Community organizing: The power of working together

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!!!

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?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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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

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

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

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.

A bad day

April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month, but what happened this morning reminded me that every month is worthy of that designation.

I’m a CASA – a court-appointed special advocate in family court. That means I’m a volunteer who works with a child’s guardian ad litem to make sure the child’s interests are kept in the forefront as the family’s case winds its way through labyrinth that is the U.S. court system.

It’s a volunteer job I’ve held since May 2005. In all, I’ve advocated for 18 children over the last seven years, sometimes twice, when their cases returned before the court.

On days like today, I wonder how effective I am. Today I watched as some kids I’ve worked with before went into foster care. It was heart-wrenching, although I knew it was best, at least for now.  Their safety was at issue.

But what troubles me is that the last time I saw them, a few years back when they were released from the court’s jurisdiction into their parents’ waiting arms, I thought the family was on the right track. I saw progress, knew the parents could make it. Not just me, either, but everyone involved in the case thought this was one happy ending in the midst of so many sad ones.

A happy ending isn’t out of reach, I guess, but maybe the definition needs to change, at least for this family. People can change – it’s one truth of humanity – but how many second chances do folks deserve?

It’s a question I wrestle with.

Simmer down, soccer parents

How many times am I going to write about parents behaving badly at their own kids’ sporting events?

How many times is Kim Kardashian going to get married? We have no way of knowing, right? Ditto on the bad parents. The possibilities are endless.

My latest rant stems from last Saturday’s U10 soccer game between my younger son’s team and their local rivals. Tom warned me going in that it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Hoo boy. He sure wasn’t kidding.

Here’s what when down:

The game was heated. An opposing player may or may not have tripped a player on Tom’s team, but the ref called a foul. And then the little opposing player said, “Are you f***in’ kidding me?” to the ref. The referee heard the remark and gave the young player a yellow card.

Then the opposing coach screamed in outrage because he disagreed with the ref that what his player said was offensive and inappropriate. He already had bullied the young refs into calling some other fouls his way.

So in my worldview, that coach should have at the least received a yellow card and at the most been ejected from the game. But no. Nothing. The other parents and I were dumbfounded.

In disgust, I wrote a letter to the league board. Here’s an excerpt:

“Hmmm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why a young player on that team would feel entitled to express his displeasure with the referee’s call. Just look at the coach.

While I find any behavior of this sort abhorrent, it’s especially disturbing given the context. It’s a recreational soccer game. These children are 9 and 10 years old. The stakes are non-existent. Seriously, it’s not worth developing high blood pressure over whether a referee made a proper call.

I’m certain this is not the first complaint you have received about this particular coach’s sideline behavior, and I’m just as certain it won’t be the last, unless the man receives some sort of anger-management training. I just feel so sorry for whomever he goes home to.”

 

I think the league needs to ask itself whether the coaching behavior exhibited today is how the league wants to present itself.

So far, I’ve heard nothing from any of the board members who received my letter. It’ll be a week tomorrow.

Here’s the problem, people. Adults watching their children playing team sports have lost all perspective. I grew up barely after Title IX took effect, so most girls I knew didn’t play team sports before junior high or high school. Some boys did play Little League, but I don’t remember their parents going ape over their kids’ freakish athletic ability, plastering their cars with sport clings with their kiddos’ name and number on it, driving all over Hell’s Half-Acre to watch them play whatever sport they played.

And that would mostly be because the parents were busy with other things in life and saw sports as a diversion and learning experience to keep kids busy until more important things came along – like school and jobs.

I really think the energy expended by people like that opposing coach could be channeled into making sure their kids learn what they need to learn in school, set some attainable life goals and work on becoming a human being who could make the world a better place.

But I think I’m in the minority.

My big scary dog

So last night, I awoke at 4 a.m. (OK, technically it was morning, but whatevs.) I thought I heard a door close – the door between our garage and the backyard.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that I could hear that door open and shut from upstairs in my bedroom.

It was quiet, as it is at 4 a.m. Our bedroom window that overlooks the backyard was open. And the door is just about directly under that window.

My eyes opened wide and stayed that way for an hour. Next to me, Matt slept like a log, periodically snorting and kicking the covers. A cat jumped onto the bed, giving me a start.

And where was my trusty watchdog, Lucy? Sitting alert, staring out the bedroom door? Growling at the window? Barking in the general direction of the garage?

Why, no. She was curled up like a kitten on her comfy brown bed in a corner of our bedroom.

Since the untimely death of our other dog, Sally, Lucy has been exhibiting species confusion. We’re pretty sure she thinks she’s a cat.

She sits on the back of the couch – and she’s no tiny, delicate thing. She’s a 70-pound hound dog. She cuddles with the cats throughout the day. And she doesn’t like to go outside when it’s raining or the pavement is wet.

Did I get up and go check on the possibility of a burglar in the garage? No, I did not. And neither did Lucy.

Sally, on the other hand, slept in front of the side door downstairs and kept a sharp eye out of intruders, frequently waking us up in the middle of the night to bark at raccoons and squirrels and leaves blowing across the driveway.

To be honest, maybe I just dreamed that sound. But I don’t know. I’ll never know, will I?

Thanks, Lucy.

The Hunger Games isn’t so out there

I tried to resist the lure of The Hunger Games, but alas. My curiosity got the better of me.

And that’s all right, because I’ve found the book is a real page-turner. I resent having to put it down, and it sometimes gets in the way of more important endeavors, like fixing dinner and folding clothes.

I thought I was the last person in America to read the book, which, in case you’re more square than I am and haven’t read it yet, details a dystopian American future where the 1 percent forces the 99 percent to send their children to play a kind of televised Survivor death match, all for the entertainment of the wealthy.

So a couple weeks back I was discussing The Hunger Games with a friend, who said she could not stand the book. Her gripe: It depicts children trying to kill each other.

That’s not a new literary theme, I reminded her, bringing up an obvious comparison: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Oh, sure, she said. Of course.  But the big difference there was that adults weren’t orchestrating the bloodbath; Lord of the Flies was all about base human instincts, but no adults were involved. It seemed, somehow, more humane, she said. What troubled her about The Hunger Games, on the other hand, was the machinations of adults to use children for their own gain – for their own pleasure.

That, she said, seemed inconceivable.

Well, not so much. And here’s why.

Cable’s multitude of banal offerings includes such reality fare as the Real Housewives franchise, the Kardashian chronicles, Ice Road Truckers and the any number of other stellar viewing options, ranging from Jersey Shore to the various talent shows like American Idol and The Voice. Americans, it seems, like to watch real people squirm and cry and possibly throw punches. So there’s that.

Couple that with how we treat children in this country, and The Hunger Games makes perfect sense.

The U.S. gives lip service to caring about children. And certainly many parents nowadays spoil their children mercilessly – how else to explain television networks devoted entirely to making kids laugh at stupidity (see Nickelodeon, Disney Channel) and iPhones and iPads for children. For some, babies and children are accessories (see latest celebrity baby bumps.)

But get down to brass tacks, and as a nation we really don’t take care of our children. Otherwise, we’d spend more on public education and less on wars. We’d not denigrate parents who choose to step off the career track to stay home with the kids.

And we’d not allow states like Missouri to price working low-income parents out of reliable daycare.

Reliable daycare helps all working parents. But for low-income parents, it’s one major hurdle to overcoming poverty. If you don’t have to worry about who’s taking care of your kids, you can find a job and become a productive worker, or finish your GED and go to college.

But last week, a Missouri Senate committee proposed a $16-million cut in childcare subsidies for poor parents. That’s along with proposed $13.6 million cuts in the state’s foster care budget and the loss of child protection jobs.

If the Missouri daycare-subsidy cuts go through, almost 4,000 children will lose their daycare monies. Families who make $23,290 – the current funding threshold – will be out of luck. They’ll earn too much money to qualify for daycare subsidies. Only families who make at or below $19,663 – 103 percent of the federal poverty level – will qualify.

The federal government supports childcare subsidies, but states set their own income thresholds. If these cuts are approved, Missouri becomes the state with the lowest income threshold.

What a dubious honor.

Attacking the welfare family is a common theme during election season, but guess what, folks? We’re now going after poor people who are working.

“It means that families who work and who make more than the federal poverty level may not be able to keep their jobs, and they may have to resort to going back on welfare,” Carol Scott, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week.

So, yeah. I don’t think a book about wealthy adults watching poor kids compete to see who can outwit and outlive each other is so far-fetched, judging from the way things are going right now. The Hunger Games speaks of a dystopian future that’s within our reach, not unlike Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Don’t get me started.

How old am I, anyway?

In my mind, I feel about 25 – a little more confident than I was at 20, able to legally buy booze, past the point of being rated negatively because of my age by my car insurer.

But I look in the mirror and realize that I need to use a nighttime moisturizer with Retinol, that if I move my head to the right or left the wrinkles show on my neck, that there’s a ginormous about of gray underneath the top layer of my brown hair.

Still, if I keep to my own kind – and by that I mean mostly 40-somethings and older, I can feel pretty good about myself. In my zumba class, for example, I’m  on the young side and feel downright lithe.

But two days a week, I’m in my graduate classes. This year I’m surrounded heavily by folks in their 20s, some not even a full year out of undergrad. And it’s rough, I tell you.

One day, another middle-aged classmate and I were walking to our cars after class with a young woman in our cohort. We both went to the University of Missouri in the 1980s, so we were comparing years. He was there from 1984 to 1987.

“Aw, we just missed each other,” I said. “I was a freshman in fall 1987.”

And then our young friend piped up. “I was just 2 in 1987,” she said.

Pow. Like a punch to the gut.

“Gee,” I said, “I guess I could be your mother if I had been a teen mom.”
“Yep,” she said happily. “Guess so.”

Now, when I was her age, I didn’t like to point out to my older coworkers that in fact I was not born at the time of the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t want to remind anyone of my youth.

These days, though, I guess youngsters don’t mind everyone knowing they’re, well, young. Also these days, I use terms like, “Now, when I was your age…” and words like, “youngsters,” all the time.

This same younger classmate and I worked on a group assignment during our first semester of the social work program. We were assigned to put together a presentation on the treatment of the LGBTQI community in the United States. During our planning session, I brought up the case of Brandon Teena and the film, “Boys Don’t Cry.” I was going on and on about it when I realized my friend had a look of confusion on her face.

“That sounds interesting,” she said, before asking how to spell Brandon Teena’s name.

“You remember the movie, right? Hilary Swank was in it…” my voice trailed off as I realized she had no idea what I was talking about.

“What year was that?” she asked.

I said it was in the late 1990s. “Oh, that explains it,” she said. “I was probably about 13 or 14.”

And I was a mother of two when that movie came out.

Hey, people can’t help when they’re born. I know that. And I never want to be the person who considers it a character flaw if a coworker or what have you isn’t as old as I am and thus hasn’t lived through the world events that I have. You all know some older person who constantly reminds you that you didn’t know how bad it was during the Depression, etc.

Still, I just feel this kind of thing – me trying to relate something from my life to someone much younger who has no clue what I’m talking about – happens more and more.

In another class this spring, we ended up having a discussion of the Affordable Care Act and birth control pills and mandates and what have you. And one particularly impassioned classmate said she was just so tired of all the fuss about birth control. “I mean, it’s been around since the ‘70s,” she said.

 “Actually,” I said, “it was the 1960s when birth control pills became available.”

“Well, whatever,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”

Yeah, I guess it does seem like a long time ago when you were born in 1990.

So I think, like many older people, I will just start keeping my mouth shut lest I sound irrelevant. Like the afternoon that I was struggling with a statistics assignment on Excel and I blurted out, “Geez, I haven’t taken statistics since 1988.”

And I looked around and realized, yup. No other student in my class was even born in 1988.

Welcome to 1958

Ok, people, I have something to say about all this birth control rigmarole. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple weeks, ever since the whole contrived annoyance with the healthcare mandate’s birth control provision hit the 24-hour news cycle.

I just haven’t been able to condense what I want to say.

But thank you, Rush Limbaugh. You have successfully elevated my anger and disbelief to the level at which I just have to say something.

In case you don’t know what Rush did, click here. I can’t really bear to repeat his slanderous statements about a Georgetown University law student denied the chance to address members of the U.S. Congress about this manufactured, 1960s-era issue. She wanted to testify on behalf of a friend, who’s a lesbian and has ovarian cancer and needs the Pill for treatment.

I’m not sure if Rush Limbaugh understands that lesbians really don’t need the Pill for birth control. Someone might want to draw him a picture.

But I digress.

So here’s what I want to say. If you have ovaries and a uterus – or if you’ve ever had ovaries and a uterus – this should be the issue that causes you to call your member of Congress, your Senator, even your state representative. Because this is more than about whether you can have access to birth control pills – a right women have had since the early 1960s.

This isn’t about whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a Catholic or a Protestant, a liberal or a conservative. This is about the rights of your daughters and your granddaughters to have the same unfettered access you’ve had, to take control of their reproductive lives and move from someone who merely breeds to someone with a larger purpose in life.

This is about a battle we, as women, won before I even was born. And we can’t be complacent.

Hey, I don’t even have a personal dog in this fight anymore. I’m 43. My husband has had a vasectomy. I’m cruising toward menopause.

But there was a time when I was in my early 20s that I had to scrape and scrimp to pay for my birth control pills. And excuse me, Mr. Limbaugh, but I wasn’t some sex-crazed, swinging college girl. I was a married woman – a monogamous, married woman. Not a slut. Not a prostitute.

Yet my husband and I knew that we weren’t ready to be parents yet. That was one of our goals, yes, but not at 22. So we budgeted our meager newspaper reporters’ salaries to pay for my pills, because my health insurance didn’t cover them.

I remember calling that company and asking why they didn’t cover the Pill but would cover pregnancy and delivery. Couldn’t get a good answer.  Even back then, a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery cost between $5,000 and $10,000. And, as it turned out, my pregnancies ended up high-risk because of another health problem. So they would have cost even more.

That’s what makes me so mad. Not everyone who uses birth control pills is wantonly bedding men left and right. But frankly, what if they are? It’s apparently OK for men to do whatever they want between the sheets – as long as it’s with a woman – but women can’t play by those rules.

You know, I find talking about sex distasteful and am livid that I am forced to write a blog about what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms. But Rush Limbaugh has driven me to it.

Apparently, Rush and his cronies don’t want people to have sex if they don’t intend to procreate. If you do have sex and don’t intend to procreate but end up pregnant, well, too bad for you. And it’s seriously too bad for you if you’re poor and unmarried, because you’re just going to have to live with your consequences.

And if that means that you can’t afford to feed your baby or pay someone to watch your baby while you work, oh, well. You should have invested in some aspirin, I guess. Or worked harder to pull up those bootstraps. Or been born into a better-off family. Or moved to Sweden.

Look, the fact that we’re debating this issue in 2012 is beyond ridiculous, as is any discussion of whether amniocentesis contributes to abortions or whether it’s a good idea to force pregnant women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds.

That one stumps me, the ultrasound issue. Hey, Mr. Politician-With-the-Bright-Ultrasound-Idea. Guess how much the average transvaginal ultrasound costs. Answer: hundreds of dollars. How much does a month of birth control pills cost? Answer: as low as $15, depending on the pill. How much does it cost to raise a baby from birth to adulthood? Answer: about $440,000, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s child-raising cost calculator.

Now, I’m not too good at math, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one of those costs the most.

So please, for the sake of the battle your mothers and grandmothers and aunts waged, please don’t let this issue go. Speak up for yourselves, your daughters, your nieces, the checker at your neighborhood grocery store, your child’s teacher.

Don’t let some blowhard like Rush Limbaugh call you names. Because when he calls one of us a slut, he’s really saying that about all of us.

I love cats, but am I a cat lady?

OK, many of you know I’ve always been a cat person.

I could give you a detailed description of the many, many cats I’ve shared my life with (and I could include photos and birth dates, too.)

But the mere fact that I think it would be weird if I did that makes me wonder if I’m indeed a real cat person after all.

I mean, sure. I have about 100 cat figurines that once decorated my childhood bedroom, some bought by me and others given to me by friends and relatives who knew of my feline obsession.

And in the past I have called relatives asking them to make sure my cats were OK while I was enjoying a night out at the theater (before we had kids, of course.)

And I scaled down all the nice throw rugs in our house to accommodate our incontinent diabetic cat, replacing the rugs with cheap rugs that could be thrown in the washer.

True, I still share my life with several cats with human names and distinct personalities, whom I talk to as if they’re humans.

Yet we also have dogs, too, and maybe this has tempered my weird cat lady tendencies.

I’ve always lived with dogs, too, but I never was as close to them as a breed. Yeah, I loved my own dogs but not necessarily anyone else’s.  

Marrying a definite dog lover, though, has changed me, made me more balanced. And probably cemented the reaction I had today.

Matt and I were driving in Columbia, having just dropped off one of our dogs for a month of radiation therapy to treat her cancer. Matt was driving the speed limit of 30 mph in a residential neighborhood when we heard a loud, long horn honk. I looked in my side mirror and saw a silver Ford Escape tailing us.

“They must think I’m driving too slowly,” Matt said. “Or it’s the cat on the dashboard.”

I thought he was joking. Then I turned around to look through the back window, and sure enough. There was an orange tabby on the dashboard.

Matt pulled over a little bit, and the Escape zipped past.

And I immediately judged that person as a weirdo cat lover, which made me question whether I really am one.

Especially after an incident a few years back. We ended up with a stray kitten a family member came upon. As the family cat weirdo, I was the natural destination of this kitty. Except we already had three cats and two dogs, not to mention three kids, one still in diapers.

Then it turned out the kitten had feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV. That’s like kitty HIV. There’s no vaccine against it, and it’s pretty contagious. The vet said if we kept the cat, we’d have to keep it isolated away from the others. The kitten was pretty sickly, too.

I started calling cat rescue groups, trying to find an FIV-positive home for this kitten. No luck. Then I remembered a former co-worker’s wife was a cat person. So I called her, asking if she knew anyone who could take an FIV-positive kitty or whether there were any such rescue groups.

Well, that was a mistake. She was absolutely no help, unless you count the major guilt trip she unloaded on me to keep the kitten. She didn’t understand why I couldn’t dedicate a room in our house to this cat. Why not? Truly, she was incredulous.

Feeling like a pile of crap, I hung up the phone and kept up with my search. Then a couple days later, our vet called. The kitten, who’d been in isolation at the vet clinic, had died, presumably from the disease.

So anyway, I’m questioning my rep as the cat lady, despite my many cat books and my vast experience giving cats shots and subcutaneous fluids and enemas.

I still love ‘em, though.

The sting: Don’t try to fool Mama

The game was afoot.

I knew something was going on when I turned on the television in my room one day, and the TV was in a different mode. There’s only one way that can happen, and that’s by deliberate intent. And there’s generally only one reason the TV would be in a different mode, and that would be because someone was using the xBox on it.

Which is weird, because it was a weekday. And folks in these parts don’t play video games during the week. That’s a luxury reserved only for weekends because of homework and such.

So I took a straightforward approach and casually remarked to my three offspring that the TV was in a different mode. Did any of them have any theories?

They emitted a collective “nope.”

Hmmm. I posited the xBox theory. And they were aghast. What? “No way,” my oldest said. “I don’t know what happened.”

But you see, he protested a bit much. Because he is home by himself for a couple hours three days a week while I’m either at my internship or at grad school.

It was a curious situation, exacerbated by the daily updates from PowerSchool, that gift/curse that tells parents what their kids’ grades are. And the grades of the prime suspect were fair to middling. I smelled FIFA12, but I couldn’t prove it. And with the face of an angel and the pulse of a con man gifted at outsmarting lie detectors, that kid was telling a tale, I was sure of it.

I just needed evidence.

Not for nothing have I watched years of the various Law & Order franchises and NCIS. And that’s not even counting the dozens of Agatha Christie novels I’ve read or the five or so times I read Harriet the Spy.

And let’s not forget Oceans 11, 12 and 13.

What I’m saying is, I know how to get the evidence I need, capiche?  I just needed to bide my time.

So one Sunday, we all got up bright and early to go to church. But the oldest was exhausted from his busy social life and asked if this once he could sleep in a bit and then work on his homework, study for his finals.

Certainly, I purred. Just don’t play any video games.

“I won’t,” he said, all wide-eyed innocence.

The hubs and the other two kids were in the car when I ran back inside to get something. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom, where the xBox was sitting. I piled a few games on top of the console and put a controller on top. Then I sped back downstairs and went to church.

When we got home a few hours later, I went to my room. Surprise! The games weren’t on the console, and neither was the controller. The TV, too, was in the video game mode again.

I ran into the oldest kid’s room. “Aha!” I said. “You played video games!”

He looked hurt.  “Mom!” he said. “I didn’t do it.”

And then I explained the little trap I’d set. He narrowed his eyes, giving me a look that said, “I hate yo…” And then his look turned to one of – dare I say it – grudging admiration. He smiled sheepishly.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I did it.”

I sputtered, taken aback at the lack of indignant anger, that he’d better do his homework for the rest of the day.

I went back downstairs and shared the evidence with the hubs. The youngest listened intently.

“Wow,” he said. “You set a trap. How did you do that?”

Tsk, tsk, tsk, my young friend. Mama’s not going to reveal all her secrets…

Vanity schmanity

I don’t have a lot of physical assets to be proud of.

No flowing blonde hair, no piercing eyes, no model-worthy legs.

And since I’ve had kids, whatever I had has gone south. Literally, in some cases.

But I always had my eyesight. Yeah, good eyesight can’t get you a Hollywood deal or turn many heads, but it can help you avoid getting creamed by a semi and aid in spotting a small spider from a football field away.

That’s right. I don’t mean to brag, but I was that good.

My whole childhood, I was the only one in our family of five who didn’t need glasses. And of course, I didn’t appreciate what I had while I had it. I always longed for glasses. I thought they’d make me look smarter.

Well, not so much, I found out in my 20s, when my move to Kansas City, a place I’d never lived, revealed my own myopia. As a young reporter, I had trouble in the pre-GPS years reading street signs until I was practically on top of them. In a new place, you can’t go by old landmarks. And you can’t rely on old eyes, apparently.

Still, my eyes weren’t as bad as some. I rarely wore my glasses except to drive. Never needed them to use my computer, or cook, or read. As I moved through my 30s, in fact, my eyesight actually improved. It was awesome! While everyone around me succumbed to presbyopia, I was all single-vision Tina Fey glasses.

I hit 40, and I still could see like a 30 year old. Smug a little? You betcha.

And then my classes started this fall, and something changed. I needed my regular glasses to see the PowerPoint presentations my professors gave every week, but I couldn’t leave them on to look at my notebook. If I needed to see my watch, I had to take off my regular glasses. Sometimes I couldn’t even see what was on my fork if it was too close to my face.

My ophthalmologist just smiled knowingly when I described my problem.  “Presbyopia,” he said. “You need bi-focals. It just happens with age.”

That is so the wrong thing to tell a woman. Age is just a number, right? Well, tell that to my eyes. But, in their defense, my distance vision hasn’t changed for years.

I balked at the graduated lenses – part vanity, part economy.

And then tonight, while I waited for a prescription to be filled at the drugstore, I strolled around and happened onto an end cap with reading glasses. I looked at them. A 10 spot could get you two pairs. I picked up a pair of tortoiseshell 1.25+ glasses and tried them on. Then I picked up a bottle of Triaminic from a nearby shelf.

Wow. I can’t describe the feeling. It was like taking off a pair of permanently smudged glasses and replacing them with perfect  lenses. I took off the readers and slipped my regular glasses back on.

Blurriness. Then off with those and on with the readers. Ahhh. Clarity.

I walked down the aisle, testing the readers against my regular glasses. I just wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. The world was crystal clear! At least from about 12 inches away.

Sold. I took the deal and now own two pairs.

OK. On to the SAS shoes.

I don’t know how I do it, either

So it’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything here, and I apologize.

I’d like to blame it on my studies or my internship or some sort of minor yet still serious illness or the Greek economic crisis, but alas. I can only blame it on this:

This is the cake I made for Maggie's birthday. It took a crazy long time.

…and this…

Tom wanted a soccer ball on his birthday cake

…and this…

I stayed up until 1 a.m. making cake pops for Tom's family birthday party.

And since I am currently learning the ways of behavioral therapy, I will tell you that these are not merely symbols of fantastic birthday celebrations. Nay, these are signs of my overcompensation.

I’ve been down this road before, my friends.

Many, many moons ago, I was a frenetically working young mother of two. My job often required long hours and, occasionally, travel. My supportive spouse traveled, but not as much as he does these days. And he picked up a lot of my slack, cooking dinner, getting the kiddos from daycare, folding laundry.

I was still a reporter chasing big stories, and my days never were predictable. So the hubs was there when I wasn’t.

But on the days I was around, hoo boy. I was uber mom, psycho holiday decorator, party planner extraordinaire.

I don’t mean to brag, but my birthday parties were legendary. And that’s not because I rented a moon walk or a clown or a magician. That’s amateur stuff.

There was no way I was subletting my parental duties to anyone else to ensure my kids had the best birthdays ever, so I did everything myself. If there was a clown making balloon animals, buddy, then that was either me, my husband or some gullible relative of ours wearing the red nose.

Take Joe’s fourth birthday party. He loved pirates back then. L-O-V-E-D them. Way before Jack Sparrow arrived on the scene, Joe was sporting eye patches and turning sticks into hooks. So, as a faithful reader of every parenting magazine under the sun, I decided to throw the biggest and best pirate bash EVAH.

U.S.Toy has an insane amount of pirate decorations, by the way. And you also can order just about anything pirate-themed from Party Express.

And did you know you can make hand hooks out of two-liter plastic bottles and plastic hangers? I hoarded those items for weeks to make enough so the 20 or so kids we invited could take them home as party favors.

We gave every kid a pirate tattoo (temporary, of course,) and hung a piñata from the swing set. We commissioned my husband’s Uncle Pat, an architect, to be in charge of the balloon swords, a job he took to heart.

The only glitch: The cake. I had attempted to draw freehand a Jolly Roger. Big mistake. I should have sculpted something out of fondant.

Maggie’s party that year featured butterflies, her favorite bug at the time. Everyone got gossamer wings, and I made the most beautiful cake with a pastoral butterfly scene on it.

The next year, we threw Joe a cowboy-themed party at a cousin’s rural house and hosted a chuck wagon dinner (all homemade, of course.) That year Maggie had a princess dress-up party, with dress-up clothes supplied by yours truly and a cake that looked like a pink castle (also made by yours truly.)

Then I quit my job in 2001, and the birthday parties became less elaborate. Oh sure, my cakes improved, but I acquiesced to outside venues for the actual parties. I justified that because I spent almost every waking hour with the kids. I needed a break, you know?

Well, this year things have changed. I’m gone all day three days a week, either at my 16-hour-a-week internship (for credit hours) or at the university, taking back-to-back classes. The laundry is piling up. The old dogs have developed bladder infections because I’m not there to let them out as much. I’ve missed a few field trips. I still haven’t made relish out of the pounds and pounds of zucchini I chopped up and froze in July.

But the crazy birthday overcompensating is back. Hence the Perry the Platypus cake, the soccer ball cake, the cake pops.

I just can’t stop myself.

It’s funny, because the youngest kiddo wasn’t even around in the days when I made homemade yogurt pops to have on hand and handmade Christmas presents for my kids and my nieces and nephews. He’s never really seen this side of me.

But a month or so ago, when trailers for “I Don’t Know How She Does It” were all over the TV, Tom watched one and then looked at me.

“The lady in that movie could be you, Mom,” he said.

And he wasn’t telling me I look like Sarah Jessica Parker, either.

Touched by tragedy

For the past week, I’ve cried at the drop of a hat.

I was blaming it on hormones until I took a minute to analyze my triggers, and it was a no-brainer: the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

As the anniversary drew near last week, news shows focused more and more programming on the national tragedy and its aftermath. Newsweek and Time wrote retrospectives and found survivors to interview. Morning news programs tracked down the children of those killed and did “where-are-they-now” segments. I teared up constantly.

But on Friday, after watching yet another segment, I choked up as I began talking about that day a decade ago to my 8-year-old son as he ate his Raisin Bran. I told him how fearful I was, how alone I felt as his dad left town that day on a business trip, how I didn’t know whether to run to the school to pluck my kindergartener from class or leave him there.

And then my youngest asked me a probing, thoughtful question: “Why were you so scared that day, Mom?” Tom asked. “You weren’t in New York or Washington, D.C.”

He was right. I was in the heart of the Midwest, far from the blazing buildings and blinding smoke and sirens. I didn’t know one single person killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or the crash of the airliner over Pennsylvania.  Why was I scared that day? And why am I so emotional now?

I think I know. The world changed forever that day, and I knew as I watched the Today show and saw the second plane fly into the World Trade Center that life would never be the same. And it wasn’t just because the United States had lost its naiveté or whatever.

That beautiful September day marked the end of a rough six months of my life.

In March that year, I’d left my full-time job as an education reporter at The Kansas City Star to become a free-lance writer and stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t a move I’d been dying to make but one I felt forced into by an inflexible working environment. I left a job I loved, one I felt I was perfectly suited to, the kind of job I’d dreamed about when I was a kid. Just up and left it.

I knew in my heart I was doing the right thing, spending more time with my kids, but for six months I grieved my working life as I adjusted to extreme 24/7 parenting. (Not that working moms aren’t 24/7 parents – I always hated when people referred to themselves as “full-time” moms.  I’ve always been a full-time mom. But when I worked outside the home, I had hours during the day when my children were cared for by someone else and I was a person who did good work that was respected by the outside world.) A stay-at-home mom doesn’t get much positive feedback – the reward comes years later. And that takes a little adjusting to, I found.

So that day in September 2011, I’d just dropped off our oldest child at kindergarten. He was barely 5 and had been in school all of three weeks or so.

My daughter, who was 4, and I were getting ready to leave for the first Kindermusik class of the semester when my mom called to tell me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit, and like the rest of the world, Mom and I both knew it wasn’t an accident.

I bundled Maggie into the car and headed for Kindermusik, NPR blaring from the radio. I listened intently, a million story ideas flowing through my brain. I picked up my cell phone to call an editor at The Star when I realized no one there would have time to talk to me. I wasn’t a staff member anymore.

It was the first major news event of my working life that I wouldn’t be caught up in as a reporter, and the realization hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was out of the loop. Just a regular news consumer, hungry for information. And I felt lost, adrift.

A voice from the back seat brought me back to reality. “Mommy,” Maggie said, “please, can you turn off the radio? It’s scaring me.”

Oh, God. I’d completely forgotten I had a kid in the backseat, that I was a just a mom now, not a reporter. I told her I was sorry and turned on her Kindermusik CD.

After that, I suppose I dealt with the events of the day and those to come just as any other American did. I was cautious, I worried about flying again, I watched news reports and read articles in newspapers and magazines. I didn’t have any inside information, no access to the wire services, nothing.

In the past, when something big happened, I felt a part of things because invariably I localized stories, just like every other reporter. When the Columbine High School shooting occurred, I wrote stories about how local schools prepared for such an event, for example. And doing those stories, although fodder for massive bitching and griping, gave me a sense of contributing to a solution and probably helped me deal with whatever grief and despair I felt at such awfulness.

This time, though, there was nothing. And the void inside me grew and engulfed me as I grieved people I didn’t know and a world that was never coming back.

And then one day, I figured something out. My exit from journalism freed me, gave me the opportunity to help in ways I couldn’t as an unbiased reporter. Maybe I couldn’t reach the masses through the media anymore, but I could help in some way, somehow, in my corner of the world. I could try to change what I could where I could.

So as I embark on my second year of grad school in my quest to become a social worker, I can look back and trace the epiphany that brought me here to that glorious September morning 10 years ago, when I felt the world crumbling all around me.

It took me almost a decade to find my way, not unlike the survivors and children of those who didn’t make it. And life still won’t be the same. But I think I’m OK with that now.

Love (delayed) is a many splendored thing

Oh, the drama of third grade. Who knew?

Last week, my 8-year-old asked me to eat lunch with him. That request usually comes not because he’s dying to spend time with his mom, but because he wants the chance to have a conversation with his buddy Alex during lunch.

At his elementary, talking is verboten! And if the lunchroom crone spies with her beady eyes any unsuspecting student actually conversing with another, be they kindergarteners or fifth graders, she screeches that they need to eat ON THE CHAIRS! That would be some cold metal folding chairs lined up near the stage in the cafetorium.

Yes, it’s quite Draconian and Dickensian and just plain awful. I mean, if you get your jollies bullying little kids, you’ve got a screw loose somewhere.

So anyway, I don’t mind having lunch with Tom and his pal every so often. I got there Wednesday about the time they were coming in from recess. Tom gave me a fist bump as he walked by, all confidence and third-grade swagger.

A few paces behind scurried A. (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will be shortly revealed.) She’s a cute little thing with long blonde hair and thick glasses that hide pretty blue eyes. She loves Tom. L-O-V-E-S him. She told me so last year. She walked up to me this day, as she does many others, and gave me a hug.

Then she looked plaintively into my eyes and said, “Would you please make Tom ask me to eat with you? I’ve been asking him since last year, and he always says ‘next time.’ “

She batted her eyelashes.

“Oh, gee, A.,” I said. “The thing with 8-year-old boys is that they like girls as friends, but they’re afraid people will think they LIKE them if they ask them to eat lunch with them. We’ll work something out another time, OK?”

She smiled and walked on to the lunch line.

About five minutes later, out walked Alex carrying a tray of food, followed by Tom carrying a tray of food, followed by A. carrying a tray of food.

“I don’t care if she eats with us,” Alex said, pulling out a chair at the table in the hallway.

But Tom clearly did care. “Mom, make her go back to the cafeteria!” he said. I know A. heard him because she was right behind him. But she just put her tray on the table and sat down.

I told Tom it was OK, that we could all eat together. But he persisted. “She’s so annoying,” he whined.

I looked at A. to see if the barb stung, but she looked for all the world like a little girl who was getting what she wanted.

“Listen, honey,” I said to A. “I’m not sure we can have two friends eat with us in the hallway. The principal doesn’t like that.”

“Oh, no, it’s OK once you’re in the third grade,” she said, taking a dainty bite out of her breaded chicken patty.

That’s not true. But I didn’t want to send A. back into the gulag for many reasons. The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher would surely banish her to the chairs, for one. But also, it would have been mean. What was the harm in sharing lunch? I would never in a million years want a kid to cry over this.

However, my own started crying. He was looking panicked, and big tears welled in his eyes and spilled over onto his ketchup-stained cheeks.

“Mom!” he said. “Please! I can’t stand it!”


 Meanwhile, Alex just calmly ate his lunch.

“You two talk amongst yourselves,” I said to A. and Alex. “You, mister, better come with me.”

I pulled Tom around the corner for a little come-to-Jesus meeting.

“Listen, buddy,” I said, “you need to pull it together. It’s just lunch.”

“Mom,” he said, looking up at me pleadingly, tears streaming down his face, “she’s SO annoying! I can’t stand it!”

I can’t help it. I wanted to laugh. He was so sincere. But I kept a straight face.

“You sound like a mean boy,” I said.

He nodded defiantly. “I WANT to be mean!” he said.

But I told him that he’s not a mean boy. He’s a nice boy, and he didn’t really want to hurt A.’s feelings. And telling her to go back to the cafeteria would definitely do that.

“And you know,” I said, “you might be annoying to some people. And I wouldn’t want anyone to be mean to you.”

He just shook his head.

I sighed.

“OK,” I said. “I guess I’ll just go home, and all three of you guys can go back to the cafeteria.”

He sniffed, wiped his eyes and nose with his shirt, and said, “Never mind.”

We went back to the table, where A. commenced making the best lunchtime conversation. She talked about what she’d done the last weekend, how she likes to spy on her teen-age brother, what she wants to be when she grows up.

Alex joined in, and Tom grudgingly said a few things.

Then A. got up to go get a napkin, and Tom pounced.

“She’s so annoying, Mom,” he said.

“Stop it,” I said. “She’s not annoying.”

He looked panicky again. “I cannot be seen with a girl!” he finally said.

Finally. We get some truth.

After eliciting promises from Alex that he would tell everyone A. was NOT Tom’s girlfriend, Tom relaxed. A. returned, and lunch calmed down. Pretty soon, it was time to dump their trays and join the other third graders.

As I walked back home, I remembered part of the problem. A. has loved Tom since kindergarten, when she was Mama Bear to his Papa Bear in the kindergarten music program (until Tom bailed at the last minute because he had stage fright.) But they haven’t had the same classroom teacher since kindergarten. And A. has all this bottled up unrequited love just bursting inside her.

Plus last summer, Tom and I were at Dollar General, and he was ding-donging me to get him a playground ball. I was tired and hot and trying to get home to fix dinner, so I acquiesced. We were on the way to the car when we ran into A. and her mom.

I started talking to A.’s mom about her son, who’s my older son’s age. And A. started talking to Tom, who mostly grunted in return.

Then I heard A. say, “Why does your ball say ‘Girls Rule?’ “

Tom looked at the black-and-white ball, and sure enough, in hot pink letters, it screamed “GIRLS RULE!”

“Aw, geez,” he said at the time, and A. just smiled.

 I think she’s pretty quick on her feet, that one.