Friday, August 10, 2012

The Sandal Sisters

Our traditional feet in the sand photo opp.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness... For the past eight years, I've laid claim to my unalienable rights by heading to the Outer Banks (OBX) in North Carolina for a girls' beach weekend. These annual trips keep us connected and sane in a world full of impossible expectations for women. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by everything on my plate and all my goals for the future, I think of OBX. I am reminded that I have wonderful friends who love me just the way I am.

Celebrating my wedding shower in 2011
My Sandal Sisters have supported me every step of the way, even when I was hopelessly lost. They've been there to listen, laugh, cry, empathize, and gently guide me. I am the woman I am today because of these friendships, and I cannot wait to see the women we will become 40 years from now. Who knows we might end up living like The Golden Girls in one of the brightly colored beach houses we rent every year. Our OBX trips will be a major part of our life stories because bonds like we have are special and rare. 


Despite being a ridiculously accomplished group, we aren't worried about impressing each other. In fact, we spend very little time bragging about career and family achievements and more time revealing our fears, insecurities, and foibles. We take comfort in our shared vulnerabilities, but we're quick to remind each other of the amazing gifts we share too. In the midst of all the soul bearing, we still find time to read trashy entertainment magazines, watch college football, walk on the beach, discuss politics, share the latest tech trends, cook gourmet meals, and drink our famous Ballatore mimosas. We hope one day to be featured in an ad campaign for this afforable yet delicious sparkling wine. We'd be lounging on the pristine white beach wearing fashionable sun hats and Jackie-O sunglasses clinking our crystal glasses together in a toast. We've already come up with the tagline, "I simply adore Ballatore."    

Our Baywatch imitation: 
Eat your heart out Pamela Anderson

Our OBX trips started as a bachelorette weekend for my friend Liz who is a PR powerhouse in D.C. In the years since we've celebrated many more marriages and several births including identical twins. We like to joke that Lisa bounced her egg in two because she was training for an Iron Man when she became pregnant. She unknowingly ran a marathon while carrying the girls. I told you this is an impressive group. Lisa summed up our OBX weekends in her own blog a few years back. "The five of us are all Longhorns and began our careers in public relations. We are feminists and well-read politicos. Some of us were closer than others in the beginnning, but over the years friendships have deepened. We have incorporated new and dear friends along the way. We've married. Shifted careers. Gotten graduate degrees. Experienced a heart-wrenching divorce. Had our first children."

Ah, good times!
We have truly experienced the ups and downs of life together. I was the heart-wrenching divorce, and these women were my lifeline. When I tried to hide my heartbreak with humor, they literally dragged me out of my bed and forced me to talk. The next year when I was stumbling through the dating world, they listened to my embarassing stories and somehow convinced me it would get better. A year later I told them about the promising new man in my life, and how afraid I was to give him my whole heart. They told me it was time to trust again and I did. This past year, they threw me a wedding shower at OBX and all of them came to Austin for the big day. I wouldn't have gotten there without these brilliant and beautiful women. They are my biggest fans and I am theirs. To Mary, Magda, Lisa, Liz and Michelle... thank you for being a friend!    

Friday, June 29, 2012

Star Wars and Roses

When we began planning our wedding, we joked about a Star Wars theme.  I wasn't sure I could pull off the Princess Leia bikini, but the white robe and side buns could work.  I knew J.W. would look smashing in the Han Solo vest.  When the pastor asks if anyone has reason to object, J.W. thought it would be hysterical to have a friend wearing an Admiral Ackbar mask jump up and yell, "It's A Trap." 

We didn't go through with all these plans, but we did have a Millennium Falcon cake as a tribute to his late mother, Linda.  She made a memorable Millennium Falcon cake for his 5th birthday that we hoped to recreate.  As luck would have it, our next-door neighbor owns a bakery and is a confection artist.  So we took the Star Wars toys out of storage to serve as models.  J.W. came up with the brilliant idea to have a "Just Married" sign across the back and instead of tin cans trailing behind it there would be Storm Trooper helmets.  Angi at Blue Note Bakery brought his vision to life in exquisite detail.  Thanks to we found molds for the perfect favors - R2D2 in white chocolate and dark chocolate versions of Han Solo in carbonite.  We also had a light saber candle to decorate the table.   

When J.W. and his best friend Andy wondered about the girls they would one day marry, there was a big question about how to introduce them to Star Wars.  Would they start by watching Episode IV:  A New Hope (the Original Star Wars to casual fans) or the more recent Episode I:  The Phantom Menace?  Would these women truly understand the Force?  Luckily J.W. didn't have to introduce me to Star Wars.  I grew up in a movie-obsessed family and spent many weekends sitting next to my dad watching Luke discover the truth about Vader.  

Star Wars actually played a role in how I met J.W.  A few weeks before I was hanging out with a classic bad boy I thought I could convert.  My long-time friend and guru, Adrian, warned me that I wasn't capable of casual dating because I put my heart and soul into every relationship.  He warned me to steer clear of the dark side.  I actually broke things off by saying my Yoda wouldn't allow it, but I was still under the spell of this sith lord.  Then my college roomie and her husband, Holly and Chad, came for a visit.  They were training for a trip to Machu Picchu, so we decided to hit the hiking trail.  They invited their high school buddy who was Peru bound too.  The four of us began the trek to the Hill of Life on Austin's Greenbelt.  I spent the first 30 minutes blabbing to Holly about my dating woes and hardly paid attention to J.W.  Then we had to stop for a bathroom break and it turned into a discussion about trail etiquette.  What do you do when a fellow hiker has to go, but there aren't any trees around to obscure the view?  We asked J.W. specifically because he'd gone on a sub-zero winter climb in New Hampshire recently.  I innocently asked what the other hikers did when he had to relieve himself.  With a cocky grin and deadpan delivery he said, "In my case, they gave me a slow clap."  He gave the perfect 80's movie slow clap to illustrate his point.  He had me at the slow clap.  
Me, J.W., Holly and Chad hiking in Yosemite

I was glued to J.W. for the rest of the hike.  We bonded over our love of movies.  There was a debate about which Jim Carrey movie stood the test of time - Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura.  We talked about the dream cast for a movie version of the A-Team, but sadly Hollywood didn't listen when they actually made the film a few months later.  If they had George Clooney would have been Hannibal and good ole Jim Carrey would have experienced a career revival as Murdock.  I was planning to write a bestseller about my recent divorce, so there was even talk about who would play me in the movie version.  I liked the idea of Reese Witherspoon, but she's too type A, so we landed on the poor man's Reese, Anna Faris, who starred in those silly Scary Movies.  We laughed, sparks flew and our relationship began.  Now we are officially hitched and our favorite thing to do is cuddle up and watch a movie.  Star Wars is in regular rotation on the cable movie channels, so we've spent lazy Saturdays watching the space drama play out.

J.W. and best man Andy

In planning our dream wedding, we thought the Star Wars cake would be a fun highlight.  We had no idea Star Wars would be the theme of the best man's toast and the emotional core of a day we'll remember our whole lives.  J.W. and Andy met at age three and have been like brothers ever since.  We adore Andy and his wife Deanna.  We've spent many weekends together, even one where we played Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.  Andy regaled our wedding guests with the story of meeting me for the first time and realizing that his best friend had finally met the one.  He talked about our love for each other and our love for movies.  He ended the toast by referencing J.W.'s favorite epic tale, you guessed it, Star Wars.  He talked about the end of Episode VI:  Return of the Jedi.  Andy reminded everyone that while those furry Ewoks danced around celebrating the triumph of good over evil, there were three specters smiling down.  Andy said he thought the same thing was happening at our wedding.  Instead of Luke's father, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, our spirits were three parents who left this world too early.  J.W.'s parents, Linda and Gene, were standing next to my dad, Marty, and they were smiling down from heaven.  Tears flowed as we remembered our parents and realized the people we love never truly leave us.  It was a magical moment that I will cherish forever just as I will cherish J.W. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My Dad was Atticus Finch crossed with Rodney Dangerfield

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.  You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." -- Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird 

"I found there was only one way to look thin:  hang out with fat people." -- Rodney Dangerfield

How do I describe my Dad to someone who never met him?  How can I condense his larger-than-life character into a few words?  I guess I'll start by saying my Dad was a cross between Atticus Finch and Rodney Dangerfield. 

In his younger days, my Dad could have passed for a movie star.  He had the raven locks of Atticus (as played by Gregory Peck).  Later in life, he developed the same round belly as Rodney.  But it's not really his appearance that draws the comparisons.  It's the character similarities.

My Dad had Atticus' decency, intelligence and deep commitment to family.  He could relate to anyone because he attempted to walk around in their skin.  He was inquisitive and eager to learn what made people tick.  There are people who ask a question, but don't bother to pay attention to the answer.  They are too busy thinking about what they want to say next.  My Dad wasn't that type.  He truly listened.  A rare skill, especially in these days.  He not only heard what you were saying, but he could sense what you weren't saying.  He could tell if you were hiding something.  He would ferret out the truth, but never in a pushy or patronizing way.  He just kept asking questions until you couldn't hide any longer, even from yourself.  He sought the truth because he knew that it's better to live in the light.  My Dad generously shared his own light.  Hard-earned life lessons flowed from him.  Every hardship in life became a teaching moment.  It was like my Dad knew his time on Earth would be short, so he never missed an opportunity to pass on his wisdom. 

When I see Scout sitting next to Atticus on the front-porch swing, I immediately think of the nook under my Dad's arm that I cuddled into for our talks or movie-watching marathons.  My Dad loved his family unabashedly.  He never missed an opportunity to say "I love you" or to engulf us in his legendary bear hugs.  He knew that the most important lesson children need to learn is that they are loved unconditionally.  No matter what mistake I made or how many times I crashed the car (many), I knew my Dad would never stop loving me.  He would work two jobs, drive any distance, and even risk his life for 'his girls.'  I knew we were the most important thing in his life because he said so.    

My Dad also loved pull-my-finger jokes.  Enter Rodney Dangerfield.  When I was little, I used to hold onto my Dad's pointer finger because his hand was too big to hold.  As I grew older, he would still offer his finger to me, but it was to let out a sonic boom.  Then, he'd start running, dragging me along, and yelling, "I'm jet propelled."  As a teenager, I was mortified by his tooting.  As an adult, I have fond memories of my Dad's hot wind hijinks. 

If the typical pull-my-finger joke didn't appeal to your high-brow tastes, my Dad had another comedic gem up his sleeve -- the missing finger jokes.  My Dad lost his right pinky finger in an accident.  He relished asking for a high four and frightening all my friends.  Or, he would put the stump of his missing finger up his nose giving the illusion he was three knuckles deep.  It was the ultimate gross out.  He was also famous for his nine-finger back rubs.

Dad would enhance the missing finger jokes with his creative tales about how it was lost.  I didn't know the real story for years.  Many of his lost finger fairytales taught a life lesson.  For instance, my dad would say, "I lost my finger when I was picking my nose and fell.  Better not pick your nose."  Or, "I was always grabbing food while my mother was cooking.  She'd reach over and slap my hand and tell me not to spoil my dinner.  One night she was chopping meat and forgot she had the cleaver in her hand.  When she reached over to slap my hand for stealing a bite, she accidentally chopped off my finger.  We had finger stew that night." 

My Dad would do anything for a laugh.  He lit up every room he entered with his big booming voice and easy smile.  He must have known that life is too short not to enjoy it.

I will always cherish my Dad's silly side (aka Rodney), and treasure his deep and compassionate side (Atticus).  It's not often you find a man who is equal parts comedic genius and wise sage.  I am so lucky that Marty Brown was my Dad.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Good Grief, Amanda Brown

We're taught the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Stages imply a tidy, linear process. That is what I expected, but I discovered that grief is not tidy or linear. I learned this when my beloved father passed away just shy of his 55th birthday. Now, I often compare grief to the ocean. Some days grief will gently lap at your feet and others it will knock you over like a tsunami. Unlike the tides, grief is hard to predict. You never know what will trigger a rip current of anger or a plunging breaker of depression. It could be a song, a color, a scent, a meal, a holiday, or just about anything that conjures a memory.

For instance, I watched the last Harry Potter movie this weekend and spent the entire film sitting bolt upright weeping uncontrollably. Over the course of the eight movies I have become rather fond of the Potter characters, but it wasn't the death of Fred Weasley or the flashbacks of Snape's unrequited love for Harry's mother that caused the tears. The movie reminded me of my Dad and how much I miss him. As Harry prepared to battle Voldemort he was joined by his lost loved ones, and they gave him the strength to face his own mortality. Oh, how I wish I could have the Resurrection Stone for a day. I'd probably pick my upcoming wedding day, so my Dad could walk me down the aisle. I would give anything for him to meet the man I love. They have so much in common and could spend hours talking about tools and classic cars. I take comfort knowing that even if I cannot see my Dad on my wedding day, he will be in my heart as he is every day. However, I'd still love to see his jolly face and round belly and hear his deep, baritone voice and contagious laughter. No one could get a party started or keep it going like Marty Brown.

It's hard to believe it's been more than five years since my Dad died. The first year, I was living in denial. I was far from home, so it was easy for me to pretend I'd see him at Christmas, which also happened to be his birthday. Christmas came and he wasn't there, but we took a family cruise to the Caribbean as a distraction. It was easier than going home and seeing that his Griswold-style Christmas light display wasn't up. Swimming with the dolphins and feeding the stingrays helped us forget all those holiday traditions that were now incomplete without Dad. Like who would read The Christmas Story? I muddled through that first year in a state of numbness. I'm a very emotional person, but that year I shut down. I typically cry at everything - cotton commercials, nature shows, movie previews, etc. I once started bawling at a preview that was simply a bottle floating on the ocean (Kevin Costner's "Message in a Bottle"). Not that year. My eyes stayed dry and I did my best to pretend his death never happened.

Then, reality slapped me in the face and I was forced to enter the next stage of grief - anger. The slap was discovering I wasn't the only one pretending. My husband had only been playing the part of a loyal and loving partner. In reality, he'd been trolling for women on the Internet. You probably think my anger would be directed at my cheating husband, but I was really angry at God for taking away the one person who could help me sort out this mess. For the first time in my life I needed my Dad and he wasn't there.

My husband was denying everything despite overwhelming evidence of his wrong-doing. I knew my Dad could get my husband to come clean, even if it meant making him suck the floor. This was one of my Dad's creative punishments from back in the days when we loved watching GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). My Dad hated lying and was quick to point out that a half truth is really a lie. If he thought we weren't being honest, the punishment was sucking the floor and he'd take us down with a Half Nelson. It sounds barbaric, but it was truly a fun and effective way to drive home the point that lying would not be tolerated. It also spun off our slow-motion karate fights. For a house full of three daughters, we sure could throw down. But I digress.

Besides yearning for the truth, I was desperate for direction on how to move forward. Will true repentance lead to reconciliation? Is divorce okay? I had so many questions and the only advice I truly wanted was from my Dad. My Dad gave the best advice in the whole world. My Dad could ask a few simple questions and in answering the mysteries of life would be revealed. He had a magical way of showing you the answers to all life's troubles lie within us. It just took a little gentle coaxing from him. Without his coaxing, I was terribly lost.

And so the bargaining began... I pleaded with God for my Dad to come in a dream, so he could show me the way. Sadly, the dream didn't come and neither need sleep most nights. Very quickly bargaining turned to depression.

My depression was often disguised as mania. I was determined not to wallow in self-pity, so I threw myself into constant motion. If I was always on the go, I couldn't fall apart. The tears were back, but I kept them contained to my morning shower and only after completing a 6 a.m. fitness boot camp. I kept a grueling travel schedule. If I wasn't working, I was spending time with friends or running at the park. I didn't want to be alone. Alone meant too much time to think and worry. Alone meant thinking what a failure I am because my marriage didn't work. Alone meant watching all the seasons of Sex in the City, and wondering how I would make it as a single girl. I'd been with my husband since my freshman year in college a decade ago. Dating was a terrifying idea. Alone meant missing my Dad and feeling the enormous weight of losing him.

However, it was when I finally allowed myself to be still and alone that I heard my Dad's voice. He said, "Amanda, life isn't fair."

It was a phrase I heard all growing up like when I asked why I had to drive a station wagon to high school rather than my dream car, the Porsche Carrera 911. My Dad taught me to love that cherry red wagon, which he dubbed the Fat Man’s Sports car when he drove it. He talked about its great pick-up and V-6 engine, and how it could turn on a dime. Still to this day, that wagon ranks as my favorite car. No other car seems to drive as well. I don’t know if that’s true, or my Dad just did such a great sales job. He was a mighty persuasive man. He taught me it's always better to appreciate what you have than to bemoan what you lack.

Dad believed that in life it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it. I can hear him now preaching about the power of a positive attitude. He made one of my siblings write an essay about attitude as another of his creative punishments.

All of my Dad's life lessons came flooding back. I heard him say, "Change is just a bend in the road unless you forget to turn."

That is when I stumbled into acceptance. I accepted that my marriage wasn't going to be the fairy tale happily-ever-after that I imagined. I accepted the uncertain future. Like Charlie Brown, life had pulled the football away and I landed flat on my back, but I was determined to get back up and take another shot. I made the turn. I faced the road ahead. There were definitely bumps along the way, but I found a path that has brought me incredible happiness and unconditional love. I still grief for what I've lost, but it is a GOOD GRIEF. A grief that makes me deeply grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A letter to Huma Abedin -- wife of Rep. Anthony Weiner

Dear Huma,

Welcome to the club you never wanted to join, "The Betrayed Wives' Club." Our membership includes some of the most accomplished, beautiful and intelligent women in the world. Yet they have all faced the pain of infidelity. Some have suffered privately while others have gone through a public humiliation. I hope you find some solace in knowing you're not alone. However, I imagine you feel more alone now than you ever have.

When I was trying to decide whether to stand by my man or ditch his sorry ass, I often wondered "What Would Hillary Do." I thought if only I could talk to her, I would be able to find my way. You can actually ask her, and I know Secretary Clinton will give you sage advice. Ultimately though, you're the only one who can make this difficult decision. Everyone will have opinions to share, and sadly in your case, they will be blurted out on the news. You will have to swim through the noise and find a way to listen to your own heart. And it may take a while for your heart to decide. It's been trained to unconditionally love and blindly trust. Now that same heart has been shattered by the person who was supposed to protect it.

The good news is your heart is resilient. It will love again -- perhaps the same person or maybe someone new. Either way, your heart will go on. I guess there was a reason that darn Celine Dion song was so popular.

In the meantime, the up-and-down journey of betrayal is brutal. There will be times when you beat yourself up. You might say things like, "If I didn't work so much, maybe this wouldn't have happened. Or, if I was only thinner or sexier." I imagine Elizabeth Edwards often thought, "If only I didn't have cancer." You may imagine the world has branded you a frigid shrew. Why else would a man stray? I beg you not to spend long on that path of personal flogging. Looking inward is important during this journey, but there is absolutely nothing you did to make your husband cheat. You are not responsible for his actions. He knew the vows he'd taken, and with every tweet or text he knew he was breaking them.

Like you I married a charming man with a funny last name (mine was Beerwinkel). I first discovered his online dalliances when I arrived at his office a little earlier than expected. He was arranging a date via instant messenger. I was shocked and mortified, especially when I saw he was using a photo of the two of us to attract the woman. He claimed I was an old girlfriend. My heart dropped into my stomach, and I felt numb. The worst part is that I'd just returned from visiting my father in the Intensive Care Unit. I was completely vulnerable. I decided to believe my husband when he said it was all a fantasy world. He told me he'd never intended to meet the woman. I couldn't face losing my father and my husband at the same time, so I gave him another chance. We went through months of counseling and he promised it would never happen again.

Sadly his promise was short lived, and two years later I caught him again. He lied and denied, but eventually the truth came out. My sister became an Internet detective and his online friends turned on him. I heard from woman with pathetic screen names like badlilkitten, hotnurse and rockurpantsoff. This time he'd actually been dating other women and was battling a terrible sexual addiction. Uncovering his secret life almost destroyed my self confidence. My partner for ten years was now a stranger. How could I trust my own instincts not to mention him? I should have pushed harder the first time to discover why he would endanger our marriage for a cheap thrill. I should have prevented him from hitting rock bottom. Maybe I even should have ironed more. The shoulda, woulda, couldas will torture you. Try to leave those words behind as quickly as possible.

The best advice I can offer is to be kind and gentle with yourself. Allow your friends and family to engulf you with love and support. Don't be afraid to let your guard down with them. I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me, so my defense mechanism was to crack jokes. The laughter helped, but honest conversations and tears were also necessary. Give yourself time and space to explore your feelings. Slow down enough to listen to your heart. That is a prescription I had a hard time taking. My plan was to keep moving, so I wouldn't have time to fall apart. However, it wasn't until I slowed down that I could listen to my heart. It was only whispering. It said, "love yourself, forgive yourself, love him, forgive him and let go."

I don't know you, but I know you will survive this nightmare. I dare say you will even thrive. Whether you stay or go, it will be the right decision because you made it. And someday, you will help guide a new member of this club. You will be their inspiration. I encourage you to put together a list of women who've dealt with betrayal and come out the other side. My sister who taught Texas History at the time, gave me a powerful mantra: "Remember Hillary Clinton, Remember Nicole Kidman, Remember Reese Witherspoon, and for God's sake Remember the Alamo." Today, I would add to the list Sandra Bullock, Elizabeth Edwards, Ellin Woods, Maria Shriver, and all the women who, like myself, are struggling with the same issues minus the media spotlight. Make your own mantra. Chart your own path. Love and take care of yourself. Just remember, you are not alone.

-- The Girl Who Didn't Iron