“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Little Writer

When I was in third grade, I had an amazing teacher who made Writers' Workshop the center of the classroom atmosphere. When you finished your work, or needed something to do, it was just a given: you wrote something. I remember the back of the classroom had shelves of all different kinds of paper, because the different stages of writing were color-coded. Drafting was on yellow lined paper. Final copies were on crisp white paper with turquoise lines. And totally awesome? That special paper that had space for a drawing on the top and lines underneath for the story.

But the absolute best was that this teacher capitalized on the self-publishing industry before it was even a societal Thing. If she read your work and thought it was worthy, she offered you the chance to be "published." This meant using super expensive heavy paper, penciling in light lines so all your sentences were straight, and drafting illustrations that she, the teacher, had to approve ahead of time. You had to design a cover, have a snappy title, and then she'd laminate the whole thing and bind it with these plastic clippy things that resembled a spiral-bound notebook.

But the absolute best, best, BEST? It wasn't the twirly book rack off to the side of the room, over by the window, where all the published books were displayed, although that was really cool. It wasn't that your classmates would peruse this collection and casually pick yours out and then READ it (always followed up with a super enthusiastic, "Oh my gosh! This is SOOOOO good!" (Quick aside: I hope all people have a) grown out of believing people when they make remarks like that and b) have stopped making them themselves.)

No. The best part was that on the cover of a shiny, laminated book on a twirly rack off to the side of a classroom had, "by Mary Pat Michalek" on it.

I started writing as soon as I could sound out words. I started telling stories even before that, even if it was only to myself at bedtime because I couldn't fall asleep. As often as I could imagine myself as a teacher, I could imagine a shelf, maybe shelves, of books in my vague, sketchy future house that all said, "by Mary Pat Michalek" or some other last name that simply indicated that I was not just a teacher and writer, but also some lucky man's wife.

And yet, the real drive, the vision, the dream all started in third grade when I wrote and published, "My Family," for the classroom library. It was a braggy nonfiction account of one particularly self-involved girl's home life, that no one could ever relate to because much of it was--I don't want to say lies, but, well, I am also the girl who told her entire first grade class that her family owned and acted in the circus. See what I mean? A story-teller from the get-go.

I'm not sure why I've decided to share this now, but for the facts that the memory sort of just came to me, and because I haven't written anything in awhile. Either way, it is a special memory to me and I felt like sharing.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a lovely holiday!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Noah's Gifts

"Mom, can I play Angry Birds on your phone?"

"No, honey, I don't like you playing on my phone. It's not really for games."

"But Daddy lets me do it..."

Yes. In fact, and this may sound kind of weird, but Noah and his Daddy have formed some sort of giant bond over Angry Birds. I don't pretend to understand it, but I will say that it's pretty adorable to see Noah all cozied up in the crook of Joe's arm, tapping away at the touch-screen game and having them both groan, "Awwww!" when they don't get the score they want. Or the pig. Or really...I just don't know.

I'm pretty sure that I've mothered both of my children in the same ways, fostering the same sort of things, hoping that they grow up to be strong, intelligent contributors to society and to our family. I want them to know I love them, and that they can count on me, but that being a jerk won't get you anywhere. Being nice gets you a lot further.

But it doesn't really matter in the end, because children are not generic beings that we can mold like Play-Doh. They're people, just like you and me, and a lot of times, they're going to do things and be things you aren't ready for and you don't understand.

One thing I don't understand, though I don't mind it really, is that Noah and his dad are kind of a unit. They are drawn together, understand each other, and just, I don't know, gravitate to one another. In much the same ways, Joey and I are a unit. Noah loves me and needs me, and Joey adores his dad, but nevertheless there is this pattern that continues to repeat itself.

Which brings me to yesterday morning, when I was standing in Target while both boys were at school. On the shelf, under a lovely signed marked, "SALE," were not one but TWO Angry Birds games. I called Joe quickly on my cell and asked, "Did you get Noah any of those Angry Birds games?" Joe's voice was excited when he said, "No, but I'd love to. Can you grab it?"

"There's two," I said. "Which one?"

He hesitated. "Can you get both?" he asked, and I had to smile. We're definitely trying to be careful with spending this Christmas, what with it being my second year off from work and all, but I knew this particular thing was tugging at Joe's heart, causing him to be a bigger pushover than usual.

"Sure," I said, grabbing both boxes and tossing them into the cart.

Later, I picked Noah up from preschool. We came home, we ate lunch, and then I offered him a rare opportunity.

"Noah," I said, "would you like to skip your nap today and go shopping with me?"

Noah, who has never been a big fan of the apparently evil nap, responded gleefully, "YESSSSS! What are we shopping for?"

"Well," I said, "I thought you might like to buy Daddy and Joey Christmas gifts. You know, for them just from you. What do you think?"

"I think YESSSS!" he said. And, quite unusual for him, he gobbled up every last bite of his lunch without argument and announced, "Ready!"

We piled ourselves into the car, got buckled, and began our trek to what seemed like the logical starting place: Target. On the way, Noah began listing everything he was quite sure would cost ten dollars. Ten dollars is a big deal to him, because his entire piggy-bank savings totals just that amount.

"Video games, board games, a tie, a new guitar..." he rattled off from the back seat. "All these things cost ten dollars."

"Well..." I said slowly, not really knowing how to break it to him that some of those things, though lovely gift ideas, didn't quite fit his budget.

"No, Mom," he interrupted. "They do. I know it. They cost ten dollars. But you know what I think I should get Daddy and Joey?"

"What?" I said, my heart sinking. It wasn't that I didn't feel willing to spot the kid some money if he needed it, it was more that I feared just how much that could add up to. I meant for this to all be a lesson in the spirit of Christmas, the joy of giving to those we love. But how to explain to a four-year-old that generosity is about thought and heart, not quantity and bells and whistles? I knew the abstract--albeit TRUE--concept of the lame grownup mantra "That's too expensive."

"Video games," he said decidedly. I cringed. So many complications in this choice, I didn't know where to begin. It's not like I could say, "Actually Noah, I know for a FACT that Santa has already lined up a few for you, but I have no idea what they are because they've been hidden in boxes and grocery bags in the basement for a few weeks now..." Not to mention, video games totally bust the aforementioned ten dollar limit.

"You know why, Mom?" he went on, oblivious to my turmoil. "Because Daddy and Joey love playing video games, and they're really nice about letting me play, too. I'm not very good at them, but they both let me have lots of turns and teach me things to help me get better. I think it would be really nice to give them a new video game to play."

Love this kid.

But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) fate was not on Noah's side. As I approached the Target parking lot, I saw that it was filled. Past capacity. A long, unmoving line of cars snaked through the aisles and up along the doors.

"Noah, I don't think Target is going to work," I said. "We don't have enough time to fight these big crowds, because Joey will be home from school in a little while. We'll have to try some other places."

Noah wasn't happy, but I managed to convince him to try some less frequented places to see what they could offer us. We tried three different plazas, none of which had even one thing that Noah thought would work.

"How about buying them ornaments?" I suggested, pulling away from option number three.

"No!" he cried, outraged. "They already HAVE ornaments. That's so lame."

For the purposes of simplified story-telling, let's just pretend I'm wonderful and have infinite patience.

Finally, I could see that time was running out. Joey's bus would be arriving home soon. But when I broke this news to Noah, who knew it meant we'd have to go home empty-handed, he was devastated.

"I have no presents to give my dad or my brother!" he wailed. "We HAVE to try somewhere else, Mom! We HAVE TO!"

As a last resort, I pulled into one last place. It's a department store in a plaza close to home, and I figured, if nothing else, I could convince Noah to just settle for some of the more traditional gift ideas. And perhaps less ostentatious ones than what he had in mind.

The first thing we tried were novelty t-shirts for Joey. "Something Skylanders for Joey would be cool," Noah said. But they didn't have Joey's size. Hurray for holiday shopping.

Next, we tried pajamas. "But pajamas are dumb!" Noah declared. So much for holiday spirit.

Just when I thought we'd have to give up for real, we rounded a corner and discovered a completely random, and somewhat bizarre, collection of toys for sale.

"THIS IS WHERE WE'LL FIND IT!" Noah yelled, letting go of my hand and running forth.

At first it seemed like it was mostly Barbies and make-your-own tornado kits (I told you, very weird). But then, Noah stepped up to a small display of....

Angry Birds games.

In fact, they were the exact same games I had just thrown into my cart that very morning.

"Mom!" he gasped, his hands clasped together in disbelief. "It's the perfect thing! I HAVE to get this for my dad! I have to! He'll LOVE it!"

I began to stammer, to stumble my way through half-hearted, "I don't think sos" and "Let's look over heres," but Noah would have none of my excuses now. He turned to me, eyes huge and tear-filled, and said, "I want to give this to my dad. It would make him so happy."

I appreciate all the people who read my blog faithfully, and all the ones who stumble upon it, or manage to read a complete post here and there. I hope you don't mind how often I am amazed by the hearts of my children, or how much I go on and on about how wonderful they are.

But I am amazed by them, and they are wonderful. And as I try my best to help them understand what Christmas can mean, I also want to remember that it is a time to count your blessings. I don't know what I ever did to deserve all that I have, but I know that, as a way of showing my gratitude, I want to write down and remember all the moments where my heart feels too big for my body. All the moments that I'd never get to have it weren't for Joey and Noah. Swollen heart moments.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Never Ready

I'm sitting here in an awesome hotel room in an awesome city on the night before I'm supposed to go home, and all I can think is, "I'm not ready."

And then it occurs to me: that's like a major theme for my life. This blog shouldn't be called "One Day At a Time," it should be called, "I'm not ready."

I look back over everything important that's ever happened to me, ever shaped who I am, and I think, "the thing about that time, is that I had no clue what I was doing." It's ridiculous, because my life has been pretty run-of-the-mill. I didn't push myself to become an astronaut, I haven't tried to change the world, I haven't even saved small communities from any sort of doom. The most notable things I can say I've done--and I'll be honest, I do think I'm amazing at them and that they are important in MY small world--is have two really awesome children. Every day I look at them and I say, "Kudos, Mary Pat. You've done well." That may sound egotistical, but I'm not terribly ashamed. For one thing, I recognize that Joey and Noah are these individual human beings completely independent of anything I want or expect them to be. For another, I recognize that each and every time they function within my kingdom, I've helped shape them into who they will become. And so far, they rock.

But seriously: milestone moments of my life. Starting high school: I totally thought I was stepping into some sort of real life episode of Grease. I considered myself in the role of Sandy, and honestly still lament that my new friends and classmates never, not even once, spontaneously broke into meaningful song and dance routines. Starting college? Ugh. Almost as bad as starting high school. I don't even know what I expected college to be, other than a super fun and interesting stepping stone to getting married.

It does make me think about how long I've known Joe. I always tell the story of how I met Joe when I was fourteen years old--FOURTEEN FREAKING YEARS OLD--and that I knew that very night I was going to marry him. I don't even know why I tell that story. It makes me cringe inside that I was so stupid. And then how year after year, month after month, I continued to wonder why he was always my good, devoted friend but never my boyfriend. Why, for the love of God, could he not just love me back? Well, for starters, I was still waiting for that Grease routine to happen.

No, really, though. I've always been this firm believer that everything happens for a reason, but now I look around at all the people I know, and all the people they know, and I'm not so sure. There's just too much unnecessary bad in this world. But I do think that there are certain things that are not coincidences, certain things that happen to us for own good. For me, the fact that Joe waited ten years to fall in love with and marry me is one of them. Should we have waited longer? Probably, but I was already feeling the heartbreak of no Grease routines--this was in the days before flash mobs, mind you--and I was pretty insistent that pushing things past ten years was just unreasonable. Unlivable, actually, since I was fairly certain at the time that Joe and I were so much more madly in love than any two people had ever been before and, while no one could possibly understand--we probably just needed to be married. You know. ASAP. Honestly, I still think that.

The night Joey was born and they placed him in my arms? I kept waiting for them to snatch him back and say, "Ksh. You are NOT ready to be a mom." Because I wasn't. I also wasn't prepared for Noah, or for the fact that Noah would never, ever sleep when normal people do. No, Noah was destined to spend the wee hours of the night singing Bryan Adams and One Direction and, God help me, Justin Bieber, and really, even if someone told you that was going to happen, nothing really readies you for five years of not sleeping. I have wrinkles, and I don't think I would if I had been sleeping through the night all this time.

But I wouldn't trade him, or any of it. I ended up loving high school. I ended up loving college, because being an English major is one of the best choices I ever made (even though my parents always screwed up their faces at me and said, "But what are you going to do with that?"). Based on statistics and studies and, I don't know, common sense, if I had started dating Joe when I was fourteen, what would have happened?

You know, I don't really need to know. I know that, though a lot of things in life are messy and confusing and all what-the-hell, it's okay that it always surprises me. It's okay that my husband's super power is farting, that Noah is committed to being a middle-of-the-night rock star, that Joey can't hear the word "but" (or "butt") without giggling hysterically. It's okay that I'm germophobic and that even hearing the word "vomit" makes my body clench up and my brain go temporarily wonky. It's okay that I can't cook meatloaf or sing well (and as for the dancing, I can't even do the Electric Slide) or walk in a straight line in the middle of a Tuesday when the weather's fine and all I've had to drink is four giant bottles of water because I'm prone to kidney stones. It's all okay.

You just have to take it one day at a time, you know? And every day, I have to remind myself I'm pretty damn lucky. Here's to getting ready for tomorrow.

Me, not ready for the gust of wind that blew from behind me as the pic was taken.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Impossible to Outsmart

I feel like everything happens all at once at my house. It's actually one those things where it's probably that way for everyone, but I think it only happens that way for me because, well, I'm just that kind of person. So, if your life is like that, too, well, I feel your pain.

Anyway, Noah has been impressively misbehaved lately. He'll do something really reprehensible--like yesterday when he didn't like that Joey was winning at a Wii game, and so he poked Joey in the chest with the Wii remote--and then be SOO sorry when he gets in trouble for it. But you know what? He's never sorry enough. To me, true contrition is a conscious choice to avoid repeating the hurtful behavior. Noah, on the other hand, seems to feel that the word "sorry" on its own is a magical blanket that covers all crimes. Wouldn't that just be a lovely world to live in?

Yesterday morning, I asked him several times to stop running through the house. Each time, he was genuinely shocked by the fact that I KNEW he was running. Apparently, HE doesn't hear the thunder beneath his feet, or notice the house shaking, or the dishes rattling in the China cabinets. Must be all that distracting fun he's having. Finally, I said, "Noah, you better stop running or you will be in MAJOR trouble."

"I wasn't running," he said, and had I been stupid, or even stupidER, or, even still, just not his mother, his innocent voice might have convinced me. But guess what? I am not stupid, and I am his mother. And, of course, I heard the noise.

"Noah..." I prompted in my most warning teacher voice.

"I'm not lying," he insisted.

"Okay," I said, deciding to play it down. "That's fine. If you're lying, if you're not lying, that's okay. Because God knows. And Santa knows. And Happy the elf knows. And on Christmas morning, if you don't have any presents, then I'll know, too."

Noah froze. He thought for a long, serious moment. Then he said, "Okay. I'm sorry for lying," and scampered off to play a nice, quiet, still game. (For about ten minutes.)

But THEN...

I caught him causing yet more trouble later on, and then today! I mean, this kid just doesn't take a hint. It was time to clean up the playroom (the New and Improved Playroom, score a million points for this Super Awesome Stay-at-Home Mom), and Joey was--gasp--working alone.

"Noah," I said, "it is NOT fair that Joey is doing all the work and you are coloring."

"No, it's okay," he assured me calmly, not looking up from his coloring book. "'Cause see, I don't want to clean. It makes me tired. And it could hurt my knees." Now he looked up. "It could. Really."

I rolled my eyes, and ordered, "Come with me. We're having a talk."

Noah knows what this means, and he dragged his feet and made thirty naughty faces at once as he followed me from the playroom.

Once out of earshot of Joey (the Tattle Tale King; the self-satisfied, self-righteous older child), I knelt down in front on Noah. Right away he started to complain. Loudly.

"Listen to me," I said. "I'd like to tell you a little story."

Noah quieted down instantly, deciding this might not be so bad.

"Once upon a time," I began, "Santa stood in his workshop all alone. It was the night before Christmas, and there was only one present left in the workshop. But on Santa's list, there were TWO little boys. Do you know what that means?"

Noah's eyes widened. "One boy doesn't get a present."

"That's right. So Santa thought about this for a long time. He checked his files on each boy. One of the little boys was a very good little boy, but he made lots of mistakes. He was always sorry later, but he just kept on making bad choices."

I waited for that to sink in, and then went on. "The other little boy on the list was also a very good boy, but do you know what?"

Noah was really hooked now. He barely moved as he said, "What?"

"That second little boy was really good ALL THE TIME. He thought about others before himself. He did what his mommy asked him the FIRST time she asked. He never, ever said mean things. He didn't NEED to say he was sorry."

Noah's face went from mesmerized to extremely, and let's face it, intelligently suspicious.

"So, Noah," I said, knowing my moment, "which boy did Santa choose to give the present?"

Noah was completely silent for about ten seconds. Then, as if in slow motion, his mouth fell open, and out of it came the longest, loudest wail of all time.

"I'm not getting ANY PRESENTS!!!!!!!" he cried.

"Well, Noah," I said, copying his innocent voice from earlier, "I didn't say that. This is just a story. Just a little story about Santa. I didn't say this was actually going to happen."

Noah's sobs choked him up for a moment. Then he swallowed, glared at me through big, fat tears, and shouted accusingly, "But I KNOW what you MEANT!"

 Too busy to help.