Thursday, April 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex. Or Not. - My Messy Beautiful

A sample from our family library. Real talk. 
Click the pic to learn more about 
Kane/Miller Book Publishers and this amazing series.

Talking about sex has always come easily to me as a parent. This might be surprising to hear from a mother of three boys, but it’s absolutely true.

As preschool and elementary school came and went, so did the inevitable questions.

“Why is that turtle on top of the other turtle?” was pretty easy. I answered questions when they arose. I was matter-of-fact in my answers. Breasts were for nursing babies. There were differences between girls and boys. I didn’t shy away from recounting birth stories. We looked at picture books about the body and all its glorious functions, and as they became pre-teens, I made sure there were several books in the house about puberty. My husband and I have always been very clear that the boys can ask us anything and we will give them a straight answer. Everything is very open and honest. Or so I thought.  

A few days ago during the morning craziness before school, a boy handed me a pen at the kitchen table, and presented a worksheet strategically folded so that only the signature portion was visible. (Note to Teenagers: This is a sure way to provoke parent suspicion.)

“What am I signing here?” I asked, taking the pen.

“Nothing. Just sign it,” the boy replied.

I grasped the paper, unfolding it as the boy’s face fell. “I don’t sign anything without knowing what it is first. You shouldn’t either.”

He sighed. He may have rolled his eyes.

I scanned the page and words popped out. Gonorrhea. Chlamydia. STD. HIV.

Now I understood his hesitation. He had scribbled and scratched out answers, his pencil marks so light I had to squint to read them -  like he was too embarrassed to even touch his pencil to the paper. This was the Health class (I use that term loosely) that my seventh graders were forced to endure instead of Athletics on a sporadic basis. It looked as if the coaches had shown a video and the worksheet had accompanied it. I gathered they were supposed to fill in the blanks as they watched to confirm their understanding. They were required to get their parents to sign their completed work on this most sensitive subject.  

Words like sperm and genitalia and fluid littered the page. The boy was mortified.

“Why can’t you just SIGN IT??!!” he shouted before stomping out of the kitchen.

His twin brother sat calmly, eating his bowl of cereal. They were in the same class.

“Where’s yours?” I asked, continuing to scan the worksheet causing so much angst. He rummaged through his backpack and handed me his. Written in dark black ink, only half of the front side of his was complete.

“You didn’t finish?” I asked.

“Coach said he would tell us the answers, but he never did!” he whined.

“So you just left it blank?”

“I don’t know…” he trailed off.

“Why is your brother’s all filled out then?”

“I don’t know…” another mumble.

I saw that some of his filled-in answers were correct, where his brother's had not been. How was I going to approach that? I took a closer look at the last question.

What is the only way to eliminate the risk of contracting an STD?
The answer?
Don’t have sex.
I was appalled. What a manipulative and emotionally charged question. This abstinence only program had probably scared the crap out of them.

I explained to the boy who was brave enough to remain in the kitchen that while that answer may technically be true, it was unrealistic to act as if you were never going to have sex - ever. I dove right in. “So they should have explained to y’all that there are ways to have sex safely - to protect yourself and reduce the risk by wearing a condom.”

I didn’t expect a response from the boy and I didn’t get one. I took a deep breath as I walked down the hall to the bedroom where the other boy had retreated.

He sat in his desk chair, his back to me. “There are a few answers here that you need to change,” I explained. “This should be bacterial…” The boy sighed, but corrected his answers as I pointed them out.

“Why are you acting so mad?” I asked.

“Why do you have to turn everything bad?” he blurted. As the accusation left his mouth, his voice cracked and tears came. He wiped them away furiously, dragging his forearms across his eyes.

I didn’t give up.

“You can always ask me about any of this stuff. You don’t have to be embarrassed. Or you can ask Dad. Or we can give you books to read that explain everything if you don’t want to talk about it. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s life. Sex is part of life. You’re eventually going to have sex and you need to know these things. That’s life.”

“Just go away!” he croaked through more tears.

So I did.

I went to my room and sat at my desk in front of my laptop, pretending to work. I was rattled. Here I was, thinking we had this open and honest relationship with our boys and that they knew they could come to us for information and, most importantly, that they would. And yet I had just been rejected. The boys not only didn’t want to ask me any questions, they didn’t want me involved at all. And could I really blame them?

That I prided myself on being a parent who considered no topic taboo didn’t mean I had kids who felt the same way. Maybe that wasn’t what they needed or wanted. Maybe they wanted a mother who was there, but not pushy. A mother who could be counted on in a pinch, but didn’t insist on doing things her way.

I shudder to think where and how they will acquire their sexual education, but I’m backing off. Because maybe this is less about the type of parent I want to be and more about the type of parent my boys need me to be. And you know what? I think I owe them that.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! To learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry on Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Aquaman and his Aquanauts

We had a grand adventure this weekend. So grand, in fact, that it took me a few days after returning to be up for posting anything about it. I can now report that The Redhead, Thing 1, and Thing 2 are certified SCUBA divers. A milestone. Aquaman and I are so very proud.

Aquaman and his Aquanauts

When you're married to a marine biologist, SCUBA diving is required. Aquaman and I spent our honeymoon diving in Belize. The first vacation we ever took together was to go diving in Cozumel. 

A lot has changed since I was certified in 1992. I took SCUBA for a P.E. credit at Texas A&M. Aquaman was one of the Divemasters for the class. I might have been his favorite student. I haven't been diving in many years, so I was a little nervous about this trip. But the location, Balmorhea State Park, is perfect for a nervous diver. It is the world's largest spring-fed swimming pool and has amazingly clear water. San Solomon Springs is the source of this magic in the middle of the Texas desert.  

Because Aquaman took the lead on this certification business for the boys, they just assumed that I was clueless about the sport. And it's a fair assumption. I have certainly demonstrated my ineptitude concerning sailing. They remind me of this often, especially now that they are taking sailing classes (but that's another topic for another post). 

As the time for this trip approached, the boys had lots of questions - all of which they directed at Aquaman - considering me useless. 

"What will they make us do on our checkout dive?"
"Will we have to clear our masks?"
"Will we get to buddy breathe?"

I realized that of course these children o'mine had never seen me dive - how could I dive when someone had to be watching them???? My most recent dives (still several years ago when we lived on the Texas coast) involved getting babysitters for their much younger selves or farming them out on playdates so that I could get away for a few hours with Aquaman offshore. 

So it was with much surprise that the boys reacted when Aquaman casually mentioned that I had been "narked" while diving at depths over 120 feet in Belize's Blue Hole. Thing 1 and Thing 2 both asked, "What?" simultaneously. Incredulously. The Redhead looked at me and said, "Wait. You've been diving that deep?" 

So sweet. 

"Yep," I said proudly, puffing out my chest a little at my seat at the dining table. Finally...some respect!

"Wow. Y'all used to be cool."

Cue the deflate button.

Nothing like a comment from a teenager to keep you humble. 

Still, the boys were pretty impressed when I produced my dive card. Mostly because it's over 20 years old.

1992 was a very long time ago...

And I must provide more proof of my previously cool life.

That's called a "giant stride" entry, fellas.

Cozumel. 1993.
So glamorous. Belize. Honeymoon. 1996.

Aquaman makes it look easy. Belize. 1996.

Balmorhea (pronounced Bal-mor-ay) is no easy day trip from the metroplex - nor from anywhere, really. Even though we pulled the boys out of school early on Friday, we still didn't get on the road until 4:00 p.m. and didn't make it there until almost 1:00 a.m. You know what never got old? Listening to the navigation app periodically announce that we were however-many miles from Bal-mor-ee-ah (like diarrhea). Snorts and chuckles all around. Every. Time. 

We fell into bed and were shocked the next morning to look out the window and see the Davis Mountains. We were oblivious to their presence driving in the dark. 

The view from our room.

You can camp or stay in one of the really cool motel rooms, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I highly recommend staying in the rooms. Known as San Solomon Springs Courts, they are adobe-style and were built in the 1930s. Totally worth it.

Our suite.

Of course, our accommodations were still not adequate for The Wrecking Crew, who abhor sharing a bed. There were 3 queen-size beds in our suite. This was not enough. Thing 1 refused to share a bed with anyone and instead announced he would sleep on the floor. The concrete floor.

"You shared a womb for 9 months! You can't share a bed for two nights?" I screeched.

"I don't remember that! It doesn't count!" The boy was not giving in.

Aquaman took pity on him and helped him make a pallet in the closet. Seriously. That's where he slept.

Nincompoop accommodations.

But on to the diving. 

The main length of the pool.
The elusive Thing 1. Rarely photographed.

Parents thrilled to have made the drive without killing anyone.

Things went pretty smoothly. Other students in the class had to cancel at the last minute, so the boys ended up being the only ones on the checkout dive with three instructors. That's known as man-on-man defense in my book. A preferred strategy.

Getting the wetsuit on is your first challenge.

The zipper goes in the back, son.

I like to call this one "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Diver."

Aquaman and Thing 2.

Aquaman and Thing 1.

The one who shivers most is out first.

Aquanaut 1.

Aquanaut 2.

The original Aqualad.

As a parent, I am sometimes taken aback by how small our children still are. We so often fixate on how big they are getting - remarking that we can't believe they're teenagers or that they've already grown out of whatever clothes we bought them two months ago. But sometimes? I am struck by how small they still are. This picture of Thing 2 captures that. He is concentrating on his tank and regulator and properly detaching one from the other. But you know what I see? His little body. His little sunburned hands. How young he still is.

Little man.

Okay, okay. No crying!

Balmorhea is a special place. Aquaman and I were here once before in 1995 - recently engaged, still in graduate school. His major professor at Texas A&M and other grad students were involved in research with the two endangered species of fish that exist in the artesian springs: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. We camped all around this area and I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams while the rest of them did fishy things. This trip made me think of Kingsolver and her fantastic work. I fell in love with her on this trip and have read everything she has written since. It seemed fitting, then, that we returned here almost 20 years later with our own three children.

A nice little surprise was renting from the local diveshop, Funky Li'l Diveshop. It just so happens that it's Aggie owned and operated. Whoop!

An Aggie business.

It was a pleasure doing business here. The owner is friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about diving. But perhaps most memorable was his Aggie ring. Take a look.

The most well-loved Aggie ring I've ever seen.

That's a ring, my friends. He never takes it off. Class of '76. I have seen Aggie rings that have a bit of wear, rounded and polished here and there. They are typical on old Ags in their 80s. Not a young'un like Darrel here. I had to document it. With his permission, of course. 

Darrel Rhyne, Owner - Funky Li'l Diveshop. Proud Aggie.

The drive back was torture and began with Aquaman getting a speeding ticket just before we cleared the Balmorhea city limits. Mind your speed if you ever go out to these parts. It's pretty flat - just you and the tumbleweeds (yes, we saw lots) so it's easy to go a lot faster than you think you are. This was ironic - Aquaman never speeds and I often complain about his Grandpa-esque driving habits. I will never complain again.  

After a whirlwind 48 hours, we have 3 certified SCUBA divers to call our very own. My dad would have referred to this as the Aggie Navy. An apt description, I'd say. 

Aggie Navy.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

What's Your Playlist?

Image from

I love NPR for so very many reasons, but I have a fresh new reason to add to my list.

In January, NPR's Protojournalist requested this of listeners: Tell Us the Six Songs of Your Life.

The idea, they explained, is this:

If you could tell your life story — chronologically, up to now — in six songs, what would they be?

They just posted Part 1 of the responses, culled from over 1000 entries, on their website. You should really check it out.

NPR logo from

This idea of music transporting us back in time and place to the original imprint of song to circumstance fascinates me. My roommate and a very best friend from boarding school that I recently re-connected with after 24 years was in town again last night. I went to see her at work. Her work just happens to be Tour Manager for the Grammy-winning band Imagine Dragons. After experiencing the excitement of the band opening to a sold out crowd at the American Airlines center in Dallas, we ended up backstage in her office, reminiscing and listening to music from a tiny but powerful speaker connected to her laptop and her iTunes account. She would play a song, I would guess the artist and title, we would sing along, I would remember another song and that would lead to another. And another. There is a certain thrill to remembering all the lyrics to an obscure Run DMC rap or a George Michael song that you thought you'd long forgotten.

You know what's coming next, don't you? This idea that NPR floated so appealed to me that I couldn't even help myself from thinking about what my own playlist would look like and sharing it on this here blog. So here it is, a life story in 6 songs.

1) K-K-K-Katy by Billy Murray

This song was evidently very popular in World War I. It is the first song I remember anyone ever singing to me. My father's parents - especially my grandmother - would belt it out whenever they visited. Occasionally, my father and mother would sing it to me - I think at my request. Surprisingly, I don't remember ever feeling embarrassed about it. I was proud of my name. Somehow, in my young mind, I combined the line "When the moon shines, over the cow shed..." with this Mother Goose rhyme:

Hey Diddle Diddle
The Cat and the Fiddle
The Cow jumped over the moon
The little Dog laughed
To see such a sport
And the Dish ran away with the Spoon

Those closest to me still call me Katy. And I let them, in large part because of this song and the good memories it holds.

2) The Sting Theme (Joplin-The Entertainer)

One of my first memories is being a passenger in my dad's Cadillac, him driving and me getting to spend the day at work with him at his law office in Houston. He had an 8-track player in the car, and the soundtrack from the movie The Sting was on heavy rotation. I was all fancied up, in a polyester dress with a white pleated skirt and powder blue top with a neck scarf. Black patent Mary Janes and white bobby socks were involved. I was very happy to have my dad to myself for the day and to be going in to the big city. I would later play the music at my first piano recital in elementary school. I still own the soundtrack on CD.

3) American Pie - Don McLean

Another 8-track player in a car - this time my oldest brother's Mustang, painted Aggie maroon (of course). I got to ride with him to football practice a few times to get ready for the Homecoming halftime show and he played this and lots of other great music. But American Pie stuck with me because it was so long and told a story. I loved it. I knew all the words then and I know all the words now.

I was the little girl who carried the bouquet of roses out to the Homecoming Queen and posed for pictures with the Homecoming Court, probably because my brother was a captain of the football team and I was a cute 8-year-old. I remember the dress I wore - a black pinafore with a red heart on the chest and a white blouse underneath. It was a hand-me-down from my older sister. I felt like a star!

I asked my brother about this recently - this very significant memory for me - and he had no memory of it whatsoever. Ah, such is life.

4) She's So Good To Me - Luther Vandross

My teenage years were spent in the 1980s and this proves it. I was very into R&B throughout high school and a regular listener of the Houston radio station Majic 102.1 FM. Come on now - they spell magic with a j. Cause they got soul. (They are still on the air.) Luther Vandross is the father of soul - his voice is unmatched. There will never be another Luther. I can neither confirm nor deny that I lost my virginity while this song was playing. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

5) Simply - Sara Hickman

I adore this Texas musician. I went to see her in a very small venue in Austin shortly after moving there for grad school at UT. I had never heard of her before, but my oldest brother said she was awesome. So I went, not knowing what to expect. It was just her and her guitar. Her voice - oh my. And she tells the stories behind the songs she writes, which I love. Every concert is like an episode of VH1 Behind the Music. I've seen her half a dozen times.

Aquaman and I chose her song "Simply" as our first dance at our wedding. I love it still. It makes my heart beat a little quicker. And if you don't know Sara Hickman, you're really missing out.

6) Wildflowers - Tom Petty

There are so many Tom Petty songs that I could pick, but "Wildflowers" is my anthem. This album came out right before I finished grad school. Aquaman and I were each writing a thesis and planning our wedding. It was a bit stressful. But this album - it calmed me. He came and performed at Bass Hall on the UT campus and a dear friend hooked us up with tickets to the sold out show. It was lovely. We've seen him a few times since in concert, but it never compares to this first time. Tom Petty himself admitted to Wildflowers being his favorite album. I concur.

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free

And that's it - my life story in 6 songs.

What's yours?