Suburban Snapshots

Sugar and Spice and Puppydog Tails

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

We decided against learning the sex of our baby at my first ultrasound. Our families let out a collective groan and we all waited for what I not secretly hoped would be the arrival of a daughter.

When Anna was born, my sister nearly burst an artery when I said we weren't interested in a pink deluge. Stereotypes aside, I'm just really more of a neutrals girl. Steve and I graciously accepted all hand-me-downs and Anna wore almost everything. Whatever required ironing stayed folded deep within a drawer, because that kind of thing doesn't belong in homes without staff.

Anna spared us a princess phase, except Elsa, which was intense and lasted almost a year despite my insistence that Anna was the real star. We didn't hide her from the princesses, and if you've ever tried to do this you'd quickly realize the futility. Their domination is thorough and unavoidable. She preferred "Yo Gabba Gabba" for a while, then switched to "My Little Pony." I was leery of her love for "Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse" but the schlond poofa jokes won me over.

Lately she's been asking me to buy her camouflage clothes "if you see some at Goodwill in the boys section." She's taken to wearing a wolf print tee-shirt the nurse gave her after one especially spectacular lunch spill and is obsessed with Michael Jackson. Her very best friend is Olivia, and the boy she's liked since last year still makes the after-school recap every single day. We ran into him and his family one Saturday and Anna reported that she got "really sweaty" when he spotted her. The language of her first crush is hilariously unfiltered.

In June she asked to cut her hair short. It was in the middle of little league and her first team experience. She and a set of twin boys would sit in the dugout spitting sunflower seeds far and wide, mostly onto their shirts. The part of her personality that's loud and rough found companions in them, as did the part of her that's better at climbing fences than playing baseball.

It's been interesting in this latest stage. I watch people trying to work out "what" she is, their eyes looking for the familiar cue, something to safely settle on like a pink shoe or pair of earrings. We get a lot of, "What can I get you, buddy?" and none of us mind, though sometimes I try to avoid the whole exchange by preemptively dropping a pronoun. Anna will correct other kids, including a couple of mean-girl run ins this summer. Already with the mean girls.

I realize that in reverse—if I had a son who preferred skirts—this post might be more angst-ridden. A girl who's more comfortable in camo cargo pants generally gets a pass, but what of parents whose sons love polka-dotted tights? That's a post for someone with more experience than I have. What's happening here is relatively uncomplicated as far as we and society at large are concerned, at least in this part of the world. We mostly follow her lead, the only time I've interjected was one afternoon when she announced that "Boys are just cooler than girls." I'll let her grow a beard but I won't have her thinking that girls are anything less-than.

I'm proud of her for going her own little way so soon. I hope I can help her hold onto the confidence she has now, which I was totally lacking through pretty much my entire school experience, and I give credit to the parents of all the friends who continue to love her however she is, however many days in a row she wears her pilfered wolf shirt, no matter who she plays with at recess.

The Summer We Lost

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Well folks, it's been weeks since I've written anything substantial. That's partly because we've had a full (I'm not going to say busy because busy is apparently a bad word now) summer, and partly because when something significant happens like my dog dies or my Nana dies or my other dog dies, I need to acknowledge those events before getting back to business as usual. I guess it's a good thing I waited, because three depressing posts in a row might be more than some of us could handle. Instead I'll compile this grief montage, throbbing 80s ballad not included.

It's never an easy thing to decide to put a dog down. I hate to say it's something we've gotten "better" at, but we have experience. You have to find the unique formula that balances your emotions, compassion, finances, and empathy. Four years ago, when our dog Bert grew a bone tumor that eventually led to blindness and pain, we knew we weren't going to put him through surgery that would dismantle much of his face or through the long recovery. We knew we couldn't front the thousands of dollars for the MRIs and procedures he'd require, and that there would still be a chance the growth would return. Bert was only six and wiggling like a puppy when we brought him in for his last appointment. God that sucked.

A photo posted by Brenna Jennings (@suburbansnapshots) on

We adopted Henry in 2004, already a handsome three-year-old and having fathered dozens of equally attractive pet store dachshunds. We were child-free with disposable income, so when he herniated a disk months later, we spent about $5,000 to bring him back to health. I learned to express his bladder while Steve would "walk" him outside our city condo, bent over to support Henry's back end. But 11 years later with another paralyzing injury, an estimate of $2,500 just for the diagnostic MRI and now a 14-year-old dog, surgery wasn't an option. We carried Henry in, sad but sure in our decision, and held him as he quietly went still. Then he peed all over Steve.

I'm going to awkwardly shim my Nana into this post because chronologically, this is where we lost her. There's no way I could fit all that she was and how much she meant into a paragraph, everyone should have so many stories. Nana always wore a suit, ready for church at any moment. She was born again, and so warm that I'd be confused when I'd meet the kind of born again you're thinking of each time I say "born again." She lost more children in her lifetime than even my highly-productive sister has birthed, and raised seven to adulthood. She was Italian but my uncle once joked that "Nana got a microwave so she can burn dinner in seconds." She was full of humor and faith, and I'll always think of her not just as a woman but as a force. Nana will always be around, just a prayer away. I still don't have my beliefs sorted out, but I know Nana's here. I guess that's a start.

It was a week after I heard from my sister's best friend via text that Nana was gone when Mauser started limping. We hoped it was a strain but two trips to the vet and continual worsening told my gut otherwise. We'd jokingly called him "The Temp," having adopted him at age 11 or 12, knowing we wouldn't put him through interventions at his decline. Mauser belonged to one of the children Nana lost, my Aunt Mair, had been well-loved, and had made his way to us. We recognized his first day here that he was too big and too hairy for this house, and that he would spend the balance of his life here anyway. Maui and I walked Anna to and from school every day. He learned that routine within a week and nudged me each morning and afternoon. He followed me everywhere to the point that I'd almost step on him getting out of the shower or find him on the front lawn, having squeezed his 86 pounds out of the terrier-sized doggie door to trail me to a neighbor's. I'm still finding his hair everywhere and wonder if there's enough DNA left in it to clone him.

Summer though, on balance, has been really nice. Sunny days, local adventures, far-flung visitors, many cocktails, weekend trips, we've enjoyed it all. Anna might remember this one as The Summer Mommy Cried Like Ten Times, or maybe she'll remember going to the water park with her cousins, the beach with her dad, swimming in a thousand pools, tasting her first lobster or moving into her new bedroom. My own summer memories are full of poolside Cheetos binges, bathing-suited bike rides and Tom & Jerry marathons. Maybe summertime makes the losing a little easier. 

My Wooden Spoons Are For Sauce

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Get it through your head!"

It was the last sentence I heard my sister utter before watching my mom leap from her Volvo and up the stairs of our split ranch so quickly she seemed to teleport. This was the morning of Mom's Last Straw. My sister flung the crutches she'd been leaning on as she stood in the driveway, arguing at our mother who was trying to leave for work. She galloped desperately into the house where she tells me (because I remained safely in the driveway) Mom caught her on the couch and landed a sharp slap on her thigh.

It took a lot to get my mom this mad. She rarely cursed, didn't drink, and yelled sparingly, which frankly is a miracle if what I remember of my sisters' and my childhood is accurate. You didn't want to upset Mom not because she'd get angry and gesture for the wooden spoon (which never actually closed the deal), but because it took so much to upset her that if you got her there, you had undoubtedly been a complete asshole and you knew it. I didn't fear my mother, but I hated getting her upset.

There were other adults then who weren't as restrained. I never knew what might set them off—sometimes it was a rowdy mud fight, sometimes back talk, once it was because I didn't respond to a question about onions quickly enough, or the time my sister and I collapsed into giggles during dinner. I remember the lingering burn of that fear. It didn't make me feel strong, it made me want to run. I rarely had concern for the way my actions might affect these people like I did with my mom. I just didn't want them mad, period.

I don't believe that being hit or the threat of it made me tough, brave or conscientious. It may have made me more empathetic, better at putting myself in the shoes of people who hurt, but I have to believe that those good attributes can be modeled in a less menacing way. I know they can be.

Maybe if we spanked Anna regularly I'd only have to ask her once to clean her room. Maybe she'd eat more dinner or argue less often. But I have other tools available, I deliver consequences and try so hard to have patience. I'm grateful that I don't often yell because when I do raise my voice it lands hard. She still responds to my count of three by number two, she still reacts when I threaten to revoke her tablet/playdate/dessert because she knows we follow through.

Maybe sometimes you just have. had. it. It's been a horrible day and your kids have been relentless punks—well, we all have a frayed end to our ropes. It's happened here, not even including the time I slapped a tiny infant Anna on the forehead when she gnashed down on my nipple. I get frustration. I get running out of patience. I get How many goddamned times to I have to tell her not to cross without looking dear lord HOW MANY?

What I don't get is discipline by fear. I know she'll change and our struggles with her will constantly evolve. I know it's going to be harder to adapt to some phases than to others. I know that I don't know now how hard that will be. I'll certainly lose my patience, I'll say things and wish I could take them back, I'll want to slap her. I hope I'll have the restraint not to.

We're raising Anna just like any parent raises any kid, flailing around trying to figure it all out. What I'm sure of though, is that not all of our own lessons need to be handed down.

Three Home Hacks for Lazy People

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'm not particularly crafty, but when I am it's out of pure laziness. I come up with hacks that make things more convenient so that I can spend my time farting around on Facebook or ogling my husband while he folds the five loads of laundry I let mold over on the basement floor. I've read a lot of hack lists and usually I think, "Hey that's so clever! I'll never fucking do that."

Still, there are things I've been doing without realizing their hackishness until now. Here are three of them.

My house is small and tends to get stinky really fast. In summer the dishwasher smells like a crypt, our two dogs smell like six, and opening the under-sink cabinet to throw something away requires EPA clearance. My friend Dina helped me solve that last one with this tip:

1. If you have to toss a potentially stinky item days before trash pick up, put it in the freezer until garbage day. Here's a touching photo of some chicken parts stored safely and odorlessly until the men in safety yellow roll up in what my husband tells me is called a packer, and not a "maggot mobile."

2. When we moved into this house we didn't have a child, so only our pristine rear-ends ever touched the dining room chairs. Once the dining room became a "multi-purpose" eating-slash-artspace, the upholstery went straight to hell. I wandered into the local fabric store hoping to find something new and cute to re-cover the chairs when a ray of light shone down from the heavens and enlightened me to the miracle that is raincoat fabric. My friend Amy and I stapled this on in about an hour. I love the design and I can clean it with a sponge. It's as practical as my Aunt Fran's plastic-covered sofas but less thigh-sticky. Two thumbs up even when a bowl of Spaghetti-Os goes down.

3. I don't remember how I was first turned onto natural peanut butter, but I'm a convert. Blended varieties just don't have the same peanut flavor, though their creaminess still can't be beat. I stirred and sloshed for years before learning this simple little trick: Store your natural, oily peanut butter upside down in the fridge. Gravity or whatever causes the oil to float away from the lid so when you open it, no stirring! No sloshing peanut juice all over your shoes. It's still not smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy, but it's hella tasty.

I probably won't have my own show on HGTV anytime soon, but maybe some of you will find one or two of these useful. At the very least you have to admit that the raincoat fabric business is the tits.

The Upside of Catastrophe

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I remember when I was pregnant, my godmother was dying of pancreatic cancer and I thought, this is life now. Not that life would always be untimely death and anxiety, but in my stress over becoming surprise-pregnant and for the first time in my life witnessing at close range the process of dying, I realized that yes, growing up, moving out, heartache and success are all parts of life, but the big things, those are the shape of it.

I'll be 42 this September. In those decades I have met many, many people. It's true what they say about everyone having a story, and what I've learned from the friends and acquaintances who've crossed my path is abundant. For all the obvious reasons I can't be glad my loved ones have struggled, but I've been bettered by their triumphs and catastrophes, and I hope that counts for something.

To my dear friend with M.S. — you live every day with independence. You don't feel brave or especially inspirational, but I think you are amazing. (For the record, this is the only time I've ever referred to you as "my friend with M.S.")

My co-worker, caring for her husband after his traumatic brain injury — I have learned so much from you about the realities caregiving and recovery. Your honesty gives a person like me a clearer path toward understanding your world.

All of the single and coupled gay humans in my life — there has never been a time when I've questioned your equality, and I celebrate with you every victory toward recognizing your humanity.

For Sarah — I know you had terrible days and that I mostly saw you on the better ones. I sat with you just for a precious few minutes during what would be your last one. None of it was fair, but you made me less afraid. There was so much love in that room. You are written on my heart.

The woman who posts to Facebook about her motorcycle rides, her crushes, her nights out and her arduous chemo treatments — you also make me less afraid. You are life going on.

For my friend fighting lymphoma who shares the funniest and most sincere updates — you remind me that humor is alive in struggle. I have a good feeling about you.

(So much fucking cancer.)

I have many friends managing their children's emotional, intellectual and physical needs — your likes on my silly observations remind me that despite all you've adapted to, we are all parenting together. Thank you for keeping it real.

The lost children crush me, and I've met so many grieving parents these past few years — thank you for showing me how to be a friend through the uncertainty of grief. Thank you for sharing your intensity with me. Thank you for continuing to give when you have already given too much.

There are so many of you — the recovering and struggling addicts, the leavers and the left, the people with pasts, the ones with secrets. Sometimes I've easily empathized with you, sometimes I've had to question myself to understand you, always I have learned from you.

We are the sum of our relationships and experiences, and surely we are the sum of the experiences of our relations. I've been taught by your trials and lessons and I am a better person for our collective adversity. What you remind me of every day though, is that each of us is so much more than our struggle.

I Tried an Internet Fitness Program
and I Think I'm Broken Now

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Disclaimer: I adore the women who sold me on this program. This post isn't about the program itself, but about my current incompatibility with its workout plan. If you need to leave angry comments, please refrain from calling me fat.

I'm writing from a very crabby place today. Eventually this crabbiness will subside and might even turn into something like accomplishment or contentment. Right now I'll be happy if it just turns into me being able to use my goddamned legs again.

I'm a hypocrite and a liar. I go back and forth from feeling great in my own skin to being angry at the vanishing of my hip bones to content buying bigger jeans to cursing the meat on my thighs that moves even after I've stopped. Last week was a frustrated week. I was unhappy with myself, though I'd spent weeks being absolutely delighted by the food I ate joyfully and without remorse. As it will, everything caught up and my lovely lady lumps grew and multiplied, and I got sick of it. In a fury I ordered one of those diet and exercise programs some of your friends are surely selling (hint: it rhymes with Everyone Say Dicks) because I needed structure, I needed charts and rules and a support group and a visual cue sitting on my counter reminding me to DROP THE CHEEZE ITS, FATTY.

I've got the eating part of this down pretty well. I've successfully lost weight and maintained most of it for five years. I know what's good for you and what isn't, I understand moderation, I know what a portion looks like, and I know that if I stop keeping track of all my trips from the desk to the cabinet for a handful of pretzels I'll accidentally eat a day's worth of calories in snacks before my shower. I'm totally cool with having to check a box or fill a container before stuffing my face. Keeps me off the Goldfish.

On Monday I optimistically popped in the first workout, which starts with a nice warm up, some jumping jacks to remind you just how much noise flesh can make when it's in motion, then launches immediately into this heinous, crippling exercise which basically involves lowering yourself to kneeling one leg at a time and getting back up over and over while holding weights above your head and trying not to vomit down your sports bra.

Fuck. That. Noise.

Look, I'm all for feeling a little burn, a little sore, it reminds me that for a few minutes I wasn't sitting at my desk talking to people inside the computer. But when I tell you that today, 48 full hours later I still cannot lower myself to pee without bracing on the toilet seat like it's a goddamned pommel horse I am not even exaggerating a little. On the plus side, my shoulders are going to be so shredded. This morning I walked my dog, forgetting about the part where I'd have to bend over and clean up after him. I prayed as I covered my hand with an old grocery bag that I wouldn't land tits-first in a fresh pile of shit. It took me twenty minutes, but I can still self righteously chastise people who leave turds all over my neighborhood, thank you very much. Later I tossed a can to my recycle bin and missed. I sobbed in the driveway as it taunted me from below. What have I ever done besides love you, garbanzo beans? I thought we had something.

During the video, the fit, energetic coach promises that she'll get you the body you want if you just stick with her. Girls, this is not the body I want. The body I want can get into its underwear from a standing position. The body I want can get up from the couch without squealing. I had that body three short days ago. My husband still thinks we had the best sex ever the other night because I couldn't bear to tell him that my howls were from sheer agony. I'm pretty sure I caught our neighbor giving him The Nod yesterday.

I definitely need to be more active. I want to stop realizing at noon that I haven't used my feet since nine. I'm just not a person who wants to PUSH THROUGH THE BURN. Give me a little ache, some feeling of accomplishment, evidence that my muscles haven't atrophied, but I am not made for this intensity. There's no level of ripped that's worth the degree of hobbled I'm experiencing—I went to get the mail yesterday and considered camping on my front lawn rather than gracelessly hoisting myself back up the three front steps. This is some bullshit.

Lots of people love this stuff and I applaud their dedication to utter misery. They'll be the ones at the beach who don't jiggle, who walk into a store, grab their size and confidently bypass the dressing rooms. If there's ever a zombie apocalypse that requires a lot of squatting combat, I'll be crouched behind a line of them. But for me, once this program ends, I'll be taking afternoon hikes or biking around my neighborhood. For today, I'm just hoping my dog doesn't need to take a crap during his next walk.

Five Steps to Preparing Your Child for the Real World

Friday, June 05, 2015

*This is satire

There were two posts on totally different topics I shared this week, though similar themes came up in comments. The first was a letter I wrote to our local paper calling out some women who turned a lighthearted piece about the senior prom into a free-for-all judgment volley. The second was my post suggesting that parents don't need to yell at little boys who cry in the dugout. What I saw in a few replies on both subjects was this:

The kids should get used to it, this is how it goes in the real world. 

A photo posted by Brenna Jennings (@suburbansnapshots) on

Advice from the Internet is always on-point, and I plan to apply this parenting credo as I strive to raise a child who is truly prepared for the "real world."

1. For starters, I'm going to make Anna get a job. In the real world, no one lets you live in their home and eat their food for free unless you're rich, famous, or incredibly buff, so she needs to show me some serious talent, a hardcore workout regimen or an advanced aptitude for managing hedge funds, otherwise she's hitting the pavement.

2. Then in a few months, I'm going to announce that we're selling the house and she's got to find somewhere else to live. This happens in the real world ALL THE TIME and I don't want her to be crying into a dirty futon on the sidewalk twelve years down the road when she's evicted from some off-campus hovel.

3. I'm going to use her social security number to open a bunch of credit cards and buy twenty HDTVs at Walmart plus a subscription to online fetish porn. In the real world, identity theft happens to millions of people. It would be a disservice if I didn't expose her to its ins and outs now; I'm giving her the jump on navigating phone menu labyrinths and interminable hold times because I care.

4. When I get home from grocery shopping I'm going to back over the dog. Let's get the searing pain of loss taken care of early, with no sugar-coating. None of this "Fido went to live on a farm" business, she needs to be prepared for the steep toll of grief. I'm not totally heartless though so I'll back over the one she likes least.

5. One Sunday, I plan to leave the house and break up with her via text from the fro-yo store, "ur nice but I got2 bounce." I'll message her sporadically as the months drag on asking "we cool?" and "thinking of u." She needs to understand that life is full of people who won't appreciate her or have the decency to treat her with respect. It's probably best if the lesson comes from the person she trusts most in the world and not from some little dipshit in the 8th grade cafeteria.

There will be a substantial decrease in hugs, compliments, and encouragement, because that shit's for coddlers. If your boss hugs you on the regular you probably need a good attorney. I'll replace phrases like, "You'll be okay, kiddo" with "Suck it up," and I should probably put an end to whatever childhood myths she's still holding onto—if she loses a tooth at her new job she can't just start going on and on about the intricacies of her Tooth Fairy trap.

It's been a really educational week for me, and I owe it all to the Internet.