grumpy about DIY electrical work

Did you know that Anthony and I once gutted a house by ourselves? We ripped out every single lathe-and-plaster wall in that little old house, and all the old insulation. We wore full-body Tyvec suits and asbestos masks, to avoid itchy and toxic stuff as much as possible. Our neighbors would eye us suspiciously as we carried out bags of debris in these get-ups. We looked like extras from movies about pandemic contagions.

We replaced every single fixture, receptacle, and electrical wire all the way back to the circuit panel, re-organizing and modernizing all the circuits as we went. Anthony cut out the top half of a non-structural wall between the kitchen and dining room using a sawzall and we turned the bottom half into an island-like separation. We determined the wall was non-structural by talking about it (“yeah, I think it’ll be fine”) and then nodding in agreement before Anthony reved up the saw. That was exciting. We installed insulation and drywall and windows and doors and kitchen cabinets. We built new aprons and stools and trim for all the windows. We laid tile all over the bathroom. We built a mantel for the fireplace. We recycled original baseboards; we stripped, refinished and repurposed them to build doorway surrounds and other trim.

We hired a plumber to replace all the plumbing, including the toilet stack, because ew. Just because I like to talk about poop doesn’t mean I want to touch it.

Then we moved to St. Louis and had a baby. Actually, now that I think about it, I renovated our kitchen in St. Louis while I was pregnant with Jesse. I remember our next-door neighbor having an anxiety attack while I wielded a circular saw in the back yard. I’m not sure what she was so worried about. I was only 5 months pregnant and there was plenty of clearance for my uterus.

I still have all the power tools and equipment, and lots of spare hardware in boxes that used to be well-organized. With two kids in the house, there’s little time for much DIY work. Still, sometimes a girl’s got to get her hands dirty. I decided last week that I needed to install an outlet next to an existing switch in our dining room. It was the right kind of project for me — not complicated, and limited in scope. I figured it would take me a few hours on Friday and Saturday, including a little extra time to read through my electricity books and make sure I was doing things right.

The work went relatively smoothly. Nothing caught on fire and I didn’t blow a single circuit, and also I didn’t catch any shocks on my own body, at least not for the first two days. I did have to cut out a larger chunk of drywall than I wanted to, because I couldn’t manipulate the old armored cable wiring into the new electrical box as easily as I had hoped, and I needed room to reach into the wall cavity. So I had to make some drywall repairs too. Those can take a while to do well.

How many tools does it take to install a single electrical outlet? This many:


The pry bars were for taking out the original electrical box, which was attached to a stud. The numerous screw drivers and pliers — well you know how it goes, you can never have enough of those things around. I really did use each of these tools. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been spread all over the dining room floor when I was done. Except I can’t remember what I used the hammer for. Give me a moment to recollect.

Nope. No idea why I had the hammer out.

How many trips to the hardware store does it take to install a single electrical outlet? Final tally: five. Not bad. I spent about 40 dollars (including drywall repair materials), which is still substantially less than paying an electrician, and the job turned out pretty neatly:


it took two days to properly plaster over the drywall patch. Next up is sanding. i wont be able to do that for several days, so I pushed the new electrical box in and put the cover on for now. And then I noticed…


Huh. I guess when I was prying out the old box I must have damaged the opening on the right side. It’s hard to photograph. Can you see the little hole along the right edge? The electrical cover isn’t big enough. Why can’t they make the covers bigger? Why?

Looks like I’ll be taking the cover off and doing some more plaster work before I sand. Maybe it’ll take a couple more days, and maybe I need to buy a little more drywall compound. I guess it takes six trips to the hardware store.

And then I’ll be done. Except also I’ll need to touch up the paint. That’s right. I don’t have any matching paint handy, because it’s from the prior owner. Anyway the color is ugly. It looks like I’ll need to repaint the entire dining room. I better get some paint cards when I go back to the store for more drywall compound.

As I’m thinking this through, it occurs to me that the dining room is part of a great room, which includes the living room. So I’ll need to repaint that too. Also the great room walls are contiguous with the stairway walls, so I guess I need to repaint those too. It’s a staircase that turns 180 degrees halfway up, so that ceiling gets REAL high. I wonder how I’ll deal with that.

I know. I’ll just repaint the ceiling and the hallway at the top of the stairs too. If I do all that in one color, I can just use a roller and paintbrush taped onto a long, long stick (this is what duck tape dreams are made of).

If painting goes like it usually does for me, some paint drops will fall on the wall-to-wall on the stairs and upstairs hall floor. It’ll be ruined, but maybe that’s a good thing too. The carpet is ugly, and there’s hardwood under it. Might as well rip that up and refinish the wood floors. I bet I can do that in a couple weeks. I just need to rent one of those power sander thingies.

I should be done with this limited, uncomplicated little job in 6 to 9 months. I’m so glad I installed the new outlet. It’s already adding value and much-needed convenience to my life.

Grumpy about the stupid conversations (living the glorious five-year-old daze), part 1

A.m. edition (listen closely for the sound of my brain cells dying off):

Mommy, what if there was no food?

Then we’d starve.

What if the only food was grass?

Then I guess we’d eat grass.

Would it give me a tummy ache?



Because it’s grass. I think it’s hard to digest.

(thoughtful moment)

What if the only food was chicken?

Then I guess we’d eat chicken.

What if the only food was chicken AND grass?

Then I guess we’d cook chicken and grass stew.

What if the only food was flies?

Ew. But I think we’d catch the flies and try to cook them and eat them.

(fit of giggling)

I would NEVER eat flies!

You might if you were starving.

(thoughtful moment)

What if the only food was trees?

I don’t know, Nick. I’m not sure we can eat tree. I guess we’d try to see if we could boil some bark and get some nutrition out of it.

(stares out car window)

What if the only food was houses?

We can’t eat house.

But what if the only food was houses?

Then we’d starve to death.


You know there are children actually starving to death in our world, Nick. That’s part of why I get so irritated when we throw away food. There are starving children who would LOVE to eat the food you think is disgusting.

(oh no I didn’t)

(oh yes I did)

(extended thoughtful moment)

We can really eat grass?

(silent treatment)

Why would grass give me a tummy ache?

(silent treatment)

Heeeey, why are we driving here? This is close to our house!

(silent treatment. Mommy wipes drool off her chin.)

grumpy about old drivers

I popped over to our neighborhood Ace hardware Saturday morning for a couple things I needed on a little DIY project. I parked in a nice big space without a car on either side, as I’m wont to do. Away from other cars so that I don’t feel cramped and unsafe. I went and did my bit of shopping. I walked out the storefront doors and saw another car getting in my car’s personal space. That’s my Passat on the right. Hello new car friend.


As I walked over with one hand under my jaw to keep my mouth closed, I observed the friendly car’s driver blithely closing her door and heading off toward the store. La la la. I stopped her. She tried to walk past me. I showed her the unusual proximity of our cars. She was a little hard of hearing but she finally got it. She said, “Oh. I was paying attention to the driver side to make sure I had enough room with the car on that side.”

I was befuddled. How did she do it? How did she get so close without smashing anything?

IMG_7467 IMG_7466

She must have been moving soooo slowly and carefully. How did she not notice she was rubbing inappropriately against my car?

We had a brief conversation. The lady (I’ll just call her Ann for no reason) suggested I call my insurance company. I answered grumpily. “My insurance company is irrelevant. I won’t be paying for anything. You need to call your company.”

She replied with a bit of shame in her voice. “I don’t know how. I don’t have a way to do that.” She pulled out her insurance card. As she handed it to me, she said sheepishly, “They told me I should always say it’s not my fault.” She looked me dead in the eye and added dryly, “It’s not my fault.”

That was weird. “But it is,” I answered, my grumpy ire rising. “My car was parked. It’s obviously your fault.”

She drooped. “I know. But they told me to say that.”

I started to feel pity for this sweet little old lady. I don’t know — and I’m not sure I care — if she was manipulating me. Ann was shorter than me. I’m always grateful to meet any full-grown human who’s shorter than me. It happens so rarely, and it corroborates the charts that say I’m in the fifth percentile for height, instead of in the zero’th percentile as often appears to be the case. Plus she wasn’t copping attitude. She just seemed a little addled as she kept muttering, “Guess I should have stayed home today.”

I called our little city’s non-emergency police number. As we loitered next to the cars, Ann fussed a bit and expressed a variety of concerns, but she was very pleasant. I told her not to worry about insurance until we saw how much damage there was when we separated the cars. After all, they were touching so delicately, like prepubescent teens holding hands. It occurred to me that we might just be able to get them apart without any major damage, but I wasn’t sure how. While we waited for the police to come, the blacktop got hot and Ann looked a little red. I suggested she take this opportunity to head into Ace and get her shopping done. She was happy to go. Meanwhile, I used my alone time wisely by taking photos and posting them on facebook.

A police officer finally arrived. Her son is in elementary school with Jesse so I know her. Nice woman. We chatted. She had a solution. She got in Ann’s car and turned the wheels hard to the left. The rubber on the right front wheel pushed on my car’s driver side and separated the cars by a couple inches. Brilliant. Then I crawled into my car from the passenger side and just pulled forward carefully. All done. Remarkably, there was not a dent to be seen, just a few new not-entirely-insignificant-but-also-not-material scrapes along the side of my car.

I didn’t have it in me to make this an insurance matter, to file a police report, or to even make Ann pay for a paint repair (she offered). She didn’t look like a wealthy woman. My car’s a 10-year-old beater that I’m probably replacing next year anyway. What’s a few more scrapes? When I told Ann not to worry about it, she hugged me full on. She was almost in tears. She held me tight and spoke earnestly into my hair. “Oh thank you, thank you. You’ll be on my prayer list tonight.” The police officer held Ann’s shoulder gently and asked her if she was okay, sizing her up to see if she should be driving. Ann was shaken and relieved and tired. I encouraged her to go home and get some rest, and also to drive very, very carefully in future.

I was ready to wipe my hands of this episode. I drove off quickly and got home to my electrical work, but I found I couldn’t leave Ann behind. My first instinct when I observed her advanced age was one of bias. Knowing nothing about her except that she was obviously having a bad Saturday, I had wondered immediately if she should be driving anymore. A couple friends on facebook had the same quick reaction to my post about this little bender. Indeed, Ann herself worried aloud to me about whether the police would take her license away. But is that fair? Would we have reacted the same way if she had been a mom in a minivan or a teenager or a middle-aged white man in a suit? I realized I wouldn’t.

As I struggled mightily with the electrical outlet I was working on, I got grumpier and grumpier. I’m supposed to respect elders, not shit on them just because of a minor parking lot bump up. On the other hand, I wondered if my compassion for Ann was looking in the wrong direction. What if she really is losing her faculties and next week she causes a terrible accident and hurts other peeps… I guess that would be on me since I let her walk away. Hmph.

Decrepit elders causing auto accidents is juicy news, like train wrecks and airline crashes. It’s easy to find reports that tell us elders “cause” more fatal car accidents than other age groups and ought to be grounded. Some pundits argue for refresher courses and tests to ensure a person can still drive capably. But maybe we all could use that.

I hunted about on Google. What I found suggests that the elder-menace on our roads is mythical. Check out this CDC fact sheet, published in 2011 and updated in 2013. The relevant factoid that caught my attention is this: “Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and increase notably after age 80. This is largely due to increased susceptibility to injury and medical complications among older drivers rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes.”

So. They don’t really get in MORE accidents. They’re just more frail.

Elder drivers are less likely to drive under the influence than other age cohorts; elder drivers are less likely to drive in poor driving conditions; elder drivers use their seatbelts more; and elder drivers don’t drive as far. These are good things.

Compare elder drivers to teenagers. Check out the related CDC fact sheet on teens. Teens behind a wheel are much worse news than elders. Run for your life if you see a teen careening through your residential neighborhood. I know I do.

Sure, some old people shouldn’t be driving. But the same goes for some not old people. Why are we so quick to turn on elders? My neighbor across the street is a delightful woman whose husband died several years ago. She’s probably somewhere in her mid-80’s. Yes, sometimes her memory isn’t that great and she gets a little confused, but that’s also true for me. As far as I can tell, she’s just as pulled together as me in this regard. She and I have had several conversations about her (adult) childrens’ assumption that she would move to a senior community after her husband’s death. She doesn’t want to. She won’t until and unless someone makes her. She doesn’t understand why they would want to relegate her to living with a bunch of old people, without her independence and her home of 40-odd years.

What would she do without her car? I need to spend some time thinking about this. Having a little parking lot bump-up made me grumpy for sure. But realizing I have a driving prejudice against elders has made me even more grumpy. It’s just not right. Bah. I need to make a change.

grumpy about the sex talk

About a month ago I overheard Jesse and Nick as they played with dragon figurines in the living room. Nick’s little voice piped up. “We can’t get married yet because we haven’t fertilized yet.”

Eh? I peeked around the corner from the kitchen. The dragons were facing off. “I will fertilize you,” said Jesse’s dragon. “Fertilize fertilize fertilize.” Her dragon pecked Nick’s dragon in the mouth with each iteration.

Nick continued the play. “We need more babies! Shoot more fertilizer!”

I had to walk away.

I’ve wanted to have a straight-talking talk about sex for years, but something has always stopped me. I’m just not sure how to do it. This is not a conversation my parents ever had with me. I learned what sex is from my friend Robin in 6th grade, as we played on the playground swings after school.

That’s right. I was a child in the dinosaur days when, as an eleven-year-old, I could just stay after school to play before I walked home. Because no one was home. I would hang out, without any adult supervision, and play with Robin or anyone else who could stay after school. Then eventually I’d walk the half mile or so home, alone, and unlock the door and get myself a snack, alone. Sometimes a brother would come home, and my mom would come home from work a little before dinner time. It’s a miracle I survived.

What? Oh, sex. Right, so Robin told me about sex. It came out of the blue, and of course her communication had a prurient edge to it, the feel of a dirty secret — because my parents never, ever talked about it with me. I was stunned and grossed out. My mom never even talked with me about menstrual cycles or planned ahead for my first period. My grandma told me a bit about it, but it was all so confusing. I bled one day and thought I was dying. My mom nodded and handed me some sanitary pads. She didn’t even show me how to attach them to my undies.

At some point I swore to myself that I wouldn’t be the repressed parent. My kids would know what sexual intercourse is before they were three. Well, five. Maybe five. I’ve lost sleep about this. I’ve made plans, I’ve given it a lot of thought, I’ve considered different tactics and tried to settle on a course of action in introducing the topic.

Yet here I am with a nine-year-old and five-year-old, and until last week I hadn’t talked directly with them about sex yet.

In my own defense, Jesse has other issues we’ve been dealing with, and Nick is just suffering in ignorance in the wake of Jesse’s needs. I have taken jabs at some technical details. Jesse and Nick know babies come from fertilized eggs for most animals. They know each of them was made from a piece of mommy (egg) and a piece of daddy (sperm). Jesse even asked the key question recently (i.e., some time in the last year). “How does the piece of the daddy that becomes part of the baby get inside the mommy?”

Oh dear, I thought. But somehow, I still couldn’t bring myself to go the distance.

So I got a book recommendation, “IT’S SO AMAZING! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families.” By Robie Harris and Michael Emberley. It took me months to get around to buying it, but I finally overcame whatever was stopping me.

This book is SO AMAZING. I don’t have to think about anything. I just have to read the words on the page, while sitting on the sofa with a child on either side of me.

It eases into the topic so smoothly. First it teaches anatomy — in cartoons with fun colors, but anatomically correct drawings. You see drawings of naked humans at all different ages, both genders. You learn about the parts of the body that are the same and different on boys and girls, the different parts that are on the inside and the outside. I discovered that drawings of the vulva make me uncomfortable. Not my thing. My mom never gave me a mirror and encouraged me to learn my body.

Jesse walked away without a word when we got to the page about male anatomy, but she came back the next day and asked to continue the book. Nick pored over the pictures with Jesse and then asked me, “Are there two kinds of penises? Which kind do I have?” We chatted about circumcision.

After several days of studying all the parts and staring at anatomical drawings and learning the names of things — ovary, fallopian tube, uterus, cervix, bladder, vagina, labia, clitoris, vulva, seminal vesicle, vas deferens, prostate gland, urethra, epididymis, scrotum, testicle, foreskin — the topic had become prosaic, clean, bored-sigh-inducing. Perfect.

Then we learned about the journey of the egg and the menstrual cycle, and then about the journey of the sperm out of the penis and erections, and then about the journey of the sperm through the female body.

Not once did the kids ask how the sperm gets there. I was amazed. I wasn’t sure how that final bit of news would go over.

This morning before school, Jesse wanted to read on, and we finally got to the pages describing sex. Nick wasn’t interested and wandered off to play with dinosaurs. The last piece of the puzzle was more like a little epilogue than a big bang. The sperm has to get inside the mom’s body, and the way in is the vagina, so there you go. The bodies get close, the penis ends up inside the vagina, and the race to the F-tubes begins.

“Really?” said Jesse. She wasn’t grossed out, freaked out, or zoned out. She was just curious. “That can happen?” We talked about it, not in much detail but just to get clear that, yes, the penis can go inside the vagina and that’s how the sperm gets on the right path in the hunt for an egg. We talked about love, intimacy. We talked about intra-family taboos.

And then it was time to go to school. It was like we had just learned how plants get cloned, or how hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water, or how 5 times 9 is 45.

All that worrying for no reason. All I had to do was buy this book. It has all the answers. I never have to worry about sex and my children again.

Grumpy about entropy

We were sitting at dinner tonight when we heard a noise.

“What’s that sound?” asked Anthony.

It was coming from over by the stove. “I just took the ribs out of the oven, I think they’re sizzling.”

“I don’t think so.” Anthony walked over, just past the stove and into the entry. “There’s water coming out of the ceiling.”

I raced upstairs. Nick had washed his hands and left the sink faucet on at full throttle. Twenty minutes ago. The sink drains slow.


Nick chased me upstairs. He answered my rhetorical question as I used four bath towels and the floor mat to mop up the flood. “Oh. Sorry. Sorry mom.”

We watched water pour out of the ceiling light fixture at the entry. We watched water drip around door frames at the entry and in the basement. We were surprisingly calm.

My children, like forces of nature, are destroying the house.

Grumpy about my birthday

Yesterday was my birthday until 13 years ago, when my dad unceremoniously usurped it for his memorial day. For several years after, my brother Mark would call on my birthday and lament on my behalf. “Dude. I was thinking today. It SUCKS that Dad died on your birthday. MAN, of all the days out of the year, that SUCKS!” We would devolve to laughing raucously about all the jagged edges on that final practical joke.

But I don’t think Dad would have been happy about me dealing with it by calling it a joke. I imagine he would have gotten really grumpy and growled at me, letting me know that he would never do something so awful to me as a joke, and that death is never funny. Then he would have shaken his head ruefully and walked away with his eyebrows raised, grumbling the whole while.

Dad’s ending wasn’t especially pleasant. He went to the hospital for a major emergency heart surgery — a last-ditch effort to save his life — and never came out. On my birthday that year, about three weeks into Dad’s hospital stay, I got a call from Mark in the morning. I assumed he was calling to say happy birthday to me. Me me me. I saw his name on caller ID as I answered the phone. “Hey Mark, whassup?”

“Dad’s gone.” Mark sounded weird, subdued.

I thought he meant Dad wasn’t in his hospital room, or maybe he’d gone home. “Where did they take him?”

“No. Dad’s gone.”

I shook my head. My eyes rolled around. Mark sounded so confused. How in the world could Mom and Mark lose Dad at the hospital? I felt really grumpy as I snapped at Mark. “Well go find him. Go to the nurse’s station and ask them where they took him.”

Mark tried a third time. “No. Carla. Dad’s gone. He’s dead.”

Oh. That kind of gone. Now I understood why Mark sounded so off. He was calling me from the bathroom in the hospital room where Dad had died, just moments before.

Crying, wailing, tooth-gnashing. You know the drill.

One of my Korean uncles, my mother’s brother, was there. He asked Mark for the phone. “Hi Cahla. Yah. So you get plane ticket and come home.”

It was two days after 9/11. This directive rubbed me all wrong. I yelled emphatically into the phone. “Get a plane ticket? What kind of advice is that? You think you need to tell me to come home? ON WHAT PLANE? WHAT PLANE DO YOU THINK I SHOULD FLY HOME ON. THERE’S NOT A SINGLE PLANE IN THE SKY. HAVE YOU BEEN WATCHING THE NEWS. WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT TO ME.”

My uncle waited patiently and silently until I was done, and then he spoke gently, with kindness in his voice. “Yah. Okay, Cahla. I give phone back to Mahk now.”

I did make it home on the first day commercial airlines were back in the air, but my family had to delay the funeral a couple days or else I would have missed it. I was thankful for it. One thing my mom didn’t delay was Dad’s death, and I was even more thankful for that. She had gotten a call from the hospital to let her know Dad had arrested; he was on full life support and would die without it. She went to the hospital and, without hesitation, signed the forms to set him free. When I thanked her later for being quick and strong in this decision, she told me it was no more than the simple kindness Dad would have shown even a dog, to end such senseless suffering. It was an easy choice.

I found it hard to accept celebratory birthday words for quite a few years after. One year I said so to Mom when she called to wish me a happy day. “I can’t celebrate my birthday anymore, Mom. This is the day Dad died now.”

She answered me sadly. “I know, Carla. But this is the day you were born, so for me it will always be a day of celebration.” I remember those words every year, and I try to convince myself that celebrating my life matters as much as remembering Dad’s death. I might almost be there.

My family brought it home for me this year. I woke up to tiny-armed snuggles and two sweet little voices wishing me a happy day. Jesse was a little upset that she didn’t have a chance to shop for a gift, but she made do with other resources. She wrote a card.

Nice reference to my 48 years. Awesome.

Taped to the card, in a small folded piece of paper, were a piece of quartz and two tiny pieces of sea glass — prized summer finds, which Jesse took from her treasure chest to give to me.


As I marveled over Jesse’s generosity, Nick got a curious look on his face. He ran upstairs and reappeared a few moments later. He handed me a bracelet that I had given him months ago. I didn’t know he had saved it. He spoke proudly. “You gave it to me, mommy, and now I am giving it to you.” He ran upstairs again and came back with even more — a thank you card from his preschool teacher that opens into a flower, a perfect little shell he found this summer, and a butterfly picture Jesse had colored for him. Horded personal treasures, all.


I tried not to cry over these gifts of the magi. I asked Jesse and Nick to put the gifts back in their respective treasure boxes. “They’re mine now, but I would like you to safeguard them for me.” That worked for everyone.

Then it was an ordinary day in a life. I was delighted by many well wishes on facebook. Anthony took the kids to swim lessons. I took Jesse to a birthday pool party. When Jesse and I got home after the party, I was surprised by a kitchen festooned with balloons. In addition to normal birthday balloons, Nick had insisted on a “Tangled” balloon as big as a boogey board, and Anthony chose a giant, phallic pickle, “Another birthday. No big dill.” Inexplicable, and just the right kind of silly. There was no room left for grumpy. Anthony baked a strawberry cake – one of my favorites. He’s not a confident baker, so there were many apologetics, but it was delicious and properly frosting-free. We ate the cake amidst the balloons, and I was happy.


grumpy about 9/11 (how original)

Every year on 9/11, I unexpectedly find that I’m quick to cry — though after 12 years of it, you’d think I’d expect it by now. The bleak mood is really bad for about a week, and then it waxes and wanes until Christmas, when it finally peters out. It’s time to admit to myself, once and for all, that this will go on until I’m dead or old enough to start forgetting things, like the way the end of my father’s life is inextricably bound to 9/11 for me.

Several weeks before the World Trade Center was hit in 2001, while I still lived in Washington, D.C., I got a call at work from my mom. You have to come to California today, she said. Daddy’s in the hospital and he’s going into surgery tomorrow morning for an emergency quadruple bypass and valve replacement. It’s not good.

I booked tickets and was on a plane a couple hours later. My goal was to get home in time to see Dad — possibly for the last time — before he went to sleep that night. I flew through Atlanta in August. I was trapped there for hours by thunderstorms, waiting for a connecting flight to take off, and I didn’t make it into San Francisco until somewhere around midnight. My brother Ted picked me up and drove me to Mom’s hotel room in Sacramento, near Dad’s hospital. It was too late for me to see him.

Early the next morning, I held Dad’s hand and kissed him as hospital staff wheeled him off to surgery. He was doped up on sedatives, and he asked me in a concerned daze, “Are the boys here?” Yes yes, of course they were. We all huddled up as surgeons tried to save Dad’s life.

And they did, at least for a time. Dad suffered in ICU for more than three weeks until his body finally failed, but the first post-op days were celebratory. Dad was recovering nicely, hospital staff were optimistic, and I went back home after 4 or 5 days. Still, the cloud of Dad’s condition hung over everyone in the family, and he remained in the hospital.

On 9/10 my mom called and asked me to please, please talk to the doctor and nurses. She was distraught. Dad looked so bad. He had lost so much weight. His circulation was failing. His feet were turning black and they were talking about amputating. What would happen to him? He wouldn’t want to live like this. Should she be preparing for him to die? What should she do? His suffering was crushing her, which is why she was barely willing to go visit him in the hospital. Please, Carla, call the hospital for me.

The ICU nurse who took my call said that Dad was going to come out of ICU; she was confident he would live and he wasn’t going anywhere soon. But mom should still prepare for the worst. Just in case. I couldn’t decide whether I should go back to California right away or not.

All this was swirling around in me when Al Qaeda attacked the next morning. Otherwise, my story of the day was an ordinary one for someone in the D.C. metro area. I went home early; I watched smoke rise from the Pentagon as I rode the metro. I spent the day grimly watching redundant news updates, listening to fighters buzzing the skies, and wondering what was coming.

The next morning, while Dick Cheney and other politicians cowered in a bunker somewhere, many government hacks like Anthony and me went back to work, passing through military checkpoints along our commute and embracing the fiction of normalcy. There was a telephone message from Mom waiting for me at the office, which she had left on the morning of 9/11. It captured everything I love most about her. She sounded confident, even cheerful. I couldn’t hear fear in her voice, though I’m sure her heart was full of terror. “Hi Carla. This is your mommy. I’m just calling to say hi and I love you. Call me. I hope you’re fine.”

I was, except my dad was dying. He took his last breath two days after New York City’s towers fell. I spent the next months comforting myself in relative terms. My loss wasn’t as great as that of others. My dad died with family by his side, peacefully. He didn’t burn or choke to death in desperate fear, he wasn’t crushed by a falling building. He had a full life. He didn’t leave behind young children or a pregnant wife. I had my dad for 35 years. I had much to be thankful for. I didn’t have cause to grieve so much as many others.

Month after month I told myself these things. I went back to work and play, I struggled through the holidays with my family. Some time in January, I sat up in bed in the middle of the night, weeping. But I could have felt worse. The wave would pass. I turned to Anthony and said, “I think I’m handling Dad’s death pretty well. Don’t you?”

I may be grumpy, but I’m an optimistic grump.

My dear Anthony answered in his true voice, practical and plain, a little worried. “No, Carla, you’re not. You cry every night. You need to get help.”

That night I finally started to face my reality. 9/11 swallowed my dad’s death whole. My little grief was subsumed in the colossal story of the fallen towers. Day after day, I felt like I didn’t have the right to suffer for the loss of my father as much as families who lost their people in the towers. I felt guilty about how much I was hurting.

What silliness. Of course I deserved to grieve. 9/11 took that away from me. Or, perhaps more honestly, I used 9/11 to avoid a simple truth: my father’s death was so unexpectedly, so horribly painful to bear that I couldn’t really face it. He was — indeed he remains — my fallen tower.

Every year when 9/11 hits, I relive this process of avoidance, wretchedness, grief, and loss. 9/11 isn’t a day when I reflect on patriotism, nationalism, vengeance, those lusty American themes that drive us to send our young men and women to kill and die in wars overseas. I find myself meditating instead on the value of every single human life, each of us a son or daughter, many of us fathers and mothers, all of us connected to each other across this vast planet, as I was connected to my father, as I remain connected to him long after his death.

As for the popular 9/11 slogan, “Never forget…” Who could ever forget 9/11 and the twin towers? I’m not moved by those words, except with respect to my dad. I tried to deny that his death was as colossal to me as the destruction of the towers was to the rest of the world. So every 9/11 I remember, and I try to get it right. I travel anew the bitter journey toward saying good bye to Dad, whom I will never forget.

Grumpy about girls

Jesse has been in a vague tizzy for most of her conscious life about whether people think she’s a girl or a boy. Part of the problem is her name, of course, which is fairly gender-neutral.

Don’t think for a minute that the name choice was some anti-normative statement. Anthony and I don’t play like that. It was a lazy statement. We never bought a baby name book or anything like that. We just needed a name with no tooth-gnashing and we didn’t feel like waiting until 26 weeks or whenever it is that they do the big ultrasound. At about 3 months into the pregnancy, we picked a name we liked that could go with a boy or a girl, and that my mom could say without an accented struggle, so then we were done.

After Jesse got her hair cut really short this summer, she became even more self-conscious about her gender identification. It’s all mixed up in her head with the notion that girls aren’t as good as boys. One morning at breakfast, after hearing for the umpteenth time from Jesse that some lame-ass little boy hassled her about looking like a boy, I got fed up. I googled “celebrities with short hair,” and we eyeballed Hollywood girls looking fabulous and feminine with short hair. I don’t know what I was thinking. After 3 minutes of this, I had the big DUH and told Jesse that one of the most powerful women in the world has short hair. We talked about Hillary Clinton and we looked up photos of her, with both short and long hair. Jesse liked her much better with short hair. I never really noticed that Clinton looks really handsome and strong with short hair, but she looks kind of dopey with long hair.

As we browsed pics of her, I remarked, “She’s probably going to run for president.”

“I didn’t think girls were allowed to be president.”

Said my daughter. In 2014, in the United States of America, in MY home. I was stunned.

We talked it through. We talked about voting rights, the word “suffrage.” Anthony and I chattered about how, indeed, not so long ago women used to not be able to vote or be president.

“Who stopped girls from voting and stuff like that?”

Men? I answered. Society, culture, religion? It was a curious question, one I couldn’t really answer. And anyway, now women can vote. In the USA anyway.

Jesse commented that it must have been a girl who helped other girls vote. Following this inspiration, we looked up Susan B. Anthony on Wikipedia and read about how she went to jail for voting and about the suffragette movement. We talked about the 19th constitutional amendment. Jesse wanted to know who the president was when it became law. She thought he must have been a pretty good guy.

I was getting more and more agitated in my heart as this conversation progressed. How had I allowed the world to make my daughter feel second-class? How had I screwed this up so badly? Nick walked into the kitchen. We went through a shout-back chant. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen. The kids looked a little concerned. Anthony fussed about nervously because he knew I was all worked up.

Can a girl or a boy be president?


Can a girl or a boy be an astronaut??


Can a girl or a boy be an engineer or a mathematician??


Can a girl or a boy be a great athlete??


Can a girl or a boy be a great artist, a great musician??




I turned to Jesse, who was sort of cowering and giggling nervously in her kitchen seat. My arms were gesticulating and karate-chopping wildly by now to punctuate my words. I was practically yelling as I explained why I was so upset.

When a little boy says you look like a boy, girls aren’t allowed, only boys can do that, boys are stronger, or anything like that, I don’t just see a little boy being a jerk, I see HISTORY and all the suffering women have been subjected to, all that we’ve risen above! I see Susan B. Anthony towering behind that little boy, telling him NO! Women are powerful! Women are equal! Women deserve everything and anything they can earn and learn! How dare that little boy put you down!!

The kids were silent for a moment as I caught my breath, and then Jesse snickered. “Mom, stop. He’s just a little boy.”

Which was sweet. But then again, little boys become little men with attitudes that put down girls.

That was a couple weeks ago. I was optimistic that my histrionics would make a difference. Then last night Jesse said these exact words to me: “boys are smarter than girls.”

Is there no hope?

Grumpy about tae kwon do

I just signed us up for the monthly family plan at J.K. Lee, a popular local tae kwon do studio. I’m still not sure it’s a good idea, but Nick, Jesse and I are going to look so gooood in the cool uniforms. Anthony is ambivalent about the whole thing, but I might sway him yet.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a couple years now. Jesse has interchangeably expressed interest and terror at the idea. She’s worried about all the discipline; she imagines instructors yelling at kids all the time and has trouble seeing past that to all the fun. Last year, when I used to pick her up after school and then drive over to get Nick from preschool, we would go right past the studio. Once in a while, if she was talking about tae kwon do again, I’d suggest we just drop in and take a look. This invariably produced a panic attack and ended the subject.

But now Nick’s five, and my goodness does my little free spirit need an interest other than dinosaurs, dragons and angry birds. He’s ready for an organized activity. The universe came together for me when Jesse decided she wants to be on the swim club at our gym and also take diving lessons. The timing is perfect. While she’s doing that, I can take Nick to a kids-only beginner tae kwon do class and still get back to Jesse before she’s done swimming. When I was working all this out, she insisted she didn’t want to do the marshal art, so it’s a win-win. No one has to sit around waiting for anyone else. (Except me, of course, I’ll be waiting around, but I’m not relevant.)

So we went to J.K. Lee Friday afternoon for a meet/greet and introduction to how they do things. Here’s a blow-by-blow of how it went, real time in my mind as I type:

We’re making the visit for Nick, but Jesse has to tag along because her school lets out before our appointment at J.K. Lee. All she has to do is sit in a corner of the studio and wait peacefully while Nick and I take care of business. But I’ve also just learned from googling about on my iPhone that the monthly fee covers everyone in our family, so I’ll be able to learn tae kwon do along with Nick. Yay! And if Jesse changes her mind and wants to participate, a lot or a little, she can. There are many class times, and you can go to as many as you want. She spends the 5-minute drive to the studio whining about whether she wants to do it or not. I tell her she’s banned.

We walk into J.K. Lee. It smells and looks clean. This is really important for OCD Jesse and (though I have trouble admitting it) OCD Carla. We’re greeted by one of the most enormous human beings I’ve ever met. If I stretch my arm straight up, I’m not sure I’ll reach his nose. He towers over us in his black-belted dobok and he’s huge and his hair is big and his voice booms. He welcomes us enthusiastically and tells us to take off our shoes. Jesse is startled but thoroughly unintimidated by this intimidating instructor. “Why do I have to take off my shoes? I’m not doing it.”

Enormous Man smiles and booms cheerily. “THAT’S FINE, BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. WE DON’T WEAR SHOES IN HERE. THEY’RE DIRTY!” Jesse stares at him suspiciously and shakes her head as she walks away. 

He shows us where to put our shoes and then directs us to a little training room next to the main studio floor. Nick starts running around and around the room like a wind-up toy, a mix of simple joy and nervous energy. Something new! Something new! Something new! Jesse mewls unhappily, disregarding all efforts by Enormous Man to encourage her. The Korean half of me cringes in humiliation and my face turns pink. I can feel the shades of my ancestors glaring at me in shame as my off-spring show utter contempt and disrespect for the instructor. I feel an unnatural compulsion to bow deeply and issue humble apologies in Korean to sah-buh-neem on behalf of my unruly and horrible children.

But Enormous Man, with his red hair and white skin, probably won’t understand a word I say in Korean. I hold my tongue and remind myself that I live in Wisconsin. I settle instead on snapping at Jesse to go sit somewhere. Far away from me. Where she won’t disrupt Nick’s experience. Since she isn’t going to do this activity anyway. 

We meet the instructor who is going to give us a little demo. Thankfully, she is normal-size. Indeed, she’s quite short, so that makes me feel more at ease. By now Jesse has decided that, although she won’t be doing tae kwon do, she’ll participate in this little intro. Wonderful. I’m so thrilled that she’ll continue to annoy me for the next 20 minutes. 

We stretch, we strike some poses, we learn to yell. Teacher explains that we yell to have energy and focus. She adds an afterthought. If someone’s attacking you or bullying you, and you need to defend yourself, you need to be LOUD. I like this attitude. 

Jesse mutters, “I can’t do that.” 

Teacher adjusts. “Then you can just breath HARD when you punch.” I’m liking this place more and more. Eventually Jesse yells anyway. Ha-yah! We yell as we punch the air. Then we’re taught to yell “Peel-son!” which Teacher says means “I can do it!” 

I don’t think so. That’s not a literal translation. Whatever “peel-son” means (and there’s no telling from the accent what it actually should sound like), it’s not a sentence in Korean. I let it go. Teacher is blond.

We sit down on the mat. Teacher is super up-beat and positive. She lectures the kids about showing kindness and helping. “What do you do at home to help your mom?”

My children stare blankly at each, then slowly look back at Teacher. 

Nick is hesitant, but he tries first. “Don’t yell at mommy?”

Jesse goes next. “I let Nick harass me.”

Teacher, apparently an optimist, tries to find something they can brag about. “Don’t you put your dirty clothes in the laundry when you change?”

“Yes!” yells Nick.

Jesse is more precise, more critical of herself as usual. “Yes… Well, not always. Sometimes not.”

Teacher doesn’t give up. “Do you clear your plates at meals?”

“Yes!” claims Nick, smiling hugely as he tells this big fat lie.

“Well sometimes,” says Jesse. She thinks for a second and then sounds matter-of-fact as she adds, “Actually, mom is our servant at meals.”

With raised eyebrows, Teacher leaves kindness in the dust and moves on to following instructions. She tells us we have to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” when the instructors tell us to do something. “How many times does your mom have to ask you to do something before you do it?”

Nick starts guffawing. “Like… One HUNDRED!!!” Inexplicably, he bends over into a butt-up fetal ball as he laughs, knees tucked in and head under his arms.

Jesse nods in agreement. “Yeah.” 

Teacher continues. “How many times should your mom have to ask?”

Nick sits up and gives the correct answer. “Just one?”

Jesse considers the question and then answers in a contemplative tone. “One? Well, two. Maybe two times.”

We get a brief demo of some skills we’ll practice in classes. We throw punches at the air and then at a clapper thingy. It turns out Jesse is a beast. Her punches pack a wallop that surprises Teacher. I don’t explain that this is because Jesse has been punching Anthony and me viciously since her nervous system was just barely developed enough for her to control her arms and hands. Nick is still too sweet to punch very hard. He laughs and tosses his fists about, but his heart’s not really in it.

We learn a high blocking move to protect the head from a downward blow. Teacher gets out a soft bat-like device. She swings it gently down toward the kids’ heads so they can practice the high block. Jesse stands her ground fiercely and blocks well, adding her own move to deflect the bat to the side. When Teacher takes her first shot at Nick, he squeaks as he turns and runs for his life. She gets him back and he gamely tries the high block, but mostly he just squinches his eyes and cowers. 

Now the kids get to use the bat to try to hit Teacher. Jesse goes first. She’s a polite child, so she gently drops it towards Teacher’s head a few times, and she disregards instructions to go ahead and try harder. She really doesn’t want to hurt the nice teacher. Then Nick gets the bat. Time for some payback. He can’t believe he’s being allowed to smack a grownup on the head with a bat, and he really wants to land a blow. He tries to brain Teacher, driving the bat up and down viciously with both arms as he laughs insanely. 

We practice a few other moves. In between skills, Nick runs at high speed around and around the room, like a dog who has the zoomies after a bath. Nick is seriously happy and excited about all this. He’s not bothered that he’s not really following instructions. Teacher isn’t bothered by all his energy. She has plenty of experience with out-of-control kids, because they tend to self-select (or more accurately, parent-select) into tae kwon do so they can gain some discipline.

On a whole other plane of existence from Nick, Jesse struggles with her anxiety as she goes through the drills. She’s worried about Nick being naughty. She’s worried she’s not doing things right. She whimpers, mutters, barely hangs on. But I can see her interest and desire growing. Eventually Jesse settles in, but only after she raises her hand to ask an important question. “Will we die?”

This unexpected inquiry stumps Teacher, who just stares at Jesse silently for an inappropriate length of time. Jesse sees it’s not getting through so she clarifies. “When we do classes, will we die or get badly hurt?” Many soothing words ensue. I’m actually really pleased with the instructor’s answer. She’s plain-spoken, not false in her encouragement. She tells Jesse no one even gets to touch each other for a long time. She reminds Jesse that the motivation of all this is self-defense and confidence, not hurting each other. I’m in. 

Finally we each get to break a board. The board for the kids is a thin piece of pine or balsa, curved a bit. I could break it easily over a knee or with a foot, and I can see Teacher holds it with pressure the right way to make the breaking easy. The kids have to use a hammer punch, a downward blow with the soft pinky side of the fist. Nick is too afraid to do it so Jesse steps in. She strikes with a ferocity that takes us all by surprise. The instructor nearly drops the board and it’s broken into three pieces. Even so, Nick struggles to convince himself he can do it without hurting himself. He does things like touch the board ever so gently with his fist and then closely inspect his hand for splinters. After almost 5 minutes and a dozen failed attempts he finally strikes hard enough and his board breaks. He’s ecstatic and relieved. He cannot believe it.

Teacher says it’s my turn now but she wants me to use a different blow, a forward punch with the palm of my open, flexed hand. She shows me how to do it. Uh, okay. She wanders off to get a bigger board. Unexpectedly, I feel a little nervous. In a didactic vein, I tell Jesse. I’m feeling a little anxious about this, Jesse. What should I do?

This is at the heart of what we work on daily for her, the alternative to anxiety medication — developing and practice coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety whenever it simmers up. Deep calming breaths, body relaxation techniques, self-reassurances that nothing bad will happen, acceptance that failure is okay, doing-not-thinking, and so on. Now that we’re here in a place that she’s feared for 2 years, I’m really curious what tactics she’ll suggest for calming nerves.

“Just think of all the things you hate most about Nick and me and then when you’re really angry just HIT the board as hard as you can.” 

Teacher comes back with a thicker, larger board for me. I nail it on the first blow.


Grumpy about the first day of school (but Jesse seemed fine)

It was the first day of school for Jesse yesterday. Day 1 has traditionally been a bad, bad day. The stress and anxiety are overwhelming, and Jesse has typically expressed those feelings in ways that bring to mind things like the scene in Alien, when the gooey creature comes out of the android’s stomach.

But Jesse’s been in talk therapy for almost four years now, and she’s getting really good at managing the stuff rattling around in her head. She started talking openly about school fears a few weeks ago. In particular, she became very anxious about seeing a first-grade teacher who had been awful to her. There’s no legitimate reason to fear this woman anymore. She retired. After we worked that one out, Jesse got agitated for a few days about her hair, worrying that everyone will think she’s a boy. She solved that one herself by demanding an even shorter cut. I thought it was a perfect solution. After the haircut, she was fine.

A couple days ago I spoke with Jesse about finding her way to the classroom alone, because I didn’t want to drag Nick through the school and deal with that. She whined and mewled, because getting lost at school is one of her weird fears. So I drew her a map of the building with arrows showing the path to her classroom. I listened to 10 minutes of complaints and questions about my failure to draw everything correctly to scale. But eventually Jesse took up a pencil and added trees in the courtyard area, and then she was satisfied. She studied the map intensely, and she pulled it out again at breakfast on Day 1 to study it some more. She seemed in control of this particular fear.

Leading up to the first day of school, I felt that Jesse handled her feelings really well for a nine-year-old with a tic disorder, OCD, and abnormal anxiety. She seemed fine. I kept waiting for the ax to fall.

I anticipated Jesse would have a bad night’s sleep before Day 1. In fact, Jesse came into my room at about 2 a.m. muttering about where she had put her pillow. Fortunately, I was wide awake. I walked her back to her room and handed her the pillow, which had fallen to the floor next to her bed — probably when she got up to come ask me about it. She put her head on it and fell right back to sleep. I’m not convinced she was really awake, and I was thankful that she wasn’t having her more usual nightmares or terrors. She seemed fine when she woke up, and in a pretty good mood.

I had some extra concerns about how Day 1 would go because Jesse had a huge patch of poison ivy rash on the back of one knee and some over-scratched bug bites that appeared to be badly infected and a rash on her face and spots forming all over her torso. But otherwise she seemed fine. I put medicine on all her itchy spots and she didn’t complain about anything.

Breakfast went smoothly too on Day 1. Jesse actually ate something. True, she burp/cough/vomited (the mouth trifecta) in the living room. But she seemed fine afterwards, and she cheerfully told me it was a nice reminder that she still needed to brush her teeth. I was the only grumpy one because she nailed the beanbag chair and rug, making cleanup that much harder. If she had just leaned out and puked one foot to the west, she would have hit the hardwood floor, which is so much easier to wipe up. I don’t know why kids can’t be more thoughtful about where they yack.

Anyway, Jesse seemed downright calm all morning. When Nick came out of the bathroom and announced he had a pee pee accident (i.e. he peed all over the walls), she handled it peacefully. Eventually she wandered upstairs to dress and she spent about 20 minutes by herself. I went to check on her and found her in an almost trance-like state, slowly going about her business — feed the fish, brush her hair, get dressed. She was fine. Kind of normal, even.

When it was time to leave home, I anticipated the drop of the ax, but it didn’t come. Jesse was a little slow to get out the door to the car, but there was no ululating or screaming; she didn’t do anything mean to the dog or Nick; I didn’t have to sit in the car for 15 minutes waiting for her. On her way out the kitchen door, she did carefully and deliberately place her hand flat on a stovetop burner — her only capitulation to the “hurt myself” compulsions and tics that rage up inside her in moments of great stress. But the stovetop was off so she was fine, and I let it go without a word because I actually get it now. She’s looking for a real danger to replace the imaginary ones, because the real fears are less frightening. Also she’s trying to show herself that some real fears are only real in the wrong moments. The dangerous stove is safe. School too. 

We walked outside and I took her picture. I could see the worries oozing out of the green flecks in her eyes.

I felt all squeezed up inside. But then wonderful kooky Nick came over and took all the edges off, and Jesse seemed fine as she jumped into the car.

We got to school and it so happened that one of Jesse’s friends was pulling in at the same time. They walked in together holding hands. Jesse was calm. It was quiet, so Nick and I followed Jesse down to her classroom after all. Jesse was acting a little dazed, but it seemed like a lot of kids in the hallways were feeling that way. When we got to her locker, Jesse gave me a big hug. She didn’t want to let go. But she eventually did, without any clinging, grabbing, inappropriate groping, or strange noise-making. I didn’t have to pull her off me. She was nervous, but she was also fine. It was the first Day 1 where I didn’t feel like I was abandoning my helpless little girl to face her unbearable fears alone. I didn’t cry.

When I picked Jesse up after school, I knew the ax would finally hit me. Jesse is apt to come out the schoolhouse doors and unleash her pent-up emotions all over me. But on Day 1, 2014, she was calm and cheerful. She didn’t slap me or scream at me, or whine and complain about something that happened at school, or tell me she had been bad bad bad. We went over to the playground for a few minutes with a friend. They ran around happily, and when it was time to leave Jesse went with the flow instead of whining and refusing. I started to feel like she must be a body-snatcher. She remained good-natured as I rushed about preparing dinner before she and I headed to the doctor to see about her rashes. At the doctor, Jesse was well-mannered and not disgusting. She didn’t touch waiting room toys and then lick her fingers. The doctor concluded Jesse has impetigo and needs antibiotics. Jesse handled the news well. She was fine.

We headed back home and Jesse dug into a bit of homework, which was just a list of questions about her day of school and a snoopy picture to color in. With fatigue setting in, she unraveled a little. She didn’t understand the homework because she had been “spacing out” while the teacher explained it. She couldn’t settle to read the written instructions. She lashed out at me as I tried to read the instructions for her. She got hung up on inanities, expressing it with fussing, whining, complaining, wiggling. Her letters weren’t good enough. Her handwriting was bad. She didn’t know what to write. Her spelling was all wrong. She wasn’t sure the teacher would like it. She couldn’t color the picture as directed because there was a blank spot. She got it wet a little. I started to feel on edge, because these behaviors have been a torture to me for several years. But after a time, Jesse settled and finished her homework, and then she seemed fine. 

By bed-time, Jesse had disclosed a lot of anxieties to us — homework, school success, lunches and snacks, rashes and itches, the discomfort of sitting cross-legged on the floor, unfair teacher corrections, shyness, arbitrary rules, on and on. But she wasn’t brandishing a fire hose. It was more of a leaky wound, an uncomfortable cramp Jesse was slowly working out. Some of her tics erupted, but Anthony and I handled them with as much patience and compassion as we could muster, and the tics didn’t define our evening. It was a good day.

* * * *

The ax finally fell on Day 2. I got out of bed this morning and was completely exhausted. The kids started irritating me immediately. By breakfast, I was nattering at Jesse about her homework behavior. I can’t make it through 9 months of your nagging and whining, your bad attitude about homework. Yesterday you started up already and that wasn’t even REAL work, just something that was supposed to be fun for us to share. It wasn’t fun. It was painful. It took three times as long as it needed to. I don’t want to do that for 9 months. I won’t survive.

Jesse got up and left the kitchen without a word. Anthony pointed out I felt exactly the same way in June, as I stared into the abyss of summer vacation. Helpful. Jesse came back to sing me a be-happy song.

Jesse was annoyed about the lunch boxes I was using to package her lunch. She got a little whiny and difficult. I nattered again. I can’t do this for 9 months. I have PTSD from all the ways you’ve been mean to me about school. I can’t allow you to treat me like that. I won’t make it in one piece. If you don’t like it, I don’t have to send lunch for you and you can skip it.

Jesse said, “it’s fine it’s fine,” and walked away from me. 

Jesse decided she wanted to bike to school. As I was pumping up tires, she came outside and started her Tourette’s-style trash-talking about male anatomy. My bicycle seat looks like balls and penises, balls penis balls penis. I ignored her for as long as I could and finally started nattering again in exasperation. You will stop that now. This year you will act like a nine-year-old, not a toddler, or I will take away privileges left and right, starting with your iPad and all of your swimming extra-curriculars. If I hear from school that you are using words in this way, in the wrong time and place, I will come down on you like a hammer. I cannot do this for nine months.

Jesse stopped. She pushed her bike far away from me and got ready to leave.

Despite my best grumpy efforts this morning, Jesse’s ax never fell — only mine. She stayed up-beat. I felt like a terrible failure. I slumped into a chair on our front porch and asked the children to come over. I said what they already knew: I woke up really grumpy today. I don’t know why. I’m over-reacting to things. Thank you for tolerating it so well. Can you please forgive me, and I will try to feel better? Of course, my little urchins told me. They leaned in for a sweet, gentle trio hug and some kisses. They filled my cup and filled my cup and filled my cup.

We had a peaceful bike ride to school (Jesse only took her hands off the handlebar a couple times, and not for long enough to fall over completely). The sunlight shown on us from a blue sky. We arrived early enough to spend 15 minutes in the wildflower garden that’s in front of the schoolhouse. The flowers are in bloom late this year because of a cool summer. The stems towered over the kids’ heads like castle walls, golden and lavender buds bursting. A little rabbit hung out with us for a time as it ate breakfast in the underbrush. We quietly observed it as it hopped about. A brown grasshopper flopped past. Jesse caught it with her hands so that she and Nick could observe it together. A flock of goldfinches burst from a tree overhead and disappeared into a new tree. We looked up and breathed in this wonderful world. I withdrew my ax. Jesse seemed fine.