About Unskilled Perfectionist

Figuring it out as I go along...

The Gifts We’re Given

IMG_2965In an admirable display of self-restraint, my daughter and I managed to make it two hours into our road trip before opening the giant bag of gummy bears.

It had been a good drive, so far. She left the radio tuned to the Prom Channel, featuring party hits and slow songs from the 80’s and 90’s (XM channel 4, check it out). She endured my stories. At least I think she did, but maybe since my eyes were on the road I just couldn’t see hers rolling.

The songs provided good fodder for conversation. We agreed that my essay for English class declaring “Every Breath You Take” as the best love song ever written was perhaps a bit misguided. I took great pleasure in blowing her mind when I revealed the doofus named Marky Mark rapping awkwardly about good vibrations was none other than mildly cool (but “super old”) actor Mark Wahlberg.

The air was thick with nostalgia as I listened to songs from high school, thinking about how many years have passed in such a short amount of time. Thankfully, the steady stream of candy handed to me by my co-pilot helped blunt the wave of melancholy.

Just as I was about to pop the millionth gummy bear into my mouth, I noticed that it was two-toned.

“Did you just bite two gummy bears in half and reattach them?” I asked my daughter.

She laughed.

“No, I tore them apart and then pushed them together. Ew, did you think you were eating a gummy bear that had been in my mouth? So gross.”

“Oh honey, you wouldn’t believe the things I used to let you feed me.”

I attempted to describe what it’s like to have a cherubic 9-month-old try to feed you a drool-saturated Cheerio from the tray of her high chair. The only thing you can do is smile, open your mouth and say, “mmmmmm, THANK YOU.”

“Why would you ever eat that?”

I explained that I was trying to teach her how to share and be kind, so when she attempted to feed me a Drool-io, I knew it was her way of showing love. It was the best gift she could offer me at the time.

Images of gifts from years past started to flash through my mind like an old slide show. I saw chubby, dimpled hands outstretched with a fistful of just-picked flowers, or more likely, weeds. Strings of beads with MOM in block letters. Handmade cards with scribbled drawings and phonetic spelling. Rocks that were almost heart-shaped if I squinted hard enough. Bird feathers of suspect origin.

Time and again, I accepted with wonder and gratitude whatever small gestures of love were offered to me. Not surprisingly, I’m still doing it fifteen years later, since teenagers have remarkably subtle ways of showing they care.

These days I relish a text with a heart emoji the same way I enthusiastically accepted a soggy Cheerio all those years ago. And since bear hugs are now in short supply, I quietly cheer when an arm gets casually draped over my shoulders for a few brief seconds.

My daughter used to tell me I’m as beautiful as a princess, but now compliments are doled out in the form of her declaring, “If you loaned me that sweater, I’d wear it.” My son no longer asks for a bedtime story, but when he nonchalantly announces he’s going to sleep and could talk for a bit if I wanted to, I race up the stairs and then casually walk into his room like it’s no big deal, all the while knowing that it is definitely a big deal.

It seems the rules of parenting don’t change as the kids get older: pay attention; stay open; be grateful. Just like when they were babies in high chairs, my teens are figuring out how to express affection. The love is still there, it just looks a little different these days.

Happy Mother’s Day, may your weekend be filled with love, in all its forms.

The Universe is Not Subtle

Image-1I realize there are times the universe needs to teach me a lesson, but is it too much to ask that my knock upside the head come from a flyswatter instead of a sledgehammer?

It all started about five years ago when a pair of doves built a nest on a brick ledge by our garage door. The female bird settled into the nest and sat patiently as we marveled at her steely determination to stay put, even as the noisy garage door creaked up and down all day long.

After a few weeks, we noticed two tiny fluffy heads peeking out over the edge of the nest. “The babies are here,” we shouted like a new father to a hospital waiting room. We obsessively watched the two baby birds grow, eventually getting too big for the nest and flying away.

Lucky for us, Mother Nature’s show wasn’t finished and we still had a front row seat for the encore. The mama bird returned to hatch and raise two more pairs of babies that summer. We excitedly pointed out the nest to anyone within shouting distance, even the hyper-efficient UPS guy paused for a moment to take in the scene.

Once the weather started to cool, the third set of babies flew away and the nest sat vacant as the pace of our family life sped up with the return to school, a full schedule of fall sports, the holidays and finally a brand new year.

Just as the kids were getting antsy with spring fever, we were surprised to discover that the bird had returned to spend another summer hatching eggs, feeding her babies and teaching them to fly. At first, we were amazed, but eventually, the sight of a bustling bird’s nest became commonplace.

The third spring, we greeted the mama bird’s return with nothing more than a, “Hey, she’s back.” When friends pulled into our driveway and noticed the birds, our response was a nonchalant, “Oh yeah, they come every year.”

I should have known better than to take for granted the little bits of magic in my life.

It’s as if the shrug of my shoulders set off a chain reaction to teach me a lesson. Something went wrong with the birds. It could have been a neighborhood cat or an errant football, but one day, they were gone.

For a while, I held out hope that the bird would return to try again or that maybe a new bird would take over the nest, but it’s been a few years and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a do-over. Apparently, this is the lesson I needed to learn, delivered with a much too on-the-nose metaphor: an empty nest.

By the time kids are teenagers, we’ve been around them so much that the magic of family life can feel commonplace. I take for granted the snippets of conversation I overhear while driving carpools. I’m used to having all four of us at the dinner table. I assume my calendar – with every weekend earmarked for a basketball or volleyball tournament — will never change.

But soon a driver’s license will replace the carpools and a dorm room will replace the childhood bedroom. Eventually, my weekends will be wide open and sports-free.

Family life changes, often too quickly, especially if I don’t pause to appreciate it. And just in case I forget, I now have literally an empty nest sitting at the front of my house to remind me day after day to always marvel at the magic.

Crude Mugs and Filth Chicken

Experts say the key to successful parenting is consistency.  And while I’m good about early-ish bedtimes and stubbornly insist on family dinners, I am horrible about consistently enforcing household chores.

I don’t have unrealistic expectations for my kids. The general rule is not to leave an area worse than you found it. This simply means clearing plates, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, and rinsing the gross toothpaste spit down the sink.

Sadly, even this level of maintenance proves challenging for my teenagers. But since I don’t want every interaction I have with them to be a nagging direct order (clean your room, rinse the dishes) I tend to ignore the mess, hoping that as it accumulates, the kids will finally snap into action.

Admittedly, this is a horrible idea. I will never win a game of filth chicken with teenagers since they can tolerate a mind-boggling amount of mess. I always blink first, usually after a paper pile sinkhole eats someone’s homework or a missing shoe causes someone to be late to class.

“It’s impossible to think in this mess,” I mutter to absolutely no one and then sheepishly make a bed, pick a wet towel up off the floor and wrangle musky-smelling clothes back into the hamper using only two fingers.

My inconsistent approach to mess management was making me crazy and my kids entitled, but I think I may have stumbled upon a solution.

Last week, I received a text from my son asking if a new friend could come over after school. I said yes and then peeked into his room just to make sure a family of raccoons hadn’t taken residence in the jumble of sweaty clothes piled in the corner. Ok fine, I also made his bed.

The room was in decent shape by the time my son got home from school. He introduced me to his friend and then the boys headed upstairs to his room. It was only a few minutes before I hear this: “Uh, mom? Were you in my room? You accidentally left your mug in here.”

This wouldn’t have been a big deal except this is the mug:

IMG_2942

I don’t know how to explain the mug’s existence other than to say it was from my brother and sister-in-law, masters of the bizarre gift. I believe my birthday package that year contained the mug, a box of Lee Press-On toenails since I had just lost the nail on my big toe (a tragic story for another time), and a custom-made baseball cap that said “car dancing is my thing.” Every year, the random gifts from those two magically soften the sting of aging.

But this was a lot to explain to my mortified son and his red-faced new friend who, tragically, was probably wondering if I had left the mug behind in a mad rush to the bathroom.

I mumbled something about a crazy younger brother and gag gifts, took the mug from my son, looked at him and said, “I won’t go in your room and accidentally leave stuff behind if you keep it clean.”

He nodded solemnly, we had a deal. Buoyed by this new development, I immediately started making a mental list of things I could leave behind in my daughter’s room. One kid down, one to go.

 

Shrug

I make a lot of mistakes during the course of a day. I don’t know why this particular gaffe sent me over the edge.

I placed an online order to refill my contact lenses. The company asked me to upload a picture of my optometrist’s prescription so they could process my order faster. Sounded simple enough. I found my prescription (no small feat, I must admit) took a picture, and sent it off.

I then received an exceedingly polite notification that I had sent my doctor’s note for glasses, not contacts.

Duh.

In a world chockfull of epic fails, this really wasn’t that big of a mistake. But something about the gentle tone of the email coupled with the fact that I made the error while attempting to use technology made me feel like a befuddled geezer. I was gutted.

I’m feeling old and a step behind. It sucks.

I find it depressing that I occasionally need multiple attempts to align my car into a perfectly ample parking space. It’s concerning that instead of trying to read anything on my phone, I wait until I’m home in front of a proper 16-inch screen that supports a giant font. And I’m still not over the fact that I didn’t recognize any of the songs played at a wedding I recently attended until the DJ decided to ‘throw it way back’ and spin Rump Shaker.

Instead of chalking up the contacts conundrum to a benign mistake made while rushing along to the next task, I let it morph into a crushing example of my quickly approaching senility. I muttered something suitably old timey, like “dagnabbit,” and then sent the right prescription to customer service with this note:

Whoops, that was embarrassing! Here’s the correct prescription.

I then proceeded to dwell on my impending elderlyness, researching things I might enjoy in the very near future: custom BINGO markers, coupons for Werther’s Original Hard Candies, prune recipes. An electronic ding alerting me to a new email pulled me out of my tailspin:

Thanks for sending us your prescription. NO need to be embarrassed, it happens way more often than not! Everything looks great!

Of course it was a common mistake. Of course it happens to customers of all ages. Of course I was overreacting. It just took a cheerful customer service rep to pull me back to reality.

I’m hard on myself. The people I care about are hard on themselves. We might show it in different ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that underneath the surface most of us are cringing, hand-wringing and feeling less than adequate. (Right? RIGHT? Please tell me I’m not the only one)

I was surprised how a simple, breezy response to my mistake could make me feel so much better. I decided to try and offer the people in my life this same grace by reacting with a vibe of “oh well” instead of  “WTF. We’re doomed.”

This attitude is especially difficult to conjure up when dealing with independence-seeking teenagers as their mistakes are myriad and the consequences weighty. There’s a big difference between a two-year-old wanting to put shoes on all by herself and a 15 ½ -year-old wanting to get behind the wheel of the family car.

Although I can’t go through life in a constant state of   ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  I can pick my battles. And every once in a while I can offer a shrug instead of a wince, cutting loved ones some slack, my ancient self included.

A box filled with contact lenses arrived a few days later, offering improved vision as well as a new way of looking at things.

No Bad Days

EAD9485A-CDA3-4C72-B462-D99769FC21D2When friends inquire about our spring break vacation, I should just show them my Google search history to help provide some insight:

things to do in Maui when it rains
address Maui urgent care center
cancellation policy, Molokini snorkel tour
how to get a trapped bird out of a house
how to photoshop six-pack abs
can I buy Koloa Coconut Rum in California

Turns out, Ono is not only a fish commonly found off the coast in Hawaii, it’s also a good mascot for our recent vacation, albeit with a slight spelling modification: Oh. No.

Oh no, the weather forecast calls for rain the entire week we’re here. Oh no, the kid woke up with an eye infection. Oh no, the kid now appears to have both an eye infection and strep throat. Oh no, the other kid squished my arm while I was wearing a sleeveless dress and started calling me ‘Lil Beefer.

It would have been easy to slip into a sullen mood when I was greeted every morning by grey skies, steady rain, and hunched palm trees seeking protection from the pummeling wind. But I was in Hawaii, dammit, and there are no bad days in Hawaii.

So I forced myself to be happy.

I would cut myself off mid-thought if I was going negative. It felt ridiculous at first, but then it became a weird little game. Something like:

I can’t believe I’m sitting on the beach under a cloud cover so thick, it makes my skin look blue. But… think of how happy the dermatologist will be when I show up for my next skin cancer check without a hint of a tan. Besides, my pale skin would sizzle like a slice of spam on a flattop if I were outside in the tropical sunshine on a cloudless day. It’s better this way.

Undeterred, I floated in saltwater while being pelted with rainwater, all while keeping an eye out for lightening because with the way things were going, I couldn’t be too careful. Fortunately, the ocean was warm and the giant sea turtle that surfaced for a breath right next to me was friendly. Good things happen all the time. Even in the rain.

I learned that my new wide-brimmed sun hat also works well as an umbrella, that rum cocktails are delicious in any weather, and that the sound of ocean waves can still shush you to sleep even after the stormiest of days.

Despite the minor disasters that befell us, most things worked out in the end. Antibiotics got my daughter feeling better and back on the beach in less than a day. The wayward bird found his way out of the house with minimal drama. The canceled snorkel tour was replaced by an epic hiking adventure involving waterfalls and rope swings. Lunardi’s carries my new favorite rum. And I’ve only been called ‘Lil Beefer once since returning to the mainland.

The trick will be learning to apply my stubborn cheerfulness back in the real world. It can be harder to look for the good amidst the mundane, but I’m trying. Just as I was grateful to be waking up on a tropical island, I’m also trying to be grateful waking up to a life filled with laundry, carpools and orthodontist appointments. It’s all a gift and it’s all fleeting.

Enough days have passed that I’m only dwelling on the good memories from our trip. Ono is once again a fish instead of a vacation catch phrase. And as I search for the moments of joy in my everyday life, I realize that although I didn’t leave the island with a deep dark tan, I did leave with a change in perspective that will hopefully last longer than bronzed skin.

Baby Steps

After four decades of being an all-or-nothing person and frequently ending up on the nothing side of the equation, I’m beginning to think it’s time to re-evaluate.

I’ve always been enamored with the grand gesture: romantic weekend getaways, well-planned dinner parties, a six-hour block of writing time, a diet healthy enough to put the Bundchen-Brady household to shame. Unfortunately, when the stars don’t align to facilitate a grand gesture (which they never really do), plans are abandoned instead of simply readjusted. I’m learning that sometimes I need to ditch the idea of spectacular and embrace good enough.

With that in mind, I’m allowing myself one more grand gesture at the start of 2018, which is to dramatically declare this the year of… baby steps.

This means I’ll do whatever I can with whatever I’ve got. Instead of wishing for a kid-free weekend with my husband that probably won’t fit on the calendar until April (of 2024), I’m going to look for daily pockets of time for what relationship experts have dubbed the “micro-date.” Similarly, squeezing in 30 minutes of writing every day will eventually add up to more pages than holding out for the occasional large uninterrupted block of time. Starting paperwork to renew my passport gets me one small step closer to that trip to Europe I’ve been talking about for years.

Like most things in life, it seems the key to taking baby steps comes down to mindfulness. I need to be paying attention in order to find opportunities to squeeze in a baby step. If I half-heartedly fill downtime by absentmindedly scrolling through my phone, I’m missing several opportunities a day to inch forward towards a goal.

I realize that none of this is revolutionary, but it’s not supposed to be. I’ve tried revolutions. They fizzle out pretty quickly. At a time of year when the world is telling us to sprint towards self-improvement, I’m pulling back, channeling the tortoise instead of the hare, and taking one small step. Happy New Year, friends.

Weddings, Then and Now

 

 

 

 

I’ve been married for so long, the adorable little kid who was the flower girl at my wedding was the beaming bride this weekend at her own wedding. In an effort to keep myself from dwelling on how damn old that makes me, I’m choosing to focus my attention on love, in all its iterations – from shiny and new to comfortable and timeworn.

Firmly in the comfortable camp is my husband and I who are celebrating our 19th wedding anniversary on Tuesday. Unsurprisingly, we won’t have a chance to acknowledge the milestone until later in the week during a break between basketball carpool and volleyball games. At this point in our lives, an hour together with a strong drink and an uninterrupted conversation that doesn’t devolve into coordinating our calendars qualifies as a date.

I’m beginning to understand the wisdom behind the adage that the first 20 years of marriage are the hardest. I don’t know who said it or when – it was probably meant as a joke – but the idea actually makes sense. There are a lot of difficult marital miles that need to be navigated in those first two decades.

We’ve faced the typical bumps in the road: cross country moves; stressful jobs; a health scare; kids; vomiting kids; kids who refuse to sleep; kids who go through an Elmo phase; kids who turn into moody teenagers; kids who… you get the picture.

Fortunately, we’ve also developed skills to help smooth the path. We can still make each other laugh. We’re good at picking up the slack when the other person needs a break, ensuring there’s at least one patient, organized and upbeat spouse at any given moment. I’m good at ignoring the near constant din of sports on TV and he’s good at ignoring the basket of clean laundry that sits unfolded for a week. I think that might be the key to our longevity: focusing on the few things that are truly important and offering each other grace with everything else.

The happy couple who got married this weekend is still giddy and glowing and marveling at their good fortune of having found each other. Love was such a tangible presence at their wedding, it probably should have showed up with a gift from Crate & Barrel like the rest of the guests. I found myself emotional (and maybe ugly crying a little) as I witnessed not only the shiny new love between the bride and groom, but also how their parents, family and friends cared for them so deeply and wished them well.

I hope the honeymoon phase of their relationship lasts a long time. But I also hope they grow to appreciate the little acts of daily marital maintenance that help sustain love over the years. My husband making me a cup of coffee just the way I like it or texting me a link to a story that he knows will make me laugh can feel more romantic than the rare candlelit dinner.

Lest we get complacent, I also hope the comfy sweatpants stage of our relationship can be reinvigorated by the newlywed love we saw this weekend. The logistics involved in keeping a family sheltered, clothed, fed and relatively happy can snuff out the levity and spontaneity that fuels romance. And since a marriage can’t be sustained by coffee and Onion articles alone, we need to flirt with the person we fell in love with, not just appreciate our hardworking partner in the journey.

Perhaps the best thing about being in love is that even though it will change over time, if the person in your life can make you laugh, make you think, make you feel seen and understood and desirable, then you’re with the right person — whether it’s been one week or almost 20 years. Congratulations to the newlyweds and happy anniversary to my love.