Title:  Vandalism

Subtitle:  All the neighbors said the same thing: What a shame that such an idyllic, crime-free neighborhood would fall prey to graffiti.  Then, they nervously waited for when the rooftop crayon vandal would strike next.

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It's Not Wasted Time

Time you enjoyed wasting is not wasted time.

I'm the type of person who likes to have frequent and tangible artifacts of my productivity.  I love crossed-off items on my to-do lists.

Even so, life isn't just about being productive.  Take time this weekend to rest, to tap into what recharges you, to connect with those who love you.  Be still.  Know that God is God.  You are not wasting time when you slow down.

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Handwritten Assignments and Parking Tickets

Last week one of my students submitted an assignment that was handwritten.  The problem?  I don't accept handwritten assignments, only typed.  I've made this policy abundantly clear on numerous occasions: on the syllabus, during in-class announcements, and in a direct email to the student.

The next class I handed the assignment back, ungraded.

The student was incredulous.  "Do you really mean that you're not accepting this?"

Yes.  That's really what I had meant.

Still, I left our exchange unsettled, replaying the conversation in my head, rehashing it with Joel, bristling with indignation that although he was in the wrong for not complying with standards, he was blaming me for holding those standards.  For some reason, I couldn't shake off my frustration.

Later that evening I received a ticket for parking in a restricted lot.  Although I knew that I wasn't allowed to park there during the day, I thought that the lot was fair game at night.  Obviously, my assumption was wrong.  The next morning as I approached the parking office to pay my fine, I greeted the teller with a simple message: an apology for parking in an illegal zone.

The teller looked at me and physically took a step back.  "I've never had anyone apologize before, and I've worked here for five years," he explained.

Then, he reduced my fine.

Have you noticed that our approach to our wrongdoings makes a difference?  We all mess up.  We all have times when we don't meet the standards -- whether out of ignorance, or whether out of intent.  But our willingness to accept personal responsibility is a crucial factor that influences how others respond to our mistakes.

I need to model this in my own life.  We're raising our daughters to be responsible for their actions and accountable for the subsequent consequences.  If their college professor returned a handwritten assignment back to them, ungraded, I hope their response would be one of acceptance and humility.  "I'm sorry.  I messed up, and I accept the consequences.  I won't make that mistake again."

Who knows?  In responding this way, their fine might be reduced.  At any rate, they'll have done the honorable thing.

Even better yet, I hope that they would type the assignment in the first place.

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A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a woman named Robin who was capable of efficiently moving in and out of stores because she didn't need to buckle and unbuckle children from car seats, stop to pick up shoes that toddlers accidentally had kicked off, or break up arguments over whose turn it was to stand at the helm of the grocery cart.

She carried no diaper bag.  She merely kept her car keys and some money in her pocket -- or demurely clutched in her hand.  Often she also carried a lipstick.  She was carefree, unencumbered, and did I mention that she was very, very quick while running errands?

She was very, very quick while running errands.

Now Robin carries a bag most places, except when she forgets to carry a bag and immediately regrets it when she finds herself in a public restroom with a child who is stretched out on a diaper changing station in dire need of a diaper change.

Recently, she emptied that bag and discovered three diapers, a package of wipes, a small container of hand sanitizer, a few suspicious Kleenex, an outdated church bulletin, an empty Tupperware container, a single dirty sock, a Happy Meal toy, several crayons, a child's windbreaker, and two plastic spoons.  She then shook the bag, releasing a mixture of what she thinks was crumbled Goldfish crackers and sand.

There was no lipstick to be found.  There was, however, one quarter and three pennies.

She still cannot determine the location of her car keys.

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Eight is Enough: The Ultramarathon

Yesterday I spent the majority of the day wandering in the wilderness.  Literally.

There's a reason for this.  I had been asked to join a team of women running an ultramarathon relay through a mountainous course, and together the eight of us covered 50 miles.

As we waited for our final runner to cross the finish line, our team, which had run well for hours without ever being overtly competitive, collectively realized something: we had a shot at winning our division.  Then, we realized one more thing: the winners of each division would receive medals.

Ooooh, medals.  I could see everyone on the team, myself included, bristle with the possibility.

Drawing on my vast repertoire of quality children's television programming, I must equate this with one of my favorite lines by the narrator in Curious George when George discovers his neighbor flying a kite:  "He didn't know what a kite was when he woke up that morning, but now there was nothing more that George wanted than to fly a kite."

We had spent over seven hours in the woods without this possibility even flitting across our radar, but now that we knew medals existed, really, there was nothing more than we wanted than to get one.

Moments later, amid much drama, suspense and disorganization, we got word that our team had won.

I called Joel to tell him the news.  His initial response: "Wow!  Robin, that's amazing!"  Then he followed with a more pragmatic inquiry. "So, how many teams were in your division?"

I countered that details like this weren't all that important in such times of celebration.

Okay, okay, okay... for the record, there were more than two teams in our division.  But fewer than four.

Still, we had medals.

I wore that medal home, knowing that the true heroes of the day -- those ultramarathoners who had run the full 50 miles by themselves -- had received the exact same medals, while I had spent most of the time being shuffled around in a comfortable van, listening to an eclectic soundtrack that my teammates had created, occasionally eating trail mix and M&M's, and at one point, running my brief leg of the race.

Still, if anyone wanted to mistake me for an ultramarathoner and, say, ask for an autograph or offer a free massage, I would have let them.

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In case you were wondering what six-year-old hands would look like after they spent a half hour cracking open a bucket full of walnuts that they painstakingly had collected from their grandparent's yard, wonder no more. They look like this:

That is, they look like this after you've washed and scrubbed them, let them soak in the bathtub until they were sufficiently pruney, and let three days pass.  They look a little worse the actual day of the walnut-cracking.

I have a newfound respect for walnuts.  Don't mess with them.  They've got staying power.

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Just Say No to Blanket Statements

Recently I was asked to to spearhead a major fundraiser for my daughter's PTO.

I said no.

Do you know how much guts this took?  Do you know how long I wrangled over this decision?  Do you know how I weighed pros and cons, deliberated over whether my daughter be cheated if I didn't support her school in this fashion, and questioned if I was being a good enough mother?  Do you know how many times I deleted entire sentences in my email reply to make sure I struck the precise balance of "I sure am glad you thought of me" and "if I have one more thing added to my plate right now, I fear things are going to get ugly"?

The answer: a whole lot more than I would have if I had been a guy.

I hate over-generalizations and blanket statements.  I call them out when my college students use them, and I ask them to write and speak with more accuracy and precision.  But, in this instance, I'm making a sweeping claim:

Women, not men, allow this type of request to percolate in their minds and emotions not just for minutes, not just for hours, but for days before they make a decision.  If the mother answers yes, it's likely that her decision was influenced in some way by a small, yet niggling, sense of guilt.  If the mother answers no, it's likely this decision then creates some small, yet niggling, sense of guilt.

And for another sweeping claim (since we're already sweeping), men never are the ones who are requested to spearhead major PTO fundraisers in the first place.

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That Which Has No End

Certain phenomenon never seem to come to an end -- among them, the reality show Survivor, the month of February (it is not the shortest month if you go by feeling), and housework.  There never is an end to housework.

Recently, I walked into our computer room and was met with this view: a sectional couch without any seat cushions.  From this picture the room looks clean.  Spartan, even.  This is because everything that once was located in this room (including couch cushions) had been dragged into the adjacent room.

Translation: the adjacent room no longer had visible carpeting, just mounds of cushions, pillows, toys, some socks, an assortment of dish towels, a few plastic bowls and sippy cups, and a horde of toys.

The girls must have had a field day with this one.

Now, I needed to work in this computer room.  I needed to resist the impulse to enter the adjacent room.  I needed to sit at the computer desk, turn my back to this cushionless sectional couch, and focus on my task.

I have the hardest time focusing in the midst of mess.

I could feel that the room was off.  It called to me: something is not right here, something is amiss, something is unfinished.  You see, in my perfect world, things always are tidy.  Couches have cushions, laundry is folded, shoes are lined up with their mates, and the grass is cut. 

The problem is that this world doesn't exist for long.  Tasks are completed for brief moments, only to be unfinished the next.

It's not just in my world.  The employee stocking shelves at the grocery store has to organize the bread aisle each morning.  The teenager folding clothes at the Gap has to rearrange the browsed-through merchandise every evening.  The postal worker has to sort through the influx of new mail each day.

Plus, those everyday parts of life that remain hidden -- the disappointments, the hurts, the concerns -- are infinitely messier than the messes that we can detect with the naked eye and clean up with our hands.

Life isn't tidy.  And it's never going to be -- not this side of heaven.

That's why I want to be a person who can live at ease in the midst of mess.  Not ignoring the mess, not living in denial, not running from it, but remaining at peace within it and staying anchored when everything around me is churning and swirling and chaotic.

Jesus said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Messes never will come to an end.  If you're alive, you're fair game for them.  But, praise God, he's bigger and more constant than our messes.  In fact, he's the same yesterday, today, and forever.

(That's even longer than 23 seasons of Survivor.  Just in case you were wondering.)

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You Don't Have to Ask Me Twice

While I may not be the quickest decision-maker, there are some questions that I wouldn't have to think twice about before answering.

Say, for example, someone wanted to exempt me from one parenting duty for life.  I would spit out "bath time" faster than most people can blink.  I can handle diapers.  I can handle the painstaking process of clipping tiny fingernails and toenails, even when a child is plotting escape.  I can deal with folding tons of baby, toddler, and child-sized laundry.

More than any other routine, bath time exhausts me.  Sure, after baths the girls are so fresh and sweet and pretty-smelling -- and I simply love how their hair look when freshly washed and combed -- and did I mention that I have this thing for lavender-scented baby bath wash?  Despite this, after bath time, I'm bedraggled -- tired, wet, and sometimes battling premature gray hairs due to scenarios such as this.

If someone offered you exemption from one parenting duty, what would your choice be?

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Here's Proof

Title:  Here's Proof

Subtitle:  The adage is true: the box in which the toy is packaged often can be more fun that the toy itself.

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Mother Avenger

Today we ran errands in the morning and decided to grab a quick bite to eat for lunch at a fine establishment.  When you have children, the term "fine establishment" is loosely defined, primarily meaning that there's an indoor play area.  It's also safe to assume that all meals served there will involve ketchup and chocolate milk.

I opened the glass door that partitioned the play area from the rest of the restaurant, sealing in the squealing and smell of socks, and let my girls run among the other children.  I was the only parent present.  Within several minutes, I heard a little boy's voice calling names.  "Stupid head.  You're a stupid head."

I ducked my head under the slide and saw the boy, otherwise angel-faced, pointing a finger at my three-year-old daughter.  He backed her into a corner and leaned forward.  "You're stupid.  Poopy.  You're a stupid poopy head."

He had no time to react.  I moved directly in front of him and crouched down to his level, suddenly feeling very large and noting how he seemed quite small.  I waited quietly for one moment and then spoke calmly.  "The words you are using aren't kind, and you're saying those words to my daughter.  You need to stop, and you need to apologize.  I am her mother, and I will not let you treat her that way."  I held my gaze.

He stopped.  He swallowed.  He apologized.  Then, he left.

My daughter squeezed my hand.

If only protecting them from getting hurt always could be this easy.

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Short and Sweet: Honesty

An honest exchange with my three-year-old in 100 or fewer words:

Even though Brooke no longer naps, she still spends quiet time in her bedroom in the afternoon.  Today I tucked in Kerrington and then led Brooke to her room and pulled out several toys.

"Brooke, if you get tired, you can lay down on your bed to rest.  Otherwise, it's quiet time for you to play."

She looked thoughtful.  "Mommy, I think I like loud time better.  You know, not quiet time.  Noisy time."

Yes, Brooke, I know.  I know.

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Such a Day

There are days in life, unbidden and unassuming, that open wide and surprise you with their clarity and ease.  Today was such a day.

The sun never broke through the clouds, just diffused a soft light over the changing trees.  Leaves rustled and lazily swirled to the ground.  Flocks of birds moved through the sky in careless, graceful arcs.

My girls played outside contentedly for nearly three hours this afternoon, pausing only to ask for a drink of water, or to show me a newly fallen red-brown leaf, or to point out the caterpillar that had curled into a ball to escape their probing fingers.

I sat outside, forcing myself to be aware of the temperate fall air.  Too often I'm only aware of the air when it's extreme -- sweltering and oppressive, or frigid and harsh -- but to be aware of the perfect neutrality of temperature, to consciously appreciate a temperature that calls no attention to itself, is an exercise that draws you to be grateful for so many other small blessings that often get overlooked.

We came inside, ate a simple meal, and just moments ago, Joel came through the door from work.  He's upstairs with the girls now, thudding and clomping and playing a game that involves whacking each other with pillows and yelling about invading mosquitoes.

Oh, today is such a day.

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Goodbye, Nap. I Will Miss You.

Our middle child, Brooke, has stopped napping.  I've suspected that she was headed in this direction for many weeks now, but I've been hesitant to put it in writing.  Secretly, I've entertained hopes that she'd rebound with consistent afternoon slumbers.  This hasn't happened.  She's embracing mid-day wakefulness like a champion.

Oh snap.

Of course, next month she'll be turning three-and-a-half.  Some mothers could quickly point out, "Well, my kid stopped napping when he was two," and another could chime in, "And mine stopped napping at one," and someone could potentially add, "My daughter never napped well -- never -- so there's no room to complain when a child naps for over three years." 

To which I will preemptively respond: true.  I'll also add that that many other women probably had longer and worse labors than I did, and they'd hate hearing that I never once got stretch marks during my three pregnancies.  But, I might fall behind in a host of other categories, and life is just too short to get caught up in the comparison trap because it's never beneficial, is it not?

So, where was I? 

Oh, yes.  My daughter has stopped napping -- and I am in mourning.

Doesn't she recognize how tired I am in the afternoon directly after lunch?  Doesn't she know that I feel better when she sleeps?  This is a faulty strain of logic, I know.  It's similar to asking a child to put on warmer clothes and cover their bare feet with socks because you're cold, or asking your husband to please drink something when you're in labor simply because you're unbearably thirsty and the nurses will only let  you suck on a measly dixie-cup's worth of ice chips.  (For the record, I'm guilty on both accounts.)

I want to look at her and say:  "Dear child, if I was given the option to slow down and settle into a cozy bed in the middle of the day, I would take it.  I would revel in someone tucking me in and telling me that it was permissible -- good even -- to rest.  I wouldn't do what your daddy does, which is to wake up from a nap ten minutes later, refreshed and alert, with a new vision for the rest of the day.  I would turn that nap into a two-hour daytime coma and wake up in a haze where -- for a few moments -- I couldn't recall what month it was, let alone what day it was." 

In return, she would look at me blankly and say, "So, do you want to play?"

I would sigh and say, "Okay.  Let's play something very still and quiet.  Let's play a game called Mommy Pretends to Nap.  It goes something like this."

And then I would curl up on the floor with a pillow and play for as long as she would let me.

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Beginner's Luck

Title:  Beginner's Luck

Subtitle:  You know that scene in The Karate Kid where, much to Mr. Miyagi's disbelief, Daniel catches a fly with chopsticks on his first try?  I can relate.  While walking through a field of clover, I told Reese how I've never yet seen one of the four-leaf variety in person before.  Within several minutes, she plucked this.  You beginner's luck, Reese-san.

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Based on the Comments

Bloggers love to read comments.  Many of comments that readers leave are funny (props to you, commenters), and in the case of today's post, some comments even generate new ideas for me.  With that said, let me turn to one left by a reader yesterday:

"I once found a sippy cup of milk in the play kitchen days after it had gone bad.  At least the child had tried to put it in the fridge -- just not the one with any power to keep it cold."

Been there.  I view unfamiliar sippy cups warily.  If I haven't seen a child with that particular sippy at some point during that calendar day, I always fear the worst.  Once, we found a sippy cup that had been missing for over a week.  I shook it and heard a sickeningly thick sloshing sound -- the sound of curdled milk being shaken like a rancid maraca.

Incidentally, this also happened to be the sound of me making a very quick decision to immediately dispose of the sippy cup in the trash can in our garage rather than opening that Pandora's box of putrid misery in an attempt to sanitize it.

Think I'm overreacting?  Have you ever scraped out the contents of a sippy cup?

So, yes, that particular sippy cup ended its existence prematurely.

It reminded me of a story I overheard from a couple whose baby had a diaper explosion.  They had taken a pair of scissors and physically cut his onesie in half to remove it rather than pulling it over his head.  "There was no way that was going to end well," the dad had concluded.  "We had to cut our losses," the mother added.

What about you?  Have you ever thrown in the towel?

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Don't Ask, Just Tell

I find a slice of cold pizza sitting on our kitchen counter, random and unannounced.

Joel enters the room and gestures toward it.  "Don't eat that."

I hadn't been planning to do so, but I just have to ask.  "Why is there pizza out?"

"Not sure.  I just found it in the bathroom."

I'm silent.  How have we gotten to a point in life that a slice of pizza can migrate from our refrigerator to our bathroom without our knowledge?  Where, exactly, had it been discovered in the bathroom?  On the sink?  (One can hope.)  How can three children be so adept at rearranging the contents of our house each day so that our possessions continually shift and multiply and disappear and reemerge in unlikely locations?  Will this ever stop?

But, I can't express any of this.  I just look at the pizza suspiciously and ask, "Why?"

Joel shrugs back with a smile.  "Robin, at this point, I don't ask; I just tell.  Definitely, don't eat that pizza."

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How Did We Make it Through?

I'm tired.  Last night, Kerrington cried in ways that she hasn't cried in a long time -- cries reminiscent of a newborn, cries that never seemed to fully stop but only temporarily to simmer, cries that interrupted our sleep enough that I felt more tired upon waking than upon going to bed.

She's cutting three molars.  The poor child.

Although I'm a person who never drinks coffee and generally has sworn off all caffeine, today I downed 20 fluid ounces of Wild Cherry Pepsi by nine in the morning.  I would have taken it through an IV if available.

It's made me wonder how I ever survived the newborn phase.  How did I ever survive the newborn phase three separate times?

Somehow, I did.  Somehow mothers of newborns learn how to function on erratic sleep while perpetually smelling a little like spit-up milk, writing thank you notes, and smiling for pictures.  They make it through hour by hour, and when they finally catch their breath -- perhaps months, perhaps years later -- they might look back and think, "How did I make it through that?"

This is oddly comforting.  One day -- years from now -- I likely will look back and wonder, "How did Joel and I juggle our work schedules for the eight years that we had preschoolers without ever using daycare?  How did I push my grading to the late hours of the night so I could be with the girls during the day?  How did we make it through?"

And then I'll remember, "One day at a time, with God's grace."

Which is good, and probably will be comforting, because by that point my dear sweet baby, toddler, and first-grader will have morphed into tweens and a teenager, and I may desperately be chugging Wild Cherry Pepsi while they're in the throes of all-things-awkward-and-angsty and wondering how we're all going to make it through.

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