My Convertible Life

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


My nephew Andrew died last week.

That's not a sentence I ever expected to write.

When I was maybe 13, a boy whose family went to my church was killed in a freak bicycle accident. I think we was probably 10 years old or so. And I remember my father being so sad, even though we didn't know the boy very well.

At the time, I didn't fully appreciate what my dad told me: "When you're an adult, you expect that at some point your parents will die. And you know that there's a chance your spouse will pass before you do. But you never, ever expect to have to bury your child."

Andrew was 22 years old and in graduate school studying entomology -- an adult by most standards, but still his parents' child. My mind will not allow me to comprehend the heartbreak that is bringing them to their knees.

He was 9 years old when I married his uncle and became his aunt. We always lived in different states, so we mostly saw each other at weddings and biennial Thanksgivings. I'm sorry to say I didn't know him well.

But the news of his death -- so sudden, so unbelievable -- seems impossible to process. As a parent, I now understand what my father meant all those years ago. When any parent loses a child, all parents join in their grief.

So I've been reading the tiny, beautiful, honest and sometimes funny eulogies left by his friends on his Facebook page, getting to know bits and pieces of a life well-lived. I've been saying steady prayers for Andrew's parents, brother and grandparents, along with the rest of the family. And I've been squeezing my own children a little tighter, a little longer to remind myself of what a gift I have in them.

I think my sister-in-law, another of Andrew's aunts, probably said it best, so I'll leave you with her words shared on his page:
"Andrew touched the lives of so many people through his love, friendship, words and actions. You, in turn, have helped make the world a better place because of his influence on you. At the risk of sounding corny, go and do a good deed for someone. Take a hike or walk outside. Look at the roly polys and the ants. If you're so inclined, share a beer with a friend. Life is too short. Let someone know that they have made a difference in your life."


Monday, August 25, 2014

Sampling Some Super Sunscreen

We don't leave for the beach until Saturday, but I've already started mentally packing. Books, towels, chairs, swimsuit, sun hat, umbrella, gin, tonic, limes. What else could we need?

Sunscreen, of course.

If you're a regular Convertible Lifer, you know that sunscreen is serious business around here. After losing chunks of my forehead, part of my back and countless little spots here and there, I don't mess around with keeping my skin protected -- but I also still really like being in the sun.

So when I got an email earlier this summer from a company offering to send me a sample of their new sunscreen in exchange for a blog review, I was intrigued. SmartShield claims to be "serious sun protection" -- sounded like a good fit, but wouldn't it have to be sticky, smelly and thick to really be serious?

For the past two months, I've been wearing SmartShield's Rehydrating Face Cream with SPF 45 almost every day. Billed as "a luxury face cream with a unique formula for sports enthusiasts and professionals," it is the best everyday sunscreen I've found for my face. It's rare to find an everyday sunscreen with an SPF as high as 45 -- and this one isn't sticky, smelly or thick. In fact, it made my skin feel really soft and lovely, which was a total surprise. Make-up goes on easily over top and doesn't slide off halfway through the day because the sunscreen is oil-free. But even more importantly, it works -- even when I found myself in a sunny seat at the baseball game with no hat on (shhh, don't tell my dermatologist!), I didn't get sunburned.

In short, it's great.

Now you'll have to take my word for it that this is an honest review and in no way tainted by the free sample. If I were just sucking up to SmartShield, I probably would have written this review two months ago when they first sent me the sample, so maybe that helps with my credibility (or maybe it just shows that I've missed nearly every deadline all summer). And I will add that there are a few items on the ingredient list that might not appeal to those who are cautious, close-readers of labels, but I have to balance that with finding a product that works well.

Actually, I'm hoping they'll send me some of their other sunscreens, lip balm, insect repellent and the self-tanner to try out -- but I'm probably just going to have to buy them like everyone else.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

J-Fest 2014: The Last Single Digit Year

Dear Junius --

Technically it's still your birth month for a couple more hours, so I'm going to just call this a victory. If you're reading this years later and you don't remember, I promise we didn't miss your actual 9th birthday -- I just missed writing about you on the day, that's all.

When you were younger, I remember thinking that I'd have so much more time to write once you and your sister were older and in school. That's just one item on a long list of things I've been wrong about when it comes to parenting.

I'd like to claim that the reason I haven't written a whole series of posts about you and your birthday this month is because I've been so busy spending time with you and treasuring the fantastic little man that you're becoming. But the truth is that I've been overwhelmed doing pretty much the opposite of that -- ignoring you in order to squeeze in more than my scheduled hours at work and then collapsing on the couch when we are finally home together again.

It hasn't been the July I was hoping for.

We are both first borns, you and I. Not just any old first borns either -- we are textbook cases. We want everything to be fair and everyone to love us. We want the whole world to be happy and we want at least partial credit for making it that way. We want to know the plan in advance. And sometimes we just want to be home where we can control the little space in our own rooms because everywhere else is too crazy. I watch you crumble sometimes as you wrestle with reality and I ache for you. It is all painfully familiar.

But there are some things you've already figured out that took me much longer to discover. Even when you'd rather stay safe at home, you put on a brave face and walk into spaces where you know no one in hopes that it might be worthwhile. You volunteer to be the first to fight Darth Vader, or skate onto center ice and fist bump NHL players before the national anthem. You're developing a tough side that you can hold together for at least a few minutes. You attract friends among strangers easily. It is all quite impressive.

This crazy July, in between the billable hours, I have managed to teach you a few things that seemed worth passing on. You're now hooked on solitaire, a perfect game for the kid who likes rules and fairness. You've discovered the power of the pointy elbow, that family trait useful for boxing out and pushing through. You can fry an egg and cook chicken nuggets, which gets you two of your favorite meals. And you've learned to keep a book in your bag at all times, just in case you've got 15 minutes to spend reading while you wait.

I am hopeful that we will find times to slow down and appreciate your being 9 this year. Your next birthday brings double-digits and I don't expect I'll handle it well.

But I worry that life is going to get in my way, so I'm asking for your help. Maybe now and then you could remind me to say yes when you ask me to play horse or Monopoly. Maybe sometimes you could let me skip Monopoly and play solitaire at the kitchen counter while I make dinner. And maybe some days you'll just tuck in beside me on the couch when that's all I've got left.

I love you, my firstborn. Thanks for being patient with me.
- Mommy

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Friend In Deed

Two weeks ago, a dear friend of mine sent me an early morning email that was exactly what I needed. She's one of those friends who has known me long enough to love me anyway, despite the fact that I almost never call and rarely visit. We've been roommates in more than one country, seen each other through boyfriends who turned out not to be husbands, stood together at weddings and a funeral. 

I don't know what I did to deserve her, but I'm so very grateful. In fact, I could never have earned all the wonderful friends that I have -- and thank goodness we don't have to earn them. This particular message was too beautiful to leave in my inbox, so I'm sharing it here with you (names changed to protect her boys). May you all have a friend (or two or twenty) who can show you in small ways that she loves you. 


Some days you just need someone else to make your coffee. Or tea. Or, Jonah's recommendation, chocolate milk.

I must feel that way often. At least, Starbucks has been keeping track because, to my surprise (though perhaps not my husband's), they sent me a gold card which meant I had visited their fine establishments 30 times last year. I don't know whether to be boast or cringe about my new status. Regardless, there were 30 days last year when I just needed someone else to make my coffee.

Two times had to do with rites of passage. Right after I dropped Cam off to big kid school because the bricks I placed on his head didn't stop him from growing, I drove myself to Starbucks and stood in line behind a mom and dad who had just undergone the very same knife-to-heart ritual. That day called for a Venti, with extra caramel and yes please some whipped cream on top and why don't you stock alcohol here?

Weeks ago, I stood in that same line -- where they now know my name and my usual -- just minutes before picking him up for summer vacation. Not my usual, but it was a Venti day again, somewhat in celebration that Cam and I would be back together for the summer. But mostly because I needed that big of a cup to soothe my insides drained raw from a year of missing him. It was a "Whew, I can't believe I made it. I'll have a Venti."

During these 30 visits over the last year, Jonah became well acquainted with the love of someone else making mama's coffee. The benefit to him was a more aware and relaxed mama. As I market the deal
to my husband, it's cheaper than therapy. And sometimes at these visits, on the whims of mama, Jonah would score a milk, usually vanilla but once in a while, chocolate.

Even if all mama gets is a straight coffee, Jonah likes to be hoisted up in a spot right beside the sugar-in-the-raw cubby where he can peer behind the counter and "watch the magic happen." His word choice has won him many barista friends. Also a dead giveaway that mama saved on therapy 30 times in the last year.

Well today, with your dad having his procedure, I thought you just might need someone else to make your coffee. Or tea. Or I won't tell if you get chocolate milk. I hope it will soothe your insides and let
you know that you all are loved. This Venti's on me*; after all, I need to keep going to maintain my gold card status.

* Starbucks e-card will be coming to your inbox.


That afternoon, while my kids were at camp, I left work early and headed for Starbucks. I'm not a coffee girl, so I seriously considered Jonah's chocolate milk recommendation before opting for a fruit smoothie. Dropping into a sunny seat, I savored the sweetness of a rare moment alone to say a quiet prayer for my dad (who is fine, thanks for asking) and one for my friend (who is far too good to me). 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mother's Day Gifts

It was the verbal equivalent of the old yawn and stretch maneuver that you see a teen-age boy use in 1950s movies to inconspicuously put his arm around a girl’s shoulder.

“So… mom… What’s your favorite breakfast?” he asked casually on Tuesday night. “I mean, if you didn’t have to make it.”

When I started to tell Junius my preferences -- two eggs over medium, bacon, fruit, maybe half an English muffin -- he asked me if I could write it down. You know, casually.

"No," I replied with a smile. "But you can."

The conversation continued as he carefully wrote down my breakfast menu, then moved on to asking about my favorite restaurants for dinner. You know, just because, no reason. Not like Mother's Day is coming up or anything.

When he finished writing, he folded the paper in half, turned away from me to write "Mothers day" with three underlines on the outside and took the page upstairs.

It was about the cutest conversation I've had with my son in a long time. Even if he doesn't manage to use the list (although I suspect my lovely husband will help make it happen), watching him delight in his sneaky strategy to be nice to me was a gift in itself.

For those of you wondering what to get your mom (or the mother of your children) to celebrate her day on Sunday, here's my suggestion: Think luxury.

I don't mean a luxury automobile or a luxury vacation (although if that's within your budget, those are totally good options). Instead, think of the little luxuries that mom wishes she had time/money for and give her the means to enjoy them -- even if that little luxury is her favorite homemade breakfast or just a quiet hour alone in the hammock with a good book and iced cocktail.

But if you really want to be impressive, here are my suggestions of everyday luxuries I'd love to have in my weekly or monthly budget -- and I'm betting lots of other moms would, too:
  1. Housekeeper: There's nothing better than coming home to a clean house when you didn't have to do any of the work. Okay, maybe coming home to a clean house where the maid service didn't turn on your gas fireplace and leave it burning when they left the house hours earlier -- but that's a different story. Anywho, even if it were just an occasional deep clean, it's always nice to enjoy your house without having to think about the mess.
  2. Car wash: I hate a dirty car. And with two kids (plus the occasional friend) in the back seat every day, there’s no way to keep all the dirt on the outside. Between the raisins and the tissues and the string cheese wrappers and the leaves and the mud and… well, it’s gross back there. Plus all this springtime pollen makes a mess of the outside, too. A clean car just feels more civilized.
  3. Massage: Even when things are going well, life can be stressful and exhausting. Between keeping up a more regular exercise schedule, working at a desk and generally chasing my children around, I’d love an hour – okay, maybe 90 minutes – to close my eyes, listen to soothing (if a little cheesy) nature-sounds music and let go of the stress. 
  4. Mani/pedi: I love a pretty polish (especially on my toes), but this one isn’t really about having colorful nails. It’s more about having healthy-looking (and feeling) hands and feet. Again, between the exercising and the dish-washing, my extremities get a little rough. And it’s just so nice to be taken care of by someone who doesn’t need anything from me. 
  5. Haircut: If you have short hair, you know that you really need to get it cut at least every six weeks. I try to stretch it to seven or eight weeks to conserve cash, but I always hate my hair that last week or two. If money and scheduling were no object, I’d get a haircut once a month. That way it always looks fresh – and I’d look like I just stepped out of a salon more often.
  6. Fresh flowers: Even if my house isn't really clean, it looks cleaner if there are fresh flowers by the front door and on the dining room table. It's like I can't even see the piles on the counter or the dishes in the sink when there's a vase of white hydrangeas in view. Shoes scattered around the foyer seem to fade away if I'm greeted by a wildflower bouquet. They don't have to be formal or fancy, just fresh. 
Let us know what's on your little luxuries list... leave a note in the comments.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

It's a Girl

This post is from my piece at last year's Listen to Your Mother show in Raleigh. You can watch me here, but I realized I never posted the text. Excited to go see this year's show tonight as an audience member!

When she’s older, my daughter will probably hate me for saying this, or even thinking it. But I didn’t want to have a girl.

My son was about to turn two that Father’s Day morning when I peed on the stick and realized we were going to have another baby. Junius was finally starting to sleep more at night. Life was just beginning to feel manageable again. While I was excited to be pregnant, I was equally overwhelmed by the idea of beginning it all again.

As the weeks went by, my second pregnancy mirrored the first. I was tired, but never sick and only occasionally queasy. Girth increased steadily with weight, matching the first pregnancy pound for pound and inch for inch week by week.

This baby is a boy, I thought -- just like the first. If it were a girl, I would know. I would feel different and I would be vomiting. But everything was the same and I was relieved.

I imagined we would become “Cyndi and the boys.” Our sons would be buddies and build LEGOS and play basketball. My husband would take them camping and fishing on weekends while I stayed home and went for pedicures and read books. Yes, they might be loud or messy, but it would be worth it.

It’s the American way: boys love their mamas. They would love me, cherish me and never, ever turn on me.

Because ladies, let’s be honest. We save the really bad shit for our mamas.

I wasn’t a crazy or rebellious kid. I have always had a good relationship with both of my parents. But in my teen years, something changed. I was mean to my mother and treated her in ways that I never would my father. Even when I wasn’t upset with my mom, I still held back my disaster meltdown moments until she was the only one around to deal with me.

The best of daughters seem to go through rough times with their mothers. And that’s the good ones. The rest wind up hating their moms, vowing never to be like them, and rolling their eyes and yelling obscenities at them.

So when the ultrasound revealed that this new baby was a girl? I was terrified.

And I hated myself for it.

I was supposed to be excited. A son AND a daughter. One of each! Isn’t that what everyone wants? Slugs and snails meets sugar and spice. The perfect family.

Except that I wanted a matched set. Wouldn’t it be so much easier -- and so much less frightening -- to have another boy? I was getting good at being a boy mama. Starting over with a newborn was scary enough without the specter of one day having to share my house with a hormonal pre-teen girl.

For two weeks, my husband and I didn’t tell anyone we’d found out it was a girl -- not even our parents or our son. We practiced at home saying “she” and “her” instead of “it” and “the baby.” We talked about girl names. We thought about friends who had painted nurseries pink in preparation, only to discover on birth day that their baby had been hiding his little boy parts when the ultrasound tech was looking. Maybe the ultrasound was wrong?

Of course it wasn’t wrong. Our baby girl arrived as scheduled on Feb. 22, 2008, beautiful and round and perfect.

It turns out that I was wrong about not wanting a daughter. The last months of my pregnancy gave me time to get used to the idea. When she was born, I already knew her -- and I loved her immediately. Five years later, Pippi is sweet and funny and crazy smart. She sings and dances constantly through each day, strutting her stuff in pink cowgirl boots and mismatched outfits. She possesses a powerful confidence at age five that will hopefully carry her far in life.

But it also turns out that I was kind of right to be afraid. Pippi may only be five, but she’s already giving me a run for my money. She saves her worst behavior for me and her best for her teachers. She tells lies and tests limits and pushes my buttons in ways that make me grind my teeth and bang my head into my hands. She is a Daddy’s Girl -- apparently it takes one to make one -- and she already seems to know that she can be meaner to me than she treats him.

She is the best and worst of having a daughter. And I am lucky to have made her.

So I try hard to give her the most important things my mother has always given me. A patient ear. A loving heart. A shoulder to cry on. And a wonderful father for the many times ahead when she doesn’t want any of those things from me.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Road Trips

My family didn’t take many big trips when I was a kid. We spent most summer vacations at North or South Carolina beaches or visiting my grandparents in Virginia.

On the occasion that we went somewhere more exotic -- like Washington, D.C., or New York --  we always drove and we always checked out any colleges that were nearby. But a college visit with my dad didn’t usually involve an official tour or a trip into the admissions office. Instead, we mostly just drove through campus and saw whatever we could see from the car, then we kept going.

These little side trips became known as The Dave Drive-By.

Then the summer after my freshman year in college, my parents, brother and I took our first big family trip on an airplane – we flew to San Francisco, where we rented a big white Lincoln Town Car. I think the trunk on that thing was bigger than my first dorm room. Two weeks -- and four states, three national parks (four if you count Las Vegas), more than a dozen friends and relatives, and at least three colleges/universities -- later, we flew home from Phoenix.

That trip went down in family history as the Official Drive-By of The West. It was kind of a strange trip – I was 19 and used to living away from home, my brother was 15 and probably used to having me away from home. All four of us shared hotel rooms (when we weren’t staying with friends or family) and did pretty much everything together for the whole two weeks. I think back on it and wonder if my parents were crazy or clueless or both.

But I also can’t stop myself from grinning any time I think about that trip. My brother and I cracked endless jokes about the distance between the front seat and the back seat of the land yacht. We met relatives who last remembered seeing us when my brother was in diapers. My all ventured a little out of our comfort zones, saw places that were completely different than anywhere we’d ever been. We listened to a lot of Toad the Wet Sprocket.

More than 20 years later, that trip stands out as a mile-marker in my family history.

So far this year, my husband and I have taken our kids on our own version of The Drive-By in two opposite directions. In January, we drove to Pittsburgh (because who doesn't want to go to Pittsburgh in January?!) to see friends, tour the science center, ride the gondola, drive by the house my parents lived in when I was born, visit the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt, go ice skating outside and see the Penguins play hockey. In February, we drove to Disney World for the first time -- a more traditional kind of kid trip that still had that Drive-By feel as we whizzed through three parks in three days.

I wonder if my kids will remember 2014 as the Year of the Road Trip. Actually, I wonder if they will even remember 2014 at all. I’m pretty sure we were crazy for driving nearly nine hours to Pittsburgh, spending two days there and driving what turned into more than 11 hours back through a snow storm.  Pulling them out of school for two days to drive to Florida and back doesn't exactly seem logical either.

Even still, I find myself wondering how our kids will remember these trips and how their memories will be different from mine. Will Pippi recall the long, boring drive, or only the fact that she got to swim in the hotel pool and order room service for dinner? Will Junius wish we'd flown to Florida, or just laugh when he thinks back to shouting "THAT WAS AWESOME" on his first roller coaster?

And will either of them ever know how lucky they really are? Guess we'll keep planning Drive-Bys to remind them.