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You know a book is good when it’s still on your mind EIGHT YEARS after you first read it. So, while I have VERY MIXED feelings about Gavin de Becker’s  The Gift of Fear, I have to grudgingly admit that it must have a been a good book. I think of it regularly.

The Gift of Fear

Unfortunately, the overwhelmingly strong “lesson” of the book, the one that lingers on nearly a decade after learning it, is that Whatever I Do, I Am Doing the Wrong Thing. If I am anxious and nothing bad happens, it is because I am not paying close enough attention to the perfectly clear signals that are right in front of me for easy interpretation. If I am anxious and yet plow forward with the belief that I am anxious for no reason, and something bad does happen, it is because I was not paying close enough attention to the signals. Either way, I fail. (If you want to read a more balanced review of the book, that lays out its many very good points alongside its weaknesses, check out Swistle’s post about it.)

Anyway, it is on my mind AGAIN this week. I am going to tell you the story, but keep in mind before reading that I told my husband and at the end he was very disappointed that It All Turned Out Okay. So it’s not a story of narrowly escaping Certain Murder, or anything. Just to be clear.

Now that you have surely clicked away to something much more interesting: I go walking in a nature preserve after I drop my daughter off at camp.

The nature preserve is beautiful. It’s got a lot of trees and foliage and wildflowers and birds and rabbits and deer. There are people who take care of it – clearing and repairing the walking paths, protecting species trees with deer-proof fencing, mowing the sides of the walking paths so that the nature doesn’t physically overwhelm you – but it’s still very wild-seeming. It’s bordered on all sides by a bustling suburb, but when you’re in the middle of it, you feel very removed from city life. I like it in great part because it feels fairly isolated and remote.

Nature preserve 1.JPG

This is not a good picture — I was trying (and failing) to photograph a specific purple flower so I could look it up — but it should give you a sense of what the preserve is like. 

Lots of other people like it, too, of course. On a normal, good-weather morning, I might pass twenty or so people as I’m walking. People bring their bicycles, their baby strollers, their dogs. There are a couple of small ponds, so people can fish as well. It’s very pleasant, and lots of people take advantage of it, but I’d never say it was CROWDED.

 

 

Nature preserve map.jpg

Poorly labeled map of the nature preserve.

Recently, a new segment of the preserve has been opened to the public. It has a short loop of walking path and it’s very hilly. A friend recently suggested to me that I might want to switch up my exercise routine (my beloved workout DVD is not giving me the same results as it once did), so I have begun incorporating sprints into my walking efforts. This little loop is perfect for doing a nice sprint-on-the-flat-places, walk-on-the-hills pattern that leaves me feeling exhausted. It seems like the general public either hasn’t discovered it yet, or steers clear of it because of the hills, so it’s nice and quiet and I can gasp for breath in peace. I usually see maybe one to three people while I’m staggering up and down those hills.

On Monday, I saw not a single person. There’s construction on the road that leads into the preserve, which may be keeping some people away. Plus, it’s been HOT. I passed one guy in a bright green T-shirt as I was entering this side-loop area, but he was on the sidewalk outside the preserve (I think), and I didn’t see anyone else. I hit the gravel entrance to the loop and started sprinting. I am no longer fast, which is major blow to my ego. Whatever. Age is a jerk.

I did two loops, planning to do four. Leading into the third loop, I heard a rustling in the grass to my right. I wasn’t scared — there are so many squirrels and frogs and groundhogs that call the nature preserve home, “brush rustling” is not an uncommon sound. I did wonder mildly if there were any mountain lions in our area; I know that coyotes come into the preserve at night, but I’ve never seen a coyote and don’t have a particularly healthy fear of them. (They seem scrawny and timid, which is probably a VAST misconception.) (I am going to meet my end at the jaws of a coyote, aren’t I.) Mountain lions are different, though. I tried to remember what you’re supposed to DO if confronted with a mountain lion – make yourself as big as possible, I think? It’s different than with bears; I think, with bears, you’re supposed to speak calmly, wave your arms slowly, and back away with your eyes on the ground – and I kept eyeing trees to see if they were climbable. As if I could climb a tree.

About halfway through the third loop, I was still thinking about the invisible mountain lion. Keep in mind that I do my best thinking when I’m walking, and that I’m usually thinking about the manuscripts I’m writing, in which horrible and violent things happen, usually in nature. My mind was in a Dark Place, is what I’m saying. But I felt like I was on high alert – higher than usual.

I kept scanning the area, noting spots where the vegetation is taller than a man. No one would hide among the cattails, I told myself; the ground must be wet there.

It was so quiet, the heat lying on top of everything like a blanket, dampening sound. No wind. Even the blackbirds, who patrol the preserve with their red badges, calling the all-clear to one another across the bushes, were silent.

I could not get over the strong feeling that someone was watching me, that there were eyes somewhere concealed by the grasses. Even though I kept looking and seeing nothing but nature, it was very unsettling.

When I started thinking that I should have brought my water bottle – which is made of metal, and heavy enough when full that I could use it as a weapon – I realized I was more worried about my own safety than that of my fictional characters.

Okay, I thought, I should leave this isolated section of the preserve and go back to the more heavily populated section.

No, no, I argued with myself. I can’t let a case of the heebie jeebies get the best of me. I still have a whole loop and a half to do! This is just me being lazy and not wanting to do any more sprints!

What would Gavin de Becker tell me to do? I wondered. Would he tell me that I should listen to these signals that are making me feel uncomfortable? Would he tell me that I am not paying attention to all the perfectly clear signals that are saying I am completely safe? (He would wait until something did or did not happen, and then use it as an anecdote to prove whatever point he wanted, is what I think he would do.)

Self-preservation won. It doesn’t matter if I am being silly. It doesn’t matter if I am misinterpreting signals or reading signals that don’t exist. I am uncomfortable and I am going to leave.

And I did.

On the way out of the loop – there’s a little bridge over a little creek that connects the loop to the main section of the preserve – I spotted a man. I am 99% sure it was the same man I saw when I first entered the loop. White guy, tall, slim but not skinny, neon green T-shirt, sunglasses, khaki-colored fishing hat. He may have had a beard – close cropped or stubble, enough to give the impression of darkness on the jaw area. That’s all I remember. The reason he caught my eye was because he was not on the path. He was IN the creek, almost completely hidden from the path by the same grass where I’d started thinking about the mountain lion. Seeing him was startling and very creepy and I was really glad that I was leaving the area.

Now listen. LISTEN. He was probably there fishing! I’d seen him earlier, and I don’t remember that he was holding anything at all, but he could have totally been toting a fishing pole and it didn’t register. Or maybe he was on staff at the nature preserve! (Although later I passed one of the staffers, and he was wearing a dull green vest rather than a bright green T-shirt.) Or maybe he was a scientist studying water sources in urban forest land. Or maybe he was a walker and had climbed into the creek to pee or save a wounded duck or pick up a discarded shoe or something. He was MOST LIKELY there for something completely benign. I mean, at the very least, if you are a murderer/rapist planning to attack a woman in an isolated stretch of nature, would you really wear a NEON GREEN T-shirt to do so? I am SURE he was a perfectly nice guy who was doing something normal and not at all creepy.

Nonetheless, I felt vindicated. I had noticed a disturbance in the atmosphere and had listened to my intuition, and my reaction was based on a real source of potential danger. Probably the situation was not at all dangerous. But I felt much better about cutting my planned workout short when I discovered there actually was someone hiding (perhaps with absolutely no intention to deceive or harm!) behind the tall grass, and that that someone was a man who was bigger than I am.

Gift of fear, FTW!

Okay, now that we are past that long, boring, anticlimactic story, here’s where I ask you some hypothetical questions about how YOU might have reacted.

When I was nearly back to the main portion of the nature preserve, I saw someone coming toward me, heading toward the isolated loop I’d just vacated. I decided that I would tell the person about the man – just say, in an embarrassed, oh-I’m-so-ridiculous tone, that there was a guy there, doing something probably very normal and insignificant, but nonetheless in a kind of creepy and concealed way, and it made me uncomfortable, so I just wanted you to know.

But as the person and I approached one another, I saw that it was a male-presenting person, and that he was well-muscled and had a nice heavy cast on one arm, and, just as I was trying to work up the nerve to tell him ANYWAY, he said good morning and we passed one another and went our separate ways. (This is how most men I encounter in the nature preserve act, by the way! They stick to the paths! They acknowledge you with a wave or a greeting! They do not lurk in creeks under a bridge behind thick vegetation!)

(Distance from the experience is making me feel both silly and defensive. I KNOW that at the time I felt really uncomfortable and creeped out. At the time, telling someone seemed like the right thing to do; NOT telling someone seemed like a deeply cowardly decision. But today, recounting the story, I feel like it seems SO OBVIOUSLY NOT A BIG DEAL that I am rethinking my feelings.)

If it had been a female-presenting person, I would have told her. She may have thought I was ridiculous or unstable or whatever, but she also would have understood.

But a man… I don’t know. I made the judgment based on a) his gender presentation and b) his physicality that he could stand up to the creek wader should he need to.

I feel bad about it still. I wonder if I should have pushed past my feelings of embarrassment.

And I wonder if I really WOULD have been able to share my feelings with a female-presenting person.

(This is the point where my husband said, “Now I expect you to tell me that you looked it up later and a man got attacked and murdered in the same isolated loop you left!” And I shook my head and he sighed and said, “Great story.”) (I did look it up, and there were no reports of any attacks in the area.) (Thank goodness.)

What would you have done?

Would you have listened to your discomfort in the first place, and left the isolated loop?

Would you have told anyone about your discomfort? Would the person’s gender presentation affect whether you told them or not?

Do I tend to WILDLY overthink everything at all times? (YES.)

Nevermind the answer to that last one. It’s been on my mind, and this is my space to excavate those feelings. (Or, more accurately, dumptruck them onto a webpage and never think of them again.) I’m curious to hear your thoughts, if you have them. Or your own Gift of Fear situations.

And I really do think it’s time I read the book again. If only to give Mr. de Becker a second chance.

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I am skipping today’s Dinners This Week post. I mean, there’s no need to plan dinners when you’ll be eating dinner on an airplane, right? Let’s have some randomosity. Join me, won’t you?

First, let’s have some medicinal nachos:

Nachos 1

Chips. Top with cheese. Melt for 30 seconds in the microwave. Top with black beans and frozen corn. Microwave for another 20 seconds. Top with copious amounts of my favorite hot sauce. Add avocado, diced onion, and sour cream. Cilantro if you have it/don’t hate it. Tomatoes if you swing that way. Squeeze a wedge of lime over everything. Add copious amounts of sriracha for good measure. DEVOUR.

  • A lot of my fretting about Leaving My Bayyyyyybeeeeee has been channeled into Shoe Panic. As in, how am I going to walk around Europe for ten days without reducing my delicate feet to bloody shreds? So I have purchased and returned approximately 90,000 pairs of shoes in the past week. Nothing like leaving an important aspect of your planning to the very last minute!

 

  • These are the shoes I have ended up with: Skechers Go Walk Evolution Ultra sneakers (why do all athletic shoes have such ridiculous names?) and Vionic Minna ballet flats (in color “sand”) because I wanted to have walk-friendly shoes that were dressy enough for a nice-ish dinner.

 

  • Building on some of your great ideas for making the trip easier on Carla, I have bought her some books and other little fun surprises to open while we’re gone. There is a real dearth of fun, story-based children’s books about the very specific locations we are traveling to, which is DISAPPOINTING, but I did find this book about one of the cities on our itinerary:

Munich

  • You know that one of my big panics is Death By Airplane, right? So I have been desperately trying to get our life insurance upgraded just in case. Of course, the process takes waaaaayyyyy longer than I thought it would, so we just squeaked our medical exams in at the last minute and there is no way the underwriting will be complete before we leave. (I use these terms like I have any idea whatsoever how any of this works, which I do NOT.) HOWEVER. Did you know that you can get provisional coverage, based on the assumption that you will get approved? So that’s what we’re doing. We can pay a premium as though we’ve been approved, and then, when we come back home, ALIVE, we can pay any additional amount as needed. And if we perish while overseas, we’re covered. (I mean, as long as we are approved and have paid the correct amount; I’m assuming my parents could pay any difference after the fact.) Cool, right!?! Okay, maybe my calibration of “cool” has shifted in odd ways.

 

  • In other morbid planning, I tried to record myself singing to Carla. There are two songs I have been singing to her at bedtime all her life – one I made up while pregnant with her and the other is “Moon River” – and I have this desperate feeling that I MUST record myself singing them so she can listen to the songs (but will she?) to comfort her (but will they?) after my fiery death. But I can’t record myself! It’s so ridiculous! In every recording, I keep SWALLOWING in the middle of sentences. Like, “Mooooooon river, wider than a mile, I’m crossing [gulp] you in style someday…. [gulp] Dream maker, you heart [gulp] breaker….” It’s really distracting and annoying and I cannot NOT do it. I mean, have you ever tried to NOT SWALLOW when your body is telling you to swallow? And then try to SING while not swallowing? It’s absurd and obviously some sort of weird self-conscious reaction to recording myself. Do not suggest that I ask my husband to record me actually singing to Carla, because then I would die of embarrassment and also we are out of time. I am going to choose the least gulpy of the options and THAT’S JUST HOW CARLA WILL HAVE TO REMEMBER ME.

 

  • Abrupt subject change: Our Amazon Echo (Alexa) has begun telling me to enjoy my day. “Have a nice day,” she’ll say after I ask for the weather in the morning. “Have a good afternoon,” she’ll say sometimes after I’ve asked for the news briefing. It’s creepy but nice? And she only says it to me. She has never once used any sort of pleasantry with my husband. Also creepy? But it makes me feel vindicated in using “please” and “thank you” when making requests of her. My husband may not be on the good side of the AI after the uprising, but hopefully Alexa will put in a good word for me.

 

  • While I’m worrying about wholly unimportant things (recap: dying on my totally voluntary trip overseas; the state of my footwear for said trip; singing lullabies without swallowing; the inevitable AI uprising; will I have enough nachos to last until we leave for Europe?), let’s add in some panic about Carla’s birthday party. I think we have the venue down. And Carla has shifted from Tiger Theme to Seahorse Theme to Mommy, You Choose A Theme From These Five Cat-Related Categories Plus Foxes. So I am leaning toward Rainbow Leopard Theme, mainly because I have found the perfect party favor:

Rainbow Leopard

  • And the perfect cake to torture myself with making. (My husband heaved a great world-weary sigh when I told him about it and asked if I might consider just BUYING a cake.) (No.) (Does he know me?)

 

  • But I can’t find any great theme-appropriate invitations; some decent ones, but nothing I LOVE. And, WORSE, because I will panic about LITERALLY ANYTHING meaningless in the grand scheme of things, I cannot find any theme-appropriate paper plates and napkins. I can order them via Zazzle for around $60 for 40 to 50 plates-or-napkins, but can we all agree that spending $60 on 40 paper plates for a single party is excessive? I’m not saying it can’t be DONE; I wouldn’t judge anyone for spending $60 on 40 plates if that’s how they chose to spend their hard-earned money. But I think $1.70 cheetah-print paper plate — PAPER, not even hard plastic — is excessive and I really want to avoid it if at all possible.

 

  • So maybe foxes? I haven’t looked it up, but foxes could be a good alternative, right? It’s just that they are so Off Brand for my particular child, who wears leopard print probably three days a week (today she is wearing a faux fur cheetah print vest over a green dress and black leggings with faux leather patches; she has a very particular sense of style, this kid) and has leopard print boots and pretends to be a rotating cast of leopards/cheetahs/panthers on a daily basis. I am already exhausted by planning this party and I haven’t really even begun.

 

  • Please keep in mind that I KNOW that none of this is important, it’s a birthday party, not the Oscars or some other party that actually matters/has wide visibility, and really ALL parties pale in comparison to, like, climate change and gun control and matters of REAL IMPORT. I am not overlooking the absolute absurdity of wasting brainpower on this frivolity.

 

  • Frivolity continues: And what are we going to get Carla for her actual gift? She is fresh out of ideas, unless you count “more Barbies!” as an idea which I do not. The only things I can come up with are a) a new bike (although she has a perfectly good hand-me-down bike that will probably last her at least another year, in terms of being the right height, not to mention she staunchly refuses to let us remove the training wheels) and b) a doll, because she seems to finally be more interested in dolls than in stuffed animals. She has repeatedly asked for a basket for her bike, so she can collect things (acorns, pinecones, rocks) when she goes for bike rides… but I don’t think “needs a basket” is enough of a reason to buy a whole new bike… I don’t know. I am on the fence. What is the six-year-old set into these days?

 

  • I LOVED dolls as a child, and my mom got me a couple of Corelle (?) dolls that I cherished and played with for many years. (Oh wait, it turns out they are COROLLE dolls – Corelle is a type of dishware, it seems. My bad.) Is Corolle still a good way to go, doll-wise? American Girl dolls seem to be popular around here… although they are SO expensive I don’t think I am ready to travel down that road. I also used to love Cabbage Patch Dolls, are those still A Thing? (Ugh, I am cringing thinking about how the “preemie” Cabbage Patch Dolls were so coveted when I was a little girl. I guess March of Dimes used them to raise awareness about premature birth, but that went right over my head at the time. I can imagine it being a hurtful thing for lots of parents.) What is the current Doll Trend, is what I want to know? I thought, being a parent, this knowledge would sort of magically manifest in my brain but I WAS WRONG.

 

  • Speaking of brains: does your brain do that thing where, when overtired, it fixates on one word or phrase or song lyric to the exclusion of all other thoughts? Mine has been choosing “It’s raining tacos,” itself an agonizingly repetitive song, to replay ad nauseum in my head, at 2:30 am and beyond. Fun.  (No.)

 

  • My Inevitable Death Panic (which is both panic about my inevitable death and an inevitable panic about death) is manifesting in lots of cleaning, which is good, I suppose. But I have failed to take any Before photos, which makes it poor blog fodder. I just want you to know that I have done a LOT of work and gotten rid of a LOT of crap. I am kind of hoping my mom will open some drawers and marvel at how spare and tidy they are. “Maybe she died in a plane crash taking a totally unnecessary trip abroad, but, man, are her drawers neat and clean!” they’ll say at my funeral.

 

  • Let’s have one more photograph of medicinal nachos. These were yesterday’s, so I need to see if I have enough ingredients for another heaping dose before I make my way to The Land of Sausages and Schnitzel. DOCTOR’S ORDERS.

Nachos 2

Okay. Enough. What’s up with you, Internet? Lord knows we have enough Big Serious Issues at hand to ensure we never sleep again. But what utterly frivolous things are keeping you up at night?

By the way, my husband and I decided to limit ourselves to one phone while overseas, and it is his phone, so blog posting/reading is likely to be light/nonexistent while we’re gone. I promise photos of castles if when we return.

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If you thought that we could return to fret-free normalcy now that the dinner party is over, you were WRONG.

Let’s move right along to the next fretworthy topic, shall we?

My husband and I are going on a trip. Just the two of us. We are not calling it a second honeymoon, although I suppose that’s what it is; it’s our tenth anniversary gift to one another.

We are going to Europe and we are both VERY EXCITED about it.

But.

We are leaving Carla behind.

She will remain in our house in the loving and capable hands of my parents. She will be continuing with her regular routine of school and extracurricular activities. But I am FREAKING OUT about leaving her.

Firstly, the longest I’ve ever been away from her is a week.

Secondly, the longest my husband and I have together been away from her is two days.

Thirdly, I am really worried my husband and I are going to die in a plane crash and leave her an orphan.

Fourthly, I am FREAKING OUT.

So I am hoping you have some advice for me as we prepare to leave our beloved baby behind.

We have mentioned the trip several times, with increasing frequency as we get closer to the trip. So Carla knows it’s coming. I don’t know if this is a good strategy or not; my concern is that we’re making her think/fret about it too much in advance. But I also don’t want to spring it on her. That would be awful and cruel (at least, for my particular kid), to wake up one day and say, “Bye! See you in ten days!”

I have been making a ridiculous number of lists for my parents, so they know everything from the foods she will and might eat to how to walk her into school each morning to what she needs to bring to ballet class.

I have talked things over with her teachers, who seem very unconcerned with the whole thing. (Bless Carla’s teacher: when I told her recently that I thought our being gone would be rough, she immediately said that I can email her or call her ANY TIME. When really I meant that things would be rough on Carla, not on me. She knows me to my CORE, apparently.)

What else can I do?

When my mom went to Russia for a week or two when I was… five? ten? she recorded herself reading Nancy Drew books, so I could play them on cassette tapes at bedtime. What a kind and loving thing for her to do! Maybe I need to do something similar?

When I was in California for a writing conference, and the time difference made phone calls difficult, I made little videos for Carla each morning that my mother-in-law could play for her after school. I think Carla liked those, but it seemed like they may also have made her upset and teary at bedtime? But maybe she would have been upset and teary anyway? I don’t know. I am wondering whether my husband and I should try to Facetime her every day, or if it would make her miss us more?

How else can I make Carla more comfortable about our leaving? How else can I make ME more comfortable about our leaving?

And how are we supposed to say goodbye to her, when she then has to go to school while we prance off to the airport? Do we drop her off and say goodbye in her classroom? That seems awful, but also her teachers would be Right There to distract her. Do we say goodbye at home and let my parents drop her off? DO WE CANCEL THE WHOLE TRIP?

Have you and your spouse ever left your child for a longish time? What were some things you did to prepare yourself/your child? Were there any things you wish you had/hadn’t done?

It’s going to be okay, right? RIGHT?

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It is bad enough that I am a very light sleeper. So light that the sound of my niece turning on the lightswitch in the bathroom down the hall jolts me into heart-pounding alertness.

What’s worse is that I cannot fall back to sleep. I am now awake, even though it is not yet four in the morning and even though I only went to bed three hours ago and even though the house is completely dark and no one else – not even my niece – is awake.

Instead, my brain is bouncing around from toe to toe like a boxer psyching herself up for a fight, except that the boxer has just downed an entire crate of 5-hour energy and her opponent is my desire to sleep.

Let’s worry, for awhile, about our security system. Early yesterday, we got a call from our security company to let us know that the power was out in our area. Great, thanks, security company. Allow my blood pressure to drop from Our House Is Being Invaded levels for a moment here. But then, of course, came the worry that our power was out, and we are… not there. My husband looked up the outage and discovered it should be resolved in a couple of hours; sure enough, it was. But then today, we got ANOTHER call from the security company to let us know that the outage had NOT been resolved and our backup battery was running low and we needed to DO SOMETHING. We could not do anything because we aren’t close with our neighbors and our local friends are all also on spring break. So I told them this, fervently hoped that a burglar would not choose this exact moment to break into our house, and said goodbye. But now, at not-quite-four-a.m., I am worrying and worrying and worrying. Maybe the person who said they were from our security company was not, in fact, from our security company… but was trying to scam me? And, yes, their plan was quite elaborate, mirroring the security company’s phone number and all and having two separate people call me, but STILL. It could be a very elaborate burglar. And, even if there is no scammer, what about our poor house, standing empty and unprotected (you know, except by locks and good, observant neighbors)? And what if the power company is WRONG, and our house doesn’t currently have power and our pipes are freezing and our food is all rotting? Of course there is absolutely NOTHING I can do about it, but let’s go over all the nothing options one by one since there is no one awake to entertain me, shall we?

After I finally decide to call the police station tomorrow and ask if they will increase patrols around our neighborhood for the next few days, my mind turns to the much more productive topic of Embarrassing Things I Did and Said During High School.

I turn on my phone and scroll through my news feed.

I turn off my phone and recite poems in my head.

I push my husband because he is snoring.

I go to the bathroom.

I listen very carefully to see if the noise Carla made (she is sleeping on a mat at the foot of our bed) is going to turn into crying; it does not.

I pick up my phone and start scrolling through a favorite blogger’s archives, because they are lovely and soothing, but it turns out I have overused this particular comfort technique because I can’t find any posts I haven’t recently read.

I find a nice long article about the mysterious disappearance of the world’s most famous actress.

Ah, finally. I am starting to drift off to sleep. I close my eyes and… UPPERCUT. My brain pinches me, hard. OMG, I almost fell asleep! Not on my brain’s watch! No way, no how!

Now I am nice and alert to focus on the important work of worrying about an upcoming trip and how hard/awful it will be to leave Carla behind.

Why didn’t I work harder on memorizing more poems???

Oh good. Here are partial lyrics from the Descendants 2 soundtrack to loop through my head instead.

I know! I can fret about the upcoming dinner party! Maybe I should scrap the Tex-Mex theme entirely and go for chicken and salad.

Go to the bathroom.

My husband is doing that thing where he is lying on his back and he has his head resting on his forehead with his elbow up in the air, but it keeps falling over and he keeps jerking it back into position. I push him onto his side.

Is Carla having a nightmare? Is she whimpering?

Are there burglars tiptoeing through my defenseless home right at this very moment?

Dumb Buzzfeed quiz.

Slow slide into sleep… PUNCH TO THE SOLAR PLEXUS. Almost made it there, but my brain swooped in to intervene just in the nick of time!

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

This goes on until seven thirty when my niece wakes up and starts talking with her mom, at which point Carla wakes up, delighted to get to play with her cousin, and I whine to my husband about my sleepless night. Kind man that he is, he takes Carla out into the kitchen and closes the door behind him. But… two minutes later, Carla crashes through the door to get a stuffed animal, and then two minutes after that my husband comes in to get some medicine and I snarl at him to just let me have HALF AN HOUR OF SLEEP FTLOG and lie there fuming at the rapidly-lightening ceiling. And then thirty minutes of no sleep later I angrily get up and start the day.

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Thank you so much for coming! Welcome to today’s meeting! Sit, sit! Grab some coffee and a donut! But there’s no time to chat – although I do really like what you’ve done with your hair today – because we need to get Down To Business.

Today’s session of the Party Planning Committee is tasked with – surprise! – planning an upcoming party! A dinner party. Which I may have extravagantly set in motion with great enthusiasm and little thought to execution.

Here are the particulars: It takes place in two weeks. We will have eight adults and seven children, all under age six. Well, the children are all under age six; the adults are all under age 40.

That wasn’t a lot of particulars, I guess. Let’s see if I can add some Complicating Factors:

Complicating Factor #1:I do not in fact have enough seating for eight adults and seven children. I have twelve chairs and two tables. One table seats six or eight, if we expand the table. (Complicating Factor #1.5:If we expand the table, we cut into a doorway. Complicating Factor #1.75: If we expand the table, then that table seats eight and the other table only seats four.) The other table seats six people, but it is in my dining room, on my fancy carpet, which is my way of saying I don’t really want the kids to sit there.

Oh! I also have a small child’s table, with four child-size chairs. So maybe we can set up the younger crew (all around age three) at that table, and then hope that the bigger kids are less messy? That is asking too much, I know.

Okay, maybe this isn’t as complicated as I thought. That’s really my main concern: the seating.

So! Here is my proposed solution: FINGER FOOD.  My idea is that I make a bunch of appetizer-y food that people can eat easily while standing. Well, except for the kids. They will sit at a table, preferably NOT the table on my good carpet.

Complicating Factor #2:My husband doesn’t like appetizer-y dinners because he feels like they aren’t substantial enough to count as a meal. Which I 100% understand.

Complicating Factor #3: We don’t have a ton of counter space, so I am a little concerned about displaying everything. I will need some space to work and cook (space that people STAY OUT OF because I cannot deal) and then there will be serving space. We obviously have the two tables for serving space, but we also have a big kitchen island. When I have people over, I often set up the food on the island, buffet style. I don’t know if I would feel that comfortable with people eating so near the food preparation portions of the kitchen, but perhaps that cannot be helped; and maybe I just need to really be on top of my Advance Preparation game.

Oh, and here’s a possibly-not-but-I’ll-include-it-anyway Complicating Factor #4:The same group attended a dinner party at the house of one of the other couples and it was AMAZING. Not only do they have a stunningly beautiful house and kitchen, but the food (chicken parmesan, for fifteen people!) was delicious and photo-worthy. So I feel some pressure to not disappoint this crowd. I mean, our house is what it is (you KNOW that I am already wringing my hands about the fireplace) but the food/experience could be good or great or absolutely dreadful.

Now that you are properly briefed, our charge is to plan a menu that meets the following criteria:

  1. Easy to eat whilst standing up.
  2. Easy to (mostly) make or prepare in advance. I’d like to be Actively Cooking as little as humanly possible.
  3. Substantial enough to count as a meal.

My initial thought is that we do it up Tex-Mex style.

Drinks:I think I have this covered. I am going to make a couple of pitchers of limeade margaritas and buy some Corona and some Dos Equis and maybe also have a couple bottles of wine on hand (these people are drinkers!) and call it a day.

I don’t have any margarita glasses, so maybe I will find some cheap plastic ones – although an initial search turns up far too many plastic glasses for my needs; perhaps I will find some mediocre glass ones? Perhaps the Dollar Store has some options?

Food:

We will definitely do guacamole and salsa (either this one or this one or possibly both because I am a masochist), because I have made them before and because chips and dips are the ultimate finger food. I will have many bags of chips available for snacking.

For the “main meal,” I am strongly considering Taco Pizza, which is easy, something I’ve made many times before, and delicious. I’m envisioning one (or two?) large sheet pan pizzas that I can cut into squares for easy eating. The main problem is that I can’t really make it in advance. I can make the partsin advance, but I don’t want to assemble too early for fear of soggy crust.

Perhaps that will help my husband and his ilk feel more like we’re eating a meal?

In any event, I would also like to have some other appetizer-y things as options. I have been collecting some recipe ideas, non of which I have ever made before which is HELLA RISKY. Here’s what I’m considering:

Taco Cups:https://www.dinneratthezoo.com/taco-cups/ or https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/mini-phyllo-tacos/

I am kind of thinking these would be for the kids. And they can have whatever else they want, but I would cook these first and feed them mainly to the little ones.

Pros:

  • They sound easy enough.
  • I can use the same ingredients I’m using for the taco pizza.
  • They are small and child-sized.
  • Doubled, the recipe makes enough that grown-ups can have some too.

Cons:

  • I have never made these before, and so I have no idea if they are actually good or easy or anything about them.
  • I can’t imagine Carla eating these, although maybe she’ll eat the meat out of the cups.
  • I’ve never worked with wonton wrappers before (well, not since I made crab wontons with my mom a million years ago).
  • I am suspicious about wonton wrappers being a good accompaniment for taco meat.

 

Taco Pinwheels:https://www.pillsbury.com/recipes/taco-pinwheels/f55a4f16-0eb5-4a9d-ac5b-d75cd03b7ab7

Okay, this is my alternative to taco cups. For the kids, because they are way too similar to taco pizza. Unless I want to swap out the taco pizza for these instead… Hmmmmmm….

Pros:

  • They seem SO EASY.
  • I can use the same ingredients I’m using for the taco pizza.
  • They are small and child-sized.

Cons:

  • Not sure about prepare-ahead-ability with these guys…
  • Too similar to taco pizza to be an extra option for the grown-ups.
  • Carla will definitely not eat these.

 

Taquitos:https://www.foodiecrush.com/chipotle-chicken-taquitos/. or

https://www.twopeasandtheirpod.com/black-bean-cheese-taquitos/ or

https://www.howsweeteats.com/2019/02/taquitos/

Pros:

  • Each of these recipes sounds delicious.
  • None of our guests are vegetarian, but if I made the black bean and cheese taquitos, it would be nice to have a non-meat option.
  • They are PERFECT for eating while holding a plate.

Cons:

  • I have never made these before.
  • I don’t know if they would be good cold/cool… and I really don’t want to have something in the oven Every Second. I have never before this moment envied people whose kitchens have two ovens, but here we are.
  • I have no idea if I can prepare these in advance. Ideally, I’d make them a week before and freeze them but… I don’t know if that’s possible.

 

Tex Mex Shrimp Wonton Biteshttps://www.com/light-tex-mex-shrimp-bites-recipe/

Pros:

  • These sound good and almost fancy.
  • They would be easy to eat.
  • I could serve them cold.

Cons:

  • Once again, I’ve never made these before. But I am going to continue listing it as a Con because it is.
  • Again with the wonton wrappers (although they “go” better with shrimp than they do with taco meat, in my mind).
  • Could I assemble these in advance? And, like, how farin advance? Okay, I actually read the recipe and it definitely says you can assemble them in advance… But it doesn’t specify how far in advance. I would guess I could do the wonton cups a day before and then fill them up right before the party. Sounds like a last-minute frenzy, no?
  • Does everybody like shrimp? I feel like it’s a regular-enough feature at parties and buffets that it must be something most people like.
  • SHRIMP IS EXPENSIVE. If I decide on these, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for sales.

 

Tex Mex Shrimp Cocktail:https://www.com/recipe/tex-mex-shrimp-cocktail

Pros:

  • What is it about shrimp that makes something seem fancy? This must be a very individual perspective, right?
  • Again, easy to eat.
  • Again, easy to serve cold.
  • Seems like I could easily prep these in advance. I might not include the avocado, because of browning purposes (although the lime juice might help… I wouldn’t really want to risk it).

Cons:

  • I’ve never made these before.
  • Does everybody like shrimp? I feel like it’s a regular-enough feature at parties and buffets that it must be something most people like.
  • SHRIMP IS EXPENSIVE.
  • I would definitely need little cups/dishes to hold this.

 

Mexican Corn Couscous Saladhttps://www.delish.com/cooking/recipe-ideas/recipes/a48350/steak-skewers-with-mexican-corn-couscous-salad-recipe/

Note that I would only be making the salad portion of this recipe, NOT the steak skewers. Steak skewers are waaaaaaay outside my comfort zone.

Pros:

  • I could make this in advance.
  • This would be good served cold/room temp.
  • It would be nice to have a(nother) vegetarian option.
  • It has some  vegetables in it, which would be nice alongside all the meat/carbs.

Cons:

  • I’ve never made this before.
  • Corn and couscous salad does not seem like a particularly stand-while-you-eat friendly food.

 

Black Bean Souphttps://www.delish.com/cooking/recipe-ideas/recipes/a55504/easy-black-bean-soup-recipe/

Pros:

  • I could make this very early in the day, which would help ease the pressure a bit.
  • It would be nice to have a(nother) vegetarian option.

Cons:

  • I’ve never made this before (although the recipe sounds verrrrry straightforward).
  • I would have to buy some small soup bowls/cups for people to eat this out of, because it’s obviously not a stand-and-eat kind of thing.
  • It’s not a particularly exciting food. I mean, if you told me you were serving black bean soup, I’d raise my eyebrows and utter a short, “Mmm!” but I wouldn’t be rubbing my hands together in anticipation or anything.

 

Should I scrap all these ideas and have a very simple Taco Party? Gimme Some Oven has a really good carnitas recipe that I can make in the crockpot… and I can make ground beef taco meat… and a side of black beans… and have all the toppings/shells out for people to make their own tacos…

Pros:

  • Easy.
  • Known quantities, since I’ve made them before.
  • Delicious.

Cons:

  • I know, I know; everyone loves tacos. But I’ve served them before at so many dinner parties (including to one-third of the guests coming to this party – not just beef tacos but the carnitas, too) that it feels so DULL.
  • I am already cringing at all the shredded cheese and lettuce and bits of tortillas that the kids will get all over the place.
  • Nearly impossible to eat while standing. The kids are going to sit no matter what (where though???). But there’s no place for ALL the adults to sit at one time, which would make some people feel left out.
  • I am fretting about how to keep the meat and beans hot. I could just leave everything in the various pots, but that looks so… unfestive. And I am not interested in acquiring chafing dishes.

 

Okay, Party Planning Committee. I am beginning to get mildly hyperventilatey at the enormity of this responsibility. So I have important questions for you to address:

  • No way am I making ALL of the above. I’d like to do one main, one kid option, one additional appetizer (or maybe two???), and the guacamole and salsa. What should I choose?
  • Am I crazy to do this at all? Maybe I just need to call and cancel. Initially, my husband and I had a misunderstanding about this dinner party, wherein I thought he was as gung-ho as I was, but in fact he thought we were having people over in the warm weather months when we could throw everyone outside, and he is concerned that our house just isn’t big enough for all these people. Which has ME worried that our house isn’t big enough for all these people. I mean, we don’t even have enough CHAIRS for Pete’s sake, maybe that is a Big Fat Red Flag waving at me to CANCEL ALREADY.
  • Am I overlooking something really wonderful and simple and perfect? I have considered something like Tex-Mex deviled eggs, but I a) hate eggs and b) have never made these and c) would refuse to taste them, so wouldn’t be able to tell if they were good or not. Ceviche, while fancy-seeming, is a no-go as well because I hate raw fish. And anything (besides salsa) that has tomatoes as a main ingredient is out because I hate tomatoes.
  • Is it okay for me to buy disposable dinnerware? Aside from the moral issue of using materials that will either become landfill/whale poison or will loiter in a recycling bin somewhere before becoming landfill/whale poison, which I am feeling quite acutely, is it a turn off, as a guest, to have to eat from plastic dishes? I don’t know if I have enough dishes to feed all the people I’m inviting (ANOTHER RED FLAG?!?!) although I am pretty sure I could scrape something together. But it would also be MUCH easier and would contribute to the appetizer-y vibe if I got something like this set of plastic appetizer plates and bowls and mini flatware.
  • WHAT IN THE NAME OF TACOS AM I GOING TO SERVE FOR DESSERT? Maybe this is something I can turn over to the guests when they ask what they can bring… although I’d love to make these tres leches cupcakes and you know I like Total Control over the food I serve.

 

Okay, Internet Party Planning Committee: ACTIVATE! Tell me what to do. Or, better yet, please send emergency catering services.

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The day is not off to a good start.

Part of it is actual, part of it is mental, part of it is diet-al.

Part the first: I have managed to make my child simultaneously hate school and believe that her teachers are going to be mad at her if she isn’t perfect. We had parent teacher conferences last week, and her teachers mentioned a couple of things Carla needed to work on. And I mentioned those things to her, and we talked about some strategies, and she got really cranky and irritable with me and then we moved on. We had a lovely weekend. This morning, she waltzed into my room in one of her signature amazing ensembles (purple pants, pink shirt, faux leopard fur vest, sparkly headband) in a happy mood and snuggled with me until my alarm went off. I reminded her this morning about what we had discussed, and it was like flipping a switch. All of a sudden she was hot and would I take her temperature. No fever. She was really tired and naptime at school is way too far away so she wants to stay home. She doesn’t want to go to school. She’s NOT going to school. I tried to figure out what the deal was – she LOVES school; over the weekend, we drove past her school and the parking lot was full and she said “No fair! Those kids get to be there on the weekend!” – and eventually got out of her that she thinks she won’t be able to do what we discussed and her teachers will be mad at her. So. No school. She’s done.

Well shit.

I tried everything in my Mommy Toolkit to persuade her: Assurance: We don’t expect you to be perfect, we expect you to try your best. Your teachers love you. Here are all the wonderful things they told me about you at the conference. Here are all the things for which your father and I are so proud of you. Bribery: If you go to school today, you get to do X! I will let you bring your horse in the car on the way to school! If you still feel bad at school, you can go to the nurse and she will call me to come get you! Logic: School is your job, you have to go. If Daddy didn’t want to go to work, what would happen? It’s a law that kids your age have to go to school. Mild threats: If you don’t go, here are all the fun things you will miss. If you stay home, you will be bored; no TV, I have work to do so I can’t play with you. And – bringing out the big guns – I will make you go on ERRANDS with me. She was undeterred.

Finally, after assuring her for the ten thousandth time that neither her teachers nor I would be mad at her, that none of us expects her to be PERFECT, that we just want her to TRY… After singing her the Daniel Tiger song about “your best is the best for you”… After coming up with some specific strategies to try with her teachers… FINALLY, I got her out the door. We were thirty-five minutes late.

And then, when I was telling her teacher about the strategies we had discussed and explaining what had happened, I of course burst into tears. Because nothing makes a Bad Parenting Morning worse than leaking it all over your child’s poor teacher. The only saving grace was that we were so late, there weren’t many other parents lingering in the halls to see me blubbering.

Man, I really screwed things up. And I don’t know exactly HOW, or exactly how to fix it, or how to do it differently. And she still needs to work on the things she needs to work on, although obviously they are not DIRE. (Though I managed to get poor Carla to feel that they ARE dire.) And my heart just feels so RAW for her, because she is working so hard at growing up – so, so hard – and she wants to please us and her teachers so badly, and she is so much more sensitive than sometimes even I realize. And of all people in the world, I should be the one who KNOWS what she needs and understands how to get through to her without screwing her up and I DON’T.

So that’s the actual.

The mental is the crushing certainty that I am the absolute worst choice of person to be a parent. And that nonetheless I have to do it anyway. And at stake are my child’s PERMANENT HAPPINESS AND WELL BEING.

There is also the outward spiraling, wherein I begin to feel that everything else in life is terrible too: our house is falling apart, I can’t keep up with the to-do list, I am failing as a writer. You know. One bit of the scaffolding gets knocked in and the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Then there’s the diet-al, which is stupid and I should just QUIT because it’s making me miserable. I have a constant headache. I feel nauseated and my brain seems to be going at half speed. I am not particularly hungry or missing foods all that much, but I do have a rather abnormally intense fixation on Diet Coke.

You can see how this all adds up to a bad morning so far.

Two things I am using to try to pull myself out of this negativity quicksand:

  1. The diet is over as of Thursday morning. I will be celebrating with a big bowl of pasta and a thick slice of cake.
  2. I have a pedicure scheduled with a friend for Friday, which should be relaxing and my friend and I will get to chat and catch up.

And between me, my husband, and Carla’s teachers, we should be able to figure out how to redirect her perfectionism… somehow? Right?

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Poor Carla is just off  lately. Saturday she ate practically nothing – some bacon and a tomato from her BLT at lunch, a handful of fries; a peanut butter sandwich at our friends’ house that night – and then she ate a great lunch yesterday but literally NOTHING for dinner. Not a single bite. She requested instead to go to bed. But then she woke up at 11:30 and could NOT fall back to sleep. She was up until well past two. Two a.m. in the morning. And if by “she was up” you are assuming that maybe I was sleeping, no. I was reading Harriet the Spy and playing YouTube “spa music” and fetching water and taking her temperature and reading old favorite picture books and giving her Tylenol because her “neck” hurt when she swallowed and making a “nest” in my room beside my bed and lying quietly in the dark and hissing at Carla in my most soothing way to just be STILL and close your EYES.

No surprise that she was dragging this morning. She didn’t eat as much for breakfast as I thought (hoped) she would – most of her smoothie, one French toast stick – and was just kind of slow. Which could be tired slow. Or not-feeling-great slow. Or just plain old Kindergarten Slow. Who knows.

Why is so much of parenting so unknowable? That’s what I’m bemoaning this morning. I mean, I get it. There’s no handbook. No two kids are alike. Yada yada blah. But I have had this particular kid for nearly six whole years so you’d think I’d at least have the hang of dealing with her by now. But you’d have thought incorrectly, I’m sorry to say. (Mainly sorry for me, not so much for you and your misplaced faith in my supposed parenting “ability.”)

There are so many QUESTIONS. And I have answers to SO FEW of them! Sure, some things, like “should she be holding that sharp knife?” and “should I give her a hug?” have simple answers. But so many do NOT.

Some of the questions for which I do not have answers just TODAY:

  • Is “not eating dinner” a totally acceptable thing once in a while, or does it indicate something is WRONG?
  • Does a repeated claim that a child has a headache indicate an actual headache… or is it a bid for attention… or is it a parroting of my own not-infrequent headaches and therefore a cautionary tale against complaining too much about my own minor aches and pains… or is it a way to divert attention away from the not-eating?
  • And if there IS a headache, is it a normal Everyone-Gets-Headaches-Sometimes headache or does it indicate something is WRONG? And how do you know the difference?
  • How in the world do I stopper the effervescent frustration of Slow Child Not Moving Quickly Enough When We Need to Get to School on Time FOR THE LOVE before I burst forth with a Mean Mom snarl of PUT YOUR COAT ON OMG?
  • If there is no fever, and no REAL reason to keep a child home – especially when everyone seems to think that a snow day or two is imminent this week, based on predicted temperatures – is it really okay to send her to school? Even though this guilty feeling keeps nagging me like a staticky sock stuck to a pant leg?

This is not to mention all of the day-to-day questions I have, including but not limited to:

  • How much screen time is REALLY acceptable? And if my kid squeezes it all into the weekends, does that make it better or worse?
  • How am I ever going to get her to tie her shoes? I don’t want to buy shoes with laces until she knows how to tie them; cod knows I’m not going to tie them for her. But how is she going to learn until I buy her shoes with laces? DILEMMA.
  • Should we be FaceTime-ing with relatives more often?
  • Is my kid’s behavior around other adults totally typical of her age, or something I need to be more on top of correcting? (Things like not answering when being spoken to, sticking out her tongue or otherwise being playful, ignoring them totally and wandering off…)
  • Am I preparing her well enough for Real Life? While still allowing her to enjoy the freedom and innocence of childhood?
  • Is she really going to lose ALL her teeth? And how am I going to handle the horror that is a piece of my child’s bone hanging by a slim bloody tether from her gums MORE TIMES?
  • Do I read to her enough?
  • Do I play with her enough?
  • Does she have enough time to play?
  • How many stuffed animals are too many stuffed animals?
  • Are my expectations too high? Not high enough?
  • Am I giving her enough intellectual stimulation? Social? Physical? Creative?
  • Am I teaching her good eating habits?
  • Am I a good enough role model?
  • Is she getting enough sleep?
  • Is she happy?
  • How many ways am I failing her?

I don’t know if you are aware, but this parenting thing is EXHAUSTING. It’s like taking a midterm exam every single DAY and knowing that you haven’t studied enough and you are pretty iffy on big chunks of the material. But you don’t get a grade now  – oh no, you have to take 4,560 more exams just between now and when your kid presumably heads off to college. And they’re really important but there’s no way to know if you’re just squeaking by with a C average or totally bombing. That’s the hardest part, right? I could be TOTALLY SCREWING HER UP and I won’t know until she’s an adult.

I am going to go treat this bout of parenting angst with some melted cheese and maybe consider a nap. How’s that for being a role model, hmm?

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