It's My Birthday

Thirty-six. 

I always say I like the even-numbered years better.  Even means fair.  And thirty-six is one of the fairest numbers there is: you can divide it into groups of 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, and 18.  It’s all fair.  Everybody gets the same amount. 

The irony is that I spent most of my 36th year on the planet coming to grips with the fact that life isn’t fair.  I mean, sure, people have been telling me that my whole life, but somehow it still comes as a shock every time I’m faced with unfairness. 

The truth is, life is a prime number.  Not fairly divisible by anything.  Somebody’s going to get the lion’s share in any particular situation.  I am fully aware that I have gotten the lion’s share in most situations—love, finances, safety, access to resources, intelligence, empathy, humor, writing skills, friends, family … I could go on. 

Why, then, do I focus so much time and attention on what I don’t have, on the areas where I got short shrift?  I only have one kid.  I’m fat.  I’m a bad wife/friend/mother/daughter/granddaughter/niece/etc.  My house is disorganized.  I’m lazy.  I should do more.  I should work harder.  Why can’t I be more like So-and-So? 

 In my 37th year, I’d like to set the goal of being fully cured of this tendency to focus on everything unfair.  But change seldom comes that quickly, and would I even be myself if I completely gave up this tendency?  And isn’t a little bit of That’s not fair what makes me the caring and empathetic person I am? 

But you can always strive for tiny, incremental progress, and that’s what I hope for my 37th year.  I hope to focus on what’s good and fair and right sometimes, not to the point of being blind to other people’s struggles, but to the point where I can look at myself and say, You know what?  You’re doing okay. 

 Now naturally, when one’s birthday comes along, one has a tendency to reflect on the What have I done with my life? question.  The irony is that one’s knee-jerk answer to that is Not enough, no matter what that person has accomplished.  Then, on second thought, one usually can come up with a long list of life accomplishments. 

So, I did.  Since I like the way thirty-six divides so evenly into groups, I divided my list of accomplishments into three increments of 12 years each, which is perfect because 12 is a great number, being the date of my birth and all.  I distilled my list down to 12 accomplishments for each third of my life. 

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Rest assured, I will not be spending my whole birthday reflecting and emoting.  I've done enough of that this past year.  I believe one should do something special and celebratory on one's birthday so as to avoid the trap of endless brooding and reflecting.  So after I sign off, I am headed to a spa for a massage and several hours of being soothed by various temperatures of water.  Then the family and I will have a dinner out featuring cake, and then my best friends Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will be hosting a giant awards ceremony in honor of my birthday.

As I sign off here, I want to acknowledge you, each and every one of you, for being a part of my first thirty-six years.  Thank you.   

Melanchristmas

"Imagine Christmas wishes shooting out of your eyes.  A candy cake full of snow dreams, a stocking full of smiles."  

--Lyrics from "A Jordan Christmas," 30 Rock

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The real Christmas songs that accompany this post can be found on my Spotify playlist, Shannon's Melanchristmas.  

As I mentioned in my last post, I have an incredible ability to experience a wide range of strong emotions, sometimes all at once.  So it probably comes as no surprise that I don't greet the holiday season with unequivocal joy.  

This is not to say that I actively dislike the holidays.  It's just that I find the holidays bittersweet.  To me, this time of year stirs up a huge range of emotions, everything from joy and hope to stress and disappointment.  

Part of me just truly resents the expectation that one should be full of joy this time of year.  Generally speaking, I do not respond well to any activity that comes with an expected emotion.  During such activities, my mind operates kind of like a DVD with the director's commentary turned on: I'm participating in the action, but the whole time my mind is checking in with itself, thinking, Now look at this great moment where we're building fun holiday memories.  But am I really enjoying this?  I don't know.  I might not be.  Oh no, I'm kind of sad.  Am I depressed?  Why must I ruin everything with depression?  I am supposed to be building fun memories with my child, who apparently grows up so fast that I should cherish these moments.  I am supposed to be filled with joy and holiday cheer.  What's wrong with me? 

I also think Christmas serves as a milestone in time, which naturally makes us reflective.   Most of us can't remember what we were doing last, say, April 11 (unless that's your birthday), but we all remember where we were last Christmas.  We think of how our lives have changed since then, or how they haven't changed at all, about the people who were with us on previous Christmases and aren't with us now, about what life might be like next Christmas.  (NOTE TO SELF: A guy reflecting on Christmases past, present, and future would make a great novel/play.)  

But there are also unexpected joys of Christmas.  They differ for all of us: for some it's the religious aspect, for others it's the music and decorations.  It's the rare quiet moments with your loved ones, or participating in long-standing family traditions.  

Christmas comes with so many emotions, and often nothing expresses emotion better than music.  So I created a playlist that reflects the mixed emotions that come with Christmas for me.  (I think it goes without saying that "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" will not be on this playlist.)  

Here's the rundown of the songs and why I chose them:

1. Please Come Home For Christmas: This song is pretty literally about being sad at Christmas.  It's about taking stock of your life and coming up short.  Most of us have experienced some level of holiday disappointment, making this song highly relatable.  Naturally I picked the version by The Eagles, my very favorite band ever.  

2. Silent Night: To me, this song reflects what's truly special about Christmas.  Not holiday greetings and gay happy meetings or city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style, but a quiet sense of stillness and peace.  It's a Christmas Eve, when you've finally bought that last present, and you're sitting with your family in the dim glow of holiday lights, just being together.  The school I used to teach at had a holiday tradition of having the whole school sing Silent Night in both English and Spanish, and those sing-a-longs remain among the most poignant moments of my life.  Seeing every kid, even the ones who were on your last nerves just moments before, joining in this sweet song, you truly felt the spirit of Christmas.  I always found the Spanish version more touching than the English one, maybe because the spirit of a song moves you more when you're not caught up in the lyrics.  But I picked a classic version in English by the quintessential holiday singer Andy Williams for my playlist.  

3. Do They Know It's Christmas?: This song made the list because of its particular connection to a moment in my life.  I heard it once when I was driving from a funeral to the cemetery, and I just sobbed at the idea of somebody's untimely death being so unfair and un-Christmaslike.  Do They Know It's Christmas? seemed like such an appropriate sentiment at the time, with They here not being the children of Africa, but the general forces of the world, or of a higher power.  And every time I hear this song, I think of that moment on the way to the cemetery, and of how many people suffer at Christmas after the death of a loved one.  And, yes, I know the real point of the song is about starving children in Africa, long used as guilt-trips to get us children of the 80s to eat the food on our plates (as in, Don't you know there are starving children in Africa who would love to eat that meal?).  I find the lyrics a little bit dubious, because although I'm not totally certain about the topography and climate of Africa (and it's a whole continent, so it's probably quite varied), it strikes me as a fairly hot place where there was never snow.  And how do you know it never rains?   And there's not a single flowing river on the entire continent?  Oh and also, the greatest gift any of us will get this year is life.  But I guess the song raised money and awareness, so, again, bittersweet.  

4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: This song just has an overall tone of attempting to make the best of what is not a totally ideal holiday season.  Wikipedia informs me that it is sung in Meet Me in St. Louis, at a moment when a little girl needs cheering up.  But it also informs me that the original lyrics were "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York."  But Judy Garland rejected the lyrics, saying they were too sad.  So I guess this song could be worse.  Actually, it could be worse is kind of a good summary of this song.  

5. Blue Christmas: Now look, I'm not a huge Elvis fan, but I had to put his version on the playlist because it's obviously the classic one.  I don't think I need to expend a lot of bandwidth explaining why this song is sad. It's fairly obvious.  He's blue without whatever "you" he's talking about in the song.  But it's worth mentioning again that the holidays can be hard when somebody isn't there.  

6. I'll Be Home for Christmas: Originally this song was written during WWII, when soldiers were gone for, like, years at a time, without being home to see their loved ones on Christmas or any other time.  And all they could do was write letters.  The idea of somebody dreaming of this idyllic family holiday back home while sitting in a foxhole in a war zone will always evoke a feeling of melancholy.  I decided to include the updated Josh Groban version with the ohmygodmakeitstop messages from military families and soldiers interspersed throughout, to remind us that there are still families making such extreme sacrifices today.  

7. Christmas Time Is Here from A Charlie Brown Christmas: Now, Charlie Brown is kind of a sad sack anyway, so he brings a huge trail of pathos the way his friend Linus brings a trail of blanket and his friend Pigpen brings a trail of dirt.  But as this old SNL sketch reminds us, nothing captures the true spirit of Christmas like a kid's shining pride in a sad little tree.  

8. We Need a Little Christmas: This song comes from the musical Mame, and, like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it's about cheering somebody up under sad circumstances.  Apparently  Mame lost her fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, and needs some holiday spirit to cheer herself up.  I included this song because, as much as most of us grumble about the commercialism and the excessive calories and the forced celebrations, we all need a little holiday celebration.  (I say holiday to acknowledge whatever holiday you celebrate.)  We all need a little decoration and time with loved ones and sappy movies and, dammit, a cookie once in awhile.  We all need somebody in our town who puts a tremendous amount of love behind an annual display like this one: 

It's tacky and kitschy, and in many years I've referred to it as "Christmas threw up," but you can't help but get a little gushy when you see his "Merry Christmas, With Love, Bob" sign.  If there ever comes a year when the display isn't out, I will worry about Bob, despite never having met or seen him.  Also, this year's display doesn't include the Miller Light umbrella with the flamingoes under it, so it's a little bit more tasteful.  

It's tacky and kitschy, and in many years I've referred to it as "Christmas threw up," but you can't help but get a little gushy when you see his "Merry Christmas, With Love, Bob" sign.  If there ever comes a year when the display isn't out, I will worry about Bob, despite never having met or seen him.  Also, this year's display doesn't include the Miller Light umbrella with the flamingoes under it, so it's a little bit more tasteful.  

It looks a little better now that he's spread some of it into his neighbor's yard, too.  Oh, and iPhone PANO camera function = magical disappearing car.  

It looks a little better now that he's spread some of it into his neighbor's yard, too.  Oh, and iPhone PANO camera function = magical disappearing car.  

We Need a LIttle Christmas was originally sung by Angela Lansbury in the musical version and Lucille Ball in the stage version, but I picked the Daffy Duck version here for some comedic levity.  

9. White Christmas: Well, now that's just racist.  

10. O, Holy NIght: This is my all-time favorite holiday song.  This song has a spiritual power to it.  The part that says fall on your knees fills you with so much emotion that you almost literally end up falling.  This song is Christmas to me, the mix of feelings of good and bad, happy and sad, but, above all, of such incredible strength.  I picked the Clay Aiken version for Katie, who tipped me off to the next song, which is:

11. I Wish I Had a River: I know this song best from Robert Downey Jr. singing it on Ally McBeal, which, do I have to do anything more than mention the terms Ally McBeal and Robert Downey Jr. singing in order to send you into a tailspin of emotions?  That show was nothing but raw emotion, which came to a head with her incredibly chemistry-filled relationship with RDJ and their subsequent breakup because of his stupid real-life mistakes.  Anyway, Spotify didn't have the Ally McBeal version, so I picked the James Taylor version for my playlist.  

12. Happy Christmas (War is Over): John Lennon and Yoko Ono may be the true embodiment of mixed emotions to begin with.  And this song is all about how another year is over and what have we done?  Which, as I've said, is a reflection that Christmas brings out in a lot of us.  Plus they include singing children, which is always good for a little emotional manipulation.  

In summary, these songs capture the myriad feelings the holiday season evokes: joy, sorrow, hope, exhaustion, worry, love, and peace.  Or, in other words, life.  Perhaps the holiday season is just an intense microcosm of all of life, each year's emotional grand finale.  

And so I conclude by saying this: Wherever you are, whatever you celebrate, and however you feel, I send you holiday greetings.  Cherish it or muddle through it somehow, or vacillate between the two and everything in between at frequent intervals.  But know that you are not alone.  And know that I wish that you'll find the greatest emotion of all this holiday season.  Hope.  

Under the Tarp(s)

If you read the About Me section of this blog, you'll see the following paragraph: 

I write a lot about my struggles with depression and anxiety, because I feel that honesty and openness are the best steps I can take toward erasing the stigma of mental illness and supporting my brothers and sisters in the trenches of these illnesses.

I wasn't always this open about my struggles with mental illness.  I've gotten more and more open with each depressive episode, of which I have had three:

1. 2003: This time nobody was going to know that I was on medication or going to therapy for depression and anxiety.  I told, maybe, three people.  The rest of the time I lied and said I had to go to the dentist, when in reality I was going to therapy.  People probably thought I had very poor oral health.  

2. 2008: This episode was the more socially-accepted, Brooke-Shields-stamp-of-approval postpartum depression, so I was a little more open.  Nobody would think I was crazy for being under the influence of hormones, right?  But I was still selective about who I told.  

3. 2013 (a.k.a., "the present"): It's true, my life has not been as rosy as I made it sound in the last post.  I've been in the throes of a depressive episode for most of 2013.  And this time around, I've found that I need a greater support system to help me beat this.  You can't get support unless you open up to people about your struggles.  And here's the thing: More often than not, as soon as I admit to struggles with mental illness, the person I'm talking to admits that he or she has struggled with depression/anxiety/bipolar disorder/OCD/ADHD/[insert other mental illness here].  It turns out that there's an entire army of us suffering silently and feeling like we're alone in this.  That's ridiculous.  If we could just be more honest, we could support each other.  So I'm done hiding it.  I'm opening up.  

A little more background: My reason for this year's episode was an attempt to go off meds.  TL;DR version: I tried to go off meds and it didn't work, so I went back on.  The trouble is, going back on is not quite as easy as you might think.  It's like I'm starting over from scratch, and, for me personally, the comeback takes a long time.  

Why, you ask?  Well, to answer that, I have to explain one of my depression metaphors. Over the years, I've heard a number of different metaphors for depression: the pit, the dark cloud, the black dog.  (That last one is from depression sufferer Winston Churchill, though I think it's kind of mean to actual black dogs.)  One of my friends even said, "Depression sneaks up on you when you least expect it.  Like Saran Wrap on a toilet seat."  

As for me, I always said depression was like being trapped under a thick tarp.  You scramble frantically to get out, to see the light, to find air, but everywhere you turn there is just more tarp.  You should go to the gym, but Depression tells you it's too much work.  You should eat, but Depression has no appetite.  You should sleep, but Depression is an insomniac.  You should go out with friends, but Depression says, That sounds like too much work, too scary, nobody wants to be with you anyway, and also you should feel guilty for not going.  Tarp, tarp, tarp, tarp.  No light.  

It is only when you start to get help that you might start to see one tiny little hole in the tarp.  It's not a sudden lifting of the whole dang tarp, it's a tiny hole.  But that tiny hole gives you the courage to keep ripping at the hole a little more, until there is enough light and air that you can live your normal life again.  The tarp may never be fully gone, but you know you're strong enough to come out from under it.  

However, this time around, I have found that depression feels like several layers of tarp.  This is not to say that the depression is worse, just that it feels multi-phasic.  I've peeled off the tarps of frantically clawing around, feeling desperate and hopeless, and wondering how I'll make it through the day.  They're gone.  I've also stripped away a little bit at some old tarps I was carrying around for years, tarps of self-loathing and guilt.  

But now I'm under a tarp that requires me to accept my brokenness and the feelings it brings.  The holes of this tarp are created with phrases like It's okay to feel sad right now and I am what I am.  They're formed by avoiding the following: comparing myself to others, criticizing myself for everything, and over-analyzing my feelings.  They're formed by realizing that a thought is just a fleeting connection of neurons that passes through your brain, and a feeling is just some tiny amount of chemicals squirting in your brain, and both are insignificant and temporary until you start obsessing over them.  

Under this tarp, I must realize that there is no such thing as perfect or cured, there is only coping.  

I'm doing pretty well under this tarp.  I let myself emote over all the strong feelings, the good and the bad.  I cry and say, "It's good to let it out."  But sometimes I find myself wondering, For the love of God, how much is in there? 

But this is what I also want you to know about my tarps.  The crazy, frantic ones will block you from seeing any kind of light, so you can't see the upsides of depression.  But when you strip those off, sometimes, on the good days, you see the gifts you've been given along with this condition.  

One of these gifts, many have said, is that having the ability to feel such strong emotions means that you can feel the highs a little higher.  Seeing your friend complete a marathon, realizing the love you have for your child, marveling at the beauty of nature--all are moments when I truly feel the strongest, most beautiful joy.  And I know I wouldn't be blessed to be able to feel the highs if I weren't cursed to feel all the lows as well.  

I also know I'm able to feel human connections much more strongly.  Having depression has allowed me to realize why I was put on this earth.  I know, with absolute certainty, that I am here to help other people who suffer the same affliction I do.  I cannot tell you the emotion I feel when I connect with one of my depression brothers and sisters.  I mean it, I truly cannot describe this emotion, the joy and the sorrow and just the pure rawness of human connection.  

And I want you to know that I want to connect with you if you are suffering or have suffered.  I want you to know that you aren't alone, not by a long shot.  I want you to feel free to get in touch with me.  That's my email address up there under Contact Me.  

I want you to peel away your tarps, too.  Because I love you.  

Catching Up

As I've stated before, I have an obsessive need to write catch-up posts.  It would be fine if I just started fresh and never talked about what happened in my relatively uninteresting life between October 2012 and now, but I always have this feeling that aliens are going to find this blog 2000 years from now and be like, Dude, she kind of left some gaps there.  So for the aliens, here's a bit of a catch-up post.  

For me personally, not much is new.  My freelance work has been steady.  Here's a picture to represent the portion of my life that is spent working:

Leia and me in the home office/guest room/cat bed/Nathan's art area.  

Leia and me in the home office/guest room/cat bed/Nathan's art area.  

Other things I did: wrote a modern adaptation musical of Cinderella for the community theater, volunteered at the Cancer Support Center, served as room rep last school year and this one, did some other volunteer things at school, cooked some stuff, did a lot of laundry.  

Nathan finished kindergarten and started first grade.  

 

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Official school portrait

Official school portrait

As for the husband who I may or may not have and who may or may not want to be mentioned on this blog ... He may or may not have a job at which he got tenure this year.  

We took three small trips.  

Sheboygan, Wisconsin to a waterpark hotel:

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Madison, Wisconsin:

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And Springfield, Illinois:

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The saddest thing that happened to our family is that we had to put our beloved cat Leia to sleep.  She had a rapidly-spreading oral cancer, and it was only 48 hours between the time we first took her to the vet and the time we were saying goodbye to her.  She was a once-in-lifetime cat.  She was there for me through so many life changes: getting married, moving to Illinois, career changes, having a baby, moving ... And furthermore her fur absorbed countless tears through all my struggles with depression.  Naturally many tears were shed during our last moments together at the vet when we said goodbye.  

Always my girl

Always my girl

Since Leia was such a special cat, I didn't think we would be ready for a new cat right away.  But I work from home, and it feels a lot lonelier in the home office when there are no feline co-workers.  So we adopted our new friend Holly:

She's very fluffy.
She's very fluffy.

Holly is completely different from Leia, and it took me a long time to stop comparing her to Leia.  The fact that we had a brand-new cat was bittersweet.  But ultimately I am grateful to be able to give Holly a home and a loving family.  

So now we're caught up.  I'm still here in the home office, which is decked out in its purple holiday splendor.  

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I have so much more I want to say, so I hope this will be the beginning of a whole new era of blogging in my life.  But for now, let me just say this: I'm glad you're back.  

A Line in the Sand

This post represents the line drawn between my old blog entries and my new blog entries.  There's really no big difference between the two, except that a little over a year separates them, and that I've switched to a new blogging platform.  But I like to separate life into neat little categories as much as is humanly possible, so I'm drawing this line.  

Also, in the spirit of drawing boundaries, I want to take a moment to define my motives for blogging, if for nobody else than for myself.  I always said that I blogged for the human connection, not for the business connection.  I don't mean for that to sound sanctimonious, because I legitimately respect blogging as a means of earning a living--for other people.  It's just that professional blogging doesn't fit my personality very well, so I blog as a hobby.  

This brings me to why I stopped blogging for over a year.  I got busy with my day job, and when one gets busy with one's day job, hobbies have to go on the back burner.  This is not to say that I was so busy that I had no time for fun, because I pursued plenty of other interests.  It's just that blogging was kind of the first to go because, when you spend all day fighting with computer issues as part of your day job, you don't always feel like logging on at night and navigating a blogging platform just to get a post up with all the pictures and videos and hyperlinks just where you wanted them.  

So why did I start back?  Well, recently a friend and I were talking about how we needed to shake our lives up a little.  I could think of no logical shaking-up activity for which I had the time/lifestyle/money/courage.  I even Googled "how to shake up your life," and none of those solutions made sense to me either.  

But I figured maybe I could shake things up in the most minor way possible by starting up my blog again.  And I went from .com to .org, which has to be the teeniest life transition anybody ever made.  Ditto my move from Blogger to Squarespace.  

But here I am again.  And here's my line in the sand.  

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There Won't Be Blood

I passed out attempting to donate blood yesterday.

Now, let me note that, due to a strong sense of guilt social obligation, I feel like I should donate blood.  Sure, I give my time and money to various charities.  But anybody can give time and/or money.  Not everybody can give blood.

I, however, can give blood at this point in my life, and therefore feel like I should.  I feel like a random patient would love to have my blood.  My blood hasn't been exposed to any serious risk factors, so the recipient of my blood would be assured that his/her new blood has lived a relatively boring and safe life.  I mean, sure, my blood is teeming with Prozac and caffeine, but it's not like getting happy, perky blood is a bad thing, right?

So when the family and I walked into the library yesterday and I saw that they were having a blood drive, I went right in.  They noted that they would be squeezing me in as the last donor, which is a detail that sort of becomes relevant later.

I should also point out that my past attempts to donate blood have had mixed results.  I donated once in college with absolutely no adverse effects.  Then, I attempted to donate again at age 26, and I nearly passed out during the finger-prick they do in advance to test your blood, so they turned me away.

Yesterday's attempt was my third.  And I figured all my aversions to needles and blood and veins would probably have gone out the window, since I had given birth in the interim between my last attempt and yesterday's donation.

The donation actually went fine.  It was the post-donation that kind of went awry.

I was supposed to sit at the snack table for 15 minutes, which already felt kind of unnecessary because, as I said, they were wrapping up the blood drive.  Another group was already at the door waiting to have their meeting in the next time slot for the meeting room.  Bill and Nathan were milling about with nothing to do.  So I kind of had a Let's get this show on the road attitude.

But then I began to panic.  I told the employees I wanted to lie down.  Immediately they sprung into action.  It was like I was on ER in its mid-90s glory days.  They pulled out a mat and I had to lie on the floor right next to my chair, and then they shoved ice packs down my shirt and put a fan next to my head.  And I was supposed to move my legs back and forth.

At that point, Bill and Nathan came in to see what was taking so long.  The blood drive employees had packed up every single bit of equipment around me.  I was all, "I'm fine!  Let's go!"

And then I nearly passed out in the parking lot.  The blood drive guy came after me and dragged me back indoors.  Back to the exercise mat and the ice packs.

As a side note, when they took the blood they had told me to take off my cardigan, so I was only wearing an ill-fitting undershirt that kind of exposed my stomach fat.  In an attempt to leave without too much shame but still meet the blood drive's "keep cool" directive, I had put my free blood donor t-shirt on over the undershirt.  But then they told me to take off the shirt, which I was having trouble doing without making my undershirt ride up, and at a certain point, I said, "Screw it, you're all going to see my bra."  I think Bill was horrified.

So there I was, lying there with my stomach fat exposed and ice packs down my shirt, and trying to be all, No, Nathan, Mommy is fine, even though I'm pretty sure he wasn't the least bit concerned because he was busy devouring the contents of my vampire-themed "Fangs for Your Donation" goody bag.

And they let the next meeting come in.  They were just like, We'll have them work around you.  And they told me to squeeze my buttocks over and over.

My one saving grace was that at least I didn't know anybody in that meeting.  Which is saying a lot in a small town like this where everybody seems to know everybody else.

Meanwhile, I downed two packs of Cheez-Its, some Gatorade, and a small bag of Famous Amos cookies in an attempt to regain full consciousness.  (As a fun aside, the guy who came and chased me down in the parking lot looked a little like Famous Amos.)

At one point I was thinking of asking them if I could just have my blood back.  That seemed like it would solve the problem.

Eventually I got to the point where I could at least remain conscious on the drive home.  (It probably goes without saying that Bill was driving.)  Then I woozily made it through the evening.  And now this morning, I'm still feeling woozy. Which I'm pretty sure is all psychological at this point, but just to be safe I think I'd better take a nap and have Chipotle for lunch.  Chipotle has a lot of iron in it.

So, there will be no more blood donation for me.  You can have my time and my money, but you can't have my bodily fluids.  Maybe I can pay other people to donate blood in my stead.

The thing is, I rationalize away my guilt like this: My blood type is O+.  It's neither rare nor the universal donor.  What do they want with my blood anyway?

I'm posting about this to see if I can find some kindred spirits out there who are also too wussy to donate blood.  Leave your story in the comments, fellow wusses!

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates: Sometimes You Need a Kick in the Pants to Get You Going Again. Or Something.

It turns out that blogging is like exercise: The longer you stay away from it, the harder it is to get back into it.  

Honestly, I considered just giving the whole thing up (blogging, not exercise), like so many before me have done.  But I'm trying to come back, and the reason for that is truly pathetic.  It goes like this: 

The other day I was talking to a dad at soccer about the time I went to the Sweets & Snacks Expo.  He said, "That sounds like an awesome show.  How did you get to go to that?" I explained it was because I had a blog, and that's when I realized it: If I don't have a blog anymore, I can't go to the candy show anymore.  And then I wouldn't be able to take advantage of the new candy show strategies I learned from experience (go more than one day, bring Ziplocs).  

So, I'm back.  And enough blogging about blogging, even though it's so meta.  I just really like to say meta.  

The thing is that my freelance career has picked up a little bit lately.  Now, you know I'm highly superstitious and don't like to jinx myself, so I will just say that things are above average in my work life right now.   I got another freelance gig, and this one is with my old company, which is good for many reasons, namely that (1) I've been trying to get back with them on a freelance basis since I quit working there full-time four years ago, and (2) This new job really kind of encompasses every single one of my professional  experiences and interests.  That's right, every single one.  

So with the presidential candidates debating about creating new jobs, I can definitely say that I'm better off than I was four years ago.  Because a stay-at-home suburban mom who is just trying to keep her mind focused and keep her foot in the door career-wise is definitely the person Mitt and Barack are most concerned about, not, you know, the laid-off factory worker who can't feed his family.  

I'm gonna stop writing now.  I have a million other mundane update-y things I could talk about, but I'm focusing on keeping these posts a little bit shorter.  I think it becomes more daunting for me if I endeavor to do too much.  Also like exercise.  


Reflections on Kindergarten, Ten Days In

I've been hesitant to publish this post ever since it was titled "Reflections on Kindergarten, Six Days In."  That's right, I've let it sit in Draft mode for a whopping four days, due to fear of the great parental phenomenon known as Jinxing Oneself.  But, knocking on every piece of wood I can find, I will publish this preliminary assessment of kindergarten:

It's going way better than I thought it would. 

First off, he likes it.  He comes home spouting glowing platitudes like I love kindergarten! and I wish I could go to kindergarten every day!  Then over the weekend, doing his weekend homework, he asked, Is there more homework?  Because this homework is too fun!

All this coming from a child who could never muster more than mild tolerance for preschool.  Preschool, which I thought was universally-loved, like puppies and pizza.  (Though now that I think about it, Nathan doesn't actually like those either.)

Behaviorally, he has achieved my goal of at least making a good first impression.  The class uses a behavior system where each kid has a clothespin with his/her name, clipped on a color chart.  You start each day on green, and you can go up with good choices: blue, purple, and pink.  You can go down with poor choices: yellow, orange, and red.  That's a whole seven-color spectrum on which I can rank myself as a parent each day, despite that fact that the kid's school behavior is somewhat out of my hands. 

So each day he comes home with a calendar in which he colors the day's square with the color on which he ended the day.  Now, look: I know I don't have a pink kid.  I taught for three years, and I can still name the kids who would have been on pink: the sweet kid, usually a girl, who was always, always doing the exactly right thing, the nice thing, the helpful thing.  Nathan is not going to be that kid.  That's fine.  I don't care if he isn't a pink kid, so long as he isn't a red kid. 

So far (knockonwood, knockonwood, knockonwood) he's been on green, with the occasional blue. 

And so kindergarten life is chugging along.  With each passing day, life overall feels less traumatic.

Here are a few more obvious conclusions I've come to in the last couple of weeks, with regard to school:

  • It's so EARLY: Now look, I have the rare kid who likes to sleep in.  Sure, this was an incredible luxury for about four years.  But when he slept in until an all-time lateness of 11:30 on August 1, I knew I had trouble.  (For purposes of accuracy, I'd like to point out that 11:30 was an outlier even for him.  His average wake-up time was probably more like 10:00 over the summer.)  But I knew that by August 23 he'd have to be up at 6:30, and that is a serious difference.  I did Sleep Training 2.0 during the first three weeks of August, getting him up earlier and earlier.   Now we're up at 6:30 every single day, albeit not happily.  But he did get up voluntarily at 6:30 on September 1, which is a five-hour difference in one month.  I consider it my first-ever sleep-related victory as a parent.  
  • But when I say early, I'm not just talking about the wake-up: Our whole day has shifted now.  Nathan gets on the bus at 7:11 a.m., which means I have to start my day of productivity at 7:30.  (I've allowed 19 minutes for pointless Internet-surfing.) Under the old model, the day seemed to begin at more like 9:30.  Now I'm cramming in all the exercise, work, chores, and errands before lunchtime.  And pretty soon it's ...
  • 2:00: This is the time Nathan's bus gets home.  Which is a problem, because I generally regard 2:00 as the worst time of the whole day.  No, wait!  I didn't mean it's the worst time of the day because that's when Nathan gets home; in actuality I kind of miss him during the day and I'm excited to have him get home.  I just mean that 2:00 is the worst time of the day because I'm experiencing post-lunch exhaustion, but also realizing that holy crap, there's so much more day to get through.  So 2:00 is always a time of that classic, What are we going to do to get us through until dinner?, a relic of the baby days.  Of course, dinner is now at 5:00, and bedtime is now at 7:00 ... hence my assessment of Early. 
  • Also, paper.  Now, having been a student and a teacher, I know there's a lot of paperwork that goes home from school.  I understand why every single office needs a separate form with emergency contact information and a parent signature.  Getting hundreds of children to and from and around school every single day is a nearly-impossible feat.   I get it.  I'm not complaining.  I want my kid to be safe and well-cared-for.  But I also know that if I didn't stay on top of the volume of paperwork that goes home, I would very quickly become a giant problem for the school.  I don't understand how people keep up with this when they have multiple school-aged children, or two jobs, or aren't native speakers of English.  
  • Subset of the papers: Fund-raisers: You know that bumper sticker that says something like, "It would be a great day when our public schools had all the funding they needed and the army had to hold a bake sale to buy grenades"?  Never have I more wanted to paste that sticker on every vertical surface I own.  (Though I kind of think it fails as a bumper sticker on an actual car, since it's too wordy and seems like it would increase the chance of people rear-ending you as they strain to read your sticker.)  So anyway, the schools are under-funded, and have to make up for that lack of funding with fundraisers.  We're ten days into the school year, and already I have: signed up for a 5K fundraiser, ordered Market Day, bought 2 magazine subscriptions, collected 8 Box Tops for Education, and purchased books through the Scholastic Book Order.  How much are the schools getting from the actual government?  Like, a nickel?  
  • Homework: Homework is a touchy subject.  Some parents like the homework, some hate it.  Some think kids should get more homework, some think they should get less, some think they should get none at all.  So far, I'm going to admit it: I like doing the homework.  However, I understand that we're in the honeymoon phase, and also that kindergarten homework is kind of simple and fun.  But here's why I like the homework: It makes me feel like a good parent when I do the homework with Nathan.  He's never been the kind of kid who is receptive to attempts at formal learning experiences at home (you know, workbooks and the like).  Homeschooling him would be a nightmare.  But with the homework, he understands it's mandatory (though, technically, the teacher said it was optional, but he doesn't know that), and so it's the first time I really feel like I've been able to sit down and teach him a formal lesson.  And, in the interests of being diplomatic, I will admit to having full understanding and sympathy for homework-haters.  Not only is homework decidedly less fun in the upper-grades, but there's a huge quantity of it.  Every textbook series used in school today has some sort of built-in homework, so that means that elementary school kids are getting multiple subjects of homework at night, in addition to enrichment projects and the usual 15 minutes of free reading.  
In conclusion, I'd like to say that so far I like our kindergarten life.  I like the balance of time without Nathan and the time with Nathan.  I like the routines.  Sometimes I miss him terribly and can't wait for him to get home, and other times I wish there were kindergarten boarding schools.  Sometimes I feel like life is so easy now that I'm outsourcing my kid to the public school system, and sometimes I feel like life is full of all kinds of added responsibilities now that we're in the public school system.  Usually I feel all those emotions in one day, multiple times a day.   It's a whole new world, but so far it's one that I'm glad to be living in. 

So My Kid's in Kindergarten Now




I've been warned for quite some time about the parental emotional trauma known as The First Day of Kindergarten.  I know there are schools that specifically recruit parents of older children to volunteer to console new kindergarten parents on the first day of school.  Our own school hosts the "Boo-Hoo Breakfast" for parents on the first day of kindergarten.  They pass out Kleenex. 

The message for parents about the first day of kindergarten has always been clear and simple: You are going to cry.  

I think what makes kindergarten so traumatic for parents is that you're battling a transition on two fronts: your challenges as a parent and the challenges you feel on behalf of your child. 

As a parent, my biggest challenge is having to see myself in a whole new category: The School-Aged Parent.  Being a School-Aged Parent seems to carry with it a greater expectation that you have some idea of what you're doing here.  I mean sure, we were all just newbies back in the baby and toddler years, young parents just testing the waters.  But now, now we are honest-to-goodness, full-fledged parents.  I mean, I remember when my own parents were School-Aged Parents, and they seemed like they knew what they were doing.  I guess it's time I buck up and figure out what I'm doing, too. 

And on top of having to accept my new change in status, I had to deal with the fear I felt on behalf of my child.  It's a fairly well-established fact that parents often grossly overestimate the emotional trauma their children are experiencing.  I was so terrified for my kid to get on a bus and find his way in a whole new place with a whole new level of seriousness.  And I think he was a little bit nervous, but for the most part a child's limited worldview protects him or her from truly grasping the magnitude of a situation. 

I, on the other hand, spent the whole month of August feeling like I had a horrifying Date With Destiny looming right on the horizon.  It didn't help that my kid seemed to be the only kid on the planet who wasn't giddily excited for kindergarten.  Nathan tends to be like Larry David: He curbs his enthusiasm.  

So I felt like I had to rally him and give him a daily talk about how long it was until kindergarten, and what would happen at kindergarten, and how you are supposed to behave at kindergarten, and OMG yay rah rah kindergarten!

It was exhausting. 

I spent about a month agonizing over every detail.  He had to have two completely new outfits, down to socks and underwear: one for Meet the Teacher Day and one for the actual first day.  I bought all the school supplies on the list a month in advance.  I carefully organized all my forms on a clipboard.  We did recon to stake out the bus stop location.  We worked for three weeks to establish a new school sleeping schedule and new school morning routines. 

Finally the day I referred to as Kindergarten Day Zero came.  That was the first day of school for the older kids, but for kindergarten it just meant you came with your parents for a special assigned hour of orientation.  I agonized over my own personal appearance that day, as though the teacher would think something like, Wow, that Nathan sure has a promising academic future.  I know because his mom matched her earrings to her sweater so well. 

The orientation was a bit chaotic.  But totally fine.  And also over within an hour, so I had to spend the rest of the day dealing with a kid who couldn't process the feelings brought on by this transition, and thus more or less acted like a moody teenage girl. 

[Here is where you might see some pictures of Nathan in his classroom on Kindergarten Day Zero, if I could find the camera I took them on.]

The next day, Friday, was Kindergarten Day One.  That was the day Nathan would go by himself.  We followed the school's advice to have him start out taking the bus to school from the very beginning, because the beginning is when there are special helpers on the bus to help kids know what to do. 

So our whole family headed out at 7:00 a.m. to wait for the bus.  Nathan was a bit keyed up, so these are the closest I could get to the classic First Day of School photo:




Bill wanted the actual embarkation of the bus to be captured in video form, so if you really want to see what a kid getting on a school bus looks like, you can watch this video.  Of particular note is that the bus sat there forever before leaving, so I had to stand there and endure the brutal long moments of watching my baby stare at me through a bus window. 


So he went to school.  And I set about my day.  I'm sure that I will spend every day for the rest of Nathan's academic career complaining about how quickly the day passes, but that first day really dragged.  I was just terrified that he'd come home with a report of bad behavior, the way he had on his first day of preschool.  I just kept thinking, I don't care if you get in trouble somewhere down the line, just please don't get in trouble on the very first day. 

Eventually the day passed.  The bus came back with Nathan.  Good report! 

Not only that, but he exclaimed, I wish I could be in kindergarten forever!  That sort of gushing means a lot coming from Nathan.  

Of course, I was sort of like, well, shoot, you're all rarin' to go, and now it's the weekend. 

But this weekend I also found myself relaxing for the first time in weeks.  The first day of kindergarten is behind us.  And yes, we have about a million more days of school to get through. 

But I survived the first day of kindergarten. 

There Comes a Time in Every Blogger's Life When She Writes a Post Like This

The blogger begins by apologizing for her extended online absence.  She then immediately qualifies this apology with a comment about how she would never be so presumptuous to assume that anybody noticed and/or cared about her absence.  But, she says, she has been absent nonetheless. 

Next she explains the reasons for her lack of recent blogging.  She has been busy with work, family, and all the usual trappings of modern life.  At the end of the day, there just wasn't time for blogging. 

Often in the ensuing paragraph(s), the blogger begins to question the motives behind her blogging.  Is she doing it for herself?  For her family?  To make money?  Sometimes she notes that she started the blog for one reason, but ended up writing it for completely different reasons.  Perhaps she feels she has gone astray.  Words like branding and social media are bandied about, along with a commentary on the modern state of the blogosphere and a call for blogging to get back to its roots. 

At the end of the post, the blogger often makes a definitive promise about the future of her own blogging.  She decides to fish or cut bait, as it were.  Deciding to quit the blog always comes out sounding way too dramatic and ominous, especially if the decision is explained with some cryptic comment about how there are some things going on in my life that I don't think I want on the Internet. 

If she decides to keep going, she makes a promise to blog more often.  She usually then attempts to quickly catch everybody up, in the course of one post or several, on everything that has happened since her last post.  For some reason, it kills a blogger to leave gaps in her coherent narrative, because bloggers feel some need to post all the news that's fit to print on the Internet. 

The post often concludes with a thank you to readers for hanging in there, or for being supportive, or for leaving such thoughtful comments.  The final phrase of the post is usually something jaunty like Stay tuned! 

And that is how a blogger explains her absence.

-----------------------------

As for me personally, I do not have any major life issues at hand, cryptic-sounding or otherwise.  I have just been busy with the usual daily activities, namely paid work and mundane chores.  I am neither going to fish nor cut bait.  By which I mean, I am not going to make a futile attempt to catch you up on everything that went on in my life since the last post, mostly because it's not that interesting.  But I'm also not going to quit writing this blog.  I know my motives for writing this blog.  It's a hobby, and a very cathartic one.  I like to entertain and inform.  I like your comments.  So, that's the state of my own personal blogosphere.  Stay tuned!

Eight Exciting Things: Number 8


And for my next trick ...


(a.k.a., The Summer of Swimming)

Pre-triathlon, I wondered if I would have so much fun in the triathlon that I would immediately go ahead and sign up for another one. 

That did not happen. 

I mean, the tri was a great experience, one I'm glad I did.  And I haven't ruled out the possibility of doing another one next year.  But the major logistical hassles of getting all my gear where it needed to be were more than I wanted to handle another time this year. 

Still, I liked the idea of having another athletic goal to work toward.  Thinking about how the swim was my strongest portion of the triathlon, I decided to focus on an all-swimming event. 

And it was actually a flier in the triathlon participant packet that led me to my next event:

Swim Across America!



Swim Across America is actually a series of different swims which, as the name implies, take place all over the country.  Each event raises money for a different local cancer charity. 

The Chicago event is August 4 and raises money for Rush University Medical Center, a hospital and leader in the field of cancer research. 

Swimmers can choose the distance they want to swim.  I chose 1 mile. 

I set a goal to raise $1,000.

I need help.  I am not even close to that goal. 

Do you want to sponsor me?  This is a link to my personal fundraising page.  There's also a link in the upper-right-hand corner of my sidebar.  Thank you in advance!

Meanwhile, the training for a mile in open water has been ... harder than I thought it would be.  You might be thinking, Well, duh, Shannon, swimming a mile is kind of hard. 

But, the thing is, I was kind of overly-confident in my ability to swim a mile.  I swam a mile when I was ten at Montecito-Sequoia Family Summer Camp.  I swim about a mile every time I get in the pool. 

But, (a) that's a pool, and (b) all of the sudden my hubris has foiled me to the point that I struggle to even swim a mile.  My mind has gotten the better of me.  Swimming makes me hungry and sick, and I find both of those conditions lead to panic. 

Once again, the psychological challenge has proven to be just as daunting as the physical challenge.  That must be why the contestants on Double Dare always picked the physical challenge over answering the trivia question. 

To combat my mental block, I decided to turn to the time-honored tradition of Gold Stars. 

First I checked out a library book by one of my swimming heroes, Olympic swimmer Janet Evans.  Janet Evans' Total Swimming outlined several workouts, which I photocopied and put in a binder.


Each time I finished a workout, I would get a gold star:


I very quickly ran out of do-able workouts, and the psychological challenges returned.  An influx of other professional obligations have also severely compromised my training time and energy. 

So let me look to a hackneyed Internet poster meme for inspiration:

Meanwhile, for further inspiration I have decided to immerse myself (no pun intended) in all things swimming this summer and declare it The Summer of Swimming.  (And obviously the Seinfeld reference here was intended.) 

As part of the Summer of Swimming, Nathan's main organized activity was swimming lessons.  We did a (personal) record three sessions of swim lessons.  Nathan enjoyed the lessons more than ever before, and I enjoyed the way the morning sessions gave us a reason to get out of the house and gave me a half-hour to sit by the pool and regroup. 






Also as part of The Summer of Swimming, I read a book called Swim: Why We Love the Water, by former 20/20 correspondent Lynn Sherr.  The book is a look at all things swimming, from the history of the sport, to the evolution of the bathing suit, to why people seem to just naturally love swimming.  It's a great book for swimmers.  Others, probably not so much. 

I also checked out a collection DVDs featuring the films of Esther Williams from the 40's and 50's.  Esther Williams was the star of several of that era's "aquacades," films that culminated with ellaborately-choreographed water ballets.  (The commercials for the NuvaRing, where the swimmers represent birth-control pills, are kind of modeled after these films.) 

Here is what I learned about Esther Williams movies: They all feature a long and somewhat weak romantic storyline, during which Esther plays somebody whose career is somehow connected to swimming (swim instructor, bathing suit model) and brief references are made to some water ballet that has nothing to do with the main plot.  Then, in the end, there's an awesome water ballet.  You're better off just watching the final scene if you're into that kind of stuff. 

And, focusing on more modern-day role models, I have already spent a week during the Summer of Swimming watching every minute of the Olympic swimming trials (okay, I admit to fast-forwarding through some of the longer races), and I'm looking forward to the actual Olympics next week.  The media is really playing up the rivalry between Michael Phelps and his teammate Ryan Lochte, which is fine in my opinion because they are both very good-looking and can have all the screen time the media wants to give them. 

Finally, if nothing else works to inspire me, I have turned to my other love, office supplies, and purchased these awesome swimmer binder clips from my online fave, Tokyo Pen Shop.  

This way when I use them to close up a bag of chips, I can be like, Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be swimming.

So, that's the story of the Summer of Swimming and my big swimming endeavor coming up in a couple of weeks.  Want to inspire me by sponsoring me in the event?  Here's another link to my fundraising page! 

Thanks you guys, and I hope you're having a swimmingly great summer! 

Eight Exciting Things: Number 7

Surprise! 


My husband turned 40 recently, a fact that I'm pretty sure he'll be glad I'm sharing with the Internet.

A few months before The Big Birthday, my mother-in-law told me that she and my father-in-law wanted to come surprise Bill for his birthday.  The plan was to tell Bill we were having dinner with our friends at our favorite local special-occasion place, but then when we got there our actual dinner companions would be his parents!

Now, let me pause here and say something about my ability to keep secrets.  I am an excellent secret-keeper.  You tell me your secret about an Important Life Issue, and I will understand the importance of keeping it a secret and not tell a soul.

And of course when it comes to fun secrets, I would never spoil a surprise.

Or at least, not intentionally.

The trouble is, although I try my very hardest to keep secrets, I also tend to obsess about things to the point that the obsession sometimes takes over my rational thoughts.

So, when my in-laws were coming to visit for the weekend, I was laser-focused on getting the house clean and procuring groceries for the guests, and it was so so so hard not to accidentally blurt out something like, "Come on, pick your socks off the floor, your parents are coming!" 

But, I'm proud to say, I held it together.  Even when I had to say things like, "I'm cleaning the house because a babysitter is coming," and, "I bought four bags of Pop Chips because you never know when Aldi will stop carrying them."

And, after a lot of lying on my part, Bill's parents finally came to the restaurant.  Bill was legitimately surprised, which is always so fun.  Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the moment of surprise because I'm not that together, so you can just imagine what a surprised person would look like.

Like this random baby I found on the Internet, but with more clothing.  

So, it was a fun surprise and a delicious dinner, and Bill got his birthday cake: 

That picture makes it look like he's eating with his hands, but I assure you he used a fork.  Unlike with his first birthday cake:

 Apparently in the 1970s babies and dogs ate out of the same type of bowl. 

A very key element of the surprise was that Nathan also didn't know anything about his grandparents' visit, because children are horrible secret-keepers.  So Grandma and Grandpa were a surprise for Nathan, too.  

We enjoyed a fun weekend with our guests.  On Saturday we went to Legoland Discovery Center.  

 Nathan, mother-in-law Diana, and me at Lego Navy Pier.  It's better than regular Navy Pier.  

 Bill, Nathan, and father-in-law Walt in the Lego jungle.  Nathan looks a bit like a monkey himself. 

 More Lego Chicago



 The indoor playground, God's gift to everyone

 This is where you build a vehicle and launch it down some ramps.  I built an awesome purple and pink one that got destroyed on the ramp. 

Legobama 2012!

Then, in the gift shop, my mother-in-law bought me this girly Lego set, because I was saying that our extensive Lego collection really lacks pinks and purples (and kitties!). 

The next day was Father's Day, and we had a barbecue in our yard, complete with a birthday cake my mother-in-law and I made, which I somehow lost all the pictures of.  

So, all in all, that was a really fun weekend.  And a really awesome surprise. 









Eight Exciting Things: Number 6

Priceless

We're all familiar with the MasterCard Priceless ad campaign.  It's a clever series of ads, one with just the right hint of poignance and nostalgia to drive home the message that money can't buy happiness, but it can help make the priceless happy experiences happen. 

But you really don't understand the true meaning of Priceless until you have a priceless experience of your own.  Recently, Nathan and I got to have our MasterCard Priceless experience at Wrigley Field. 

Our priceless package was provided to us, free of charge, through the MasterCard Priceless Chicago Cubs Pledge program, and made possible by fellow blogger Hope Bertram


Here's how this awesome day went: On the morning of Wednesday, June 13, Nathan and I took two trains up to Wrigley Field.  By 1:00 our feet were planted right on Wrigley Field.  Here are my shoes touching the soil of the Friendly Confines:


I'm not just saying it: This was priceless.  There's such a special aura about Wrigley Field, such a sense of history and an infectious spirit all around the stadium.  To be right down there on the field was just magical.

OMG I'm on Wrigley Field!

Nathan was a bit overwhelmed at first, saying he wanted to "go back to the chairs."  I like to think he's demonstrating the stubborn Cub fans' attitude of Well, there's always next year. 

I'm at the famous ivy:


Nathan, now with a much-improved attitude, is taking his own photographs:





And here we are 368 feet (yards?) from home plate:


Photo by Nathan of an awe-struck Mom:


We had the opportunity to practice hitting and catching with some real Cubs coaches, but Nathan and I were both too insecure in our baseball skills to practice with the big leaguers.  So we just played catch by ourselves:


Then we saw the dugout:


Can I get an Awww?


We're on the warning track:


After an hour on the field, we all had to vacate the stadium for three hours while the players and employees prepared for the game.  Knowing it was going to be kind of a long haul for a little kid, I brought in reinforcements in the form of a new toy.  We got this adorable stuffed animal pretzel, which proved to be hugely entertaining for all:


We spent some time in the Cubs Village next to the stadium, where Nathan practiced hitting:


And played beanbags:


And took a photo with Ernie Banks (and the pretzel):


Finally, at 5:00, it was time for our free dinner buffet at the United Club inside the stadium:


The buffet included turkey breast, rack of lamb, prime rib, and lobster gnocchi. 

Also beer.  Of course, beer.

 After dinner we headed out to our seats to watch the Cubs play the Detroit Tigers.



Please stop!  You're eating my cousin!

The only thing Nathan could talk about was cotton candy, so we spent at least an inning scouring the entire stadium to find the one stand that sold it. 

Around the sixth inning, Nathan announced that Pretzel was ready to leave.  At that point the Cubs were winning, but in the end they lost, 4-8.  Oh well, there's always next year. 

He does look a little peaked.

A huge thank-you to Hope and to MasterCard for this truly priceless experience!  And if you want a chance to win this same priceless experience, visit the MasterCard Cubs Pledge Facebook page before June 26.  To enter, you'll have to pledge to do something wacky to support the Cubs, then take a picture of yourself doing it. 

I'll tell you my wacky pledge later. 

Eight Exciting Things: Number 5

The Triathlon!


On June 10, 2012, I completed the Naperville, Illinois Toyota She Rox Triathlon

But before I tell you about that, I'd like to say something about the training.  Looking back, I can say I enjoyed the training (I means as much as I am capable of enjoying any exercise), but I suspect I can only say that because time has erased some of the memories of the agony of training.  I have heard that it's impossible to physiologically remember physical pain, but I do recall thinking around Week 5 (the halfway point of the training) that I should write a blog post to remind myself of the physical and emotional agony that was the triathlon training schedule.

But I rallied, and as time went on I did start to enjoy the training.  I mean, sure, it felt like a part-time job sometimes, but since you have to exercise anyway, I guess this was a pretty good way to do it.  And as far as my mental health goes, tri training was a dream come true.  I remember just feeling healthier the whole time.  I remember at one point it occurred to me that I hadn't had a single bout of hypochondria in weeks.  I don't have to worry about mystery diseases anymore, I thought.

And I liked how the training just made all my emotions just feel so much more intense.  I can't exactly explain it, but everything, from the good to the bad to the touching, just felt so much more real.  For weeks I felt like I was traveling on the razor-sharp edge of humanity, all my emotions were just so sharp.

Of course, as triathlon day drew nearer, I was also nervous as all hell.

Here's how it all played out.

Saturday morning, after neatly packing everything on my ridiculously-detailed list and organizing it into well-labeled Ziploc bags, we mounted my bike on the top of the car and made the hour-long trip to Naperville:


Yes, I did attach the water bottle holder with blue-and-white-polka-dotted duct tape.  

Saturday was the packet pick-up day: 

I got a t-shirt: 


They wrote my number on my arm: 


And my wave number on my calf: 








Nathan made me this adorable motivational poster:


I went to the orientation meeting, which is when I started to rethink this whole triathlon thing:



Hahaha, not really.  I was actually rarin' to go at that point.  Anyway, after the orientation we ate lunch and checked into the hotel.  I went swimming with Nathan in the hotel pool, then took a little drive to check out the race course.  We ate dinner.  I attempted to go to bed at the ridiculous hour of 8:30, which didn't go all that well because I was nervous.

Soon it was 4:30 a.m. and time to get up:



My dad went with me at 5:00 a.m. to drop off my gear at the transition area.

Alright, let's do this!

Here is what a triathlon transition area looks like.  You put your bike, helmet, and whatever clothes you want post-swim on a rack according to what wave you're in:


We were all set up by 5:45 a.m., and all I had were the clothes on my back, my super-awesome neoprene band that held my waterproof timing chip, my suckily chipping pedicure, and my free giveaway Quaker flip-flops from BlogHer:

This is as close as I will get to having a sponsor.  Not really, FCC, they aren't my sponsor.  

Fortunately my dad bought me Starbucks, and we went back to the hotel to get my stepmom and take the hotel shuttle back to the race site.  Bill and Nathan were in charge of checking out of the hotel and driving the car with all the luggage.  (I mention this to point out that triathlons are logistically complicated, a topic I will discuss in further detail later in this post.)  

At that point it was about 7:30 a.m., and I had until 8:20 to start my wave.  Having taken care of all the little chores of the morning, I had nothing else to do but sit on the beach and get nervous.  Oh, and we watched the other waves start.  The atmosphere was really exciting and positive.  

This is a picture of the swim area, which I think was sort of a hybrid pool/human-made lake, filled with water from a nearby river.  Which is to say, I have no idea how to classify this particular body of water: 

Unfortunately, the waterslide was not part of the event. 

As this map shows, you had to swim 800 yards by doing zig-zags, Disneyland line-style: 


Finally, it was time for Wave #21 to start.  Here I am getting ready:


They led everybody into the water, and the announcer asked all first-timers to raise their hands.  There were a lot of us:


The first part of the swim was disorienting.  Swimming is by far my best athletic skill, but I'm not used to open water.  You couldn't see through the water, and there were 50 other people around you frantically kicking.

Eventually the crowd thinned out, and I developed a strategy wherein I would stay close to the rope to make sure I was going straight, and then periodically look up to make sure the next 25 yards or so were clear of other people.

The swim went great.  After exiting the water, I ran to the transition area and discovered that I was one of the first people in my wave back to the bike racks.

Here I am on the way out of the transition area, where you had to walk your bike:


This map shows the bike and run routes.  It's a little hard to see, but basically the bike route (blue) was a 7-mile loop that you had to do twice.


The bike portion felt like it went on forever.  You couldn't have headphones, and I wasn't used to biking in total silence.  But the bike was the most fun part, because that's when everybody was the most spirited.  Everyone was just cheering each other on, especially people who passed you.  Like, they'd say, "Passing on your left!  You're doing great!"  We complimented each other on our clothing choices or bike colors.  That's the beauty of an all-women's event.  Everybody is so supportive.

Toward the end of the bike portion I saw Nathan and Bill:


Eventually I finished the bike portion and made it back to the transition area.  Remember how I said I was one of the first people to finish the swim?  Well, when I got back to my wave's bike rack I realized I was one of the last people to finish the bike.  Which is cool, I was in it to finish, not win, but I just wanted to point out that I might be the world's slowest biker.  Speed scares me.

(Oh and also, pulling over to update my Facebook status couldn't have helped my bike time.)

Then I was out of the bike area and onto the run:


That picture is a little bit deceptive, because in all honesty that was maybe the only time I was actually running.  I walked almost the entire 3-mile running course.  It was so hot, like 90 degrees, and a lot of the course was in direct sunlight.  Also, I am pretty sure the entire city of Naperville is uphill.  

A more accurate photo of me walking:


Psychologically, I really struggle with running.  Just knowing that it was so hot and so uphill made me want to stop and walk approximately every 3 feet.

I did see my little love on the running path:

Another runner passed by and saw me hugging Nathan and said, Aww, that's awesome.  That's how sweet and positive this event was.  

Finally, after what felt like forever, I crossed the finish line and got this:

Sopping wet from at least 3 wet towels, ice cubes dumped down my shirt, and, oh yeah, sweat.


An unforeseen and annoying fourth leg of the triathlon was the long trek back to the car.

Let's get out of here!

Later that night, after the World's Greatest Shower followed by the World's Greatest Nap, I got my official results: 

Click to enlarge.

Since it's tiny, I'll break it down:

Swim: 14:04
Transition 1 (swim to bike): 7:22 (I've always been a pretty fast clothing-changer)
Bike: 1:14:59 
Transition 2 (bike to run): 45:18 
Run: 45:18
Total Time: 2:25:00 (which is a really long time to be working out in 90-degree heat)

Place in age group division: 193rd out of 196 (NOT LAST!)
Place in overall event: 1426th out of 1493

Yes, I know, you always beat all the people who stayed home and sat on the couch, and as you can see, those were about the only people I beat.

But, as I said, I was in it to finish, not win.  And honestly, I like to think that those of us in the bottom percentiles have the most heart.  (In fact, I actually felt a little sad that there were 67 people who had more heart than I did.  That's how competitive I am about pointless stuff.)  

Predictably, in the end the triathlon proved to be a fun and fulfilling experience.  I loved the spirit of the whole event, so positive and supportive.  And, as cliched as it sounds, I loved setting a goal and achieving it.  

However, the event did not make me want to go and sign up for another triathlon, as I feared thought it might.  For one thing, I was kind of tired of all my workouts consisting of the three triathlon modalities.  I needed to mix up my exercise a little and go back to things like Zumba and the elliptical.  

But, more importantly, I don't think I can go through the hassles of another triathlon, at least not this summer.  It was so much work to acquire the necessary gear, and then to pack it up for easy access the day of the event.  Everything had to be organized carefully into different bags and compartments.  It was a big pain to get the bike mounted on top of the car before the event, and then to schlep it all the way back to the car and re-mount it at the end.  Plus there was the massive effort of getting my immediate family and my parents up to Naperville and in/out of the hotel and where we needed to be.  

In fact, it took the effort of all these people just to get me across the finish line.  I am truly appreciative to my dad and stepmom, and to Bill and Nathan, for helping me make it all work, and then for giving me all the glory.  It was truly a multi-person effort, an effort that included getting up at the crack of dawn and then standing around in searing heat all day.  That's love.

So, due to the rigors of this massive multi-person effort, I will not be doing another triathlon this summer.  But if I come around and want to do another one by next year, I am definitely going to do the Toyota She Rox Triathlon again.  It was so well-organized and so fun, and the other women in the event were so kind and supportive.  

And if you want to do a triathlon (and you're a woman), I would definitely recommend this triathlon series.  They're held all across the U.S., or if you're really motivated you could do the final one in Bermuda.  Go here for more information on the She Rox Triathlon series. 

As a final note, all photos in this post were taken by my dad and Bill.  If you'd like to see my official race photos, including one where I look like I want to kill somebody, go here.  














Eight Exciting Things: Number 4

Some of My Parents Visit

Now, the thing you need to know about me, if you don't already, is that I have multiple sets of parents.  I have my mom and stepdad in one grouping, and my dad and stepmom in another.  I like them all, and I'm not just saying that because I'm on the Internet.  I really, legitimately like them (and love them too, of course). 

The most recent set of my parents to visit was my dad and stepmom, earlier this month. 

We picked them up at the airport just hours after we bought the Fabulous New Car, so the vehicle was a surprise to them. 

The next day, we went to just about the best restaurant ever, the Tree House Cafe in Michigan City, Indiana.  No, I don't work for them, but I do want to tell you why the Tree House Cafe is awesome:

They have a giant sand pit for kids to play in while the adults eat. 

Here's a picture of my stepmom with Nathan in the sand pit:


Shot from this angle, you can see the wooden "pirate ship" kids can climb on.  (I use quotes because it's a rather abstract representation.) 


The sand pit is huge.  They have beanbags, a volleyball court, every ball imaginable, soccer goals, and sand toys. 

Meanwhile, here's my dad back at the table:


Here's Bill:


The food was very good.  Very casual, plastic cups and whatnot, and not too heavy.  You know, the kind of stuff you'd want to eat on the beach. 

The next day of my parents' visit, back in Illinois, we mostly just chilled and attended a small art fair in our hometown.  The highlight of the day was when we went to Nathan's t-ball practice and my dad took this awesome photo:


The next day of their visit was Saturday, and we headed up to Naperville for the triathlon.  But that's a story for a different post ...

Eight Exciting Things: Number 3

A Fabulous New Car!

Next week, Bill and I will celebrate eight years of marriage.  In that time, we have moved across the country together and lived together in two houses, one rented and one bought.  We've had a child together, and purchased a few big-ticket items together along the way. 

But, up until recently, we had never purchased a car together.  Bill's been driving the same truck since before I met him, and this was the last time I bought a new car:

 June 30, 2000: I was 22 and two weeks out of college.  I'm smiling because that whole Y2K thing didn't pan out, and the TSA hadn't been created yet.  And yes, I was thinner, but I made up for it in the weight of my eyebrows.  

 "Let me tell you about the features of your new Toyota Corolla.  Also, nice overalls."  

That Corolla has served us well.  We drove it home from our wedding, with Bill in the passenger seat saying, Wow, Shannon, you're my wife now.  Shortly thereafter we drove it across the country with our cat, to our new home in Chicago.  We then drove all around Chicagoland finding a place to rent.  Later we drove newborn Nathan home from the hospital in it, and then we drove it to and from the closing on our new house.  I think it's safe to say the Corolla has been a big part of the important events in the past 12 years of our lives.  

But, the Corolla was getting old, experiencing some irritating cosmetic problems (e.g., the key no longer opens the passenger's side door or the trunk; the gas doesn't open when you pull the lever, requiring you to pry it open with a small garden shovel).  And it mostly still ran well--at least, after a $700 repair--but it was starting to feel a little gutless.  And it was too small to haul anything.  

Bill's truck is great for hauling, of course, but it doesn't even reliably start anymore.  

It was time for a new car.  

Now, as I said, this was my first time buying a car with Bill.  Turns out we have very different approaches to buying a car.  Such as:

My Approach: Check car ratings in Consumer Reports.  Decide which of the top-rated cars I like.  Go online to see how much it costs.  Purchase car.  

Bill's Approach: Decide car will be purchased someday (an ill-defined, nebulous someday), but that an exhausting amount of research must be done before selecting car.  Since the thousands of options and combinations available make comparisons among cars incredibly challenging, and in many cases they are apples-to-oranges comparisons anyway, Bill's standards for car research ensure that we will never have to commit to a new car, which I suspect was his goal anyway. 

Additionally, Bill suggested we get a couple of other financial affairs in order.  I took care of those, and I cleaned out the garage to make space for a new car.  And once I did those things, I became sort of a major bitch about the whole car thing.  "Let's get a new car NOW," I said approximately a thousand times in the space of three days. 

Bill waffled on makes and models.  I had a few opinions of my own, of course, but Bill wore me down to the point that I was basically saying, "Just pick a make and model that you like, and I'll be happy as long as it's newer and bigger than our existing car."  

Eventually we decided on the Subaru Outback, and I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands from there on out.  

Now, I absolutely hate sales situations.  Despite the fact that my grandfather sold cars his entire career, I am a terrible salesperson.  I even hated it in high school when I had to work a concession stand as part of a school fundraiser, and I'd have to yell things like, "Hot dogs!  Get your hot dogs here!"  

Bottom line, I don't like selling things, and I don't like being sold things.  I find sales-based activities to be very awkward interpersonal situations.  

Fortunately my friend Tabitha had just bought a car a few weeks before, and she informed me that she was able to negotiate the entire purchase via email.  In writing?  That's something I feel comfortable with.  That's why I always say I would have been more popular in high school if texting had been invented back then.  (Well, and if I had spent less time selling hot dogs.)  

I had hoped to do a little online research about how much the car would cost at particular local dealerships, but the Subaru people knew my game and insisted I provide them with my contact information before giving me a quote.  Figuring I was free to delete their emails or not answer the phone, I gave out my information.  I immediately received emails and calls from two dealerships, which I will call Dealership A and Dealership B.  

Simultaneously, I gave out my information to the Costco auto-buying program, which had the very attractive benefits of giving us the haggle-free fleet price on the vehicle (whatever that is), as well as giving us a $500 Costco card for completing a sale through their program.  Costco put us in touch with Dealership C, which I figured would be the winner.  I felt bad for Dealerships A and B, because it didn't seem like they had a chance.

But I fired off an email to all three dealerships, specifying exactly what I wanted in a car. Costco Dealership C guy wrote back a curt and dickish sounding reply about how you couldn't get those features all together.  Dealerships A and B sent back links to their websites.  In general, it was hard to get anybody to give an actual dollar figure.  Eventually, after a lot of taunting, the guy from Costco Dealership C sent back a short reply with just a dollar figure.  No, Would you like to come in and test-drive the car? or What can I do to earn your business?  Yes, his price was the best, but I didn't like his annoying Take it or leave it attitude. 

In contrast, the guy from Dealership B was really friendly and attentive, answering all my questions.  I liked him, and I wanted to buy from him.  But I knew that the bottom-line figure was going to be the driving force behind where we ultimately purchased a car.  

So, I made use of what I consider to be my only God-given skill in the world, writing.  I sat down and wrote out my feelings in an email to the nice guy from Dealership B.  I explained that I really wanted to give him some business because he was so nice, but that we would have to go with the Costco-based dealer if he could give a lower price.  

Immediately the nice guy from Dealership B called me back.  He thanked me for my compliments and said that his dealership works with Costco, too, and that they could give us an even cheaper price than Dealership C, which we were apparently referred to based solely on geography.  And we could get the $500 Costco card through Dealership B, no problem.  

SOLD.  

Lesson learned: It always pays to be nice.  

(Meanwhile the guy from Dealership C kind of just gave up on replying to my emails, and the people from Dealership A sent some sort of half-assed reply a week later.  I really think car dealerships need to get with the times and deal more with electronic communications, but maybe I'm one of the few antisocial people who prefer email to face-to-face conversation when it comes to sales situations.) 

Let me emphasize that I pretty much negotiated this whole awesome deal.  I was pretty proud of myself for that, especially because Bill actually used to sell cars, too.  

Of course, we hadn't signed on the dotted line yet, and I knew any small glitch could be a dealbreaker for my excessively-picky husband.  For example, he already told me we wouldn't be driving away in a new car if the dealership affixed some sort of permanent logo to the back.  So I was nervous.  

But, after the test-drive, and the paperwork, and the refusal of the extended warranty ... we had a car!  One without a permanent dealership logo affixed to the rear! 

This time the "closing the sale" picture features Bill, but let me assure you that I was dressed in what I think was a lot nicer than overalls and athletic shoes.  

Here it is!  I love it! Note that I had the dealership add an after-market bike rack, which has already come in handy.  

So, if you need me, I'll be driving around in my new car, basking in the glory of my stellar negotiation skills and getting intoxicated on that new-car smell. 



Eight Exciting Things: Number 2

The Color Run

Allow me to begin, as I so often do, with a Seinfeld reference.   In the Season 6 episode "The Race," Jerry shares a personal mantra that I so often want to use as my own:

"I choose not to run!"

See, I've just never been a natural runner.  But when Katie (a.k.a. G-Money), who is a runner, brought up the idea of participating in a 5K called The Color Run, it just seemed too unique an experience to pass up.

The basic premise of The Color Run is that, at each kilometer, you get sprayed with a powdered, cornstarch-based color, so that you are colorfully filthy by the end.  The same coloring substance is used at a Hindu religious festival, so I guess the Color Run is sort of the secular, athletic version of that.

You were encouraged to wear white, to maximize your colorfulness after the race.  Here's our team before the event:

L to R: Me, Katie's friend Catherine (called "Cabby"), Katie, and Katie's high school friend Heather

Now, although this was not a serious athletic event, I knew my performance in this 5K would have the ability to boost or wreck my confidence when it came to my upcoming triathlon.  So I tried my darndest to run as much as possible, as opposed to walking.  I ran about the first half, during which we were sprayed with blue and then green.  It helped to have other people there pushing me to keep going.  But then I had to walk a little, so I told everybody else to go ahead without me.  

I had gotten to the point in my training where I could recover pretty quickly with a brief walk, though, so I started up running again right after we got sprayed with orange.  I off-and-on ran between orange and yellow.  The yellow sprayers were particularly generous with the color.  

Then, before I knew it, I was done.  It felt so much easier than I thought it would!  That's because it was: It turned out that, according to a teammate's pedometer, the entire "5K" was only 2.3 miles, as opposed to the approximately 3.1 miles that a 5K is supposed to be.  Some people were actually complaining, as though a shortened run was a bad thing.  

Here's a photo of the team, post-run:


We were a little more colorful, but the true color mayhem came at the end, when everybody was instructed to throw a bag of color up in the air to create a "color cloud."



That picture is taken from afar.  Inside the color cloud, it is pretty crazy.  The cloud completely blocks out the sun.  You are totally filthy afterwards:




A guy with a leaf blower blows off some of your color, and then a shower gets some of it.  It took about two showers and a swim in the pool for all of my color to come off.  I bleached my clothes, but they're still a little streaked.  They're kind of a fun souvenir. 

As predicted, the Color Run ended up being a unique experience.  However, it ranked kind of poorly on what my stepdad calls the Fun-to-Hassle Ratio.  The hassles consumed about 24 hours of my life: Trekking way up to the north side of the city in an inconvenient area to pick up the packet the day before, getting up at the crack of dawn, an hour of train/walking each way to get to and from G-Money's house, another hour of looking like a complete crazy person on the train back to the suburbs, some serious clean-up efforts for myself and my clothing, and then a two-hour nap to compensate for having to get up at the crack of dawn.  All that for about an hour-long running/walking/color-throwing experience. 

BUT, I reflected on the fact that it was a much more exciting thing to do with one's time than sit around on the couch all morning.  And so sometimes you have to put in the hassle to have the fun.  Because someday there will be a time when I'm so old that the most exciting exercise effort I'll be capable of making is a walk around the block.  And when I'm taking that walk, it will be nice to reflect back on the wacky day when I ran around Chicago getting a bunch of color sprayed at me. 

Eight Exciting Things: Number 1


I've gotten so behind on my blogging lately.  I have a list of 8 exciting events I'd like to share on the blog, so I decided to just make it a series. 

------------------------------------------------------------------
Preschool Graduation

I've always thought preschool graduation was a little bit silly.  First of all, it's not as though it requires a great deal of work to finish preschool, so it doesn't really seem necessary to acknowledge a preschooler's accomplishments with a graduation.  Second, the term graduation implies that one's education is completed, whereas I think most of us would say that one's education begins at kindergarten, as in, after preschool.

On the other hand, when we think of graduation's other name, commencement, there is an implication of new beginnings.  And I knew that Nathan in particular needed a very serious, formal acknowledgement of the new beginnings he is going to face in the fall. 

See, preschool wasn't an altogether awesome experience for our family.  The entire two years was a series of limit-testing and correcting, of daily struggles with I don't want to go to school, and of the negative environment created by fellow parents bitter about staff changes.

We needed a ceremony to acknowledge that we had all made it through, and that it was time to focus on the transition to the beginning of formal education in the fall.

And so the day before Memorial Day weekend, we dressed Nathan in his $20 J.C. Penney suit and watched him process with his classmates wearing paper mortarboards as Pomp & Circumstance played in the background


The first part of the ceremony consisted of the kids singing a few of the songs they'd learned at school.  There was a song about bubble gum, a song about dinosaurs, the Days of the Week song, and the planet song.  Then they sang "Kindergarten Here We Come!" which was set to the tune of "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes."  It was a silly little diddy, but one line still got me all emotional:

[Sung to the part of the song starting with eyes and ears and mouth and nose]:
"Bye, bye preschool, it's been lots of fun!
Kindergarten here we come!"
Next the kids got their "diplomas."  The teacher said something nice about each kid, and told us what the kid wanted to be when he/she grows up.  Here's Nathan's:



I love how she says he has some "great one-liners."  I seriously could not be prouder.  That's my boy!

As the grand finale of the ceremony, the kids sang "What a Wonderful World."  Now, at that point I was already sobbing my brains out.  Muh bay-bee!  Already going to kindergarten!  And, as though that reminder of the passage of time wasn't painful enough, "What a Wonderful World" was the song Bill and I first danced to at our wedding.  I mean, come on.  During the entire song I had a slideshow of our greatest moments playing in my head: The wedding dance, bringing Nathan home from the hospital, the first day of preschool, and so on.  Clearly the gravity of the situation wasn't lost on Nathan, as evidenced by his ridiculous wiggling, which was obviously a manifestation of his tension, and not of the fact that he is a goofy five-year-old:



After the ceremony we took a million pictures of course.  Here he is with me:


Dancing, I guess?



And with Bill:


There was a cake:


Back at home, I had Nathan pose with his two Poohs, who of course had graduation hats as well:


Oh, and of course this happened:


In the end, I guess I came to understand the purpose of preschool graduation.  The concept of preschool graduation had previously seemed pointless to me because this concept was based on my own personal experiences with graduation.  I saw my graduations as largely a time to celebrate hard work and accomplishments, and to get decorated with medals and ropes to acknowledge those accomplishments.  They were the culminations of school experiences which, in all honestly, were a nonstop stream of showing off my accomplishments, so much so that until Nathan started preschool, I kind of thought that the secondary purpose of education (after learning) was to demonstrate how awesome you are. 

But when Nathan started preschool, I learned that sometimes the purpose of school (again, besides learning), is to identify weaknesses and correct accordingly.  And so preschool was a series of identifying and correcting, and graduation was a celebration of improvement.  It also served as a formal marker of transition and new beginnings.  We all need a new beginning once in awhile.  

And so, we commence. 

You Deserve a Break Today: Learning About McDonald's Healthful Options

I intentionally chose an outdated McDonald's slogan as the title of this post, because my love for McDonald's goes way back to the You Deserve a Break days.  I ate Happy Meals in the Mac Tonight era, tried to learn the McDLT song in the late 80's (with the help of a record that came in my local newspaper), and dipped my fries in chocolate shakes after high school swim meets in the 90's Food, Folks, and Fun days.  Now in the 21st century I'm Lovin' It era, McDonald's is a weekly stop for Nathan and me because of its Happy Meals and its fun indoor play area.

So I was excited when the McDonald's Owners of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana invited me to a Moms Nutrition Workshop at the famous Rock 'n Roll McDonald's in downtown Chicago.

After making the rainy trek downtown with my little fellow McDonald's lover, we were ushered into an upstairs lounge with tables and booths.  Naturally, I had to take note of the pretty floral centerpieces:


We were given a menu of McDonald's more nutritious items, and we were allowed to check off anything we wanted to have for lunch, for free.  Naturally, because it was free, I ordered two entrees.  The Honey Mustard Snack Wrap:


And the Southwest Chicken Salad, which I ate most of before remembering to take a picture:


Plus I got a Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait for dessert:


Nathan got a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal.

Once we were chomping away, the presentation got underway.  The speaker was Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, MS, RD, LDN, CPT--which is to say she was a nutrition expert.

Now, let me pause and say that this was a tough gig for McDonald's.  They know they have a bad reputation when it comes to nutrition and food safety practices, and mom bloggers are a notoriously skeptical bunch.  Not only are we typically educated and middle-class, but we tend to skew toward the liberal and the crunchy--exactly the kind of people who are wary of giant international conglomerates pushing cheap fast food at our children.  Additionally, I think we all feel a bit uneasy about the idea of becoming corporate shills in exchange for freebies, and we always have our eagle eyes and ears peeled to see through any corporate BS and pounce on it.  Even among those of us who agreed to go to this seminar--a self-selected group that naturally weeded out the most ardent McDonald's haters--there's a certain level of shame and guilt associated with taking our kids to McDonald's.  Admitting to eating under the Golden Arches isn't tantamount to child abuse, but it's certainly something we admit to with a little shrug of What are you gonna do?  I'm not perfect.  Admitting to eating at McDonald's falls somewhere along the lines of admitting to using TV as a babysitter or swearing in front of children.

So, I went in prepared to hear McDonald's out, but not exactly prepared to have my mind changed about the healthfulness of a visit to McDonald's.

But, these people hit it out of the park.  And I don't offer that kind of praise very often.

For one thing, I was surprised to find out about the many, many nutritional choices McDonald's offers.  I mean, yes, I had technically seen all those items on the menu, but I guess I still went in with the attitude that there was like one unappealing choice (salad) if you wanted to eat healthfully at McDonald's, and even that was just a CYA move on the part of McDonald's to get the critics and lawsuits off their backs.

But, it turns out there are a lot of healthful options at McDonald's, and, even more surprisingly, they actually taste good.
 
For breakfast, you could have:
  • Egg McMuffin: 300 calories
  • Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait: 160 calories with granola/130 calories without granola (and really good!)
  • Fruit 'N Maple Oatmeal: 290 calories with brown sugar/260 calories without brown sugar
  • Fruit 'N Walnut Salad: 210 calories  
And THEN they brought out their newest breakfast delight, the Blueberry Banana Nut Oatmeal.  I knew McDonald's had oatmeal, but I was never all that jazzed to try it.  Let's face it, McDonald's does not have a reputation for doing anything fresh very well.  I think we all kind of imagine wilted, rotten produce being slapped on or shot through some kind of device, with the fresh and crispy produce being reserved for the products photographed in the McDonald's ads.  But we all got samples of the oatmeal, and I was pleasantly surprised by the plumpness and juiciness of the berries:


And, you guys, I am not at all exaggerating when I say that the Blueberry Banana Oatmeal (I didn't have the nuts because I don't like nuts) was the most delicious thing I ate at that whole event.  Now, I eat oatmeal for breakfast approximately 5 days a week, and oatmeal feels like an extremely boring chore.  This oatmeal, though?  Was so good.  The banana flavoring was delicious, and at 280 calories per serving (that's with the nuts--I don't have the data on nut-free), I might order it as my entree from here on out at McDonald's.  (As you probably know from the commercials, they serve the oatmeal all day.)  I am being completely honest when I say that I walked out of there craving another serving of the oatmeal, and even now, a day later, I'm still craving it.

Also, you can get the blueberries a la carte, in this cute packaging:


 They also have a Blueberry Yogurt Crunch, although I didn't try it. 

The healthful lunch and dinner options also go beyond just a salad:
  • Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich: 350 calories
  • Snack Wraps w/ grilled chicken: 250-270 calories (and I liked how they felt a little bit junky and fast-foodish)
  • Cheeseburger: 300 calories
  • Premium Salads w/grilled chicken: 190-290 calories (and the Southwest one has chips in it!)
  • 6-piece Chicken McNuggets: 280 calories (and I like having a good warm option for those winter days when a salad just doesn't sound appealing)
So, as it turns out, the list of healthful options goes way beyond salads.  And choice is good.  I find it very annoying when I'm dieting and I feel like I'm stuck with only one option on the menu.

Also, McDonald's would like you to know that they want to make your food the way you want it, whether that be substituting sugar-free nuts for the sugar-coated nuts, or giving you food without added salt.  Here are some tips for less-sodium options and some tips on how to cut back on fat when you're eating at McDonald's.  The speakers at the event told us that McDonald's is committed to making your food specific to your liking (which, let's face it, has not been their reputation in the past), and that if an employee seems at all reluctant to customize your order, you should complain to higher-ups. 

Now, let's talk about the choices for kids.  I have to say, I have been truly impressed with the changes to the Happy Meal.  The fact that children are required to get a small package of apples (along with a tiny little container of fries) in the Happy Meal means that all parents, regardless of income, can treat their children to a more healthful meal out at an affordable price.  Because it's easy for us middle-class educated parents to find healthful options at fancier places, but in some areas McDonald's is the only place in town, and why shouldn't parents treat their kids to a meal out there once in awhile?  Also, even as a middle-class, educated parent, I appreciate that the apples are mandatory, making for one less battle I have to fight with my kid.

Nathan appreciated that he got two Happy Meal toys, declaring it "the best McDonald's ever" because our local establishments only give you one toy.  Of course, this had nothing to do with the fact that we were on a special VIP tour.

Speaking of the tour, after the presentation it was time for us to tour the McDonald's kitchen and food storage areas.  Our docent was Dean Przybyszewski, a McDonald's Field Service Consultant, which means he's the guy who goes around and checks the restaurants for compliance with food safety standards.

Here's Dean showing us the daily Food Safety Log that outlines the safety procedures:


Next we went down to the basement to see the storage and refrigerator/freezer areas.  Here's Nathan at the Bun Area:


This is Dean holding up a container of fresh, sliced tomatoes, to illustrate that McDonald's food actually does contain fresh produce:


Dean said that his main pet peeve in the criticism of McDonald's food is when people think McDonald's breakfast items are made from powdered eggs.  So he held up this egg to show us that the restaurant uses dozens and dozens of cartons of real eggs in their breakfasts:


Those are for the Egg McMuffin.  I did note that the scrambled egg sandwiches start like this:


Which is not to say that these scrambled eggs are bad, or unsafe, or gross.  I'm just saying that if you like to know that your food was a real grocery item fairly recently, you might want to stick with the McMuffin.  But, you know, McDonald's was very open about how the food is stored and prepared, so you can make informed choices about what you eat.  Nothing about this event was sneaky or an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. 

Here's Nathan in the paper goods storage area:


And here's one giant refrigerator that contained, among other things, the Cinnamon Melts:


Another freezer contained boxes and boxes of frozen McNuggets.  Despite the fact that the nuggets are Nathan's favorite food at the restaurant, he is making a grumpy face here.  I guess because it was cold in there (26 degrees):


Dean and some McNuggets:


Eerie shot of the frostiness of the freezer:


(Also I learned that the freezer has a handle that allows it to be opened from the inside, so you can't get stuck in there, Three's Company-style.)  

Back upstairs, we visited the salad assembly area.  Dean noted that the salads are assembled throughout the day, so you aren't getting some old, wilted salad that was assembled hours earlier:


Here's Dean modeling the new salt shaker that ensures a uniform application of salt on your fries:


After the tour, we all got gift bags containing: a McDonald's beach towel, an apron that advertises the Blueberry Banana Nut Oatmeal, two free Happy Meal vouchers, a $5 gift card, a pedometer, a water bottle, and a stopwatch.  The bag itself was nice and had a zippered top.  We also got a lot of BOGO coupons for the healthful menu options.  (BTW email me if you want any, because I have more than I can use before they expire, even at the frequent rate with which I visit McDonald's.)

I left this event feeling truly positive about McDonald's.  I went in skeptical that my attitude might be changed regarding this huge conglomerate and its ability to provide healthful choices that anybody would actually want to eat.  But the McDonald's representatives truly impressed me.  As I said, I was a McDonald's customer before, but I always admitted to it with a hint of shame and guilt.  Now, when I say I take my family to McDonald's, and I will say it with pride.