Junk Food Diaries

Road trips were a huge part of my childhood. My grandparents lived up around South Bend, along with aunts and uncles, and my parents liked to vacation, so we got to travel a lot.  One of my favorite memories is of my parents packing the van while my brothers and I played in the van.

We knew it was about time to pull out when the red cooler and blue duffle bag containing all the snacks were finally loaded in between the middle seats. That blue duffle bag held a treasure trove of morsels. There were canisters, bags and boxes filled with goodies that we were not allowed to have on a daily basis. These tasty bits of processed pleasure were only for road trips and my brothers and I were like bears waking up from winter hibernation an hour into a car ride.

So, really it’s my parents fault that I can’t seem to get in the car without snacks.

Most of the time we are fairly healthy eaters. We get in our veggies and our protein. Water is the only drink on the  menu, with the exception of coffee. Coffee counts as water in my book.

Something happens when we get ready to take a trip, though. Anything that crinkles when I touch and looks too good to be true beckons me to bring it along.

Lee gave into my passion for pink snowballs when we were dating. He thought it was cute. Now he knows it was an addiction. Some of you may be pleased to know I haven’t had a pink snowball in years. It’s only because I know that they still exist. If that existence were ever threatened, perhaps by a zombie apocalypse, I would scavenge them by the case and hide them in my bunker. There is something special about coconut flakes that have been sweetened and dyed that perfect flamingo pink, that marshmallow shell, the truly horrible and often dry chocolate cake is hard to get through but then you get to make out with that cream center and all is good.

Anyway, I’ve moved on from snowballs.

Now I like the salty stuff when we travel. I’ve raised my kids right and they know to go for the good stuff. Dill pickle flavored potato chips, beef jerky, and bugels are some of their favorites. Sometimes they cry and say weird stuff like, “I just want fresh fruit or some carrot sticks.” but I’m like, “NO! We are on a road trip. We can have nutritious stuff any time.” They cry but they eat their slim jims like I’ve taught them, washing it down with a giant slurpy.

When we drive south I know how to spot a boiled peanut stand a mile away. Don’t give me that crock pot at the gas station filled with peanuts that have been in there who-knows-how-long. Uh uh. I want the wooden stand with the sign that reads: ‘Boild P-nuts’ and has a line 5 people deep. None of my people will join in on my boiled peanut binge, but maybe that’s for the best.


Me and some ‘snack’ food. Don’t worry, I ate some quinoa and cabbage after this debacle. It all balanced out.

We haven’t been on a road trip in months, so sometimes we have to simulate one.

We were at Trader Joe’s a couple of weeks ago (proof that we eat healthful and affordable food) picking up stuff for dinner. We also let the kids pick out snacks to share. As the cashier was bagging my husband asked her to keep out a few things.

“This one. Oh, and that one, too. Yes, that one,” Lee said until we had quite the pile in front of us. We do have four children, you know, and they are always very hungry.

“We need snacks for the trip home,” I explained, not wanting her to think that we were piggies enamored by plastic bags with cool looking fonts.

“Oh, where are you guys from?” she asked, clearly thinking that our mountain of morsels was indication of a long journey.

“Here. In Lexington, about ten minutes away,” I answered.

“Wow, I’d like to go on a really long trip with you all if this is how you drive across town,” she said. We all laughed really hard.

We got to the car and were still kind of chuckling. Once the doors were locked and the seat belts clicked it was down to the serious of work of tearing cellophane and passing handfuls of whatever was in there around.

We needed sustenance for the journey home, man.




Being Uncomfortable

Some news in our world is that my brother Erik, who is developmentally disabled, is living in his own house. Well, a group home with one or two other guys like him that is staffed at all times. During the day he works. His life is full in a way I was never sure it would be. He’s 35 and for the first time he’s living away from my parents. It’s kind of a big deal.

I know that the transition has been hard on all of us, especially my parents, especially my mom. I suppose it’s been the hardest on Erik. It’s been almost a year and I still do not love the feeling I have when I drive away after visiting his house, or the feeling I get when he calls upset about something. While I know he is happy in his life, I also know that he is mourning the loss of his old life. Even though he craved independence he also found it comfortable to know he was always going to be cared for in a certain way. Living on his own, even with caregivers, adds an element of the unknown.

We each attempt to make him comfortable, to put him at ease about his new life while also trying to do the same for ourselves. We have dinner with him at his house. We have helped him decorate his room. We talk on the phone every day, sometimes too many times in a day.  He is in some ways so like a child and in other ways like a grumpy old man. It’s an interesting and maddening mix of sweet and sour.

Part of the conundrum of Erik is that he experiences feelings on a really large level (probably super sized) yet is unable to articulate much of that. That inability leads to a lot of unnamed frustration that looks like acting out. Think 6 year old behavior in a 35 year old man. Honestly, though, there are times I listen to him ranting about something that he’s ticked about and I think, “Yeah! That’s right.”

It’s amazing how quickly something new becomes ordinary, how quickly old dreams are replaced with new ones. I had always hoped that Erik would come live with my family but that was just not possible. That doesn’t mean that won’t ever happen, it just cannot happen now. I’ve come to see that he needs to be where he is, that this step is important in his life. It’s sure not easy, though.

Finding notes like this in my day planner make it hard to not go pack him up and bring him home:

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I love you Kara! I would like to move in with you and your family! Love, Uncle Erik  God bless you all!


I cannot give him false hope, though, and tell him that he can move in with us even though that’s what I want to do. I don’t know what the future holds for him just like I don’t know what the future holds for me and my family. Ten years ago, when Erik was 25 and I was 32 we used to plan our future together. Erik would worry about what would happen to him when our parents were gone to ‘Glory-land’ as he refers to heaven. I just wanted to make him feel better so I drove him to Home Depot and told him to pick out a yard barn. I told him that yard barn would be his house and we planned how we’d convert it to an apartment. This calmed him and excited him. The idea of having his own space right in our backyard was the perfect solution to the dilemma.

We’re both older now, though, and I know that sometimes making him feel better in the short term isn’t great for him in the long term. When Erik brings up moving back home I remind him that he likes his new house, that things are good there. I ask him to list all the things he likes about his house and living on his own. Fortunately there’s a lot he likes.

I wish I could convey to him all that I know about moving; that it takes time before a place feels like home, that soon the new things will be the old things and that will feel right.  I wish he knew that being uncomfortable is just part of the process of growing.

Dreaming of the future isn’t bad as long as it doesn’t keep you from enjoying where you’re at. That’s the balance that’s hard to strike, isn’t it? We each have to work to be grateful for where we’re at yet not let go of the possibilities that could come down the road.

Last week when I was hanging out at Erik’s house he said something to me that gave me hope that he’s pleased with his life as it is.

“My jobs are important, aren’t they?” Erik asked with his cute grin, bending at the waist expectantly.

“Yes, Erik, your jobs are very important,” I answered. Then I gave him a big hug. This is what we want: for Erik to be satisfied with where he’s at, to enjoy the fullness of life.

As I was getting ready to leave later he asked another question, though, that reminded me that he’s always dreaming of the future.

“I get to move in with you all again one day though? And we’ll live on a farm?”

“We’ll see, Erik. We’ll see.” I smiled over Erik’s shoulder at his caregiver.

Erik will never give up on that dream.

So I guess I won’t either.

Raised by wolves

When my oldest three were little I held dance parties in the living room as way for them, and me,  to blow off steam. I would turn the music up loud and we’d dance and shout until we were panting for air. Sometimes we’d have freeze dance parties if we were bored with the regular kind. I would turn the volume down on the radio and the kids would have to hold whatever position for however long I kept the volume down.

We had all the fun.

My youngest guy, Liam,  is 6 and I still want to do those fun things with him. I want him to have all the things my older ones did. I don’t want him to miss out on anything. Today I asked my 15 (almost 16, MOM!) year old daughter and 12 year old son to help me have a dance party. That may have been a mistake. It may have also been a mistake to hold this dance party in my bed. The thing is I’m older and more tired than when the first three were little. I wanted to have a dance party on my behind. In my bed. With a cup of coffee.

Now that I write this I realize that may have been my mistake.

Any time I invite Laurel and Spencer to do anything I’m inviting a certain level of chaos. These two love  to take things to the next level.

Things went well at first. We were doing the funky arm moves, getting some decent air time even though I’ve significantly restricted the jump zone. Then Liam moved with lightening speed to the end of the bed and launched a perfect belly flop in the center. I gave him a little leeway because he’s six and they need that. The other two, though, took my clapping and leeway-giving as their chance to up the ante. Spencer, who has not yet come to terms with the fact that he’s an adult-sized person, also catapulted himself across the bed. His bounce yielded several smaller bounces for Laurel and I. Just as I saved myself from toppling over the edge I heard Liam shout, “Cannonball!” and could only watch in silent amazement as he tried to drag his sister down.

I had entered the next level without signing up for it.

The next few minutes involved me boomeranging between please-this-is-not-how-dance-parties- are-supposed-to-go and laughing til I cried.

Thoughts happen really fast, you know? During the madness taking place in my bed I had time to think about the fact that my youngest child never got to love Elmo madly. Instead he chose Batman. It wasn’t Barney that he wanted played on repeat, it was Lord of the Rings. My littlest guy doesn’t know any words to The Wiggles songs but by golly he knew the words to The Phantom of the Opera by the time he was four. Sometimes I feel badly that he doesn’t have siblings his age to play with, or that I don’t do circle time in the mornings anymore , or that when he is indignant he shouts, “What the crap?”  (a very teenagery thing to say, you must admit).



It’s like he’s been raised by wolves.

I snap out of my 7 second contemplation because phrases like ‘frank and beans’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ were being shouted by my children. What I see is that they are having a blast, the music is still going strong, and Liam doesn’t know any different.

His three older siblings are way better than Elmo, hands down.

They are nice wolves, after all, fixing him peanut butter jellies and giving him snuggles when necessary.

Today I conceded that things are the way that they are.

Then I did what needed to be done:  I pants-ed one of my kids.

Getting through

A lot of what has gotten me through the hard times is laughter. I really think that there is almost always something funny to be found. Call it dark humor, irony, whatever but acknowledge that there’s funny stuff even in the most difficult situations.

Erma Bombeck totally got this. Two of my favorite Erma quotes ( but it’s sooooo hard to pick just two! Just read her books. Quote the whole book.) are:


There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. ~ Erma Bombeck


If you can’t make it better you can laugh at it. ~ Erma Bombeck


That is solid information right there. Write it, print it, tattoo it somewhere. Laughing is good even when you’re down. Especially when you’re down.

Sometimes you’ve got to come at the situation from a different angle to find the funny. A good belly laugh won’t cure the problem but it’ll make you feel 10 times better, if only for a short while.

That’s all easy to say, but when you’re in a tough spot it can be hard to laugh. Situations and feelings that accompany them can be consuming. For me, it’s way easier to turn the problem over and over in my head trying to come up with a solution or an answer for why what’s going on is going on. Other people may rather escape and avoid the issue all together. Looking for the humor can force you to be in the moment or can give you a break from your circumstances. It may sound weird but some of my favorite moments were born in difficult circumstances. Our family is super tight because of our ability to allow ludicrous moments to entertain us.

Around three years ago we went through a really difficult diagnosis. It’s a long story but Kiley, our oldest daughter, had woken at midnight a couple of nights in a row with her heart beating fast and feeling sick to her stomach. The doctor wanted to do an EKG just to rule out heart problems. To our surprise her EKG came back abnormal and on her 15th birthday we went to see a cardiologist. That was at the end of January. By March three of the four kids had been diagnosed with a congenital heart condition called Long QT Syndrome.*  We were told the symptoms were fainting, seizure or sudden death.

Isn’t that funny?

Okay, so that part wasn’t funny. There’s not much funny about a heart condition that could potentially kill your children, to tell you the truth.  I joined an online support group, though, and the great people I met there helped me put things in perspective. Many of those diagnosed only find out after a family members dies suddenly at a young age, so finding out before anything tragic happened is a mercy. We are extremely fortunate to also be asymptomatic, meaning we don’t even know we have this condition. If that EKG hadn’t shown it we still wouldn’t know. t have anxiety, though, and this was an extremely anxiety-producing diagnosis. Our entire reality had shifted; we had seen life as relatively safe and now it seemed that everything was unsafe because of goofy electrical system issues.

I had to reframe the situation, and I had to show the kids that everything was going to be fine.

I did not do that the day we went to Wal-mart and I had a panic attack. I insisted we find an AED and wanted to call 911.

As I was trying to rip open my shirt Kiley burst out laughing. Like, she spit all over me. Which caused Laurel, who was 13, to do the exact same thing, which caused me to laugh until I cried. I cannot imagine what people thought as the three of us clutched each other while laughing like actual maniacs, tears streaming down our cheeks, jaws frozen in place, stomach muscles cramping.

That was the beginning of the end of anxiety’s hold on me.

I decided laughter was the medicine I needed. Yes, we had a serious condition on our hands. Yes, heart monitors and beta blockers were all part of our lives now. No, we were not dead. It seemed silly to wait around for a heart condition to claim our lives when we had so much living to do. My friend Jenna pragmatically pointed out that one of us could be hit by a car just as quickly as the heart condition could kill us.  No day is guaranteed.

Find the truth in your situation:

My husband gave me a pep talk that went kind of like this, “You have to do normal things. No more researching. If this is our thing, then this is our thing. We just have to keep going forward.” That was truth that I needed to hear.

Then he made me take the kids to the dentist, a place of deep humiliation and shame for me because we have cavity prone teeth.

While we were at the dentist’s office, which was an RV because we went to a mobile dental clinic, the sun was shining through the windshield on my face. I felt a huge wave of relief. I was doing something normal and it felt good.

“Mom, I can see your mustache,” Spencer said. He was 9. Nine year old boys have the gift of stating the obvious that often doesn’t need to be stated.

The bus driver and I looked at each other and started laughing, because it was funny and it was true.

Find things to laugh at:

During this period I became a huge Nacho Libre fan. First of all, Jack Black is so funny. Second of all, this movie is so absurdly weird it only gets more comical each time you watch it.

How is this not funny? Diarrhea jokes are always funny, imho.

Sometimes when we’re in the middle of a serious situation we forget to take a break from the serious. Breaks are good mentally, physically, and spiritually. After my husband’s dad was killed in a car wreck 8 years ago not much seemed funny. After we got home from the funeral we took the kids to see a movie. I don’t even remember what movie, I just remember that it felt good to think about something else. Nacho Libre was my something else, and kind of still is. Maybe Weird Al Yankovich does it for you, maybe these videos do, or this video from Good Mythical Morning. I don’t know, but I know it’s important to find things to laugh at. no. matter. what.

Be with people who make help you laugh:

I’ve got to give a shout out to my husband for this because he completely helps me lighten my mood. I can just be so serious. Some of that is my personality, some of it is anxiety. Anxiety makes everything feel serious. Make sure you have people in your life who can lighten your load or maybe poke you in the right spot at the right time. I’m super grateful to have some friends who come through when I need them. I’m also super thankful for texting because it helps me keep in touch with them even while we’re far apart. I remember when I shared the news that we were leaving ministry with my friend, Rachel. She must have sensed my panic through the phone because she responded with “Let me guess: you can already see your family living in boxes behind Wal-Mart.”

That is exactly what I was imagining, actually. I giggled and saw myself from another perspective. I realized I was taking authority away from God and giving it to myself and if she hadn’t sent that text when she did I could have gone down the rabbit hole.

I know that finding the funny isn’t always easy…

and maybe you’re in a situation that requires mourning. I don’t want to take away from that because I believe grieving is just as important as laughing. Even in our sadness, though, laughing can help us get through the difficult moments.

For those in a period where laughing comes easily I pray it comes often.For those that weep, I pray you find joy.










Sometimes a fresh start doesn’t feel fresh

A year ago we walked out of one life and into another. We needed a fresh start.

Four months into our fresh start things didn’t feel so fresh.

Our fresh start felt more like a slap in the face with a cold, smelly, dead fish.

We weren’t naive, though. We knew it would be hard.

I just didn’t think it would be this kind of hard.

What really stinks about life sometimes is that what is good for you doesn’t always feel good. This last year has been good for our family but it certainly has not always felt good. I’m sure you’ve had some experience with this type of growth. It’s probably my age or the larger amounts of free time I had when we first moved in with my parents, but I have done a lot of thinking. Introspective thinking. Thinking about who I am and how I got where I am, and I don’t mean where I am on the map. I found myself truly thinking about regrets from my past. I’m happy that I don’t have many, and none  involve anything terrible. Really, all of my dissatisfaction came from character issues. It wasn’t what I did that I lamented, it was who I was.

That stung, and more than a little.

The awesome thing about moving to a new city is that you get to be someone new. Not entirely new, not name-changed new (although if that’s what you need you’ll get no judgement here) just ‘I’m-braver-than-I-used-to-be’ new. We moved to Knoxville 5 years and 2 babies into our marriage. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done but the best thing, too. I can remember driving on I-40 for the first time in my little black Volvo station wagon just praying that I didn’t get creamed by the semi’s that were barreling along all around me. My radio didn’t work so I just sang at the top of my lungs to my little ones, flapping my elbows to release nervous tension.

That made me a little braver about life.

Once you do one thing that takes courage you can build on that, and build on the next thing and keep going until you’re a super audacious person who can drive on I-75 or I-40 or take your children to the zoo by yourself or walk up to strangers and introduce yourself.

Moving gives you a chance to push the reset button.

Sometimes, though, you don’t want to set the reset button. Sometimes you like it right where you are and you’re happy with the friends you’ve had who have  seen your babies born and grow and who love you even when you do really goofy things like quit answering your phone for a time. Sometimes moving feels like having part of you packed in a box and then lost in a storage unit. Sometimes moving hurts.

Who cares if you’re courageous when you’re in pain?

Then you cry a little, and you hug your  hubby and your babies who aren’t babies anymore, and that makes you remember why you were brave in the first place.

Courage isn’t always for us.

You start building on those little acts of bravery until you remember who you are.

If moving away gives you a chance to start over, then what does moving back home do?

Truth: Nothing brings out courage like running into friends from high school you haven’t seen since graduation.

Moving back home, for me, gave me a chance to forgive myself, to see my ‘character flaws’ in light of what they really were: youthful inexperience. Of course my character needed work when I was 19. I’ve learned more about grace in the past year than in my entire Christian life. I’ve been able to put into perspective the mistakes I made and give myself a good dose of grace. Moving back home, specifically into my childhood home, gave me a chance to remember the good things about me. Like, I was always kind of a misfit, but the kind of misfit that fit anywhere. I liked hanging out with older neighbors, the only adults I rolled my eyes at were my parents, and I was friends with everyone from cheerleaders to dog-collar, mohawk wearing kids. I like being a misfit and now I remember that!

Moving, whether it’s away from or back to, is an opportunity to get to know a new side of yourself.

I think that’s what this blog is;  a small act of bravery, the chance for me to get to know a new side of myself. I have deep love for If Mama Ain’t Happy, but every time I went there I was reminded of all the things I meant to do (and who I missed and where I used to be) and it kept me trapped in a little way.

I think everyone can get bogged down in who they were, stuck in a pattern of behavior. Everyone longs for transformation and renewal. I don’t think you have to move to a new city to get that fresh start. Go to a different grocery store or library. Join a new bible study. Dig a little deeper into who God says you are. Start something you’ve always wanted to. Run with the idea that wakes you up in the night (as long as it doesn’t involve someone you’ve met on the internet). Just go and do and build on that one small thing. Before you know it you’ll be someone’s hero.

Be brave, misfits of the world! Be brave!




Empty Streets

The big selling point on moving to this neighborhood was ‘there will be lots of kids your age’. It’s the neighborhood I grew up in. There’s an elementary school, a church park, and a city park in this neighborhood. Kid central.

When I was growing up there were kids all over. We played kickball in the street, we roamed the sidewalks until dark, and if we were doing something we shouldn’t the neighbors yelled at us or called our parents. As we got older we rode our bikes in packs. We invented games. We took our change to the corner store to buy Jolly Ranchers and Double Bubble gum.

There were a couple of groups of kids that only hung out together, but for the most part if we all met up we’d get a game of touch football or basketball going, or just hang out on someone’s front porch in the warmer weather. Of course there were squabbles but we got over it after a few days apart.

I wasn’t expecting it to be just like this for my kids, but I also wasn’t prepared for what it’s like now.


We moved in the winter, and last year we got a lot of snow, so we didn’t see any kids. Not too surprising, really, with all the ice and the bitter cold weather. Spring came, though, and still no children. The only evidence that there were children was when school got out and kids walked home. We watched from the front porch hoping for a friendly face. Kids did smile, parents would say hello, but then go about their busy lives. Rush to get home to go to the next thing.

I encouraged my son to just ride his bike around the neighborhood, be open to a new friend, say hello and stop and chat.

There’s no one to chat with, though. The streets are empty.

Every now and then we see a kid out on his bike but the kids say I can’t approach them in the van, which I guess would be creepy.

I’m feeling a little desperate for my boys, though.

I ask myself every afternoon when we take a walk, “Where are the children?”


I know that there are plenty who live in this neighborhood. I see them at the bus stops in the morning, I see them walking to and from the elementary school. I hate to be one of those people that says, “When I was kid…”, but really, when I was kid school got out, we shoved some food in our mouths and then we were back out until our parents called us home or we got hungry again.

I thought that in the spring and summer things would be different. I thought that there would be kids out roaming the sidewalks looking for a game of kickball or basketball. We went to the park every day, sometimes twice, hoping to meet some neighbors. We occasionally met a couple of grandmothers with their grandchildren, but never kids between the ages of 7 and 15. We literally paraded up and down every street. Our neighborhood is small so that was a doable task. I felt like crying a few times.

I think the children of today are signed up for activities instead of being allowed to explore the world. I wonder if they’re at after school programs or if their parents are just putting them straight in the car after school so they can get where they’re going next. I read a book this fall called Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. It’s a long title  that sums the gist up pretty well. Peter Gray is a psychologist and this book’s premise is that over-scheduling our kids, not giving them unsupervised play time, inhibits their natural instincts as leaders, explorers, and natural learners.

I think he’s right.

It’s all about activities now. Almost every kid we know is in 2 to 4 programmed activities, meaning adult-supervised, adult-led, and every minute is laid out. Whatever happened to free time? I think it’s vital for children to be given time to meander, play, and even argue with their friends. If we are constantly moving kids from one activity to another when do they get to learn about who they are, explore their own thoughts and feelings?

A lot of what I know about myself I learned when I was a kid. I learned what I like and didn’t like, I learned how to deal with people that I liked, and how to handle people who didn’t like me. I learned how to use my strengths and how to combine my skills with someone else’s. We were in and out of each others homes learning about different rules in different houses. I learned so much through unsupervised time. No one told us what to do. The only rules were check in every two hours by phone or in person and be back by dinner.

I have this idea of bringing back front porch time. We tried it last summer. I sat on the front porch while the boys played on their bikes. They made awesome friends with the neighbor’s cats.

We have spotted some boys out bike riding and we’re going to attempt first contact this week. I’m hoping it goes well.

In the meantime we will just do like everyone else: get in the car and drive to meet friends out. It’s just not the same as having neighbor kids run in out of the house drinking all the milk. I miss that.

We won’t give up hoping that some other kids will come outside to play, though.

What’s it like where you live?