A Pain in the Neck

I woke up one morning with a terrible cramp in my neck that hung on for days.   I tried to solve the problem by ignoring it, so for a while, whenever I wanted to look to my right, I had to turn my whole body.  (Who says there isn’t always a workaround?)  But eventually I caved and went to get a massage.

My masseuse was a calm, relaxing woman who never gets neck cramps.

“You brought me a lot of knots today,” she said in her soothing voice.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  “You’re welcome?”  Or maybe “thank you.”  After all, it’s not easy to develop a neck cramp so severe I can’t turn my head for a week, given that I’m living in the First World with a loving, healthy family, so it was nice that she appreciated my talent.

“How old are your children?” she asked me.

“Four and seven.”

“Hm.  So you’re not still carrying anyone.”

That’s sort of not true.

Actually, it’s a medical marvel that Annabelle’s muscles haven’t atrophied beyond use because, in four years, her little legs have almost never touched the ground.  My mom always says that she can hold a baby on her hip forever, and I can too, as long as I never need to see anything that happens to my right.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit this, though, so after a little pause, I said, “Well, I maybe kind of still carry my daughter just a bit.”


“She might be my last one!” I said.


“She really likes to be carried.”

My masseuse had to stop hmming then because my back was starting to resemble a game of Whack-A-Mole with new knots popping up everywhere.  (“You’re welcome?”  She didn’t praise me this time, so maybe no “thank you.”)

When Colin heard about my neck pain, he kindly volunteered to help by giving Annabelle piggy back rides.  At first I wasn’t so sure, but he insisted, gentleman that he is.  And perhaps it was good for him.  Nothing builds character like a few knots in the back.

But the truth is that I want to keep carrying Annabelle for as long as she wants because in another year, she’ll be in school.  My last baby will be in school.  When I tell her I don’t want her to go, she says, “I don’t want to go either, Mommy, but I have to.”  Which is so disturbingly logical.

Sometimes Annabelle says she’s worried about me being all alone while she’s in school, and she advises me to have another baby.  Andy’s not sure he wants one, but Annabelle says, “If Daddy doesn’t want one, you should just have one anyway.”  Perfect logic again.

Colin usually pipes in here with his rant about the endless abyss that is the school system: “You don’t want to go to school, Annabelle.  Once you start, you have to keep going for 13 years, and then you think it’s done, but no.  You still have to go to college, which is more school.  And then you have to work for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.”  It’s a pretty accurate summary, so none of us contradict him.

I’m still debating whether I should take Annabelle’s advice and have a third.  Andy says that he doesn’t want another but that it’s my decision.  Sometimes when he says this, I hear, “I don’t want another.”  So that’s a no.  But sometimes I hear, “Blah, blah, blah, Kirstin, you have supreme decision-making authority in our household.”  So that’s a green light on a puppy too.

If I have another baby, I’d want another Annabelle.  Colin is everything that’s perfect, but when we’re talking about babies, we’re talking about sleep, and Annabelle is an incredible napper.  When I told a friend this, she said, “You’re not going to have another Annabelle.”  But she would say that.  She didn’t even have one Annabelle.

When I got home from my massage, Annabelle said in her cute little voice, “Mommy, I’m sorry your neck hurt.”  It was the sweetest.  Then she asked me to hold her.  So I did.  Looking to my right is overrated anyway.

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My Family, the Real Incredibles

Everyone in my family has a super power—not like Superman, who can fly around and throw cars—more like Batman, who has less traditional powers, like popularizing eccentric outfits with vestigial capes.

My super power is that I can type really fast.  Sometimes I do it in front of students, and they inevitably tell me I’m amazing.  I try to be humble, but I’m distracted by having to open a window to get rid of the smoke that’s flying off my fingers.  A lot of mistakes slip out as I type, but it’s still impressive because I’m typing those errors really fast.

My other super power is that, back in my bible study attending days, I could flip to a book and verse of the bible faster than anyone.  I never met my equal.  Even if someone called out a verse from a minor prophet, like Habakkuk 2:13, I was there.  It’s a hard super power to have, though, because it’s awkward to get to a verse first and call out, “Ha!  I’m already there, suckas!”

Colin’s talent is that he has an amazing memory.  He’s seven now, and he can recount vacations and events from when he was two.  He even remembers when Annabelle was born.  Sometimes Colin will tell me a story that feels like a dull memory drifting somewhere in my mind, but then he adds details and polishes it until I’m sure I remember it too.  Actually, that sounds more like brainwashing, and my memory’s not so hot, so maybe it is.  Now I feel like I’m bragging—because, wow, manipulative brainwashing.  That’s a skill to make a mother proud.

Annabelle’s super power is her apology.  It’s so well-timed and sweetly stated that it can de-escalate any situation.  Sometimes I feel myself bursting with a lecture, anger pulsing through me, and then she looks at me and says, “I’m sorry, Mommy” in the cutest and sincerest little voice, and I’m defused.  She could commit grand theft auto and give me that sweet apology, and I’d say, “It’s fine.  Just show Mommy the car you stole.  Is it parked in the driveway?”

Andy is an amazing sleeper.  His head can be falling to the pillow, and he’s snoring before his ear touches cotton.  Sometimes he’s so fast that I have to wake him up just to ask, “How do you do that?”  I don’t feel bad about this because he’s asleep again in seconds.

When I think about my family’s super powers, I get the uncomfortable feeling that mine aren’t as good as theirs.  Maybe hanging on to life’s memories, earning forgiveness, and sleeping soundly are more important than, you know, typing fast.  But here is one power I forgot.  I used to watch The Princess Bride repeatedly as a child, and I now have the whole film memorized.  Inconceivable, you say.  But it’s true.

“Hello!  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”   You can imagine how often that little nugget proves useful in casual conversation.

That’s still lame.  Maybe my super power is surrounding myself with family who have really great super powers.  I’d be jealous of them, except that I know something they don’t know.  I’m not left handed.

That was a line from The Princess Bride.  It might have been a clever ending to this article if, you know, anyone in the world besides me knew the reference.

What I should have said is that having lesser super powers is a hard pill to swallow.  But chocolate coating makes it go down easier.

Come on!  Who doesn’t know that one?  Billy Crystal said it to that hello-my-name-is-Inigo-Montoya-guy.

Nevermind.  Let’s just race to Malachi 2:10 and see who can type the verse first.  I’d do it with my family, but Colin’s probably memorized the whole book already, Annabelle said, sorry, but she doesn’t want to, and Andy fell asleep before I could finish the sentence.


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To Keep or Not to Keep

We have an issue with throwing things away in our family.  Mostly, that we don’t want to.

Andy believes everything is useful.  From empty butter tubs to pencils that are too short, he has uses for everything.  He’s not a hoarder.  He really does have a purpose for all of these items that the world sees as trash, and there are moments when I’m a little awed by a man who can find the beauty in an empty butter tub.

Andy says that he has to store things everywhere because we may need them in the future, and I hate to admit it, but he’s right!  Over and over, we’ll be out and needing something, and Andy will have it—in his pocket, in the car, in his wallet—he’ll pull it out of somewhere along with a smug grin.  How can I argue against these magician-like moments when he saves the day?  Other families may have more space in their homes, but if someone ever comes to the door holding a mound of butter with no place to put it, those people are going to feel very silly.

Colin also sees beauty in the seemingly useless.  When we were cleaning up Christmas (a very emotional event for both children), I asked the kids to clean the decorations out of their rooms.  Colin came back with a decoration that he’d hidden in his room since last Christmas.

“You told me to clean up last year, and I just couldn’t let this go,” he said.  “So I hid it.”

For a whole year he hid this thing!  And what was it?  An empty paper box with tissue paper in it.

Yeah.  I threw it away this year.

I’m lying.  I put it in the Christmas box.  I had to!  He kept it for a year!

I can’t criticize.  I’m just as bad as Andy and Colin.  I hoard baby toys and clothes because what if we have another child?  I could have a boy or a girl so I have to keep, well, everything.  “Be prepared,” the Boy Scouts say.

I talked to a woman recently who said she never keeps baby clothes.  “It’s better to share with other people,” she said.  “I’ll just buy new ones.”

She’s right, obviously, and a much better candidate for sainthood than I am.  But sainthood won’t keep my nonexistent baby warm in the winter.

Annabelle is an example to all of us.  When we’re cleaning out her room, if she doesn’t play with something, she chucks it into the donation pile without a second thought.  During our last purge, she tossed in her My Little Ponies that she used to love.  That was hard for me.

“Are you sure you want to donate these?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, totally unconcerned.

That was when Colin pawed through her donation pile.  The poor kid was appalled.  “You can’t give away this!  Or this!”  It didn’t take him long to convince her she really wanted those My Little Ponies.  But she’s also started playing with them again.  So that was a confusing lesson for all of us.

Then there are those times (rare!  Very rare!) when the kids are looking for an item that I already purged.

“I think you got rid of that,” I told Colin when it happened recently.

“I don’t think I wanted to get rid of it,” he said.

I walked away quietly then because, um, that was probably true.  I might have helped him get rid of it.  But we wouldn’t donate anything if it were up to that kid, or my husband, or me.  Thank goodness for Annabelle, who tries to keep the house in order.  We should definitely always listen to her—unless she tries to donate her My Little Ponies that she hasn’t played with for a year.  Obviously that kind of crazy has to be reined in.

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Common Core Kindergarten

Last year, my son Colin started kindergarten.  For the first couple of weeks, I was dying to hear what he’d learned.  Was he writing novels?   Translating a bit of French?  Maybe splitting a couple of atoms—while wearing safety goggles—the teacher would make sure he wore his safety goggles, wouldn’t she?

I am lucky that Colin loves to talk and was happy to share about his days.  In the first week, Colin learned (drum roll, please) that the teacher has a big dog, that she has all brothers, and that she owns an R2D2 alarm clock.

“Anything else?” I ask.

He thinks.  “She also babysat her mom’s cat.”

“Okay.  But anything else?”

More thinking.  “She used to live in Alaska.”

The transition to getting up early is painful for us.  Annabelle cries.  Colin cries.  I cry.  But it’s all worth it, what with Colin absorbing knowledge like a sponge.

Once I start volunteering in his classroom, I am happy to see that far more is being taught in class than Colin reported.  One day, the teacher is having the students draw a picture and then write a sentence about their drawing by completing the prompt “I see a…”

One student wants to write “I see my Mom.”  Another says, “I see a train.”

“What are you going to write?” I ask Colin.

“I see a big rig monster truck driving down the road with boxes of toy cars.”

I leave him to that.

Annabelle, then two-years-old, says she is going to write “I see a school bus.”  At two-years-old!  The wonders of school.  If you write the standards, they will meet them.

I work my way around the room, helping kids sound out words, and they’re all doing great.  There’s a high school helper who’s writing the words for the kids to trace.  Her method is much faster than mine, but I’ve already started the sounding out thing, so I stick with it.

I sit down beside a little boy I’ll call Greg.  He wants to write, “I see a spider.”

“Do you want to do it yourself, or do you want me to write it and you trace it?” I ask because the student helper is causing me to question years of pedagogy.

“I want to do it myself,” he says.

Ok, I’m game.  I sound out each letter of “spider,” and he laboriously writes the letters.  We’re on a roll until we get to the last letter.

“Rrrr,” I say.

“I don’t know what that is,” he says.

“It’s an ‘r’,” I whisper because the teacher isn’t around, so I think I can get away with it.

“Oh.  I don’t know how to make an ‘r’.”

I’m resourceful.  I’m a problem solver.  So I pick up the name tag sitting next to me.  It says “Parker.”  I cover all of the letters except the last one and show him what an “r” looks like.

He nods and, wordlessly, starts erasing all of the letters he just wrote.

“What are you doing?!” I ask.  I want to remain calm, but that’s five minutes of our lives that we can never get back.

But nothing I say can stop him.  This kid is on an erasing mission.

The student helper nods.  “Sometimes I just want to erase everything and start over too,” she says in a happy, sing song voice.  Easy for her to say.  She’s relaxing while a table full of kids traces her letters.

Then, after Greg’s done eradicating his letters and my confidence, he starts writing “P…A…”

“What are you writing?!”  Me again.  “Are you writing ‘Parker’?  Do you want to say ‘I see a Parker’?”

“No.”  He’s very serious.  “I want to say ‘I see a spider’.”

“That’s what you had, see?  You were writing that.”

It’s still there, faintly, underneath the Pa, because erasing isn’t a common core standard until third grade.

Greg nods, erases the “Pa,” and order is restored in the world again.  I sound out each letter of spider for him, and he makes it through to the end.  The teacher hangs it on the wall, and we both live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, I return to Annabelle.  She’s made a bunch of scribbles but no sentence, the slacker.

Next I check on Colin, who’s written “I see a big rig.”  He looks at me.  “Okay, now how do I write ‘monster truck driving down the road with boxes of toy cars’?” he asks.

“You put a period,” I tell him.

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Adventures in Landscaping

Our house is a fixer upper (that I used to think would one day be fixed up.  Silly, naïve me).  When we first bought it ten years ago, my father tried to inspire me by speaking nostalgically about the backbreaking labor he and Mom had put into houses they’d owned.  He recalled with pride the retaining wall he’d built after hours of digging into solid rock.  My grandpa drove me to a house he’d once owned and spoke in that same reverential tone about the retaining wall he’d built in the front yard.  I wanted to be moved by Dad and Grandpa’s awe for their retaining walls, but putting in a yard just sounded like, well, work.  And not just any work—the evil, weekend stealing type of work that kills that Friday night buzz.

Shortly after moving in, feeling either especially brave or stupid, my husband and I decided to tame the jungle of weeds outside.  After visiting a local Manly Man store to seek advice, Andy came home with the unshakeable knowledge that we should rent a bobcat to tear out the weeds.  Like I knew what that was.  But Andy explained that a bobcat is a shrunken down bulldozer that he would drive through the yard to rip the weeds out by their roots.  It sounded like overkill, and the way that Andy was grunting and scratching as he said it only fueled my doubts.  My hands were still calloused from unsuccessful hours of hacking at the weeds, however, so in a moment of weakness I gave in.

When my brother and father heard we were renting a bobcat, they were suddenly overcome with a sense of familial duty and volunteered to help.  And I guess the bobcat was worth it.  Everyone took turns driving it, and we got rid of the weeds.  Plus, whenever bobcats pop up in conversation, Andy gets a cool story to tell, sort of like this:

Unsuspecting friend: Did you hear about that guy who saw a bobcat when he was out running on the trails?

Andy: No way!  So I remember when I drove a bobcat…

It was a good thing we got rid of those weeds because they stuck to Rocky’s fur like Velcro.  Once, pre-bobcat, Rocky managed to get one of weeds lodged in his ear.  Of course, it happened on a Friday night when he had to be taken to an emergency vet.

After attempting to dislodge the weed, the vet told us that our dog had the hairiest ears of any dog he’d ever seen.  (I was a little proud.  Really?  THE hairiest ears?  You’re not just saying that?)  Because of this, the vet had to use anesthesia and pluck all of Rocky’s ear hair before removing the weed.  It was a bit tragic for Rocky, who temporarily forfeited his Hairiest Ears title, and more tragic for us, when we saw the bill.

After the weed-in-ear-incident, we erected a temporary fence to keep Rocky in the de-weeded zones of the backyard.  It was a depressing addition for Rocky.  He stared longingly at the vast expanse of backyard that lay outside his puny pen.  There were several successful Houdini puppy escapes, and it is a very strange thing that a dog who cannot learn to sit, stay, or even to stop eating grass before he throws up could calculate so many different ways to get on the other side of that fence.

Our next project in the yard was—wait for it—a retaining wall.  After far more months than it should have taken, we finished.  Sometimes, I look out the window and see the wall the way everyone sees it, the way I saw Grandpa’s retaining wall—small, simple, unremarkable.  But other times I remember how heavy those cements blocks were and, maybe, fleetingly, I feel just a piece of that pride I heard in my dad and grandpa’s voices.  But then my gaze shifts to the shed that needs a new door and the fence that is falling over in places and the deck that needs a new step and…yeah, the moment passes.

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Say Yes to the Dress…and Yes and Yes and Yes

My three-year-old daughter is currently in love with Rapunzel.

She has a Rapunzel dress that she wears every day.  Seriously—every day.  Bonus: it’s full of glitter, so yay!  Our house is always sparkly!  The dress too fragile to be washed, and I thought it would bother me that she wears the same unwashed outfit every day—but it really cuts down on the laundry.  Plus, gone are my morning stress attacks about her taking forever to choose an outfit before it’s time to rush Colin off to school.  She gets up, we throw on the dress, and she’s ready to begin pollinating the couch and floors with glitter.  Perfect.

Andy, trying to encourage a different outfit selection, recently said, “You can’t wear the same thing every day!  Does Rapunzel wear the same dress every day?”  It was quiet then.  Because, in the movie, Rapunzel does appear to the wear the same dress every day.  So that argument ended with a win for Annabelle.

There has been great debate in our house over what Rapunzel wears to bed, as this information isn’t divulged in the movie.  I contend she puts on her comfortable Paw Patrol pajamas, but Annabelle thinks she continues to wear her dress.  I say that’s ridiculous, but given that Rapunzel wears the same outfit every day, the evidence appears to stack up on Annabelle’s side.

Annabelle doesn’t like it when ignorant people, seeing her in a princess outfit, call her a princess.  She does not want to be a princess…but Rapunzel is a princess.  Annabelle struggles with this.  I wish I could protect her, but life is about accepting these hard truths.

Annabelle loved the Rapunzel books, so even though the ending of the movie is scary, we decided to let her watch Disney’s Tangled.  In the last scene, the villain stabs Flynn, the male lead, and drags a sobbing Rapunzel away in chains.  Flynn, bleeding and dying, manages to save Rapunzel by chopping off her magical, blond hair, causing it to turn brown and un-magical—and I love it that the self-esteem damaging symbolism is obvious enough for a three-year-old to grasp.  Then the villain shrieks as she painfully shrivels and vanishes.  Next up are several minutes of Flynn gasping for breath as he slips closer to death.

When the ending played, Annabelle started whimpering and crying, and we felt terrible for showing it.

“Don’t worry!  The villain’s gone now,” we told her.  “And Flynn’s okay!  Look!  Rapunzel saves him.”

Annabelle only sobbed harder.  “I don’t want her hair to be brown!” she cried.

Seriously.  That’s the part she thought was scary.

Annabelle has requested we call her Rapunzel and recently asked me why I did not name her that.  (Answer: because I am sane.)  We do all try to call her Rapunzel, though we have stopped short of filing the legal paperwork.

Because Rapunzel never wears shoes, Annabelle also wants to be barefoot at all times, but she did acquiesce to wearing shoes when she leaves the house.  This is because I explained that Rapunzel’s feet are hardened and calloused from running around in the forest without proper footwear, as was probably depicted in a deleted scene.

To complete her Rapunzel transformation, Annabelle wants to continue growing her hair (not a problem) and to dye it yellow (problem).  I’m taking this way too seriously, but it seems like young girls constantly struggle with wanting to change something about their appearance, and my baby already wants different hair at age three?  I hate that.  And I kind of hate Rapunzel for causing it.  And I don’t know how to break it to Annabelle that yellow isn’t a real hair color.

“But your hair is so beautiful!” I tell her, and she ignores me.

“You should be happy with what you have!” I say, and she ignores me.

“No one wants hair that’s so long that people use it to climb up and down towers.  Don’t you think that would hurt?” I ask, and she listens.

“Yeah!” she says.  “And wouldn’t her hair get dirty dragging on the floor all the time?”

“So dirty!”

Like your dress.  And your bare feet.  And the house, on account of all the glitter.  But yes!  Dirt!  Gross!


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Rats! and Other Four Letter Words

Two years ago, my family and I visited my parents in Reno for Christmas, and when we returned, our kitchen was flooded.  Apparently rats had snuck into the house in our absence and chewed through the water line to the fridge– the water line I’d been wanting installed for seven years and that was finally put in maybe a month prior.

Later, I ran the dishwasher, and that also flooded the kitchen because the rats had eaten through that tubing as well.

Some rats sew dresses, clean houses, and cook gourmet meals.  Ours destroyed our home.

The thing is that we thought we were being so clever when we left.  We cleaned relentlessly and packaged away all the food.  “Ha!” we thought.  “We didn’t leave those rats anything!  They’ll be desperate for water!”  Turns out we were right.

One of my seven-year-old students, after hearing the story, commented, “You should really put in metal water lines instead of plastic.”

Isn’t he smart.  Except that I know way more important things like how to divide decimals and write a cursive “z.”  Sometimes I wonder how that boy’s going to make it in the real world.

A restoration company came in and put industrial fans all over the house.  This in between time when we didn’t yet know what was going to happen was the worst.  Power cords ran all over the floor, there was a constant whirring background noise, and all of us turned into reptiles with dry, flaky skin.  The restoration company told us that they had to cut into the floors and walls to properly dry everything out because there might be mold growing under the house.  They told us we would have to move out for six months.

We often asked if there was evidence of mold, but they could never verify this.  They just told us to get out.

They were probably right.  But I couldn’t help wondering, how bad is it to live in mold, really?  (They said it was bad.  Really.)

I think a lot of my doubts could have been solved if they’d just lied to me and said, “Yes!  There’s mold!  Everywhere!  You will probably die from it in six months unless you move out.”

Then I could have felt really good about moving out and not dying.

Things got better.  Our insurance company came through and paid for the bulk of the expenses, including six months in a rental in Vallejo.  Our Vallejo house was much bigger.  It had an extra bathroom and bedroom, including a master suite.  In the evenings, two people could be in separate bathrooms and shower at—get this—the same time.  Then, when Andy and I wanted to watch a movie while the kids napped, the house was large enough that the kids couldn’t hear us.  We’d always wondered if we’d like a bigger house, and it turns out we would.  For a while, we were sure we should move.

But then we moved back to our updated, rat free home, and we changed our minds.  We got to choose everything for the remodel, so we love it.  If we bought a bigger house, there’s no way it would be remodeled in just the way we want.  Then we’d have to release a rat to chew through the water line and damage it again.  Seems like a lot of trouble.

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