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The first time that our family was invaded by lice, I discovered it after finishing our cross country road trip to see my in-laws. My kid kept complaining about an itchy head, but kids complain about EVERYTHING when they’re in a car for 8 hours a day, so it didn’t stop me from letting them try on every single cowboy hat across the southwest prairie. (Sorry about that, Oklahoma.)

There is nothing that sends me over the edge faster and with more force than lice. After that particular trip, when I had figured out that I had it too (there might have been some crying in a shower), I made my husband (Think: advertising executive, not hair stylist) cut my hair. Hearing somewhere that lice hate processed hair, I then dyed it purple. Picture it: I was a crying, neurotic 41 year old woman that looked like she had gone to the Hair School for the Blind for a makeover. Now, three years and several more lice invasions later, you can see why telling my lice story to anyone who will listen is not such an insane concept.

Our daughter Merry (grade 3) will receive her 6th lice treatment of this school year today. (Sounds like quite the accomplishment—like getting a black belt or 1st chair in the orchestra—but we Cooks are achievers of a different nature.) After finding lice on her on last week

, I had a new nervous breakdown of a supernatural kind. In addition to treating us all AGAIN, and washing everything that was ever touched by human hands in my house AGAIN, and sending Mr. Snuggles and friends to go live in solitary confinement in the garage with the termites and black widows AGAIN, and then texting every girl mom that I had a phone number for in the 3rd grade AGAIN… I then made some phone calls and had some meetings. I have met with our principal and our school nurse. I spoke on the phone with the Director of Health Services for our school district, and the nurse for communicable diseases at the Department of Public Health. (Ok, so maybe I was a little more than just crazed. Perhaps neurotic to the point of menta

l illness might be more accurate. But a GOOD mental illness, right?)

Here is what I have learned…

WHAT ARE LICE:

Lice are insects that live in human hair (head, pubic region and… hold on to your lunch… even eyebrows) and are considered a transmittable parasite, but lice do not classify as a disease since they do not spread illness. A child can get an infection from scratching, but lice do not carry bacteria or viruses (like how ticks carry lyme disease) and are therefore not prioritized as dangerous by either the school district or the Dept. of Public Health. As I was told, “It is just the creep factor.”

how to get rid of head lice?

Live juvenile and adult lice cannot live without food (human blood) for more than two days. If a live louse leaves the host, it will die in that time frame without food. 

Nits are the eggs of lice. A live adult can produce as many as 10 nits a day. Nits take one week to hatch. These nits are stuck with the equivalent of lice superglue to individual hair shafts. They are about the size of a strawberry seed, are wheat colored and are located on the shaft somewhat close to the scalp. Yes, they do look exactly like the pounds of sand already found in our children’s hair, but if you poke it with your finger or blow on it, it will not move. The only way to get a nit off of a hair is to scrape it between your fingernails, comb with the metal lice comb or use a special chemical. Truly gross.

Lice do not jump, run or fly (so I’m told, though I’m pretty sure no one is holding an Olympics of Lice) so the only way that they can get from one person to another is through contact. That’s right, all of that hugging, cuddling, sharing (brushes, hats, hair bands, helmets, pillows, stuffed animals, blankets, shirts, jackets, etc.) are how our children spread their love and bug infestation! (And don’t forget selfies!)

Lice can hold their breath for an insanely long period of time. They don’t care if your child spends hours in the ocean, they will find a way to make it work. You cannot drown lice. Period. They love clean hair, but they are bugs and not really all that choosy, so if you think that your little sand crab is safe, you are mistaken.

HOW TO FIND THE BUGGERS

terminator

Itching always seems to be the big indicator, but my niece had a full blown infestation and she never had one itch. If your kid isn’t scratching, they could just be numb in the head. (Totally kidding. Fairly sure your kid can feel things. You’ll quickly see when you use the lice comb!) However, if you have a kid who won’t leave his head alone… start looking.

Look for redness on the scalp in the hairline at the base of the neck and behind the ears. Again, some kids have eczema or bad dry scalp, so this might not be a definitive answer. And, if your kid does have a super dry scalp or eczema, they can still have lice. So sorry for that kid.

The best way I’ve found to see if your kid has lice is in the shower. Once they have showered and theoretically washed their hair with shampoo, pour in a TON of conditioner in and lather it generously about. Then take a comb with the smallest teeth possible (lice combs are best) and start combing out the conditioner. Start at the base of the neck and behind the ears. As globs of conditioner gather on the comb, spread them out onto a tissue or paper towel. Only the lice comb will produce nits, but a comb with small tines can generally pull out the live lice as they get stuck in the conditioner. And use your reading glasses! Live lice are about the size of sesame seeds. No one has arms long enough to see that.

Once you find them you must dispose of them carefully. Put the paper towels into a bag, tie it and dispose of it. Soak that comb in bleach and hot water (after you’re done using it on the kid, of course). And keep washing your hands. Lice are a live, moving target and the nits are a bomb waiting to go off in a week! This takes some special tactical maneuvers and even, yes, a bit of neurosis.

HOW TO GET RID OF THEM:

(Ok, so you are trying to hold down your last meal because you’ve found an insect walking around in your child’s hair. Breathe. It is going to be ok. Take a sip of something calming. I like to lock myself in the bathroom for a tick or two. Once you’ve called forth your strength and put on your Thunderwear, it is time to get to work.)

The Host: Sadly, your child’s world is about to rain down with everything a kid can’t stand—hygiene. Even sadder is that you must now treat everyone in the home. Don’t think so? I have a friend whose kids had lice treatments three times over the course of four months. They just couldn’t get rid of it. Then the mom figured out that SHE WAS THE ONE THAT KEPT GIVING EVERYONE LICE.

TREATMENTS THAT WORKED FOR ME:

DIY 

Cetaphil treatment – This treatment is exhausting but works and way less expensive in money, but high cost in time. You put Cetaphil in dry hair (combing out nits and lice as you go) and then blow the hair completely dry. This takes close to an hour on short hair. The idea is that the Cetaphil dries and shrink wraps the live lice suffocating them. This does not kill the nits, so you have to do the entire treatment over again in a week. And, you get to walk around with hair that looks like you’ve used salad dressing to wash it. Bonus.

Quit Nits – This is a homeopathic treatment that does not use harsh chemicals. You put the solution into dry hair and let it sit for 4-8 hours, then wash it out. The idea is that it dehydrates the critters. This treatment does claim to kill the nits. (I think this is true.) It also claims that no combing is necessary. (I think this is stupid.) You can get Quit Nits from Whole Foods and generally any other natural grocery store as well as the Internet. A kit costs around $17 and comes with a bottle of cream solution (one bottle will get you two treatments for short hair, one treatment for thick long hair), a plastic comb (doesn’t work) and a small bottle of preventative spray (maybe works). You should know that most places sell out quickly.

**UPDATE: Two VERY important things to note. I wrote this piece two years ago so pricing has changed. Today a complete Quit Nits lice kit costs $69.95 on Amazon. Second, after about the 9th treatment on Merry that year (there were 10 in all), I realized that Quit Nits no longer worked. Seems the lice strain at our school had evolved beyond. See “Lice Whisperers” paragraph below for the actual result producing effort.

Rid – This is the old school, buy it at Walgreen’s treatment. Rid has one of the best lice combs: red handle, metal teeth. The comb used to come with the kit, but I don’t think that it does anymore. The Rid solution goes into dry hair (see the pattern forming?) for 10 minutes, and as the box says “no longer”. (Of course, I was busy washing every sheet in the house so my girls may have had it on for a little longer… like half an hour. They seem normal enough now though, right?) You then rinse it out in the shower. It lists itself as a “shampoo and conditioner”. Shockingly good curl enhancer.

**THE TREATMENT I USE TODAY – OIL AND COMB

 combLice Comb – I cannot stress enough how important this comb is. If you were Luke Skywalker this would be your lightsaber. If you were Indiana Jones, this is your whip. 

The best and only surefire way to get rid of lice is to remove them personally with that comb. Yes, it takes hours. Yes, the comb hurts (especially on old lady hair), but it works and they are gone. Even after you treat the hair, there is no guarantee that you covered every single egg, every single bug with the treatment. If even only ONE egg or bug is still alive, you will have another infestation sometime around the end of next week. The only way to get rid of lice from a person completely is to comb and then comb again. 

My recommendation for the BEST is the Nit Free Terminator lice comb. It is stainless steel (yup, you can boil and bleach the bejesus out of it) and has tiny grooves in the super tight tines. Available on Amazon for $10.30 (not inc. shipping, 2017 prices.) 

Again, there are other metal lice combs that are out there (like the metal comb in the Rid kit), but this is the one that has worked best for me. A lot of the kits come with a small tined plastic comb. These can help you search the hair for live lice when you use conditioner, but don’t bother trying to clear the nits out. Useless.

Herbal Oil –  I now create my own proprietary blend of herbal oils after experiencing years of chemical testing. Don’t get me wrong, the chemicals can work (and I’d venture to guess more so in geographical locations that have cold seasons than in places like Southern California where all our critters are bionic), but if you’re ready to put in the time with that comb, this is the tried and true method. In addition to combing through the head meticulously, I wrap the head in a bandana and leave the oil on overnight. If the bugs can’t grab onto the hair, the eggs have no hope.

OIL: (A spray bottle works best.) Blend with almond oil any combination of the following: clove, rosemary, eucalyptus, frankincense, cedarwood, cinnamon. I like to make two different versions so my kids experience the illusion of choice.

METHOD – If you love to Zentangle, this might be your new jam. Prep your kid with the most engrossing, stay-in-your-seat activity you can find. This is NOT the time to make them do homework or read. This is the good side of digital devices.

You’ll Need: a bowl of water, paper towels, lice comb, lice oil, hair clips

Section off all the hair so that you’re only working in 1” sections. 

Spray the oil into the hair at the scalp for the first section only.

Insert the tines of the comb where the 1” section meets the scalp and draw the comb slowly out of the hair. Expect the comb to move jaggedly and catch on the hairs a bit because the tines are so tight. Buckle in for LOTS of shouting.

After you’ve pulled the comb through, dip it in water and then wipe across the paper towel. You are looking for adult lice (the biggest and easiest to see), juveniles (smaller) and nits (tiny strawberry seed-sized spots). 

Now comb through the same section from underneath. Do it again from the side. Do it again from the other side. Think of this as a “Lice Doe-See-Doe”. Do it all again until that comb comes out clean.

Take that method, do the entire head and kiss goodbye to the next two hours of your life.

Do this treatment again in 7-10 days if you want to guarantee the infected is absolutely clean.

CALLING IN BACK UP

The Lice Whisperers – (UPDATED VERSION) At the time of the writing of this doc, Merry was still infested. It actually took 10 treatments to rid our house of lice. The final treatment was professional help to the tune of $265, one hour of my child sobbing in a chair in front of a stranger and $35 for a good bottle of red wine for myself. These organizations are a franchise that hire contractors to come to your house and comb your kid’s hair out while you pretend you can’t hear the screaming from the other room. So fun. They use a ‘proprietary blend’ oil in the hair and the Terminator comb. They also recommend a return visit in 7-10 days to guarantee their work. 

TREATMENTS THAT DIDN’T WORK FOR ME:

Nix – Nix is another one of the buy-at-any-grocery-store toxic kits. This stuff is crap. My first clue was that you could put the solution onto damp hair. Warning. The second was that after washing it out (10 minutes later?) and combing through Merry’s hair there were still live lice walking around. If you find anything alive after a treatment IT DID NOT WORK. Of course at this point, she had already had enough toxicity on her head to melt crayons, so I couldn’t exactly make her sit through another treatment… which meant she and all of us went to bed knowing we still had lice… in the house… until the next day. That doesn’t screw with your sleep at all.

I have heard of many other treatments (the Vinegar/Oil Treatment, Something from Somewhere in Mexico Treatment) but I haven’t tried them. I’m not saying that there aren’t others that are effective out there, I’m sure there are. The good news is, that if this problem keeps up, we’ll get our chance to try all of them!

Speaking of which, here is the #1 way to get rid of lice at school. Ready? Really easy and extremely important…

Tell the school. What I learned from our principal, from the nurse, from Health Services and from Public Health is that because no one is telling the school that they have a confirmed case of lice, the school doesn’t realize that there is a problem and can’t deal with it. If the school doesn’t know, then parents don’t know and no one is looking for it. As soon as you find it, call your school nurse and tell him/her. Every school has a different policy on lice when it comes to when kids are allowed in school (A ‘no lice’ policy means a kid can return when no live lice are found in the hair. A ‘no nit’ policy means a kid can return when nothing is found in the hair.) and how many reported infestations it takes before a notice is sent home. Be clear and ask what your school’s policies are. If you don’t like them, work to change them. 

Tell everyone. I don’t mean call up your husband’s boss and set her ear on fire, but do send a lovely little note to everyone who’s house your kid visited in the last two weeks, the babysitter that snuggled on the couch with her, the mom of the kid that is her seat partner, the coach at the gymnastics facility… anyone who could help stop the spread of this infernal annoyance. Even the families of your child’s sibling friends. No one will think less of you and actually will most likely want to help you. You have no idea the amount of wine I’ve been offered when people find out we have lice.

Ok, so about now your kid is doused in some form of poison solution and eating up battery life on a digital device while waiting for the bugs to cook. Time to hit your house.

LICE REMOVAL IN THE HOME:

This is actually the part of lice removal that snaps the even-keeled, totally chill me into a raging psycho banshee from hell. It cannot be stated enough: Lice are a time bomb waiting to go off over and over again. In order to completely eradicate them, you must clean/dry/disinfect EVERYTHING.

The Bedding: All sheets, blankets, and comforters need to be washed in hot water and dried on high heat. When you take them off of the bed, fold them carefully and place them into a garbage bag for transport. (These little stinkers can’t fly, but they can fall. You lose a few live ones onto the carpet and your kid lays on their bedroom floor… boom. You’ve got lice again.) Pillows that can’t be washed can be thrown into the dryer on high heat for 40 minutes. And guess what? You have to do this to EVERY BED IN THE HOUSE. I like to do the big wash the first day, then just toss the child in quarantine’s bed things into the dryer on high every day for the next week.

The Toys: Mr. Snuggles has two choices: into the dryer on high for 40 minutes or into the garage in a plastic bag for two weeks. And all of his friends go with him. My girls love to keep mountains of stuffed animals on their beds. I cringe every time they get another one for the collection, because guess what—that fennec fox is awfully soft and cuddly when he comes home from the store, but one tour in the dryer and Foxy looks like she has the mange. Don’t let stuffed animals out of the house… don’t let other kids’ animals into the house. And those cute little ones hanging off of backpacks? Lice hand grenades.

The Carpets: Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. Every day. Period. Once you vacuum, get rid of the bag. You can either dispose of it or you can spray inside with an insecticide—but I totally don’t recommend that because then you are just filtering toxic chemicals throughout the house every time you turn the thing on. Get those filthy buggers off of the floor.

The Furniture: Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. The couch, the chairs, anything with fabric upholstery. If you can wash pillow covers, now is a great time to do so. If not, into the dryer with them. We’ve done this so much, I have the pattern from the inside of our dryer burned onto the surface of one of my couch cushions.

The Linens: Bath towels, bath mats, washcloths, hand towels, dish towels… toss all of it into the wash. Bath towel hanging on the wall next to the other towels? Wash them all. That towel that your infected kid just used after getting the treatment? Wash it. That hoodie that your infected kid just dropped onto the vacuumed couch… then walked off with and dropped into that clean basket of laundry you just folded? WASH IT. WASH AND VACUUM ALL OF IT AGAIN. 

(Incidentally, this is the part where my husband takes me by the arm and marches me into the bedroom, closes the door and speaks to me in hushed tones. All of my friends who’ve had lice get this little quiet talking to from their husbands. It will happen to you too. Welcome to our club. Just listen to what he says, nod in solemn agreement, then go disinfect his pillow when he isn’t looking.)

The Clothes and Accessories: Any article of clothing that your child has been wearing or anything that has been touched by something that he/she has been wearing needs to be washed and/or thrown into the dryer on high. (Think: hoodie hanging with the other coats on the coat rack—everything into the laundry). This includes (but is not limited to): jackets, pajamas, hats, scarves, backpacks, bandanas, headbands, hair ribbons, hair clips… the list is endless. I take a pillowcase and dump every hair accessory into it that could have possibly touched their head or touched something that touched their head and run it through the dryer. Lost an entire package of headbands that way. Try to remember that plastic melts at high heat.

Brushes and Combs: Anything you use to comb hair (yours and theirs) soak in boiling water and/or bleach. Before that lice comb touches another head in the house, bleach it and/or toss in boiling water and do it again in between each combing. (In my earlier days I was so wary of chemicals that I would boil water and pour it over the combs and brushes. Cracked my porcelain bathroom sink that way. Bleach works, just remember that it also corrodes. So I like to alternate between the two. And I use a metal bowl for the boiling treatments.)

The Car: If you have fabric upholstery (and yes, fabric on carseats most definitely counts) you are driving around in a lice mobile. Great news! If you live in cold weather, you’re probably safe and don’t need to do more than a quick vacuum of your seats. If like me your temperature rarely drops below 65 degrees, you’ve got some work to do. Vacuum everything and either wrap your newly treated kid’s head before getting back into the car or vacuum again tomorrow and the next day and the next day…. ad infinitum.

If your head isn’t spinning by now, you really aren’t taking this seriously enough. Sure you can get away with just treating your kid and washing a pillowcase or two, but sit with the idea for a moment that after taking those limited steps, that sometime later next week… right between the soccer tournament and the birthday party… you’re going to figure out that your kid still has lice… and so does his or her brother or sister. And so do you. Is it worth that risk?

KEEPING THEM OUT: 

Ok, so now your children are treated, you are treated, and maybe you’re still trying to convince your husband that he needs to be treated, but anyhow it is time to lock down your squeaky clean house (it never looked so good!) and try your hardest not to let them back in.

Here’s how:

Comb daily. Before this year, I rarely did lice checks on my kids. Then it hit school and just kept making the rounds through the classrooms and on my kids’ head. I started checking every week and am now going to do it daily. I’m sure that once the amounts of cases reported drops I can go back to once a week and maybe even fewer in the summer, but for now, the sooner you catch the problem, the easier it is to deal with. 

Vacuum daily. If you have carpets, you need to vacuum. And if you don’t have a vacuum, borrow one. (Incidentally, how do you have carpets and no vacuum?)

Preventative lice shampoo: Some people swear by the stuff. Since September my kids have been using a rosemary and tea tree oil shampoo. When Merry started bringing home lice, I upped my arsenal to Fairy Tales Lice Shampoo. She still gets lice. 

Preventative lice conditioning spray: For a while I was using a leave-in conditioning spray in their hair that I got from our natural food store. It sort of worked. While one kid had lice the other didn’t seem to have it so maybe that was why it didn’t spread… that time anyway. Once this year got really bad, I invested (oh it ain’t cheap!) in the Fairy Tales Lice Conditioning Spray and threatened my kids with making them drink it if they didn’t use it every day. They do. And they still get lice.

Everyone in the house gets their own hair brush: This also has the added benefit of you being able to check who actually is brushing their hair (brush with lots of hair) and who does not (other brush hidden under the bathroom sink behind the toilet bowl cleaner.)

Ponytails, Pigtails, Braids and Hats: If you have a sweet little girl with long blond hair (Hello California!) then now is the time to master that Elsa from Frozen hairstyle. Spray it down and then tie it up. Lice are less likely to enter into a locked down situation. If you have boys, and you are positive they don’t have lice, send them to school with a hat they won’t take off. The school nurse is very wary of hats and rightfully so. She is concerned that if your kid has lice, wears a hat and then removes hat or shares hat it is a spreading situation. True. But if your kid is lice-free then throw the equivalent of the Great Wall of China on their head.

Take a break from play dates and sleepovers: Totally sounds harsh and it kind of is, but your kid is a gift that keeps on giving, in all of the good ways and one very very bad way. Just until the kid is absolutely all clear (no nits or lice), how about avoiding play dates and sleepovers. What a great time for you to bond with your kid and to brush up on those Minecraft skills you’ve always wanted to master?

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY DO NOT DO THIS:

Panic. You are not alone. Much like jury duty and termites, almost everyone has experienced this and if they haven’t then just wait. Lice does not mean you are a bad parent. Lice does not mean that you have dirty children. Lice happens. I’m surprised that hasn’t been made into a bumper sticker already.

Hide. Please, please, please do not hide the fact that your kid has lice. Call school and tell them. Call other parents and tell them. I have heard horror stories about people anonymously calling a school to tell them that their kid has lice but refusing to tell them who their kid is. That is so not helpful. We won’t lock you up in stocks we set up in the courtyard or mock you behind your back if your kid has lice. Promise. However if we DO find out that you hid the fact that your kid has lice, we will find you and we will be sure the punishment is swift, severe and appropriate. Like giving you bed bugs!

Blame. Clearly your kid got lice from someone else’s kid. And your kid most likely gave lice to another kid (and his sister and his brother and you, etc. etc.). When it comes to transmission this is no different than a cold or a stomach bug. You aren’t about to punch out the person that gave your kid a cold, so it is best to be equally as calm about this. And just think… their house is in as much chaos as yours is right now. The one truism of lice: We’re all in this together!

Punish Your Kid: Not their fault. Even if they tried on every hat at school, they really have no idea. After our first bout, my kids became so afraid of my wrath that THEY ACTUALLY LIED ABOUT NOT HAVING IT AGAIN. And to this day, as soon as Merry knows I’ve found lice, she slumps down into the shower and sobs because of how crazy I can be. Worst parent fail ever. Learn from my parenting mistakes. Make my insanity your Mother/Father-of-the-Year moment.

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY DO THIS:

Laugh: Sounds insane, but this is your only saving grace. YouTube the South Park episode on lice. Call a girlfriend who’s been there/done that. There really is something magically surreal about this experience, so rather than let it bring you down, try to step aside and find the hilarity in the insane.

Let It Go: Fingers crossed you won’t get it again… but you might. Try not to obsess over who your kid is hanging out with, staring at them when they scratch their head, interrogating them about their seat partner. Yes, I’ve done all of these things and it doesn’t help. When asked what’s Mom’s signature saying, my kids respond, “Does your head itch?” not “I love you so much.” I know. Gross.

Best of luck. Know that you are in a special club now, and we’ve been waiting for you. Before you pick up that comb, give us a call. We’ve got some stories and a special etched wine glass just for you.

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Two families wait

A mom in her 30’s cradles her son
Two elementary school girls sit by her side
Silent on the concrete bench
Hair pulled back tight
Pale pink lace dresses, two pairs of new sandals
One red, one white
A miniature white button-down man shirt on the baby
Tucked into pint-sized pressed navy shorts

Baby boy bounces from knee to knee
Tiny fingers pop bits of cereal into hungry mouths
Immaculate, contained, quiet

Greying father and mother sit in the front
Two pre-teen girls sit with their chocolate puppy behind
Parked at the curb in their restored vintage van
Hair wet and stringy tossed everywhere
Damp bathing suit underneath a faded junior lifeguard sweatshirt
A cat t-shirt stained with spots of paint and food
Over outgrown blue shorts
Hand-me-down flip flops, bare feet

Dog wrestles in the back seat
Hands shove sandwiches dripping with shredded lettuce and mayonnaise into uninterested mouths
Relaxed, loud, bored

Both families wait for permission slips to roam over borders and return home

Numbers are called
One family enters
One walks away
One White
One Latino

Which is which?

img_2162

Delaney stopped picking at the skin on her pimply nose to give me the stink eye in the passenger visor mirror. She’s Mom’s accomplice, but after their fight this morning, who knows.

“Lily Bear,” Mom said. “I can’t believe you’re nine years old today. Has your mustache started to come in yet?”

“Funny Mom. No one gets a mustache when they turn nine years old. Especially girls.”

Mom looked at me in the rearview mirror like I’d told her I had a cough or a splinter. “I can’t believe Delaney didn’t tell you. Ask her. Girl mustaches are silvery whiskers, sort of like a cat, you can sense danger with them. She made us shave hers off.”

“Really Delaney?” I said. She threw Mom a glare, then stuck her tongue out at me, which either meant Mom lied again or Delaney didn’t want to tell me the truth. I hated Mom’s lies. She added in enough truth, so I never knew what to believe. Like the time she told me my blue birthmark was a permanent ink stamp from when I arrived as a baby on a cargo ship from Madagascar. I’d never met anyone with a blue birthmark, not one with squiggle lines in the shape of a ‘3’ and a ‘W’. Maybe I wasn’t born in Connecticut, but on a mysterious island with friendly lemurs and those giant trees that look like carrots growing upside down. Sometimes I wished her stories were true.

“That’s your idea of a birthday gift, Mom? Dragging her around Ventura for the hundredth time on your made up history tour and freaking her out about facial hair?” Delaney said. I closed my eyes, waited for mom to comment. I heard Delaney whisper, “Fail”. The car moved faster.

I ducked my head behind the front seat, pretended to pick something up off of the floor, touched my fingers to my top lip. Smooth like velvet. No prickly hairs. Liar.

“Get ready,” Mom said, raised herself up in her seat. “We’re coming up on the first stop of our Magical Ventura Tour.” The groaning sound from the steering wheel made me think maybe the car didn’t want to be on the tour either.

“Mom, can’t we do something else for once?” Delaney said. “We know all of your ridiculous stories already. I bet Lily doesn’t even want to be here and it’s her birthday.”

“Lily Bear, is this true?” We sat curbside in front of City Hall, the engine coughed like a bear with a cold. Mom rammed the shifter into park, peeked around the front headrest at me. I turned to the window. The weird smiling marble faces carved all along the front of city hall laughed down at me. I hate birthdays. I wished Dad were with us.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “Tell the story, Mom. Reminds me of when we moved here.”

“Well, few people know this but Ventura City Hall was built on top of an ancient Chumash burial site.”

“Not true,” Delaney said. “I asked my social studies teacher, he’s from here. He said ‘no’.”

My stomach hurt. I thought about my cake in the fridge with my name written in blue cream cheese frosting. Dad and I both loved carrot cake.

“Mr. Carver?” Mom said, brushed Delaney’s bangs out of her eyes.

“Yeah.”

“Honey, Mr. Carver drinks. He can’t be trusted. Grab yourself some Midol from my purse. You’ll feel better.”

Mom turned back around to wink at me. Delaney sighed like a movie star, crumpled into a sulking pile.

“Anyway, Lily Bear, the city planners built city hall on an ancient Chumash burial ground, then carved the faces of the Franciscan friars who founded the mission on the outside of the building. They did this to honor the men who wanted to civilize the native Chumash right out of their own culture.”

“What’s wrong with civilizing someone?” I said. Two girls in my class, Annabel and Janie, were in cotillion. When I asked, they told me they went to dances to learn how to be civilized. I tried to imagine the Chumash natives ballroom dancing together in grass skirts and white gloves.

“Depends on your definition of civilization. But the Chumash people got revenge. Know what they did?”

I did know, but I wanted her to tell me like she did every birthday. Mom started the Ventura “Her-story Tour” the first year we moved here, on my fifth birthday. In first grade, I had to write a special report after I told the class pirates put up Serra Cross, not missionaries. Mom made me a cross birthday cake that year, with vending machine toys baked inside.

“Nope,” I said.

“They cursed the land. When the rare blue moon rises in the sky, those friar’s faces come to life and tell all the secrets kept within the walls of City Hall!”

“When’s the blue moon? Has anyone ever seen them come alive?”

I felt the familiar thrill rise up inside. My mother’s magic held me.

“I have a question since you know about all things secret and mystical.” Delaney’s voice jabbed at our mother. My palms started to sweat. Unlike her usual pouty, dramatic self, a new Delaney voice came out.

“Where’s our father?”

Dammit Delaney. It’s my birthday! You need to do this now? Awesome.

“Excuse me?” Mom said, her voice like a policeman instead of a tour guide. She turned, faced Delaney head on.

“Our father. The one who used to live with us but one day never came home again. Where is he? And no more made up stories. How about some truth this time? Where’s our father?”

I stopped taking full breaths, picked at the scab on my elbow. The sun poked out above the trees. I felt the beams burn on my shoulder, but unsticking my bare legs from the car seat meant ripping at my sunburn from yesterday, so I stayed still. I made a birthday wish my window wasn’t stuck closed. We never talked about Dad, just like we never talked about earthquakes, the great white sharks spotted around the river mouth or the drought.

“Your father is out to sea.”

The car rolled away from the curb.

“For three years? How does someone go out to sea for three years?”

I can remember a lot from when I was six. I remember one time Delaney sat on top of me after I had eaten a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, tickled me until I laughed so hard I puked all over her legs. I remember Tommy Leone from down the street threw my green Matchbox car into the sewer drain. And I remember when I won my goldfish Percy at the school carnival, even though he only lasted a couple of days. But as hard as I try, I don’t remember what Daddy’s voice sounded like.

“He got on the wrong ship,” Mom said. “He was supposed to be going out for an overnight fishing trip to Santa Rosa, but instead he got on a ghost pirate ship. This ghost ship was disguised to look like all the other fishing boats. Not his fault. Now he’s sailing around the world.”

We sat dangling at the stop sign on the top of California Street, below the sea stretched out like a silver blanket in front of us. Floating in the mist like scoops of whipped cream, were the Channel Islands. How fast would we have to go to fly out over the pier and the sea, to get to those islands?

“They say sometimes the ghost ships return to their original port, but I don’t know if that’s true. Your father always wanted to see the world. I guess this was a wish come true.”

We moved down California Street, headed for the beach.

Aside from wishing the car window open, I had also birthday wished for a new bike, a puppy and for Daddy to come home. I asked God to cancel the earlier three and put all my wish juice towards Daddy.

“No Mom.” Delaney’s voice sounded stretched like a balloon filled with water. “The truth this time. We don’t want any more stories. Please.”

Mom yanked the car over to the side of the road, we skidded a bit when the tires hit the sand. Thrown into park the car jerked forward.

“What exactly do you want me to tell you, Delaney? What do you want the truth to be? Does it feel better to know City Hall is built on nothing more than dirt? The truth is cold and boring and doesn’t ever go away. I don’t know where your father is. He told me he was going fishing, a man who never owned a fishing pole mind you, decided to go on a fishing trip with a suitcase in his hand. Then I never saw him again. There. Does that feel better or any more real than he’s on a disappearing ghost ship?”

Delaney burst out of the car, ran toward the massive sand dune in front of the water. Mom said the ‘f’ word, kicked her door open and marched across the sand toward Delaney.

When I caught up to them at the bottom of the dune, both of them sat in the sand. A scrunched up Delaney sobbed in Mom’s arms, Mom whispered into her ear, stroked her hair, rocked her back and forth. I wanted to pop the heavy empty bubble inside of me, so I squished myself in between them both.

We came up for air, a wet, snotty, sniffling mess and I birthday wished a box of Kleenex for us all.

“Come on,” Mom said. “The sea wants to give a girl a birthday kiss.”

 

 

Recently, a friend asked me, “Why do YOU want to do this challenge?”. Initially, I agreed to participate in this triathlon in order to prepare myself for an epic journey that I will be taking in the fall. This adventure is going to challenge me both physically as well as mentally, so jumping in and accepting this challenge seemed like the promise at gunpoint I needed to make myself actually get off of my ass and do something. Not one to ever feel comfortable wasting money, once I paid my $100+ registration fee, that was it; the deed had been done.

In thinking about her question, I realize that there is so more…

1. I am becoming addicted to being uncomfortable. Sounds totally odd, I know, but I had this realization while pushing out 15 miles on the bike the other day. Moving to California turned our worlds upside down. Plucked from our cozy little farm life in upstate NY, and a lifetime spent on the east coast, we flung ourselves across the country from everyone we knew, and plopped ourselves into a time zone, culture and surroundings that we had very little knowledge or experience with. After the shock and adjustment period was over, we looked around and felt like superheroes. We had done it! We took on Goliath and kicked his ass. We steamrolled over our fears and are now doing the Rocky dance on city hall’s steps. If you have ever attempted rising above a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and find yourself the victor, then you know the feeling of euphoria and immortality that just such an experience casts off. That feeling is addictive, and I wanted more. I wanted another adventure that scared the crap out of me, one that made me feel alive (like I was DOING something) and would push me to see the world differently, awaken me to new perspectives, conquer more of my inner darkness. (A part of that darkness is the ego boost that comes with telling people, “I’m doing [insert exciting adventure here] ,” or bitching about something that makes me seem big and important, and the illumination of how addictive that boost can be. Still working on that one.) I have learned so much more about myself when I was uncomfortable, freaked out and just plain terrified, and from those places I have found more strength, discovered more abilities, and enjoyed more inner peace. Let’s just say that I like pushing out of the cocoon only to learn that I can fly.

2. I want my girls to know that they can conquer anything, and the only way to teach that principle is to live it. I want my girls to grow up saying, “I’ll try”, rather than, “I can’t”. And so, for them, I’m going to push myself to do things I’ve been scared of my entire life and I’m going to be honest about it with them. Essentially, I’m tri’ing.

3. When I was enjoying a recent lament over the training (with a heaping dose of sarcasm, ego and some humor) another friend reminded me that it isn’t that I “have to” do this, it is that I “GET to” do this, and she is right. When I’m out there sucking wind, what an awesome reminder it is that I am blessed enough with the health, the means and the opportunity to challenge myself in this very friendly, easy way. I now carry that gratitude with me and send it back out into the world as best as I can.

4. I’m ready. It is hilarious and pungently ironic for me to type this as the race is 4 days away and I’m ingesting every cold remedy known to man in order to prevent the inevitable race day wake up with blown out sinuses, but I am, I’m ready. I feel that I have finally arrived at a point in my life, where I have acquired the confidence, insight and tools that help me to conquer just about anything tossed my way, and the realization that I can do it with a smile. Doesn’t mean I’m going to LIKE whatever it is that I’m up against, but I highly doubt that it would break me, as it could have or even possibly has in the past. I decide what it means to be in this triathlon, and I’m not only going to rock it, but I’ll be the one sporting Sharpie marker tattoos and glitter from her kids, singing and smiling all the way.

The other day, while on a training ride, I ended up biking amidst runners completing a marathon. At first, I didn’t say anything, and just rode past, handing out the occasional smile but not wanting to intrude on their concentration. Yet it seemed just too serendipitous that I was put in the midst of all of these people pushing themselves to live better lives and not help them along, so I started cheering them on, shouting out, “You go, Ladies!” or “Keep going! You’ve got this!” as I pedaled. Not annoyance, but gratitude is what I got in return, time and time again. After I left them, I continued to shout greetings to the workers in the fields, who all happily replied in turn.

And in that moment, I knew what I would say as I cross the finish line this weekend, and yelled it above the traffic on the highway as I peddled,

 

YAWP!

 

daviddheart

Dear David,

It has been a while since you’ve heard from me. Perhaps you don’t recall my initial communication, or maybe it is tucked away in your underwear drawer, so that Téa might not find it. Either way, I wanted to follow up my initial romantic musings since I find that who I was in my 30’s has changed somewhat and there are a few additional insights that I’d like to share.

First, I forgive you for not dumping Téa and sweeping me off of my wedding altar, as previously suggested in my first letter, a mere 11 years ago. After Bree Sharp’s infantile song, “David Duchovny, Why Don’t You Love Me”, I can understand how my very real admission of love can seem like yet another pandering attempt at sex with a celebrity. While I don’t dismiss my own pandering attempt, mine was much more earnest as well as grammatically correct, and therefore prose to be taken a bit more seriously.

Second, if you are indeed still considering my offer to come carry me away to a life of witty repartee and hot alien role play, let me point out that I did marry that man that you left me with on the altar, and we did pop out a couple of kids. So, don’t be surprised if a toothy little six year old, probably with chocolate smeared on her lips, gives you the stink eye when she answers the door. Lately she has taken to supreme disappointment when I arrive to pick her up for anything, so she’ll have no issue with my departure.

I should inform you that I am no longer the be-damned-for-consequences person I once was. While I used to live on a diet of chili cheese dogs and Fresca, I’m now more of a hearty vegetarian stew with quinoa kind of a girl. My drink is no longer several gin martinis with blue cheese stuffed olives (I’ve discovered I’m lactose intolerant – something that can only help us both), but a simple glass of French wine or a fair trade coffee. While I still love good sci-fi, I prefer one that doesn’t involve naked women being ravaged by monsters of any sort. I like a healthy female lead with a head that remains on her shoulders. Somewhere along the way, extreme choices in food, drink and entertainment felt great in the moment, but the aftermath of ugly that stuck with me became too high a price to pay.

I love children now, which is a bonus since I have a couple, as do you. They don’t terrify the crap out of me anymore, and I find myself able to understand them better than the adults around me. I used to find their constant questions and curiosity annoying. I can’t help but wonder if that is because uncertainty in any form can be my own kryptonite. Now I see the constant questioning perspective of children as a different way to see the world and an opportunity to remember who I am when I don’t know all of the answers either.

And, about that man that I did end up marrying … I made a good choice. All of my secret fears of totally committing myself to someone only to have them emotionally crack me open like a coconut, drain out all of my marrow and leave me dehydrated and disintegrating, never materialized. I didn’t need you to save me from myself and my pending marriage. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was that you never showed up.

Please David, don’t be upset. It’s not you, it’s me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I am different, and not in any of the ways that I would have wished for 11 years ago, I love my life now. I reached out to you to save me from a life that I imagined with fear, and asked you to replace it with an idealized version born from stories created by others.  Instead I should have realized that imagining my life with hope, born from my own romantic dreams, was a much more realistic and very possible outcome.

Let’s just be friends. Why don’t you stop over? We can have a lovely glass of wine, heck bring Téa and the girls! We’ll sit around and wax philosophically about life, government conspiracies and the role of women in sci-fi programming. I’ll bake us a batch of gluten-free pumpkin muffins and we’ll laugh over our French presses. I’d love to get to know you as a friend, a father and a real human being. My days of celebrity love obsessions and make believe realities are over. I’m interested in what makes real people fall in love, chase their dreams and cry out loud.

If you’re interested, give me a shout back. But don’t wait too long. I’m guessing I’ll hear back from Jon Stewart any day now.