Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Help...Make Them Stop Helping Me

Yesterday, the grocery sacker offered to help me put the bags in the car. How nice, I thought. He noticed that I have two wild little boys and a baby buckled into the cart and wants to ease my back pain.

Once we got out there, the sacker said, "I'll watch the kid. You put the groceries in the car."

Who did he think he was? My husband?

People can't stop helping me.

I thanked the sacker and watched as he babysat an empty cart. I always put the boys in their carseats before loading the bags so that they don't help me.

They help enough inside the store.

This time, Johnny and Richie helped me understand why they were crawling through the store on all fours. It wasn't to pick up unthinkable germs but to look like wild boars. However, they didn't need to crawl to get that point across. Their behavior spoke for itself.

They helpfully told me whose fault it was that they were squeezing loaves of bread, body blocking each other into canned goods, tearing open the plastic on raw beef, and running in front of a cart pushed by a crazed lunatic (me.) It was all Richie's fault, Johnny said.

Richie helpfully agreed. Then he gave me that giggling look that said: "What are you going to do about it? Spank me?" He even turned around and helpfully stuck out his bottom and shook it back and forth so I could see it better.

My kids can't stop helping me.

Johnny helps clean up around the house by handing me things and saying, "Put that away."

He gives helpful advice about safely handling the items.

Giving me a box of thumbtacks, he says, "Don't let the baby play with these."

Handing me a sheet of shamrock stickers, he says, "Don't eat them."

"They think I'm an idiot," I complained to Justin.

He laughed, obviously agreeing with them.

We were having a family party yesterday and Justin got home from work early.

Before the trip from hell to the store, he helpfully offered to clean up the backyard if I took all the kids with me. This meant that while I was saying things like, "Well, this is the most ridiculous display of behavior I've ever seen. You have truly outdone yourselves this time, gentlemen. I have half a mind to sit here with you all night while you think about who will get stuck eating that smashed bread and torn up meat. That means you would miss the party. How does that sound, boars?" my husband was leasurely wiping off the table and putting away toys, enjoying the balmy backyard breeze.

He probably paused to talk to the young neighbors who don't have children. He knows these neighbors. He jokes with them. He knows their friends. They drink beer together. He tells me funny anecdotes about the great times they have together.

To me, the couple is the blur I see when I wrestle our dog off the neighbor's cat or run bandaids out to whichever kid has bleeding knees.

When we got home from the grocery store, my husband helped me remember that we were out of charcoal. No problem. He went back to the store for me. Alone.

Really guys, you have to stop helping me. I can take it from here.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Gravity is the Real Enemy

"Nananananananana. Batman. Nananananananana. Batman."

In his tiny, twangy voice Richie, 3, sings. His arms pump faster than his legs can run. His black Batman mask hides his face and the cape drags behind him on our hardwood floors.

He stops in his tracks, cupping his hand like a walkie talkie.

"Who is this?" he asks.

High pitched laughter rings out, also coming from Richie.

"It's the joker," Richie says. "Get him."

He moves his arms in freeze frame punches. "Ch. Ch. Ch. I got him."

A train of bad guys follow. Penguin. Catwoman. Darth Vader. Richie gets them all.

He believes he's Batman--for now. But later, he'll shed the cape and say, "I'm not Batman."

Dejected, he'll color until he can muster the courage to believe in himself again.

Just months ago, Richie never doubted for a moment that he was a superhero. In those days, he wore a cape everywhere--a checkered dishtowel tied around his neck. He waited for Santa to bring his real Batman cape, which he looked at in a catalogue everyday.

Richie thought he could fly. It's just that he never needed to.

Then one warm November day a bunch of balloons flew to the top of the Elm tree in our backyard. I watched from the open backdoor as Richie stood with his arms stretched over his head, ready for take off. Nothing happened.

"When I get my Batman cape, I'll get them," he told Johnny.

Then he remembered that he had a Batman cape--the dishtowel. He ran inside, his arms pumping faster than his legs could carry him. He pulled the placemats and aprons out of the cabinet until he found the red checkered dishtowel.

I reluctantly tied it around his neck, knowing that when belief and gravity battle, the latter always wins. Why couldn't the towel have been in the wash?

Richie bolted back outside, arms stretched over his head, and jumped. His feet barely left the ground. He kept jumping. Nothing happened. Finally, he ran inside, sat at his little table and cried. He couldn't fly, not even with his cape on.

"You can't fly today," I said. "But you might someday."

"No," he said. "I can't. I can't."

He wailed silently, tearlessly. Hugging him, I remembered how it felt to have your throat ache with heartbreak and disappointment.

Richie sat at the table until lunch time. After eating a sandwich and yogurt and orange, he recouperated and ran around the house in his red checkered cape again.

The balloons had flown from the tree.

"You'll get them next time," I told Richie.

"Yeah," he said. "I will."

Richie and I play Batman at a children's museum where Johnny takes science class. There's a room filled with ramps and mirrors and caves and boats. In the art room, I paint a mask on Richie's face. We wait until nobody else is in the "superhero" room. Then the bad guys crawl out of their snake holes.

They fly at Richie faster than he can blink and he gets them one by one. Why do they even try? There is no match for Richie's kung fu moves. Not the Riddler. Not the Green Goblin. Not Doc Oc.
Only gravity. That venomous enemy of boyhood imagination.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Our Trip to Trash Creek

When I was a kid in the summertime, the neighbor boys, my brothers and I would go on daily hikes to Quik Trip, where we bought tobacco-related sweets, such as Big League Chew and candy cigarettes. We'd wash them down with "suicides--" mixtures of sprite, coke, grape soda and any other pop they had on tap. Then we'd trudge home through the 108 degree swamp of sweat and humidity.

As soon as we stepped out of the air conditioned convenience store, the soda pop turned to hot syrup. Passing people's yards, dog doo cooking in the sun made us gag. Our mouths were dry as if we'd been drinking seawater--as opposed to hot syrup. I always forgot to wear shoes, so the heals of my feet burned off as I crossed the asphalt streets. Nature was brutal. But that didn't mean we threw trash at it. If we did, we'd see it the next day on the same walk and feel guilty.

But last week, my sons and I hiked through a beautiful stretch of land in the heart of the city, and people had, indeed, trashed the place.

Fox Hollow Trail starts at the Lakeside Nature Center in Swope Park. It cuts through a limestone bluff, where a thin layer of dirt covers rock in some places. At other spots, layers of rock jut out as if you're on a mountain.

Warmed by the sun and blocked from the wind, the bluff felt 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the park on the cool February day. My kids shed their hats and coats and we felt the blanket of summer rest on our shoulders.

As we descended the hill, we heard woodpeckers hammering their beaks on trees. We watched coal trains pass by on a nearby railroad track. The boys swung like Tarzan from grapevines. J.J. dozed with the sun on his cheeks in the backpack.

At the base of the hill, we saw Shiloh Hollow. With gnarled branches and felled trees covered with moss, it looked like fairytale woods. Richie sat in a hollowed branch and pretended to be in a canoe. Johnny pointed out a hole at the base of a tree and said little men must live there. It seemed as if we had happened upon a place nobody knew about but us.

At the creek, the boys stopped to skate rocks across the ice. That's where I saw it. Evidence that not only did few people know about this place, but they assumed it was the city dump. Plastic bags, pop cans, bathmats, big gulp cups and other trash congregated in a leafy dam. What a slap in the face to this beautiful forest! It reminded me of the book "The Giving Tree" when the boy cut down the tree that was so generous to him.

The girl inside the nature center said workers picked trash out of the creek everyday, but they couldn't keep up with it. On the busy street nearby, drivers threw their trash out their windows, and it blew down the hill and into the creek, she said. It is just one of many polluted creeks in Kansas City.

I tried to ignore the trash as we rested at the creek to drink our cans of pop. The boys had fun throwing rocks in the water. Johnny stepped out onto the ice, testing its strength. The water was shallow and it was a warm enough day, but I worried that if he fell in, the pollution would turn him into a mutant.

What would possess someone to throw a bathmat into a creek? I wondered.

As we walked back up the hill, Richie lay on his stomach and moved his hands through the warm dirt. Johnny laid down and rolled along the trail. I sat down and let the sun warm my face. Pretty soon, I realized I was drawing on the dirt with a stick. It was like nature was drawing us even closer to it. Calling us to its very essence: dirt. It was our final chance to soak up nature for the day. To let the hillside cure us of everything from hyperactivity to anxiety.

And I thought that if everybody did this once in a while--let nature take care of them, they would take better care of nature.

Myself included. I don't throw trash out the window, but we sure create a lot of garbage bags and seem to harvest junk in our yard. A quick glance out the window reveals bunches of toilet paper everywhere. That could be considered trash, though the kids call it "a project."

The trip made me want to do something for nature. I can't volunteer to pick up trash because I have a weak stomach. But I could encourage others to volunteer.

Just joking. The boys and I are going to come up with a plan to take care of nature just like it took care of us last week. We'll keep you updated on our efforts.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Wine...It's Not Just Old Grape Juice

Wine. It's like grape juice that sits in the basement for a long time, right?

That's what I thought until last night, when I went to a girls' wine tasting party put on by my friends Katie and Teri.

Now, I've been to a wine tasting before at a liquor store, but I was too preoccupied with the spit buckets and pieces of dry white bread set out to pay attention. This must be what prison is like, I thought. To which I'm sure incarcerated people everywhere are saying, "Yes, prison is exactly like an elegant wine tasting, you spoiled, little $%#!"

Beer, on the other hand, requires artisanship. While making softball shirts for dads everywhere, brewers have to cold filter--never heat pasturize--the beverage, and choose from only the finest hops and barley. They must manufacture the beer in the Land of Sky Blue Wa-ha-ter. Wa-ha-ter. At least, that's what I've gathered from watching beer ads.

American beer tells the story of the immigrant spirit, wild and wooly cities, family tragedy, prohibition and the power of advertizing. In other countries, monks drank beer during Lent for strength and Bavarians drink it like big gulps for lunch. And yet, wine gets all the attention.

Last night, I began to understand what all the fuss was about. This wine tasting was a class act--totally spittoon-free. There was cheese and sourdough bread and cheese soup and grapes and chocolate and hostesses with the mostesses, of course, good friends, which makes everything taste better.

Megan, the wine consultant, taught us to enjoy the wine with all our senses. For the first wine, we saw the silvery color, smelled the white flowers and tasted the old grape juice--I mean Italian Pinot Grigio.

The next wine was a South African Souvignon Blanc.

"Do you taste minerals?" she asked. "South African soil is high in minerals from the limestone."

I'll have to ask my sons what limestone tastes like. I'm sure they've licked rocks. They've eaten dirt, so why not?

Another wine had an oaky taste, Megan said.

Katie asked what oak tasted like.

Maybe instead of having dry bread, serious wine tasting venues should set out rocks and oak leaves for people to taste between sips. For comparison purposes.

The second and third wines were a taste sensation. One smelled like 5-Alive and the other like church, but because of their flavor, I would definitely have them sponsor my softball team if I were a dad.

By number four and five, I was too enthralled in conversation with my friend Keli and the other girls to even know if the wine smelled like pasta salad or Elm trees. They both tasted like cheddar, possibly due to the thousands of cheese and crackers I had devoured.

As we taste-tested the wine, we talked about kids and fate and religion and family and how aromas can take you back to places you don't even remember except for their smell. Some of the women came from jobs where people are dying of cancer. Others held the burden of sorrow in their arms like a baby that can never be laid down. Mostly, though, we laughed.

Toward the end of the night, Megan taught us that the worst growing conditions make the best wine. Rocky, dry landscapes punish the fruit until only the fiestiest survive. And a new bottle of wine is born.

It works sort of like friendship.

I guess I misspoke when I called wine old grape juice. When you know more about it, you see why wine commands so much respect. And I'll drink a beer to that.

Friday, February 24, 2006

On Breastfeeding and Chicken Wing Eating

When my oldest son Johnny was a baby, we went to an Arizona restaurant with family and friends. I wore an orange sundress and ate chips and salsa, thinking, "Yeah, I'm a mom. But I still dress cute." I was so pleased with myself.

Then Johnny wanted to nurse. This happens when you're a breastfeeding mother. If you only nursed your baby in the privacy of your own home, you would never leave your house.

So I draped a blanket over my shoulder, unzipped the dress and tried to slip it off my shoulder. The blanket fell off me and there I was in my bra, looking like I was taking my clothes off at a restaurant. The long table of people looked at me, bemused, and I ran for the door, mortified.

It was a rookie mistake. And terribly indiscrete.

I think most nursing mothers could tell similar stories.

In Kansas, a House Bill was passed yesterday that allowed breastfeeding in public. It was after a mom encountered rude comments while breastfeeding her baby at a health club. But the house added one little word to the bill: "discretely." A woman must breastfeed the baby discretely, which is easier said than done. Advocates of breastfeeding pointed out that that term is open to interpretation.

I agree. What is indiscrete breastfeeding? Is it when you attach tassels to your breasts and swing them around to get your baby focused on his food source? Or is it when you put a blanket over your shoulder, and in the same instant, the baby bites your breast, pulls down the blanket and jerks his head away? You scream, "Ah, jaysus," in pain, attracting attention to your now exposed breast.

If it is the latter, I agree that it is indiscrete, and those babies should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. No offense J.J. Furthermore, there should be no statute of limitations. Sorry, Johnny and Richie.

Let's face it, babies are the least discrete beings on the planet, beating out even orangutans. They scream during church and sit quietly at the park. They wait until they have their new baptismal gown on to have a blow-out diaper. And they don't like eating with a blanket over their heads. Who does?

For instance, last year I tried to pass a bill in the Senate that required people eating hot chicken wings to do so with a blanket over their heads. I find orange grease dripping from chins offensive. But my husband is a bulldog lobbyist and shot that legislation right out of the water. He claimed that he couldn't breath well while eating with a blanket over his head. People have gone overboard with individual rights, is what I say. "We need our air." Wa wa wa.

In all fairness, I think this language is in the interest of business owners who might not want mothers to nurse on their property. Business is tough, and I understand that owners have to consider the attitudes of their patrons. If those patrons think babies should cower under a blanket drinking bland milk while they eat hot chicken wings indiscretely, that's their opinion, and one I respect.

Luckily, acceptance of breastfeeding has come a long way. My friend Grandma Ruby said that when she was a young mother in the 1940s or 50s, doctors discouraged breastfeeding. It was considered a country bumpkin thing to do. She breastfed anyway because something told her it was good for the babies.

Now, lactation specialists are available at hospitals to help new mothers with breastfeeding. My sister in law Erin said that some corporations now hire lactation consultants to help working moms continue to breastfeed. I've never heard negative comments while I've breastfed my sons--not even after the Arizona fiasco. Sometimes, a woman will walk by and say, "Good for you, mom."

But the whole reason behind this bill is that nursing mothers were being discriminated against. And adding such a subjective word as "discretely" to the bill could render it useless. I doubt that women who looked as if they weren't nursing encountered much grief in the first place.

Make no mistake. Breastfeeding in public is not currently illegal in Kansas. This bill just says you can't ask a woman to leave for breastfeeding discretely. It says nothing about chicken wings.

Today the house takes a final vote before the bill is considered by the Senate. Advocates of breastfeeding hope lawmakers take out the word "discretely."

Some lawmakers argue that the language is necessary because some women are not nursing discretely. I agree, but I'm sure they are sufficiently embarrassed, as I was, when that happens, and don't need to be further mortified by being asked to leave. To summarize my earlier point, if anything, the squirmy, bitey babies should be jailed. (Not that anyone is going to jail for breastfeeding.)

I think House Committee Chairman Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, said it best in an article in the Lawrence World Journal. "I trust women to know when they are being discrete."

37 states have laws legalizing breastfeeding in public. Only one says they must do so discretely. And well, well, well. Look who it is. My home state of Missouri. To which I just have one thing to say. It's a good thing I did my breastfeeding striptease in Arizona.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Behavior of Birds, Dinosaurs and the North American Boy

The plan for homeschool yesterday was writing out the alphabet on dry erase boards, counting to 20, drawing maps of the continents and dusting the living room.

But by 8:30 a.m. Johnny was putting alphabet magnets on my face as though I were a refrigerator. Meanwhile, Richie and Johnny kept crashing together as though they, too, were magnets. They'd laugh. Then the next time they'd bicker like irritable co-workers.

Richie: "No thank you, John."
Johnny: "You did it, too, Rich."
Richie: "No I didn't, John."

Then the spat deteriorated into a smack down that would get employees from the World Wrestling Federation fired.

This meant only one thing: emergency field trip.

We drove a couple miles to Lakeside Nature Center, a free animal and wildlands educational place in Swope Park, which is either the largest city park in America, or the first ever built, or the one most overgrown with honeysuckle, or something.

We go to the center about once a week. They have a library full of animal nonfiction books--Johnny loves it. The library looks like a living room, with bean bag chairs and toys and couches. We sit on the sofa and pile our coats on the carpeting. I breastfeed J.J. and consider moving the tarantula exhibit out of the room. Spiders seem more like outside pets, I think. My motto is, If they want to kill us, they are not welcome in our home. This doesn't include Fish Face, who I'm sure wants to kill us, but for good reason. I imagine the workers overhearing me and saying, "This family knows they don't live here, right?"

While we make ourselves at home, Richie colors 20 or 30 pictures of owls and then sits by the domestic rabbit exhibit and they hop over to him like he is Saint Francis of Assissi. He pets them and smiles like a proud daddy.

"They love you," I tell him.

"Yeah," he says. "They do, mom."

I never paid attention in science class, so I always learn something new at Lakeside Nature Center. Yesterday, I learned that mice can give birth to 1,000 babies in one year--which, incidentally, is the birthrate of the women in our family, as well, whereas cottontail rabbits only have 40 babies.

"What do you mean 'only,' sister? You try nursing 40 buckteethed children. My husband is god knows where--raiding Mr. McGregor's garden, probably. The babies are always losing their mittens..."

Oh, I'm sorry Miss Rabbit. Don't bite me. I didn't mean it. You can go back to letting my son pet you now.

Furthermore, we learned that bald eagles can see four to eight times as well as humans, an ability that evolved through years of going to Royals Home Openers with the St. Elizabeth School safety patrol and sitting in the nosebleeds.

Lakeside Nature Center has an unbelievable native bird exhibit, which includes a bald eagle. Most of the birds are being rehabilitated--Hawks that were raised by humans as pets, owls that were injured in the wild.

There was a turkey vulture that J.J. tried to talk to. "Huh. Huh," J.J. said, flapping his arms and kicking his legs, as if trying to swim out of my arms and into the sky.

Then the vulture spread his wings and one was all crooked and his claws were tethered to a chain. With old, benevolent eyes, he looked at J.J., as if to say, "Yeah, me too, kid."

The birds have to be tethered to chains so that they don't hurt each other or themselves, the sign says. The same could be said of my sons and I don't tether them, but by "hurt each other" I think the sign means "kill each other." My sons' intention is not to kill each other when they fight, though I don't know what their intention is.

As for birds, they hate each other. They haven't forgotten their dinosaur days.

Speaking of which, here's an interesting thought from a dinosaur book we read: In 1982, scientists found the skull and bones of a particularly smart dinosaur. I can't remember the species name, but these guys were like the chimpanzees of the reptile age. So the scientists did a study of what would have happened to these smart reptiles if dinosaurs never became extinct. Based on climate changes, etc., the scientists thought the dinos would have continued walking more and more upright until they no longer needed tails for balance. Needing to protect themselves against faster, bigger predators, they would have continued getting smarter, until they could make simple tools. You see where this is going, right? They would have been lizard people. Like us, only scaly and conniving and beaked. Feel free to fill in the blank here. "So that's why my (boss/coworker/clerk at Best Buy) has such dry, flaky skin and obviously cold blood. He/she is a lizard person."

We also learned that yellow-eyed penguins have a low divorce rate. That is actually what Animal Encyclopedia Vol. 22, wy-zo, said about them. I can just imagine the writer's frame of mind when she got to this entry: "There's no way any kid is going to read this boring book, so I'll just write whatever I damn want. I'll write about penguins getting divorces. The next entry will talk about penguin divorce lawyers. How do you like, that, Ms. "the kids love boring encyclopedias" Publisher?"

Rest assured, dear encyclopedia writer, my son is a big fan of your work.

The day was full of learning experiences. I haven't even gotten to the hike part. Don't worry, I won't, not until tomorrow anyway.

The most important lesson from the day, though, came from two older women walking through the nature center, arms linked.

They stopped to look at J.J. and smiled at him as if to say, "Oh, look. A baby human!"

"He's beautiful," one of the women said. "Three boys?"

"Three boys," I said.

"Me, too," she said. She nodded to her companion and whispered, "She had all boys, too, but she doesn't remember."

The companion continued smiling.

The woman and I talked about how boys are always wrestling, always fighting.

She said that as her sons got older, she'd tell them, "If you're going to bleed, go outside. Don't do it on my rug."

"And they are still close," she continued. "They still share that bond. I wish they lived closer together because they are best friends."

The wrestling is a bond? A sign of enduring friendship? So that is the intention of their WWF matches. It was not something I considered any of the times I heard a thud and walked into what had turned from a wrestling match into a fist fight.

But this woman, who was taking her senile friend to see the animals and who probably paused to read the facts on snapping turtles and rat snakes, had observed the behavior of North American boys. Now, she was sharing with me her encyclopedia entry on them. Boys wrestle because they love each other. The harder the blows, the stronger the bond.

Now that is something you don't learn in books.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Academy Awards

The Academy Awards are not happening until Mar. 5, but they've been in the entertainment pages for a long time. People are excited about Jon Stewart of The Daily Show hosting. People wonder if Isaac Mizrahi will grope actresses again. There is talk that some of the movies nominated are out of touch with what the general public has seen. That has always been the case, critics argue. Brokeback Mountain has been talked to death.

As you can see, I have read every article relating to the Academy Awards. The date is marked on my calendar. I thought about having a party that night, but realized that would prevent me from hanging on the actors' every word. I can't very well shush my guests all night, can I?

Sure, I'll get annoyed when the E! "reporters" ask the stars what they are wearing, as if any of us normal people care who designed the clothes. Personally, I am too busy making snotty comments--a la Joan Rivers--about actresses who are my age but look 10 years younger.

"Oh, this outfit is a disaster," I say. "An utter disaster." Then I can't think of anything else bad to say because, in truth, they all look glamorous and spectacular to me.

So I am prepared to watch the Academy Awards, except for seeing any of the movies.

But whenever I think about the awards show, I think about less glamorous accomplishments that happen all around us. You might sit beside someone on a park bench and never know that he performed the first heart transplant. Or invented the bomb pop. Not to compare popcicles to medical advances, but my mom actually met the man who invented the bomb pop and as a kid, it made me wonder about the secret accomplishments of people I passed on the sidewalk.

A couple people come to mind this week for their accomplishments. My Aunt Mo just raised $170,000 plus for her children's school by putting on an auction. This involved soliciting businesses and individuals for gifts, supervising volunteers, overseeing a huge dinner and all the details that go into planning a party for hundreds of people. Meanwhile, she took care of her four school age children and brought dinner to my husband and her husband countless times while they renovated my grandparents' kitchen.

Vicki, who commented on this blog yesterday, heads a not for profit organization that provides dance lessons for poor children. This is in honor of her daughter, Emily, a dancer who died in a car accident while in college. The Web site is www.emilyfoundation.org.

My mom, who comments on this blog everyday, takes care of my children on Tuesdays so that I can work, or in some cases, obsess over finding more work. Yesterday, she also spent three hours frosting my hair, putting up with my paranoia that it looked like yellow yarn. I'm sure she loved the part when I said, "I look like a muppet, don't I?" as though she had never frosted anyone's hair before and had no idea what she was doing. In fact, she has been responsible for every faux blond in our family at one time or other.

My 15-year-old cousin Addie, who walked into a clothes boutique, asked for an internship and now is designing her own dresses based on a vintage style she found at the thrift store next door. Now, if she ever becomes a famous designer, I will be coaching the E! people from the couch. "Ask what she's wearing. Ask who the designer is."

Others who read this accomplish more in a day than I do all year, unless we're referring to how many blogs they write, for which I have few rivals, sadly.

Finally, I have to mention our Beta, Fish Face. He survived a "fin cut" from my son who was under the impression that fins were the same as hair and should be trimmed evenly. Then our cat knocked over his bowl and he spent an entire morning on dry land. Now he lives safely on top of our refrigerator. He is a very special fish and deserves recognition, too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Tragic Way to Live

My friend Kara called yesterday from Arizona and left a message. She had read my blog about cleaning. "I hope you don't lose your mind," she said. "It's a terrible thing to lose."

Now, I'm not really losing my mind. It's just a figure of speech I used to describe how frustrating it was to clean a house with children underfoot. Which is why I don't do it. But Kara works with people who really lost their mind. For a short time, I worked in the same field. Terrible is a good word to describe what it must be like to go insane. In fact, after working in a group home with mentally ill women, going crazy was my worst fear.

They lived in the group home after leaving the mental hospital. We made sure they took their medication, ate meals and got out of the house. But what they really wanted to do was sleep.

It happened to the women when they were in their 20s. They were ballerinas or mothers or office workers. Then one day, they woke up believing their house was overrun with deamons. Or that everyone in the world conspired to kill them. Or that they were the grande dame in a real life soap opera--which sounds fun but wasn't.

Being crazy, for them, was not like how they show it in the movies. Tragic or comic, movies at least make it look interesting. But a dull sadness hung over the house where I worked. It was all brown carpeting, brown upholstered furniture, rented movies, tuna casserole, tabby cats, kitschy art, and somebody thinking helicopters were coming after them.

I remember going back to the woman's room with her and peering through her blinds, seeing if the choppers had come yet.

"I don't see them," I kept saying. Telling her they weren't coming was fruitless, so the only proof I could offer her that she was safe was that they weren't there yet.

And I'm such a chicken that I started thinking, "What if helicopters are coming after her? What if she knows something we don't?"

My friend Kara is really good at working with mentally ill people. She probably would have told the woman the yard was too small for helicopters to land and that would be that.

It was a job I was terrible at. There was a woman in the house whose mom said she could only smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and we had to dole them out one at a time and she'd glare at us and yell at us and call us names. She'd point to me and tell everyone I was the snake who married her son. I didn't know what to say to that, so I'd laugh. I was always laughing about the outlandish things she said, but the truth was, I was scared of her. When she glared at me, she seemed to see through to a part of me that did marry her son and behave like a snake. Like an alternate reality.

I wish now I had given her however many cigarettes she damned well pleased. I didn't know how to work with her, but putting myself in her shoes would have been a start. It's just that they were scary shoes to try on.

One night, a woman at the house was doing dishes and let out a high pitched scream for 5 minutes. I made everybody go outside in case we were the scary things she was screaming about. But before I could usher everyone out the door, she stopped.

"Are you okay?" I asked, tiptoeing, around her.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said brightly, as though she had no idea why I would ask.

She had a family who lived a few miles away and she'd call her husband to see when she could come home for an afternoon. He'd schedule it for a month down the road. We'd pick her up afterward and she'd cheerfully describe how she cooked for her kids, but a coworker said the woman just slept while she was there.

There was a woman my age there who would take off and go panhandling for money to buy Coke--the soft drink. I'd head for the bright lights of the nearby college town in the company minivan. Led by intuition, I'd turn left and right until I saw her dyed blonde hair and unselfconscious gait. Even though she didn't have to come with me, she'd get in the car.

"How did you know where I was?" she'd ask.

I'd shrug and she'd tell me some of the things she saw while she was out.

I always felt proud of that one talent I had in this job, but I think now she would have come home anyway when she got tired of walking around the city. The minivan was simply a free ride home. Eventually we scheduled these escapades, taking her walking around the college town in the evening. I always volunteered for these field trips because I liked being out in the fresh air, too. But she'd still run off on the nights we didn't have a fieldtrip planned. I heard that one night she took off and never came back. I guess it was only a matter of time.

So that is my experience with women who have really lost their minds. I worked there for less than a year. Kara, on the other hand has worked in the field for years. She has a lot more stories to tell -- not all of them sad, either. I guess that's how you know you're in the right place. If stories about your day are mixed with perplexity and clarity, sadness and funniness, complaints and gratitude, challenges and confidence, then you are probably doing something right.

I wish I had tried harder at my job in the group home. In contrast, the mentally women tried hard to live as they had before losing their minds. They'd call their husband or old friend. They'd adopt kittens from the pound. But the husband was reluctant to see his wife and the friendship was on different terms. And there was the worry, when the kittens grew up and got scratched in an alley fight, that they had "mad cat" disease. Living like before was impossible.

At the end of the day, the woman couldn't say, "I thought helicopters were chasing me today," because she thought they were still chasing her. The women couldn't get out of the stories they were living long enough to tell the tales. And yet, they knew there was a tragic tale to tell. To me, it was the ultimate tragedy.

Monday, February 20, 2006

All Questions Must Be Submitted in Writing

I'm posting a new rule in our house, which says, "All questions asked between 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., and 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. must be submitted in writing. Informal requests for information, such as yelling, screaming and repeating questions over and over will be ignored."

It's not that I have anything against questions. And I love helping my family. I'm flattered that my husband thinks I have a detailed inventory of our house and his truck filed away in my brain. I'm delighted that my children think I'm so smart as to know why superheros wear underpants over their tights.

But 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. is supposed to be "quiet time." Mommy spends this doing "me things" like laundry and dishes. I ignore the swish of lightsabers and pounding of feet overhead as I head for the basement washer. I pretend it is quiet.

Just when I'm in the middle of a daydream, pouring bleach into the dark load, I hear what sounds like a tornado siren. It starts out quietly and ends forbodingly. "mmmoooOOOMMM! mmmoooOOOMMM!"

I dart upstairs, my heart pumping. It beats even faster to accomodate my boiling blood when I hear the emergency.

"When can we get out of quiet time?" The boys ask.

The baby is now awake and crying. My chores are shot to hell.

"Well that would being impossible seeings how quiet time NEVER BEGAN," I say with the attitude of a junior high kid.

If the question had been submitted in writing, however, I would have typed a polite response, such as, "Gentleman, thank you for your insightful query. Please note that in order for something to end, it must first begin. Review your list of sanctioned quiet activities: reading, coloring and thinking. You'll recall we checked out hundreds of library books this morning. Trust me, you should read these while you're young and don't list "straightening up the house" as a favorite hobby. Yours truly, Mommy."

As for 5 p.m.-6 p.m., that is the dinner fixing hour and I have enough questions of my own crowding my brain as I double recipes or divide them in half.

When my husband asks, "Where are the nail clippers?" I answer, "Three eggs divided by two. Let's see, that's three yolks and three whites. Which is six--an even number. So it can be divided..."

I wouldn't be able to answer his inventory questions even if I tried.

Now I would be able to answer the question, "Do you mind if I clip my toenails here in the kitchen while you cook?" but he doesn't ask that. He just does it.

With the new rule, I can picture how smoothly things will go today. I'll remind the boys to submit questions in writing. They'll find a crayon and paper and ask, "How do you spell "when"? How do you spell "can"? How do you spell "we"? How do you spell "get out"? How do you spell "of"? How do you spell "quiet time"?"

I'll tell my husband the new rule and he'll ask, "Do we have any pens anywhere? This one's broken. Oh, here's a pencil. Where's our pencil sharpener?"

And I'll ask, "Why did I make up this dumb rule?"

My sister-in-law Sarah said she thought of me when she saw a T-shirt that said "Will you please read my blog?" Thank you, Devida, Josh, Mom, Jeanne, Mike, Erin, people who e-mailed me, Wolf-snaggle-tooth and anyone else for reading this so I don't have to resort to wearing a T-shirt with that plea. I really appreciate your comments.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

If I had $365 Million Dollars...I'd be Crazy.

"Remind me to stop and get a lottery ticket on the way home," my husband said last night, pointing out that the pot was worth about $365 million.

Luckily, I didn't remember. Not that we would have won, but I don't want to take any chances. You know in Fiddler on the Roof, where the father, sings "If I Were a Rich Man?" And his dream of studying scripture and his wife taking it easy is sweet? In contrast, my version of being filthy rich would be, well, filthy. I'd make Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack look tasteful.

I'd have my nails encrusted in pink diamonds. Build a waterfall that cascaded from our roof. At art auctions, I'd outbid everyone--including myself--just for the hell of it. I wouldn't move out of our neighborhood in Waldo, but would create a gated community right in our front yard and hire a team of singing, dancing gardeners to whip things into shape. I'd get silver teeth caps for our whole family. My children would have a 24-hour servant and her name wouldn't be "Moooooom!!!!" We'd eat lobster omelets for breakfast and caviar and cream cheese sandwiches for lunch. I'd still drink Hamm's--the beer currently in our refridgerator--but I'd special order it in solid gold cans. Artists and musicians would create their work on our "estate" while my family dozed under flowering trees with a family of chimpanzees we acquired while on Safari. They'd wear little gingham suits or sundresses and bonnets. Of course, I'd give to charity, but not anonymously. "No problem," I'd say, signing a check for $11 million to Children's Mercy Hospital, "and I think you'll enjoy your new name, Bridget's Mercy Hospital." I'd smile, blinding them with my disco ball mouth.

Why such a ridiculous showing of our wealth? Because $365 million drives people crazy, and for me, that's a short trip. Luckily, God knows this and throws mishaps our way every time we come into a little money. Tax break on the way? Surprise, the car needs new tires. Deadbeat customer pays Justin? There goes the hot water heater.

Now $1 million. That would be nice.

Yesterday, I was singing that song, "If I had a million dollars." My son Johnny said if I yelled my wish loudly enough, it would come true.

"I wish I had a million dollars," I yelled.

"Check your pockets," he said, sounding very convincing.

"What's this?" I said, eyes wide. It was an old kleenex, and Johnny laughed.

I tried a few more times, with the same result.

Finally, I yelled, "I wish I had a dried out old kleenex."

And guess what? My wish came true. Johnny fell on the floor laughing, and that was worth a million dollars.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Why Are We Always Late?

10:30. We have to be there at 10:30 a.m.

Let's see, it takes half an hour to get there, five minutes to fill a tire at Quik Trip, and 10 minutes to get everyone in their carseats. That means we have to be out the door at 9:45 a.m., I think to myself, like the Little Miss Organized Planner that I am.

"Wa ha ha ha. Wa ha ha ha ha."

Where is that villainous laughter coming from?

It's the blockade of w-words standing between my family and our front door.

I inspect my purse for necessary supplies, and the questions tumble over, burying me.

Why are there 10,000 toothbrushes in my purse...but no wallet. Ah, here it is. Who spent all my money? Over to my husband's dresser. Will they accept as payment a Canadian dollar, chocolate coins, fine cigars? They will and they shall.

Now, where are my keys? Why can't we have a pager on our keys, like on the phone. Speaking of which, where is the phone? I can hear it ringing. I'm staring right at the noise, but I don't see it. Who was trying to call? Were the plans cancelled?

What are the directions? Why does Mapquest require a destination address? If I knew where I was going, I wouldn't need directions.

What's the weather? Will we need coats? Johnny, why are you wearing swimtrunks? It's the middle of winter. Richie, why don't you have pants on? No, boxers are not pants. They're underwear. What was wrong with the outfits I picked out for you? Too scratchy? Well, I'll try not to lay out hairshirts next time. Socks. You guys need socks. Why, in a pile that scrapes the ceiling, are there no matching socks? And why do my children care if their socks match? One is now wearing an orange T-shirt and red slacks and the other, cowboy boots and sweatpants.

Now for J.J., our large infant son. Good, Lord, when did Baby Gargantuan's feet grow to men's size 13? Well, these wing tips ought to look fine with his powder blue bunting.

Okay, regardless of our appearance, we must bust through this blockade and out the door. Heave. Ho. Heave. Ho.

We're outside. Ladies and gentleman. We are out the door.

Wa ha ha. Wa ha ha.

Well, look who's here. The w's have followed us out to the car.

Why. Are. These. Car. Seats. So. Hard. To. Fasten? There. Oh no. Why won't the engine turn over? Who left the lights on over night? Where are our jumper cables? Why did I daydream every time Justin taught me to jumpstart a car? Why? Why? Why?

Ch, ch, ch, ch. mmmm. Yes. We are in business. I breathe in. I acknowledge that the answer to every who question was me. Smiling at the children, I say chirpily, "Off we go." I haughtily ignore that smart aleck clock, which claims it is 10:30 a.m. already. Turning on the radio, I ease my foot off the break.

Now, where were we going?

Friday, February 17, 2006

The White Glove Test

A man gave our house the white glove test last week.

It was part of a study I'm participating in for a hospital. They pay me $300 to clean my house with my own products and then clean again with Clorox products. I'm not supposed to do anything unusual, just the normal routine.

Which is: Plan a party. Run around the house in a panicked frenzy wiping counters and scrubbing floors and stacking the closed off stairway with broken toys, crumpled paper, stained clothes and torn shoes. The boys follow me around dropping Cherrios and stepping on them and moving all their dinosaurs to the living room floor to avoid a flood happening outside and carrying full containers of water outside to make the flood and walking back in with the mud all over their shoes. My husband comes home and I tell him I am losing my mind. I repeat this two or three thousand times. He asks me what he can do. And I ask him to just be aware that I am losing my mind. Company comes. We laugh. We dine. They leave. I rest for three months. And repeat.

It's not that I have something against cleanliness. I'd do anything to have a clean house...except clean it.

I was under the impression that the white glove man was just testing the bathroom and kitchen, so I dumped Comet all over the place and wiped the rooms so clean you could taste it in the air. Bleghk. But when he got here, he said he'd take a dust sample from the boys' room and living room, and an air sample from the basement.

Hold the phone. Did he say the dungeon, I mean, basement? The only thing scarier than the state of that room would be if we kept live alligators down there. Which, for all I know, we do. There'd be plenty of room to hide.

"Our house--not all of it is clean," I explained delicately to the man, who hadn't stopped coughing since he walked in the door.

"I have three kids," he said. "You don't have to explain anything to me."

Really, I thought. Not the donut bag stuffed with clothes--a forgotten overnight bag--in my sons' room? Not the pile of trash in the corner of their room?(It's not what it looks like. It's a junk collection. Okay it is what it looks like.) Not the mushroom experiment growing in a plastic cup the basement? Or the dead hermit crab in the aquarium, for whom the wake has not yet progressed to a burial? (We're not ready to say goodbye to our beloved 56789.) Nothing?

After I got the poor man a glass of water and he finished explaining to my son what that thing with the long pole was, (Something called a mop? It sounds British,) he carried out the tests room by room and gave me a basket full of new cleaning supplies and a book that told how to use them.

We read the book this Wednesday during homeschool because, after seeing our house through a cleanliness expert's eyes, I was determined to learn how to clean. We started with the boys' room. First, we donated the junk collection to the Deffenbaugh Company. Then we captured the bad guy Superhero figures hiding under the bed--conspiring against our family, no doubt. Next we cleaned with Clorox wipes, Johnny paying attention to every surface and Richie cleaning off one shoe and calling it a day (He obviously takes after me.)

By the time we finished, it was lunch time. Then library time. Then reading time. Then dinner time. Then girls' happy hour. Then "Lost." Then bedtime.

One room down, six to go. Unfortunately, we were busy the rest of the week. Washing our hair and what not. But I did find something that will make this process a little easier. A cleaner that you just spray and leave there. No wiping. It literally eats your dust. Finally, a way to have a clean house without cleaning it. And I'm sure I could pay a neighbor kid, like five bucks, to spray that stuff all over our house.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The House that Never Sleeps

When I lived in Phoenix, my cousin came to visit my roommate and I. At 7 a.m., I stumbled into the kitchen and she was eating a piece of coconut cream pie. Though she just woke up, she was game for discussing anything with great energy. It was like she had never been asleep.

"Day and night and morning are like the same to you, aren't they?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said, cheerfully.

Now that I have kids, I understand what it's like to live with no beginning or end to the day. Here, there is no wrong time to eat Magic Marshamellows cereal, no odd place to fall asleep, no bad time to play lullabies or sing rock n' roll, no hour when the whole household is asleep.

But the house is quietest at about 5 a.m., when our dog and cat go outside to see if the world has changed since yesterday and our baby J.J. murmers to himself in his bed and the boys are sprawled out over each other in their bed. The T.V. or radio hums because someone forgot to shut it off last night and the coffee drips slowly. That's when I write these blogs.

This morning, however, I put off writing the blog until later. Then Johnny woke up with a headache and fever, and, like any sane, calm mother, I panicked and whisked him off to the doctor, who diagnosed him with the flu. He was feeling better, so we ran a few errands on our way home, which gave us new reasons to see the doctor.

First, at the post office, Richie pulled a brass pole onto his head. (The lady at the store gave him a postal coloring book, which made him all better.)

Second, in the grocery store, Richie tackled Johnny in the aisle, injuring his arm.

Finally, in the pharmacy aisle, the boys tested their blood pressure on the do-it-yourself machine. I'm sure they were doing it absolutely correctly--you put the cuff around your forearm, right? They were diagnosed with stage one hypertension. Minus the tension, that sounds like an accurate diagnosis to me.

So I couldn't write the morning blog, but am writing now to keep up my goal to write 365 straight days. Unfortunately, by noon, I can no longer think straight. For instance, my kids are watching the start of Oh God, You Devil. Hey, if HBO says it's a nice family movie it has to be.

Okay, the channel is changed to Fat Albert. The day is icy and gray. The kids are lounging under blankets. Johnny says it feels like paper airplanes are flying around in his brain. I hope that means the headache is blowing away. Homeschool has turned into no school today. There are phone calls to make, babies to feed, dishes to ignore, but for a minute, I'll join the kids on the couch for a bowl of cereal.

Sometimes the house is wide awake at night; other times, it dozes off in the afternoon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Monte Carlo: It's not Just a Romantic City in Monaco

Our cat, Skippy, sits here gnawing on my ankles.

"Why are you biting me?" I ask.

"Why don't you do something about it?" I can almost hear him asking back.

So I consider writing about how you can love someone with such a cantankerous personality as Skippy sometimes has. That would be a good Kissy Love week topic, right?

No, but it would be a good way to put off writing about my husband Justin, the most important Valentine's Day topic. I was going to write about him yesterday but chickened out and wrote about love songs instead.

It's hard to write about love. That's why in so many movies it doesn't happen until the end.

And so I'll write about cars instead.

Last night, Justin was driving us to Cinzetti's for a romantic dinner for 30 that my family was having to celebrate my uncle John's birthday. Our car is a 1989 Chrysler New Yorker on loan from my dad because, at age 29, I am no better a driver than I was at age 16 when I failed my driver's exam three times. Well, that's not exactly true. One of those times I got an incomplete. The instructor, fearing for her life, made me drive back to the station as soon as we started.

"Did you see that construction area?" she asked.

"No," I said.

"You almost drove us into it," she said, pointing to an expanse of broken asphalt and unmanned construction vehicles.

Well, now I saw it. I was practically parked in it. But I certainly didn't see it one second ago. I mean I'm not a total idiot...Oh wait.

Anyway, a few months ago I totaled our car in a fender bender in which, thank God, no one was hurt.

Now we drive my late grandmother Mume's New Yorker. I can practically hear her thundering down from the heavens when my dad or I staple the ceiling back up, or jimmy up the back window using those things you open jars with. Mume kept that car in tip top shape. But that's not the point.

The point is, watching my husband drive the New Yorker yesterday transported me back to our first date, when we both lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and when Justin drove another big sedan: a 1980s white and orange--or rust, to be more specific--Monte Carlo.

Unlike me, my husband has never been in a wreck, not even when the front hood of the Monte flew up on the highway when he was en route from Boston to Arizona. It totally blinded him, but I imagine he simply stuck his head out of the driver's side window, nonchallantly sipping on a big gulp, and exited when it was convenient. And that wouldn't be such a great feat except that in order to roll down the window, he would have had to reach across the car into the glove compartment for his wrench, and crank the roller mechanism until the window stubbornly budged enough to allow room for his enormous heed.

On our first date, he told me at the door: "I have to warn you. I drive a really nice car."

"Oh, Geyod," I thought. "If he has a show-off car I'm going to act like I have the chickenpox."

Then I saw it: the Monte. It looked like something from my childhood, when the kids in our carpool used to argue about whose mom drove the biggest piece of junk.

Leaned back in the driver's seat, his elbow resting on the window, Justin drove 35 miles an hour the whole night. I wondered if such an old model could have cruise control. When I went to roll down the window, he handed me a wrench.

It made me think of my teenage years back home, when my brother and I kept a wrench in our 1976 Caprice Classic to unlock the door when some smartass passenger pushed the button down. Our windows were broken, too. We had to crawl through the jagged tear in the back convertible-style window to enter the vehicle. My friend Kara, seeing the tear, asked, "Did a lion attack your car?"

Yes, my husband and his car, though they came from Boston, seemed very familiar to me.

Now, I don't want you to get the impression that all Monte Carlos are Hoopdies and Jalopies. There are some nice ones. One time Justin was stopped at a traffic light beside a guy driving a pimped-out model with gold spinning hubcaps and a purple paint job.

Justin cranked down his window and stared at the guy until he rolled down his window.

"Monte Carlo?" Justin asked.

"Yeah," the guy said.

"Mine, too," Justin said, and as the light turned green, he burned rubber for a few yards, and then went back to driving 35 miles per hour.

Alas, when the Monte was on its last legs, Justin sold it for $50 to a guy he met at a gas station.

Last night, Justin drove us safely in the New Yorker to the kids-eat-free-restaurant, where we ate pasta and salad as our sons and my cousins beat each other up with fuzzy toy hearts.

I could just picture our children getting kicked out of the restaurant--cheering and laughing on their way out--but I'm sure what Justin saw was two little boys eating pasta with the proper utensils while our baby hovered over them, flapping his wings like Cupid. Justin tends to look on the bright side of life.

When the wrestling championship/nice family dinner was over, we walked back out to the New Yorker. Now, nothing against the New Yorker. It is a good car and we're very lucky that my dad is letting us borrow it. But once we got on the road, a couple pulled up next to us in what looked like a gold Porshe.

The driver, a pretty blonde, was shaking her shoulders and singing and turning the volume up on the radio.

"Look at that," I said. "She's 16 years old and she drives a nicer car than we'll ever have."

Justin laughed, but it was a shame, really. Her car had no personality.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Do You Want to Hear a Love Song by a Guy from New Jersey?

I've been thinking this week about who wrote the perfect love song, just like David Allen Coe is said to have written the perfect country and western song.

It had to be a story of lasting love rather than new love, which so many are about. "Love at the Five and Dime" by Nancy Griffith came to mind, as did several country songs.

"The Voyage" by Johnny Duhan is my favorite love song because my husband and I danced to it together at the blessing of our wedding. But that song doesn't say anything about gettin' drunk, mama, trains or prison...oh wait, I'm back on the perfect country song.

The song "The Dutchman" kept playing in my head. Because it sounded so real, I always imagined this to be a very old song written by, well, a dutchman. Or an Irishman, as I often hear it played around town over St. Patrick's Day.

But a Web search brought me to www.artistsofnote.com, where I learned that Michael Smith, a New Jersey native who hit the folk music scene in the 1970s, wrote it.

Chicagoans like my sister-in-law Erin might recognize the song from when John Goodman recorded it. Although, obviously, it is not as good as his recording of "Go, Cubs, Go."

"The Dutchman" tells the story of a senile man and his wife, Margaret, who takes care of him.

It begins:

The Dutchman's not the kind of man
To keep his thumb jammed in the dam
That holds his dreams in
But that's a secret only Margaret knows
When Amsterdam is golden in the morning
Margaret brings him breakfast
She believes him
He thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow
He's mad as he can be but Margaret only sees that sometimes
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes

(chorus)Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise above the Zuiderzee
Long ago, I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me

To read the full song, go to www.artistsofnote.com/michael/lyrics/dutchman/shtml.

Why is it the perfect love song? It is sad, as love songs have to be. There is something meloncholy about such a fragile thing as love. Despite the best intentions, it often breaks. It is like handing a child a glass ornament and saying, "Don't drop it." It's only a matter of time before they do. Time conspires against love in this song, too. You imagine that when the Dutchman dies, Margaret will perish from a broken heart. And yet they fall asleep "humming some old love song." Their love has outfoxed time. And that is why it is the perfect love song.

Speaking of love, happy Valentine's Day, Justin. And thank you mom, Erin, Mike and anonymous for commenting on the blog. You guys give the best Valentines ever.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Say I Love You with...Garfield

Tomorrow, roses will arrive at desks and front stoops across America. Couples will seal their boyfriend-girlfriend status over lobster and wine, and husbands and wives will receive chocolates in the morning and throughout the day poke their thumbs through them, inspecting for orange cream centers. Blughck! And caramel centers. Yes!

But the real Valentine's Day excitement will happen in classrooms.

Tonight, kids will scour the aisles of Osco Drug for the best Valentine cards.

"Shrek," they'll say. "No. Teen Titans."

They'll go home and sign them until their fingers cramp, leaving the "To:" part blank because, as the teacher said, "Otherwise passing out Valentines will take forever, and I've got a date tonight."

Of course, they'll make enough for everybody so that nobody gets their feelings hurt. And tomorrow, they'll drop the tiny rectangles into each others' pink and red paper plate mailboxes.

On the front, the Fantastic Four will exclaim, "You're fantastic, Valentine." Barbie princess will coo, "Have a dreamy Valentine's Day" even though she really wants to say, "You better get me something this year, Ken."

As a kid, I would scour my box every year for an actual love note--lined paper folded up all crooked like only a boy would do. It never happened, so I resorted to reading between the lines of the sayings on the front of the card.

Looking at the Superman card a boy I had a crush on gave me, I'd think, "He gave me the one that says, 'You're out of this world,' and not 'You're a super friend.'" A la Sherlock Holmes, I'd squint my eyes and think, "That can only mean one thing. He likes me!" Just as I heard the Superman theme song, I'd see that he gave my friend a card that said, "I love you, Lois Lane," which blew my theory right out of the water.

But who cared because it was red cupcakes and pink lemonade all around.

"Garfield! Cool!" you'd hear kids yelling across the room.

"Darth Vader. Yes," others would say. I can't remember the saying on that one. "Have an evil Valentine's Day"? "Luke, I am your Valentine"?

Anyway, one by one, we snuck over to give the teacher a card, each of us thinking we were the only ones who thought of it.

Everybody gave everybody a card. Sure, the teachers forced us to, but we also wanted to. Grade schoolers are a tough crowd, but on that day, everybody felt popular. Everybody felt loved. You could imagine that the cute boy or girl had a crush on you because, hey, they did give you a valentine.

The day was an all's well that ends well ending to a Shakespeare comedy. No matter who made fun of who the day before, no matter which boy or girl "got dumped" because of a hellbent heart the week before, no matter how much your teacher picked on you for throwing a few measly spitballs across the room, all was set right that day.

It was, in that way, truly a holiday that celebrated love--not just for your boyfriend or girlfriend; that was easy; but also for the boy who stuck his buggars on your math book and the girl who thought she was the boss of the whole world. We actually loved our brothers and sisters that day, like we learned to do in religion class every day.

I think we passed out Valentines even in junior high. Like coloring or trick-or-treating, we were too old to do it, so we did it as if it were a big joke. It was the only way to save face and keep our childhood from slipping away.

Eventually, our childhoods did slip away. But our traditions are in good hands in classrooms everywhere. Kids big and small will exchange silly puns written on tiny rectangles and everything will be new again. They'll love each other.

Thought for the day:

My son this November kept getting Thanksgiving mixed up with Valentine's Day. Finally, he asked, frustrated, "Is that the day you love or eat chicken?"

Don't be a chicken this Valentine's Day. Tell someone you love them. Say it with a Garfield card. Say it with Star Wars. Just say it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Honk if you love Jesus...and like Darwin

Yesterday, I was driving behind a car with a Darwin bumper sticker. You know, the one with the Jesus fish, but Darwin is written inside it and the fish has legs.

I think those stickers are ridiculous, but more on that later.

It reminded me of sixth grade Catholic School religion class, when I first learned that Adam and Eve was a story, and that in fact, the Pope said it was okay for Catholics to believe that God created man through evolution.

I always thought that was the theory of Intelligent Design, something that's been in the news a lot around here because some people in Kansas want it taught in public schools.

But that's not what Intelligent Design Theory says at all, I learned yesterday.

After a church trivia night last Sunday, I vowed to learn more. So with the boys at their cousins, and the baby asleep, and the laundry and dishes piling up everywhere, I did a little light reading yesterday on evolution and intelligent design. Today is, by the way, Charles Darwin's birthday, as well as the day of the Lord, the perfect time, I think, to consider how God created everything.

Here is what Intelligent Design states, according to the Web site, www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org : features of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.

In other words, Intelligent Design does not state that God creates new living things through macroevolution (the evolution that turns fish into land creatures, for instance,) but that he creates them and macroevolution doesn't happen.

Now I'm not sure what the Catholic church says in terms of evolution. I always thought you either believed in it or didn't, but I guess there are degrees of belief in evolution. Some people believe only in microevolution, changes that happen within a species.

A refresher course on evolution:
Charles Darwin, the birthday boy, put forth the theory that evolution happens through natural selection. Animals who adapt to their environments, by say, growing more fur, thrive better, look healthier, do a better job attracting mates, and then produce furrier offspring.

I know this works from personal experience because my husband is very furry and we have furry children. We don't even have to buy them coats in the winter.

Anyway, intelligent design proponents think animals evolve to a certain extent, but only within their group of animals. For instance, a bird's beak can become bigger, but dinosaurs cannot lose their arms and sprout wings. They say there is no mechanism by which this can happen.

Not so fast, say evolutionary scientists. One such mechanism is the Hox gene, which turns on and off in animals, resulting in changes like fish lobes turning into hands. Intelligent design proponents think this can't be proven.

They think an intelligent designer creates animals on the spot, albeit with many years between the various creations. They do not, like the old creationists, believe God created the world in seven days.

To read about this debate, go to www.actionbioscience.org. Click on evolution and then intelligent design. This is set up for intelligent design proponents to state their case and evolution scientists to knock it down. You might think this is an unfair setup, but it will give you an idea of the arguments on both sides.

The problem mainstream scientists say they have with intelligent design theorists is that they ignore recent breakthroughs in evolution science and set up a case based on a lack of evidence and no evidence of their own. The scientists say it is not a science but a philosophy.

Many add that they share the philosophy that the intricacies of life and the universe point to a divine intelligence, but they say this can't be proven by science.

Not being a scientist myself, I have little room to critique either side. But coming from a family of lawyers, I'd have to side with the evolutionary scientists, who seem to have more evidence.

Anyway, it doesn't lessen my belief in God's power to think that he created things through evolution.

Say I'm a lawyer in the pre-lawn mower era. A client comes to me because he cut a guy's lawn and never got payed. I go to the site and theorize that he cut the grass blade by blade with scizzors. I prepare my case based on that theory. I meet with my client again. No, no, he says, and shows me the lawn mower he invented, built and pushed across the lawn. Would I continue to put forth the scizzors theory? Does my client deserve payment any less if he designed a machine by which to mow the lawn?

We should ask my dad, who actually tried this case when he started out being a lawyer in the 1800s.

But seriously, intelligent design theorists would argue that no evidence of such a lawn mower exists. Not to mix apples with oranges, but I know lawn mowers exist because if the grass had to be cut with scissors, it would be done by the females in the household, and not the males, as it generally is now. We have evolved through the years to complete household tasks that never, ever end, such as laundry.

Anyway, I think scientists would further their cause by explaining to non-scientists like me what they've learned since Charles Darwin roamed the earth. The Intelligence Design proponents do a good job taking their case to the public. Why don't scientists do the same thing? We'd get it. Hey, we're not as dumb as we look.

It would also help for the scientists to make a concession to the Intelligent Design proponents along the lines of:

"We realize it was not a mere coincidence that catastrophe after catastrophe befell the dinosaurs, those selfish, bloodthirsty bastards. God destroyed them."

Finally, evolution proponents should get rid of those ridiculous Darwin bumper stickers. No offense to Darwin, especially on his birthday. But what are these stickers suggesting? That Darwin is the new God? Just because Darwin observed evolution doesn't mean he created it. That survival of the fittest should replace "Love one another," as Jesus taught? Maybe the symbol means neither of the above. In that case, why did they have to hijack a Jesus symbol?

You can take Adam and Eve. But leave Jesus alone.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

J.J. Kiss Love: The Exception to the Rule

How did it happen? The disdain for "girlie things" and "kissy love" songs.

A couple years ago, my sons asked for My Pretty Pony for their birthday. They just thought she was a cute horse. Now, looking through toy catalogues, they can't flip through the pink pages fast enough.

"Those are kissy love toys," they murmer, flipping from the Disney Princess page to the Batman section.

The other day, Johnny's friend was over and asked, "Whose Pretty Pony movie is that? Do you have a sister?"

It was the free tape that came with Krystal Waters, or whatever the horse's name was.

Johnny, 5, thought fast. "That's just my mom's," he said. "She wanted it, so we got it for her."

Indeed, "Pony Party" is one of my favorite films. I love when they gallup around the cake, talking in voices so high that only our dog can hear them.

There is just one exception to Johnny and Richie's intolerance for kissy love things: their baby brother J.J., or J.J. Kiss Love, as they call him.

Richie, 3, talks to J.J. in the language of love.

"J.J. de do do. da ba ba," he says, hugging him and squeezing his cheeks.

Johnny made up this poem for J.J.:

I love you with kisses
I love you with hearts
I love you with love
and that's the best part

They even compete to see who can be the kissy loviest around J.J. The other day, Richie fell asleep during homeschool while we watched an educational program about the Mothman, the New Jersey Devil and crop circles.

Seeing Richie snoring away, Johnny whispered to J.J., "I love you morer than Richie does."

Babies bring out the gushing terms of endearment in everyone.

"He's a fatty!" a mom I didn't know yelled across the room the other day.

"I've never seen thighs that big on a baby!" others remark.

"He hasn't missed any meals," the priest said when he baptized J.J.

"My son was that big," older mothers tell me, swelling with pride. "Weighed 100 pounds at 8 months. I had to roll him into the doctor's office for his 12-month check up. So cute."

These are, of course, the highest compliments for a baby.

My mom deals in antiques and said that in old paintings, cherubs and baby Jesus were chubby because that was a sign of health. People thought big babies were beautiful because they saw so many thin babies who were sick or didn't get the nutrition they needed.

Yes, babies bring out the kissy love in everybody. Maybe that's why cupid is a baby. I hope your Valentine's Day is filled with terms of endearment, whether it's for your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or a little baby you know.

Speaking of exceptions to rules, my mom and brother Josh reminded me of the "i before e except after c" rule. That includes the c in Cheifs, right? From now on, I am writing with a dictionary and Chiefs pennant in hand.

Congratulations to my brother Luke for correctly answering the question, what would human-brained mice use to lure us into their traps (Trivial Pursuits.) The answer was gouda. If you guessed Velveeta, you know what they say, Coulda, shoulda, gouda.

Friday, February 10, 2006

One Song, Three Jokes, One Whiskey, One Beer, Many Thanks

Steve Allen, The Tonight Show founder, wrote one song and three jokes every morning.

This is what Dick, a classmate from a writing class I took this Fall, told us. I checked Allen's Web site and, indeed, he was in the Guiness Book of World Records for writing 8,500 songs.

As Dick told us about Allen in writing class, I pictured a man bent over his desk, black coffee steaming beside him, mocking him: "Face it. You have nothing left to write. You might as well write about me." And Allen sits there, forcing words to rhyme with java--"Lava, hava, fava, lava--God bless it, I already used that one!"

It wasn't as painful as all that, I learned this morning by reading his Web site. The ideas for songs came to him everywhere--in the car, on the town. "This is the Start of Something Big," the theme song for his show, came to him in a dream.

8,500 songs. Not to mention jokes.

I love the thought of such creative bounty almost as much as I love a Shoney's buffet. But this doesn't lessen the fact that everyday, he woke up and wrote. That required discipline. Or else addiction.

A professional poker player was on the Steve Kraske Show--a local radio program--the other day, talking strategy. He asked her if she was addicted to gambling. She said yes. Then she asked, Isn't everybody addicted to their job if they love doing it?

What is more beautiful than watching someone do a job they love? It always makes me think of Chariots of Fire, when the guy is running in Scottland and his face and whole body radiate utter joy.

I know a lot of you reading this have hard jobs. My uncle and brother are doctors. I can't imagine the mental and emotional exhaustion at the end of the day. My sister in law, aunt and uncles are salespeople--a job I can't imagine having the guts to do. And yet, I think they love their jobs.

My husband is a carpenter. I've watched him make flower boxes in the basement, and he points out imperfections he plans on correcting.

"Oh, no one will notice that," I say.

"Well..." he says. I know what he's thinking. He'll notice. That's what you do when you love your job. You do "your best effort," as teachers call it, speaking of hard jobs.

So here's to jobs we love. And here's to people who do jobs they hate in hopes that their kids will find jobs they love.

I love writing and want to thank every one who has read this blog and sent comments or sent it on to someone else. I really appreciate it. I'm always leary of asking people to read what I write. I wonder, is this like if my husband sent out pictures of every deck he built with a note that said: "Hey, everyone. This is my latest work. Let me know what you think." So people's nice notes have really meant a lot. It helps to have a big, loving family and a mom who is in contact by e-mail with everyone in the free world.

Speaking of love, I am kicking off kissy love week, in honor of Valentine's Day. It is in recognition of the fact that St. Valentine, a man of the cloth, was not even allowed to date anyone. So this holiday is about more than romantic love, something I learned by spending 22 Valentine's Days not having a boyfriend and loving every minute of it--I told you I know how to play solitaire five ways, right?

Columns this week will focus on family love, lasting love and finding love in unexpected places. Hopefully, none of the blogs will make you throw up. But depending on your sappiness threshold, I can't promise that.

Of course, love has to start somewhere, so here is the opening verse of "This Is the Start of Something Big:"

You're walkin' along the street, or you're at a party
Or else you're all alone and then you suddenly dig
You're looking in someone's eyes
You suddenly realize
That this could be the start of something big

That must have been a really nice dream Steve Allen had.

And if you've made it this far, I have to add a story about another kind of on-the-job discipline my brother Luke encountered. When he was in college, his car broke down outside of Atchison, Kan., where he went to school. The tow truck arrived and the mechanic promised to take care of everything. But, he said, "I'm not going to do anything until I drink a shot of whiskey and a beer." And in a disciplined manner, he did just that.

So you see, discipline, love and addiction are hard to tell apart sometimes. Far be it from me to say which is which. All I know is that mechanic loved his whiskey.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

When I'm 64

When my Nana turned 64 some years back, my cousins Brett and Jono sang the entire Beatles song, "When I'm 64" to her on video.

Meanwhile, I was insanely jealous of my Nana. She had the life. Every night, she and Papa would go in the T.V. room and watch Cagney and Lacey. Nana would knit and Papa would play solitaire as his pipe smoke filled the room. How could I fast forward 54 years? I wondered.

My life, on the other hand, was extremely dramatic--or so I thought at the time. There were crushes, fights with friends, embarrassment over not fitting in, homework I forgot about. What did I do to deserve all this? I thought. I just wanted to knit socks.

I was too young to consider what my grandparents had to go through before they retired to the T.V. room: the Great Depression, World War II, raising 10 kids...By the time my Grandma was 10 years old, she was cooking dinner every day after school while her mother worked. My Papa helped support his family, too.

They met at their apartment building when my Nana was 12 and Papa 16, and living with his sister. Nana used to listen for him whistling up the steps and then just happen to be standing in the hallway when he walked by. Her crush lasted a long time before they dated--longer than any of my crushes endured. Once they married, Papa went to college while he generated customers for his insurance business by knocking on doors. Meanwhile Nana clothed and fed 10 kids. My mom said Nana always had time to laugh at their antics.

Then the kids moved away one by one. Noises of laughter and popcorn popping and dogs barking and teenagers whispering on the phone were replaced by the sound of Cagney and Lacey. Though there was less work to do, my grandparents kept their hands busy, probably by habit.

Papa showed me how to play solitaire five different ways, which I picked up on right away. Nana tried to teach me how to knit, to no avail. I was ready to be 64.

But now that I'm almost 30, I am not in such a hurry. For the first time, I wish I could freeze time, not fast-forward it. My kids are home with me and they want to cuddle on the couch and read books together. I know that won't last forever.

Heartbreaks over not fitting in are just observations now. Like seeing that oranges are too pricey at the store and deciding not to buy them. I forget my homework, like laundry, on purpose now. My friends and I don't fight anymore and I wonder what we ever fought about in the first place.

I thought about this as I walked home from my book club last night. Just being in a book club makes me happy. We don't discuss books or anything, just like my bunko group doesn't play bunko. We just talk. Talking is a lot of fun when you're 30 or 40. You know enough to offer advice to others--don't worry, you tell them, but not enough to follow your own advice. And so you continue to worry, giving you lots to talk about.

Last night, one of the book club members mentioned how when you're a little kid, you act like yourself. Then you go to school and change to fit in. Then, as a grownup, poof, you're yourself again.

"That's called being 30," the hostess said.

Amen. It's a good thing I never found that fast forward button.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Anything Man

When we got home from a family dinner last night, Anything Man was crouched in our living room, growling. He said he came from the planet Dinosauria, which was recently destroyed.

Though just 5 years old, he had the strength of 100 grown men. He could fly from the couch to the dog bed, lift a chair over his head, smash an empty kleenex box in five fells of his fist and run in place really, really fast.

His 3-year-old sidekick, Anything Boy, stumbled straight to bed. The journey to earth had exhausted him. Plus, at 8:30 p.m., it was way past his bedtime. Anything Man told us that Anything Boy is strong, but not as strong, of course, as Anything Man.

"What are your superpowers, Anything Man?" I asked.

"I can do anything," he said.


While similar to Superman, Anything Man is impervious to Kryptonite. But not furniture, as we found out when he bumped his knee on the couch and groaned in agony. I let him stay up late. He reminded me of a 5-year-old scientist I know, who doesn't believe in superheroes and thinks they are for babies.

When I finally tucked Anything Man in bed next to Anything Boy, I said they could live with us forever. I promised to always take care of them because even superheroes need mommies.

As I stared into his sleepy eyes, I wondered about the molecular make up of a boy like Anything Man. What made him strong enough to smash boxes, but light enough to fly? How did he withstand the punishing space between his galaxy and ours? And what made him believe he could do anything?

Come to think of it, Anything Man, at 5 years old, wasn't too different from a 5-year-old earthling. Scraped knees, fly-away balloons and lost footraces would divide them all too soon, but I hoped that somewhere in the heart of my little scientist, there would always be a little bit of Anything Man.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What's Your Sign

"Is the wedding still on? J.Lo and Ben deal with a box office bomb and his strip club antics. Will their love survive?"

That was the headline of the People magazine I was reading last night. I know, it was two and a half years old, but I find the articles more enjoyable if I can predict the outcome of every turbulent love affair. Plus, hand-me-down magazines from my mom are free.

There was a backpage article about what all the stars' T-shirt mottos would say if they wrote one.

"Believe in UFO's" was one. "Tastes Like Chicken," was another.

Star Jones' motto was, "I am the author of the only dictionary that defines me," which is funny because the the dictionary that I authored defines Star Jones as "n. a cheeseball."

But anyway, this question reminded me of when my friend woke up one day to find a big light-up sign in her yard that said, "For a good time, call Judy."

It was the old sign the high school she worked at was getting rid of it. The sign had caused her years of grief, as the key was always lost and the letters missing. As we often do with annoying things, she had grown a little fond of it. She thought of keeping it in her yard and changing the message periodically.

We thought of generic messages it could say: Think positive! Honk if you love Jesus! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!

What would the sign in your yard say?

Mine would have to reflect the goals of my family. Thus, it would advertise whatever my son was selling that day: noodles, tomatoes, slime, tickets to his junk museum. It breaks my heart to see him out there at his little table waiting for customers who never come.

"You need to advertise," I tell him, but he doesn't know what I'm talking about. Think of the traffic we'd bring in with a billboard in our yard. I mean, who doesn't want a bowl of hot noodles on their way home from work in August?

I know a guy who got to decide what went on a church sign on Wornall Road, Waldo's busiest street. A traveling salesman, the mottos came to him while he was driving. Sometimes they were religious, other times, Chiefs-related, and sometimes a combination of both, saying something like, "Honk if Jesus loves the Chiefs."

Then one night, the sign got run over by a crazy driver. A Raider's fan, no doubt. But it got me thinking, what would my God related sign say?

When I worked at the newspaper, I had to drive across the river once a week to attend a staff meeting. On the other side of the Muddy Mo, Kermit the Frog was on a billboard.

It said something like, "Eats flies. Lives on a lilypad. Loves a pig. Dreams of going to Hollywood. Follow your dreams."

No one likes going to staff meetings, but that sign made it all worth it. I thought, "If a frog can follow his dreams, what excuse do I have?" I can't remember what my dream was, at that point--probably some scheme to stay home with my kids and still make money. Was my dream to sell tupperware?

I never figured out what that billboard was advertizing. Was it really advertizing dreams?

So here's the scenario: If someone gave you a free billboard, and the only stipulation was that it could not be used to make money or advocate a specific cause, what would yours say? What would it look like?

And yes, I see the irony of me calling Star Jones a cheeseball.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Where's Waldo?

Since I created this blog yesterday, 1,000's (okay 0,000's) of readers have asked what the title means. Where's Waldo? they wonder.

Basically, its a middle-class neighborhood in the middle of a city in middle America.

It lies in Kansas City, Mo. Home prices range from about $80,000 to $300,000. They were built in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. When the area was farmland, some of it was owned by Dr. Waldo. Hence the name.

To the north of Waldo is Brookside, an old neighborhood that has become trendy and expensive in recent years. Some people in Waldo have bumper stickers that say BKS, suggesting that they live in Brookside. They aren't fooling anyone. Anyway, Waldo is becoming pricey in its own right, and now there are WLD bumper stickers. Both neighborhoods apparently have something against vowels.

Waldo used to be on the southern edge of Kansas City. A trolley ran through the center of the neighborhood, taking people from their town to downtown Kansas City. The tracks were replaced by a walking trail. If it's a nice day and you're looking for someone, you'll probably find them here. Or at a nearby bar.

There are five old watering holes on Wornall Road, the main business strip in Waldo. Every year, a pub crawl visits these taverns, reducing the average age of the clientelle by about 30 years. Drive-thru fast food restaurants make it hard for locally-owned lunch places to stay in business on this strip. Pizza and barbeque joints, on the other hand, do quite well. The key is serving beer and advertising in church bulletins.

Other popular businesses on this strip are thrift stores, psychic readers, used car dealerships, pet daycares and spas, insurance offices, bakeries, barbershops and churches. Here and there, the sidewalks sparkle with broken glass or a grape soda can, but generally, it is a clean commercial area.

Waldo is not a city, but it has its own mayor. Whoever raises the most money for the Fountain Fund gets elected. Kansas City is the city of fountains, but money for one in Waldo hasn't exactly been pouring in. Brookside, by the way, does not have a fountain, either.

As far as schools, there are two Catholic, two Lutheran, one private alternative, and a few public.

It's a safe place, but lock your car doors. There are some sticky fingers in the neighborhood. A couple weeks ago, my neighbor caught a guy taking our spare tire out of our trunk. He said he had to borrow it because he had a flat. Needless to say, he hasn't brought it back. At least not yet.

So that is the physical description of Waldo. But there is so much more. Usually you grow up in a neighborhood and either make enough money to move away or don't make enough money stay. But here, the neighborhood is nice enough and affordable enough that a lot of people live blocks from where they grew up. I live across the street from the school I went to, for instance. This allows me to reminisce with my fellow school parents/alumni about the days when teachers dragged ornery children by their ears to the principal's office. Apparently the reasoning was, "What do they need ears for if they aren't going to listen anyway?"

Like everywhere, Waldo is a little fancier than it used to be. Whereas when I was growing up, it was not unusual for someone to have to run outside in his underwear in the middle of the night and put out a fire caused by a dragging muffler in his old car, nowadays, that would cause people to talk. Is business bad? Are they having money trouble? Can we call the city codes department on them?

But in general, people live and let live. They know that if they complain about the school bus parked in their neighbor's driveway, its only a matter of time before they get busted for their compost pile/snakepit in the backyard. And then where would the neighborhood children get their pets?

Waldo is a neighborhood, a business area, an up-and-coming entertainment destination and an attitude that my brother's friend describes the best: "A lot of places you go, people put on a show, but not in the 'Do."

No, his friend is not Dr. Suess.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Trivial Pursuits

Last night, my husband and I went to a church trivia night. This is what Catholics like me do when it is not Lent, and thus, we have no fish fries to attend.

As I sipped my Boulevard Pale Ale, I pondered what I was doing when everyone else was learning who the first Prime Minister of India was (can't remember) and which country boasts the longest suspension bridge (Japan) and who was the wrestler Hulk Hogan portrayed in Rocky III (Thunderlips--my husband knew that one. Good job, honey.)

Then the moderator asked what the names were of the four main characters in the reconfigured T.V. show "The Facts of Life."

"Jo, Blair, Natalie and Tootie," I blurted.

Ah. That's what I was doing. Watching T.V.

Meanwhile, Neil, the genius at our table, and also a heckuva nice guy, carried our team into the upper eschelon of Catholic braniacs. Alas, my husband and I left before the results were tallied. Unless Table 50, who was beating us by seven points, choked on the first three words of the song with the lyrics "Triumph all ye cherubim. Sing with us ye serabim..." (Hail, Holy Queen) and the number of blue trashbags in the rolls sold for the school fundraiser (16), they beat us. That was unlikely seeings how a Catholic school parent/graduate not knowing the answers to these questions is like an American not knowing what U.S.A. stands for.

As we drove to my parents house, where our three sons were staying for the night, I vowed to better myself, to be well-read, and I'm not just talking about Inside T.V. magazines.

My five-year-old son Johnny is already making this pursuit necessary. I signed him up for a science class for 3 to 5 year olds and he asked if I thought they'd discuss early evolution. He has us read him medical encyclopedias for bedtime stories. I am not exaggerating. As his homeschool teacher, I have to get smart to meet his insatiable thirst for knowledge.

At the same time, I know he'll find his own way in areas I know nothing about, like literature, sports, science, geography, movies, history, music, and "general," incidently, eight of the 10 categories in last night's game. (I didn't answer the food questions right either, but on the contrary, I think I'm an expert in that category.)

Like the song says, "I see babies smile. I watch them grow. They'll learn much more than I'll ever know. And I think to myself what a wonderful world."

Our family is on a quest for knowledge. But facts are just one side of it. I am also learning how to be a good mom, a good daughter/sister/neice/cousin/granddaughter and friend. That is what this blog is about. Learning from a life that is common, a family that is like many others, a neighborhood that is just one of millions (billions, zillions, brazillions?) in the world.

So why bother writing about these things? Because when you get pulled into the breathing world head first, screaming and twitching and looking like a creature from another planet, you become a student. Your little life in your little home on your little street in your little neighborhood in your solar system is trying to teach you something. Not just how hot the sun is at its surface (6,000 degrees K--I guess that stands for Kahrenheit) but what we should do in the hours that it shines upon us.

I want to learn.

Fact of the day: Scientists are working on creating mice with human brains. Learn about it at www.nationalgeographic.com.
Question of the day: What will the mice use to lure us into their traps?
(Cheese, yes. But be more specific. Velveeta? Cheddar? Gouda?)