Friday, May 24, 2019

Thank You Thirties

I remember distinctly the day my mom turned forty.

I was eight at the time, and had always perceived her as younger than my friends' moms, a fact that made me proud. She was energetic and glamorous, taught aerobics, and frequently mistaken for Kathie Lee Gifford in the mid 80s.

On the day of her fortieth birthday, she was scheduled to teach an aerobics class and I asked if I could tag along. She had been teaching for as long as I could remember, so a good portion of my early memories consist of attempting headstands on bench presses to a soundtrack of Whitney Houston, Belinda Carlisle, and calls to grapevine to the left.

On this particular day, just before class was over, a few of her friends slipped out the back door and emerged to surprise her with a traditional fortieth birthday celebration - Gifts wrapped in dark paper, black balloons, and a cake decorated with a headstone that pronounced her "Over the Hill."

I had never seen such a display and while they all had a good laugh, I observed the scene with a terrible feeling of apprehension. Birthday balloons were supposed to be the colors of the rainbow. Bright, happy celebrations of your life. What were these morbid omens of impending death? How dare they throw her a funeral instead of a party?

It must have been a formative moment, because since that day I have subconsciously designated fortieth birthdays as the onset of a person's mortality. Like we're all born with clocks that countdown to our expiration, but they don't actually begin ticking until thirty nine ends, and someone hands you black balloons and a headstone cake.

Today it's my turn to turn forty, and if I could I would go back and assure my eight-year-old self that it's all okay, and mom is still young. It does feels like a milestone, certainly, and has prompted quite a bit of introspection recently, but none of the thoughts swirling in my head have been about death.

Mostly, turning forty has been a chance to reflect on my thirties as I leave them behind, and I'm glad to say that my thirties were kind to me. In the last ten years I have experienced a good range of happiness and challenges that have all taught me a thing or two, or thirty, about life.

Thirty Lessons 
I Learned in My Thirties

1. Little girls are easier to raise than little boys

2. And require less supervision

3. Chicago is a great place to buy big, cheap bombs.

4. Thirty five is not too old to take your first ballet lesson. But it is too old to show up for your second or third ballet lesson. 

5. Sometimes clothes look better on the model

6. George Washington's false teeth are on display at Mount Vernon, but don't ask me to prove it.

7. Children should be expected to contribute at a young age. 

8. Snowmen can pack heat without melting

9. "La Tina" is Spanish for ringworm. This is helpful information, but not the first thing you want to see when you arrive at the maternity ward to deliver your baby.

10. Men will do almost anything for a new set of golf clubs. 

11. They also need time after returning home from Church to relax and unwind  

12. Butterflies with disabled wings are the most fun

13. Approach the lego table with caution

14. Some kids will volunteer to have their picture taken. Others must be drafted.

15. The nuances of a Japanese steakhouse should be explained to children ahead of time. 

16. No one warns you about the amount of human waste you’ll encounter on the sidewalks of San Francisco.

17. When your caller ID says Prince William, don't get your hopes up and make a fool of yourself. Prince William is a county in Maryland. 

18. Little brothers don't always do their chores, but will be the first to assist you with discipline

19. Nothing beats a cousin sleepover

20. The 2010s were a rough decade for Big Bird

And Dora

And Mickey 

21. When 711 says you can fill any container on free Slurpee day, they mean it.

22. Wearing a University of Utah sweatshirt will help you make new friends in Salt Lake, but not if you're wearing it to an ugly sweater party

23. Life will never get worse than the moment your sister found the golden egg on Easter. 

24. Don't forget the letter G at the end of your sentences. 

25. Teach your kid sports now, and humility later. 

26. When your cousins offer to bury you in the sand, check them first for bread crumbs.

27. The best time of day is when dad gets home from work.

28. If you wear a fur-lined coat and mittens to the World War II Memorial, your shadow will look exactly like Dora the Explorer.

29. If you don’t feel like smiling, by all means don’t

30. Happiness is finding the right balance of chasing your dreams, and living in your reality. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Election Results

Ironwood High School Homecoming Parade, 1996

After conveying in my last post how important I believe it is for girls to participate in student government, I thought I would share the story of my own high school campaign.

At the end of my junior year, I talked myself into running for student body president and decided to file early, knowing I could just as easily talk myself out of it.

Applications became available on a Monday morning. I picked one up before school, quickly collected the requisite signatures, then waited anxiously for Friday's deadline, wondering who would file to run against me.

The week dragged on with no news, and by Thursday afternoon I was still uncontested and breathing a sigh of relief. No one to run against meant no campaigning. No posters. No speech. No self promotion or trying to convince anyone I was a superior choice. This might have been bad news for the democratic process, but it was great for my limited comfort zone.

And then at the eleventh hour, on Thursday afternoon, a baseball player showed up on his way to practice to throw his hat into the ring. He had been recruited by the student government advisors to run, and they couldn't have picked a better candidate. He was popular and well-liked. Smart. Good looking. Quarterback of the football team. Kind to animals. I was toast.

It's remarkable how quickly a person can turn from reluctant dreamer to Tracy Flick, but that's exactly what happened to me. For every poster he hung, I hung five. I crafted and distributed 500 neon paper neckties with my slogan on them. Did you know that six rolls of butcher paper will cover an entire wall of the cafeteria? Neither did I, until he decided to mess with me.

As the week went on he campaigned casually, maintaining the breezy demeanor of someone who was only running because he'd been asked to. I, on the other hand, was sleepless. Think Hilary Clinton in October, when the Access Hollywood tape hasn't deterred Trump and Comey suddenly decides to investigate your emails. I lobbied the cheerleaders, rallied in the quad, and delivered my speech like Winston Churchill before the House of Commons.

In the end it all paid off I suppose, although I was too exhausted to even enjoy the victory. My opponent conceded and congratulated me like a gentleman. I thanked him, and apologized for hiring someone to run over his dog. I'm kidding!

A month into my term however, there were fireworks. Literally. My vice-president, whom I will call "Phillip" was implicated in a scandal that involved the homecoming bonfire and dynamite, and asked to step down from office. Looking back on it all, I gotta give Philip the credit he deserves. The bonfire incident made for a night none of us will ever forget, and as a politician if you're going to go down in flames, why not literally go down in flames?

After the ashes settled, the student government advisors were tasked with filling his vacancy, and decided to do so by appointment. Their choice was obvious - The guy who had run against me. He accepted the position and was sworn into office. We shook hands, buried hatchets, and posed for this official yearbook student government photo which, for reasons I honestly can't remember, we thought would turn out best if we stood behind dead bushes.

As the year progressed, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this vice president and I actually worked really well together. So well in fact that at the end of the year he asked me to prom.

And four years after that, asked me to marry him.

This month marks twenty-three years since that campaign, and there's still no one I'd rather have as my second in command.

Friday, April 26, 2019


It's student government election season at my daughter's middle school. Because no proper American campaign is without a good controversy, I always find myself instinctively trying to sniff one out - even if it is among ninth grade candidates whose chances hinge on how much glitter they use in their cafeteria posters.

In the case of this campaign however, controversy presented itself without any effort at all.

The election process began a couple weeks ago, when all interested students were encouraged to fill out an application that included teacher recommendations and questions about their qualifications. Next, each applicant was interviewed by two teachers and asked to role play scenarios that included, for instance, how they might help a new student feel welcome on campus.

Of the applicants, these teachers were tasked with selecting four finalists to appear on the ballot, two of which would then be elected officers by popular vote of the student body.

On the day the applicants were notified who had been selected, I happened to be on campus. It was after school, and an administrator announced over the loudspeaker that anyone who applied for student government should report for the results. Always a sucker for breaking news, I followed a few of them to watch. I should note here that my daughter was not among the applicants, so I was able to observe what happened next from a pretty objective standpoint.

Thirty students had applied. As they entered the room they were each given a sealed envelope that revealed whether they had been selected or not. Four emerged with congratulation letters. All of them boys. Every girl - and the majority of applicants were girls - was rejected. Smart girls. Kind girls. Well-liked girls. National Junior Honor Society girls. All of whom will be casting votes next week on a boys-only ticket.

I tried so hard not to let this bother me. I really did. I went through all kinds of justifications in my mind, about how the deciding teachers must have known more than I did, or maybe the boys really were more qualified than the girls. I reminded myself that I wasn't a fan of gender politics anyway.

In the end however, I couldn't shake the feeling that a mistake had been made, and wrote the following letter to the principal.

Dear Principal (--) ,

I'm the parent of a 9th grader and am writing, first, to express my appreciation for efforts that have been made at (--) Middle School to encourage female students. I applaud your decision to participate in SheTech, and display empowering messages throughout campus. It has been wonderful to have a female principal who serves as such a positive role model for girls of confidence, leadership, and what is possible.

I also wanted to respectfully convey my disappointment upon hearing that only boys were chosen to appear on the student government ballot this year. I worry that in denying female representation, you have missed a great opportunity to send an encouraging message to all of your female students, whether they have political ambitions or not.

As you're aware, women are decidedly underrepresented in politics at both the local and national levels. When they do run for office, they are just as likely as men to win their elections. The reason they are so underrepresented is because they are far less likely to run in the first place. Two of the most frequently cited explanations for this are the fact that females are less likely than their male counterparts to be encouraged to run, and that they are less likely to consider themselves capable of doing so.

It takes a lot of courage for girls in middle school to decide to run for student office. Presenting them with a boys-only ballot could perpetuate their self doubt, and make them less likely to consider it as an option for themselves. It's discouraging enough when boys self-select more frequently than girls, but particularly disheartening when teachers are the ones who have done the selecting.

I hope that in the future, you will consider ensuring that those who oversee this process take advantage of the opportunity to empower young girls to perceive themselves as capable of campaigning and holding leadership positions on campus.  So often what happens in school can shape what happens in real life.

Thank you,
Katie Erb

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Donde esta tu aguijon?

Atonement by Kate Lee 

My Dad didn't speak Spanish, but that never stopped him.

He was convinced that the Portuguese he learned decades earlier on a mission to Brazil, and subsequently forgot, qualified him to strike up a conversation with every Hispanic we encountered at the grocery store, library, restaurants, etc. I have many memories of their patient smiles as they tried to understand his commentary on the weather or last night's Sun's game in Portuspanglish.

When he was given an ongoing assignment to address Spanish-speaking congregations of our church, he refused the interpreter that was offered him. Rather, he preferred to write out his messages in English on a large yellow legal pad and pass them off to my brother Jeff, who was fluent in Spanish and would interpret for him. He always began those talks by joking that if people didn't love what he had to say, it was because Jeff had translated it wrong.

One spring, Jeff was handed the usual yellow lined paper to interpret and said that as he did so one particular phrase seemed to jump off the page. "Donde esta oh muerte tu aguijon?" Translated, this means, "Oh death, where is thy sting?" For a long time after, he said, that phrase kept coming back to him. "Donde esta oh muerte tu aguijon?"

Seven months later, Dad was suddenly gone. When I look back on that blurry time, of receiving the news, the funeral, and sorting through our unexpected loss, one memory that stands out to me is how peaceful Jeff was. He was Dad's firstborn, only son, and favorite teammate. I knew the loss for him was devastating and yet he was so composed, and calm. Sad, but strong.

I found out later, after he told me of this experience, that one of the reasons for his inexplicable peace was the echoing of this question asked by Paul to the Corinthians, "Oh death, where is thy sting?"

Death is a lot of things. It can be confusing. Sad. Lonely. Heartbreaking. But the sting of it was taken away on Easter. On Easter, Christ emerged from the tomb, overcame death, and promised that we will too.

Much like my dad's attempts to converse in Spanish, I find myself inadequate to express exactly what this means to me, but willing to try.

Estoy agradecido.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Plastic Eggs & Deadly Plagues

March 2011 

The kids and I went grocery shopping at Safeway this morning and when we were finished, decided to browse through the Easter display.

I was sifting through the shelves - and half ignoring their desperate requests for jelly beans, stuffed chicks and chocolate bunnies - when Cal hands me this.

I beg your pardon?

I read the label again, confirming that yes, that there was a bag of PLAGUES. Who knew? The calamities suffered by the Egyptians? The disease, the darkness, the locusts…Turns out those weren’t just the wrath of God unleashed on Pharaoh. Those are toys you can put in your child’s Easter basket.

And I for one could not resist. I had just told the kids we didn’t have enough money for popsicles, then I turned around and tossed a bag of plagues into the cart.

The fun started at the register. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I loved seeing “bag of plagues” on my grocery receipt, right between “Tostitos” and “parmesan cheese.”

Now let’s take a look inside -

First, we find the usual items one would expect in a child’s bag of plagues. Blood, lice, locusts, wild beasts…

Then of course there are boils. 

Most kids today have never even heard of boils, and I think it's high time they learned. Boil Handz could be the next Silly Bandz.

The cow is cute, but don’t be fooled.

He is diseased.

The frog? Not diseased. Leah loved the frog.

Until I told her to imagine millions of him, overflowing the neighbor’s pool, filling up the streets, spilling through our windows and into her bedroom….

Fun's over.

Here is Cal, plagued by darkness...

The bag also contains a puzzle,

Which will go in Jolie’s basket, obviously.

She might be disturbed at first, but rest assured I can comfort her with stories of people slaying innocent lambs, slathering their blood above the door, and then listening to the deafening wail of Egyptians whose firstborns had been killed. Sweet dreams, darling, that is the final plague. 

The label promises that all 10 are “Fun & Educational,” and I would have to agree. I think another selling point are the kinds of arguments these toys are likely to prompt among siblings (“Quit touching my boils!” “Take the lice out of your mouth!!” “Where’d you hide the blood??” etc.). With a little luck, these kinds of exchanges will occur in public.

I highly recommend offering up the $5.49 sacrifice. 

Thank You Thirties

I remember distinctly the day my mom turned forty. I was eight at the time, and had always perceived her as younger than my friends&#...