From Pipe Dreams to Pipelines: A Valve Dream Come True


When my son, Ben, was four years old, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Mama, God made me to build.”

I had no idea how true that statement would be.

We, too, saw Ben’s proclivity to build, so, for Christmases and birthdays, we always got him building toys: Legos, K’nex, Rokenbok…you name it, we bought it. When Ben was six, our neighbor had a garage sale and was selling her collection of 3D puzzles. Ben bought every one she had (for 50 cents each) and disappeared for days building them. No one else in the family had a clue what enticed him about hundred of pieces of monochromatic foam pieces. All we knew was that WE sure as heck couldn’t do it.

We foresaw contractor, car designer, or architect.

What we did not foresee was 3D artist for one of the largest gaming companies in the world.

Today, the Washington Post published a story about Ben and his work on Valve’s Pipeline internship project last summer.

Okay, maybe the story was about the estimated 2.5 billion dollar video game company, Valve, and its unique use of community in the shaping and developing of their products.

But a tiny part was about Ben.

Whenever people find out that Ben has a ‘job’ working for Valve, they are always curious how he got started, so, because the Post wrote about him Valve, I thought I would share more deets of his story here.

In 2008, my husband, Ian, lost his casket sales job in Colorado (darned people wouldn’t die) and we moved to Kansas to sit out the recession. Having no income, money was tight, so we were unable to put any of our children in any activities (except for Scouts). Gone were the days of show choir, music lessons, and basketball. We planned on sitting tight for one year and then moving back to God’s country ASAP, or, in our case, ASAIGAJ (As Soon As Ian Got A Job), whichever came first.

Here we were, eight people in a 1700 square foot house, and, since we home schooled, together 24 hours a day. Ian and I thought we could prevent complete bedlam if we could use this time ‘off’ to pursue our individual passions, mine being writing and his being music. After 20 years of talking about it, unemployment gave us the chance to finally chase these dreams. It also gave us the opportunity to fight like MMA combatants, but I digress.

With all this free time, the kids had two choices: Die of boredom, or do something.

Each of them, out of sheer survival instinct, chose the latter.

Em wrote songs. Anna sang. Lanes wrote stories. Aus made movies and took pictures. Coop fell in love with his brother’s Legos…and had a short stint as an actor.

Ben learned 3D art.

When our house sold, we still didn’t put them into activities. We were only going to be here one year, remember? Why get them attached to the place? We couldn’t do much, but we tried our best to provide the basic tools for their various pursuits. Em got some recording software. Aus got a camera and Ian’s old computer. Anna got a microphone. Elenia got paper. Coop got, well, nothing.

And they got busy. Without the distraction of, well, a lifewhat else can you do? The boys started their own film-making company and made ‘James Bond’ movies in the basement. Em wrote a bunch of songs and compiled them in a CD. Anna put songs on YouTube. Lano wrote story after story and started drawing her own illustrations. Coop learned to follow the visual directions for his Lego Turbo Tank Clone Carrier.

Boredom is a great teacher.

Ben’s initial submissions to Valve were pitiful. Later, he heard that it wasn’t until about his fifth submission that the Valve team started paying attention. Soon after, he got word that they were going to ship one of his ‘sets.’ A set consists of weapons and articles of clothing based on a theme. His was a Russian theme called the Tomislav.

He was excited, but kept working on other sets. Soon after, he got word that, because he had built one of his items based on an already used shell, it would not go into game. That item was a hat, the item most contributors make the most amount of money on. It was a painful setback, but he understood his mistake and determined not to do it again.

The rest is history. Ben has visited Valve three times and each time is treated with respect. This isn’t some sales gimmick. Valve values their contributors…even when they are 14 years old and don’t yet have facial hair.

As parents, we are thankful for the opportunity the Steam workshop gave to a young teenager who needed something other than surfing the web and letting his brain turn to jelly. Although I personally don’t like video games, I am not opposed to my child participating in the creative side of the business. It’s hard to quantify the value learning new software, reading tomes like ‘CS for Dummies,’ and creating something from scratch has for a child. I know, for Ben, it has been life changing. Being taken seriously, even when you are a child, and given a high mark to shoot for not only makes a child aim high, but makes me wonder how far our children could go if we stopped treating them like imbeciles and like the creative geniuses they are…or can be.

God, indeed, made Ben to build. He just had different ideas than Ben’s mama did.


I’ve long believed that boredom is a great catalyst for creativity. Ben’s story proves it. He’s just an ordinary kid with an ordinary life and ordinary parents who was presented with an extraordinary opportunity.

Thank you, God. And thank you, Valve.


My Love/Hate Relationship with Facebook


Today I ended a 30-day Facebook fast. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to do such a thing, which says something about social media, although I’m not sure what.

My reasons? Many.

Wasted hours surfing other people’s lives, some of which I care about, some of which I (sorry), don’t. Drama. Too many political opinions. Too many insignificant details of people’s lives. Drama.

Oh, and did I mention, the drama?

I was tired of hearing the sound of my own voice. I was tired of the tit-for-tatting. I was tired of hearing the play-by-play of people’s opinions. I was starting to wonder if I was capable of thinking or doing anything I didn’t automatically turn into a post.

And I was starting to doubt my own motives. Why did I post that funny thing Coop said? Was it truly to entertain my inner circle, or was it to draw attention to myself? How badly did I care about likes, comments or lack thereof?

Yes, as a budding writer, I have a platform to build. As unnatural as it is and as much as I truly hate self-promotion, that’s the way the business works these days.


I didn’t like what I saw in myself. On Sunday, our pastor spoke of ‘nooks,’ places we find where we feel safe. We might find a nook in food, or in popularity, or in achievement. More and more, I found my nook in Facebook. If I was upset or had a hard day, Facebook had the power to make or (continue to) break my day. I found myself reaching for Facebook as my pick-me-up of choice instead of for the only pick-me-up that actually, well, picks me up.

That’s God, sillies.

I wrote about this in “Bare Necessities” over at WORLD a few years ago. If I have learned anything in this crazy life o’mine, it’s that God is a jealous God and He will not allow anything to usurp him.

Not even the almond croissants I’ve been working to perfect in the time I’m saving by not being on Facebook. Unfortunately. Because they are, truly…Awe. Some.

So what, then? Is abandoning Facebook altogether the answer?

I don’t think so. Needing people isn’t wrong. Needing their approval is. A friend once said, very defensively, “I don’t need anyone!” As though not needing people is a merit badge we earn along the road to independence. Sorry, but no. What it really is, is cynicism, not courage. Even if relationships are messy (and they are), even if we are burned (and we will be), even if we are introverts in an extroverted world (yup), we are not islands. God created us for fellowship. We DO need others. In all their, and our, messy dramas.

No doubt, Facebook can be a powerful place. The question is, what are we doing with that power? Bragging or encouraging? Limelighting or promoting others? Really asking for prayer or just sugar coating our need for attention? Me-ing, or you-ing?

That said, I hope I’m learning from this. I am (keep me honest here) placing walnuts (important things) before rice (less important things). Time with family comes before time for writing which comes before—way before—time on Facebook. What I’ve learned this last month is that addictions can be beaten. Reaching for the Facebook bookmark is an addiction that does not need to rule my life and is easily dismantled. Life isn’t just about funny posts or the number of likes we get. It’s surprisingly delightful to have wonderful news that is pondered only in one’s heart and not displayed for the masses. It feels real to experience something joyful and not already have a Facebook post about it forming in my mind.

So, I will engage, but not depend. I will enjoy, but not be wobbled by stats.

Meanwhile, I’m open for lunch, coffee, and phone dates. Those beat Facebook any day of the week.


P.S. We’ve been watching season 4 of Downton Abbey this last month, do you have ANY idea how hard that was to keep from ya’ll? Which goes to show, if I can do it, ANYONE can.

Because, Truth is, We Do Judge a Book By Its Cover


I should have known I was in trouble when I handed the first proof copy of my book, Humpty Dumpty Just Needed a Nap, to my mother and she looked the title and said, “What does that mean?”

Admittedly, it IS a cute title. It refers to a vignette in the book that talks about how moms falling apart is like Humpty Dumpty falling apart when perhaps all the little guy (or little mom) needed was a good ole’ nap. I sweated over this title for weeks, brainstorming on huge pieces of white paper for something catchy, that said what the book was and at the same time communicated the voice in which the book is written.

Apparently, I failed. Like my son, Ben, said, “Mom, I don’t know why people say not to judge a book by its cover. We DO judge books by their covers!”


So, here we are at Plan B, utilizing the wisdom that simpler is better.

The first title was too convoluted and too cutesy. No one but the author knew what it meant and if no one but the author knows what it means, there’s little chance someone’s going to pull it off a bookshelf.

I’m learning, folks.

And, may I say, braver? Having finished a book-length project, I’m not as afraid of venturing out into the world of traditional publishing. Editors, I’m discovering, can be kinda nice.

Maybe it’s time to toe-dip into that world.

In the meantime, here’s my new baby, all scrubbed up and renamed.

Introducing…Story Mama. Ain’t she cute?

(Artwork and interior design by J.S. White)

When Mamas Have to Say Goodbye


Although she’s been a married woman for a more than a year and a half, today I say goodbye to my baby girl.

For the next six months she’ll be 12 hours of hard driving away and although I’ve raised her to be capable and independent and have gone whole weeks without so much as calling, I’d be lying if I said I won’t miss the living heck out of my Tigger.

Kids are supposed to leave home, I know. It’s the natural order of things–things I’ve expected, planned for, and written about. But the actuality of it takes my breath away like those final moments of labor when the pain threatens to split me in two.

What did I think? I ask myself, that she’d be in my back pocket forever? A ten-minute drive from a Panera visit, a phone call from a Goodwill run?

Yes, being a mama, hopeful and all, I suppose I did.

But I raised my girl not to splash in sentiment, but to survive. So we load storage units and sweep worn wood floors and talk hopefully of her return. She returns my ramekins and my favorite tea cup; her sisters and I wrap her kitchen in my old towels.

I’m wrecked, but there’s a part of me that loves this moment at the same time I’m hating it. I have long looked forward to the day I am able to help my girls the way I so wanted help when I was first married. To pack their things, wipe their window sills, tuck books into boxes…whatever physical effort it will take to communicate the love that is so hard for this Mayflower descendent to share. Words, my strong suit when written, fail me in real life. All I can do is wrap, pack, sweep. Wrap, pack, sweep.

I love you, I love you, I love you…

Almost twenty years ago, the doctor scissored the cord that connected my body with hers. Then, I didn’t feel a thing.



Never Forsaken

Everyone has them, I suppose. Dreams that drop you in a subconscious hell so terrifying that, upon waking, you nearly fall on your knees in relief.

“Thank God, it was only a dream,” you say, wiping the sweat off your face and trying to clear the horrific images and emotions from your memory.

Mine was a dream of forsakenness. And, as if dreaming it once was not bad enough, again it came, and again, different forms, different locations, but one element always the same: I am forsaken. More alone than I’ve ever been. More alone than your worst nightmare. Whatever the specifics of the dream, that element never changes.

This time, it takes the form of trying to eat at a banquet at which my family are attendees, but when I get there, there is no food for me. I am starving, but the dishes are wiped clean. Everyone is satiated, but my hunger aches in my gut. I ask, can I have just a little off your plate and they look at, through me, not as though I am invisible, which would be tolerable, but as if I am seen, but outcast…outcaste, untouchable, lowliest of the low.

Another time they are all in a circle, holding hands dancing. I want to join in, but they won’t let me in. Again, they look at me with the cold that chills the marrow and will not separate their hands or break formation to let me in. In the middle of this dancing circle, I fall to my knees and sob, begging them to include me.

But they don’t.

They turn away, untouched by my deepest cries, cold and unemotional, giving a stone when all I want is a crumb of bread.

The truly nightmarish thing about these dreams, which haunt my sleep every month or so, is that when the terror rises to a frenzy, and I swim desperately for the shore of consciousness where I will know I will wake up and find it all ‘just a dream,’ I get tossed on wakefulness only to realize that it is not, in fact, just a dream. It is oh-so-real and there is no escape from the forsakenness, even in the light of day.

It threatens to undo me, as I suppose it would you, too, were you to find yourself in such a spot. We were built for community and when that community is torn asunder, it’s as if part of creation failed, some divine hiccup occurred, and the circle formed to keep me in now keeps me out. I feel a growing empathy for Cain, marked to keep him ostracized. How did he spend the bulk of his remaining years, I wonder. Meandering from one spot to the next, eating his meager hunted supper over a solitary fire, aching for just one person to talk to?

Jesus knew what it felt like to be forsaken…he cries out to his father, Why? Why? In the middle of divine strength, we see this crying out expression of the horror of forsakenness. We, reading it in the comfort of our 70 degree living rooms, know God did not, in fact, forsake, but do we hear the anguished cries of the man staked to the rood-tree?

However you and I come about our forsaken moments, whether they are real or imagined, whether they are hells we’re put in or hells we put ourselves in, at our lowest, loneliest, most isolated moments, our feelings do not negate the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, the One who was despised, rejected, trampled, humiliated, spat upon, laughed at, mocked, beaten. In modern times, he would have been torn apart in the media, Twitter-shunned, Facebook-slammed. We would have texted our evil gossip to eager ears, blogged about his vicious motives, and assured ourselves of our holiness while doing it.

But, despite how he felt, and this is what we must know, Jesus was never left. And, though we can hardly compare our suffering to his, when we’re tempted to feel forsaken, when we’re stripped of more than we think we can bear, we’ve got to remember the same thing. Jesus gave it all, endured all, but never lost his relationship with the Father.

And, no matter what we’ve lost, we won’t either.










Every Day a Snow Day

Snow days rock.

If I could have one every day, I would.


Unexpected as they are, snow days feel stolen, like time has stopped, giving me time to catch up on the laundry while having a front seat on the creation of a winter wonderland. Snow blankets the dark, covers the earth’s scars, smoothing an ethereal frosting over a messy world.


Last night as we got into bed, I was lamenting the return to duty. Oh, how I would miss the hot cocoa. The snow fort. The sledding. Watching Sasha bound in the snow. The cookie-making. The pink cheeks. The chili in the Crock Pot. The fire in the fireplace. Most of all, my beloved snow walks.



There’s just something so otherworldly about a snow day.



Right in the middle of my pout, it hit: Except for the snow part, there’s not really much that differentiates a snow day from a regular old day except for my attitude about it. Isn’t each day special, stolen, joyous? Or, couldn’t it be if I gave it the attention and love I gave the snow day? What if I woke up and greeted each day with the thrill and wonder I greet a snow day with? What if I was chasing joy, like I do on snow days, pocketing ‘moments’ with more intention than I do on ‘regular’ days? Why do I save cookies and cocoa only for when it snows when we could have them any time we wanted?

So, there’s today’s epiphany: Short of renting a snow maker, make each day a snow day. 

Off to fill the Crock Pot…


Only the Lonely: When You Have an Only Child

(If you have an only child, you know the looks and comments some people carelessly send your way. Here’s a guest post from my friend, Kathleen, on her experience as a mom of an ‘only.’)


Photo on 2010-07-31 at 17.11



It happens several times a week, at least. The “Oh, that’s too bad.”  “Really? Just one?” It’s always said as if I’ve lost something. Or as if someone has died. Interestingly, no one ever assumes it’s a choice, or that I might be happy with that choice. If they see my discomfort, I get the shoulder pat. “Oh, well, that’s ok.”


I have “only” one child, and the reasons are many, personal, unplanned, and probably not what you assume. I suppose it was my pre-determined path. But today—now—it’s not intentional. It’s not a choice for me. And I grieve, daily, for my Only. I grieve because of the love I have and long to give. But mostly, I grieve for him. For the Onlyness. He would have been the best big brother.


I met my husband at 22, married at 26. I honestly have no idea why we didn’t have a child until I was almost 39. We were just about to ‘start a family’ when 9-11 changed our course. Three military deployments and a relocation later, and we had our first. Our Only.


I remember, vividly, the moment I realized I’d joined the Mommy Sorority. I hadn’t even known I was missing out on this powerful bond, and despite being far from friends and family, I found great comfort, support, and enthusiasm from my Mommy friends.


But that sorority is just that—a sorority—and conformity is key. I joined the sorority, but I didn’t keep up with the Joneses. Today, I’m an outsider once again. But the isolation of having One is worse than it was when I had none. I know what it means to have a child. I know, now, what I’m missing.


I’m not quite a full-fledged mom in this sorority. My experiences don’t score full points on the Mommy Scale of Worthiness. Fly across the country? Multi-day car trip? Harrowing day of errands? “It’s not the same, you only have one.” Yes, I’m sure you’re right. The irony is these observations are never given as if they, too, wish they had Onlys. It’s nothing to be envied.


And then there are the classics: “Only children are weird.” Really? Because I’m thinking of the weirdest people I’ve ever met, and every one of them has at least one sibling. A colleague, one of five, often talks about his self-centered wife, her deficits attributed squarely to her Onlyness. And a beloved teacher told a friend of mine that their child’s challenges at school could be chalked up to being an Only. That comment left an indelible mark—guilt, shame, anguish. She and I have begun to grieve our Onlys together.


One woman I know is an Only who has an Only, and she wears her Onlyness like a Purple Heart for all to see. She’s made consistent life choices that guarantee her loneliness is unending. And as an outside observer, I’ve seen her write this very same life script for her child.


But that’s not the script I’m going to help write for mine. I’ve stopped the joking references to “Only Child Syndrome” when he has a moment of drama. When I get the pity pat on the shoulder from well-meaning strangers, I just tell them that I got it right the first time, no need to mess it up with a sibling. I’m determined to turn his Onlyness into a badge of honor, something cool. Really, I don’t want it to be a “thing” at all. But I’m not sure you’ll allow us that.


I often hear stories of siblings that are a source of conflict and anguish, through childhood and beyond. It isn’t always the lifelong companion and support system that I fantasize my son would have. Yet, while the hurts are unintentional, the opinions on the negatives of Onlys are oddly free-flowing. So, just so you know:


I think about the Onlyness repeatedly, every day. When I see moms with new babies, juggling the toddler and the car seat carrier. Any Facebook photo with siblings. Those stick figure family stickers, on the back windows of every SUV and minivan—they get me every time. When I think of taking family vacations, or of growing old and the burdens my son willface as an Only. My heart actually hurts when he says he wants someone to play with him on a Sunday, or when he tells his BFF he wants them to be brothers. My Only makes up names for imaginary siblings and tells magical stories with wonderful descriptions of his partners in crime. And every time, when I leave the room, I fight back tears.


Our Onlyness comes with great joys! Our son is, if I do say so myself, happy and well-adjusted. And our house has very little conflict. It’s a place of relative peace and relaxation. He often asks if we can “just go home and chillax.” We are truly blessed beyond measure, and my heart is full with this love affair of mine. This isn’t how I would have chosen to write hisstory. But it’s his story. Our story. And despite your perceptions, it’s not an easier journey.


Kathleen Brown is a proud military spouse, a wildly lucky mom, a daughter, a sister, and by most accounts a bit of a bossypants.  She toils during the day as the spokesperson and director of  PR and marketing for a Denver-based company. But she dreams of spending her days writing a wildly popular blog, full of witty observations of the local characters who reside in the microcosm of her favorite Starbucks. Currently living in Tucson, Brown started her own mommy/mid-life crisis blog, Those Screaming Lobsters, in 2009. She’s averaged a blog post a year and a subscriber per post. If you Google her name and add words such as Alcohol, Probation, DUI, Booze, Hooch, Jail, or Chicken Skin, you’ll discover her 15 minutes of worldwide media fame. Her parents are incredibly proud, yet unsure of how one ends up being quoted in the New York Times about chicken skin. She also blogs as an industry expert on drunk driving, alcohol addiction, and the criminal justice system for a blog called Sobering Up. (She’s an expert because of her job, not from personal experience.)


Mama Bear Strikes Again


(Welcome to my first guest poster, Shirie Leng. Shirie is a Biola University alum and an anesthesiologist who blogs about all things health care with a smattering of motherhood at I used to sit behind her in the first violins where she patiently tolerated my out-of-tune scratchings. Welcome, Shirie!)

My husband cried. A single sob escaping from him as he stared out the window. I had never heard him cry. I hope I never do again.

Our daughter Sarah came fast. I hung around at home in labor until I practically delivered in the car on the way to the hospital. She shot out limp and blue. “She’s a little stunned. We’ll keep an eye on her” they said. Of course she was fine. As an “elderly mother” at 41 years old I had had ultrasounds once a week for months. Everything was fine, no problems, baby looked great. She must be fine. 6 hours after birth Sarah was in the NICU at Children’s Hospital Boston.

She had what is known as a congenital diaphragmatic hernia or CDH. A hole in her diaphragm through which her bowel escaped up into her chest, crushing the new lung. I was told it was “a small hole.” I’m a doctor. I saw the x-ray. I cried.

To have a child in the hospital is a little like being Alice through the rabbit hole, but without the clever rhymes and cute cats. My whole life contracted in those days into a hospital room, a heart rate monitor, the quest for calories, for weight. Sarah couldn’t eat; neither could I. Sarah didn’t sleep; neither did I. Sarah didn’t gain weight; I despaired. I have an older child I didn’t see and couldn’t care for. I have a husband I couldn’t care for either, though he needed it.

Sarah had thoracic surgery at age 3 days. She came out on a ventilator with a chest tube, a tiny catheter in an artery in her wrist and an IV in her saphenous vein. To hold her required that you also hold the drains, the tubes, the monitor lines. I wanted to hold her as much as possible.

I became a tiger mother. I fought at every turn. I knew the system and I worked it. I stalked the doctors, paged surgeons, harassed nurses and ignored interns. I called in every favor and used every contact. I was there for rounds at 5 AM. I was there for every weight measurement. I carried her to X-ray. I was there when they put the feeding tube in. I was there when they added oxygen, when they hung her intravenous nutrition, when the women’s auxiliary gave her a crocheted blanket in a hundred colors. I pushed for results, for progress. The residents were afraid of me. I think some of the senior doctors were too.

I finally took Sarah home. She came home with a feeding tube and oxygen. That’s what I agreed to, to get her home. I’ll do anything, I said.

My story has a happy ending. Sarah thrived. I am lucky. And changed. Mothers we are strong. We can be sweet and loving but facing threat we become like animals, fierce and protective, focused and obsessed. Hear me roar? You better believe it.

(If you are interested in guest posting here at Whole Mama, please read this.)

(Naturally) Clean Mama


I mentioned using a homemade degreaser to clean the uber-nasty underside of my stove hood. Honestly, I did not believe the degreaser would work, otherwise I would have taken a ‘before’ picture. My ‘white’ hood was covered with greasy gobules, from a minimum of four years of heavy stove usage (that’s when we moved into the house). It was always filthy, but I figured I’d need a caustic cleaner with steel wool to tackle the project.

I was wrong. I simply sprayed the hood and immediately the oil started to gather in droplets. With the exception of a couple of small places where I gently used a scrubby pad, it came off with a warm, wet washcloth and minimal effort. Spray away!

Natural Degreaser

In a 32-oz. spray bottle mix:

1 tsp. washing soda (Arm and Hammer, Walmart carries it)

2 tsp. Borax

2Tbsp. distilled white vinegar

2 1/2 cups hot water

5 drops lavender essential oil

7 drops lemon essential oil

1/4 c. liquid castille soap (I used Dr. Bronners from Dillons. Most health stores carry it as well. I could not find unscented, so used lavender and skipped the lavender essential oil)

Use a funnel to put liquids into the bottle, shake, and spray just as you would any cleaner. My instructions (I got this recipe from All You magazine) say to use gloves.

Yield: about 23.5 oz./Cost $1.74

I’ll be adding the recipes for the other cleaners as I try them. Up soon, ‘clean’ HE  washing machine soap.

ps. This isn’t my real range hood, but a girl can dream, no?



Les Miserables, Je t’aime

The girls and I are ecstatic to finally see Les Miserables tonight. Not only is LM one of the best redemptive stories of all time, but we get to hear Russell Crowe sing!

Can’t wait.

With Fantine and Cosette on the brain, I thought I’d be an annoying bragging mama and show you a video of Anna and Elenia singing I Dreamed a Dream in our city’s talent show two years ago. A is 12 and E is 8. Enjoy!

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