Blessed By The Little Baby

The music on this little piece is compliments of my lovely and talented cousin, DaVal Johnson, and his beautiful daughters, Cherelle and Lauren. Enjoy!

"Children Go Where I Send Thee"
Original Arrangement by Natalie Merchant
Adapted by Cross Wired
Arrangements by DaVal Johnson
Vocals by Cherelle and Lauren Johnson

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin's new book The Happiness Project will be hitting the bookstores soon.  I've been following her blog for the last year and have already ordered my copy of the book at Amazon.  Above is a video clip from September when she appeared on CBS and I think she gives a nice description of her book.

It has been my experience that when I told people, "I just want to be happy," I ended up feeling a little bit immature.  Depending on my company, I would feel stupid or spiritually weak.  Gretchen makes me feel "OK" in my personal quest for happiness.  After spending a few minutes each day with Gretchen I feel like my happiness is important, not only to me but to my husband, children, neighbors and the complete stranger driving next to me on 75th Street!

Happiness Project


I’ve got a problem.  

My husband and I tell one another everything.  When I get a pimple on my butt he knows about it and, unfortunately, vice versa.  But I am not going to tell him about the little episode that happened to me today because he will just say to me, “Denise, you’ve got a problem.”

But I’m terrible at keeping secrets and I’m pretty confident that he isn’t reading my blogs so this is a safe place for my confession, so here it goes.  

He was in LaJolla, California tonight eating Oolong Sea Bass at PF Chang’s (I told you he tells me everything) so back at home I took the two little kids to Meatheads for a special treat.  We have taken the kids to the Meatheads restaurant four different times since they opened.  The name alone is reason enough for my kids to love this joint.  Each time we have been there, this guy, sometimes two guys, obviously the owners, are seated at tables in the restaurant.  They have laptops and piles of papers and cell phones going.  At first I thought, cool, these guys are on site.  They are making sure everything is running smoothly.  This is going to be a successful business.  

But on this visit I realized that we, and other customers, were making an effort to stay out of their space.  One of the guys, the regular, is a big handsome sort who, I’ll bet you, drives a Hummer.  He started pacing around the tables while talking on his cell phone.  My husband does this all the time.  I like to call it the “I’m working on a big damn deal with lots of zeros attached to it and, wow, does it ever make me feel like I have ants in my pants prance.”

So, the crazy, loud and wild, Meathead dining experience that my kids, miniature meatheads, were looking for felt more like eating dinner at home where we have to keep our voices down because Daddy is in the next room doing that same “... ants in his pants prance” instead of sitting at his desk in his office with the damn door closed.  

Now, believe it or not, I don’t consider it my responsibility to mother the entire planet.  I just want everyone to reach their full potential.  That’s why I had to talk to them.  

I tried, unsuccessfully, to make eye contact with either of them.  Twenty years and twenty pounds ago I probably could have gotten some kind of attention, but I couldn’t get either of them to acknowledge me.  So Mohammed would have to go to the mountain.  I sent my two little kids outside the restaurant, where I could see them through the glass windows.  I have to do this because none of my children appreciate my need to make the world a better place. 

I walked towards the prancer, with my hand up as if asking permission to speak, he just put his head down and turned on his heel so he could continue his phone conversation.  Then I walked over to the fellow who was seated, also on his cell phone.  After a few moments of standing at his table, he still didn’t acknowledge me, so I finally spoke, “Hi!  Are you one of the owners of this restaurant?”

He nodded yes, but he didn’t remove the phone from his ear.

“We just finished eating and I thought that you might appreciate some customer feedback.”

He let the phone drop down from his ear, clearly intending to get right back to the conversation. 

We looked at one another with perfunctory, fake smiles. “Sure,” he said.

By now you can see where this is going.  

Don’t get ahead of me.  My problem is not Meatheads.  

My problem is that I can’t keep my opinions to myself.  I worked in advertising and marketing for 25 years and over that time I worked with a lot of small business owners, including restauranteurs, and I can’t tell you how many times I would develop campaigns only to see them laid impotent when the customer walked in the door.  Getting the customer to the door is only part of the equation of building revenue, once that prospective customer touches their toe inside your shop you need to wrap your arms around them.  

I’ve got a purse full of pent up frustration about ad campaigns that didn’t generate the kind of measurable results they could have because a retailer didn’t do their part of the job once the warm bodies showed up at their door step.

A Chicago food joint that understands the importance of customer satisfaction and retention is Portillo’s.  Earlier in the week, I took my two little meatheads to Portillo’s (a very unhealthy week of dining) and the founder/owner, Dick Portillo, was there walking around the store chatting with customers.  When we were ready to leave the restaurant, Mr. Portillo, who was seated at a small table sans laptop or cellphone, thanked each of us for coming to the restaurant and looked into my little kid’s eyes and asked, as if he really wanted to know, “How was your dinner?”  

That is putting your arms around a customer.  Give me great product and service and act like you care about my experience which means that you appreciate the hard earned money I just forked over.  And if you really want to consummate the deal, act like you care about my kid’s happiness.

After my less than perfect experience at Meatheads I should have just voted with my feet and never returned.  That’s what any normal person would do, but like Malcolm In The Middle’s overbearing, authoritarian, borderline crazy mother, I’ve never met a line that I won’t cross.  

I stood in front of this fellow at Meatheads, looking him straight in the eye.  Finally he simply clicked the cell phone in his hand off or put it on mute, without saying good-bye or I’ll be right back or anything, confirming my suspicions that his phone call probably wasn’t important enough to ignore a paying customer standing right in front him.  Either that or he didn’t want the person on the other line to hear what I was about to say. 

I began my One Minute Manager speech which I perfected in the 1980's.  State the purpose of the conversation, praise ‘em and then whack ‘em.   

“My children and I just finished eating here.  The food is good and your decor is fun.  We really like the beautiful pictures of Naperville and I see that you’ve even put effort into decorating for the holidays.”  I touched one of the many Christmas bulbs hanging from every single light over every single table, for emphasis.  “I know that takes time and money.  I want you to know that, as a customer and as a person who spent 25 years in advertising and marketing, I really appreciate that kind of attention to detail.  In fact, I believe that the quality of the atmosphere of a restaurant can be nearly as important as the quality of the food.”

“This is the fourth time that we have been to your restaurant and it is the fourth time that your partner, or both of you, have been playing office in the main dining area.  I’ve gotta tell you we came here for a wild and crazy Meathead kind of experience.”  I leaned back and did a little jazz dance with my hands in the air for effect which was a bit too much, now that I think about it, but I was getting myself kind of worked up and I tend to get hyperbolic in confrontational situations, even if they are of my own making.  “Instead, my two little kids and I felt like we were imposing on your personal office space.  That’s not all that wild and crazy and Meathead-ish to us.  If we wanted to sit and eat quietly so we wouldn’t disturb some guy pacing back and forth while he was on an important phone call we could have stayed at home with my husband.” 

He kind of fake laughed when I made fun of my husband.  My husband is right, the middle aged, chubby white guy is a universally acceptable place to poke fun.  As I walked away I added, “I’ve learned that I am a pretty average gal.  If I feel like this, other people are probably feeling the same thing.  It’s just something to think about.”

And that was it.  In a blink, I was outside with my kids.  We walked through the empty parking spaces to our car.  I looked down the sidewalk of the strip shopping center where the prancer was still on his cell phone.  He was walking towards the Buffalo Wild Wings, where the parking lot was overflowing.  Even more for them to think about.  

After writing this piece I went to the bookshelf to pick-up my copy of The One Minute Manager for old time sake.  Right next to it was Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People.  Something for me to think about.

Birthday Gifts

It is hard for me to make sense of the opulent suburban gift giving.  My family never had a lot of money and I remember having one birthday party as a child.  My husband is equally uncomfortable with the overly-generous gift giving but that's just because he is a real tight ass when it comes to spending money.  (That is kind of mean to say but I'm kind of mad at him right now but that's another blog entry, besides, it is true.)  So, instead of birthday gifts I encouraged our little kids to ask for dog and cat food for the local animal shelter.

We don't have birthday parties every year.  Our daughter, Randi, is an animal freak and the idea of forfeiting gifts to help animals in the shelter totally worked for her.

Our son, Alex, was a different story.  He has had a few more birthday parties than Randi and a few times he really, really needed presents.  I think we still have a couple of $25 hunks of plastic from those parties loitering in our basement.

I didn't choose the animal shelter because I am a big "save the puppies" kind of gal, I just didn't want my kids to be getting gifts out the wazoo just for being born.  I was unnerved by the piles and piles of gifts that I saw at parties.  We were invited to birthday celebrations in our neighborhood that were hours long and one of those hours was spent watching the birthday child open gift after gift after gift.

A few days later we would get a hand written note, obviously from the child, thanking us for our specific gift.  I'm not criticizing thank you notes.  Despite my backwoods country upbringing, I do know that thank you notes represent good manners, but I couldn't get my kids to sit still for twenty seconds on the toilet let alone get them to sit still at a table and scribble out twenty thank you notes.

The whole birthday party gift giving thing intimidated me.  So asking for pet food was my way of avoiding that scene.  Asking for donations was met with lots of comments, mostly positive.  Although one mother said her older son had seen the invitation on the refrigerator and kept asking, "What kind of kid doesn't want birthday presents?"

But my departure from the excess of suburban birthday gift giving has an interesting twist.  My lovely over-achieving suburban party guests brought bags and bags and bags of food for the animals.  When we drove up to the animal shelter with our bootie the employees and volunteers were shocked at the amount of food and supplies that we delivered.  They were very appreciative, took pictures of our kids and heaped tons of praise on them.

In a way, we were making our own little suburban scene.  I realize now that we were the stereotypical over-achieving family but instead of a mountain of gifts we had a mountain of smelly dog and cat food which is kind of obnoxious, in it's own way, too.

South Carolina Weekend

The two little kids and I followed my husband on a business trip to South Carolina.


Whenever I see someone doing lawn chores I give a big encouraging smile and wave, especially when it is a kid.  When our older kids were young, we spent entire weekends teaching and supervising chores.  Specifically, lawn chores.  Both my husband and I thought it was important.  My husband, trained as a mechanical engineer, wanted everyone to understand the basic workings of a lawn mower, a simple small gas engine.  “Anyone can push the pedal down on a Mercedes,” he would say.  “But I want you to understand what happens when you push down on that pedal.”  He also wanted them to know how it feels to do a good job and get paid for that job.  “Anyone can push the pedal down on a Mercedes,” he would repeat.  “But I want you to be able to pay for one.” 

Of course, the kids couldn’t always get to the chores especially once school started.  So one brisk fall day I strapped our baby boy to my chest in a carrier.  I thought that my daughter, 14 months older than our boy, would just toddle about and play in the yard with us.  That didn’t fly.  She freaked out when I walked the 30 foot distance of the yard behind the lawn mower.  So I put her in a baby carrier, designed for hiking, on my back.  That meant I had one baby tied to my front and one to my back and they loved it.   
I looked a little bit like Flick, in the beginning of the movie Bug’s Life, when he was marching around with his one man band grain harvesting system.  Like Flick, I saw immense practicality in my little get-up.
I mowed and bagged and mowed and bagged.  I had to take several little breaks and sometimes it took us a couple of days, but we got the job done.  I was always a sweaty, grassy, exhausted mess but I was so proud that I had accomplished a chore for my family, my little kids had a little fresh air adventure and I had exercised my body.   
Then one day while the three of us were mowing, one of my neighbors stopped her mini van at our curb.  This particular lady was the go-to-mom in our subdivision.  She and her husband owned a successful small business and she had that suburban air of competency.  If you wanted to know what company should clean your carpet or who should take your children’s photograph or the best place to stay in Disney World, she had a definitive answer, at the ready.  
She obviously wanted to chat so I released the handle on the mower, allowing the engine to turn off.  I hated to do that because it was so hard for me to bend down and pull the cord to restart the darn thing.  I had to do a perfectly straight-back squat, hold it, and then pull the starter rope with one arm.  With one baby strapped to my chest and one wiggly toddler perched on my back, standing up again was nothing short of a miracle.  
I walked across the lawn, knowing that she was probably going to comment on how silly I looked strapped to two babies and I decided that I was OK with that.  In fact, I told myself, my hard work and ingenuity had garnered the attention of one of the well networked neighbor women.  Good for me!        
I walked up to her van with a big smile.  She rolled down the passenger side window, leaned towards me and offered, flatly, “Kip’s Lawn Service can do that for $30.”
In those few seconds, I went from feeling like a hard working entrepreneurial ant to feeling like a big dumb unsophisticated country broad.  I suddenly became intensely aware of how heavy my babies were and I could feel my green stained lawn mowing sneakers sinking into the ground.  I was going to become planted right there in the parkway if I didn’t get back into the safety of my own four bedroom colonial.  
I smiled and rambled something like, “Thanks!  Kips?  Great.  I’ll remember that!  Thanks again!  Wow, thirty dollars!  Great.  Thanks!”  Then I turned away and walked as fast as I could back to the house, abandoning the lawn mower in the middle of the yard.
Today our lawn mower is stored 400 miles away in a garage on Mullet Lake in Northern Michigan.   A couple of guys named Lino and Jim, not Kip, and their crews help us do our lawn chores.      
I like to think that we gave up the lawn chores because our lives became too busy with other activities.  And I learned that I have serious allergies to grass, weeds, most trees and pollen which helped explain my fatigue after working in the yard.  I pray that I am not being influenced by what the other over functioning, mini van driving, mommies do or don’t do.  
Regardless of the current relationship with our lawn chores, I think that all of those hours in the yard with our older kids paid off.  They seem to have a respect for money and I also think that they have a general curiosity for understanding how things work.  As for the two littlest kids, every now and then they get to rake some leaves or help plant daffodil bulbs but I guess they won’t be culling their work ethic or hearing their Dad‘s lectures about how gas engines work while bending over a lawn mower.  
I’ll have to put them to work in the laundry room and teach them the intricacies of a steam iron instead.

Pigs n Heels

Pigs 'n Heels, originally uploaded by Denise Burks.
"Of course I can catch that pig!  And I'll do it in heels!"

This picture sits on a table in the entry of our house.  I think I'm around seven years old.  It is one of my favorite pictures of myself.  I imagine it is a favorite because I remember that day, vividly.  We were playing dress-up and we needed a baby.  Someone suggested that we use one of the new baby pigs but the idea was dismissed quickly.  "We'll never be able to catch one."

I clearly remember the kids and adults cheering for my success.

This picture represents all that I love about myself.  That funny little quirky talented girl that can't resist a challenge and loves to wow the crowd every now and then.  It also showcases one of my many lusty attempts to be fashionable.

In the frame, hidden behind the picture, I have a 40th birthday card from my sister.  It says, "Things could be worse, Mom could still be cutting our bangs."

A Civilized Life

A Civilized Life, originally uploaded by Denise Burks.
I guess when I commissioned this drawing of my daughter I thought that my days would be filled with soft classical music and fresh flowers and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I was a 20 something single mother, living in Charleston, SC when I traded services with the artist Martha Thomas.  I designed a brochure for Martha and she created this beautiful portrait.  For years, I would stare at this acrylic drawing of my oldest daughter, JC, and it made that life feel possible. I used to say that it is the one thing that I would grab in case of a fire. It wasn't just that it was a picture of my sweet little "Bubba". It represented a lifestyle. Well, I still love my little girl to an unhealthy, heartaching, distraction and I still long for a tidy, serene, cerebral existence in which I drink Illy coffee served from our very own cappacino machine. But after a few hours of that kind of quiet on Sunday mornings, I'm actually ready for the noisy, messy, tooter-joke-filled hubub that comes with the suburban family package.  Although I still would like to have one of those cappacino machines sitting on our kitchen counter.

I smell like dog poop!

Last week, I was standing on the elementary school playground with a few other mothers waiting for our kids to be dismissed. One woman kind of stomped up to us and said, “I just had the worst day of my life.”

That got our attention.

“This morning I found wet carpet in the basement so I called my husband and he said, “Don’t call a plumber. I know what is wrong. Just turn the water off for the day and I’ll fix it as soon as I get home from work.” ”

This launched several of us into tirades about lawyer and banker husbands with tool belt fetishes.

“Well,” she continued, “since I couldn’t really do anything productive in the house I decided I’d mow the lawn. Now, I always make sure that I pick up the dogs’ poop in the yard but  ... “

This launched all of us into a collective, abhorrent shriek.

“Millions of little pieces of dog poop sprayed all over me! So I ran into the house and stripped off my clothes in the bathroom.”

“But you don’t have any water,” one of us yelled!

“But I didn't have any water," she repeated.  "So I used nearly an entire box of the kid’s wet wipes to clean-up.  I’m here to get the kids and we’re going directly to the swimming pool so I can take a real shower and soak myself in chlorinated pool water.”

That, my friends, is what life in the suburbs really looks (and smells) like.