For The Record, I’m Still Trying: On Unconventional Marriage Vows

Now that nearly two decades have past, I feel like it’s time to set the record straight about my wedding. But before I do, let me just say in my defense that I got married when I was very, very young. Plus, I’d never been to a single wedding before my own.

With that said, it was not my intention to embarrass my  husband during our wedding ceremony. It just kind of happened. In the midst of all the fun I was having that day, being the center of attention and all, I temporarily forgot that a wedding ceremony was supposed to be a serious play, with all the actors sticking to their lines, rather than an improv comedy show.

Here’s what I’m referring to: When the minister said, “Will you have this man to be your wedded husband, to live together in marriage, will you love him, comfort him, honor him, and keep him, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, so long as you both shall live,” I was supposed to say, “I will,” like I had practiced at the rehearsal the day before.

But for some reason I didn’t.

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My feminist mother thought it was ridiculous that only my father should get to walk me down the aisle. He knew better than to argue.

“I’ll try,” I said, smiling and shaking my head like it was going to be quite an ordeal, all that trying.

Nervous laughter filled the chapel. My husband-to-be gave me a “behave” look. Then he got me back during the kiss scene of our wedding by being mortifyingly amorous. Touché, Honey, if I’ve never properly acknowledged that move.

Some of you might be gasping in horror at my nonchalance on such an important occasion. You might even call me blasphemous for distorting the intention of the solemn marriage vow. But hey, it was a Unitarian church. Unitarians are open-minded and embrace improv. Or at least they should.

So have I ever regretted saying, “I’ll try” instead of “I will?”

Nope.

Here’s why: I’ve seen a lot of marriages fail. And all those marriages began with the traditional, oh-so-confident words, “I do” or “I will.” The divorce rate for first marriages in the U.S. continues to be around 50 percent. So the odds of success are not that great.

My parents’ marriage really threw me. They told me on three separate occasions that they were getting divorced. “Sit down, we have something to tell you…”

Three times I prepared myself for two houses, awkward visitations with my father and general emotional upheaval. But then, with the help of a marriage counselor, my parents tried harder and took trips together and the threatened divorce never happened. They began laughing again. I’ve never seen two people try so hard in a marriage. Despite my lingering psychological damage, my parents’ marital perseverance made me realize that it’s possible for some nearly hopeless marriages to rise from the depths of despair if both parties are willing to try.

I wonder if my impromptu “vow” during my wedding came from my protective unconscious since I had seen first-hand both the power of trying in a marriage and the failure of many marriages I thought to be impenetrable. I also wonder if I have tried harder in my marriage than I might have otherwise because I never felt trapped or constricted by rigid, no-room-for-doubt vows.

“Today you’re making it a little difficult, but I’m still trying,” I sometimes joke with my husband.

Every time I attend a wedding I always secretly hope the bride and groom will say, “I’ll try” during their vows. Of course they never do. But wouldn’t it be more honest? Because, really, that’s all any of us can do: try. And sometimes we will fail. But at least we will know that we didn’t give up without trying really, really hard.

I’m grateful for my patient, kind husband. I realize that some grooms probably wouldn’t have responded well to improv at their own wedding. Yet mine shrugged off my antics like a secure, seasoned pro.

Still, like any marriage, it hasn’t been all roses. When September 4th rolls around I think I deserve a great anniversary gift for all that trying, don’t you?

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Goodbye and Good Riddance Shoulder Frank

Is it just me or does everyone experience the ugly little troll who hurls insults into your ears as you try to do something difficult?

I call my troll Shoulder Frank. He’s short and squatty with unkempt hair and green hands and feet. His teeth are red and misaligned. His eyes are too big for his face. And every time he comes he wears the same hideous black and red striped shirt. Oh, and he smells like sulphur, so there’s no mistaking the fact that he has arrived. He shows up while I’m writing without ever letting me know in advance that he’s coming. And then he plops down on my shoulder, kicks his little legs and bullies me.

Take yesterday, for instance. There I was at my computer, slogging away on my novel revisions, when Bam! Shoulder Frank appeared out of nowhere. The first thing he did was read the paragraph I had just written.

“This stinks!” Shoulder Frank said. I tried to ignore him and continue typing.

He leaned closer. “Are you kidding me? No one will ever want to read this.”

“Go away, Shoulder Frank,” I said. I tried to shrug him off, but he’s got a strong grip.

“Give it up! This is the most boring thing I’ve ever read!” he said. Evil laughter spewed from his gaping, odorous mouth.

I jumped up from my chair and stomped out of the room. There wasn’t enough space for both of us in my office. I paced the kitchen waiting for him to leave. I drank glass after glass of water, as if I could flood Shoulder Frank away.

Every time I peeked into my study to see if he’d gone, Shoulder Frank jumped up and down in front of my keyboard shouting, “Hahahahahahah!”

So I went on a walk. Then I did the laundry. Then I checked Facebook. Then I thought about making cookies. Then I decided not to make cookies because what I really wanted to do was write. Then I got mad. I was letting Shoulder Frank have all the power. Not only did he want me to stop writing, he wanted me to stuff my face with cookies when I had expressly set a goal to refrain from eating cookies this week. Shoulder Frank probably knew that. Because apparently Shoulder Frank has free access to my thoughts.

If there is anyone who does not deserve attention, it is Shoulder Frank.

There are only two places that would allow a vile creature like Shoulder Frank to exist: The twin cities of Fear and Self-Doubt. I don’t want to live in either of those places. I live in Dallas. I choose my visitors. Shoulder Frank is not invited.

Just so there’s never any confusion on his part, I made a sign and put it on the door to my office. If he ever tries to show up again – and he will because he’s more persistent than anyone I know – I am just going to point to the sign and say, “Rules are rules, Shoulder Frank. You’re not welcome here. Now go home and let me get back to work.”

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Up, Up, Up. Lessons in Gratitude from a Dying Teenager

Sometimes we need a reminder of what is beautiful about this life we live and why we should appreciate every moment. Today that reminder comes from Zach Sobiech, the 18-year-old who passed away yesterday morning from a rare cancer. This movie is a tribute to an amazingly strong, positive, and exuberant human being as well as to the incredible parents who raised him. Zach’s song, Clouds, is the lasting gift he leaves his family and friends. Watch his story. Listen to his song. You will be forever changed.

Teaching Teenagers to Drive is Not for The Anxiety Prone

I just want to go on record to admit that I am a horrible driving teacher. And I don’t think that my son would argue with me. As a parent, here’s what I’ve realized from the terrifying experience of having a teenager with a driver’s permit: If your own first memory involves anxiety and fear, you probably having no business teaching a teen to drive.

Exhibit A: When I was three years old, my older brother got to go to real school while I had to stay home with mom. On his first day of school, I was seriously pissed off that I couldn’t get on the bus with him. To stop my incessant whining, my mother and I struck a bargain: she would let me walk my brother down the driveway to the bus while she watched out the window. (That probably wouldn’t happen today, but it was the ’70s after all). Once the bus pulled away, I began a tortured trudge back to my boring house with no teachers or show and tell or recess with monkey bars and swings.

Suddenly, I noticed dark, wiggly tentacles extending across the pavement. Slithering. Like they wanted to wrap around my legs and drag me away. I considered closing my eyes and making a run for my house. But I feared the tentacles might catch me and drag me down below the earth. My heart galloping, I screamed and began to cry, frozen in place.

My mother rushed outside and, once she figured out the problem, proceeded to explain to me what shadows were. Yes, that’s right. I freaked out over a bunch of shadows. And I still remember it.

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Don’t these shadows look kind of like tentacles?

My faith in the world was shaken a little bit that day and has remained somewhat wobbly ever since.

If you have any fear-based formative memories like that and you still harbor a bit of anxiety today, I respectfully submit that perhaps you should outsource your teen’s learning-to-drive process to save your sanity. Asking an anxious person to teach an impulsive teen with poor direction skills to drive is like asking someone who faints at the site of blood to become an EMT for a year. Some things, especially those involving life or death, need to be left to professionals, or at the very least, non-panicky adults.

My son got his permit last summer but since he goes to boarding school, he doesn’t get a lot of driving practice. The last time we drove together was in December. It was raining and holiday shopping traffic in Dallas had built up to a crazed frenzy. My son was home from school for winter break and was eager to practice driving. I let him drive to a bookstore, determined to give calm, patient, wise instruction. The short trip went something like this:

Me: two hands on the wheel, please.

Son: I know, mom.

Me (seeing brake lights ahead): Be ready to stop.

Son (rolling eyes): I know, mom.

Me (slamming hands to dashboard as car cuts us off): Stopstopstopstopstop! Did you even see that guy?

Son: Can you please just say stop ONE time? Oh my God! I need to be medicated to drive with you!

Trembling younger son: Can I get out and walk?

Me: Can you just pull over and let me drive for now?

Son: Fine, forget it, I don’t even want a license.

Obviously, this is not a recipe for my son’s driving success or my family’s mental health. I have no idea how other anxious people teach their kids how to drive and survive the process. I’m all for persevering through fear and meeting life’s challenges but I’m also a believer in realizing when you are outgunned, so to speak.

My horoscope today tells me to “Ask for help and get it.” So before my son comes home for the summer and asks, “Can I drive?”, I want to submit this official letter:

Dear Son,

With minor exceptions for country roads, I respectfully resign from being your driving instructor, effective immediately. I am gratefully transferring the reigns over to Dad and to the capable people (regardless of whether or not they pick their nails during your drive time) at the local driving school. I hope you understand this is for the good of all involved. 

Love,

Mom

Phew. I feel calmer already.

When You Know You’ve Hit The In-law Jackpot

My husband has awesome parents. They recently moved near me after years of living several hours away. As luck would have it, it’s more expensive here than where they lived and they moved to a small apartment that doesn’t have an outdoor grilling space. It’s a bummer because my father-in-law is an amazing griller and smoker. He has never met a raw cut of meat or fish that he can’t masterfully infuse with flavor, a skill he thankfully passed down to my husband.

He and my husband are both Big Green Egg fanatics. In fact, I’m anticipating the inevitable October day when we drive to Atlanta pulling our Egg and a freezer full of meat on a trailer for Eggtoberfest, which is a weekend-long meat-smoking and eating experience with thousands of other Egg fans.

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Our backyard set up with the Egg on the left and the gas grill on the right.

So now that they live in Dallas, my father-in-law no longer has a grill or a Big Green Egg at his disposal. But we do. On a recent Saturday morning, he called.

“Do you all have plans for the evening?” he asked.

We are kind of boring and very poor planners, so the answer was no.

“Good,” he said. “I have a recipe I want to try on the Egg. Can we come and cook you dinner?”

Did I even need to think about that? “Definitely!”

Around 6 p.m. my in-laws showed up with grocery sacks full of several different kinds of cheese and crackers, beautiful lamb chops, romaine lettuce to grill, and, get this…flowers! Who comes to cook you dinner and also brings you flowers?

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A week later, the flowers they brought still brightened up my kitchen.

Dinner was excellent. Our two contributions to the meal were wine and dessert (Nothing Bundt Cakes chocolate, chocolate chip). Normally I would have baked something but I couldn’t leave the couch for most of the day because I was reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. If you’ve read it, you know why I was completely out of commission until I finished.

I’m really glad my in-laws have moved to Dallas. And I hope they get many more hankerings for meals from the Egg. I just saw a recipe for bacon-wrapped trout in Bon Appétit that I think we they would love.

Don’t Forget the Advice Asterisk

IMG_0020I am falling short in the advice-giving department of parenting, especially with regards to gratitude. I realized this after my teenage son broke his arm skiing recently when he was with friends. A man and his daughter stopped to ask if he was OK.

“I think I need ski patrol,” my son said, grimacing in pain. “My arm feels broken.”

“Your legs still work, right?” the man asked.

“Right.”

“Then you can ski down yourself,” the man said.

“Oh. Yeah. Right. Thank you so much for your help. Thank you!” my sweet son gushed to those super helpful people before getting up and skiing downhill with the broken arm. “And don’t worry, Mom, I thanked them, like, the rest of the way down,” he told me from the emergency room right before the orthopedic surgeon set his bone. Luckily, he didn’t fall and make the break any worse. But he could have. And it would have been partly my fault.

I have always told my kids to be not just polite, but the MOST polite people in a room. To always thank people who help them because gratitude and appreciation are so important. But now I realize that I may have gone overboard and failed to prepare them for situations where common sense needs to override gratitude and good manners. Of course I warned them about overtly threatening situations, such as the well-dressed man who randomly offers candy from his car. But what about more subtle situations where people appear to be helping but may not have the skills or judgment to provide legitimate assistance?

In short, I forgot the advice asterisk.

And now that my kids are teenagers, they usually ignore any advice I give them and do the opposite of whatever I suggest. So, I’ve probably missed my window. But for the sake of other parents whose children are still young enough to care what they think, here’s how I would have modified some of the advice I gave my kids:

1. You can make up for a lot of shortcomings by being nice and polite to people. *But don’t be so nice that you fail to stick up for yourself when needed.

2. Live as if you were to die tomorrow. *But don’t make risky choices like doing drugs or driving recklessly or you actually might die tomorrow.

3. Learn as if you were to live forever. *No asterisk needed. Really do that.

4. To thine own self be true. *Unless your own self has become someone with questionable morals. If so, change into a better person.

5. Apply yourself diligently to the task at hand because you never get back the time you waste. *Xbox is actually the wasting time part of that one, not the task, unless you’re legitimately planning to be a surgeon, in which case you should play more Xbox to develop your fine motor skills.

6. Assume nothing. *Except that your family will be disappointed if you fail to remember their birthdays or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

7. Offer to help others. *But don’t get so sucked in to other people’s problems that you ignore your own health or your own problems.

8. Be careful what you post. *And guard your passwords and devices with your life so other people don’t post “for” you.

9. Find your passion. *In life. There’s plenty of time for the other kind.

I’m sure there is a lot more advice that needs an asterisk. Good luck with figuring that out. I’ll be dealing with the fallout of my inadequate advice giving for years to come and my kids will probably blame me for most of their problems. Oh, wait, that should be included in my list:

10. Take responsibility for your mistakes. *Your mother is not always to blame.