The Volunteer Score Card

11 Apr

momonthedge:

Love me some Snarky in the morning!

Originally posted on Snarky in the Suburbs:

12316(I wrote this opinion piece for my local newspaper last week and as of today I’m still getting hate mail. I’m a little confused to what ticked people off so badly. Oh sure, I knew it would tick some people off but just wow on the number of emails I’ve been getting.)

As a parent you scribble your name on a lot of stuff – everything from reading logs to band practice sheets. But one thing I won’t sign my name to is anything that has to do with volunteering or community service. I won’t sign a piece of a paper, a diary, a journal, a ledger – basically if it tracks and tallies up how many hours my kids spent doing “service” I’m not interested. It’s not because I don’t fully believe in giving back and I’m certainly not anti non-profit – my husband works for one. What I’m against…

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When a bully isn’t a bully

20 Mar

Something’s been bugging me, and I’ve got to get it off my chest. And it’s going to sound crass at first, so hear me out before you start calling me insensitive.

I’m not sure there really is a bullying epidemic.

I know, I know. Just about every morning of the world, you can probably find a news story on television about some horrific incident linked to bullying. Kids have started cutting themselves, committing suicide, committing mass murder – you name it – because they’re the victims of bullies.

I’m 100 percent sure those kids were bullied. I’m not debating that.

What I do question, though, is the statistic put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-third of kids in the sixth through 12th grades has been victimized by bullies.

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. So what that means is that the bully is perceived as being more powerful than the victim, and the aggression happens again and again over time. This aggression can happen at school or at home, with relative strangers or family members. Some of the worst cases of bullying I’ve seen involved parents bullying their own children.

But during the last few years, as I’ve worked among elementary students as a social work student myself and now as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a pattern: Kids who have normal, everyday interpersonal conflicts with other kids claim that they’re being bullied. And I don’t always think that’s the case.

I think “bully” is a victim of its own success. Children and parents are so familiar with the term now, so well-versed in the horrific tales of bullying gone wrong, that they view any kind of disagreement or conflict as bullying. And that, I think, is wrong-headed.

Take, for example, an older elementary student I worked with last year. He was somewhat socially awkward but had some friends at school. However, he often didn’t perceive when he overstepped his bounds and intruded into other students’ space. He would get excited and impulsively hug his friends, or take a game of tag too far and tackle another student instead of merely touching his arm. When the student he hugged or tackled asked him to stop – sometimes not in the nicest of ways – he would run to the teacher on the playground and claim he was being bullied. In time, his cries fell on deaf ears, and he earned the reputation of a whiner who cried foul when things didn’t go his way.

I found it extremely difficult to work with this kid because his parents backed him up. They referred to his being “bullied” and never pointed out his own role in instigating the behavior of the other children. I was perplexed about how to help the child see the pattern of his behavior and his misuse of the word “bully.” Time and again in our weekly sessions, I attempted to challenge his use of “bully.” We talked about how friends act, how he wanted his friends to act, and how he could be a good friend to others. The child used all the right words, but he couldn’t differentiate between bullying and just plain not getting along well with others.

And there is a difference. We all have people who rub us the wrong way, people who routinely disagree with everything we say. Maybe we’re the cantankerous ones who always disagree. But when your co-worker doesn’t like you or disagrees with something you say in a meeting, does that mean he or she is bullying you?

Not in my book.

As a parent, it’s easy to assume our children are the ones being singled out for being different, being picked on by mean kids, being made fun of. Sometimes those things do happen. And when they happen routinely and are perpetrated by kids who hold power in some way over our own, that’s when our kids are being bullied.

But when our children, in course of their growing-up years, run into folks who think differently, who act differently and who don’t think our kids are the greatest things since the iPhone, they are not being bullied.

Instead, they are learning to live and deal with other people who are different from them, and that’s a valuable life lesson that I think too often goes by the wayside in this era of the bully.

It’s quantity, not quality

23 Jan

Way back in the misty, far-away time that was my early 30s, a slightly older friend gave me a bit of sage parenting advice.

I was debating whether to spend an upcoming holiday schlepping my little preschoolers to a fun family-oriented festival at the art museum or to let them run through the sprinkler while the hubs and I putzed around the yard and caught up on some chores.

I didn’t want to waste the day off, I explained, and I could make the case that I was with either of those scenarios.

“It’s quantity, not quality,” my friend said, turning on its end the parenting mantra of the day. (He was also locally famous for this assessment of our local Labor Day street fair: “The gene pool’s pretty shallow there.”)

Quantity, not quality. That flew in the face of everything I had strived for during my first five years of parenting, when I worked long hours as a newspaper reporter and my children spent their days in daycare. Back then, I slept little but threw the most outrageous birthday parties, if I do say so myself. Only now do I realize that the princess birthday party with the homemade castle cake and the pirate birthday party complete with a treasure the hubs and I buried were symptoms of my overfunctioning.

I wasn’t around much, but by golly, when I was on, I was ON!

But by the time my friend suggested short spurts of quality weren’t enough, I was already past that stage. I had quit my full-time job a year before because I wanted to slow down and spend more time with my kids. And pretty quickly, I had realized that the days were l-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g when you had to figure out something to do with a 3 year old and a 4 year old every.Single.Minute.

So a year in, I was running out of ideas. I feared I’d become one of those mommies who watched soaps all afternoon (they still were on then,) cracked open a cold one around 4 p.m. when Oprah came on and let the neighbors worry about my kids.

Quantity, not quality. What did it mean?

I really wasn’t sure, but I kept it at the front of my mind when I began stressing over whether I was enriching my children enough. Should I be teaching them to read instead of reading to them? Should I enroll them in a kiddie cooking class instead of baking cookies with them? What about signing them up for Ceramics for Children instead of letting them just play with the Play-Doh at the kitchen table?

Quantity, not quality.

And then we had a third child, and I really didn’t have as much time for my neuroses because the older two entered school. And life got busier. And frankly, the birthday parties became quite a bit less elaborate. And “quantity over quality” faded from my mind.

Until a few weeks ago, when I was driving my daughter, younger son and a niece home from the mall. My daughter and my niece began talking about a mutual friend who had been in their Girl Scout troop.

“Wait a minute,” my son said to my niece, “you were in Girl Scouts?”

“Duh,” she said.

“Why aren’t you still in it?” he asked.

Before she could answer, I piped up. “Because she had the worst leader ever. Didn’t even like kids, really.”

Then my daughter spoke up. “Mom,” she said, “you were our leader.”

“Exactly,” I said.

And then…

“I thought you were a good leader,” my daughter said. “I loved it when you were our leader.”

I was so stunned I almost hit the car in front of me.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, flooded with memories of the dread I felt each week as I prepared for the Girl Scout meeting, my panic when the cookie money didn’t add up, the sore on my tongue from the many times I had to bite it to keep from snapping on a hyper kid.

“Yeah,” she said wistfully, “it was great. We had fun. I always thought you planned fun stuff.”

Quantity, not quality. My friend was right. 

Santa’s white? Yeahhhhhhh, right!

24 Dec

Megyn Kelly, your little mind is wrong. It has been affected by the pea-brained ideologues with which you surround yourself at Fox News.

You claimed a week or so ago on your show, “The Kelly File,” that Santa, along with Jesus, is a white man. You said it was a verifiable fact that we all just need to accept – kind of like acknowledging that if your dad and granddad went to Yale, you’ll go there, too, regardless of how you score on the SAT.

I’m not even going to touch the Jesus comment, but I’ll let you do the math, Megyn.  Jesus was born in the Middle East, and by all accounts (and by all I mean the Old Testament,) his mother’s people were from the same general area. And his Dad’s peeps – well, I mean, his Dad was God. So it’s pretty safe to say that Jesus looked more like Omar Sharif than Orlando Bloom (yes, I know Omar Sharif is Egyptian, but you get my point.)

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Omar Sharif in his younger days

And I know that rationally, Santa Claus no doubt is white. He’s from northern Europe, right? Well, not so fast, Ms. Smartypants Kelly. St. Nicholas, the third-century bishop who lived in a small town in Turkey and who is Santa’s forebear, was Greek. He no doubt looked like this ancient painting of him:

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St. Nicholas

So, yes. He looks a little like Omar Sharif, too.

Not black, I know. But closer than the lily-white, red-suit-wearing jovial red-cheeked Santa from the Clement Clarke Moore poem and whom you, no doubt, invoked in scolding writer Aisha Harris for pining for a black Santa.

I’m here to set the record straight. Yes, Megyn, there is a Santa, and he (sometimes) is black.

One December day in 1979, my family drove north from our little town in southeast Missouri, searching for snow on our way to my grandparents’ house. In tow we had my 16-year-old cousin, a Florida native who wanted to see snow for Christmas. No luck in our part of the Midwest, so we headed north.

We stopped in St. Louis to show my cousin the big city and to see the lovely decorated windows at downtown stores like Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer and Fuller. At Famous, we set out to find Santa. My younger sister was 7, my older sister a jaded 15. I was 11 and still a believer.

Famous-Barr’s Santa held court at the end of a winding path through Candyland, full of toy trains and beautiful automated displays. As we inched nearer, I remember, my heart pounded, wondering if this was the year I’d get that coveted Tuesday Taylor doll whose scalp swiveled, allowing her to change from blond to brunette in seconds.

When we hit the front of the line, we hit a fork in the road. A nattily dressed elf asked whether we wanted a photo with Santa, and my parents declined. Not sure why – maybe we’d already seen Santa elsewhere. But when we said “no photo,” the elf pointed down one hall and said we could find Santa there.

So we filed down that hallway, turned a corner and went through a door and came face to face with Santa – a black Santa.

I remember the look on his face – utter surprise. Maybe that was aimed at us, because I’m sure the faces of my sisters and me (and maybe my Florida cousin, too,) registered complete and absolute shock.

We lived in a southern town where sharecroppers still existed. Black people and white people didn’t live in the same parts of town. They didn’t even go to the same churches.

Yet there we were, three little white girls and their Florida cracker cousin, climbing onto Santa’s lap and telling him our Christmas dreams.  It was just like all the other times we’d sat on Santa’s lap, only this time, Santa looked like Flip Wilson instead of Mickey Rooney.

So that was that. We promised to leave cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and bid Santa good-bye. He told us to be good.

And we were. And I did receive the Tuesday Taylor doll, who took up residence in the sorority house that was the Barbie Town House in my room.

And I frankly forgot the incident until recently, Megyn, when your ignorance caused my brain to cough up this memory.

So yes, Megyn, there is a black Santa Claus. And probably a Latino one and an Asian one, and maybe a redneck one, for all I know.

Why is the most wonderful time of year so depressing?

27 Nov

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I remember when I loved this time of year.

My memories of Thanksgiving are peppered with car trips literally over the river (either the Mississippi or Missouri, depending on which side of the family we were visiting) and through the woods to a grandmother’s house.

I close my eyes and can see through the VW van windows the trees rushing past, many still clinging to their golden and orange leaves, some already stark wintry silhouettes against a cloudy November sky.

My memories are of good smells and laughter, cheek pinches from elderly relatives we saw only once a year, too much pie and the dim roar of a parade or football game emanating from an ancient television.

My birthday fought with Thanksgiving for attention, and some years, they shared the day. Those were the special years, the years my mom would tell me the whole country was celebrating my birthday with a day off from work and school and a New York City parade to boot! I felt pretty special.

And then I grew up. And the grandmothers died, along with the other relatives we saw on Turkey Day. And it became not as much fun to mark each passing year, to realize I’m now the age my maternal grandmother was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

When November dawns each year, my heart feels heavy. I never wanted to feel this way, to struggle to celebrate the present because I can’t forget the past. I spend my working life now helping others leave their pasts behind so they can move forward, but I’m having a hard time doing that myself.

One thing my new career as a therapist has taught me is that I’m not alone is clinging to these idyllic visions of past holidays. Many folks wish for what they remember as the salad days, happier times when no one fought and the turkey was perfect and the whole scene looked like something out of a painting.

And for that, I’m blaming Norman Rockwell.

He’s an easy target. For one thing, I don’t know him personally. And for another, he’s dead.

But seriously – think about it. He painted scene after scene of an idealized America. His paintings showed the America we always wanted, and the one that stands out in my mind is that of the Thanksgiving holiday:

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This is what I think of when I remember my childhood holidays.

Yet a few weeks back, I heard an interesting story on NPR about Norman Rockwell, best known for his idyllic images of America that graced so many covers of the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell grew famous painting life in Stockbridge, Mass., which became a stand-in for Anytown, USA. The neighborly police officer. The schoolteacher. The kindly doctor. The postman.

Rockwell lived with his family in this quintessential New England town – that fact is well known. But what isn’t so well known is that he moved his family there so his wife, an alcoholic who also suffered from depression, could receive treatment at the Austen Riggs Institute, a psychiatric facility.

And Rockwell became an Austen Riggs client, too, seeking treatment from the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose Theory of Psychosocial Development became a cornerstone of the study of human behavior.

In the NPR story, author Deborah Solomon explains what Rockwell was doing when painted his famous depictions of American life: “”I think he painted a view of America as a caring, concerned place,” Solomon told NPR report Robert Siegel. “He certainly was not painting his own reality, but he was painting, I think, his longing.”

His longing is everyone’s longing, though. Don’t we all want to only remember the good times or think of life as it should be, not how it sometimes is?

This year, our immediate family had to change our Thanksgiving plans. For the past several years, we’ve had the main meal with my husband’s side of the family, then driven to my parents’ farm for the rest of the weekend.

But a variety of events conspired against us this year, and we aren’t going to the farm. Which was OK with my husband and me, since we could use the extra time at home to catch up. But our elder son expressed deep disappointment.

“Honey,” I said, trying to comfort him, “sometimes it’s crazy there. And it’ll be cold, and we’d all be stuck inside. Remember how you and your cousins sometimes fight?”
Nope, he said. He didn’t remember that at all. He just remembered the good times.

Which made me realize that’s what I’m doing, too. If I try really hard, I can remember the Thanksgivings past when we had some family debacle in the middle of dinner, or the time a distant uncle showed up drunk, or the year my mom dropped the turkey on the floor (much to my dad’s delight, since he can’t stand poultry anyway.)

Maybe Norman Rockwell had the right idea. Just long for the good times and try to forget the bad ones.

Think I’ll try that next year.

You don’t have to support this tax

10 Oct

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It’s difficult not to support raising money for research into curing our most horrible diseases.

After all, that’s like saying kittens are ugly or all those videos of laughing babies are time-suckers. I might as well start yelling, “Get off my lawn!” right now.

But sorry, folks, I cannot support the proposed half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 5 ballot in Jackson County. I’m not an anti-tax person. I rarely meet a tax I can’t get behind.

Except this one. It’s unfair, it’s regressive and it’s not the right tax.

The proposed 20-year sales tax would raise $800 million for translational medical research. “Translational” is defined as creating new drugs and devices to combat disease based on research. The Hall Family Foundation has promised $75 million toward the building of a new research facility at Children’s Mercy Hospital if the tax passes.

The Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures promises the tax money will:

  • Attract top research talent to the Kansas City area.
  • Create the Institute for Translational Medicine on Hospital Hill, a collaboration between Children’s Mercy, St. Luke’s Hospital System, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute.
  • Help the local economy by luring companies here and generating “hundreds of millions of dollars for our community.”

Sounds like a plan, right? Who doesn’t want to cure cancer?

I do, of course. I’m a huge fan of Children’s Mercy – the hubs and I write a check every month, paying off our kids’ latest ER visit. Love St. Luke’s, too. That’s where all my docs are. And both Matt and I are proud graduates of UMKC.

But I can’t support this tax because it’s unfair. It’s a tax ONLY for Jackson County – not the rest of the state or even the area. To be sure, Johnson County, Kan., has a similar tax, but it’s one-eighth of a cent. And the folks who dreamed up this current tax proposal – the elite Civic Council in Kansas City – are, I believe, out of touch with the real economic hardship a half-cent tax could wreak on the regular folk in Jackson County.

Let me throw these numbers at you (they’re from www.city-data.com; the U.S. Census website is offline because of the government shutdown):

  • 66208 – that’s the ZIP code in Johnson County where many Civic Council members live. While they might work in Jackson County, you can be certain they’re not buying their groceries or everyday living items in Jackson County.
  • $233,599 – that’s the 2011 median household income in Mission Hills, Kan., in the 66208 ZIP code, home to the Halls of the Hall Family Foundation and to several Civic Council members. The median per capita income there is $101,863.
  • $45,886 – that’s the 2009 median household income in Jackson County.
  • $41,487 – that’s the 2009 median household income in Independence.

Consider those numbers and decide for yourself who is hit harder by an increase in the sales tax – the person clearing $100,000 annually, or someone making less than half that?

A sales tax is regressive – it hurts those with lower incomes far worse than those at the upper end. Unlike property taxes, which rise with a property’s worth, sales taxes are blind – they are tacked onto purchases regardless of who’s purchasing.

And should a government that’s already spread too thin trying to pay for roads, infrastructure, parks and facilities even get into the research game? Isn’t that best left to the private sector? Who will own the patents on the research that’s generated here? Who gets that income?

I’m sorry, Civic Council. I applaud your intent, but there’s got to be a better way.

My friend and former Kansas City Star colleague Jim Fitzpatrick of Kansas City has some ideas. He’s started the Committee to Stop a Bad Cure (which I have joined – full disclosure.) At stopabadcure.org, you can read about his research on this tax proposal and his alternative idea:

The Hall Family Foundation, instead of challenging taxpayers to fund this research, should issue that challenge to corporations, foundations and the wealthy (hello, Civic Council members…) to raise the money the tax would raise. With private money raised, the county could seek a much smaller sales-tax increase of one-eighth cent for 15 years.

And that would leave some wiggle room for light-rail proponents to ask voters in the future to approve a sales tax that would pay for much-needed upgrades to our public transportation – which would help everyone from low-income fast-food workers to corporate executives to those who make their money from tourism.

It’s a win-win.

Life on the launching pad

12 Sep

Our oldest is a senior in high school.

As the hubs and I navigate these uncharted (for us) waters, we find ourselves focusing on every “last” event. The last first day of high school. The last band show. The last back-to-school night.

We will drive ourselves batty if we don’t stop, but how can we? We look at our oldest, and all we see is the chubby little baby we brought home from the hospital 17 years ago.

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But now, along with the lasts, we’re dealing with the firsts, too. These are a little easier to handle, though, since with Joe, life has always been full of firsts.

He was the first baby. The first child we potty trained. The first kid to get braces.

Last weekend, the hubs helped Joe submit his first college application, to the University of Missouri, our alma mater. We hold no illusions that he’ll end up there; he’s told us it’s a little too big for his taste. But he humored us, as all good kids do their parents, and dutifully applied to Ol’ Mizzou.

After they completed the online application, Joe wandered off, no doubt texting a buddy or his girlfriend to tell them what dorks his parents are. Matt came into the kitchen, where I was folding clothes.

“I can’t believe our baby just applied to MU,” he said, a little emotionally. “Where did the time go?”

I felt the same. All those years when Joe and his siblings were babies and toddlers and preschoolers – while they were happening, they seemed so long. The nights were so long. Some days were, too.

And then – blip. They’re gone. And here we are.

I nodded sympathetically.

What makes this even more emotional for us, though, is that we know how much our boy has overcome. Not as much as some kids, to be sure. He’s not homeless. He hasn’t lost a parent. He’s not chronically ill.

But from the get-go, Joe was a sensitive soul, full of anxiety. I was, too, and I remember holding him as an infant, willing myself to calm down so my baby would be calm, too. But I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was scared I’d break him.

Childhood was sometimes fraught with peril for Joe. We watched as he navigated things that caused him angst, rites of passage that didn’t throw his younger siblings or his cousins for a loop. We sought professional help and learned to help him develop the calming skills he needed.

And we watched when he wasn’t always able to implement what he had learned. It’s painful to watch your child learn from natural consequences, even as you know it’s the best way.

Elementary school was rough at times, but with each passing year, Joe matured and learned from his past. And he paved the way for his sister and brother, who don’t share his disposition but who nonetheless benefitted from the trail he blazed.

Now he’s facing his first jumping-off point, and we hope and pray he’ll be able to use those skills he’s learned over the years as he takes his first steps into adulthood. He’s grown into such a great kid. I know all parents say that, and I hope they all mean that. I am proud of my son for the person he has grown into despite his parents’ ineptitude and because of the strength of his character. If he weren’t my kid, I’d still want to know him.

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When I think of him leaving for college in less than a year, all I picture is the little boy I took to kindergarten in August 2001. He was scared. I could see it in his eyes. But he was brave, mostly for his dad and me, I know now.

He found his desk that day and waved good-bye. I went out into the hallway and waited where he couldn’t see me. I wanted to make sure he didn’t cry.

His bottom lip quivered. He wanted to cry. But he stood tall as the principal announced on the intercom that it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance. He never looked back, even though I’m sure that he knew I was there watching, praying and crying just a little.

This time next year, he’ll be gone, having left willingly to spread his wings. But I’ll still be there, watching to make sure everything’s all right.

And I think he knows that, too.

The mysterious case of the Dinner Plate Dahlias

21 Aug

It has come to my attention that perhaps I watch too many crime shows.

I reached that conclusion after the recent destruction of my prize dahlias.

These lovely yellow flowers produce blooms the size of dinner plates – hence the name, Dinner Plate Dahlia. I am appropriately self-deprecating about the lovely blooms these bulbs produce, acting as if it’s nothing when in reality I have lovingly pruned and fertilized and babied these beauties.

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“Oh, it’s nothing,” I have said, smiling smugly.

Well, in reality, it is nothing, because not only did I just toss these bulbs – which my friend Cynthia gave me – into the flower bed outside my side door but I also did that in spring 2012. Yes, these bulbs should not have made it through the strange winter of 2012-2013 to bloom another summer.

But they did. And they are miracles. And I will take all the credit, which is, after all, the American Way.

Now these dahlias reside, along with some other miracle plants like the Gerbera daisy of 2003, which comes back year after year, and last year’s annual purple salvia, in a small flower bed outside my side door, next to my driveway. Also taking up space there are a couple grape tomato plants because it’s the only consistently sunny spot in our yard.

Anywho. The basketball goal also is in the driveway, as basketball goals are wont to be. This has been a bone of contention for many years.

Often I have found the tomatoes threatened by a wayward basketball, or the rudbeckia Goldsturm west of the door along the driveway bent down by a playground ball or hastily discarded basketball.

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In early August, in fact, I completely embarrassed my 17-year-old son and his soccer friends by frequently interrupting their basketball game to warn them about the consequences of messing with my flowers.

Mama has a long fuse, but it ain’t that long, people.

So on the evening before the first day of school, the hubs and I took the kiddos to eat their last supper before heading back to the salt mines. We got home about dusk.

As I approached my side door, I saw this:

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And this:

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I stopped and stared. Each of my children gaped, wide-eyed, at the carnage, then turned slowly to look at me. Almost in unison, they declared their innocence.

Well, of course, they didn’t do this. We were gone. And when we’d left home at 5:45 p.m., the three dahlias stood tall, their ginormous blooms smiling at me.

Now, they were bent toward the driveway, their sturdy stalks bent and broken.

There were several suspects, most of them relatives. I grabbed my cell phone and started dialing.

It was so strange. Each of my three nephews had been playing basketball on the driveway, they said, but none had seen anyone trampling the flowers. Unless it was the two little neighbor boys. Yeah. It could have been them. But maybe not. Gee, they were sorry.

It was a case for Unsolved Mysteries. Or maybe Dateline: NBC. Or Major Crimes. Or Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

The next morning, my youngest and I headed to my parents for the annual back-to-school breakfast my mom prepares. She’s done this for years, sending her grandkids in grade school back to class with a hearty breakfast in their stomachs. This year, there are only two youngsters left who don’t leave before 7:30 a.m.: my younger son and my youngest nephew.

He’s a genial sort, loquacious to the nth degree. If you want to find out any scoop on anyone who lives on our block, you just ask this fellow the right question, and BOOM! You know about it. He’s like our own personal town crier.

So I pulled my best Brenda Leigh Johnson and prepared for some answers.

As my nephew gobbled up his French toast, I made small talk about first grade and recess and what have you. Then I pounced.

“Hey,” I said, “you know those giant yellow flowers that grow by my driveway?”

“Yep,” he said, shoving a forkful of syrupy bread into his mouth.

“It’s so weird,” I said. “When we got home last night from dinner, those flowers were knocked over. Broken. And I found a green-and-purple rubber ball stuck back in the tomatoes.”

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“Hmm….,” he said, continuing to eat.
I paused. You have to let the silence do its work.

“Say,” I said, “what do you think happened?”

Fork in the air as if he were thinking really hard, he puckered his forehead. Then he looked at me.

“I know,” he said.

YES!! I thought. I KNEW I could’ve been a cop.

“You do?” I asked, all Brenda Leigh-like.

“Yep,” he said, picking up a piece of bacon. “It was the wind.”

Yeah….only there wasn’t any wind.

But I didn’t bother.

Each day after that, my flower bed suffered assaults, all mysterious, all without witness. It’s as if there’s a vandal specifically targeting my side flower bed for destruction.

My family tires of my complaining about such a first-world problem. One of my elders suggested that perhaps I should move the dahlias. Others maintain that someday, there will be no kids playing in my driveway and I can grow all the darned flowers I want there.

Sure, they’re right. I certainly don’t want to go all “GET OFF MAHHH LAWN!!!” on any young ‘uns.

However, when a body has asked and asked if the kiddos will be more careful and the basketball goal is MOVABLE, for Christ’s sake, I think I have a right to be upset when my flowers are destroyed.

So today, I struck first. I grabbed my pruners and cut most of the plants waaaaaaaayyyy back. Then I watered the bejesus out of them.

And I hid all the basketballs. For now.

Stop the competition already

29 Jul

These days, I pretty much get all my news from Facebook.

Probably what happens when you ditch journalism. I am no longer beholden to getting all my news from the New York Times and other erudite sources. Now that I’m no longer an official member of the Fourth Estate, I can start quoting sites like the Huffington Post and (gasp!) Yahoo news.

So that’s how I came across this little gem (click here.)

New moms are getting spray-tanned, made up, etc., while or shortly before they go into labor so they look awesome in the inevitable Facebook and Twitter photos.

And we wonder why other countries hate the United States.

Seriously. As if women needed another venue in which to compete with each other. I am so over this I’m about to go all Jamie Lee Curtis and stop dyeing my hair and start eating that yogurt that makes you poop.

As a female human, I have been dealing with this idiotic competiveness since I was born. However, I didn’t pay much attention to it until I was in my early 20s. That’s about the time I was graduating from college and getting married.

You know how we women like to one-up each other with our weddings. No need to rehash that one since Bridezillas does it most nights on cable. I was in a lot of weddings back then. I’m not even sure how many times I was a bridesmaid or how many taffeta dresses of differing colors still hang in the back of my closet.

But it was a lot. And I observed a lot. And so by the time I got married the summer after the hubs and I graduated college, I knew what I wanted our wedding to look like.

But really, that was just the beginning of the ongoing reality show of life. We were still newlyweds when the hubs joined a softball league with some buddies he’d known in high school and college. I was a newspaper reporter by then, but on nights I didn’t work, I dutifully sat on the bleachers and watched a bunch of guys play slow-pitch.

I didn’t know many folks and was lonely for friends, so I generally sat amongst the other girlfriends and wives.

Oy vey. It was an education.

Two of the women talked of nothing but trying to get pregnant, who was pregnant, what they were going to name their as-yet unconceived babies, what the nurseries would look like, what kind of car they needed to cart the infants around, buying a house, buying a bigger house, blah, blah, blah. It was exhausting to listen to. This must be what it feels like to be brainwashed, I thought.

And the one time I tried to change the subject to, I don’t know, the 1992 election, they looked at me like I was speaking some weird Balkan language.

So then a few years later, most of our married friends started actually having babies. Like good childless friends, we visited them in the hospital. For the ones we were especially close to – there were maybe two – we even sat in the waiting room until the babies popped out.

That’s when I learned about how you know if your kiddo is exceptional from the minute he or/and she is born: the Apgar score.

Apgar. What is it? The hubs and I looked at each other. One mom saw our confusion and explained that it’s the first test a child ever is given and proves whether the baby is alert. She said “alert” with a certain gleam in her eye, which I took to mean, “My baby is smarter than any kids of yours can ever hope to be.”

So, of course, by the time I actually became pregnant with our own little kiddo, I was all stoked about the Apgar. But then I started to realize that the Apgar would likely be affected by how I chose to give birth. And by how, I mean what childbirth method I used and whether I received an epidural to numb the excruciating pain that comes from forcing something the size of a watermelon through a hole the size of a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

One well-meaning friend suggested against Lamaze because the father wasn’t involved enough. She said that to the 27-year-old version of me, who thought, but did not say out loud, that probably the father had already been involved quite enough, thank you very much. (For the record, the 44-year-old version of me would just say it out loud. And for the record, three epidurals AND three Apgar scores of 9. Ahem.)

A new baby presents many, many opportunities for competition, from whether and how long you breastfeed to when and how many words the kiddo can say before he or she turns a year old to how much you spend on daycare (“OMG, it’s like my whole check goes to the Montessori. But it’s worth it if little Haven can speak French and Spanish at 3, right?”)

I could go on and on. However, the older I get, the less I’m generally inclined to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the uber-competitive mommies I encounter, mainly because I just don’t give a !@#$% anymore.

More women should adopt this attitude because frankly, this competition over stuff that doesn’t really matter is killing us, making us strive for a perfection we can never attain. We have only ourselves to blame, too.

Sprays tan or new ‘do while you’re in labor? I can’t imagine anything worse. Here’s a photo of me in labor with my first child.

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Don’t ask.

If you would have come at with some self-tanner or a hair dryer, I would have cut you.

Use Paula for good

30 Jun

paula

Paula, Paula, Paula.

What were you thinking?

Clearly, Paula Deen wasn’t using her brain when she talked to that attorney who was deposing her. I mean, she definitely didn’t spend a lot of time working on spin.

Otherwise, pretty sure she would have come up with a better answer than the one she gave when the lawyer asked whether Ms. Bacon-wrapped Doughnut ever used the N word or any other racial slur.

“Of course,” she said, and the country erupted in riots all over social media.

At least give Paula points for honesty.

This situation presents an interesting opportunity for the rest of us to engage in dialogue about race and language and understanding, but the cynic in me thinks it’s doubtful any real change will come about because of Paula Deen’s racist utterings, be they past or present. She’s lost a dozen business deals in the last two weeks, as businesses from Wal-Mart to Smithfield Ham to the Food Network drop her like a twice-baked shrimp-stuffed baked potato.

But here’s the thing, people. This whole deal, erupting like a chocolate volcano cake, shouldn’t surprise anyone who either grew up in the South or pays a modicum of attention to race relations in the United States.  Just because Americans can elect an African-American president does not equate to the end of all racial issues in the United States. We aren’t “over” racism because it’s so insidiously present in most aspects of American life.

For parts of this country, it’s not so readily apparent. There’s a lot of political correctness going on all over the place, a lot of righteous indignation. But while everyone’s up in arms over Georgia restaurant-owner/TV chef/cookbook author Paula Deen performing a mea culpa, the Supreme Court of the United States basically threw out the Voting Rights Act. Which one of those acts does greater harm to minorities?

Not that I’m minimizing the whole Paula thing. I’m just not surprised that she said and did those things. I’m not condoning it, but it doesn’t destroy my image of the Southern-fried cook because I just assumed she thought and acted that way.

I’m basing that, naturally, on my own experiences growing up in the mid-South.

I grew up in a small town in southern Missouri. There were equivalent numbers of whites and African Americans living there, but society was anything but equal. When I was a kid, black families only lived in certain parts of town. Schools had not been integrated for too many years when I started kindergarten. When my parents moved there, a nice older lady sent her black maid over to my parents’ house to help my mom, and then advised Mom to hire her own maid so everyone would know what rung of the social ladder she occupied.

Folks of different races got along in that town, and still do, but for many, it’s an uneven relationship. It’s paternalistic, magnanimous, a landowner-sharecropper situation. Not unlike how Paula Deen herself no doubt feels about many of her African-American employees. She likes them, she respects them, but she really doesn’t consider them her equal.

It’s easy for those in ivory towers to say that slavery ended more than 100 years ago – get over it. But it’s hard to get over it when the oppression is so much a part of the system, and this is what drove Paula Deen.

It explains why she didn’t put any spin on her honest answer to the attorney who deposed her for that discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit. She can’t understand how she is part of the oppression.

For that, I feel sorry for Paula. She really doesn’t understand how just by virtue of being born white, she enjoys privilege. I believe her when she says she never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings or offend anyone and that she’s appalled that others think she would act that way.

She didn’t and doesn’t make racist comments to be racist. She has said them because that’s so much a part of her Southern identity, just like corn casserole and fried chicken.

It doesn’t make it right. It will never be right.

The better response for all those companies who are firing Paula Deen? Band together to mount an educational campaign. Teach those who’ve never lived it up close about systemic oppression and racism.

Fight ignorance with information and teach America a few things.

Charms of the boating life

18 Jun

sun on boatWe are boat people.

Well, to be honest, one of us is a boat person. Or, to be more precise, wants to be a boat person.

That would be the hubs. He became the captain of his own one-boat fleet five years ago, and ever since, he and the kids have had a fairly good time about twice a summer, once the boat is unfettered by its trailer and me, the fun sucker of the family.

Hey, someone has to do it. And I can’t get the memories of previous voyages out of my head. Trips such as this one, which I blogged about several summers ago.

This summer, as usual, we took the boat to the northern Missouri lake we frequent infrequently. We generally make it there over Memorial Day weekend, when the rest of my extended family visits my parents’ farm in Brookfield.

Last summer, we actually took the boat to Longview Lake for Joe’s birthday, taking him and some friends tubing. Putting the boat in the water there is a little stressful, what with the large numbers of other weekend water crafters waiting to plunk theirs in, too. For the life of me, I could not back the Suburban and boat trailer down the steep ramp, having instead to rely on one of Joe’s buddies, a 16-year-old boy, to back it down for me.

This year, though, when we made it to Lake Nehai we were looking practically like pros. We didn’t inflate the tube until we got to the little country store across the road from the boat ramp. While the hubs filled up the three-person tube, the kids and I went into the little store and bought sodas, snacks and two bags of ice at highly inflated prices.

Finally, we were ready and headed for the boat ramp. Our timing was perfect – no one ahead of us, no one waiting. Matt backed the truck and trailer toward the water, put the Suburban in park and hopped out. He climbed into the boat and instructed me to back the trailer into the water. Like the good little boaters they are, the kids told me when we’d gone far enough. I turned off the trucked and hopped out, and Maggie and I unclipped the boat’s bow from the trailer.

We pushed it a little and waited for it to set adrift. Matt turned on the motor and revved it a little, but the boat went nowhere.

We were perplexed. What was going on?

“It’s like it’s still connected to the trailer,” I said. “That’s weird.”

Matt grimaced. “I forgot to unclip the belts on the back of the boat,” he said. “It is still connected to the trailer. Pull it out.”

So I jumped back into the truck and pulled forward enough for him to unhook the back end. I had to pull it far enough out that backing it in was a doozy. It took me two or three tries and stops to remember that I had to turn the steering wheel the opposite direction of where I wanted the trailer to go.

It was starting to feel like last year all over again.

Eventually, the trailer made it back in to the water, we unhooked the bow, and Matt was off. While he and kids docked the boat and attached the tube, I parked the truck and trailer.

Life on Lake Nehai

Life on Lake Nehai

Two of the kids decided to stay on shore and fish a while, so four kids and I joined Matt in the boat. Two of them hopped onto the tube, and away we went for a nice, leisurely jaunt around the little lake. It was a glorious 30 minutes or so, and then Maggie and her BFF decided it was their turn in the tube. My niece stayed into, too, but Tom jumped back into the boat.

He doesn’t weigh much, and with two teen agers in the tube, the boat had a hard time planing. Matt assured Tom we weren’t going to capsize, but he was scared. Petrified, really, as he huddled on the boat’s floor in the fetal position.

I didn’t much like the ride, either, so I told Matt to take Tom and me to shore, where Joe and his cousin were finished fishing (nothing was biting) and could take our places in the boat.

When we docked, Tom and I climbed out, and the two boys got in. Matt took off.

jumping off boatTom asked for the keys to the Suburban; he thought he’d left his iPod in there. I gave him the keys with a stern warning: Don’t lock them in the truck. The other set was in the Suburban in my purse.

He headed up the hill, and I sat down on the dock to sunbathe. Pretty soon a pontoon boat full of fairly inebriated folks headed toward the dock. Most of the five occupants disembarked to use the portable toilet near the boat ramp. We chatted amiably about whether a storm was brewing as dark clouds gathered to the north of the lake.

Then they left. And I waited. And I realized that Tom had been gone a long time. The city girl in me wondered if he’d been kidnapped, but the more practical maternal side had another foreboding thought.

I took off up the hill. When I reached the Suburban, I found Tom with a stick in his hand, trying to pick the lock on the driver’s door.

“Stop!” I said. “What happened?”

He hung his head and told me he’d locked the keys in the car. He’d been in the back and thought he saw a ginormous spider, so he jumped out and slammed the door shut, leaving the keys and forgetting that he’d already hit “lock” on the key fob so he wouldn’t forget to lock the truck when he left. Tears stained his dirty little face.

I just sighed. Was I surprised? Not in the least.

I headed to the guardhouse to see if they had a phonebook. For once, I gave thanks for my mobile phone. Eventually, I reached AAA Missouri, who promised me a) Tom wasn’t the first kid to try to pick a car lock with a stick and b) a guy with a Slim Jim would be there in 30 minutes to two hours.

It was more like 90 minutes by the time the country mechanic from Meadville, a town about 45 miles away, made it to the lake.

He had the Suburban unlocked in about 20 seconds.

I thanked him profusely and headed back to the dock to wait. Eventually, the boat returned, and the kids said they were bushed and ready to head back to the farm.

I’d been on the water all of 30 minutes the whole day.

But the Captain was happy, and his little crew of kids and cousins was worn out. And I guess that’s about all you can ask for when you’re a weekend warrior.

Make a difference for Lucas

22 May

Last fall, I read with dismay the news of 4-year-old Lucas Webb’s death, purportedly at the hands of his parents. And now I read with equal horror that workers with the Missouri Children’s Division had failed to remove the boy from his father and stepmother, even after repeated calls to the Child Abuse Hotline by daycare workers.

lucas barnes webb

Lucas Barnes Webb,
courtesy of The Kansas City Star

The knee-jerk reaction likely will be to blame the child service workers and the Department of Social Services. To be sure, mistakes were made, and the state already has fired two workers involved in the case. Surely there will be calls to crucify others.

But that will be the incorrect response to such a tragedy. If you’re outraged and want to make a difference to ensure that young Lucas didn’t die in vain, you should turn your ire toward the Missouri General Assembly. Ask your legislators how they justify spending much of the precious five-month session, year after year, debating how to curtail abortion, or setting up roadblocks for women seeking birth control, or slowly but surely dismantling the state’s safety net for those living in poverty.

Or spending time on frivolous legislation, such as passing a bill allowing drivers to show proof of insurance by smart phone.

Instead, legislators should turn their attention to taking care of the children who already are here, who live in Missouri. Thousands live at or below the poverty line. Our representatives and senators don’t seem to care about those children, though. How else to explain the continual cuts to services that benefit them, such as Head Start and Medicaid, the elementary and secondary education budget  and, yes, the Children’s Division?

Please, be angry about Lucas Webb’s death. Be very angry. And then do something about it. Contact your state representative and senator and demand that they address the systemic breakdown that ultimately caused Lucas Webb’s death. For a list of Missouri legislators, go to www.house.mo.gov or www.senate.mo.gov.

If Kim Kardashian legally can marry, everyone should be able to

27 Mar

rings

It’s so good to know that people change and evolve over time.

In my graduate classes, we talk often about the capacity to change and grow. That’s a tenet of social work, that people can reach self-actualization – their full potential. We have to believe that people can do this for society to move forward.

But it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook and another thing entirely to see it in yourself or someone really close to you.

For the past few days, most discerning eyes and ears in this country have been riveted to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the nine justices have been hearing arguments on two cases regarding who has the ability legally to get married in this country. On Tuesday, the justices heard arguments about the California law, Proposition 8, that disallows gays and lesbians from marrying. On Wednesday, it was the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1990s-era law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Talk of this case is everywhere you turn – newspapers, broadcast news, magazines, sitcoms, dramas, movies, the salon, the teachers’ lounge. You can’t get away from it.

So on Tuesday, as my 10-year-old was eating breakfast, he watched as talking heads on the Today show discussed what might or might not happen at the Supreme Court.

“That’s so dumb,” he said between bites of his Nutella waffle. “People should be able to get married.”

I agreed.

“Yep,” I said. “I think people should be able to marry whomever they fall in love with, just like your dad and I did.”

But as I said those words, it hit me that I hadn’t always held such a clear-cut opinion on the matter. For years, I just didn’t think about it one way or the other.

I can so clearly see myself at about 4, following my pregnant mother through the short aisles of a little family-owned grocery in my hometown. I don’t know what possessed me, but as we neared the butcher counter at the back of the store, I asked really loudly, “Mom, can two girls get married to each other?”

My mom froze, then continued walking and said, “No.” She said it in such a tone that I knew better than to ask why. So I didn’t.

And truthfully, I didn’t think about it again until I was an adult – and then only because of DOMA.

Yet that piece of legislation, flawed as it is, opened my eyes to those around me who couldn’t lawfully marry their true loves because they happened to be the same gender – a reporter at my newspaper, a photographer I knew, a shoestring relative, a neighbor.

Each time I learned another person I knew was enduring this systemic discrimination, my view of marriage came into sharper focus, like my worldview was being refracted.

I wonder if that’s how it happened for my dad.

See, on Tuesday night, he and I sat next to each other at a concert at my kids’ high school. As the orchestra left the stage and the choir prepared to take it, we made idle conversation. In time, of course, it turned to the topic before the Supreme Court.

My 73-year-old dad said the arguments against allowing gay people to marry are unfounded.

“It’s just cultural,” he said. “They say marriage is between one man and one woman. But in other countries, you can have one man and four women. “

He’s got a point. And he made another cogent one when he said that many of those who oppose same-sex marriage are basing their logic on the Bible and religious teachings, nothing else. They need to be honest about it, he said.

But what a difference 25 years makes. My dad, while never homophobic, didn’t exactly preach marriage for all when he was raising his kids. I’m not sure he personally knew anyone who was out of the closet until he was in his 40s or 50s.

Attitudes change when the abstract becomes concrete, though. It’s easy to dismiss people en masse but less so when you work with them and go to church with them and sit on the sidelines of soccer games with them.

These days, almost every heterosexual I know has a homosexual friend or family member who is out of the closet. The times are changing.

And my dad’s viewpoint has changed, too. A few weeks back, he and my mom met an old friend one Sunday at a funky Kansas City brunch joint. Their friend was in town visiting her son and his partner, who live around the corner from the restaurant. Mom and Dad told me all about the son’s gorgeous old rehabbed house, his success as a teacher, the ginormous dogs he and his partner have.

They might as well have been talking about meeting anyone for lunch, which is as it should be. The times are changing. And they’re changing fast.

That’s what dad said as the lights went down before the choir took the stage for its performance.

“The main reason these guys give for not allowing gays and lesbians to marry is that it’s a change that’s happening too quickly,” he said. “But doesn’t that define conservatism – not wanting any change to happen?

“It’s happening,” he said.

It’s about time.

Community organizing: The power of working together

23 Feb

Man, am I ever glad that Snowmageddon didn’t happen LAST week.

That’s because on Valentine’s Day, fourth graders from Bryant Elementary School in Independence took Jefferson City by another kind of storm.

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Here’s a shot of the kiddos just after arriving in Jefferson City.

Thanks to all the generous folks who donated money, time and energy, fourth-grade parents raised enough funds to rent a charter bus (complete with a bathroom and DVD player!) from Arrow Stage Lines, buy each fourth grader a screen-printed T-shirt to wear to the capitol, buy snacks for the trip, purchase each child a souvenir from the capitol and treat each of the 29 students who made the trip to a buffet dinner on the way home.

In fact, let me just stop right here and say thanks to the Bryant parents who made the trip happen – Melissa, Stefania, Babette, Rod, Cody, Kristen, Erica, Frances – as well as Corporate Copy Print, Allen’s Banquet Hall, the Independence School District Foundation, Reps. Ira Anders and John Mayfield and the many other parents who allowed their kiddos to make the trip.

I couldn’t be prouder of this community of parents and their supporters, who demonstrated true community organizing as they planned this trip. It was textbook, just like something I’d learn in one of my social work classes.

In late December, parents met to decide how to solve their problem: They wanted their kids to visit the capitol, but the school said the trip wasn’t possible this year. Parents decided they wanted to see what they could do to make the trip a reality.

A meeting in early January attracted more parents and sealed the deal – the trip would happen if parents could just come up with the more than $1,000 needed to rent the bus. Suddenly, every parent at the meeting mobilized. Fund-raising ideas flew around the room, mingling with suggestions of how to get the word out.

Within a week, the rummage sale was on. Division of labor occurred organically, with parents taking on jobs that matched their strengths. It was a marvel to behold.

And at the end of a very long day, the parents had enough money to give those kids the best trip ever.

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The T-shirts were particularly awesome.

I’m not particularly prone to belief in the extraordinary, but this trip was meant to be. The weather was extra-perfect for February. Everyone – more than 50 people – was on time. We made it to Jeff without any hitches and made every tour with ease.

The kiddos met three local state representatives – Rep. Noel Torpey met them at lunch – and their Supreme Court tour guide, John Constance, told them he’s a product of the Independence School District, sewing that all-important seed of possibility in the young minds.

On the way home, we stopped in Columbia at a huge Chinese buffet restaurant that will never be the same.

I’m pretty sure each one of the 29 kids used the bathroom on the bus at least twice.

By the time we rolled up in front of Bryant, it was after 8 p.m. The kids and parents quickly dispersed to enjoy the rest of the President’s Day break, and my husband, 10-year-old and I headed for home. I asked our son if he’d had a good day.

“It was the best day of my life,” he said, “next to the day I was born.”

That’s pretty darn cool.

Jeff City or bust!!!

26 Jan

I have this dream.

It started two years ago, when my niece’s fourth-grade class at Bryant Elementary School in Independence did not make the trip to Jefferson City as the capstone of a months-long lesson about Missouri history.

I don’t remember the reasons Maureen’s class didn’t make the mostly annual sojourn, just that the kiddos were sorely disappointed. And so were their parents, who didn’t realize the trip was a no-go until too late to do anything about it. My sister and brother-in-law took Maureen to Jefferson City themselves that summer.

My dream grew in intensity last August, when my youngest child entered fourth grade. He’d looked toward the school year with anticipation after the grade ahead of him resumed the annual Jeff trip in May 2012.

And when I and other parents were told early last semester that the fourth grade once again likely wouldn’t go to the state’s capital city – this time because the trip would take away from prepping for the state assessments – my dream intensified, nagging, pushing through my other thoughts, needling me like a splinter stuck in my sock during a 5K.

My dream, folks, is that all Independence fourth graders get the chance to journey to the center of our great state for their first up-close glimpse of participatory government.

On the surface, maybe, it seems frivolous. What’s the big deal about taking a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds to Jefferson City? It means waking up before the chickens to get your kid to school to catch the bus, sack lunch in tow. It means a good three hours on a bus with a bunch of exuberant kids who know every line to several episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. It means giving up a day of your own time to go see things you (hopefully) learned about years ago.

Yep, the fourth-grade trip to Jeff is all those things. But it’s also this: The chance to make a favorable impression on young minds still idealistic enough to believe that this great democratic experiment we have going in the United States is working.

The trip to Jefferson City offers a chance for jaded adults to see awe and wonder again as the children gaze upward at the beautiful rotunda of the capitol or look down upon the General Assembly as members bustle in and out of chambers, going about their work; as they listen to the stories of how one governor’s wife saved the executive mansion; as they think that they, too, could one day, if they worked hard enough, earn a seat on the state’s highest court.

But more than that, it’s a chance for us as adults to model for our children the importance of civic duty – of knowing who represents our voices in government, of speaking up when we don’t agree, of learning about how our country works.

This is our job. If we don’t teach them, who will?

Back to my dream. From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Allen’s Banquet Hall at 11330 E. Truman Road in Independence, a bunch of parents who share my dream are mounting a huge rummage sale to raise money to pay for their fourth graders to make that trip.

This year, it’s one school.

My dream? Next year, all 18 of them.

What should we do for MLK Jr. Day?

7 Jan

Last year, in an effort to make the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday count for something more than mid-January sales, the hubs, kids and I spent a few hours volunteering at Harvesters, the food bank. After a short presentation about food insecurity, we went to work boxing up food that would be delivered to food pantries.

Hey, we’re not saints, people. It’s a national initiative called the Day of Service. You’re supposed to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive, step outside your comfort zone and work to effect change in your community. Click here for more info.

My kids loved it, and the experience sort of led them to volunteer in similar areas over the last year. So this year, as the holiday approaches, they said they’d like to go back to Harvesters.

Only Harvesters told me today that it’s too late to sign up to volunteer there on Jan. 21. They’re fully booked, they said, but we could come back another day.

Well, we don’t have another weekday. So we’re looking for something else meaningful to do that day to commemorate Dr. King’s work and to expand our knowledge of the needs in our community. And we’re looking for suggestions.

If you’ve got some ideas — serious ones, please — leave them at the bottom of this post. I’ll let you know later this month what we end up doing.

And if you haven’t already, consider marking MLK Day yourself by doing something for others.

No, thanks. I don’t want to smell like I’m hung over.

13 Dec

So I’m in the throes of my yearly panic also known as “holiday shopping” when I hear on the morning news that Pizza Hut has come out with a fragrance.

Now, some lucky gift recipients on my list will be receiving some cologne or eau de parfum, to be sure.

But do I really want to give them something that will make them reek like they just got finished working an 11-to-7 at a fast-food pizza chain? That’s not exactly the mood I’m looking to evoke.

When I was a kid, my dad regularly gave my mom fancy perfumes for gift-giving occasions. She had a dresser-top full of luscious scents with exotic names like Opium and White Shoulders and Paloma Picasso. She had a bottle of Chanel No. 5 amongst the lovelies on her dresser, and each day that I was in high school, I spritzed something precious and expensive-smelling on my pulse points before I headed out the door.

To me, receiving expensive perfume reeks of specialness and decadence. So no. I will not be purchasing anything that makes anyone smell like mass-produced pizza.

Besides, there are so many choices nowadays. Have you been in the cosmetics department of any department store lately? Or how about an airport duty-free shop?

The choices are many, however, but the quality is meh. I mean, these days anyone can have a fragrance named after them.

Hey, who wants to smell like this chick?

Hey, who wants to smell like this chick?

Seriously. Consider an article I read last week in The New York Times. There, big and bold on page E3 of the Thursday Styles section, was a photo of Nicole Polizzi hawking her signature scent at a New York boutique.

That’s right, folks. Snooki has a scent.

Ewwww.

Guess who else has a fragrance bottled up? Lady Gaga. I’m thinking there might be a bit of a bacon bouquet to that one. And who knows what else.

How about Nicki Minaj? You wanna buy a perfume with her name on it? I’m not sure what that one smells like.

Kat Von D, the tattoo artist, has her own fragrance. Hmmmm. So does Paris Hilton.

Are these ladies known for their nice scents?

Even Ke$ha has her own perfume. It’s named after another word for a female dog. Nice. I’ll bet it smells like a meth lab.

Why can’t George Clooney put his name on a cologne? Or get behind a pefume, like his buddy Brad Pitt is for Chanel?

I digress.

These second-rate celebs think slapping their names on fragrances is the next step in their branding scheme. Consider Ms. Polizzi’s assessment of her fragrance, as reported in that New York Times story: “[Snooki] said her new scent has notes like apple blossom and so-called cashmere woods, ‘which I thought sounded classy.’ “

That’s “classy” with a “K.”

 

Voices from the past, loud and clear

1 Nov

I’ve been feeling my age lately.

I know, I know. I’ve written about this before. Same story, different issue.

But this time, I’m walking around on a cranky knee, watching my 16-year-old son make mature decisions regarding his future, marveling at my 15-year-old daughter fixing a meal for her younger brother, beaming as my 10-year-old readies himself for his part in the chorus of a high school musical.

Some days, the hubs and I actually have time alone before the sun goes down because the three kids are busy with their own lives, which are becoming increasingly more tangential, less congruent, to ours.

Time marches on.

And then in the mail the other day arrived a letter from my aunt.

That right there was unusual – getting an actual letter instead of an e-mail? How old school.

And what was inside was even more so. My sweet aunt – my dad’s sister – had photocopied some letters her father wrote her mother before the two ever married, when they were just a couple of crazy 20-somethings. A note was attached:  “Hope you can read this letter from Navy to Loie,” wrote Aunt Mimi. “Some things are different in this century and some are the same.”

Hmmm, I thought. Intriguing.

The date on the first letter was Richmond, Calif., July 19, 1933.

Now, I had a bit of an idea what this was about. When I was a high school sophomore, I had to write an oral history on an older adult. Lucky for me, my paternal grandparents were visiting my southeast Missouri hometown for the Christmas holidays. I asked my grandpa if he’d let me interview him, and he agreed. We spent several hours talking, me with pen and notebook in hand, my grandpa with an ornery look in his eye. Sometimes during the interview, I wondered if he were pulling my leg with his stories.

Because I’d never in my 16 years heard the stories he told: Of his days in the U.S. Navy in the early 1920s, picking up dead soldiers from Central America, spending time in port in San Diego, going to college as an “older man” in his mid-20s, which earned him the nickname “Navy.”

Navy

College is where he met my grandmother, Lois. She was six years his junior and a serious Park College coed. He tried for years to woo her, but she was a hard sell. She had goals – to become a teacher – and she didn’t want some romancer to get in her way. But a few years after the stock market crash of 1929, she had to leave Park and return to Marceline to find a teaching job so she could help her family make ends meet.

Loie, when she was a little girl.

Grandpa, an independent man by then, paid his own pay to college and finished in about three years, including time spent at the teachers’ college in Warrensburg. But he couldn’t find a job after graduation, which frustrated him. So he took his money, bought some camping gear and a good pair of goggles, bade his poor mother adieu and hopped a freight train heading west.

So that’s the back story on those letters. By the time I heard that story, my grandpa was 78. He died a year later. I haven’t heard his voice in 27 years. Until, that is, I read the letters my aunt mailed me.

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” began a letter dated July 24, 1933 from Bakersfield, Calif.

I could just hear my grandpa deliver that truism. He had a way with words – I have a vivid memory of a hot August day in 1977. I was laid up with a toothache on the couch at my grandparents’ house. Everyone else had gone shopping for new school clothes, but I couldn’t. Grandpa volunteered to stay home with me.

I was watching something on TV when Walter Cronkite broke in with a special report: Elvis Presley had been found dead in his Memphis home. Elvis. Dead.

I gaped at the TV, but my grandpa just kept on playing solitaire and making a tsk-tsk sound. “It’s about time,” was all he said.

My dad inherited that trait, and these letters reminded me of that.

In my grandfather’s neat handwriting, the letters detailed for Loie his trip west, the beautiful scenery he saw – mountains, rivers, valleys, gorges – and the desperation he encountered in Hoovervilles around the west, families begging for food, educated men working menial jobs. My grandpa chose the transient life for a bit, but for others he encountered it was the only way to survive. The experience cemented my grandfather’s views for the remainder of his life.

But what my aunt was talking about, her cryptic words about some things never changing, was the fact that my grandfather invited my grandmother to join him in the hobo life, if only for a little while.

What? They weren’t even married, my mind screamed. Grandpa and Grandma thinking about…shacking? And he wrote it down?

“How would you like to be out with me for say – one week?” he wrote. “I have run across many girls and women on the road. They have quite a time of it.”

Hmmm. What did he mean? Do I want to know?

Needless to say, Loie didn’t hit the road with Navy that summer. She was too practical. And she didn’t want to lose her job. They didn’t marry for another two years, mainly because Loie had a good-paying teaching job, making more than Navy did as a teacher. And she knew that as soon as she married she’d have to quit so a man could have her job – married women didn’t need to work.

So Loie stayed single until her salary fell below Navy’s.

The rest…well, I know most of those details. But these letters my aunt sent gave me a glimpse into the lives of two young people whom I never met until they were well past middle age. I thought I knew them so well, but suddenly, they’re mysterious strangers.

And like that, my 44 years seem yet a blip in history. And I don’t feel so old.

Mess with my kids and feel my wrath

2 Oct

A week or so ago, Maggie and I were in a take-out pizza joint on a Friday night.

It was crazy busy, and the place was pretty small. We queued to order our pepperoni pie, then waited against the back windows.

Pretty soon the door opened, and a couple walked in. They looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think much of it.

Then Maggie pinched my arm and whispered in my ear that the couple who’d just entered the joint was a former coach of hers and his wife.

Ahhh. I looked anew at the woman, who seemed to have put on a few pounds since the last time I saw her courtside. Her husband’s hair had grayed noticeably. I smirked.

Maggie shot me a sideways glance but didn’t say anything.

Pretty soon, a teen behind the counter called our name, and we picked up the pizza and headed for the door. Just as we got there, the coaching couple turned around and smiled, all Stepford-like.

“Hi, Maggie!” they said brightly.

Bless her heart, my girl has raisings. She smiled and said hello.

That’s my sweet girl…

I, on the other hand, felt that familiar motherly indignation rise within me. All I could muster was a glare, which probably looked more like a squint since I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

Out in the parking lot, I attempted casual conversation with Maggie.

“Man, she looked fat, didn’t she?” I asked. “Didn’t she look fat?”

Maggie just shrugged and smiled, a little patronizingly, I thought.

“Mom,” she said, “you need to let it go.”

“It” was an incident several years ago where the pizza-ordering fatties – back then considerably more svelte but snotty just the same – had conspired to kick my daughter off a sports team so their little darling could take her place.

But no one bothered to tell us that our girl wasn’t on the team until the season began and games started. Then, and only then, did we find out she had lost her spot on the team.

She cried. She cried and cried and wondered why she wasn’t good enough to play on the team she’d been on for several seasons. We had no reason to give, except that that the coach’s kid gets preference.

Then, adding insult, her new team had to play her old team once or twice a season. And the old teammates she’d joked around with treated her badly, led by the snarky mean girl who took her spot.

I could barely watch when Maggie’s new team played her old. I was so angry, I clinched my teeth until my temples ached.

I was proud of the way Maggie made the best of a sad situation and made better friends on her new team, full of girls she’ll play with in high school. I even softened toward the girls on the other team, who I reasoned couldn’t help being the way they were if their parents were so devious they’d hurt an 11-year-old girl to further their own child’s fortunes.

But when it came to the parents, forget it. I give them no quarter.

I’m not proud that I can’t forgive and forget. I’m all the time preaching that the past is the past, that folks need to build some bridges and get over “it.”

Yet I can’t. I can’t in this instance or a few others where adults intentionally wronged my kiddos.

Mess with me, I can eventually give you a bye.

But mess with my kids, and you’re dead to me.

I’m not cool enough for Trader Joe’s

12 Aug

Two-Buck Chuck, in fact, costs 3 bucks.

So on Sunday, the hubs and I went to Trader Joe’s for the first time.

Yes, yes, people. I know the Kansas City stores have been open for more than a year. But in our defense, we were waiting until the crowds died down.

And truthfully, I forgot about Trader Joe’s until our recent family vacation in California, where the store is downright ubiquitous. Then I remembered.

On Sunday, we decided the state fair was too far to go, but a visit to the mecca that is Trader Joe’s would fulfill our need to browse.

Apparently, Trader Joe’s is like crack for some people. Before it landed in Kansas City, folks were frequently driving four hours to St. Louis to stock up on all sorts of goodies, like the cheap wine and ginger cookies.

I’m assuming the dyed-in-the-wool Trader Joe-types were not shopping at the Ward Parkway store on Sunday. The earnest-looking organic-seeking bourgeoisie the hubs and I saw shopping there were newer converts, I’m sure of it. You could tell just by looking at them, kind of the way you can smell the difference between the nouveau riche and old money.

I mean, these folks looked like they were trying a little too hard to be laid back.

Women in Merrell shoes and North Face après-hiking attire yet sporting fully made-up faces perused the produce section and aisles full of semi-prepared food. They paused artfully before the organic toiletries, glancing over their shoulders to see if anyone was noticing them. Their carts held previously-used Trader Joe’s cloth grocery sacks, which screamed, “I’m so cool I call this place ‘T.J.’s.”

The dudes weren’t much better, but they looked mostly like they were accompanying their North Face wives and girlfriends.

Yes, I was feeling a little bit unnerved and like I just wasn’t a part of this club and never would be – a not-uncommon feeling for yours truly. Matt, however, was oblivious, oohing and ahhing over the salmon selection and the truly staggering wine department.

Then we turned our cart up the peanut butter aisle. I was trying to keep to the edges, getting my bearings and steering clear of the regulars, who seemed to know where everything is. But I leaned in to look at the Nutella facsimile, to see if it were any cheaper than the one I can pick up at World Market. Just then, a Merrell-shoe-wearing Baby Boomer with chic white hair tooled her cart toward me.

I smiled as our carts almost collided and said, “I’m sorry if I’m in your way.”

She stared back, then said, “You won’t be if you keep moving.” And she kept moving, so I pushed my cart out of the way.

I didn’t say anything, just kept moving down the aisle. I mean, I’m not a member of this club. I kept going, turning into the next aisle. People shoved me aside to get to their favorite frozen organic black-bean-and-lentil soup with roasted red peppers. I stopped to let them, then trudged along, finding a bag of frozen berries I could use.

So I had heard that the Trader Joe’s employees were uber-friendly, but I didn’t particularly witness that. In fact, the women working back by the coffee looked like they were waiting to have root canals. Excited they weren’t. Then again, maybe they were tired of dealing with the stuck-up clientele who seemed to think that just because they eat organic, their you-know-what doesn’t stink.

But all that aside, the hubs and I managed to spend a fair amount on Two-Buck Chuck, ahi tuna steaks and kale, among other necessities.

I’m sure the store might be a different place on a weekday, when those who want to see and be seen are busy working or sleeping or what have you. I longed to see someone who looked like they’d just rolled out of bed at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, threw on some Chiefs PJ pants and flip flops, cursorily combed their hair, swigged some mouthwash and made a run for some snickerdoodles.

But alas, Dorothy. I wasn’t in Independence anymore.

Oh, well, T.J.s. We’ll be back, no doubt. For the wine, if nothing else. And we will be wearing Merrells.

Summer, don’t quit me now

10 Aug

For some reason, I think my family and I should pile into the Suburban and head for the state fair on Sunday.

I won’t be able to eat anything – at least without feeling guilty, since I’m perpetually counting calories. We’re not big monster truck or rodeo fans, and we have not grown the biggest tomato or potato or pumpkin or what have you. Our cherry tomato plants aren’t even bearing fruit.

I just don’t want school to start.

I don’t want it to start because we’ll have to roll out of bed at 0-dark-hundred every morning to get kids up and out the door to early-morning band. I don’t want it to start because I don’t want to go back to my graduate classes and papers and tests and bullshitting. I don’t want it to start because I want more summer.

But mainly, I don’t want it to start because I want life to slow down.

Why does it move so quickly? Did it always? Did my parents feel this way when they were raising three kids in a small southern Missouri town? Or is this a symptom of living in “the city,” as Mom and Dad call it?

Maybe it’s the latter. When I was growing up, we had to drive at least 30 minutes to get to a sizable shopping area. You didn’t just run out to Target if you needed pantyhose. We planned our trips, which meant we had more free time at home.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but I don’t remember feeling perpetually rushed.

If I had to be at school early, it only took me five minutes to get there. It only took five minutes to get just about anywhere in our little town – although my dad would say it really took normal drivers longer. I just drove too fast. Now that I’m the parent of a teen-age driver, I’m certain he’s correct.

I have so many closets to clean out during these last waning days of summer vacation, but I find that inertia has overtaken me. I just want to sit around on the sectional and watch “Phineas and Ferb” with the kids. Is that so wrong?

I don’t want to live in a small town again, I just want the lifestyle. How do I get it?

Enough already with the “greatest ever” schtick

1 Aug

OK, but these guys really are one of the greatest bands ever. Nothing to do with the Olympics, either, except they’re Brits. And I love them. Back off.

So I was huffing along on the treadmill today, watching CNN because you can only watch so much of the Olympics. And what were they talking about on CNN but — you guessed it — the Olympics.

Turns out folks are once again calling Michael Phelps the “greatest athlete of all time.” This time, however, unlike four years ago, some people are saying, “Hold on a minute.” One such person is Sebastian Coe, an athlete, English politician and head of the London Olympics.

Specifically, Lord Coe said to reporters, as detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle: “You can probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally he’s the most successful. My personal view is I am not sure he is the greatest, but he is certainly the most successful. That goes without saying.”

Bravo, Lord Coe, I thought to myself on the treadmill. Thanks for so articulately stating what I’ve been saying for years.

Four years ago, Michael Phelps was pronounced the greatest Olympian of all time. And I wrote the following piece. My sentiments haven’t changed since 2008:

**********************************************************************************************************************

The Olympic hype totally turns me off. I haven’t heard that much hyperbole since, oh, I don’t know…last year’s college football season.

The worst was calling Michael Phelps “the greatest athlete of all time.”

Whoa. Really? All time? Better than Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Eric Hayden, the Ancient Greeks?

Don’t get me wrong. The guy swims like a dolphin. Watching him mesmerizes even an Olympic cynic like me. His humble beginnings inspire us. He is a phenomenal athlete, and he seems like a nice guy.

But can we have a little perspective here? The greatest ever? That’s just over the top.

What makes Phelps better than Usain Bolt, another hyperbolic medalist they’re calling the “fastest man in the world?” Or Nastia Liukin, the gymnast who grabbed five medals at the Beijing games? Or how about Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the 38-year-old Romanian woman who won the women’s marathon in Beijing?  Who’s the better athlete? Who can really judge that contest?

And do we really care? They’re all unbelievably good at their sports. Let’s just say it. Why does there have to be one “greatest?”

I’m not knocking Michael Phelps, OK, so don’t start flaming me and calling me un-American. He’s awesome, all right? But this sort of overstatement drives me batty.

Even my daughter noticed it. Why, she implored me, are they saying Michael Phelps is the greatest ever?

I didn’t have an answer for her.

But I did tell her that just about anyone who makes it to the Olympics is the best. That’s what the games are all about.  And you’re not the greatest ever just because you win the most medals. I think there’s more to it than that.

Let’s just talk for a minute about Jesse Owens, one of my favorite past Olympians.

The guy was the grandson of slaves. His father was a sharecropper. He wasn’t pegged for his running speed until high school.  He had to work after school to help support his family, so he went to school early to practice with his coach. He only attended Ohio State University after his father found a job that could support the family.

So Owens was a track star at Ohio State, but he had to live off campus because he was black. He never received a scholarship from the university, despite winning eight NCAA individual championships, a record that stood until 2006. He worked part-time to support himself. And when the track team traveled, Owens and the other black athletes had to eat carry-out or in blacks-only restaurants.

Then in 1936, he traveled to Berlin to compete for the United States in the Olympics. There, he figuratively spit in the eye of Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi party propaganda touted Aryan superiority and claimed ethnic Africans were inferior.  At “Hitler’s Olympics” Owens won four gold medals, a feat not repeated until Carl Lewis won four medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Talk about the greatest. Owens was one of them.

So, in my opinion, is Lopez Lomong. I don’t even know if he won a medal in track and field at the Beijing Olympics, but it doesn’t really matter. The fact that he was there, representing the United States, boggles the mind.

As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong was abducted from his family and held in a militia camp, destined to become a child soldier. He escaped with some other boys and walked and ran for three days until they reached Kenya. There, he lived in a refugee camp, surviving for 10 years on one meal a day. To keep himself from thinking about how hungry he was, he ran and played soccer.

Eventually, he ended up in the United States, one of the Lost Boys, and a high school coach saw potential. He reportedly never lost a race, and he always ran with a smile on his face.

Lopez Lomong was a winner to begin with. Making it to the Olympics was just the icing, regardless of whether he won anything there. My kids are captivated by Lomong’s story. And they’ve never asked if he won any medals.

Is Lopez Lomong less of an athlete than Michael Phelps? I don’t think so.

See, I don’t think winning medals is the lesson of the Olympics. Which makes the whole “silver-is-just-another-word-for-first-loser” sentiment I heard bandied about so abhorrent. You’re not a failure if you don’t get the gold medal. No one who makes it to the Olympics is a failure.

I’m not encouraging mediocrity or everyone’s-a-winner kind of thinking. I’m just saying that doing the best you can do is worth celebrating, too. It’s not just about getting the gold.

That’s the lesson I want the Olympics to hold for my kids.

Jim Fay, please come live with me

29 Jun

And so finally, we have a 16 year old in the house, homies.

But we don’t gotta driver. What up with that?

Oh, sorry for the gangster-wannabe talk. I’ve been spending a lot of time with suburban white teens.

So anyway, the hubs and I hated to admit it, but we were looking forward to having a third driver in the family. We weren’t getting a third car, mind you, because that would be an entitlement, and we’re all about earning the finer things in life and possibly paying for them yourself. Plus, we just didn’t have the extra scratch, me being an unemployed graduate student and all. But we were anxiously awaiting having another family driver to help schlep around the rest of the brood.

The fateful day in June was fast approaching. Our potential driver had logged many hours behind the wheel with either his devil-may-care dad or his neurotic-white-knuckle-hyperventilating mom supervising.

Driver’ ed, check.

Night driving, check.

Parallel parking practice, check.

School got out in the middle of May, and our boy was cruising toward his 16th birthday on autopilot.

And then, one morning two days after school ended, I happened to come home from the YMCA to find my 15-year-old nephew literally wringing his hands on the sidewalk in front of his house. (Perhaps you recall that both my sisters and my parents live on our block.)

I got out of the car and approached him, asking him what was wrong.

“Nothing,” he said. “Well…’’

He looked toward the north end of our block. I did, too, in time to see a blue Ford van turn the corner from the west.  It was my sister’s van. But she was at work. And her husband was on a business trip to Atlanta.

“Honey,” I said, “that’s weird. Who’s driving your mom’s van?”

I stood in the middle of the street, looking toward the van, which crept ever more slowly down the street. And that’s when I had my out-of-body experience. It’s like I was up above, looking down as the scene unfolded. I saw me standing there, head cocked slightly to the left, as my brain caught up with what my eyes were seeing.

“I told them not to do it,” my nephew moaned.

Without my glasses, it was blurry, but I could make out the face of…my unlicensed 15-year-old son and his almost-13-year-old male cousin, who was grinning sheepishly. My son slowly but expertly guided the van into my sister’s driveway.

The van sat idle. No one inside moved. Finally, my younger nephew rolled down the passenger window, and that’s when I morphed into White Trash Mommy and yelled, “Get your asses out of that van!”

Is it any wonder the conservative neighbors next door to my sister’s house despise our family?

My younger nephew climbed out of the van and began slinking across the yard toward his house. “And don’t think I’m not telling your mom, Buddy!” I called to him.

My own progeny got out of the van and walked toward me, his hand outstretched. In it lay his driver’s permit.

I was seething but trying to remain calm. What would Jim Fay do? I kept asking myself. Love and logic. Love and logic. Do not threaten to kill him.

I held out my cell phone. “I should call the cops RIGHT NOW!” I hissed, aware now that the conservative neighbors’ windows were open, enjoying the fresh late-spring air. “Do you know how many laws you just broke?”

My son just looked at me. I realized I needed more information.

“OK,” I said. “What were you doing? Where were you going?”

He looked over at my older nephew, the one whose van my son had just hijacked.

“Um,” he said, “um, Wendy’s. We were hungry.”

I gazed blankly at him. “Wendy’s? Wendy’s? The Wendy’s that’s two blocks from here?” I said, pointing north. “Why, in Christ’s name, didn’t you just walk?”
He scuffed his shoe on the driveway. “We thought we’d get in trouble.”

Oh.My.Gosh.

“But you didn’t think STEALING a car would get you in trouble?” I slapped my hand to my forehead.

He just looked at me.

Turns out, my boy and his two teen cousins were hanging and decided they were starving. And between the three kitchens they had access to, apparently there was no food. So the nephew whose mom owns the blue van jokingly says they could drive to Wendy’s and get some food. He even grabs the spare keys. But then his Catholic guilt got the best of him, and he reneged.

Not so for his two cousins, who decided that because they’re Methodist, they don’t answer to the Catholic guilt and could go to Wendy’s anyway. So the Catholic nephew, while not condoning the trip, forked over some cash for them to buy him a burger.

And then I came home early. And the nephew left behind called the other two and reported that, and they left Wendy’s, dropping F-bombs all the way, without any food.

Not to brag, but I am proud of myself for staying calm. I knew that how I handled this was setting a precedent and that whatever consequence I handed down needed to be significant. So I bought some time.

“I’m taking your permit right now,” I said to my son, “and there’s going to be a consequence. But I’m not sure what. I’ll have to let you know after I talk to your dad.”

Man, for the next several hours, I had on my hands two of the most compliant teenage boys EVER. I could have asked them to do anything – wear a tutu, paint the house, pick up dog poop – and they’d have been happy to do it.

That night, after we’d finished dinner and the kids were getting ready for bed, I found my hubs in his home office and told him we needed to talk. I asked him to listen to everything I had to say before he asked any questions. And then I told him the story from beginning to end.

He was silent. Seething. I could see it in the set of his jaw. And then finally, he spoke. Of disappointment and sadness. Of mistakes that could have been serious. Of what the incident bodes for the future. Of our son waiting years before he could take his driving test.

But he never said a thing about his past. Or mine. Or his mother’s.

I cleared my throat. “I’m not 100 percent on this, but I’m pretty certain your mother took her brother’s car out for a joyride before she could legally drive,” I said.

He just looked at me. “So you see,” I said, “all this comes from your side of the family.”

He didn’t exactly think that was funny.

But we found out, as the story slowly leaked out, that most folks we know have a similar tale to tell – even our kindly pediatrician.

In the end, we settled on making the boy wait a month after his birthday before taking his driving test. And he has to make restitution to his aunt and uncle. This he’ll do by helping them work in their yard and around their house.

Some said the punishment wasn’t harsh enough. But my husband and I tend to think that people can learn from their mistakes and that the punishment shouldn’t be so severe that it overshadows the lesson.

And besides, I’m pretty sure the worst punishment was the dread our son felt as he turned that corner and saw his mother standing in the middle of the street, watching as he drove the “borrowed” van down the street.

 

Don’t eat me, Tiger Mom

5 Jun

Aren’t they cute? But I don’t think I’m a Tiger mom…

 What’s the opposite of a tiger?

I figure it’s a robin or something like that.

I started wondering last week. See, last week was the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And I heard a story on NPR about how South Asian-American students have dominated the spelling bee in recent years. True to form, this year’s winner was Snigdha Nandipati, an eighth-grader from San Diego. The NPR story reported that one reason Indian-American kids do so well at the bee is because it’s a point of pride for their parents and an activity the whole family can get in on.

In fact, Snigdha said that her father helped her prepare for her spelling competitions, which is not unusual.

I call parents like this Bengal Tiger Parents, not to be confused with Tiger Moms, made popular last year by the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale law professor Amy Chua. You know, Chinese-American parents who demand excellence of their children, who usually end up neurosurgeons or what have you.

Hey, I’m not judging. It’s cool that their kids can spell words like guetapens, or play Beethoven’s entire  Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, by the time they’re 7. And it’s awesome that they don’t have to worry about how they’ll finance their retirement because their kids will be able to set them up in a nice condo in Boca.

I am, perhaps, a little bit jealous.

But personally, I’m more of a robin parent. You know, like the bird. I just let the chips fall where they may. I show the kids how to fly and then hope and pray they don’t get eaten by the neighborhood cat.

Sure, I’d like to reap the benefits of a child who can explain quantum physics when he’s 9 or can discover the cure for toe fungus as her eighth-grade science project, but you know what? I submit that those accomplishments are sometimes less kid-oriented, more adult-driven. For one thing, kids don’t even get toe fungus.

But I digress.

I once was on the path to becoming a Tiger mom, or at the very least, a Really Mean Domesticated Housecat Mom. I saw that my firstborn had innate intelligence, that he was a quick study. He was musical, too – showing great rhythmic skills at an early age and excelling at Kindermusik. That, as any first-time parent knows, is a sign of mathematical genius.

So we enrolled him in music classes and summer enrichment and various other cerebral endeavors.

And then we began working harder than he did.

He loved music and practiced grudgingly, but when our practice sessions started routinely ending with him in tears and me with a sore throat from yelling, I took a step back. All he wanted to do was play outside, and was that so bad? Did I really think he’d be the next Paderewski? No. I just wanted him to learn to play the piano.

I tell you, it was hard to dial down my expectations. I am a perfectionist by nature, at least in some aspects of my life. My housekeeping is about a B+, but when it comes to schoolwork, I was A+ all the way. I rarely can let myself get less than an A.

And for what? My college GPA was pretty freaking high. And look where it got me  — I ain’t working at National Geographic, folks.

So my husband and I backed off and decided to let our kids figure out what they wanted to be good at instead of projecting our own expectations. We expect them to do their best, of course. But they don’t have to be the best.

It’s kind of hard, at least in this day and age. The pressure to get your kid into lessons to make him or her the best at whatever they do – music, sports, art, you name it – is high. We sometimes feel like salmon swimming upstream.

So our kids are learning to play piano. And draw. And play soccer. And joining the high school band. But do we expect them to make a career of any of these? No. Our goal: To create well-rounded human beings who, as adults, can appreciate classical music as well as their own pop songs, to be able to visit an art museum and understand what’s going on, to develop a love for the theater.

In other words, we’re raising them to be cultured human beings. And whatever else they want to become beyond that is up to them.

But when I feel the urge to push a little too much, to make them devote their lives to something that’s important to me but not to them, I have to mentally tell myself, “Hey, you’ve already done this. Back off.”

I think it’s paying off, although not in the Harvard-full-ride way that many Tiger parents might experience.

On the last day of school, I walked home from the elementary school with our youngest, and my hubs greeted me at the door. He excitedly told me that the oldest, who’ll be a junior next year, tried out that day for the honors concert choir at his high school and made it.

Wow. He hasn’t sung in a school choir since the sixth grade. We had no idea he was interested in this.

But he was. And this summer, he’s taking voice lessons from the choir director, who asked last week what instruments my son plays.

“Baritone,” my son said.

“And piano,” I said. “And drums.”

The choir director seemed surprised. “Wow,” he said. “You’re musical.”

I guess this surprised him that my kiddo had this talent. We hadn’t pushed him to share it. But he did when he was ready.

And he did it on his own.

I think this is robin-parenting success.

A lesson learned

18 May

Sir Gilbert Goodfellow

I’m pretty sure God has a sense of humor. I’m talking along the lines of Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, maybe Mark Twain.

Because I have often been punk’d by the Big Guy, most recently a couple Saturdays ago.

I’ve been waiting to share my humiliation because it didn’t just affect me – it involved our whole family and its newest member, a black-and-white cocker-basset mix named Gilbert.

See, our beloved 12-year-old Lab mix, Sally, died in February of malignant melanoma. Our remaining dog, Lucy, was a little lonely and exhibiting species confusion, imagining herself a cat.

So one crazy Friday night, after a glass of wine or two, Matt and I filled out the adoption application on a local animal rescue group’s web site, bent on welcoming Gilbert into this circus troupe we call a family. By the next evening, he was visiting for a two-week trial.

The first week went well. He assimilated quickly, and it took all of about two minutes for everyone – even the cats – to fall in love with the guy. What’s not to love? He’s the happiest, least Alpha dog I’ve ever seen. 

At the end of that week, I received a new/old CASA case. My Friday was rough as I watched some kids go into foster care, despite their mom’s insistence that her transgression was a one-time occurrence.

That Saturday, after a busy morning, I headed to visit one of the kiddos. I ran an errand on the way back. Matt was in charge at home, where all three kids were hanging out.

I returned around 1:30 p.m., only to find some heartworm medication on the counter and a terse message on the answering machine from the rescue group, asking me to call. I did.

Well, it turns out, while I was gone, the rescue folks had stopped by to drop off some heartworm medication and flea preventative for Gilbert. And boy, were they ever surprised to find the little guy in our front yard, alone, scratching at the door to come in. Inside the house, looking out the door, was Lucy, the hound dog.

When they rang the doorbell, our oldest teen came to the door, removed his ear buds and asked what he could do for them. He didn’t seem surprised in the least, they said, to see the dog outside by himself. They said he half-heartedly tried to get the dog in, then accused them of having an attitude. They chased Gilbert into our open garage and brought him into the house, where the youngest kid and a friend were playing FIFA soccer on the xBox. Neither paid much attention.

Using my powers of deduction and razor-sharp mind, honed by years as a reporter, I realized the rescue lady was miffed. And I didn’t know what to say. I’d left home a few hours earlier, the house and its inhabitants running smoothly. I’d returned to find a complete CF.

The lady on the other end of the phone call paused, I guessed for me to respond.

“Well,” I said, “I know what this sounds like when I say it, but this is the first time Gilbert has been outside without a leash. I swear it. You can ask the neighbors.”

And I did know what I sounded like. I sounded like so many of the parents I work with, who claim they’d never left their 6-year-olds alone until the day the Children’s Division worker showed up for a random visit. There was no way to prove that what I said was true, either.

Later, I found out, Matt was not around because he’d taken his car to the car wash. He’d left the 15-year-old in charge. Our 14-year-old teen-age daughter never knew the uproar occurred because she was in her room, giving herself a manicure and listening to her iPod.

I asked the rescue lady to return as soon as possible so we could sort this out. Then I sent our youngest kid’s friend home and yelled for my kids to meet in the kitchen. They I proceeded to deliver a heartfelt, very loud, Come-to-Jesus, guilt-ridden speech. Did they know we could lose the puppy? How could they not know how he got out of the house? At less than 2 feet tall, there was no way he could open the door himself. And no, I did not buy the suggestion that the hound dog opened it for him because she’s jealous.

I particularly laid into the oldest. How could he be so rude to the rescue ladies? They were only doing their jobs.
“Mom,” he said, “you know how when I get scared, I can act like a jerk? They intimidated me.”

“Well, for crying out loud, what are you going to do when you get your license and someday get pulled over by a police officer?” I said, riffing into a rant about when he’d ever be able to get his driver’s license.

Matt, meanwhile, returned from the car wash and walked into the kitchen in the middle of my tirade, backing out pretty quickly. Then the doorbell rang, and the rescue group was back.

The two ladies entered the house, and the oldest apologized for his sassy mouth. The women accepted the apology but were a tad cold to me. They warned me that dogs can get hit by cars and that Gilbert is just a puppy.

I stood there and took it like a drug-court client. The one time the dog got out – one time! – had to be the time the rescue folks dropped by.

But rest assured, I told my family later, it wouldn’t be the last. They’d be all over us like flies on stink – drive bys, drop-in visits, reference checks.

I knew the drill. Oh, boy, did I know the drill.

Once I calmed down, I decided to find the positive in the humiliation. While the experience of adopting a dog in no way compares to having your children taken away, I think now I have a better sense of what parents feel.

And I realize that sometimes, things really aren’t as black-and-white as they appear.

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