28 Days

October 10, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Posted in Malaysia, Me | 4 Comments

28 Days … It’s the title of one of my favorite movies, with Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, and a bunch of other famous faces you’d recognize. (It’s good! Netflix it!) It’s also the number of days that have passed since I posted. (Okay, it’s close … no need to do the actual math. Just work with me here.)

While I haven’t undergone nearly the kind of emotional and psychological transformation Sandra Bullock does in the movie, I’ve had a few moments of … joy. There have still been innumerable moments of complete disbelief, despair, frustration, and confusion. (For example: Why is there only one toilet paper dispenser, why is it outside the stalls by the sinks, and will I ever remember to grab a few squares before it’s too late?)

But joy. Joy. Oh, I’ve missed it.

I went with some new friends to a local frame shop and met the shop’s resident canine. As dogs do, he must have sensed my scraped-up soul (or maybe just my long, thick nails) and came over to sit with me. I scratched his ears for a good 20 minutes while my friends made their purchases.

Furry therapy

That one-third of an hour of silent therapy was equally as needed and effective as the 97 grumpy texts I send (daily) and empathetic responses I receive (daily) from patient friends (bless them!) back home.

I also found the tiny but undeniable Halloween section in the grocery store. There were fluorescent orange pumpkin-shaped Peeps and $12 bags of Butterfinger minis. There were plastic fangs. There were giant bags of b-list candy that no trick-or-treater really wants — especially hilarious because there’s no such thing as trick-or-treating here. But thank goodness some traditions carry over even when they are completely lost in translation. DOTS gumdrops and generic jawbreakers for the win.

The girl at the smoothie place I visit 4 times a week occasionally recognized me and gave me a rewards card so I could earn a free smoothie with every 10 purchases. (Yes please!) This came moments after I deleted the Starbucks app from my phone because the push notices were making me homesick. It was iced serendipity. And it was all the sweeter because someone in this strange city that I wander through each day trying to navigate and negotiate and belong in actually remembered me.

I started volunteering in the library at the kids’ school. I’ve loved school libraries ever since Ms. Pearl put on her pioneer bonnet and read us a few chapters of Little House on the Prairie in third grade. And I’ve really missed the Friday afternoons I used to spend at our old school shelving, alphabetizing, reacquainting myself with Dewey Decimal, and searching for the one Pokemon book the computer swears is checked in, which means Every. Single. Kid. wants to have it. (Turns out? Kids here have a Pokemon book addiction, too.)

I went to breakfast at a new cafe and ordered a hot mocha. This is what they brought me:

Caffeinated smiles

Happy Day indeed. The mocha message that represents my expat life still isn’t “Happy All Day” or even “Happy Most of the Day.” And “I Cursed 100 Times Today” or “Here Come the Tears” might both be more accurate frothy messages, but I’ll take these small moments. And the overwhelming sense of relief — maybe I can do this, at least today, right now — that comes with them.

Seriously, do you understand the toilet paper situation here?? What’s your favorite kind of therapy? And what message would you like to see in your favorite cuppa today?


Lost (Found?) in Translation

September 9, 2016 at 9:44 am | Posted in Malaysia, Me, Photo Tuesday | 4 Comments

Apples and incense


The portal to Narnia, or somewhere


Patriotism tripled


Family in black and white


Can you spot the cat?

“Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.” — Ray Bradbury

I still spend my days in Penang feeling  a little (sometimes a lot) lost  geographically, culturally, emotionally. Don’t even get me started on the seven-story mall, where I stare at the directory, willing the winding corridors and bizarre numbering system to make sense in my brain, while more spatially inclined people whiz up and down the escalators around me, off to the bookstore on Level 3 or the udon kiosk on Level G. I’m slowly figuring it out … which store might sell ice packs or sunglasses or alarm clocks, where I can sit quietly with a cafe mocha and hide for a while, what route home has an honest-to-goodness crosswalk and occasional stretches of, gasp, sidewalk.

On one of my daily walks — the one from the kids’ school to the aforementioned maze of a mall on mostly residential roads with a dearth of scooters (hooray!) and, alas, pavement  I got to thinking about what has made this experience so different from Romania, which I don’t remember hating or crying over or feeling near-constant malaise about. I realized something. I think it’s the pictures. At least partly. In Romania, I was always looking through my camera lens, even if it was only the imaginary one in my brain. I was constantly looking for colorful, different, beautiful, bizarre things to capture. Here, I just see trash, grime, apathy.

So I’m going to start looking through that imaginary lens again. Looking for photographs. Looking for beauty. Looking for something to endear this place to me. I still expect to feel disoriented. But Ray Bradbury says that’s okay, fun even, so I’ll try to embrace the lostness. I’ll turn toward it. I’ll look for it and capture it.

Here’s my first attempt.

When do you feel most disoriented? Can you navigate a mall like a champ? And what did the lens in your brain capture today?

Success Stories

August 26, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Posted in Malaysia, Me | 3 Comments

Haiku Friday: Success Stories


Uniforms, downpours,
Chauffeurs, peanut butter, tears …
First week of school: check.

After-school clubs? Booked.
Knitting! Yoga! Mandalas!
Even Pokemon.


Scoured the mall (all
seven floors) for the island’s
only booster seat.

Safety first! says the
Crazy American mom.
Nobody cares, lah?


Toured the wet market:
Teeny tiny bananas,
Monks selling bracelets.

Rambutan, lychees,
Chicken feet, incense, undies?
Make your best offer.


Found at Cold Storage:
Pretzels! Applesauce! Syrup!
OMG, squirt cheese!

Tried a curry puff,
too, but Velveeta in a
can sure feels like home.

How did back-to-school go where you are? What comfort foods would you miss most if you lived abroad? And what’s a good price for a quality chicken foot?

Mission Control

August 11, 2016 at 11:18 am | Posted in Malaysia, Me | 16 Comments

Six weeks ago, not-so-fresh from 30-some-odd hours of travel, we landed in Malaysia, collected our five giant bags, and wheeled our way through the long, hot customs line. We were home … sort of.

Well, we were definitely home — the envelope binder-clipped to the inside of my carry-on contained stamped, sealed letters written in officialese from governments on both sides of the world granting us permission to call this city home for two years — but nothing about it felt familiar or comfortable or at all home-like.

I expected that. We’d done this before — new cultures, new climates, new foods, new routines. But I didn’t expect to feel like a complete interloper, even now, 44 days later. Most days, I wage an internal battle between staying in the condo — safe, air-conditioned, stocked with peanut butter — and venturing out. Even the most mundane things are an actual, honest-to-goodness, frequently terrifying adventure.

Whether we need laundry detergent or a pizza margherita from the cafe .3 kilometers away according to Google Maps, it goes like this. Put on sunscreen. Deet up. Pack water, hats, and an umbrella. Pee. (Yes, you. Pee, even if you don’t have to. Because it’s pee in the toilet now or squat in that porcelain-lined hole later.) Get in the elevator. Cluster around the center to avoid getting limbs sucked into elevator doors (learned from experience on day 12). Launch into reminders. Dear children: do not fall in open sewer channels. Remember that cars are coming from the opposite direction than you expect — and scooters are everywhere, following absolutely zero traffic protocols. Remember that people — the strangers you’ve been taught your entire lives to be wary of — will stare at you, strike up conversations, and take your picture without asking because, well,  we obviously aren’t from around here. And talking to these more-or-less strangers is okay … Sort of. Mostly. Don’t pet cats or dogs (or monkeys) even though we all got three rabies shots so we could potentially pet cats and dogs (and monkeys). Remember: the “scrambled” part of scrambled eggs is a relative term and that packet of ketchup is probably going to be spicy. Or sweet. And please, oh, please, try not to whine loudly and incessantly about it. And, last, remember that 9-1-1 is now 9-9-9. You need to know this if one of us should happen to get walloped by a scooter and knocked into that open sewer and you can find my phone and a modicum of calm to call for help. I, myself, will be catatonic. And possibly covered in other people’s poop.

And that’s the crux of it for me, I think. The last time we did this, I could buckle my boys into the double-stroller, hold the hand of the other child — the one least likely to bolt into traffic or eat something brown and vaguely cracker-shaped off the sidewalk — and be off. They demanded less autonomy, and I was mostly in control. Mostly. In. Control. And even still, this happened. And this.

Here, now, I am even less in control. There is more I don’t understand or know how to accomplish. I spend my days wondering if that mosquito carries dengue or Zika, if that earthquake 400 miles away is going to spawn a tsunami (and what in the world I should do if that happens), or if that chicken was cooked to an internal temperature of 73.9°C. And in this exotic and chaotic city, I want to be able to singlehandedly haul us all across the busy road with no discernible sidewalk or shoulder while scooters come at us from every direction. I want to keep us safe. I long to be in control. I’d even settle for mostly in control.

Yes, I’m a rational adult able to assess risks and weigh costs and benefits. Believe me, I know this. It is my mantra right now. You are smart and capable. You can figure this out. It will be all right. Breathe, repeat, breathe, repeat. But I’m also a mother, and I am mothering in the unknown. I do not know this place yet. And I do not love it, despite the whopping sunsets, enchanting azan that floats across the city, and the uber-cheap Uber cars. But I’m hopeful, with time (and deet), I will.

How do handle parenting in the unknown? What’s your mantra right now? And do you prefer your ketchup spicy or sweet?

Will Work for Chocolate

July 15, 2013 at 7:00 am | Posted in Family, Me, Serial Commas | 17 Comments
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Raise three kind, creative, patient, helpful, empathetic children while maintaining my sanity, marriage, and hidden cache of chocolate.


  • 7+ years of experience growing, birthing, and raising children.
  • Expertise in multi-tasking, resource allocation, conflict management, customer service, program development, scheduling, chauffeuring, and train-track assembly.


  • Successfully completes numerous tasks simultaneously, including talking on the phone, digging a red Matchbox car out of my purse, wiping someone’s nose, and cutting off sandwich crusts (after washing my hands, of course).
  • Arbitrates disputes over who ate whose Cheerios, who squished whose roly poly, who isn’t sharing the paper-towel-tube telescope, and who pulled the dog’s ear first.
  • Teaches manners to otherwise caveman-like children who resist learning to pee in the potty, share their toys, and color on the paper (and only the paper).
  • Utilizes educational resources including television, computers, and video games to prepare children for school.
  • Possesses uncanny knack for knowing location of missing household items including left red rainboot, yellow cupcake eraser, favorite stuffed bunny, froggy sippy cup, and library book due tomorrow.
  • Treats boo-boos from keeto bites and cat scratches to goose eggs and stubbed pinky toes.
  • Manages four laundry baskets, three toilets, 56 markers, 56 marker lids, and one husband.
  • Able to overcome a variety of obstacles, including sleep deprivation, wasp nests, and refusals to eat broccoli or anything green for that matter.


  • Clean floors if you don’t look too closely.
  • Record WWF score once of 114 points for the word “zouk,” obtained while children were feeding Play-Doh pizza to the dog.
  • Children who sleep through the night in their own beds. Mostly.
  • Recipient of lifetime supply of rainbow drawings.


Are you hiring? What skills are on your mothering resume? And would you like to be paid in Cookies & Creme Hershey Kisses, too?


I is for “I’m an innovator in my industry.” See more I’s at Jenny’s.

Jenny Matlock

Bag Lady

May 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Family, Me | 18 Comments
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I got a new bag. It’s big. It’s cute. And it was on sale!

It’s the kind of bag that looks like it might hold exciting things like designer lip gloss, breath mints in a fancy silver tin, an iPad, or a chic planner with entries like “Mani/Pedi” and “Drinks with J.”

But no. Not my bag. While stylish on the outside, inside it’s all business. Okay, it’s mostly business with a smidgen of chaos. Because my bag is a mom bag.

Here’s an inventory:

  • 1 cloth sunglasses case with green marker stain (and, surprise, the sunglasses are actually inside!)
  • 1 brown paper bag snagged from restaurant in case my sick child needs to puke in the car
  • Girl’s size 6X red sweater
  • Craft store flyer and coupon (Bonus: coupon not expired)
  • Receipt from recent merchandise return stapled to original receipt stapled to temporary store membership card because real membership card is … not in bag
  • Wallet (whose contents include a Romanian bus ticket, the Clean 15 list, a dental floss coupon, and a heaven-sent Starbucks gift card)
  • 2 bottles hand sanitizer
  • Tissues (unused, I think)
  • Shout wipes (unused, I think)
  • Fancy bottle of sunscreen from infamous weekend in Florence
  • 3 tubes chapstick (Carmex, Blistex, and cherry-flavored)
  • 1 large package baby wipes
  • 1 pair 3T Thomas the Tank Engine undies
  • 1 pair 3T Batman undies
  • 1 set of instructions for a “Kids Herb Planter”
  • 3 packages fruit snacks
  • 1 empty fruit snack wrapper
  • 3 pieces Super Bubble gum
  • 1 rubber duckie
  • 2 reusable grocery bags
  • Keys
  • More keys
  • Orange emergency whistle
  • 3 Wendy’s coupons that expire tomorrow
  • 1 “Best Smiles Dental” pen
  • 1 rusted penny from the playground
  • 1 rusted washer from the playground
  • 1 cell phone, 14 Words with Friends games in progress, 20% of battery remaining
  • 1 Sleeping Beauty cell phone with 3 dead AG13 batteries (Note to self: find and purchase AG13 batteries)
  • 1 library book (Bonus: not overdue)
  • 1 Sheriff Woody toy hat
  • 1 green bouncy ball
  • 1 Blue Bell ice cream lid

What’s in your bag? A puke bag? Thomas undies? Expired coupons? Rusted washers? And what else??

Between the Lines

March 23, 2013 at 12:38 am | Posted in Haiku Friday, Lollipop, Me | 10 Comments
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Haiku Friday: Between the Lines

26 voices
I’ve never heard echo through
tunnels in my brain. 

James loved hamburgers.
Josephine loved purple, and
Dawn mothered five girls. 

26 voices
I’ve never heard sing me to
sleep on the dark nights. 

Daniel played the drums;
Jessica was a cowgirl;
Jack loved his Giants.

26 voices
you’ll never hear whisper their
names in these pages. 

Any one of those boys and girls could have been my daughter, given slightly different geography. Perhaps that’s why the Sandy Hook massacre has weighed so heavy on me these last months. Every day since, I have sent a prayer of thanks to the stars, the gods, fate, that my daughter still comes home from kindergarten with tales of who brought chocolate pudding for lunch and what she worked on in art class. With ketchup on her sweater. With glitter in her eyebrows.

Every day, she comes home. And every day, 26 others don’t.

It’s impossible to comprehend. It wakes me up at night, and it pierces me in the heart when I’m shopping for juice boxes or fresh markers. I had to do something.

So I joined Ann Curry’s 26 Acts of Kindness movement. I pledged to donate one book for every Sandy Hook victim to my daughter’s school library. I read obituaries. I cried. I re-read and cried and re-read and cried. I researched children’s books and matched titles with hobbies — Vicki loved flamingos; Grace, the beach.  I e-mailed authors, publishers, anyone, who might help with my project.

And I did it. We did it. 26 voices, 26 books. Lost, found, remembered.

How has Sandy Hook impacted you? And what acts of kindness will you pay forward?


Thank you so very much to these authors, illustrators, artists, and publishers, who donated their work to my 26 Acts of Kindness project:

Carin Bramsen
Denise Brennan-Nelson
Rob Buyea
Michele Craemer
Kelly Cunnane
Cori Doerrfeld
Brad Epstein
David Gifaldi
Jamie Harper
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Kate Kiesler
John McCutcheon
Erica Silverman
Janet Stevens
Audrey Vernick
Don Winn
Wong Herbert Yee


A Love Letter: 26 Years Later

February 5, 2013 at 1:29 am | Posted in Me | 18 Comments
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Valentine’s Day — it’s a glittering light on the horizon during those dull, murky post-Christmas days of January when snowman wrapping paper that’s 70 80 90! percent off is finally replaced with boxes and boxes of chalky candy hearts.

And doilies. Nothing says Valentine’s Day like a hand-written “Be mine” and a few Snoopy stickers on a pink paper doily. Am I right?

When I was 8, I sat at my kitchen table with a stack of those doilies and a 64-pack of crayons. I wrote a different message for each kid in my third-grade class: UR 2 sweet, Love ya!, Friends 4-ever. It took me 7 episodes of Kids Incorporated to finish.


I brought them to school and carefully placed them in 16 decorated shoeboxes with holes cut in the top. I remember because this was also the year I found a love letter in my own foil-covered shoebox. From a secret admirer. Scrawled in freshly sharpened pencil on wide-ruled notebook paper was a poem I can’t remember and this: “With Love, K.S.”

With love! From K.S.! I glanced at the boys in my class with a nonchalance that belied my mere 8 years.

And then I saw him. A cutie named Kyle Scott. He had light brown hair and dimples. All of his permanent teeth had come in. His skin was bronze from soccer season. And? He. Liked. Me. I knew it.

But it wasn’t Kyle Smith. My teacher Mrs. Laughlin confirmed it. Something oozed out of my heart like the saccharin filling of a chocolate-covered cherry.

And then I really knew: Kniles. Kniles Smith.

He looked like you’d imagine a kid named Kniles to look. Short and mousey. Big beaver teeth. A brown bowl cut. He wore thick black glasses and made jokes about meteorology and BASIC. My heart oozed more goopy stuff.

When Mrs. Laughlin nodded her Barbie-blonde mane, I slid into my orange plastic chair. Stunned. Disappointed. Kniles.

I had enough manners to know I shouldn’t show how upset I was. But I just couldn’t help it. I felt like one of those overfilled heart-shaped balloons, the ones that never really look like hearts at all. Pop!

Even the Sixlets taped to the Care Bear and She-Ra valentines I dug from my shoebox didn’t cheer me up.

K.S. Kniles Smith. Pop!

But somewhere between the red-velvet cupcakes and the donning of my safety-patrol badge, I had an epiphany that third-grade Valentine’s Day — perhaps the first of my young Smurf-and-sticker-book-filled life. What a risk Kniles had taken writing me that poem. He had given me his heart, disguised as crooked mixed-case graphite couplets. He didn’t know how I would react. He hadn’t asked for anything in return. He just felt so strongly that the words had to come out, had to be shared, had to be folded into a pull-flap rectangle and dropped in a shoebox, my shoebox.

I saw Kniles Smith that day. Really saw him. Beyond the scrawny, awkward boy who knew more about fractions and food webs than anyone else in third grade, I saw someone with a brawny heart just as big as his brain. A Casanova, a Lord Byron, a Lloyd Dobler — on the inside, where it matters most.

For K.S, wherever you are.


This post is part of Momalom’s 2013 Love Fest. See more love letters at Jen and Sarah’s.

My Half-Life

January 22, 2013 at 4:50 am | Posted in Family, Me | 14 Comments
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In exactly two months, I’ll be 35.

If I’m lucky, I still have half of my life to live. And if I’m not so lucky … well, I have less.

Contemplating that has led to a few heart palpitations in the shower, a few nightmares involving wildcats and curvy roads and getting lost in the grocery store.

What have I done with the time that’s gone? What haven’t I done? What do I want from the time that remains?

I have no idea. And no time to contemplate it between the loads of laundry, the sticky breakfast dishes, the cat puke, the potty training, the freelance work, the sleep I’m not getting, the calories I’m not burning, the endless piles of toys, and the downloaded movie queue I’ll never, ever make it through.

Or maybe I should put it this way. We have clothes to wear, meals to eat, and dishes to eat them on. We have healthy pets and healthy kids. We have work that pays the bills. We have more fun ways to spend our free time than we have actual free time. We have each other, and we are lucky. I am lucky.

But I still can’t ignore this emotional tug to take stock and re-prioritize, to dig around in my mental sandbox and see what’s buried in there. Won’t that ultimately make me better? A better woman, a better mother, a better partner, a better person?

Too many days, I feel myself bracing for the chaos and noise and dirty socks I know are coming. I wish for something to be different, but I’m not sure what. Or how. Or even why I want something to change.

Because I am lucky. I am. I know this.

Like the plastic gold coins my boys just unearthed in the playroom, my own treasures are already within reach.

How do you make time for a little honest-to-goodness soul-searching? What helps remind you that you’re lucky? And what’s been recently rediscovered in your family’s playroom?

Life Lines

October 23, 2012 at 1:14 am | Posted in Family, Me | 14 Comments
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This mother just buried her son. This mother is dead. This one is losing a friend.

And I’m sitting here on my couch. Our old terrier is dreaming of squirrels and lunch meat beside me. I can hear my boys thundering through the backyard. The late afternoon sun beats down on the Yaupon holly, its red berries an anomaly of our hot, sticky autumn.

I have work to do. I’m tired. I have a kindergartner to pick up in 11 minutes.


I don’t care. Because all I can do is sit here, now, and soak up the sensations of my small life. My small, exhausting, hectic, happy, finite life.

Wouldn’t they have given anything for one more moment?

One more moment to smooth sweaty hair from a rosy-cheeked child. To wash and fold the silky threads of a beloved woobie. To stare into the pantry and magic something together from the cans and boxes inside. To run the vacuum, to run to the grocery store, to run out of patience. To laugh and love and live.

Why do I get the privilege of this moment? Of more moments? I feel certain I haven’t earned it. I’m always wishing for more energy and less noise, more manners and less mess, more time and less chaos. More. Less. Different.

I never think, This moment is enough.

This noise is enough.

This mess is enough. 

This chaos is enough.

This life is enough.

But today, the errands, the lists, the laundry — the ordinary — feel like a blessing. And I realize that I have the responsibility of savoring every moment in this life.

This small, exhausting, hectic, happy, finite life. No more, no less, no different.

What adjectives would you use to describe your life? How do you remember to appreciate it? How would you live differently if you knew when it would end?

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