Friday, March 3, 2017

I Spy with My Mom Eye

The following appears in the March edition of Chicago Parent.

When certain moms tell me how much they love being the focal point of neighborhood action (having kids over, feeding feral children, maintaining mob security), I feel a degree of shame. Not only do I eschew groups of kids gaining access to my home and pantry, but my thought when others don’t?

You people are crazy. 

I do not enjoy my cabinets raided, my ears accosted, and the whirlwind of jumping, leaping, and shouting boys. I’ve got sensory issues, dammit.

The argument I hear most often from open-door policy moms is that they are keeping tabs on their kids and their friends. They know exactly what is going on. They have their fingers on the pulse of tween society.

For me, it seems like an awful lot of work and expense to secure the same information I get by employing a series of enhanced interrogation techniques. I am the daughter of a special agent. My father utilized his years of government training in raising his four kids. He could detect a lie with a mere blink or shift in eye contact. He knew the targeted questions to ask. And we never, ever doubted his ability to kill us 100 different ways and make it look like an accident. Unfortunately for my kids, my dad was generous enough to share this training with me.

My best intel comes via carpool. For whatever reason, kids are naïve enough to buy into my distracted driver performance. I fumble with the radio. I mutter about traffic. I sing Journey tunes. In all actuality, I am making mental notes of every inappropriate comment and act of unkindness.

I’m essentially Jason Bourne.

And after I lull them into a false sense of security? That’s when I pounce:

“So, who is like the MEANEST kid in your grade?”

“Who would you trust with your life?”

“What kid do you hear the teachers complaining about most?”

“Who gets everybody else in trouble but never gets caught?”

There is an old adage that states, “show me a kid’s friends, and I’ll show you his future.” Even God backs me up on this up in Proverbs 13:20:

“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.”

As my boys get older, I know I have less and less say in who they choose to befriend. It doesn’t matter how many secret files I maintain, if some kid appeals to their sense of humor or sense of fun, there is very little I can do. I am left hoping that my lectures against mob mentality and choosing right when everybody else chooses wrong will hold up.

But if not?

I’ve got my dad’s old files.

And Russia on speed-dial.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Marriage Fantasy

The following appears in the February edition of Chicago Parent.

My husband and I recently logged in another successful year of marriage.

Our body count held steady at zero. No dishes were thrown and/or broken. The ability to feign interest in each other’s favorite topics has never been stronger.

Joe seriously thinks I like Fantasy Football. When he rambles on about possible trades or player pick-ups, I am reminded of the adults from the old Peanuts cartoon: Mwha mwha mwhua mwha.

Yet with a well-timed raised eyebrow or occasional “NO WAY,” my attentive performance goes unquestioned.

Joe and I both possess fiery personalities. Yet we rarely fight. I would like to think it has to do with the mature status of our relationship and our ongoing evolution as a couple.

But I’d totally be fibbing.

Joe loses his mind over the small things (“Where are all the clean socks…YOU KEEP SWITICHING DRAWERS!”). Though when real disaster or tragedy strikes, he holds it together.

Not me. Those are the moments I barely comprehend English, and logic and reasoning become as foreign to me as the top 10 Fantasy picks for wide receiver.

As the kids started dropping off the assembly line twelve years ago, there was definitely increased tension. I had to lose the notion of “the marriage fantasy” promised to me by dozens of rom-coms and poorly written romance novels.

Now our lives were a litany of questions. Who would remember to grab formula on the way home from work? Who would take off to go to the pediatrician’s office? Who would get up for the next 3 am feeding?

And whose idea were these kids anyway?

In all seriousness, the kids were the impetus for us being together. Many of my earlier relationships failed because I sensed future bad dads. The men were often too selfish, too fragile, or too unreliable to invest myself.

When I met Joe, there was instant safety. He was okay with my brand of crazy and not easily shaken. Plus, I thought he was totally dreamy.

Joe eventually bought me a beautiful engagement ring that I never wear because I have sensory issues and I hate rings. He is okay with that.

I reluctantly went along with the idea of a wedding even though I wanted to go to Vegas and get married by Elvis. My dress was off the rack and cost about $200. I think I ordered my invitations from the same place that killed George Constanza’s fiancé.

I never cared about the visuals. The big diamond. The big day. The big honeymoon (which I’m told we’ll get around to taking one day).

I cared about creating a family with someone I loved who would not run away when things got tough.

Recently, I directed my husband to the wrong school for one of the kids’ games. It was on a snowy day where we had five different events to hit. When we arrived, I realized my mistake. The actual venue was two minutes from our house, but we were now 45 minutes away.

Joe frowned, threw the car into drive, and tried his best to avoid getting another red light ticket. We made it in time for my son to play the second half.

Joe wanted to gripe, to direct his ire at me, and to go into full blown rant mode.

But he didn’t. So I questioned him about his Fantasy Football team. I asked him not to spare a single detail.

He had earned that one.

And so much more.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Time I Almost Killed My Husband

The following appears in the January edition of Chicago Parent. 

When it comes to parenting, my husband and I agree on most things. We swore to each other a long time ago to represent a united front against the tyrannical tendencies of our progeny. Man-to-man was discarded once our third son was born. In choosing a zone defense, we knew that regular and clear communication would be critical. For the most part, our plan went swimmingly.

Until recently.

My oldest son began exploring high school choices this month. As a chess-tutoring, trombone-playing 7th grader who just so happens to be built like a Bears’ lineman, Danny has been a unique work in progress for many years. With a complete lack of fast-twitch muscle fibers, the kid has nonetheless enjoyed playing ice hockey and basketball. He talks about a future career in engineering or computers. He has been involved in music since he was four years old.

After a visit to his #1 choice, Chicago’s storied Mt. Carmel High School, I was dumbfounded to discover the school did not have a marching band.

Being a wife somewhat lacking in introspection and calm, I immediately attacked the object of my ire: my husband, Joe (a Mt. Carmel graduate and now Public Enemy #1).

“No marching band? NO MARCHING BAND?? You NEVER told me they didn’t have a marching band!! I feel DECEIVED! Let down! RUINED!”

The voice on the other side of the phone went silent for a moment before finally speaking up:

 “I’m sorry. I do believe you have the wrong number.”


After a 24-hour cooling down period, I realized I never explained my rationale for all the music lessons. I had just assumed my husband understood that marching band was the ultimate goal. It would be Danny’s high school clique. The cool geeks. The kids everyone saw at the football games but who didn’t actually risk traumatic brain injury.

The problem was, I never quite communicated this to my husband. Joe was never part of the nerd chic division of high school. Sure, he won the math and accounting awards, but he was cool. He looked like a Backstreet Boy with killer cheekbones and a letterman jacket.

The thought of joining marching band was as foreign to him as me entertaining becoming a cheerleader. For the record, six-feet tall girls never ever entertain becoming a cheerleader, unless the squad really needs a base.

While still licking my wounds and resigning myself to the fact that Danny might never be part of a marching band, my husband browsed the Mt. Carmel website. He then pointed out that there IS a band, they just don’t march anywhere.

“Maybe Danny can get them marching?” Joe suggested.

“Yeah, because he knows so much about formation and drills,” I muttered, defeated.

“Marianne, do you think I ever envisioned having a son who is capable of so much? He can assemble his own Christmas stuff faster and better than I can! Don’t underestimate him. If something is really important to him, Dan will make it happen.”

And just like that, Joe and I were back on the same page, believing and supporting our child on whatever path he chose.

So long as it included the occasional lateral or v-formation and a to-the-right flank.

Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

Friday, December 9, 2016

My Kind of Town, For Now

The following appears in the December edition of Chicago Parent magazine.

It began around the time we scored our third red-light camera ticket in a month. A few days later, Joe and I learned our property taxes were going up 20%. A new city garbage bill ate what was left of the kids’ college fund and we started having serious conversations about the nobility of the boys opting for a trade.

Chicago was killing us. Desperate to avoid full-blown depression and an obsession with pre-selling our marketable internal organs, I started playing my own version of Julie Andrew’s “Favorite Things.” But I wasn’t singing about raindrops on roses or warm woolen mittens. Instead, it was about escaping my own hometown.

Florida in white flip flops
with red shiny sunglasses, 
Kentucky and its lakes and 
indigenous blue grasses, 
Montana’s cheap insurance 
and natural hot springs, 
these are a few of my favorite things. 
When the private school bill comes, 
when the city stickers are due, 
when they try to make cops and firemen all seem bad, 
I simply remember the places I’ll go, 
and then I don’t feel sooooooo sad. 

It is simply astonishing that I am not a billionaire writing on Broadway.

Despite growing up in the suburbs, most of my adult life has been spent as a proud resident of the city of Chicago. I’ve been a Northsider, a Gold Coaster, and a Southsider. Before I converted to White Sox Fanaticism for marriage, I bled Cubbie blue. I hold sacred my choice of favorite deep dish pizza (Pizano’s) as well as a nostalgic love for all the free parking that once existed on Lower Wacker Drive.

Growing up, my dad used to take us to Navy Pier before it became the tourist mecca it is today. Back then, it was dark and scary and there was something almost mythical about it.

When the new Comiskey (and I won't call it anything else ever) was being built, I watched and thought they were silly to put those seats so high.

I remember the snowstorm that got Jane Byrne elected, and I remember the day Harold Washington died.

I remember it all.

When I spent a year in New York, I realized how much of a Chicagoan I truly am. I was baffled when employers sent their people home from work early in “anticipation” of snow. Wusses.

I could never figure out what the big deal was over the floppy pizza and calling pop “soda.”

Men in New York got freaking manicures.

So I went home and married a fireman. With calloused hands.

For me, Chicago is like those calloused hands. It is a hard working city with more than its fair share of bumps, bruises, and scrapes. When you look into the eyes of its people, you will often find a dichotomy. There is a strong element of fight, but also an understanding that defeat comes more often than not.

And yet many continue to battle.

Not me. I’m sick of callouses. I want well-manicured nails painted bright pink with sparkles.

Even if it means crappy pizza forever.

I love you Chicago, but there’s an expiration date on our relationship. If you really care, now is your chance to woo me.

In the meantime, you can find me on Zillow.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

October Skies, October Lies

The following appeared in the October 2015 edition of Chicago Parent. I never got around to sharing it here because I was hiding under several blankets eating Ding-Dongs with a box of Kleenex.

Gentle autumn breezes and bright seasonal foliage are supposed to be relaxing. Instead, I view them as subterfuge. People who try to market fall as the perfect season are extremely suspect (or have much better prescription drugs than I do). The worst month of them all? October.

October blows.

The enormity and pressures of October have been on a steep, nerve-racking trajectory over the last several years. When I spot that first decorative scarecrow of the season, I must fight the urge to torch the sucker. The Wicked Witch of the West got a bum rap in my book. I stand with Elphaba.

This growing aversion to what was once a childhood highpoint cannot be traced to a single annoyance or repressed memory. It is rather a cornucopia of disaster, riddled with one pitfall after the next:

The Pumpkin Patch
Before I had kids, I thought a pumpkin patch was a farm you stopped at for approximately ten minutes and picked out a couple of gourds. Rookie mistake. A visit can run you several hundred dollars for entry fees, rides, food, and (if you remember), those godforsaken pumpkins.

The only thing more pressing than the cost is the burden to capture that perfect pumpkin patch moment. I once witnessed a family arriving with a professional photographer and makeup artist in tow. Sadly, my photos chronically document one kid blinking, one kid scowling, and one kid refusing to hold still.

Epic patch fail.

Growing up in Chicago, it is understood that football is practically a religion. I am well-versed in screaming things like “Kill that guy!” or “Destroy their quarterback!” But now that I have a son playing the sport? I consider all the players just wee lads in need of some mothering and neurosis.

My new chants include “Watch out for traumatic brain injury!” and “Keep the cerebral spinal fluid intact!” My husband refuses to sit next to me and the other parents try not to make eye contact. 

With my children always too tall for age-appropriate costumes, I have been forced to peruse the Sexy Nurse/Killer Zombie rack for years.

Then there is the treat issue. My boys lobby hard to hand out candy while I prefer the safer and more inclusive route of cheap trinkets. The one time I stocked up on a year’s worth of Halloween-themed yo-yos and erasers? A notice came back from the public school requesting sensitivity towards those not celebrating the holiday.

The harder I try to get this one right, the more I screw up.

Topping things off, my favorite grandfather died in October a long time ago, but I still associate the month with my first serious loss. My husband’s mother also died at 55 on Halloween, and despite never having known her, there is not a day I wish she wasn’t here.

For me, October is the taker of warmth and destroyer of sun. No, I do not love October, but my kids sure do. So I play along. For them, I will plant the scarecrow in the front lawn. I will buy paper clips as treats. I will drop a mortgage payment at the patch. I will work my hardest not to taint them.

And I will pray they fall for it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Days of My Life

The following appears in the September edition of Chicago Parent.

A new school year.

A new set of worries.

A new set of developmental obstacles.

A new case for increasing my Xanax prescription.

Every year for the last seven, I have spent September second-guessing myself. First, there was the life-changing and soul-sucking Selective Enrollment route. The testing, waiting, deciding…it was overwhelming. Danny was fine (I bought him an ice cream cone after his exam), but I knew The Holy Grail would include a spot in one of the state’s preeminent grammar schools.

I think I locked in an ulcer during the process.

A while later, I picked up a nervous tick in choosing to send my two oldest to Catholic school. But you know. JESUS.

This year, I am leaving behind the wonderful Chicago Public School therapists and counselors who have doted on my youngest as though he was their own. They have worked with him to the point where his IEP probably wouldn’t even be re-issued if he was starting anew. He was never in better hands. Joey has been dropped off the spectrum and will now sally forth into the world with only a mild case of ADHD (or as I consider it, a mild touch of his mother’s DNA).

It will be the first time all three of my children will be attending the same school. I should be celebrating, but instead?

I’m totally verklempting.

I grew up in suburbia where there was never any doubt where kids would go for their education. Folks moved to a certain neighborhood FOR a school. There were no choices. My favorite Tab-drinking, chain-smoking moms had more time to worry about important things, like whether Marlena would finally escape the evil clutches of Stefano DiMaro.

No matter the era, geography, or pharmaceutical intervention, there will always be things to keep parents up late at night.

We worry about education. We worry about them finding friends. We worry about them finding the wrong kinds of friends. We worry about a world that is now foreign to us, steeped in social media and cyber bullying, where any slight misstep could be live-streamed on the local moms Facebook page.

My husband tells me to relax.

My mom tells me it will all be fine.

My ticks and insomnia refuse to listen.

The thing is, there is no way of knowing what decisions are more likely to result in a happy, well-rounded child. I do not have Miss Cleo’s psychic abilities. I am riding high on guts, instinct, and love.
One of my favorite times as a kid was actually watching a bit of “Days of Our Lives” with my mom. I loved the intrigue, the anguish, and the all-important cliff-hanger.

I never knew how it was going to end, but I never stopped hoping for the best.

It reminds me of parenting. Except I have not once sent a baby upstairs to nap and had him come back downstairs a gorgeous, grown-ass 20-year old man.

When I learn that trick, I will be sure to share.