Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'm not gonna go anymore, the world's worst undergraduate philosophy #sponsored

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of APU as a sponsor of the BlogU conference.

It took me seven years to earn a four-year degree.

Hold your applause while we do some math. I completed my entire adolescent education in 13 years, from ages 5–17. It took me more than half of that time to get a BA in English.

I’d like to tell you I took so long because I had to work to support my family who, in a tragic turn of events, had to sell the farm and try like hell to make ends meet in a modest, but aging ranch home where myself and 12 siblings, plus one scrappy little dog, came together and turned our misfortune into the Great American Success Story (theatrical adaptation coming to theaters this Thanksgiving).

The truth is that I just couldn’t focus. I worked some and buried my father some and took only 12-credit semesters some. There were whole semesters that I opted to work fulltime at what should have been a part-time job. There were, later, whole summers that I crammed as many credits as possible into my course load so that I could finish before a decade slipped by. Sometime between stepping into my first class (French, oh la la! Sacre bleu! Zut alors! Fries!) and my father's death when I was 20 and my desire to earn money for things like gas, food, and course books—I forgot to take classes.

I was a paradox of sorts. Paradox is a word I learned in college. It means, roughly, "I’m trying to sound like I’m complicated and interesting." I was a bright student who preferred not to study. I'd hoped I was just "bored." It's a term that parents use to describe their underachieving, homework-ignoring children. "He's just bored in class! That’s all. If he were more challenged he'd do his times tables." But I was not bored. I was not that bright, either. I was just not ready to be a full time student.

I was the collegiate version of Office Space’s Peter Gibbons. I just wasn’t gonna go.

Turns out you still have to pay, even if you don’t play. And by play I mean research themes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Which, I actually did do. It was Personal Finance I skipped out on, and thus all the school debt. As an English major I’m qualified to point out that is called "irony."

As a fully realized adult, I’m qualified to point out that life is not the linear course schedule traditional college would have us believe it to be. I probably shouldn't have gone to a traditional, bricks-and-mortar school at all. But that was the 90s and online learning was like self-tanning. It’s reputation was spotty and if you did it wrong you ended up with orange palms. (That’s what I heard.)

Now, though? If I had college to do over in this day, at this time? I'd take classes online. I could work and study. I could take a few classes at a time on my schedule, instead of what I opted to do, namely, sign up and pay for a full schedule but fail to attend class. 

If I could relive my co-ed days today, I might opt for some new-fangled distance learning. I might have tried out American Public University’s diverse offerings so that I wouldn’t have had to choose between working and learning, between ill-advised partying or 8 am classes. The truth is, with the advent of internet-based technology, virtual classrooms are keeping pace, sometimes even outpacing the traditional college experience.

But I can’t undo my damage. At least, not until I finish paying off the last of my Stafford Loan sometime in 2026. But you, yes, you in the Starbucks with the spotty Wi-Fi and the good part-time job or you with the kids and the unfinished degree or you with the entrepreneurial bent and the newly launched cupcake business (or whatever, I just like little cakes)—you can learn from my mistakes. Don’t feel like there’s only one way forward in your quest for a degree or a certificate or even a class that interests you. Think outside the brick box.

And never take a Friday class if you don’t have to. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

How Literal Descriptions of Movies Might Save My Marriage

I love movies. Which is to say, I love going to them when I have a babysitter. Which is to say I would go watch paint dry as long as I had a babysitter.

I could probably get a kind of contact high sniffing the paint, if nothing else.

When we do manage to get the babysitter settled, we hit the movies. This means that Tim and I are up on the newest releases, so long as you don't count the ones we missed.

The hardest part about movie date night is deciding what to see.

First, Tim has crap taste in movies. Usually. Not because he actually has crap taste, but because he's totally swayed by the movie marketing machine. "Wow! That looks awesome!" he might say about a futuristic film set in a subterranean village in which an Amazonian tribe of women have taken over and only one man still survives. It's the kind of film that only the Wanapuchee Star-Gazette has reviewed, "Better than soft porn! But with more talking!" Tim can't help it, he's just highly suggestible in terms of advertising. He is the target audience.

Second, I have a feeling that anything I suggest is immediately met with suspicion. It's not totally unwarranted. I tend to present the movies I want to see with only the attributes I think will appeal to Tim. "It's got Jennifer Lawrence in it! You know, from The Hunger Games movies? You loved her in those." This, I'll tell him. But I won't mention that she is playing a woman who lost half of her face in a terrible accident and that the entire movie takes place as a series of hallucinations she has while on high-dose pain meds.

So, here's where our tastes intersect.

It occurs to me that a literal description of movies might save our date night, if not our marriage. I don't want to someday break up my family because we can't decide which movie to see in 3D IMAX. If we took away the fluff—the marketing language and the Facebook likes—would we even go see movies at all? OR would we watch the paint dry somewhere, enjoying a shared buzz from Valspar eggshell in Bisque-It?

  • Godzilla: Angry lizard on growth hormones inspires people to band together to not die.
  • Noah: The Old Testament gets a 3D IMAX makeover.
  • 22 Jump Street: Grown men pose as teen boys but are really narcs and the audience suspends disbelief in order to enjoy TV nostalgia.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: A crew of humanoids, a vocabulary-limited tree, and a criminal raccoon save the galaxy while listening to hits from the 1970s.
  • Dawn of Planet of the Apes: Hyper-evolved apes fight humans decimated by a pandemic viral illness. Does not include sunrises.
  • Lego Movie: A commercial vehicle for children’s building blocks, Krazy Glue, and Will Ferrell. Plus a real toe-tapper that promotes happiness at all costs, despite an increasingly dark reality.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past: A movie about mutants whose subtitle is so uninformative it may well have been created by a random arrangement of poetry word magnets. 
Until such time as movie synopses take this brutally honest approach, I'll just have to keep lying to my husband. "Love Is Strange? A critically lauded love story about two gay men finally becoming a family and then being forced apart? No, I'm sure it's a sci-fi popcorn movie, babe. It has Marisa Tomei in it. You loved her in My Cousin Vinny!"

Friday, August 8, 2014

Literal Descriptions of Pre-School TV Shows

I'm very happy to report that 100% of my children are no longer pre-schoolers. This means that Caillou is officially dead to me. Along with his friends Barney, Dora, and any other muppet/animated hellion whose theme songs have made it impossible for me to remember important things like what's on my grocery list or my children's birthdays. Do-do-do-do-do-December? Nope, that's my birthday. 

I've been wondering what an alien life form would think of some of our children's television programming. At face value, here's what some of these shows seems to be about.


A young boy with alopecia lives in a world with limited secondary colors and no tertiary colors. 


Encephalitis causes a young bilingual girl to have hallucinations featuring animals in footwear and inanimate objects that sing.


A sea sponge huffs helium and tries to befriend a cranky, squid-version of Kenny G. 


A T-Rex proves to be a friend and off-key singer who does not indulge his carnivorous nature by ingesting the small children he's been put in charge of.

Yo Gabba Gabba

A sex toy and his band of monster/robot friends come to life to sing about germs and trying new foods between snippets of 8-bit animations.

Clifford the Big Red Dog

Mutant dog with an atypical fur color befriends a young girl. Despite what must be ginormous poops, the community at large embraces his presence.

Imagination Movers

Grown men with a severely limited wardrobe live in a house with secret rooms. Sometimes they sing about it. 

Doc McStuffins

A young girl is largely isolated from interaction with other humans while maintaining an unlicensed medical practice for stuffed animals. 

The Backyardigans

Animals with pigmentation disorders are presumed orphaned, but have formed a backyard band whose imaginations are sometimes set to a Zydeco soundtrack.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Open Letter To the Babies of Hipsters

Dear Hipster Babies,

Welcome to life in a first world country! Only here do we write open letters to everything from Chelsea Clinton’s unborn baby to “That Barista Who Made Me a Misto Instead of a Caffè Americano.” That’s lesson one. Everyone loves an open letter!

But you’ll know all about that when you have your first Google internet implant that’s bound to be available in your lifetime. So let’s talk about the other things a hipster baby needs to know.  

Mustaches. Sorry about all the mustaches. Ironic facial hair on dogs, coffee mugs, and miniature finger tattoos have lead to the proliferation of 'stache-themed baby items. Mustache pacifier? It's a thing. And if your parents live somewhere like Portland, OR or Brooklyn, NY, you'll get one at your baby shower. 

You'll look cool sporting a binkie with a handlebar mustache though, because you'll have a name to match your level of sardonic suckling. Yes, hipster babies, your names will be either gender neutral or plucked from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Nothing goes better with your 'stachifier than an alpaca-hair blankie and the name Myrtle or Gatsby. Have fun at the independent coffee house where you'll meet up with Zelda and Jasper in your vintage pram that makes even Mary Poppins say, "Practically perfect in every way."

If your folks take the gender-neutral name route, then on paper some of your names will prompt people to wonder, “Is that a boy or a girl?” It’s all fine and good to choose Jane or Bob, but today’s babies are sporting the sweetest little genderless names, like Harper and Riley. If you're lucky, you'll be born to real envelope pushers. Maybe you'll be named Person or Human!

Because they love the idea of you so much, hipster parents want you to have a self-determined life. They want this badly enough that they may not even reveal your gender to anyone, including you. They don't want to box you into a stereotype predicated on the knowledge that you have or don't have a penis. That might limit your journey of self-discovery. It says a lot about your teachers, your classmates, and most especially your grandma and grandpa that they will all still love you a whole lot, even if they don’t know which public bathroom to take you to.  

If your parents are into the gender thing, great news! You’ll be feted before your arrival at a gender-reveal party! Put that in your mason jar and sip it! From your grandmother to everyone your mother ever meets during her entire pregnancy, and in those first few weeks after delivery when she still appears pregnant, everyone will want to know if you’re a boy or a girl so that they can start advising your parents about whether or not to circumcise you. 

The best way to share your gender, if Pinterest is any guide, is by baking a color-coded cake for your gender-reveal party guests. Will your cake be pink or blue on the inside? Or, will it be baby-shaped—disturbing not only because of its creepy realism, but also because someone will have to slice into the cake in the most gruesome dessert scene since 1950s Jell-O molds?

It's important that you understand what freedom means to hipsters, now that you're one of their offspring. Like the hippies who inform today's hipster philosophy, but with more emphasis on 401k savings and social media, your parents really want you to be free to be you, your own true self, as long as that means having a rooftop urban garden. 

For example, your parents might encourage freedom from pants. Yes, hipster parents might help you to use "elimination communication," which sounds like a deep and meaningful talk about how to thin your vintage lunch box collection, but is actually about not wearing diapers. Social scientists and your own grandparents may never understand why this is preferable to Pampers, but part of being a successful hipster is inscrutable and seemingly meaningful parenting decisions. 

Part of making your hipster way means redefining traditional roles. Maybe you'll have a stay-at-home-dad or a work-at-home-mom or a goat from whose milk your parents make and sell artisanal cheeses. Or, as is the case in the pricey cities where hipsters congregate, a stay-at-home grandma. After all, mom's setting up her found art exhibit at a studio in a neighbor's basement and dad's a recent grad and self-taught app designer, so free child-care from a woman who is paying for her own mother's assisted living expenses and your organic applesauce is all they can afford. 

We know that the world can seem like a scary place, an overwhelming and unpredictable place, a place with a lot of smartphones, but everyone here really does want the best for you. Even if these people can’t agree about whether you're better off in the charter public preschool or the progressive private preschool.

The thing to remember is that hipster parents just love their babies. We know because they arranged an elaborate save the date announcement for your placenta burial ceremony, which they inked on burlap with milk paint, then took a picture of it and put it on Instagram (Valencia filter) for their closest friends, many of whom they've never met in person. 

That’s also why they've signed you up for foreign language immersion starting in kindergarten and have already hired that kid who got accepted at every Ivy League university to start tutoring you when you turn seven.

So, welcome, Emory or Peyton or Wilma or Rufus! One of your parents sports a monocle and the other one likes it. 


Your fellows of the First World

*This originally appeared on my other blog.

While you're here, buy my book.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

If You Show A Pregnant Woman Your Stretch Marks . . .

This is an apology. Sorry, Paula­, no pregnant woman should have had to see that.

The story starts like this: After the twins were born it’s fair to say that my belly became something like a fifth appendage. Need to store a small items? I can hold your pen, a few coins, and a Polly Pocket under the fold of my "pendulous apron." In less frightening visual terms, it’s also known as a "mother’s apron." That sounds quaint. An apron rimmed in rickrack perhaps, not one shot through with silvery stretch marks.

Mine is not so terrible that it can’t be flattened down and tucked into a sturdy pair of Spanx. In fact, when I was in the throes of my post-twin workout craze, my tight abdomen paired with tight jeans tricked onlookers into exclaiming, "I can’t believe you had twins!"

Fooled you.

One friend, Paula, pregnant with her first child, couldn’t get over how flat my belly was. We were at a girls’ night out with half a dozen other friends. With an optimism I should have guessed had something to do with her own hopes for an unmarred post-baby body, she enthused about my tight abs. This made me feel, naturally, pumped about my body image. It also made me want to show her my parlor trick with denim. I felt I needed to prove my membership in the club of women who emerge on the other side of pregnancy with stretch marks, scars, a weak bladder, and the facial hair of a circus bearded lady. No poseur, I.

I pulled out the flap of belly that was tucked behind my waistband.

She went pale. Somewhere in her psyche a toned, pre-baby version of herself cried out "DEAR GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE!?" Her fear over one day having to tote around a third, squishy boob stretched from hip to hip in the vicinity of her stomach was palpable. (I say vicinity because it’s awfully hard to pin that flap to a permanent location, it’s just so migratory.)  I had scared the crap out of her.

"Don’t worry!" I backpedaled. "I had twins, this won’t happen to you!" If I could have swaddled her and rocked her on my lap, I would have, with a bottle full of whiskey to calm her nerves.

Eventually the color return to her cheeks, we all chatted across the table, distracting each other from my revelation. But I think it’s fair to assume that, sometimes, when she closes her eyes before bed, she’s startled out of sleepiness by the great white reality of my apron.

Month later, Paula had a healthy baby girl. She was spared the mother’s apron as evidenced by the post-baby tattoo she got on her still firm tummy. But I’m sure she has some physical change to lament. We all do.

I've yet to meet a mother who relishes the loss of breast tissue and skin tone. But there is something chummy about being able to share the pregnancy battle wounds. "My episiotomy almost went all the way to my back door," a woman admits to a friend. "That's why the fiber supplements." "Yeah, I have a varicose vein that goes from ankle to butt cheek," her friend reveals. "That's why the beach cover ups."

Maybe you havee stretch marks that run up your back? Does one breast hang lower than its mate? A million things can change with your body after pregnancy and it’s not always easy to shrug it off and love what’s left.

These days I sometimes fixate on the problem areas ("problem" as if my saddle bags are the type to gets arrested for being drunk and disorderly). There are many ways in which I would like to improve my looks. None of them include hot yoga or expensive creams. I require nothing less than a surgical intervention to put things back where they started.

However, I like to think that at any given moment, myselfany of us, all of usare turning someone’s head. Say, the guy in the car next to you at a red light who winks, not because he knows a thing about your training bra sized-breasts or your pancake belly, but because he likes your smile. Maybe there’s someone behind you at the grocery checkout who likes your rear view and envies it for herself. Your shoulders, neck, arms, legs, curves and contours, twinkling eyes, and bubbly wit are drawing appreciative looks at any given moment.

The best way I can make up for my gaffe, my moment as the boogeyman to my pregnant friend, is to say that there are still lots of things I like about my body. And even moreespecially since becoming a motherthat I like about the woman I've become. Let’s all of us veteran moms, whose bodies have been in the trenches, do the would-be mothers of today a favor. Smile, twinkle, and be witty.  We should always assume that a pregnant woman is watching us live comfortably, happily in our bodies, flanked by our families, and thinking, "I hope I look exactly like her post-baby. Smile and all."

Friday, July 25, 2014

50 Shades of Food–Sex Dreams

Once upon a time I posted this on Facebook . . .
I had a ridiculously steamy dream about Alton Brown last night. Everyone remained clothed, but I was completely hot and bothered by a sexy display of good eats. This is probably the point int he Weight Watchers program no one talks about. The food–sex dream continuum.
I know what you're thinking. "You had a dream about the sexiest man alive, Alton Brown of the Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen and Iron Chef America and, formerly, Good Eats, and it didn't involve getting naked and rubbing each other down with lard?" And I say, "No. That's the dream with Paula Deen."

This dream was even better. It involved me letting Alton put things in my mouth and watching the llamas chill on his veranda, as they do in dreams.

But this post isn't about llamas. It's about sex.

My dream was a sizzling, too-hot-for-network-TV number. I hit snooze—not once, but twice. There was enough heat to fire a brick oven. An oven in which Dream Alton made me a lascivious goat cheese and pheromone pizza and Dream Me clawed at Dream Alton. In short, I was acting like a cat in heat. A hungry cat. All yowls and stomach rumbles and rubbing up against things. The kind that would make love to a ferret if that ferret was also making smoky BBQ ribs.

It was a dream that was almost entirely about food. He was my Chef Christian Grey, a dominant man bent on feeding me in bites and licks until I melted like so much butter. Very little of it involved touching; it was tantric take-out.

Make no mistake, it was a sex dream, not a cooking class. There was flirting between tastes. There was near contact. There was desire—not only mine for a dangerously attractive souffle. Dream Alton was a tease; all come-hither cooking and almost-making-out. Trust me, Dream Me tried to seduce him. It was embarrassing.

It was delicious. It was disgusting. It was bizarre. More bizzare even than that business in Nine 1/2 Weeks when Mickey Rourke was still hot enough that Kim Basinger allowed him to empty an entire fridge-worth of food on her because who doesn't want to get busy with honey on their privates?

Hot version of Mickey Rourke no longer available in stores. 

It was everything a sex dream should be. Something visceral stayed with me when I woke up. It's was with me for hours, flapping in my gut like self-destructive, tarted-up butterflies looking for a rare steak and a night without questions. It had me counting the hours until my husband and I might have a little chef and naughty sous-chef role-play.

I am aware of Mr. Brown's status as Not A Sex Symbol. I'm equally sure that I will have to add him to The List. The List, you may know, is what some spouses keep for use with a "Get Out of Monogamy Free" card. Previously, every line has been devoted to Matt Damon. I've cleared a spot for Dream Alton.

What the tarty butterflies are telling me is that this kind of dreamscape can be a tool for keeping the marital bed toasty, if full of crumbs. A good marriage is all about the long game. Your ardor is never going to resemble the early days of groin-tingling excitement that once drew you together. It's not likely you can raise a family and maintain the energy required for a night of desire. 

That's good, though, because what's left after the flaming loins have been put out is a safe place. In a good marriage, fantasy can flourish. With a loving partner, where trust has trumped lust, it's okay to get your freak on. In fact, it may well be encouraged. Just leave the llamas out of it. 

Tonight I will be cooking with gas, but it won't be in the kitchen. For the rest of you, I hope your Dream Alton brings the sugar and the spice.


*A version of this post originally appeared on my other site.

Monday, June 30, 2014

My Father, Who Art Named Kevin

Let’s start with an informal poll. Raise your hand if you’ve eaten food off of the floor.

Okay, now raise your hand if you didn’t raise your hand and are a liar.

Next poll. Who has eaten “damp” food that’s fallen the floor? Like, a watermelon slice or J-ello?

Last poll. Be brave.

Who’s eaten food that their father found in the gutter on the side of the road when she was ten?

When I was ten, I ate a crushed, but still hermetically sealed Hostess Cupcake that my father found on the side of the road. But there’s context. There’s always context.
Mark, my biological father, had context of his own. He was, on the one hand, a man who married an 18-year -old, dropped out of college, produced a daughter, and was divorced when that daughter’s mother decided that life as a lunatic’s spouse was no longer for her. On the other hand, his family is a real treat. That is to say, growing up Mark was no Hostess Cupcake.

Those roadkill cakes had context, too. My father had been out running when he saw them with their signature white icing swirl, laying in the gutter, practically unmangled. It was not something he’d normally bring me, what with his diabetes and an eternal hatred for both enjoyment and fat people. Add to that that he was also the cheapest bastard alive and there was no way he’d have bought me cake, never mind a brand name snack cake. This was manna from heaven, if heaven were a 24-hour convenience store.

So when he returned to the small apartment he lived in, one I was legally obligated to visit every other weekend and each summer, he gave me his treasure. And I ate it.

When a crazy man brings you gutter cakes, you eat them. You eat them standing in the living room while he watches. You thank him and ask him to retell the tale of how he just found them there and thought, “I bet Nicole would enjoy eating trash!”

I bet you think you’d have refused, but one did not refuse my father. Not because he would have beaten or locked my in a closet, but because I would have had to endure his profound disappointment. His was the kind that could only be exorcised on the wind of a heavy sigh after hours of silence and shunning. Plus, I like cake.

Let’s revisit that poll. Have you ever done something in context that you’d never consider in any other circumstance? Remember: Honestly leads to emotional freedom.

Another thing that leads to emotional freedom is death. When my father died when I was 20, I was free, in a fashion. Free to make my own decisions about what lay before me in adulthood: keg stands, finishing college, dating seriously, diet fads, jobs, legally binding marital union, home ownership, pets, taxes, credit card bills, children, and cable TV service calls. Well, kind of free. Because, for better or worse, the framework laid by my father would factor heavily into my choices. It’s not enough to be on the brink of adulthood with the absence of poor parenting. A young person needs, especially a daughter, the on-going influence of a high-quality parent, especially a father. There’s just something about daddy issues.

But how does one identify a high-quality parent? A high-quality parent smiles often, revels in your triumphs, expects better of you and helps you achieve it, and does not pilot the car with his knees while rolling joints on the highway. A high-quality parent avoids DUIs.

A high-quality parent chooses to parent. This is not to be confused with choosing to become a parent. Idiots successfully make this decision with little more than an available sexual partner and a fifth of vodka. But once that kid arrives life gets overwhelming and precious and wonderful and terrible all at once and we realize that parenting is a series of choices. Constantly shifting, demanding, urgent, choices. A quality parent, one who lets you stay up late to bond over cookies and milk but also makes you brush your teeth before bed, or one who takes you on college tours but remains relatively supportive when you tell him you want to me a mime, is a parent up to the task of choosing. He can be scared and he can be confused and he can even hate it sometimes, but he’s all in. And so, even though he loved me, and he did in his way, my Mark was not up to the choosing. But my Kevin is. Because sometime between the day my mother and Mark divorced and the day my mother and Kevin said “I do,” Kevin showed up and made a choice. He met me when I was 6 and he was Kevin, and by the time I was 16 he was daddy.

When my father was holding grudges against me and giving me the silent treatment because, and this is a quote “You don’t love me the right way.” My Kevin was talking with my mom about having more kids, and saying, “But we already have a daughter; we have Nicole.”

Kevin taught me that boys are indeed checking out my legs and that I should be both proud and wary. He taught me that his disappointment over my actions is not disappointment over my entire being. He taught me to love and laugh and listen to the important people in my life. The only thing more consistent than his love and support is the ticking of time itself.

It occurs to me now, as a parent, that biology has nothing on commitment. The quality parent commits to the whole package and renews that commitment daily. Because even when you start on the road to parenthood, you don’t get to be a parent until you get in there and make do. Long after the diapers have been moldering in a landfill and the tantrums of tweendom have ebbed, there will be an adult child who will look back and remember that you—daddy—were there in the thick of it all and those times will be the touchstones along that all-grown-up child’s path that help her navigate bills, jobs, legally binding marital union, cable TV service calls, and even her own children.

So, informal poll, would you choose a different dad? For my part, I couldn’t have picked a better father. But then, I’ll never need to because Kevin picked me.

I wrote this piece for That's What She Said, 2013. I read it in front of a live audience. You can see the reading on YouTube.