5:15 a.m.—I am dreaming that someone got sprayed by a skunk. The details are unclear; all I remember is the stinking smell.

5:28 a.m.—John is standing beside our bed. I sit up with a start and announce, “Skunk!” John is drenched in the smell, but Sophie is more drenched in the smell, so John does not realize he is drenched in the smell.

5:32 a.m.—It immediately becomes clear that this is an all-hands-on-deck situation. John is ordered to take off his clothes. I google the recipe for neutralizing skunk.

5:35 a.m.—A plan is hatched: I will go for supplies (gloves, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide—lots of it) while John readies the garage (hose hook up and pray the line isn’t frozen) as a workspace. We turn off the heater so that the smell does not disseminate throughout the house. Fortunately, the temperature dropped by twenty degrees last night.

5:40 a.m.—I try several drugstores before ending up in a grocery store parking lot awaiting its 6 a.m. opening.

6:01 a.m.—I wait at the grocery store doors, hoping to catch someone’s eye to unlock the damn doors.

6:12 a.m.—Supplies acquired. Head back to house.

6:15 a.m.—Upon entering our garage, I gag and leave the garage. I reenter and open the baking soda. Dump a quart of peroxide in a bucket. I step out of the garage to gag again. John is stoic. He begins to scrub the dog; he loses his stoicism and looks almost as miserable as Sophie does.

6:45 a.m.—Sophie comes skittering into the house. She is shivering and heads directly for her dog bed, which she rolls all over to dry herself and (apparently) rid herself of the trauma she has just endured. John asks me to stink test Sophie, as his entire respiratory system is permeated with a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals, commonly called mercaptans. Sophie smells like soapy, wet dog, which is encouraging. John heads up to take a shower and scrub off what he can.

6:45–7:45 a.m.—Morning chores and feeding ensue. Boys are dressed. Teeth brushed. Ushered into car (which mysteriously also smells like skunk, even though I parked it in the driveway with all the windows down). We drive to school.

7:55 a.m.—G looks uncertain. He reluctantly gets out of the car and enters the school (Which, in itself, is an accomplishment. We are currently undergoing an I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school streak. Behaviors include screaming, going stiff, and repeatedly unbuckling his seat belt while we are driving in the car to school). As we near his classroom he starts to cry, turns around and starts to run. I semi-tackle him and somehow manage to pick him up (he’s gone stiff again). I hand him off to his teacher with apologies and exit quickly. J, meanwhile, is certain everything he’s wearing smells like skunk. Which it probably does, at least a little.

So begins another week. Lord have mercy.

sophie skunked

“You have to run in the rainbow”

There is no joy like a child’s joy.

g snow joyj snow joy

Except for maybe an Olympian’s joy.

skeleton goldsnowboard goldMikaela_Schiffrin

I’m a big fan of the Olympics. The Sochi games have gotten me through a rough couple of winter weeks here in Northeast Ohio—not only as a diversion, but as a kind of (dare I say it?) inspiration for day-to-day living. I don’t have skis or skates, but trying to find a semi-clear path through mounds of ice-crusted sidewalk/curbside snow on my daily rounds through the neighborhood is certainly training for Something.

So as I watched (and read—thanks to the NYT early morning update and the uniquely snarky coverage provided by Slate) I collected. Because that’s what I do. What follows are my favorite snippets from athletes and coaches, but mostly commentators—my favorite combo being the dynamic crew of Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir, and Terry Gannon (for a funny review go to BuzzFeed). Also check out Slate’s rendition of Scott Hamilton calling every sport.

And yes, more than one commercial made me cry. Sometimes the same commercial made me cry several times. I mean, why they gotta throw moms in there like that? Their way of accessing the emotional spigot, no doubt. That said, it’s still nice (in a self-serving sort of way) to see moms getting little kids dressed for the snow and then comforting the very same while cleaning the snow out of their suits afterward, a warm bath steaming in the background…


“Ooooh, those arms are going down, winding down the windows!” –BBC commentator during the snowboarding slopestyle competition

“‘Solid! Solid!’ hooted Aimee. ‘Solid! Solid!’ roared Tim. ‘Solid! Solid!’ howled Ed.”  –BBC commentators during the snowboarding slope style, (Rather makes me want to write a children’s book.)

“Switch right-side gap 270 on, pretzel 270 out on the down-flat-down; switch on, 450 out of the up rail, to left side 270 on, pretzel 270 off on the down; to a butter, switch slide to corked 450 off on the cannon feature. Then, left side double corked 1260 double Japan on the first booter, to switch right side dub 1080 tail grab, and a switch right side triple corked 1260 Japan on the big booter.”
—Simon Tjernstroem, a judge in the men’s ski slopestyle competition, explaining why Joss Christensen of the United States deserved gold


“There I was, I’m like, ‘Grrreat. I’m just going to go win my first medal.’ And then in the middle of the run, I’m like, ‘Guess not.” So like, ‘No. Don’t do that. Do not give up. You see this through.’ My whole goal was to just keep my skis moving.”  –Mikaela Shiffrin on her nearly disastrous second run in the alpine slalom


(an interaction between a reporter and the Russian coach, via The Wall Street Journal):

Q: What future, if any, do you see for your own work and for your coaching staff? Because, you know, your predecessor was eaten alive after the Olympics—

A: Well then, eat me alive right now—

Q: No, I mean—

A: Eat me, and I won’t be here anymore.

Q: But we have the world championship coming up!

A: Well then, there will be a different coach because I won’t exist any more, since you will have eaten me.

Q: But you’re staying, aren’t you?

A: Yes, I will remain living.


“There’s the lutz, and it’s a cracker!”

“You can see a sigh of relief after the dreaded twizzle sequence.”

“It was a performance. It was paint-by-number.”  –Johnny Weir

“He really reminds me of a hockey player that’s also a really good dancer.”
–Weir on Czech skater Thomas Verner

“That’s kind of a situation like throwing a cat into a bathtub where they just splay their legs out, and you can’t control it.”  –Weir describing the feeling of popping out of a jump

“I applaud her use of short shorts, reminiscent of our own Terry Gannon in the 1983 college basketball championship.”  –Weir on an Austrian skater’s unorthodox costume

“It’s not easy to grab someone your own size by the hips and place them down gently after they’ve fallen from heaven.”  –Weir pointing out that two skaters of similar height can make a bad match

“The man has to be the frame and the woman has to be the pretty picture.”  –Tara Lipinski

“Tara and I take our work seriously. She’s my work wife. And she’s a slave driver, so we sit up and study until she’s satisfied. We not only plan how we look, but we’re up until three in the morning looking at all the skaters’ backgrounds and biographies.”  –Weir on working with Tara Lipinski

“We want to be 80 and still commentating on figure skating with each other.”  –Lipinski

“Bulls–t!”  –Ashley Wagner after seeing her scores

“I tell them they have to run in the rainbow.”  –Ice dance coach Marina Zoueva’s advice to Canadian darlings Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue

‘qanir’, to snow

After this last snow, which was really at least three different kinds of snow—a piled and mixed concoction of heavy, wet cold covered with a layer of icy rain covered with a fine sparkling loose powder that made walking through it both strenuous and wonderfully satisfying in the way that the first few bites of cereal can be before the milk gets ahold of things—I get the whole Eskimo-hundred-names-for-snow thing.

Which of course is a cliche and an overstatement and maybe even mildly offensive (there is no one Eskimo language because “Eskimo” is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik living in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia who speak a variety of languages and dialects), except for the way that it can make you think about how we live in the world.

A short linguistics lesson: The Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, meaning they combine a limited set of roots and endings to create an unlimited set of words. Rather than having dozens of word for snow, the words tell what the snow does. Action snow! So it’s not so much about what you call it as what it does or what it’s used for or how it piles up on corners or feels underneath your boots. It’s a way of keeping the language efficient, instead of creating a new term each time one is needed. My German-Mennonite blood can certainly appreciate that.

A few examples (primarily Yup’ik and Inuit):

qanik: snow falling (snow in the air)
qanipalaat: feathery clumps of falling snow
aputi: snow on the ground
pukak: crystalline snow on the ground (the kind that dazzles in the sun)
muruaneq: soft deep snow
qetrar:  for snow to crust
utvak: snow carved in block (good for igloos or bun-in-the-ovens)
kaneq: frost
hoarfrost window

igalaujait: ice which look like windows (especially when coating actual windows)
glassy ice window

A few example (in the Canton urban vein):

phantom snow: light, usually crystalline snow, the source of which is inexplicable (snow dust off trees? blue sky sorcery? sign of yet unseen inclement weather, blown in by a curiously strong west wind?)

sidewalk snow wall
snow that builds tunnel-like walls as a result of shoveling/snowblowing several snowfalls

snow blow
, also called snow smoke (Jonah’s term): the snow shooting out of our neighbor’s thirty-year-old snow blower as he generously clears our driveway and front walk, saving my back and sanity

catch-you-by-surprise snow: unexpected or under-forcasted snow (of the sort that even after snowing for several hours, the snow plow still hasn’t made a single run down the major streets and/or highways, and of course you’re late to school/church/etc.)

monster-cicle snow: ice that used to be snow that could impale a not-so-small four-year-old

snow plow snow: variations of white/grey/black (usually HEAVY) snow generated by city snow plows that flies off the plow blade in boulder-like constructions that must be shoveled off street side sidewalks multiple times as it gains weight and grime
snow bank sky

cigarette butt snow: wabi-sabi snow that manages to be dingily lovely as it bespeaks human presence
butt in snow

(For a tongue-in-cheek list of Eskimo words for snow, which includes my favorite—tlarin: snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time—go HERE.)

Cemetery remix

Sunday we took a snowy walk. Bet you can’t guess where?

white tomb red boots

Name of the day: Ona S. Elzer.

ona s elzer

Though Roy McCoy comes in a close second.

roy mccoy

When I told the boys he was a baby and that he only lived three weeks,
J exclaimed, “Good thing Gabriel’s still alive!”

g graveyard jog

In Ohio, you sometimes have to take the sun wherever you can get it. This is our sunset stone.

sunset tombstone

We (I) did a lot of math because Jonah wanted to know how old each person was when they died,
which required much scraping away of snow:

hands on grave

Any age over fifty warranted the exclamation, “That’s a long time!”

j surveys graves

We had a good discussion about rebar, too.

rebar cross

rebar cross back

As G’s imaginary friend is named Car Grass, we were excited to discover a distant relation:

car grass distant relation

I really don’t tell him to pose.

g with iron cross

boys graveyard bench

Manic making

“O, C’mon!” he growls, running into the front room. “My new creation!” He holds a length of broken down box with a plastic juice jug mailing-taped to the front. Some kind of full body gun.

“Boom!” I think he is shooting us. (Gabriel and I are cuddling in the grey chair in front of our fireless mantle.) He collapses like a rag doll, but with force, onto the wood floor. He pops up again. “O, C’mon!” Grunting. Running. Some kind of scripting ensues in the playroom, accompanied by what I can only compare to wild-sounding primate noises.

This scene replays itself at least five times. My nerves fray. If I sit still, I can observe and absorb it, but if I try to follow any agenda of my own, I easily lose my temper and end up yelling. I am also curious. What do you call this kind of behavior? How do you even google it? Autistic freak out? (I realize that phrase is probably offensive, but I don’t know what else to call it.) Autistic mania? I encounter a blog with similar stories, but the tone of the discourse is the caregiver’s: exhausted, resigned, martyr-like.  

Everything goes quiet for a spell. I hear the distant sound of tape again, being pulled and cut. He is in the basement assembling old motherboards and various other broken down electronics he has collected along with the aforementioned cardboard box. “What are you doing?” I ask when he runs upstairs to ask for a black Sharpie (Sharpie use in this house is strictly controlled, due to past incidents involving toddler climbers and walls.) “Making Han Solo in carvonite!” Which of course, he is.

hans solo in carvonite

In Sunday School earlier today, I could hear him through the door; he was making all kinds of vocalizations. Goofy commentary is the only way I know to describe it. Short, manic bursts of cough-like laughter. I always imagine this behavior as disruptive, but maybe I’m wrong. I see the other kids (there are just two, who seem very sweet and kind) watching him. The words “freak show” come to mind. I reprimand myself. During church, I often need to remind him that mimicking the priest is not respectful. I know that he thinks it’s funny. Although not exactly “appropriate,” it’s a way he participates in what’s going on around him.

Rewind a few days.

In the car on the way home from school Friday, Jonah informs me that none of the boys at school want to be best friends because he is too crazy. I gently probe him for the source of this information. His friend “A” (a girl one year ahead of him in school) has provided him with this information. Maybe she was just repeating something she heard. Maybe she had some sort of other intent (to keep him to herself?). Who knows. It’s second grade. Best friends are a big deal.

I ask J how this makes him feel. I am impressed with his response. “I’m just crazy. I like being crazy. I don’t want to be different. I just want to be funny.” I probe a little further, asking what he was doing that made them think he was “crazy.”

“O, I was just going ‘bow-wow, bow-wow’ while I took off my snow clothes after recess.”

How do I counsel a seven-year-old on the complexities of human interaction? A boy whose sense of humor has little in common with the typical things kids his age find funny. Do I even try? He’s not asking for counsel, after all. His sense of self seems pretty strong, and shouldn’t that be what we try to reinforce? His making mania is wonderfully productive, even while his inability to remember a simple instruction in the course of walking up the stairs can be maddening. Doesn’t bother him of course, unless he picks up on it bothering me. Like I said, the complexity of human interaction.

“Presume competence.” I hear the phrase again and again in mom blogs and autism blogs and disability blogs. As one mother of an autistic child puts it, “it is a way of interacting with another human being who is seen as a true equal and as having the same basic human rights as I have.” While this idea is usually applied to non-speaking autistic individuals or those more autistically “severe”, I want to find a way to understand J in these terms (understand being relative, of course).

Again, from Ariane Zurcher‘s blog, Emma’s Hope Book:

Presume competence means – assume your child is aware and able to understand even though they may not show this to you in a way that you are able to recognize or understand…

Presume competence means talk to your child or the other person as you would a same age non-Autistic child or person…

Presumptions of competence means treating the other person with respect and as an equal without pity or infantilization.

It does not mean that we will carry expectations that if not met will cause us to admonish, scold or assume the person is being manipulative or just needs to “try harder”.

To presume competence does not mean we assume there is a “neurotypical” person “trapped” or “imprisoned” under an Autistic “shell”.

Presuming competence is not an act of kindness.

I certainly fail on the “it does not mean that we will carry expectations that if not met will cause us to admonish, scold or assume the person…just needs to ‘try harder.'” That’s so difficult for me not to do, because Jonah can be incredibly competent at lots of things, so when he’s not, I just assume he doesn’t care. Not necessarily so. Some times, he just can’t process no more.

The thing about J is, he desperately wants to please. Especially me. And I’ll admit, I can sometimes be a tough one to please. My standards are high. Maybe I need to focus a little more on what he sees in me. Because he is always watching—to see how I will react, for good (with patient acceptance for who he is and not who I think I might wish him to be) and bad (unintentional criticism that seems to feed on itself).

So, now I must learn how to adjust the mirror in my eyes to reflect who he really is and who he can be.  Because he is watching.  He is listening.  He is learning.

And when he looks at himself through me, I want him to like and be inspired by what he sees.  For, if what he sees in my eyes is not faith in him, how will learn faith in himself?

Leigh Merryday at Flappiness Is…

Mercy on me

I’m always gladder to see the birds at our feeder. Maybe I like thinking I’m somehow helping them along through the winter. But mostly I think it’s just their skittery company I find comfort in.

wabi sabi birds by tricia mckellar
© Trisha McKeller

I have a jumble of things to say, and I keep waiting around for them to coalesce into some kind of theme, but that’s not working, so I’m just going to try and work them out here. Your patience please.

Wait. First I need to dry my hair.

I am back at my very own desk in my freezing hallway space. Cobwebs have formed in my absence. My coffee goes cold within five minutes. I rob my husband of our one space heater, shut my three doors (bathroom, playroom, front room), and huddle. Waiting. The whir of the heater’s fan muffles the boys screaming play in the basement. I wait.

Writing is hard work. I tell myself this as I sit staring out the window, trying to silence the other Jennifer who diverts herself with laundry, vacuuming, dishes, online shopping, mirror cleaning, floorboard dusting, recipe surfing—any kind of “productive” work (okay, the online shopping is just a vice) so that she doesn’t have to sit here in this office and work to get what’s in her brain out.

In her Letters Flannery O’Connor writes of writing: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

I don’t do fiction, but trying to sort out what’s going on—with me, with the world, with my family—can feel a little like pulling teeth. Like O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Let’s start with what seems to be my near-constant state of irritation. (My office is finally warming. The great thing about tiny spaces is that they don’t take much.) One can blame irritation on others for only so long, at which point one can blame insufficient or excessive drug dosages, hormones, weather, inadequate sleep, or an unreasonable workload. But alas, the source of my irritation is my own dark self.

I have a friend I will call November. November is beautiful. She is tall and stately; her face is honest and kind. She is my friend who can see the world clearly, without romance, and still find it wonderful, if hard. November loves Jesus, but she doesn’t talk about loving Jesus. She just loves him. Verses from the Bible mark her refrigerator and her bathroom mirror. Her house is shambly in a wabi-sabi (wabi=simple imperfection, sabi=bloom of time) sort of way, always warm. Her life is often difficult, and she knows that this is partly her own doing. November works at love.

I haven’t been praying much for months. What I mean is, I have abandoned a rule of prayer and mostly resorted to Hail Marys and the occasional Thank You. Like I do with my irritation, I make excuses. I have been making them for so long that they are hardly even half-hearted. I certainly don’t believe them, so I finally gave them up. (Okay, I’m still in the process of giving them up.)  And so the only thing to do was ask for the desire to pray. More simply, to want to want to love Jesus, which is where my friend N came in. She had sent me a letter, a harrowing account of losing her three-year-old in arctic conditions (he had actually fallen asleep under a bed while playing hide-and-seek), that ended with Emmanuel. He is near.

So it was N that made me want to love Jesus again. To rediscover the joy behind/within the religiosity. To shoot for simplicity in the midst of chaos in the midst of a very grey January winter. I began to read three psalms at night: Psalms 50, 69 and 142—which are the psalms of Small Compline. Just three psalms, and not particularly long ones. But they are abundant, and every time I read them, if I pray them, I see myself a little more clearly. Which is to say I am humbled to recognize my lowly state, my need of mercy always.

So I offer here a very Short commentary on a few lines from 142. Just to say how words can speak and show. How God will speak and show through what we read (Scripture or otherwise). How joy can begin to return.

WHAT I READ:  He [“the enemy”] hath sat me in darkness as those that have been long dead… 

WHAT I HEARD:  The Enemy of Souls is certainly a crafty trickster. He starts with a good and then twists it all up until the good becomes a god. My own apathy, sloth, impatience (read irritation) and lust had me stuck in a dark place. Leisure became apathy, which turned to sloth. Having spent way to much time scanning through pages of clothing on an online used clothing site, I felt numb and blank, but I couldn’t stop. I had been effectively set in darkness.

SIDE NOTE (FUNNY STORY):  As spoken by the spiritually discerning and holy monk, Father Raphael (from Everyday Saint by Archimandrite Tikhon): He might, quite without intending to offend, still unerringly tell a sanctimonious priest: “What a snout your face looks like today! Were you watching television all day yesterday?”

WHAT I READ:  …and my spirit within me is become despondent; within me my heart is troubled.

WHAT I HEARD:  The darkness brought on by my own apathy, sloth and greed deceived me into thinking I was good. I was happy. I wasn’t even capable of recognizing my own troubled heart.

WHAT I READ:  Cause me to hear they mercy…Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk…

WHAT I HEARD:  The idea of refuge is forming inside of me. I may write more on this later, but initially, it occurs to me that cultivating a landscape of refuge would make for a self-sustaining existence, which isn’t really self-sustaining at all. It is God-sustaining. I still shy away from religious-sounding phrases like that, but I need to get over it. Because that’s what I mean.

WHAT I READ:  Teach me to do thy will…

WHAT I HEARD:  I am already being taught (read above). This astounds me. I begin to see what might be possible.

WHAT I READ:  In Thy Righteousness shalt Thou bring my soul out of affliction, and in Thy mercy shalt Thou utterly destroy mine enemies… 

WHAT I HEARD:  It is the good of God that brings me out of aforementioned darkness. The idea of God’s mercy destroying something is potent. Mercy isn’t necessarily about comfort or good feeling. It can be sharp and deadly. What’s frightening is thinking about that mercy working on me.