The Funniest Girl in Class

Adulthood, Childhood, Coming of Age

When my parents went through the requisite empty nester minimalist purge, I was summoned to the depths of their garage, where I was instructed to sift through stacks of tattered moving boxes that contained all my childhood mementos. “I know this stuff is sentimental,” my mother explained in a very unsentimental tone. “But I can’t keep lugging it from place to place.”

The brown Mayflower boxes had been on quite the journey, traveling across no less than a dozen state lines over the last 30+ years. As my family moved so frequently during my childhood, the scratched out Sharpie labels on the sides of the cartons served as a poignant journal of my many life phases:

Barbies

Tapes

Karate trophies

Photo albums/scrapbooks

Photo albums and scrapbooks are by far the most exciting keepsakes to revisit during a storage purge. For the post-9/11 generations, images and scanned documents from one’s childhood are kept in cyber perpetuity. For the rest of us, memories are sandwiched between sticky cellophane sheets, slowly aging at the same pace as the fashion choices they contain. (Culottes. So many culottes.) Nestled beneath the photo albums were at least half a dozen yearbooks and autograph journals. I scanned the scribbled notes from classmates, amused by the hollowness of it all, e.g. “Have a great summer!” and “K.I.T. QT!”

As I continued through the messages, a common theme emerged. Between grade school, junior high, and high school, there were a lot of references to funniness — to my jokes, to the many apparent goofball memories that these pseudo-friends held deep in their hearts during the five seconds it took for them to write it all down and move onto to the next yearbook.

“You’re nutty and I love it! Stay crazy, chica!”

“I’ll always remember that one time you jumped on stage during the grad dance and rapped all the words to Coolio. That was hilarious. KIT!”

“I’ll always remember you, the funniest girl in class!”

The funniest girl in class. As I sat there, mulling over the pages of forgotten sentiment that once carried so much weight in my own validation, I realized that the funny girl quip was more than just a flippant yearbook compliment, it was a strategy, a shield, an identity.

I don’t recall the first time I got a rousing laugh from a group, but I imagine it goes way back. My parents often reminisce on how I was the chubby, smiley baby who couldn’t help but constantly coo and gurgle for fellow patrons in the restaurants and stores. And isn’t that the tale as old as time? Girl dazzles crowd with pithy one-liners to distract them from her thick thighs and rubenesque arm creases. Maybe babies in the 50th percentile can play it cool, but babies in the 99th percentile gotta work twice as hard to earn that love.

And in terms of earning love, as a young woman, there’s certainly a hierarchy of appeal. First it’s conventional beauty, then unconventional beauty (the conventional beauty who is hiding behind her bookish eyewear), then proximity to money-slash-celebrity, then about a hundred other things…and then there’s funny. In a perfect world, a group of guys would have been sitting around in the locker room, drooling over my encyclopedic knowledge of Mel Brooks films. “You know who’s really hot? That Rachel chick. She knows every line in ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and her Gilbert Gottfried impression is sexy as hell.”

Yes, I was the girl who did awesome Gilbert Gottfried impressions in the cafeteria and wondered why I didn’t have a date to homecoming. That’s fine, though. As evidenced by the aforementioned Coolio performance, I didn’t need a date to homecoming. I had nimble dancing shoes and access to a microphone.

Looking back, I acknowledge that having the loudest laugh and the quickest joke was often a defense mechanism. Fire first so no one had a chance to fire at me. Make everything a joke so that nice boy in science class couldn’t get too close. Put a snarky lid over my vulnerability so I always had the upper hand, the power, the control. I was too scared to know what people really thought of me, so I decided early on that I would make myself the quick witted funny girl, without any consideration as to how others might perceive me. 

Wielding humor in this way made me feel safe – safe from judgment, safe from betrayal, safe from disappointment. And while being told by the popular girls and the cute boys that I was the funniest girl in class wasn’t a mark of acceptance, it wasn’t a mark of rejection either.  

Yet, for all the ways that being funny shielded me from the soft, glittering, romantic experiences that many of peers enjoyed throughout adolescence, I cannot overstate the power and joy it has given me as an adult. It has made me a great storyteller, a skill that has helped me in my career as a communications professional. It has helped me make connections and forge strong relationships with the mentors, colleagues, and friends that have been by my side through some of the toughest, most grueling moments of my life. It has helped me be a better mother and wife, as being able to crack a joke or find the levity in the day-to-day challenges makes even the hardest days seem surmountable.

I’m even lucky enough to now be writing and producing comedy here in Chicago alongside two other hilarious women. We bear witness to the important role that humor plays in helping people make sense of an increasingly frustrating world. Today, being “nuttiest chica” is no longer my defense mechanism, but a key component to my empowerment and liberation.

So cheers to the funny girls. May we know them, may we raise them, may we be them. We need them now more than ever.

 

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The Most Hated Girl in Watermelon Culottes

Adulthood, career, Childhood, High School, Motherhood, Self-Help

When I was in 2nd grade, my dad signed me up for recreational soccer with the local park district. This was in the Deep South, so the rest of my girlfriends were either in Girl Scouts or were ballerinas. I, on the other hand, was the awkward girl with very thick plastic prescription goggles and a slobbery mouth guard. I was the only girl on my team, so I had to hustle and endure a bit of teasing to get ahead. But being as though I’ve always been a bit thick-skinned, the downsides to this arrangement were trumped by the euphoria of competition.

Back at school, the boys would organize soccer games on the field during recess. A kid in my class named Darius was the self-assigned captain. One day, I decided to take the skills I had learned in the community league and show them off to my male classmates. Rather quickly, I found myself head-to-head with Darius during a very dramatic scuffle for the ball. Ultimately, I maneuvered the ball away from him, he stumbled and fell, and I scored. The glory of the moment was short lived. As Darius stood up, covered in red Alabama mud, he started to scream, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU SO MUCH.” The rest of the boys glared at me. There was no acknowledgement of my awesome moves, just universal distain for the girl who ruined their game by daring to play. The bell rang and we returned to our classrooms. Just as recess had ended, so began my entrance into the world of likability politics.

Scientific research has shown that men and women are liked equally when behaving in a participatory manner, meaning collaborating and sharing in an experience. Yet, when positioned in equally authoritative positions, women are disliked far more than men. Data shows us that high-achieving women experience social backlash for simply exhibiting the very behaviors that nurture success. That’s because those behaviors, such as forcefulness and decisiveness, violate traditionally feminine attributes such as warmth, gentleness, and friendliness. Perhaps it would have been warmer, gentler, and friendlier for me to let little Darius trot around me on that soccer field, allowed to easily score while I shot sunbeams of encouragement and approachability from my eyeballs. Instead, I played fairly, Darius tripped on his own two feet, and I promptly became the most hated girl in watermelon print culottes east of the Mississippi.

And the soccer fiasco of ’91 is only one of many examples in my life where I’ve been caught between wanting to be liked and having an inherent desire to compete and lead. Between the angry letters I got at the high school newspaper office when I was the opinions editor, to the eye rolls and condescending scoffs I experienced during the fiery debates in my political science classes, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to “rub people the wrong way.” And when I tried to shake things up and be the fun, loveable girl, I was nicknamed “ponytail” at my first job out of college, which I hated much more than any of the much more crass names I had encountered when I was my more authentic, bullheaded self. Yet, turns out that “ponytail” gets invited to more meetings and gets more promotions, so that has been the identity I’ve aimed to take on over the course of the last 10 years.

The truth is, as a society, we put a premium on charisma and charm. I mean, okay — when you’re 20, shiny hair and a solid hip-to-waist ratio can go a long way in getting people on your side. But pop out a couple of kids and get some adult-onset acne and you better hope you’ve got a decent personality. That’s why I’ve smiled and played the likability game like a champ. Rational pushback is often replaced with gentile diplomacy. Confrontation is avoided at all costs. Instead, I often take on the laborious task of massaging a harsh message to ensure that the person on the other end of the phone line doesn’t feel attacked or threatened, even though they themselves are the repeat offender of the most egregious of office crimes.

Maybe Dave thinks it’s appropriate to call me five times in two hours, requesting that I do his work for him by end of day. Maybe I want to tell him that his unrelenting disrespect will no longer be tolerated. Instead, I’ll scream in my lumbar support pillow, take a deep breath, and say: “Yes, Dave, really appreciate your rigorous follow-ups and your investment in this project. Moving forward, please kindly note that we typically require a 72-hour review period on such requests. However, given these special circumstances, I will get back to you by close of business. Thanks so much.” This has been my life. Every. Day.

But an interesting revelation has begun to take shape inside of me as I’ve been pondering where I fall along the spectrum of likability. Over the years, when I’ve shirked conflict, I had always convinced myself that it was because I was actually a nice girl who didn’t like confrontation. I always assumed it was the conflict in and of itself that brought me pain. But the truth is that I’m actually a bull in a china shop, trying too hard to be the graceful nice girl. That’s really where the dissonance lies. Likability is a tool I’ve been using to get ahead — because I know it will make me more palatable, not because it’s right or rewarding or even the most effective way to operate in the world.

Some of the women I admire most are the least conventionally “likable” people. Authors Roxane Gay and Lindy West are both prolific feminist writers, thinkers, and internet troll destroyers. They speak truth to power without apology, all the while knowingly alienating thousands of “haters” who think they should mind their mouths and stay in their place. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another renowned feminist writer who I deeply admire, once addressed young female writers, saying:
“Society teaches young girls the idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable…and if you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”

This is great advice not just for young girls, but for all of us who want to occupy our space in the world with not just grace and charisma, but with honesty and authenticity. I still struggle with this daily. But as I reflect on that time when I put myself out there with all those boys on the soccer field, motivated only by the same love for the sport that they had, I think about my own daughter, who also happens to be 8 years old. If she came to me today and asked me if she should join the boys on the soccer field, even in the face of the very real chance that she could get teased or even screamed at, I would tell her to go for it, every time.

And that’s my litmus test. If I expect my own daughter to live her life authentically, then I should expect it for myself. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather like who I am and exist in that space alone, then to barter my truth in exchange for being liked by everyone else.

That’s my honest story and I’m sticking to it.

Look for the Helpers

Adulthood, Community, Outreach

As performed at the Telling Our Stories: Speak Hope, Show Love event in Oak Brook, IL on February 23, 2017.

When I was a little girl, I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood every day. My mom would turn on our clunky old TV and I’d watch him singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as he walked through the doorway, heading to his sweater closet. Do you guys remember the sweaters? He had one every color of the rainbow – each with a zipper up the front. He’d remove his stodgy navy blazer and replace it with a sweater, then sit down on his bench and take off his loafers, replacing them with sneakers. It wasn’t until he had that sweater and those sneakers on that he would be able to do anything else for the day — usually feeding his goldfish, going to the crayon factory, or teaching us how pretzels were made. He taught me so much. In fact, every day when I get home from work, the first thing I do is rip off my bra and kick off my heels. Gotta get comfortable before you do anything else. So no bra, no heels. That’s all you, Mr. Rogers.

Given the ubiquity of Mr. Rogers in the lives of Gen Xers  and older Millennials, it’s no wonder that even now, 14 years after his death, whenever our country is going through tough times, his spirit resurfaces. You may have noticed that during some recent incidents like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing, the same Mr. Rogers quote always seems to goes viral: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

Look for the helpers. 


Certainly, viewing the world through this lens is impactful in two ways. First, it moves the focus from the negative to the positive. Anyone active on social media is familiar with a common, rather colorful descriptor for the state of our country’s current affairs, which is that we are living in a “dumpster fire.” What would Fred Rogers tell us in the age of this proverbial dumpster fire? He’d tell us to look for the people on the sidelines, passing buckets of water to douse the flames, carting away the rubble, ready to rebuild.

Second, it addresses humanity’s natural impulse to mobilize and respond in the face of injustice. This innate desire to fix problems keeps us from falling down the rabbit hole of hopelessness and despair. It’s an emotional safeguard that reminds us that all is not lost, no matter how bad things seem at the moment. It reassures us that redemption is always possible.

Mr. Rogers’ “look for the helpers” philosophy was originally intended to appeal to the natural optimism and empathy that exists within children, as a way to comfort and soothe them. Looking for the positive, finding ways to help – these are things that I see exhibited by my own children every day. But for me at age 33? I am as cynical as they come. I see dumpster fires flaming up in every direction, but instead of just rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, I find myself curled up in fetal position on my bed at night, my mind racing through an overwhelming list of all the enormous issues that need to be fixed immediate: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, arachnophobia, robophobia. 

Yes, in case you didn’t get the memo, spiders and robots are going to rise up and destroy us all. 

This is just a small sampling the mental rollercoaster I put myself through every night before I drift off to sleep. Perhaps some of you can relate. The world is hurting. We want to help. We want to make Mr. Rogers proud – yet, it feels nearly impossible to even know where to begin.

Amy Poehler has an organization called Smart Girls at the Party, which is an online community for young girls interested in activism. Their motto is “Change the world by being yourself.” Very Mr. Rogers-esque, right? Of course, those of us who are cynical know that, on a tactical level, that motto is a bit simplistic. Change the world by being yourself? Like, I can’t just sit at home being witty, and stylish, and fabulous and expect that to solve world hunger.

But, to their point, I can take my unique skills and perspectives and channel them into real, ground-level impacts. For example, I am passionate about career readiness, like having a sharp resume or strong interviewing skills. Maybe I can take those passion points and use them to empower another young person looking for employment in a tough job market. I love writing and public speaking. Maybe there is another woman out there who has a story to tell but doesn’t have a platform or venue. Maybe I can help her with that.

So what are your skills and passion points? Where are there needs in your own community where you could bring real value? As easy as it is to feel overwhelmed by the broad needs of our brothers and sisters across the globe, it is important to keep in mind that no one is being called to fix all the world’s problems alone, or in a single day – or a single lifetime, for that matter. We are called to address the needs of our immediate neighbors. Maybe that means something major, like dismantling systemic racism or smashing the patriarchy in one clean sweep. Or, more realistically, it requires that we start by simply recognizing the inherent value in all people, and acting in small but significant ways to acknowledge that humanity. 

For example, I was recently introduced to Breakthrough Ministries in Chicago’s East Garfield Park. This amazing organization is committed to empowering adults and youth to achieve self-sufficiency and break the cycle of poverty. Volunteers help across a wide range of needs, including tutoring students after school, coaching a recreational youth basketball team, helping a young family get settled into a new home, cooking meals and dining with transitional housing tentants, the list goes on. In my case this past week, I was able to join 20+ women in gathering feminine products for other women who are living on the streets or simply struggling to get by financially month-to-month.

So as we look for the helpers, are they the people dominating the CNN ticker on the bottom of your TV screen? Is it the person with the loudest megaphone or the largest social media platform? Or are they the individuals in the periphery, with their sleeves rolled up, passing the water buckets?

Mr. Rogers once said that life is the greatest mystery of any millennium and that we need to do whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own, by treating our neighbor at least as well as we treat ourselves. We all have only one life to live on earth and we have the choice of encouraging others to either demean this life or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.

So when I look for the helpers, I’m looking at all of us. And today, I’m rolling up my sleeves.

Pass me a bucket.


 

Desperately Seeking Solidarity

Motherhood, Parenthood, Uncategorized

As performed live on December 11 at Christ Church of Oak Brook, IL, as part of the “Advent: Questions of Christmas” series. Inspired by Luke 1:39-45, aka the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth.

I had my first child when I was 25. I was not ready. Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “No one’s REALLY ready to have a baby.” Well, believe me when I tell you, I was REALLY not ready. Just earlier that year, I had accidentally brushed my teeth with the same toothbrush I used to clean the shower grout. 

So there I was at 25, thrust from my life as a fuzzy-brained 20-something to a fuzzy-brained mother. 

One thing I quickly learned as a first-time mom is that EVERYONE is invested in other people’s parenting choices. Everyone has a position on everything – parents, in-laws, grandparents, friends, strangers on the internet, strangers in the Target checkout line. In my case, the well-intended suggestions quickly produced the inverse effect. I fell head-first down the rabbit hole of self-doubt and fear, another victim of public opinion. “You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong” I would repeat to myself. I knew I was doing it wrong because “they” told me so. 

At 25, holding the little baby I was trying really hard not to break.

On a rather frigid day, the baby and I made the brave trek to the mall. As we maneuvered around the pretty handbags, I started to feel like myself again. “How old is she?” a saleswoman asked as she peered into the stroller. “Six weeks,” I replied proudly as I looked at her rosy little face.  

“You know, you’re not supposed to take the baby out into public before eight weeks,” she said, snidely. “She could get sick.” 

You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong. The chant of disapproval roared through my head as I escaped the counter and rushed to the women’s restroom. My daughter could always sense my sadness and she began to cry. I frantically nursed her, my own hot tears dropping down onto her soft little head. 

Moments later, another young mother clumsily pushed her stroller into the lounge and plopped down on the opposite bench. As she lifted her screaming baby out of the mound of blankets, our eyes met. We exchanged strained smiles. “This is like, the third time I’ve had to nurse him since I’ve been here,” she said. “Why don’t we get their metabolism?” 

I let out a cackle. The joke was pretty weak but to me in that moment, she might as well have been Steve Martin. 

“How old is your baby?” she asked. 

“She’s six weeks,” I replied, timidly. 

“Wow, six weeks?” she replied.

I braced for the condemnation that would never come. 

“That’s awesome. I bet she’s going to be super well-behaved when she’s older,” she said as she stuck a pacifier in her baby’s mouth and tucked him back into the stroller. “You’re doing a great job.” 

You’re doing a great job. You’re doing a great job. It repeated in my head over and over again, effectively muting the ugly naysaying that had invaded that space for weeks.

“Thank you,” I managed to call out as she backed out of the room. 

She didn’t hear me, but her words stayed in my head. They helped carry me through the coldest winter I can remember. 

That little baby of mine is now eight years old and I’ve since had another child. All my friends are just now starting to have children, making me the old veteran. Some days I feel the urge to dispense sage advice but the memory of that woman always gives me pause, reminding me of the power of a few simple words of encouragement. Of a gentle joke. And of a warm smile. 

As we reflect on the story of Mary and Elizabeth, two women carrying the load of unthinkable pressure and responsibility, may we recognize the impact of their humility as they shared in that experience so long ago. Empathy and solidarity really do have the power to change lives, whether in Judea 2,000 years ago, or eight years ago in a department store bathroom.

You can view the companion sermon, “Why Am I So Favored?” from the fabulous Tracey Bianchi here. 

A Wedding Toast to My Little Sister and Her Husband

Adulthood, Family, Marriage, Sisterhood

As presented at their wedding reception on May 20, 2016, in Wheaton, IL

So I’ve known Stephanie for a long time. We’re talking way back in the day. In fact, I remember the first time we met. Remember that, Steph? It was a hot summer day in New England, 1988. I was wearing this ill-fitting New Kids on the Block t-shirt and pink jelly sandals. And you were wearing a cotton onesie that, frankly, did nothing for your thighs. 


I had been excited for months and months over your arrival but man, you were just so emotional back then. You cried so easily. Mom called it “colic” but c’mon. It’s not colic when it lasts for 27 years. I’m just kidding! This is your wedding day — crying is natural. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of debilitating terror as the weight of the day’s commitments begin to sink in.

Bottom line: marriage is a big deal. But John and you know that. I mean, how can you not? From the moment you became engaged, you’ve had a steady stream of advice from well-meaning friends and strangers about the “secrets” to matrimonial bliss. And really, few things are more gratifying to married people than dispensing unsolicited advice to unmarried people. We love it. It’s almost as fun as spending an entire Saturday together at the Tile Outlet picking out a new kitchen back splash. Almost.

Some advice you may have already heard:

“Talk less, listen more.”
“Don’t go to bed angry.”
“Always squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube.”
“Get an ironclad pre-nup.”

But seriously, between dating, marriage, parenthood, and everything in between, the effects of all this advice has to be taking its toll. We truly live in an advice-happy society. And though it comes from a place of love and concern, too much advice starts forming in your life these markers for success that only force you to compare your relationship against someone else’s standards.

Are you fighting correctly? Are you talking and listening to one another correctly? Are you going on enough date nights, saying I love you enough, holding hands enough? And if this person that you chose to marry just CANNOT figure out how to use a tube of Colgate correctly, is your marriage doomed forever?

I don’t know, guys. That’s up to you and you alone. Hopefully your attitude towards toothpaste is more fluid than that. But I’m not here to unpack all of that for you tonight. I don’t think you need me, a person who has been married for less than a decade, to give you any more advice than I already have.

Because when I look at you guys, all I see is mutual love and respect. All that lovey dovey stuff from 1 Corinthians – patience, kindness, humility, honesty, faithfulness – you have that in spades. You don’t have to be having the “correct” amount of date nights to enjoy these things. It’s here in your heart, and in your mind, and in all the people here tonight that get the privilege of being part of your life together.

Tonight, you’re going to feel overwhelmed by all these people who came here to celebrate you. The drinks, the music, the photos, all of the lovely details are going to soak right into you and you won’t believe the joy you feel over all these tangible things that have come together so perfectly. But when you take the time to really marvel at the precise timing of when you two first came together – well, that’s the real miracle. John, you came into Stephanie’s life when she really needed you – when we all needed you. Life was tricky and confusing there for a while. But that’s because our puzzle wasn’t complete. It wasn’t complete until we had our Johno piece.

You guys each found “your person.” Now just take care of your person in the ways that work best for the two of you. That’s the only advice I have for you.

Love to you both, tonight, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life together.

Cheers.

 

Fear and Loathing in Parenthood

Adulthood, Childbirth, Mother's Day, Motherhood, Parenthood, Uncategorized, Working Mom

Once, during a meeting at work, my manager was assessing potential cross-training opportunities across the team. Did we all know how to process purchase orders? Fill out a creative brief? Change the toner in the printer? “After all,” he said. “One of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” The team nodded in agreement. “Right,” I chimed in. “I mean, have you seen the way these bus drivers push their way through traffic and run all the yellow lights? Sooner or later someone is going to get smashed.” The rest of the team just blinked at me. Perhaps it had never occurred to them that death is imminent. Perhaps they never really considered their mortality. But the truth was that my boss was right. By dusk, half of us could have been swept up into the heavens by The Rapture and then what? That toner was not going to change itself. 

I’ve always had a slightly heightened awareness of potential disaster compared to my peers. Fear of severe weather, knife wielding cat burglars, and clowns crept into my psyche at night. (Their smiles are painted on, I once explained to my parents. PAINTED ON.) But the fears of my youth could not match what I experienced once I became a mother. Not coincidentally, those blinking co-workers were nearly all childfree and therefore ready to seize any chance to ski down a mountain, dive out of a plane, or ride an evil rickshaw of doom (i.e., rollercoaster). I used to love riding rollercoasters. I used to enjoy the feeling of taking off and landing in a 757. I used to ride the elevator without reading the legally-required maintenance report posted above the buttons. But that was back when I didn’t have two little children at home. Things are different now. I thought about this seismic shift as I considered about what I should write about for Mother’s Day. I thought about all the ways that parenthood has changed me. What struck me initially were the typical parenting themes we always talk about – joy, exhaustion, pride, self-doubt. But what about real fear? This anxiety I’m talking about is the kind that makes you keenly aware of every bump of turbulence, every rattle of the elevator walls, and generates all those extra seconds of added hesitation before you pull into an intersection. It’s the fear of death. Of your own death, your partner’s death, or, God forbid, the death of your children. I don’t know if this is all just my own issues or if the fear comes standard for everyone who has ever had a baby. What I do know is that we don’t talk about it very much. And I feel it every day, when I’m kissing my kids goodbye in the morning or when I’m reading about a tragedy in the news at night.

 When it comes down to it, what really scares me is that no matter how much I try to make smart choices on behalf of my children and try to control their environment, I know that absolute control is an illusion. I can’t control physics. I can’t control whether a gunman enters the movie theater or if a trucker falls asleep at the wheel as he barrels down the interstate. I can’t control the weather and I can’t control homicidal cat burglars in the middle of the night.

 The only thing I can control is how many times I say “I love you” to my kids when we’re together. I can control the amount of patience I exhibit after a stressful work day and a disastrous attempt at a bedtime routine. I can control the example that I set for them in my marriage and in the way I interact with strangers on the street. I can control the way I talk about my faith, dreams, and values — and how I pass those things down to them.

 Because yes, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and then the only thing that will matter will be the type of person I was today.

 And that’s what scares me the most.

Squats, Bends, and Pretzels: A Field Guide to Swimsuit Shopping

Adulthood, Body Acceptance, Coming of Age, Motherhood, Self-Help, Self-Image, Uncategorized

Swimsuit season is upon us. It is like Christmas for wellness-based pyramid schemes and women’s publications who ponder year after year: “What Lycra monstrosity should you deign to wear on your flawed, Rubenesque body?” I have been hyper-cognizant of swimsuit season ever since I was an adolescent coming of age in South Florida, where every day is summer and you are always minutes away from an awkward pool party thrown by some classmate named Tommy who wears too much Ck One and thinks your thighs are offensive. In those days, I wore decorative one-piece suits hand-selected by my mother. Among my favorite looks are:

  • A nautical-themed navy blue suit with Looney Tunes characters climbing an anchor up to my burgeoning bosom. Tweety smiled excitedly as if to say, “Look, she’ll be a woman soon!”
  • A red and white striped Speedo suit designed precisely to emphasize how un-athletic my build was. While swimmers have broad muscular shoulders and narrow torsos to cut through the water, my curvy body bobbed like a buoy in a rip tide as I doggy paddled across the shallow end.  
  • A neon green suit. Neon. It was neon. Look at this photo of starlet Esther Williams and then imagine the opposite of that, which is me in a neon green suit at any age. 

                      
 Yes, I’ve long since shed any illusions around swimsuit season and the body politics of summer. Over the last 20 years of agonizing swimwear selection, I’ve sported one pieces, two pieces, halter tops, board shorts, and everything in between – including maternity swimwear. And it doesn’t really matter how empowered you are, going through the trial and error process of buying the perfect swimsuit is maddening and can severely erode your sense of self faster than you can say “Why am I shopping for swimsuits at Burlington Coat Factory?”

 And so, with that, I have sketched out a comprehensive field guide to selecting a new swimsuit this season.

 STEP ONE: Get forced into shopping for a swimsuit by some impending event. You will put this off until about 48-72 hours before said event, adding extra stress to the experience. Oh, you’re going to wedding? A wedding in Florida where you will be renting an Airbnb on the beach? An Airbnb that is being shared with some old high school friends who think you’re 20 pounds skinnier based on some savvy Instagram filtering? Great. Get excited.STEP TWO: Maybe you have two kids and you have to take them with you on this excursion because you didn’t properly plan. Perfect! This is an opportunity to teach your 7-year-old daughter about body acceptance – which is to say, accepting that she and her brother destroyed your stomach. LOOK AT THIS WEIRD SKIN POUCH, you’ll say to them under the unforgiving lights of the fitting room. YOU GUYS DID THIS TO ME. Feel guilty for misplacing this rage, you proceed to buy them soft pretzels. Okay, you bought one for yourself too. At this point, what difference does it make? All hope for a Sofia Vergara sexy summer is gone. Briefly consider a swim skirt. Realize you’ve been sitting in the food court, staring angrily into space for 15 minutes now.STEP THREE: Enter store that only sells swimsuits. The people who work at this store are swimsuit experts and are ready to match you with the right pieces. You know how fun it is to go to a department store where little old ladies fit you for a bra and tell you how “sturdy” you are while leading you to the full coverage section? This will be super fun, just like that. But, instead of using a tape measure, they will use a system of fruit shapes to determine your best fit. Are you a pear like your Aunt Kathy? An apple like Danny DeVito? A shapeless banana like that shell-of-a-person Sarah who laughed at your Looney Tunes suit at Tommy’s pool party? She’ll be at the wedding too. Your jaw sets with determination. It is decided that you are an hourglass (not a fruit, this is a terribly flawed system) — and not in the Rita Hayworth way. Hourglass in the way that your boobs and hips are just incredibly large and your waist just hasn’t had the opportunity to catch up. The clerk hands you some suits with way more strategic ruching than Rita ever needed. Your stretched out gut tells you that The One is in this pile. It’s all happening. STEP FOUR: First one goes on. It has a bunch of shimmery, textured details. You appreciate the diva factor, but your “hourglass” torso looks like a Koosh Ball dipped in glitter. Next one goes on. It is a strapless suit that comes with convertible straps. You begin the initial squat and bend test. First observation: strapless suits are like an open cup handed to a toddler. One wrong move and it all spills out and the day is ruined. Second observation: squatting and bending in front of a mirror while wearing an ill-fitting suit is the ultimate expression of self-loathing. Also, squatting and bending is only the beginning of the practical swimsuit wearing experience. What if you are going to a water park and your kid wants you to go on the lazy river? It’s all fun and games until you’ve placed her on the inner tube and then you have to get up on the tube yourself and the damn thing keeps slipping out from under your butt, you snort in a bunch of chlorinated water, and bark and flail like an injured sea lion trying to get up on a rock while your child floats away in horror. Very hard to test that in a fitting room.Okay, final one goes on. It is a smoking hot black number, perfectly hugging your curves. Now, twenty years later, you finally look like Esther Williams. You look at the price tag – $150. You bristle because you know you will pay. You will take out a second mortgage to pay for the world’s most expensive swimsuit if it means being done with this process, if it means looking fine for the full 15 minutes you’ll spend at the beach during this wedding trip, if it means going another 12 – 18 months without having to squat in front of a mirror again.

 “Wow, Mommy, you look beautiful,” your angel child will say to you. She is sweet, but she also wants an ice cream cone from the place next door. As you pay for your suit, you think about how she can eat soft pretzels and ice cream without a second thought about how it might impact her body or her clothes. In fact, she already has her swimsuit selected.

A neon one-piece.

Early Dismissal

Mother's Day, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Working Mom

As performed live by Rachel Pokay at Listen to Your Mother in Chicago on May 1, 2016. And yes, this really happened. 

On a particularly hectic Thursday afternoon at my marketing job, I sat in my ergonomic swivel chair, barking corporate jargon into a phone headset so hot from overuse that my left ear was actually burning. I was leading a project so convoluted and mind-numbing that I was having nightmares about it almost every night. The call ended with me committing to an impossible deadline, as usual, and I began to prep myself for another long evening.

As I stretched my arms and guzzled the last of my extra-large coffee, I could hear my phone buzzing in my purse. It had been going off repeatedly for the last 30 minutes, but up to this point, I had successfully ignored it.  But, like a hungry baby, my iPhone would not be ignored. It buzzed so persistently that I was finally forced to acknowledge it. Then, I saw the notification that no parent wants to see – three missed calls from my daughter’s school.

Dozens of very rational scenarios raced through my head: Scarlett fever! No, Jihadi insurgents! No, a freak winter snow tornado! As I flipped through my mental rolodex of neurosis, the phone rang again. I picked it up on the first ring and yelled into the receiver: “THIS IS RACHEL, IS THIS EVA’S SCHOOL?”  I am not cool in a crisis.  “Hi, this is Eva’s school. Today was early dismissal and no one was there to get her at the bus stop. She is here in the office waiting to be picked up. But don’t worry, everything’s okay.”

“LIAR!” I wanted to scream. Everything was NOT okay. While I was busy committing to work I couldn’t deliver on, my little 7-year-old daughter was sitting alone on an office bench, wondering why everyone forgot about her. I was failing, like those stone cold working mom caricatures on TV. You know the ones – running around Manhattan in kitten heels, wheeling and dealing while Little Timmy sings a sad solo at the Christmas pageant.  

And then, something happened. I started to cry. And I don’t mean soft, delicate tears. I’m talking ugly, snot-nosed, donkey-in-a-steel-trap sobs. It came on embarrassingly strong, without warning. A male colleague peered curiously at me as he casually strolled by, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and holding a cup of microwavable ramen. “GET BENT!” I wanted to yell at his dumb face and his dumb soup. His delicious, warm, savory soup. Dammit, not only had I forgotten my daughter, I had forgotten to eat lunch.  The sobs deepened.

Ramen

And then, another thing happened. I peed myself. Not only had I forgotten my daughter and my lunch break, I had also forgotten to go to the bathroom all day. And, after two babies, one episiotomy, and zero Kegel exercises, my entire pelvic region is basically a big, broken water balloon. I was crying so hard I was peeing, and as a result I found myself standing in the middle of an office I had worked so hard for, soaked in urine, wet mascara, and crippling guilt.

water balloon

For a moment, I considered whether Sheryl Sandberg’s kids were ever deserted at the bus stop. Of course not. Sheryl Sandberg’s kids don’t even take public transportation! They travel by way of Google-powered space unicorns or something. Eventually I composed myself, arranged for my husband to pick her up, and I headed home. As I sat in traffic, ready for a glass of wine and a change of clothes, my mind was flooded with every think piece about working moms that had ever been written:

“They’re only young once, you can pick up your career later.”

And

“Don’t take your foot off the gas! If you take a break from work, you’ll never get that momentum back.”

And

“Don’t cry in the office, it makes you look emotionally volatile.”

And

“Don’t pee on yourself in public.”

But most of all, I thought about my daughter. I envisioned her crestfallen face as she pulled up to the corner and saw nobody there. Was it just a harmless mistake? Or something worse that I won’t realize until she’s 25 and in therapy?

As I pulled into the driveway, I saw her silhouette dancing around in the living room. As I came through the front door, she smothered me with hugs. I crouched down and said “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you this afternoon.” Our eyes locked and I searched for signs of repressed trauma and resentment. Instead, they brightened as she wrapped her arms around my neck.

“That’s okay, Mommy. You’re here now.”

In my bag, I heard my work phone buzzing. But this time, I happily ignored its call. Everything I needed to know at that moment had already been said.  

Eva Rachel dismissal

Recalibration

Family, Mornings, Motherhood, Parenthood, Working Mom

After the relentless five-day grind of the work week, I fall into my Saturdays like a warm down comforter. It exists as this glorious standalone entity – the laborious days before it seems to dissolve into oblivion and I pay no mind to Sunday. For Sunday is the day before Monday, and therefore is the most foreboding of all the days. And so, Saturdays are sacred.

For some people, Saturdays are about laughs with friends, concerts, rock climbing, and water sports — at least that’s what I’ve gathered from every beer commercial I’ve ever seen. And then there are others who spend Saturday eating things off toothpicks at Costco or pulling weeds from the cracks in the driveways of their starter homes. But for me, Saturday falls somewhere between jet skis and Costco meatballs. It’s about slowing down, clearing the to-do list, and recalibrating my lens.

All week, I am rushing, rushing, rushing – to work, to rehearsal, to an endless barrage of red lights and road construction during rush hour. And as I rush around, my children slowly become myopic figures in a picture of cluttered obligations. On Saturday, when my kids storm my bedroom at sunrise, I rub the sleep from my eyes and watch their faces sharpen while the rest of the world blurs in their wake. There are no conference calls or deadlines to steal my attention on Saturday.

On those Saturdays in which I’m feeling particularly fresh and maternal, I’ll commit to taking the kids to the park. “Who wants to go to the playground?” I exclaimed in my SUV one such Saturday, watching the kids’ faces light up in the rearview mirror. The words escaped my lips before I considered warmer alternatives like, “Who wants to lie on the couch and watch Mind of a Chef all afternoon?” It was February in Chicago, so the ground was frozen solid and the wind had a substantial bite to it. Of course, to children, this is of no consequence; their warm blood makes them tiny little space heaters that can play tag in below-freezing temperatures for a very long time before suddenly realizing that Midwestern winters actually suck.

We parked at the playground and I was very happy to see the place empty. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just that while I’m recalibrating my life lens, I don’t want to have to passive aggressively correct someone else’s kid when they try climbing up the slide while my kid is sliding down. Like, don’t be a snot-nosed tyrant when I’m trying to harness my chi, you know? So there we were in this empty park, the sky a bright, saturated blue, the trees bare and cold-looking, my two in-focus children giggling on the swing set as I took snapped photos.

This is what being a parent is all about, I thought to myself. A whimsical weekend with the kids, making it count. This was work-life balance and I was nailing it.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car pull into the parking lot. Shit, I thought. Other people. Now I can’t take a “Having fun with the kids!” selfie without looking like an idiot. It was a minivan with a variety of school bumper stickers adorning its rear window. Surely it would be packed to the gills with kids, cold and flu strains, and a couple of dogs. Instead, only a woman in her 30s slid out. She had the Suburban Mom aesthetic down – brassy blonde hair with smidge of dark roots grown in. Her skinny jeans were tucked into UGGs and she held a Starbucks cup identical to the one in my hand. She grabbed her coat from the backseat, which I saw filled with empty booster seats. I waited for the dogs – maybe she was taking them for a walk on the nature trail – but she slid the door shut and walked over to a nearby bench alone.

“Push me, Mommy!” my daughter yelled from her swing. I kept the woman in the corner of my eye as I gave the kids another push. Who voluntarily sits in nature if they don’t have their kids or dogs along to frolic in the winter air, I thought. That’s not whimsical. That’s just weird. Then, I watched her pull out a pack of cigarettes and smack them into her palm. She drew out one, placed it between her lips, and lit it with a match. Entranced, I watched her inhale deeply, close her eyes, and blow the smoke into the same golden sunlight that was blanketing our day of family fun.

Here we were, two women sitting 50 feet from one another in the quiet epicenter of the suburban sprawl. On the surface, we appeared to be doing two completely opposite things. But, as I sat there watching her smoke that cigarette with the same determined focus as that of an artist painting her masterpiece, it occurred to me that we were doing the same thing.

Recalibrating.

While my grueling work week tried its damnedest to relegate my family to fuzzy background of my mind’s eye, perhaps her days of car lines, dinner prep, and field trips had done the same – but in her case, maybe it was she who had become a blur. And isn’t that the perpetual cycle of parenthood? A tricky balance between the needs of self and the needs of everything (and everyone) else? Most days it’s a constant exercise in zooming in and zooming out, and every once in a while – if only for 15 minutes – it all lines up.  Sometimes it takes a Saturday trip to the park, and sometimes it takes a secret pack of Marlboros.  In the end, though, we’re all just trying to make it work.

As my swing-pushing hands grew cold and the kids’ teeth began to chatter, we began the slow trudge back to the car. Their whiny protests echoed off the trees as I buckled them into their car seats, and I felt my shoulders tense in anticipation of the cranky drive ahead. As I walked back around to the driver side, I exchanged passing glances with the woman before she got into her van. We drove off in opposite directions, headed to the same place.

saturday morning.jpg

 

If Woody Allen Starred in Twister

Childhood, Family, Weather

“If you don’t get on that microphone and tell everyone that a tornado is coming, there could be catastrophic consequences,” I shrieked to the receptionist at my office, one dark and stormy weekday afternoon. “No one’s told me to make any announcements,” she replied, flipping through a magazine.“I AM. I am telling you that this is serious!” My voice shook with fear as the clouds outside turned black and began to climb higher into the atmosphere. My eyes darted west to east across the huge skyscraper windows. That’s the direction the storm is moving, I thought to myself. Which corner of the building should I shuttle associates to in order to save them from a gory death of shattered debris? No storm alarms were going off outside, but I knew crisis was imminent.

“Rachel, you’re hysterical!” laughed one of my co-workers. I stared at her with wild eyes – hysterical with fear, yes. Hysterical, as in funny because I was a nervous wreck, was probably what she meant. Either way, I did not appreciate her observation and left her to be swept up into the ravaging winds that would certainly come. The storm began to rage, flashes of lightening and torrential rain wrapped our 40-floor building. Men from the engineering department stood at the window, pressing their foreheads against the glass. They looked down at the flash flooding below, showing very little respect for the force of nature that was surely going to kill us all.

“You guys are not God!” I squeaked, forcing a laugh so they wouldn’t think I was a total freak on the off-chance that we didn’t die and had to come to work the next day. “Maybe we should move away from the windows.” One of the guys asked me what my deal was. My deal? My deal?! My DEAL was that we were under a tornado warning in a tall building, and the only way I could keep from vomiting or peeing my pants was to pace the floor and spit dramatic one-liners to everyone in my wake. Like in the movie Twister, but with Woody Allen instead of Helen Hunt. That’s what it’s like to ride out severe weather with me. 

 

It all started when I was six years old. My family moved down to Alabama from New Hampshire over Christmas break in the middle of kindergarten, a month after the tornado of 1989 wreaked havoc through our new home, Madison County. To acquaint me with our new community, my parents took me and my baby sister on a scenic drive. Nice idea, right? NO, not when houses on that route had been reduced to rubble, and all of the pretty trees on the hillside were flattened like toothpicks. I stared out my window, mouth agape, dazzled and horrified by the impact of this new “tornado” thing I was learning about. “Do you think a tornado will ever come back?” I asked my mom. I don’t remember what she said, but knowing my mom, it was something along the lines of “Probably.”

Fast forward a couple months to kindergarten naptime. I don’t think kindergartners have naptime anymore, but I remember loving those plastic mats that smelled like Clorox and lemon juice. This was in 1990, when many teachers in the south still paused before and after lunch for “prayer or quiet reflection.” As thunder rumbled in the distance, I said a little prayer as I dropped down onto that smelly mat and tried to close my eyes. It had been a particularly trying day. In my opinion, we had spent way too much time working through the “th” sound – like, try to keep up, you guys – so I was eager to get some sleep. 

Just as I dozed off to the sounds of a Peter, Paul, and Mary record, a loud POP sound hit the window above my head. I shot up and looked outside – it was dark as night and a rock had been picked up by the wind and cracked the class. “TORNADO!” I yelled, panicking. All the kids around me who had spent 1% of the mental energy I had on severe weather looked at me very confused.

Our teacher urged us to remain calm. “What’s that sound?” cried one of the little girls near me. It’s a tornado, and it’s going to make this building flat, I wanted to say. But I was too petrified with fear to speak. Sure enough, a voice over the loud speaker instructed us to line up and proceed to the hallway. As we all crouched down on the floor with our hands cradling our heads, I began to sob uncontrollably. “Mommy! Mommy! I want my MOOOOOMMMMMMY,” I yelled. My teacher, probably regretting her decision to take in the neurotic Yankee kid, handed me a wad of toilet paper to wipe my nose. My terror then set off a chain reaction of crying kids.

“What’s going to happen?” the boy next to me asked to no one in particular. I raised my elbow and peered over at him and said, “The tornado is going to make this building flat.” It felt good to finally say it aloud, as if welcoming the concept of death like a little H.P. Lovecraft. We then cried together as the miserable scene continued to play out. I called out for my mom again and again. “Your mommies and daddies are not coming right now,” said my teacher, who, looking back on it now, was kind of an asshole.

Well, little did I know that my mom, also new to tornado etiquette, LEFT our apartment and drove to the school to get me while the sirens blared outside. Like a slow motion airport love scene in an 80s movie, she walked down the dark hallway, covered in mud, while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played over the speakers. At that point, I’m sure my teacher just wished we’d move back to New England. Incidentally, ever since then, I have expected my mom to come save me during every severe storm. It’s not really her thing 25 years later, but I still text and call her in unbridled panic every time there’s a warning. It’s probably pretty grating at this point.

Close calls happened over and over again during our 6 years in Alabama. Most notably was the time my mom was picked my sister and me up from school, driving directly into a wall cloud. “It’s just rain,” my mom said, ignoring all the years of meteorological training I had given her as the Weather Channel’s number one fan. No, no, it was not RAIN. It was the beginnings of a funnel cloud spiraling above our heads as we dashed from my mom’s sedan to a small roadside church for protection. I ran behind her with my black flute case above my head to deflect the hail. Yes, a concert flute was my only defense against Mother Nature’s fury, quite possibly the nerdiest way to die. Imagine me in pinstripe overalls, screaming in terror above the howling wind with a flute above my head, and understand my childhood.

Today, I suffer from what fear experts call lilapsophobia. Some might suggest that I am co-opting a real disorder, but I assure you this is not true. I literally go to the bathroom every three minutes during severe storm warnings, just like your old stinky dog who is afraid of thunder.

And what happened after my office meltdown? A tornado actually did touch down a few miles away. It was strong enough to knock down some trees, put out power, and flood local streets for two days. So who was the crazy one? Well, still me, probably. But one day a tornado is going to make your house flat and I’ll be safe and dry in an underground bunker, rocking around in fetal position, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary.