Speaking Taco Bell-ese

I had a funny management professor in college who frequently referred to his affinity for Taco Bell. He liked to "run for the border" at night, when the place is lit up like a giant fluorescent shrine, visible for miles around. And when he would get to the window, he would tell the cashier in a distant, zombie-like voice, “I’m not real sure how I got here. The lights! The lights…they drew me in. Like a bug. I was forced to come.” And it would freak her out.

Placing a large order at the Taco Bell drive thru requires no small amount of mental fortitude. You stare at the menu, your eyes begin to glaze over, and you start to feel like my management professor…the bug. Trapped. The neon menu options taunt you. Fresco options? Gordita? Baja something-or-other? Cantina Taco? Volcano Burrito – seriously? You wonder who would willingly order such a thing that so unashamedly describes its after-effects. What IS this stuff? Where’s the regular taco? Do they still make those? Why didn’t you just go to a burger joint, where the options are blessedly more limited? Has their "think outside the bun" slogan invaded your subconscious? Your thoughts are interrupted…

“May I take your order?” comes the disembodied voice from the speaker, asking you for the second time.

“Uh…yes,” you say hesitantly. And then you launch into your marginally predetermined list of what the family wants for dinner, improvising as you go, while simultaneously watching the drive-thru screen that shows you what you’ve ordered. But there’s a problem. Speaking Taco Bell-ese, while watching unreadable items like “4 CT-ST FR BURR” pop up on the screen is really disconcerting. You’re saying one thing, and you’re thinking in your head, “Wait…hold on here…did I order 4 CT-ST’s? What is that?” So by the time you reach the end of your mile-long mental list of items, you have no idea what you really wanted to begin with…much less what’s going to end up in the sack.

Unfortunately, you’re vaguely aware that the cashier is already rattling off her unique interpretation of your order, but you’re still pondering what could they possibly mean by CT-ST FR. And if something she said is wrong, just forget having her correct it. Because finding the exact location of her error on that drive-thru screen is like reading HTML. And describing the error, while 4 other vehicles are waiting behind you, requires a verbal fluency in Taco Bell-ese that you, unfortunately, have never possessed.

“That’ll be $15.64. Drive around to the front, please.”

You reach out the window for the bag, wondering what you’re actually having for dinner tonight. Pulling away, you swing into a parking place to open the bag and survey the error damage. Naturally, you’ve been given two chicken thingies, when one should have been steak. And something in there is soft that should have been crunchy.

Oddly enough, the mix-up doesn’t evoke major irritation. Because of course, when you go through the Taco Bell drive thru, your order will most likely morph into any number of variations not originally intended. (This is a widely accepted societal norm.) But still, there are options to weigh.

You can’t go inside because there’s a kid slumbering peacefully in the seat behind you. You look back at the line of vehicles once more, pausing to consider another drive through the circle to seek corrections. What does one do, in such a situation?

I’ll tell you.

One closes the bag, puts the car in reverse, and quickly drives off, free (at least until seized with the next craving)…from the mind-numbing fluorescence that is Taco Bell.


Ditching the Mommy Guilt

You know the feeling. You’re talking to a friend who tells you that her children are allowed 24.5 minutes of “screen time” per day, no exceptions. Your mind automatically rewinds to that time last week when you were sick as a dog and plunked your own kids in front of the T.V. for time periods that would make the “experts” gasp in disapproval. Or worse, those times too numerous to count that you weren’t even sick, but you really needed to accomplish some tasks, and T.V. was the ready-and-available babysitter mutually agreeable to both parties.

Another friend mentions that her children eat only organic food, and you happen to know that she packs lunches for them whose menus would not be out of place on the pages of Southern Living. You then remember with a twinge of embarrassment the lunch you threw together under pressure yesterday before your daughter ran out the door: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, potato chips, Capri Sun, and a sugary, trans fat-laden cookie.

Still another friend details to you at length the roaring successes of her extensive family chore charts, the effectiveness of her discipline policies, and the fact that her children have been cured forever of whining and know lots of Bible verses by heart. And you’re left laying your head on your pillow that night feeling like an inadequate parent.

All of these factors contribute to a debilitating condition known as Mommy Guilt. Those who suffer from it carry around with them an uncomfortable sense that they’re not doing enough…or they’re doing too much…based on artificial standards.

Where do these standards that we set for ourselves, and by extension, our families, come from? Most of the time, if we’re honest with ourselves, they’re formed by what we see in others. “If so-and-so operates in a particular way, at a particular level, then shouldn’t I? And if I’m not, why aren’t I?”

The comparison game is the first step down the slippery guilt slope. There’s nothing wrong with adopting good, helpful ideas set forth by friends, parenting books, and the endless parade of bloggers and parenting web sites. But sometimes, all of the advice, the ideas, the mantras and conventional wisdom serve to create a toxic stew of insecurity for average moms desperately looking for a step-by-step guide with all the right answers.

My logical husband is fond of reminding me that he spent an inordinate amount of time watching T.V. and playing video games as a kid, and he “didn’t turn into a freak.” (To his credit, he graduated valedictorian of both his high school and college classes and turned out to be a well-adjusted person, so he does have a point.) But I’ve also noticed that dads don’t seem to struggle with Mommy Guilt near as much as mommies do.

I give my children Fruit Loops for dinner sometimes because they didn’t like what I made. (Because granted, sometimes I don’t like it either.) I skip the bedtime story because I’m tired. My craft skills are deficient. I am too strict and not strict enough. I misplace my priorities on a regular basis. I am a work-in-progress that needs refining.

But if I look too closely at how everyone else is living, I think my head might just overheat and explode. Seven years into this mommy thing, I can only do the best I can, with the Lord’s help. Not necessarily what Suzy Homemaker is doing, or the panel of experts on the Today Show, or even what I’m reading on all these wonderful blogs that I’ve discovered this summer. As Popeye the Sailor Man sang in that weird and delightful movie from 1980, “I am what I am!”

And a little high fructose corn syrup never hurt anyone.


In the Waiting Room

The other day I was talking to my dear friend Stacy about waiting.

I shared with her the circumstances in my own life that have driven me back to those many and varied "wait on the Lord" Scriptures.

And then she told me a story that she prefaced by saying, "Jennifer, I always go back to this...and it may be a horrible analogy, but I'll tell you about it anyway."

So she was genuinely surprised when I called her back later to seek her permission to write about her story that I liked so much. This is what she told me.

Back in the 1980's, ID bracelets were popular. Stacy was in 3rd or 4th grade, and all of her friends were proudly wearing bracelets that had their names engraved into them. She wanted one so badly, she said.

She had a favorite aunt who knew of her heart's desire and one day presented her with a gift to open. But unfortunately, this particular aunt could never remember how to spell Stacy's name correctly on birthday cards or anything else. And in typical fashion, the ID bracelet that Stacy lifted from the box that day had the letters S-T-A-C-I-E emblazoned on it. When her aunt realized her mistake, she said, "Oh! I'm so sorry, dear. Why don't you just give it back to me, and I'll exchange it for another one with your name spelled right?"

Stacy, clutching the precious bracelet, refused. She had wanted one so badly, for so long, that she just could not bear the thought of parting with it for a short time, even though her name was wrong. So she kept it.

And the end of the story is this - she never even wore it.

"At that time," Stacy said to me, "I would rather have possessed that bracelet immediately and have it wrong - than to wait...and have it right."

When my friend made that statement, a thousand implications came to mind...but one thought in particular began to crystallize for me. Our culture of instant gratification doesn't encourage us to be patient for much. Not for our fast food, not for U.S. mail, and certainly not for our internet connection speed. Which makes it all the more difficult to wait for the big things in life - the right opportunity, the right spouse, the right resolution to a difficult problem or trial. Everyone agrees that it's hard to be patient.

But as I sit here in life's waiting room, I am pondering this possibility, thanks to Stacy's story:

The Lord, in His amazing sovereignty, sometimes keeps us from getting stuck with those incorrectly-spelled ID bracelets. The wait is what enables us to bypass the things that aren't in His plan for us. That is why we can trust Him, even while we're twiddling our thumbs in the waiting room.

And when the phone finally does ring, and the person on the other end says, "Your bracelet is ready now," it will be a sight to behold. Not a mis-spelled name that fills you with regret every time you lay eyes on it, but a personalized work finished by the One who promises this very thing...

"...that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6)

I'm trusting Him today.


This One's for the Blockheads

Earlier this year, I recorded a song and uploaded it to youtube. I loosely use the term “recorded”… because the entire process consisted of my husband pushing the “movie mode” button on our very low-tech point-and-shoot camera. Since the song has a story behind it (and this blog is, after all, my place to tell stories), I am going to elaborate a bit before I share the song. Without the explanation, you won’t get it, so please bear with me.

It all goes back to 2008, when my favorite childhood group from the late 80’s/early 90’s, the New Kids on the Block, did the unthinkable and reunited.

I'll pause for a minute to allow my real-life friends, who know me well, to roll their eyes. Now, let's continue.

An interesting offshoot of this ongoing NKOTB reunion has been the birth and development of a large, thriving, active fan base on twitter. And...I’ll just admit it…when New Kid Jordan Knight began randomly following fans, I racked my brain thinking of a way to get a “follow.” Because really – how gratifying would it be to know that a New Kid on the Block was reading my interesting, thought-provoking, witty tweets? (Actually, they rarely rise above “Just got back from Wal-Mart.” But still.)

I was certainly not alone in my quest. In fact, a sort-of craze began on twitter. Caroline from Montreal created an impressive pumpkin carving and achieved success...

Others resorted to writing out that same plea using matchbox cars, building blocks, cupcakes, sand on the beach, and ketchup on a plate. Kim from New Jersey put her preschool class up to the task of painting a banner, which they proudly displayed in this photo, imploring Jordan to follow their teacher...

But unfortunately, nothing I was coming up with seemed good enough. I needed my own gimmick. I am neither artsy nor craftsy, and my creative juices seemed to be failing me. So I took a risk.

I re-wrote the classic NKOTB hit, “I’ll Be Loving You Forever” as “I’ll Be Tweeting You Forever.” And in a bizarre twist of fate, I had the chance to sing it in person for Jordan Knight and Donnie Wahlberg last November in Atlanta. Think of your own teen idols, and then picture yourself having their undivided attention years later, and you’ll understand why the whole thing was quite surreal. It all resulted in my coveted twitter follow. The video footage of my song from that night and the play-by-play are here .

The reaction I received inspired me to want to do more songs in that same vein. Back to the drawing board I went, mentally shuffling through all the NKOTB music I knew and pondering other possible parodies. But sadly, I knew that a re-write of "My Favorite Girl" as "My Favorite Bird," (about my parakeet) would in no way resonate with the fans. I would have to do better than that. In the meantime, I continued reading tweets from the fan world (also known as “Blockheads”) on twitter.

New Kid Joey McIntyre had accurately pegged the group’s family-like relationship with its fans in his song “Five Brothers and a Million Sisters.” Within that “family,” I witnessed the good there…new friendships and happy stories. I also watched the not-so-nice elements from afar…plenty of jealousy, catfighting, and complaining. But, wasn’t junior high, like, 20 years ago?

And then, the imaginary lightbulb above my head (that actually works occasionally) blinked on. There lay my inspiration for a follow-up parody, right in front of me. I never would have thought that the twitter drama queens, who shall remain nameless, would be my muses. But I can actually thank them for something.

The 1989 NKOTB song “This One’s for the Children” became “This One’s for the Blockheads,” in which my always-supportive and fabulously good-humored husband not only pushed the record button, but loaned his backup vocal prowess to the mix. (Yet another reason why I think he's the greatest.) I had difficultly suppressing my giggles when he came in. I launched the song, for fun, into the twitterverse after uploading it to youtube, where it still remains to this day, for all posterity.

So, for proper context, here is the New Kids’ original version of the song:

And now that you folks in the blogosphere...and my real-life friends reading this...understand why I did this (I hope), here is “This One’s for the Blockheads.” May the drama queens go home.


Mental Snapshots

I wrote this in May 2009, back before I had a blog. It seemed appropriate to post now, as schools all over are gearing back up again.

It was the preschool end-of-the-year program. I had patiently worked with the children all year, teaching them cute little songs, complete with the hand motions. The day of their program, I watched them file in and take their places on the risers as I played an introductory tune on the piano. Wide-eyed, they surveyed the paparazzi throng of parents who stood behind video cameras on tripods, snapping quick pictures as fast as their point-and-shoots would allow. To the crowd’s delight, some of the more enthusiastic kids greeted their parents with waves and blown kisses from their spots on stage.

As I knelt in front of the children and we launched into our first prepared piece, my heart filled up. Their faces were full of unashamed exuberance. These kids were not too old to be embarrassed by what they were doing. Their genuine grins and bellowing gusto were refreshing. Even at such young ages, they were clearly proud of what they had accomplished. As each little “graduate” walked across the stage to receive their rolled-up diplomas, they posed as the flashbulbs popped. One little boy triumphantly raised his diploma over his head, and the audience erupted in cheers.

I watched the scenes unfolding before me, committing them to memory, especially because my own son and daughter were among the performers. Each fresh, young soul on that stage represented a whole life ahead to be lived. I was keenly aware that all too soon, there will be real homework, tests, papers, extracurricular activities, boyfriends and girlfriends, driver’s licenses, college, marriage, and mortgages facing my little students. But for right then, for that dear moment in front of me, the innocence of childhood was still fresh in their little souls.

How I wish I could know what is ahead for my own children. But whenever I find myself attempting to assume the mantle of director of their paths, I am reminded that it is far better to surrender my desire to control to God. He is, of course, superior to me in the area of leading and directing lives, which is not even on my resume.

My surrender begins this fall, when my daughter enters kindergarten. Dropping her off at school on that first day will be on the same emotional richter scale as dropping off a college freshman at her dorm. A new chapter in her life will open up – academically, socially, and even psychologically. But instead of mourning what is past, I am resolved to react with praise and thanksgiving. Thanksgiving…that God has brought her to this point in her life. And praise…that our loving, heavenly Father is sovereign over all. His plans for her will unfold in due time.

Until then, it is my joy…

my privilege…

to watch.


Top 10 ways life would be different if adults were as honest as kids

The extra banana cake I made was going to make a special gift for a neighbor. At least, that was the plan. My children and I knocked on the doors of the houses of neighbors #1, #2, and #3, but they didn’t answer. Number 4’s car was not in the driveway. Sweating in the suffocating humidity of the deep south, we marched up the driveway of neighbor #5 and rang the doorbell. I was relieved to see that she was home. As soon as I told her we had a banana cake for her, my honest child piped up and said, “We’ve walked all up and down this street looking for someone who was home to take our cake!” And with that, my hopes that neighbor #5 would feel special went up in smoke.

The episode made me reflect on the question: in what ways would our lives be different if we, as adults, were as honest as children? Here is the top 10 list, for better and for worse:

10. GIFTS. You would announce to the person giving you a present that you already have one of those. Or, if you weren’t too crazy about it, you would just set it aside and move on to the next gift.
9. HYGIENE. You would not hesitate to tell a room full of people that you need to go poo-poo.
8. MEALS. All food served to you by a host or hostess would be subject to either of the following two declarations: “This looks yucky,” or, “But we had that yesterday.”
7. POSSESSIONS. If someone was holding something that you wanted, like an iPad, you would just take it from them. And then it would be yours.
6. LEARNING. Unafraid to hide your curiosity, you would ask unanswerable questions. Lots of them. To your hubby: “Honey, why are you using that screwdriver? Who invented it? What did they do before they had screwdrivers? Can I do that? Would this hurt me if I poked myself with it?”
5. OBSERVATIONS. "Look, that person is _______." (Fill in the blank with all sorts of descriptive, colorful, embarrassing adjectives.)
4. HUNGER. If you got hungry enough, you would cry. People would be lined up on their lunch break at Chick-Fil-A…bawling.
3. ASSERTIVENESS. You would let it be widely known how you feel about people, circumstances, changes, and responsibilities. To your boss: “But I don’t WANT to do that report!”
2. NEEDS. You would not hide your own needs from others, out of pride or embarrassment.
1. LOVE. You would never shrink back from showing it.
With maturity comes the ability to stifle our childlike inclinations that are more forthright than they probably should be. But it also brings the tendencies to close ourselves up. In some ways, we can be thankful that we don’t say everything we’re thinking like they do. They have no guile at all, and even less coordination. (What if adults fell down as much as they did?)
But we are not too old to learn a few things from them, certainly not in the areas of possessions or hygiene, but definitely in giving and receiving love. They have no difficulty giving hugs, snuggling up to their loved ones, or stating their affection in simple terms: “You’re the best momma I’ve ever had.”

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this is the way they receive the kingdom. Jesus said in Mark 10:15, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." They receive it in faith, not hiding anything because they don’t even know how to do that. They are unashamed. They simply and honestly respond to God’s gracious love extended to them. No wonder Jesus named children, rather than adults (who know so much more by all appearances) as the standard for faith.
We all wore little shoes once. Becoming like a little child makes it possible to squeeze back into them again.
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