Thursday, August 30, 2012

Whatever the Case May Be

Someone should write a manual for dating a man with children. I would offer to write it myself, but I’m simply not qualified, even though I dated a man with children for years, and even married that man. But while we were dating, I maneuvered through the process like a teenage boy with greasy popcorn hands, trying to get to second base in a crowded movie theater. Let’s just say it was a pretty awkward time.

When I began dating my husband Tim years ago, his children were very young, shell-shocked by their parent’s divorce. I handled the situation by setting expectations early: I was not applying to be a substitute mother. My goal was to make it clear to the kids that they had, and would always have, a mother and a father who loved them, and I was simply an extra adult that would be there to support and protect them if they needed it.

My early relationship with my stepdaughter Stephanie was challenging to say the least. When I came onto the scene, Stephanie was in preschool, and she wasn't up for a new woman in her life. For starters, she was confused about her parent’s situation, and, like all other normal kids, wanted her parents to get back together. I was confused as well. When I was around Stephanie, she would usually greet me with a dark-eyed scowl. But sometimes, she would invite me to play Barbies, or help serve her ice cream. Because it was all over the place, I was always slightly on edge around Stephanie. I worried that we would never connect. I wondered if she would smother me in my sleep. I had nightmares that she was chasing me with a butcher knife with ice cream dripping off of it. As ridiculous as it sounds, even though she was just a little girl, Stephanie terrified me.

When Stephanie was in first grade, she became a Girl Scout Daisy. One weekend when the kids were at Tim's, the Girl Scout troop meeting was a nature hike at a local park. Tim, always encouraging my relationship with both of his children, suggested that I take Stephanie. At the time, I would have rather eaten live earthworms. I had never attended a Girl Scout meeting in my life, and wasn't sure I wanted to start by going with a kid who barely tolerated my presence. But I was eager to work on my relationship with Stephanie, so I accepted the challenge.

Sensing that losing my Girl Scout meeting virginity would leave me in no shape to drive, Tim decided to drop us off at the park. As he drove off, I considered running full-force, chasing his car like Birdee in “Hope Floats,” throwing my shoes at the back windshield in a wild effort to get his attention.  Instead, I held back my natural inclination to panic, and followed a much more confident Stephanie to the space where the mothers and daughters were gathering.

I quickly assessed the scene. The warm and friendly troop leader was absent, leaving another, somewhat sullen parent volunteer in charge. The other parent that I knew from work was also not there. This left me with a group of women that I didn’t know at all, so I stood on the outskirts of the group, picking at my nail polish as Stephanie and the other Daisies frolicked around.

The mother who volunteered to lead the meeting gathered the group together. I could tell right away she meant business. She stood with confidence and held three fingers up in the air. Immediately, the wild first grade mayhem stopped. The girls all stood at attention, holding three fingers in the air, facing their temporary leader. I’d been there less than half an hour and they were already busting out secret hand symbols!

“Now girls,” the mother said to the group of hypnotized Daisies, “This is a very, very dangerous trail. There are steep areas where you can fall and get hurt.”

The girls, transfixed at the thought of plunging to their deaths in Daisy vests, hung on to her every word. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, knowing that this park’s tallest peak was a smidgen over three feet tall. I decided to stay positive, imagining in my play-pretend mind that after the hike, the sullen substitute troop leader would award me with a hiking pin to attach to my imaginary adult-sized Daisy vest.

 “Because we want you to be safe, I need you to listen to the rules,” the mother said, “Please get in line in groups of two. We’re going to use the Buddy System. Each girl needs to stand by their mommy..”

She paused, looked at Stephanie, looked at me, then frowned, unsure of what to say. She looked in the air, mentally scanning the Girl Scout Leader guidebook for how to appropriately address non-mommy types.

 “Or…..,” she said, carefully, waving her hand in a grand, dismissive gesture, “The girlfriend of your father, whatever the case may be.”

And with that, her pale skin turned crimson as she began nervously shuffling girls and mommies into a two-by-two line.

I was paralyzed with shock. Several of the more compassionate mothers smiled at me and shrugged. Some just grabbed their girls and got in line. Knowing I didn't have the luxury of a getaway car, I stood there, fighting back the desire to laugh hysterically and sob with embarrassment all at the same time. I’ve been through thousands of awkward moments in my life, but that one definitely ranks up there with second grade when I laughed so hard I peed a puddle on the cafeteria floor after Trey Stephens told an off-colored joke.

What’s funny is that Stephanie handled it like a pro. I honestly think she felt sorry for me. Kids are awesome that way. She grabbed my hand and led me to the line like nothing had ever happened. We started our hike, did some obligatory leaf rubbings, and returned with zero broken bones and one mildly bruised ego (mine). I had a couple of conversations with the compassionate mothers. All in all, we had a nice time.

Today Stephanie turns 17. We made it through the bumpy times and I'm so thankful that we did. She’s a beautiful person, her face a lovely combination of both of her good-looking parents. She’s ridiculously intelligent and humble about it. She’s mad about Justin Bieber and trampolines. She likes road trips because she gets to watch the scenery. Because of her appreciation for the beauty in the world, she’s an excellent photographer. She does goofy, hilarious dances when we’re in the grocery store. She helps people in need, just like her father. She can do a perfect Russian accent that makes us grip our sides with laughter. She stays up way too late, baking the best cupcakes I've ever eaten, singing beautifully to terrible pop radio songs. She’s still figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, which is fine, because she has time to work it out. When I see her smile, I still see the same cute girl who stood by me as my maid of honor when I married her father. Of the relationships in my life, my relationship with Stephanie is one of the most important.

So while someone else begins writing the manual on dating a man with children, I’ll celebrate the fact that I made it through with very few scars. And when I do get my adult-sized Daisy vest, I’ll have lots of pins. I’ll get a Naive Cookie Mom pin. I’ll have one for Patience, and it will be a rendering of the hours I spent bribing a homesick child at the Girl Scout sleepover with dark chocolate, convincing her that sleeping on an air mattress was actually worth it. But the pin I’ll put in the most prominent position will be for sticking with it despite my insecurities of dating a man with children. That one will be the “Whatever the Case May Be” pin, and I’ll wear it with pride.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

This is me, angry

Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you that my husband Tim is a very laid-back individual. When the kids were little, they would climb all over him, pull on his ears, yank on his chest hair, and honk his nose continuously. Meanwhile, he could continue carrying on a perfectly civil conversation with another awestruck adult, and he would be completely unfazed by the kid’s attacks. He’s so laid-back that the kids figured out long ago that if they want his attention, yelling “Daddy” once will not do the trick. If they really want him, they have to yell, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

Opposites attract. If a kid is climbing on my husband in another room, I’m the one who gets irritated. It’s as if I have backwards sympathy pains. I can almost feel the kid yanking on my imaginary chest hair. I think Our Divine Creator built Tim with endless, soft nerves, and I got shortchanged with a few tiny, hyper-sensitive, bitchy woman ones. It's pretty unfair.

The same goes for how we sleep. Tim could sleep through a hurricane. He’ll lie down, watch a few minutes of a blaring television, and pass out within seconds into peaceful, restorative sleep. A mere four hours later, he's up grinding coffee and whistling like the Old Spice Guy.

I wake up when someone coughs in Louisiana. My nighttime ritual consists of a game of Words with Friends with my mom, followed by a few minutes of Facebook stalking and Googling search strings like, "homemade remedies for hiding varicose veins". I require white noise and a dark room, and once I'm asleep, would prefer to stay that way for at least eight hours (if not ten).

It should be no surprise that my husband and I handle our emotions differently as well. While Tim is larger than life and has a laugh that’s a cross between a machine gun and Bert from Sesame Street, for the most part, he doesn’t show big emotions. If I ask him if he’s excited, he’ll say, with zero expression, “This is me excited.”

Tim spends most of his time in this calm state. Yet, when you push his buttons hard enough, he gets really, really angry. Not scary angry, but the kind of angry that you would rather avoid because when it happens, his mere aura makes the dog whimper. Lucky for us all, this only happens about three times a year.

Year-round, I’m all about big emotions. I cry almost daily, and it’s for a variety of reasons: it’s a sad cry, a sappy cry, a cry from breaking a toe (I break toes frequently). When I'm cracked up, I laugh so hard I wet my pants. I get wildly irritated at Ford F-150 drivers. But I don’t get angry.

Through the years, Tim and I have had many rounds of “emergency” couples counseling. It’s usually due to my irrational emotional outbursts coinciding with Tim when Tim is Angry. This is an ugly time for us, but we’re smart enough to know that when this happens, we need to call our therapist, Steve. When this happens, Steve, a gentle, green-eyed hippie who still rocks a goatee, reminds us that we’re better off engaging in long-term counseling. And every time, we stay with it until we’re feeling better, and then we quit again.

The last time Tim and I sat down for another emergency session, I swear Steve rolled his eyes behind the cloud of patchouli-scented candle smoke taking over his small office. I half expected him to fire us as clients at that very minute. But because he’s so wonderfully serene, and probably partially enjoys the cartoon that is Tim and Amy's Marriage, he took a long cleansing breath instead.

 “Amy,” said Steve, in the voice of a slightly high yoga teacher, “You express sadness very well. It’s your default emotion. Yet you don’t seem to connect well with anger.”

What did he mean, I don’t connect well with anger? This made me so angry, I burst into tears.


We left with homework. Tim was asked to work on being a little softer with me, something I’m sure made Tim want to go skipping through a meadow of daisies to celebrate. Large, emotionally neutral men absolutely love working on being soft!

My homework was to explore being angry.

Like all families with two teenagers and an elementary-aged kid, our weekends are jam-packed. In between school functions, laundry, play dates, fixing cars, grocery shopping, drinking wine, going to the gym, parties, and more, making time to clean the house is nearly impossible. I’m serious! Yet somehow Tim makes it happen. While I’m off schlepping a kid somewhere, or meeting friends for lunch, Tim is often the one doing the housework.

Last weekend was like many others: too many commitments, not enough time, and a house with embarrassingly dirty floors. But we had priorities, so as my 9-year old and I threw on swimsuits to meet friends at the pool, I asked Tim to join us.

 “No, I’m going to stay home and do the floors,” Tim said.

 “Aw, but I feel bad!” I said, insincerely. (I really hate doing the floors).

 “That’s okay,” said Tim, “Someday you’ll do the floors.”

 That’s right, my husband said, “Someday, you’ll do the floors.”

My daughter stopped in her tracks and turned around, eyes wide. I know she was expecting me to burst into tears, because that’s what I do. But this time, my feelings weren't hurt. I was going to explore what it feels like to be angry.

It took a second for the anger to start kicking in. First, I told Tim in a huffy, irritated tone that he should take our daughter to the pool, and chitchat with the moms, and that I would stay home and do the floors. He laughed. Tim’s laughter fanned the flames of my inner angerball. I continued getting ready, and carried the swim bag outside to the car. If this were a movie, this would be the scene where I began to morph into a slobbery madwoman.

But I had to explore containing my anger, mainly because a 9-year old was present. I decided that there was no way in Hell that my husband was going to do the floors that day. "Someday" was going to be today, dagnabbit! This anger was feeling great!

I calmly went into the house and gathered up our mops, and calmly carried them to the car. I continued shuffling my daughter in the right direction while I found the vacuum cleaner and began rolling it out to the front porch. My daughter stood in the front yard, confused and a bit tickled. My husband watched from the kitchen, and I know he won’t admit it, but for a moment, I think he was a bit afraid.

 “What in the WORLD are you doing?” he asked, staring at me from the kitchen.

 “I am going to the pool,” I said, sweetly. “And then I am going to come home and do the floors.”

 “You DO realize that you’re acting like a crazy person, don’t you?” Tim asked.

 “Yes, I do,” I said, smiling sarcastically. “This is a story that our kids can tell at Thanksgiving. And you know how I don’t get angry? This is me, ANGRY!!” 

And with that, I slammed the door as hard as I could, and met my daughter outside, where I effortlessly shoved a pretty heavy Hoover vacuum cleaner between the bucket seats of our SUV. We buckled up, and by the time we were a block away, my daughter and I were laughing so hard I could hardly drive.

There are plenty of lessons here. It’s not the best parenting move to act like deranged nutcase in front of your kid, even though we all do it at some point. I also learned that adrenaline can help you heave a heavy vacuum cleaner in between bucket seats, but later, after you've been swimming, pulling that same vacuum cleaner out in 102 degree heat is a big old pain in the buttskie.

But most of all, I learned that for a mere $150 a month, I can hire help. And while other, more qualified individuals are taking care of our embarrassingly dirty floors, my husband and I can go see a movie where we don’t have to talk to each other, and leave the drama to the pros.

Friday, August 10, 2012

About the Hat

A few people have asked me why I titled this blog, “Never Wear Anyone Else’s Hat."

The title has dual meanings. The unintentional message was discovered by my deep-thinking sister, who said, “It’s like you! You’re unique. You do things your own way. You wear your own hat. And you should be teaching people that they shouldn’t live life doing what others tell them to do. It’s symbolic.”

In a way my sister was right, though I wasn’t deep-thinking enough to come up with that idea on my own. I love the concept of sending a message that people should do their own thing, and not try and fit into someone else’s idea of how you should be living. I’ve spent most of my life questioning my choices based on the fear of what others might think about me. Yet I’m getting to a place where I feel much more confident in my own choices and decisions. I’m wearing my own hat. And I hope you do, too.

Now that we have the deep stuff out of the way, I would be a complete fake if I didn’t tell you where the title really came from.

When I was around 4 years old, I had a neighborhood friend named Dawn. I would go to her house to play Candy Land, and I would cheat and win frequently. Looking back, that was a really crappy thing to do. Dawn’s family didn’t celebrate holidays for religious reasons, so she was a 4-year old with little excitement in her life. The least I could have done was given her the glory of a few Candy Land victories.

Perhaps because of her strict religious upbringing, Dawn was a really serious girl, and she had distinct rules about things. One of Dawn’s rules came down from her really serious mother, “Never wear anyone else’s hat.” I had no clue what that meant, but Dawn’s solemn delivery resonated.  To this day, if I’m with my mother and someone’s trying on a hat, we’ll look at each other and say, “NEVER wear anyone else’s hat!” in very serious 4-year-old voices.

I’ll give you two guesses what Dawn was talking about.  She was not revealing secret Cowboy Code (true cowboys are really weird about their hats). Whether she knew it or not, Dawn was talking about lice.

If your kid has ever been sent home from school because of lice, keep reading so we can commiserate and gross out together. If you’ve managed to miss this vile rite of passage, quit gloating, and come back when I tell the miraculous story about how my kids managed to escape ever having hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

Finding out your kid has lice is one of the worst things that can happen to family. I’m no entomologist, but in my experience there are two types of kids: the kind that lice love, and the kind that lice ignore. I won’t reveal which of my three kids ended up in the latter category, but let’s just say that’s the kid who doesn’t have long hair.

The first time the school called to let us know about a lice outbreak, I immediately turned into Sarah Jessica Parker in the terrible movie, I Don’t Know How She Does It. I began experiencing phantom itchiness from head to toe. My husband, a much less dramatic sort, got busy doing load after load of laundry. He fought off our terrorized preschooler as he shoved 14,000 stuffed animals into garbage bags for a week-long vacation to our garage. I called my sister, who has gone above and beyond to help me with parenting emergencies countless times, and invited her to come over for a lice-removal party.  And she actually showed up, even though she has the thickest hair in our family and put herself at great risk. God bless that woman.

I will spare you the details on how to have a proper lice removal party, because it's disgusting. And because we've had a few unfortunate practice rounds, we now have it down to a science, and I feel it's my civic duty to share best practices. So if you learn nothing else from what I have to offer, at least consider the following. You will thank me one day.

Amy Arndt’s Lice Survival Kit

o   LED flashlight
o   White bowl of hot water
o   Metal drugstore lice comb (with very thin teeth)
o   Prescription lice shampoo
o   Disney Channel
o   Industrial-sized container of laundry soap
o   4 couple’s counseling appointments
o   Case of red wine

A few things to note: Send your husband to buy the lice comb. If he grumbles, tell him to grab a Playboy while he’s at it so if the embarrassment of buying a lice comb bothers him, the promise of wife-approved nudie pic ogling will keep him on task. As for Disney Channel, it may be obnoxious, but it will keep your kid still for 6 hours straight, and you’ll need that time, especially the first time you’re navigating the rough waters of this terrible experience. The couple's counseling is also hugely important, because I’ll bet you money that at least 15% of divorces happen because of domestic lice infestations. And the case of red wine is the most obvious item. It will gently soothe you as you handle the immense guilt that comes with realizing you and your family members are dirty, foul sloths who should be ashamed of yourselves for having kids in the first place.

Most importantly, take the time to get your pediatrician to prescribe the heavy duty prescription lice shampoo. I am certain that this glorious mixture is the reason that I am now able to knock out lice within mere hours.              

However, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn’t warn you about the prescription shampoo. It’s so toxic that it turns my hands white for hours, so my husband has to do the hair-washing while I watch Disney Channel and drink wine. I read through the possible side effects, and while it’s not stated in black and white, it’s pretty evident that this shampoo will cause you or your child to grow an extra toe. But the way I look at it, what’s an extra toe here or there when you have a lice-free home?  Just add a pair of industrial scissors to the Lice Survival Kit, cut out a space on your shoes for an extra toe, and get on with life.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Light Enough to Travel

There are two schools of thought when it comes to travel: travel light, or travel like you’re Placido Domingo.

I only know how famed Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo travels because years ago, my mother had a Domingo sighting when she was in the international terminal at the airport in Dallas. While my mother schlepped a piece or two of the standard 5-piece canvas luggage set to her gate, Domingo whizzed by her in the courtesy transport cart reserved for the physically disabled, dramatically late, or, in this case, one of The Three Tenors. Her description of the scene was almost cartoonish – Domingo rode, statuesque and elegant, while the driver darted through weary travelers, unaware of the legend in their midst. He was accompanied by piles of Louis Vuitton luggage, and in my mother’s memory, she wants to believe that he wore a red cape that blew in the wind as he flew past her. The only thing missing was that he should have been belting out “Nessun Dorma” while my mother fainted by gate B 27.

This story, and the brief glimpse at how the other half lived, left me with a teenage yearning for more. I longed for a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk the size of my bedroom. I dreamt of hat boxes, dog carriers, and specialized bags for every whimsical item I needed to accompany me on life’s journeys, regardless of the fact that most of my life’s journeys at that point were fifteen minute-long road trips to my father's house every other weekend.

And then I became an exchange student. The exchange program I joined allowed you to carry a maximum of 55 pounds with you. For a year. This was in the late ‘80s when I owned 55 pounds of hair product alone, so packing for the year was a bit challenging.

To prepare me for a year in Europe, my mother shelled out crazy money for a black internal frame JanSport backpack that would be my trusted companion for my year abroad. My mother and sister and I packed it together by using traditional folding methods, weighed it, and failed. We unpacked it, parted with the absolutely unnecessary, yelled at each other, cried, and packed it again with a more efficient rolling method. In those days I weighed a little over a hundred pounds wet, so when we snapped it on my back, I looked like a turtle on toothpicks, but I was a turtle that complied with the weight requirements.

Traveling this way for a year changed my vision of steamer trunks and hatboxes. It’s quite liberating to travel and live with the bare minimum. My sister later spent a year in Switzerland with the same weight restrictions, and to this day has a travel mantra, “Take only what you can carry yourself.”

I travel for business now, and try to abide by that mantra. Yet I fail miserably, and end up having my husband help haul my bag to the curbside check-in when he drops me off at the airport.

I'm a bag-checker. I simply don't like carrying my bag on-board. I’m often forced to pay to check bags based on the duration of the trip and the given airline’s policy. (I’m particularly fond of JetBlue, who will let you check a bag for free if it’s below 50 pounds.)

Recently I was on my way home from a work trip, flying from Boston to Austin with a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. I gathered the necessary on-flight gear – laptop, a business journal and a gossip rag for reading, minty gum for ear-popping and breath freshening, a large bottle of water, and headphones and my iPhone for music. I checked my bag and prepared for a long flight home. 

While waiting to board, I scanned the terminal for a plug to juice up my phone, and plopped down next to a man in his late-70’s who introduced himself as Charlie. I immediately noticed three things about Charlie. He was a man in desperate need of a piece of my minty gum (I somehow attract people with awful breath).  He was clearly rebelling against his doctor’s orders to wear hearing aids. But most noticeably, he was carrying absolutely nothing with him. Not a bag, not a book, nothing. Nothing! I found this both wildly unpractical and charming all at the same time, mainly because I work very hard to carry only a laptop bag and a small cross body bag on board, and I like to fancy that I look quite chic this way.

Charlie and I chatted loudly (so he could hear me and hear himself) while the gate clerk herded in the passengers, all squeezing in with rolling suitcases and the authorized second bag to shove under the seat in front of them.

 “You travel pretty light,” I yelled, stating the obvious.

 “I’ve been flying for work for years,” Charlie bellowed. “I check one big bag. Those bastards make me pay for it now, but I hate carrying a bag.  And now, they make it so everyone wastes time fighting for the overhead space. It’s ridiculous.”

While we shuffled down the jetway together, Charlie and I moaned and groaned about everyone with their rolling bags. We rolled our eyes while weary business travelers and parents strained to heave their bags above their heads to fight for the limited overhead space. Charlie took his seat and we said our goodbyes as I sardined myself in the window seat several rows behind him, plugged in my headphones, popped some gum in my mouth and prepared for the journey.

Here’s where my husband enters the story. I’m married to a man who is most likely a descendant of the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath. While the rest of us pack our suitcases with three outfits, an extra pair of underwear and other standard travel items, my husband brings along some of the most hysterical and random items imaginable. He’s unzipped his suitcase to reveal second-hand boogie boards that he packed to use while on the beach, but plans on dumping after their use. Actually, he’s only a one-way Joad, because when he packs the extra stuff, he’s always planning on leaving it behind in a weird, pay-it-forward kind of public littering system. I must admit his tendency to schlep random stuff is quite endearing.

My husband, once the victim of lost luggage, has a very strict policy of taking a carry-on bag with an extra change of clothes and toiletries. He always gently suggests I do the same, and I always scoff at him. Where’s the trust? My bag will make it. It always does.

So of course Charlie and I weren’t so lucky on our flight from Boston to Charlotte. Mechanical issues nearly stranded us in Boston, but U.S. Airways managed to limp us to Charlotte, where just before midnight we were informed that we’d be spending the night there, courtesy of the airline.

I was standing wearily in line for my hotel and shuttle voucher when Charlie shuffled up to me. 

 “Where are you staying, honey?” he hollered, a hint of desperation in his voice.

 “I’m still waiting to find out,” I answered, grateful to have a comrade in a strange city.

 “Well, I’ll be at the Homewood Suites if you want to ask them to put you there, then we can have a drink at the bar,” he said, holding only a boarding pass for the next day and some vouchers. I wondered briefly if Charlie even had a wallet on him, or if he’d checked that as well.
As the grandmotherly counter clerk shook her head with disapproval, she leaned in closely to get out of Charlie’s earshot, unaware that he couldn’t hear her if she talked to me through a megaphone.

“You are not going to stay where he is staying,” she whispered frantically in a beautiful North Carolina drawl, “That man is sweet on you.”

 “Oh, okay…” I said, oblivious until I noticed that Charlie was gazing at me longingly through his bifocals in anticipation of a hot night with a sweaty mother of three. “Please just put me somewhere nice. It’s been a long night. Now, will they bring my bags to me?”

“No ma’am,” she answered smartly. “You’ll get your bags at your final destination.”
As I walked with my elderly gentleman caller to find our separate shuttles, I considered the possessions I had on my person, and patted myself on the back for the disposable toothbrush and travel-sized deodorant. Then I considered the lack of clean clothing and decent shampoo.

It wasn’t long before I heard my husband laughing, “I told you so!” from 1,100 miles away.  I heard him laugh harder as I cursed while washing my clothes with Cashmere Bouquet bar soap in the confines of the single most disgusting motel Charlotte has to offer. He continued to mock me from afar, as I dove headfirst onto a colony of bedbugs while wrapped in a bath towel the size of a washcloth. And as I dozed off for a 3-hour long micro nap before heading back to the airport, I laughed a little to myself, thinking of Charlie, sitting alone in a dingy Homewood Suites room, no bar in sight, no sweaty mother of three by his side, and not even a toothbrush to get him through the night.