grabs You

I love art. I especially love the way it moves people. And like wine, you and art should enjoy your own intimate relationship. You shouldn’t judge “good” by what others deem “good”. Good is what you think is good.

Part of the fun of being a parent is experiencing life through your child’s eyes. Sometimes these are big events, like the look on her face when she sees Cinderella’s castle for the first time. But just as fun to me, are the everyday experiences. Like today.

We’re moving to a new house and while my pre-teen daughter is planning every detail of her new room down to the tissue box holder, my 13-year-old son is indifferent. “A room is for sleeping,” he said. “I don’t care what it looks like.” I remind him that this is his chance to reflect his style, pick a paint color that makes him feel happy. Yes, a blank stare is the only response I’ve gotten back. Until today.

Walking through our local crafts store, my daughter picked out all things zebra and hot pink. (and yes, there is a plethora of this combination out there.) My son dutifully tagged along. Our final stop was the unframed prints. We flipped through laughing at some, commenting “awwww” at others. And then it hit him. He found the one. It was a vintage-styled ad for Black Dog Licorice by Ken Bailey. The little black dog standing on his hind legs, popping “sweet and silky candy chews” wasn’t staying in that poster bin one more minute. It reached out and grabbed him. It was coming home, to my son’s new room.

Art moves people. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in a museum or a print in a craft store. If you’re lucky – and you’re paying attention – art will reach out and grab you. I can’t wait to see the new room.

A Texas Snow

It doesn’t snow in Texas. As adults, we’ve come to accept it. But for kids across the state, including my own, they hold out hope every year. A real snowman. A snowball fight. Even snow angels. And the pinnacle – an actual snow day complete with school closing. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

It all started two nights ago. The weatherman showed radar of snow headed our way. This time it would reach us, rather than rewarding only friends and family to our west. And this time it was going to stick. Preemptive strikes by some school districts promised delayed starts of 10am. Ours seemed to be the lone holdout. By 8pm, the weatherman’s promise was realized. A two inch blanket had fallen and it was still coming. A few minutes later I found myself outside with bundled-up kids, in the dark, building a snowman. He wasn’t huge, by any standards, but big enough to dress in hat, scarf and support his sand-shovel arms. My husband thought we were nuts for playing in the dark. “It might be gone tomorrow.” I said as I ran back outside with the camera.

By 11pm, the kids were asleep and I checked KLTV’s website once more for school closings. Nothing. I looked outside and saw it was still coming down. At 5:30am I woke to see – and hear – my son jumping up and down. “I just went online and there is no school!” he said. We politely reminded him that there was no need to be up, let alone shouting. Back to bed we sent him. But like a kid on Christmas morning, sleeping wasn’t easy.

By 6:30am the whole family was up and kids were layering on clothes, locating gloves and hats. It really was like Christmas – my husband and I trying to get them to wait long enough for us to grab cameras. I was amused to see them get dressed with such lightning speed – layer upon layer upon layer. The snow looked impressive through the window, but when we walked outside we were awestruck.

About 6 inches of the thickest snow I’d ever seen had transformed our neighborhood into a Norman Rockwall painting – artfully covering trees, lawns and rooftops. Like a gift from Heaven, the pure white blanket was beautifully blinding. But the joy on my children’s faces was the real gift, as I watched them kick, jump, roll and even taste the snow. We spent the next several hours building snowgirls and boys, made snow angels and threw snowballs. One by one our neighbors joined us. Kids were squealing with delight as us parents took pictures and videos, hoping to document each sweet second. By mid-morning the whole neighborhood was out in force. Snowpeople were erected in every yard on our street, each one delightfully charming in his – or her – own way.

With our faces and toes firmly frozen, we headed inside. I had flashbacks to my own childhood in upstate New York as we unpeeled the layers of clothes, wet and exhausted. Like my mom did for me, I made us all hot cocoa. We drank it happily as we recapped our adventures. “This is the greatest day ever!” my son declared. I couldn’t have said it better myself.  

Today the snow is mostly gone. This is Texas, and it is practically a state requirement that the weather change daily. My daughter suggested we drive through the neighborhood to see if any snowmen were still standing, as ours had sadly lost their heads overnight. A few holdouts stood strong, but most were reduced to piles of slush, like the sad scene from “Frosty” – hats, scarves and shovels remaining in the grass. “It’s kind of sad,” she said. I wished like crazy I could quote the movie and promise, like Santa did, that they would be back again someday. But who knows? After all this is Texas and it hasn’t snowed like this in 28 years.  

“Yesterday was a perfect day, wasn’t it?” I ask, rhetorically. We drove back home in silence. I am reminded that the best things in life really are free.

My husband recently bought me a GPS watch that allows you to calculate your mileage, pace, calories burned, etc. As a pretty faithful runner, I thought it would be great motivation. With this new gizmo I’d be inspired to run harder, faster and more often.  I love the watch and it’s actually really fun to use. Funny thing is, I can never remember to hit the “start” button.

The other day, I set my sites on 3 miles. I turned on the watch, located my satellites (very high-tech), cleared the timer and began running as my mind began wandering. After what I thought to be about a mile or so, I looked down to see the watch timer just sitting there, staring at me. 00:00:00. Crap! My initial reaction was to start over. That time (and mileage) felt as though it didn’t count. I continued on, but just couldn’t get over my frustration. Where was my proof – my validation – that I ran that mile? Feeling deflated, I continued plodding along, now having no idea how far I’d actually gone, the time on the watch taunting me with an inadequately low number.

As I approached the house, I saw two little bodies standing at the top of the driveway, arms flailing and cheering. “Mommy, mommy! You did it! Yeah, Mom!” I couldn’t help but feel like I just completed the Boston Marathon, my fans eagerly waiting at the finish line. I laughed, thanked them for the standing ovation and headed inside, spirits high.

I realized then that my kids didn’t care how far I ran, how fast my pace was or even how many calories I burned. They cared that I accomplished my goal and ran my hardest. (I can make it look very hard). It made me wonder why we put so much emphasis on scores and numbers, on grades and achievements. When we were kids, didn’t our parents tell us it didn’t matter if we won or lost? What mattered was that we tried our best?

I guess somewhere along the way society tells us otherwise. Scores do matter. Points are important. After all, we still need a decent SAT score to get into college. And no one ever won a Super Bowl without putting points on the board. While numbers do matter, I think we should all reevaluate what motivates us.

I’m starting to believe that my motivation comes from something much bigger than my GPS watch. Or the scale. Or the dollar figure on a paycheck. My motivation comes from my kids. Seeing their faces beaming when they watch me doing something great – no matter the significance – is really all the motivation I need.   

If I think about it, I exercise because I want to live a long time – and be a cool grandma to their kids. I work at my marriage because I want to set a good example that they may one day follow. I volunteer – not only to give back to the community, but to teach my kids about the gift of giving back.

Maybe our parents were actually right about something after all. (yes, mom, I admit it) It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It matters that you tried your best. Today, I will try to be the best wife/mother/chauffeur/chef/party planner that I can be.

A Day At The Park

Nothing is better than a fall day at the park

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