Category Archives: family

“The Soul-Crushing Futility of Tidying Up” or “Making Peace with our Beautiful Mess”

Last month I was sitting with KitKat, having a glass of wine and catching up, when I glanced down at her coffee table. The New York Times bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo was sitting on top of another book (ironically titled, “A Beautiful Mess”).

I had read reviews of the book and its controversial “KonMari” method for determining what to keep and what to discard—so I asked KitKat what she thought of it. She said, “I haven’t had a chance to read it, and I won’t get to it for a while since I’m leaving on vacation. Why don’t you read it and report back to me?” I accepted the assignment and am sharing my findings with all of our readers for your collective organizational edification. KitKat, what do you think of these tips?

Highlights of the Book:

Go big or go home – Unlike many books on organizing that advocate tackling decluttering bit by bit (for example, one closet or drawer at a time), the author insists that the key to success is to do your whole house at once. “Tidying is a special event, not a daily chore,” she states. (If this sounds daunting, keep in mind that Marie Kondo is a professional declutterer based in Japan. This is important context because the average Japanese home is much smaller than the average American home so the average Japanese person has fewer possessions.) Even though this sounds ambitious, her rationale makes sense. By doing your entire home at once, you’ll experience the benefits of organized living and won’t want to revert back to your cluttering ways. Whereas if you just tackle clutter one drawer at a time, you’ll never experience the “life-changing magic” of an organized home.

KitKat: I understand how this would make sense. Take for example, cleaning. I never get to enjoy the true experience of a clean home since I only have time for a room or two each cleaning. By the time I get through a full round, the rooms I started with are messy again. The few times I splurged on hiring house cleaners, it was a magnificent feeling walking into a completely clean house. (I may have actually heard background music and saw glowing lights as I entered my home those magical days.)

“Getting rid of clutter would eliminate 40% of the housework in the average home.”  

-National Soap & Detergent Association

Does it spark joy? – This is the aforementioned controversial method of determining what to keep and the part of the book that most reviews focus on. Although a bit limiting, it’s an interesting way to look at one’s possessions. (Disclosure: I don’t think a toilet plunger will ever spark joy for me, but I intend to keep one around anyway.) A better way I’ve heard this stated is, “Don’t keep anything that isn’t beautiful, useful or preferably both.” This is my new litmus test and in my newer, smaller home, I’m working on “upgrading” my possessions rather than adding to them.

KitKat: It sounds like a logical test but I am not sure it would be that straightforward for me. Depending on my mood the day I do it (if doing it all at once, as advised), I will either have nothing left in my house or I will get rid of nothing. I function on extremes.

Sort by category, not location – Kondo’s method recommends that you start by discarding all items of a similar type and that what’s left should be kept together, not necessarily where the items are used. This seems practical in a small Japanese apartment, but maybe less so in a three-story home.

KitKat: So if I was sorting vases, they would all end up on one floor in one room? My hair accessories would have to live with my daughter? All kids’ entertainment lumped together? I don’t think this one would work in my house. For both visual pleasure and family peace, we do better with separation.

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Lucky needs more clutter like Stormy needs another pair of boots

Don’t force your clutter on other people – My girls could tell you all about this one. Lucky, Blossom and I are approximately the same size for tops and every time they come see me, I’m offering them my clothing discards. For some reason, it’s easier for me to part with something that I like (but never wear) if I’m giving it to one of my daughters. But the truth is, they’re in a very transient stage of their lives and the less “stuff” they have to move with them, the better.

KitKat: Agree! My grandma keeps sending me old artwork and cards and my mother-in-law brings a new bag of stuff she found cleaning out her place with her each time she visits. As everyone else is decluttering, I am drowning in stuff. 

Thanking items for their usefulness – One of Kondo’s more interesting points is that it’s hard to get rid of something if you don’t understand its purpose in your life, but its purpose may not be what you think. For example, you bought a beautiful sweater on sale but every time you go to wear it, you end up taking it off again. It’s beautiful, but for whatever reason, the color doesn’t suit you. This is the kind of thing people have trouble getting rid of. Kondo suggests you hold the item, recognize that it’s purpose may not have been to keep you warm, but rather to teach you that you shouldn’t buy chartreuse clothing, even if it is 100% cashmere and 75% off. Thank the item for the lesson it has taught you and let it go.

KitKat: Thank you super-expensive, camo mini-skirt for teaching me that there is a time where age comes into play with what you wear. You have done your duty and now it’s time to find a millennial who can pull you off.

Sorting clothing – Kondo recommends putting every item of clothing you own on the floor to see what you have and decide what to keep. I don’t have enough floor space for this.

KitKat: I am with you, Stormy. I couldn’t test this one out. My clothes-to-floor ratio doesn’t work out, even if done in categories of clothing.

Treat your socks with respect – One of the more amusing chapters was on the topic of socks, which featured this gem: “Never, ever ball up your socks.” The author described her conversation with a client who had done just that, “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?” She then explained that socks and stockings in your drawer are essentially on holiday from the difficult chore of protecting your feet and the time they spend in the drawer is their only chance to rest… As much as I like the idea of my socks having a secret life in my drawer that is unknown to me, I opened my sock drawer quickly at several random times throughout the day and was never able to catch any of them with an umbrella drink in their hand, so I’m questioning this one a bit.

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Who knew KitKat was a sock sadist?

KitKat: I can’t do this one. One of my weird pleasures when sorting laundry is finding matching socks and then balling the pair up. It’s the only part of folding laundry I enjoy. When I end up with no single ones, it’s like I won the game. If a sock doesn’t have a match to become a ball, it has to sit on the dryer waiting for its mate. (Another bonus of this method is I don’t get called into my kids’ rooms during our rushed morning chaos because they can’t find matching socks.)

Unread books: Sometime equals never – If you have a book that’s been lying around for more than a month, thinking you’ll read it someday, you’re lying to yourself. Just get rid of it. (Note: This may apply to the book I’m reviewing, KitKat!)

KitKat: Very true. I love reading and am usually searching for new books to read. But if I haven’t picked it up in a month, then it hasn’t caught my interest enough. Usually the fiction books are devoured, while self-help books on getting your shit together, self-improvement, or organizing all lay around mocking me.

Decorate your closet with secret delights – This was just an interesting note that if you have something you love that doesn’t fit anywhere else in your house, you can decorate your closet with it. Love posters of kittens or your Best Thespian certificate from high school? Put them in your closet! I actually have some little star shaped mirrors that I put in my walk-in closet (to remind myself that I’m a superstar, naturally) and of course, this is a perfect place to keep a vision board.

KitKat: I have kept my vision boards there! It is a perfect spot. I also put up photos I rip out of magazines of cool ways to style my hair or pull together an outfit. I used to keep them in a file, but never looked at them. Yet I didn’t want to throw them away because they inspired me. Now I actually sometimes even try to pull off the looks I see when opening closet doors.  

Your possessions want to help you – Again with the anthropomorphism. Kondo must spend a lot of time alone, because she has a very rich imagination. She believes that “Everything you own wants to be of use to you. Even if you throw it away or burn it, it will only leave behind the energy of wanting to be of service. Freed from its physical form, it will move about your world as energy, letting other things know that you are a special person, and come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now, the thing that will bring you the most happiness.”

KitKat:  Hmmm. She may have have poured one too many glasses of wine at this point in her writing. Plus, I don’t want to imagine that the energy of the life-sized doll I “decluttered” when my daughter was at camp is haunting us. 

The big payoff – One of the more grandiose claims of the book is the transformational power of tidying. The author asserts that once you’re no longer distracted by the clutter in your house, you’ll be able to see other parts of your life more clearly and may end up changing self-defeating personal habits, your unfulfilling job, maybe even your deadbeat spouse! 😉

KitKat: The clutter does distract and overwhelm me. Then, add in holiday decorations or bags of items collected and waiting to go up to the cabin, and I have actually lost it from being inundated by all the stuff. If I had time, let’s say I could send my family away for a month or have a paid week off to focus just on decluttering, I think it would be transformational—at least for my temper.

Stormy’s Summary – Having downsized a year ago, I find that much of what the author says is true. It’s amazing to think about how many things my husband and I got rid of that we have not missed one bit. I hope those objects were able to “spark joy” (or at least be useful) to someone else and sending them off to their new homes enabled us to make room for some new things (not necessarily “stuff,” but concepts, hobbies, habits) in our new life.

KitKat: We took your extension ladder and it was very useful. We used it to change the light bulb in our cabin garage that was out for over a year, so we could see the ping pong table we added. And the light sparked a lot of joy (and competition).

A Halloween tale with a happy ending: An Orphan Blossoms in America

A few years ago, KitKat shared a scary Halloween tale of lost socks and lost patience. This year, I have a scary story of my own. A poor rural Chinese family gives birth to a baby boy. This would usually be cause for rejoicing, but this family already has two children—a school-age daughter and a three-year-old girl. Given the political and economic circumstances in China, they aren’t allowed to have three children, so one of them must go. The older daughter is in school and contributes to the household. Due to a centuries-old tradition, the baby boy will be responsible for supporting the parents in their old age. Therefore, the “logical choice” is the precocious preschooler—the girl with the smile like sunshine whose antics make her parents laugh and delight in her warm, open personality. They’re poor and not able to support all of their children. The girl is malnourished despite being well-loved.

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The ceiling of the Tianjin train station has a mural of a guardian angel, protecting those on their journey

The parents are too heartbroken to part with their darling daughter, so her grandparents volunteer to take care of things. They bring her to the train station. With so many people coming and going, nobody will notice a small child left behind. At least, not right away. Eventually a train station official notices the small girl crying on the platform. She’s looking for Lao-ye and Ye-ye and wondering where they are. The station official gives the frightened child a piece of candy and takes her to his office while he calls the local police. He’s hoping it’s a case of a lost child and not an abandoned one, but his heart tells him otherwise. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, children are going from house to house saying “Trick or treat!” The whole evening is devoted to frightful pranks that aren’t really scary, because they’re only make-believe. However, for the girl back in China, the scenario that’s unfolding is truly frightening.

The girl is taken to the police station where they keep her for three days. They are waiting to see if she is in fact a lost child and merely separated from her family or one of the many unfortunate girls whose family cannot afford to keep her, due to a social system that places responsibility for aging parents on the sons.

After three days in police custody, the officials face the sad fact that nobody is searching for the child. They bring her to the local orphanage where she is given a new identity and a chance for a better life.

KitKat and I are both parents of adopted daughters and the story I just told is my imagined “horror story” of my daughter’s early childhood. Blossom was abandoned on Halloween, so witches and ghost decorations in the stores always make me reflect on this. My daughter turned 21 last November. This is a milestone for any young person, because they are finally recognized as an adult in all respects. But for Blossom, birthdays have always carried a little twist: You see, her birthday was “assigned” to her the day she came to the orphanage.

When we first discovered that, I was a little dismayed. “You mean, we won’t know how old she really is?” I thought. Then, upon reflection I realized this was a pretty trivial matter. After all, she came to the orphanage when she was around three. The orphanage director was a doctor and assessed her as being three years old. In thinking about my (many) nieces and nephews, I realized that the margin of error on predicting a three-year-old child’s age is only +/- six months at best (in other words, you’re unlikely to mistake a six year old for being three) so I figured this was close enough to not worry about it. Her assigned birthday meant she would always be one of the older kids in her class, so that seemed to add a layer of security, ensuring she would be sufficiently mature for the various rites of passage.

Traditionally in China, all children were considered “one year old” at birth and then would age by one year at the lunar new year and on each lunar new year thereafter. So the fact that Blossom’s true age was a little “off” from her celebrated birthday actually seemed to pay homage to her Chinese heritage.

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Gong, Hua (soon-to-be Blossom, in the Green School Hyogo t-shirt, front row) with her classmates at the Tianjin Children’s Welfare Institute

When the orphanage officials brought Blossom in to meet us, her Mama and Baba, for the first time, my immediate reaction was “Oh my God, she’s only two!” Our information had told us she was four-and-a-half, but she was a little peanut and didn’t look older than two. I panicked a bit, because as parents of two other children, we weren’t really expecting to go all the way back to the toddler stage. However, soon after interacting with her, we could see that she was no toddler. For example, she could tie her shoes—and we could tell that she was quite clever in making little remarks (even though they were in Chinese and we couldn’t understand anything she was saying). We asked the orphanage director how confident he was in the age he had assigned to her and he responded, “She’s four alright—four going on eight!” (referring to her precociousness).

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Blossom being carried off the plane by baba to start her new life in America

So we had no medical reason to change her birthdate—and I had another more important reason to keep it. With an older “waiting child,” the rules are different than for adopting a typical international baby, thus I had been inquiring into Blossom’s adoption availability, only to be told another family was working on adopting her. For whatever reason, they decided not to proceed and the day the orphanage called to tell me that she was available to us was the same date as her assigned birthday. So, you see, on that day she was “born” into our family as our next daughter, so in my heart her birthday has always seemed appropriate.

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Always challenging herself

Unlike a lot of adopted children, Blossom has never drilled us for details around her adoption. One of the blessings of adopting a child of another race is it’s a pretty in-your-face move. When you see our family, four Scandinavian Minnesotans with a short Asian girl, it’s clear she’s adopted. Which in many regards, has simplified things. And truthfully, although we’re all well aware that Blossom has a different genetic and cultural background. (When her parents are acting too weird, she likes to lord over her img_3303siblings the fact that she’s actually NOT genetically predisposed to the weirdness, although they are.) But, we don’t really give it a second thought in our day-to-day lives. I knew I would adopt before I ever had biological children, so she was always part of “the plan,” and we’re very much a regular family with all of the idiosyncrasies that brings. I wish I could tell her birth mom that our shared daughter is living a life filled with opportunity that she never could have imagined on that sad Halloween in China. And Blossom acknowledges the uniqueness of her circumstances by wanting to contribute to the betterment of the world in some way. And I know she will. She already is.

Stormy & KitKat for office? That’s just the ticket!

Someone recently posted on my Facebook page, “Stormy for President! I’d vote for you…” This made me laugh because I view politics as a necessary evil and generally identify as an Independent. I usually have very little to say on the topic and have only been opinionated this year because a madman is in the race. However, the post got me to thinking: “If I were running for president, what would my platform be? What are my beliefs and how do they define me?”

True to my apolitical roots, I’m going to stay away from foreign policy, gun control, and economics (although I have opinions on all of the above) and, as I’m running an honest, transparent campaign, I’m going to tell you what I really believe.*

It’s never too late – Maybe I’ve watched Scrooge too many times, but I honestly believe that everyone has the capacity to change—and at any time—so long as they want to. I keep hoping that will be the case with my 89-year-old mother, but I’m trying to balance that by having no expectations that she actually will change. That’s a tricky balance.

Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck – I never walk past a penny on the ground without stopping to pick it up. It’s not that Stormy is cheap, but she is thrifty. At one time lack of finances was a very real issue for me, so I like to remind myself how far I’ve come and remember that it still is an issue for many others. Even if I’m blessed with a comfortable lifestyle, I never want to discount money’s worth—even if it’s a lowly penny—out of respect for those who must save every cent.

He who hesitates…is going to have to wait for me – I adhere to the rules of the road (in most cases) but if we come to a stop sign and you don’t go when it’s your turn, I’m not going to sit around waiting for you. I’m going.

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This jacket actually has Stormy looking forward to cooler weather…

Smart people buy used – There are people out there who think buying used is for “poor people” and won’t purchase anything that’s not in the original packaging. Poppycock. You get way more for your money buying certain items used (cars, clothes, everyday dishes and glasses). I’ve admitted to being a bit of a clotheshorse, but people don’t realize how much I purchase secondhand: Like my cashmere sweaterdress from Neiman Marcus, the Missoni dress I wore to my niece’s wedding reception or my new favorite: The black leather moto jacket I bought from ThredUp. The best thing about buying consignment clothes is you get a preview into how well they will hold up and can get high-quality threads for knock-off prices.

If you’re having a terrible day, end it – No, I’m not advocating suicide…just an earlier bedtime. Occasionally, despite our best efforts, some days just suck more than others…but getting a good night’s sleep can improve your whole perspective.

If you’re having lots of terrible days, do something about it – If your circumstances are making you miserable, change them. Oftentimes, the biggest hurdle standing between you and a positive change is your own attitude. Maybe you can’t make a wholesale life change (like quitting your job) immediately, but you can take steps toward change (like updating your resume or brushing up on a skill that will make you more marketable). If you absolutely cannot deal with your circumstances OR if your life is good but you’re still miserable for some unidentifiable reason, PLEASE SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP.

All things in moderation – Fanatics (of any type) scare the shit out of me, so I stay away from environments that encourage fanaticism (sports play-offs, political rallies). I also try to understand both sides of an issue, because there are very few situations that are as black and white as they first appear. But I’ve found that this moderate approach works for other things as well. Dieting? If you deny yourself your favorite foods, it’s probably just a matter of time before you fall off the wagon. If you satisfy those cravings with a moderate amount of chips (or whatever) on occasion, it may take a little longer to lose the weight, but you’ll be more likely to stick with your overall eating plan.

Big changes start with small steps – There’s power in motion and sometimes great achievements are made through lots of little mundane steps. When I was working toward my bachelor’s degree, I was married and raising small children, while also working part-time. Progress was slow, but 11 years later, I had a degree. That success also led me to earning an MBA a decade later…(Thankfully, it didn’t take a decade to earn that one!) The habits-quotespoint is, those achievements were the accumulation of MANY mundane steps, but by sticking with them and keeping my eye on the finish line, I got there. This same principle can be applied to so many things. As Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.”

How about you, KitKat? What does your “platform” look like? (And no, I’m not talking about shoes…)

KitKat Weighs in…

It’s KitKat, remember me? I have been a bit quiet as I adjust to a new job while balancing my normal chaotic family schedule. But, there is nothing like a political debate to pull me out of the shadows. Having divorced parents on two opposite sides of the spectrum, I have grown up listening to opinions shared with extreme passion. I learned that it is ok to express your beliefs, and a good family debate is sometimes a great way to firm up your own convictions and even counts as quality family time.

Though I found Stormy’s expressed beliefs undebatable (including the madman), I thought I better add mine to the ballot. Who knows, she may ask me to be her running mate!

Share the real things – I love seeing everyone’s photos documenting all the bests, but don’t forget to share the other real things too. Friends, acquaintances and even random bloggers, who have opened up or provided self-deprecating humor about struggles with kids, marriage, or other life issues have helped me in ways they will never know. Hey, it is nice to learn you’re not a freak with weird thoughts and emotions that no one else could imagine. It’s not about a bitch sessions. It’s just about being real. Otherwise, we all would just see the snippets from Facebook and wonder why our lives aren’t always made up of countless shiny moments like everyone else.

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KitKat shakes things up by taking her fear of flying on a seaplane in Seattle

Shake things up Try new things, learn new skills, meet new people and make different mistakes. Sometimes my risks are bigger like quitting a safe corporate job to join a start up and sometimes it is as simple as changing my hair color. Shaking things up keeps me awake. “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

Keep moving – Sometimes you just can’t fix a rough day or bad situation, but just physically moving will help get you out of the wallow of self-pity. Twisting your body into different yoga poses. Taking a walk outside. Or my personal favorite: turning on music and dancing. No, it may not fix anything,  but it provides a momentary escape from a really crappy day.

(This may sound like a contradiction to Stormy’s “end it” advice but think of it as an alternative to those of us who don’t have the luxury to go to bed early. Stormy and I support all lifestyles.)

Your life isn’t all your own – There are many great readings on how to be happy and do what is right for you. I devour these when I see the posts. Who doesn’t want to grow old knowing they were fulfilled in every way? But the real truth is life isn’t all about you. There are friends, family, kids and even strangers who also count. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices or do things for others that may mean giving up some more selfish choices. Your life is part of a community. People who are there to share in the highs, and pick you up from the lows. Your peeps, those you know or will know, are part of your life and decisions. And that is ok—you need them!

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You never know what kind of a fairy you may encounter!

Let children believe – Soon enough we learn fairy tales don’t always have happy endings. But let them discover that themselves. So at my house Santa and the Easter Bunny are real, or at least nothing any of us question aloud, so they will keep visiting. And of course I was a fairy in my 20s with all kinds of mystical stories to share with my daughter whose deepest wish is to also become one. And, I am going to let my son think he has a solid career plan, being that if he doesn’t get recruited by the NHL or MBL, he came up with the fallback job of  being a pro-sports lawyer. No reason to crush his dreams with realistic expectations at 13. Plus, it is fun to hear all the things he is going to buy me when he is rich and famous. Let children believe in the whatever after. I find that going along with their imaginations lets me believe a bit in magic and wish bigger too.

Words count – Words hurt, much more than sticks and stones. The things we are told stick with us. Some of the comments told to us out of anger or disappointment, haunt us later. You may be surprised how much someone held on to words you forgot you spoke. It is ok to be honest and tell people the truth. I advocate for not being passive-aggressive and as I mentioned above, being real. The hard part is to remember to also go back and share when you don’t feel that way anymore or when they have made amends. Words also have power to heal. (This is something I am trying to remember in dealing with my own kids—especially navigating around a temperamental pre-teen.)

Arguing is ok – Simply put, if I am not willing to argue with you, that’s when you know something is wrong. There is passion in caring.

Embrace everything that has shaped youEveryone has made some choices that they may go about differently given the chance. But it’s not just “right” choices that form the better you. Sometimes it’s the other paths where you learn the most. I may not want my children making some of the choices I did, but I hope they safely make it through some unchartered journeys. Instead of living in a cloud of regret, remember the things gained or experiences had. The skeletons in your closet are also your treasure chest of memories and learnings. For example, the R-rated job I took up in college; sorry Mom and Dad but I am still glad I was dumb enough to make that bad choice. Love all of your story—it is what makes you interesting.

Some things are best left alone – As much as I stand for trying new things and always improving, sometimes we need to realize when we already have something good and just leave it alone. For example, take Swedish Fish Oreos. How could someone take one of the best candies, which I will eat until my teeth actually hurt, and combine it with a favorite classic childhood cookie. You took two greats and transformed it into an awful. Another example is taking a yummy piece of bread and then dipping it in a bowl of creamy tomato bisque. Now you just created wet, and pinkish, bread—gag! (I loved those hot lunch trays in elementary school that kept my foods separate.) Basically, don’t ruin a good thing when you have it.

What do you say, Stormy? Should we throw our hats in the ring? The way most Americans feel about their choices this year, we may actually stand a chance. 🙂

*This list was inspired by another blogger whose work Stormy admires. See the original post here.

The family you choose…

At the beginning of summer, my company lost a dear colleague unexpectedly. This woman was the kind of person who had friends everywhere—at all levels within the business, in all geographies—and it sent everyone into shock and mourning. Fiona had relocated to the US from our UK office but was born and raised in Ireland. During the last decade, she worked mostly in Minnesota, spent a couple of years running our India office, and patched together a wide network of friendships that included coworkers and even clients. During her brief hospitalization and subsequent death, the closest of those friends gathered together with her parents who had flown over from Ireland to help plan her services, settle her affairs and share a decade’s worth of memories, laughs and tears.

At her memorial service, someone referred to these closest friends as the “family Fiona chose” to surround herself with when she was far away from her actual family back in Ireland… and that phrase stuck with me… I think we all do this, to some extent. Even when our actual families are just down the street.

friend signThere is an inherent difference between family and friends—at least in my introverted view of the world. While regular friends are a great addition to one’s life, they can invoke a bit of anxiety for an introvert: Do I seem friendly enough? Am I being “fun”? Am I acting like a dork? (Shades of junior high.)

Family is another matter. They’re stuck with me—in all of my dysfunctional glory. If a family member drops by unannounced, I throw open the door without worrying that the house is a mess. If there’s a lull in the conversation, I’m not compelled to fill it. They can see me without my make-up or with a stain on my shirt and I won’t lose sleep over it. We can bicker about something, but I know they’ll love me anyway. Sometimes, however, despite our love for our families, we don’t always share the same views or interests. And so we may not hang out with them the way we would a friend. But when friends and family come together in the same person, it’s a beautiful thing.Clean

I have lots of acquaintances, but I have a smaller number of “friends” and an even smaller subset of friends that I would classify as “family I choose.” But when I realize someone has reached this hallowed status, I try not to take them for granted.

KitKat, for better or worse, has reached this status. We’ve known each other for 18 years and know the ways in which we’re different and the ways in which we’re exactly the same. I can always trust her to “give it to me straight” when I need a dose of reality. At the same time, if I’m anxious or upset about something, I know she’ll say exactly the right thing to calm me down. Since KitKat’s the oldest girl in her family and I’m the youngest in mine, our relationship gives me the chance to be the big sister and her the chance to be the little sister… Because, alas, I’m four years older, I’ve undergone certain milestones first. Both the good (marriage, children) and the bad (turning 50). For all of that, it works well. After all, I’m capable of giving awesome advice (even if I don’t always follow it myself) and KitKat is great at helping me envision a better version of myself.

I’m blessed to have a few other friends in this category as well—and also a couple of family members who I think would still be “chosen family” even if they weren’t already sharing the same last name.

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This one is dedicated to Fiona. 🙂

At my colleague’s memorial service, it was clear that her chosen family knew they were special to Fiona. She made a point of living her life that way. Her death was a reminder to make sure my own “chosen family” understands what they mean to me.

 

Well, it’s not rocket science…

Right now, I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room as my husband has brain surgery. The road here wasn’t short. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 13 years ago, we investigated treatments but found that there weren’t many options. The gold standard for Parkinson’s Disease is a drug called carbidopa/levodopa that Oskar has been taking for a number of years. As I’ve written before, it’s not a predictable treatment—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Moreover, the longer one takes carbidopa/levodopa, the more likely one is to experience dyskinesia: Unintended movements caused by a surplus of dopamine in the system. These can be annoying (like when Oskar dropped my favorite mug) or potentially dangerous (for example, while driving).

For more advanced Parkinson’s patients, there is one surgical option—Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)—but it isn’t a cure and the procedure can only be done once, so it’s usually not recommended until the disease is more advanced.

In recent years, Oskar started to reach a dosage level that brought on the dyskinesia. While the excess movements didn’t bother either of us much initially, it was becoming quite pronounced, and when he considered that along with the increasing frequency of “off” times, Oskar decided it was time to explore DBS.

Oskar volunteered to participate in a clinical study for a new device and underwent a series of tests to see if he was a good candidate for the surgery.

One of his consults required him to go off his medication overnight so that he was completely “off” while being evaluated. Then, they had him run through a series of motor tests to record his movements on video and time how long it took him to perform certain tasks. Then they let Oskar take his medication and re-did all of the tests with the carbidopa/levodopa in his system.

Now, I have seen my husband in both his on and off states hundreds of times, but the truth is I don’t pay attention to him much when he’s off. Oskar generally doesn’t like me to help him when his meds are off and it’s frustrating to watch him struggle and a bit depressing to see him sit there motionless. Truth be told, he’s not the best company when he’s off, so I usually go do other things while he waits for his meds to come back “on.” However, during the medical evaluation, I watched intently as he went through all of his motor tests both “off” and “on.” The difference was amazing. When he was off, he had a pronounced tremor, a blank expression, softer voice and very slow movements. When his meds came back on, you could see the relief flood his face. The tremor was replaced with dyskinesia, but he was more relaxed and able to do most of the motor tests with ease and greater speed. But throughout both on and off states, he kept his sense of humor and grace and reminded me once again what a classy guy he is.

The dramatic change in his motor skills was good news, though, because how well a person responds to the medication is an indicator of how they will respond to the surgical procedure.

brain surgeryOskar’s first surgery (left hemisphere) took 6 and a half hours. Time that he spent mostly awake with a halo screwed into his head, while the surgeon drilled a dime-sized hole in his skull and placed an electrode into his brain, looking for the optimal spot. They would test the location by having Oskar move his hand and leg and listen for the sound of the electrical impulses going from the brain to the muscle—basically listening for static. It took them five “pokes” to find the right location, but the doctor was pleased by the results once they hooked him up to the transmitter because Oskar responded to very low levels of stimulus.

Before the procedure, family and friends offered their support—Do you need anything? Do you want someone to sit with you in the waiting room?—and I was actually a little confused by it. This was a voluntary procedure expected to have a good outcome. It wasn’t an inoperable tumor or something… But as the hours wore on I started to get concerned; I hadn’t expected such a long time in surgery. My default coping method is denial, but that strategy requires one to keep busy so the real concerns don’t creep in. And that’s hard to do when you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room, alone, with a spotty wi-fi connection. After the successful completion of surgery number 1, I was grateful for KitKat’s company as I downloaded the day’s events to her over a glass of wine.

Writing this in real-time, Oskar just completed his second surgery (for the right hemisphere) last week. This time, they were able to place the electrode on the first “poke,” although they took two more passes at it to ensure they had the proper placement. Although both procedures were somewhat exhausting and wore him out more than he was expecting, we were glad to get past them—all jokes aside, it was brain surgery, after all. We’re anxious to get through his final surgery later this week (implanting the transmitter in his chest) to see how much of an improvement he gains when they switch everything on later in March. The large scars on his head seem like a small price to pay for the increased mobility he hopes to gain.

It's a good thing scars on guys are "rugged and sexy"...

It’s a good thing guy’s scars are “rugged and sexy”…

And there’s nothing like spending time in a hospital to remind you how fortunate you are. During these procedures, we both crossed paths with a number of people facing bigger challenges than us, and those encounters served as a humbling reminder of how lucky we actually are. We’re very optimistic about the outcome, but are trying to temper our hopefulness with reasonable expectations.

I don’t know what the future holds in terms of Oskar’s DBS results or how it might change our future, but I’m curious to find out. Yet, one thing Parkinson’s has taught me is to take it one day at a time—so you’ll find out when I do…a few months from now.

A Flash of Summer

I knew that I was a bit behind on my blogging, but was astonished to discover that my last post was in April… A whole summer had passed! A quarter of a year since I last logged in, yet I had thought I was only about a month behind on my writing. Actually, this summer has flown by in all aspects. Where did it all go? Next week my kids return to school. Usually, I am ready to push my kids out the door and back into a routine. Instead, this summer it feels like we were short changed by at least a month. The kids haven’t even yet started their ritual of bugging me, and each other, from too many days with no real structure.

I know I did plenty these past few months. And I actually have about four different blog topics started to document some of the activities that passed during this time. Though, I still have to prove it to Stormy who kept hearing me say, “I have something to write about this week.” Yet, nothing ever fully materialized past my initial jotted notes. I’d get distracted with a game of catch in the front yard, a neighbor beckoning me over for a glass of wine on the porch, or time commitments of baseball games replacing the winter hockey schedule. Then suddenly, with an uncompleted list of planned summer activities and several unfinished blog drafts sitting in my to-do pile, summer is wrapping up.

Is this the start of what my grandma warned me about? How time would speed up and pretty soon I’d be looking back wondering where all the years have gone?

Grandma still is the last one to leave a party!

Grandma still is the last one to leave a party!

This observation came from the same grandma who gave me and my friends lessons on how to best hold your drink and appetizer while still socializing at a party. So she has earned my trust in passing on truly valuable nuggets of wisdom.

I am hoping that it is just a strange happenstance versus getting older that caused the summer time warp. As you may remember from a past birthday blog of mine, I am not taking the whole aging process graciously. I am not quite ready for even more “attributes” of getting older, so time speeding up is exactly what I don’t need.

Whatever the reason, this summer cruised by way too fast. Reflecting back on these past months, I can only remember flashes of memories, rather than a good summer story.

  • It had its simple pleasures – cabin trips, moms-and-kids staycation, family visits, and lots of outdoor time with good friends.
Staycation travel: from GoCarts

Staycation travel: from GoCarts

To limos!

To limos!

  • It has had its downers – breast cancer scares, parent’s health issues, and helping a friend through some intense life decisions and changes.
  • It has had its celebrations – my favorite being Stormy’s joint 50th birthday/moving party (which included drunk dancing in her backyard and a text the next day asking if I had any recollection of how she broke her toe after too many drinks!)
  • It had its lessons learned – wiener dogs do bite, waterslides are fun, and if the pool at the club closes unexpectedly just pull out the baby pool, hose and Prosecco in the backyard.

I guess, overall, the summer has just been filled with living in the present. I took a break from wondering what is next. I have a habit of always trying to peek at the chapter ahead versus engrossing myself in the current story. Maybe creating this new way of living through one of my chapters is what also messed with my time perspective. (Again, trying to deny the aging theory.)

If I was summing up this chapter of my life, I would just say it was a relaxing time, enjoying simple things, and growing up a bit (not growing old!). I did purposely try to make some self improvements such as watching how I acted and reacted, taking deep breaths as needed, and making sure I did the things I thought were best for those I love (whether they realized it or not).

I wasn’t always successful at this new calm, “take-it-as-it-comes” self. Just this past Sunday while back-to-school shopping at Target, I had a random moment where my mind was surprisingly confronted again with how fast time really does go. How quickly life changes. I had to remind myself to breathe–there was a reason I was there at that moment–and to just focus. No regrets. No worrying what was missed. Trust that I am making the most of my time, even in those periods of time that seem to disappear in a blink.

My personality won’t lend itself to taking this mellow approach to life long term. I am already plotting my plans and goals with fall approaching. I am considering taking up playing on a mom’s hockey league. I have some lofty career aspirations I want to hit. Also, I have a personal physical goal that I hope will send some parts of me back in time. As time keeps passing and new life chapters unfold, I want to find the right mix of excitement and challenges while regularly adding in some contentment and just enjoying the present.  If my grandma’s warning is true about looking back and wondering where all the time has passed, I want to make sure I have filled the time with a vast collection of stories to look back on. I already have some wonderful ones to keep my old mind happy and as a good place to revisit.

My next chapter: The kids head back to school and I head to New York (a setting for several favorite memories already). Maybe saying goodbye to summer won’t so bad with an interest in finding out what is ahead.

photo-4

You never know exactly what will be next or what tale will unfold. That should be the fun part, the unknown. It makes the passage of time easier. At least that is what my Grandma told me over a recent  phone call. She also reminded me, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”

Time for a Time-Out

If you haven’t guessed from my lack of blog writing (thank you Stormy for picking up the slack), I am a bit behind on things lately. Usually I am pretty good at keeping up with my overly scheduled life. In fact, I take pride in being able to manage a crazy work and home life while still finding some time to spend with friends and do things I personally enjoy. But right now I am ready for a time-out from everything.

My son's main identity for four months straight.

My son’s main identity for four months straight.

As a hockey parent, it is somewhat expected to feel this crazed right after the holidays. In addition to the normal five days a week, tournaments start and, whenever possible, surprise ice times are thrown in. (The coach’s email is always worded as if we won the lottery by getting even more time on the ice.)

This year, on top of hockey, a few more twists got thrown in. My job got repositioned to report directly to the CEO. This sounded like a positive transition until I realized that all I admired about her—including a constantly active mind—meant that I’d be waking up to email brain dumps each morning.

Plus, hockey isn’t our only activity anymore. My daughter is older and ready to pursue her own interests, so we have tacked on gymnastics. Then, my son thought it was a great idea to add basketball to his winter sports schedule. I did protest this terrible idea, but I only have so much energy left for battling with a middle school kid on a non-critical issue. My time-out for myself is letting him make his own mistakes. (I often am rereading the  Top 15 Things Your Middle School Kid Wishes You Knew to keep may sanity in this area, and to remember that (most likely) I don’t have an insane alien on my hands that I am letting flounder.

So, my life after work seems to be figuring out who needs to go where and what to feed them (that’s somewhat healthy) in the short time span we have between activities. Life on the weekends is even more chaotic with added chauffeur duties to multiple games and transporting everyone (but me) to meet up with friends.

This weekend, in addition to having almost every moment of the days booked, I also had three hours scheduled for both Friday and Saturday night for volunteer duty in the penalty box during a girls tournament. (Twelve volunteer hours beyond your own team obligations are required if you don’t want to write a big check at the end of the season.)

It was when my sister asked when I had an hour to meet that I realized that I really had no more time. The only opening was between 2:10 p.m. – 3:00 p.m., if we met down the street from gymnastics. I was not looking forward to this weekend at all.

During my drive on Friday night to the arena, I kept reminding myself that it was just one weekend and then I would have all of my volunteer hours in. I couldn’t remember my rationale for signing up to do it all in one weekend. It seemed like a bright idea the month before. In addition to not being thrilled to spend two weekend nights at a rink when I didn’t even have a son playing, I also was a bit nervous. I hadn’t done penalty box duty before. My son had given me a vague warning to not to mess it up, and I had never really paid attention to that job before. In the past, I had always worked at the concession stand. But as a parent of an older player, I now got the benefit of tips from more experienced parents, who told me penalty box duty is a way easier gig than concessions.

Checking in and heading to the ice, I found the penalty box not quite as small as it looked from the stands. It was actually a warm and comfortable space. As the game started, I also realized I had a great view of the game and was able to hear the scoop on what the coaches were yelling to players on the ice and instructing on as they came onto the bench. It was a different perspective. The few times there was a penalty, I had no worries about missing the clock countdown. The players were on it. One girl even reminded me that I needed to be ready in 20 seconds. I am sure they would have jumped over the gate if I was a second too slow.

Penalty box is considered the box of shame. You know you just left your team down a person and the players left have to cover you in addition to their own roles. (Though sometimes the penalty seems worth whatever the action stopped the other team from doing.) A few texts came through while I was “working.” My family was busy trying to figure out what to do, who could come over, and how to arrange rides between different morning games. I texted back, “I am in the box you will have to manage yourself.” I was finding that this penalty box time-out was worth avoiding the chaos of weekend planning that usually consumes Friday nights.

I sat back and enjoyed the game in my VIP seat by myself with the exception of an occasional player joining me for a minute and a half. It is always at the most surprising times when I find  a moment of bliss.

After three hours of doing nothing but opening a door a few times, I came home to a quiet house with everyone asleep or out. I poured myself a drink and started watching a marathon of Grey’s Anatomy Season Five. (I am a bit behind on everything!) Making my evening even better was knowing that I had another “time-out” to look forward to on Saturday night.