Why is the most wonderful time of year so depressing?

Image

I remember when I loved this time of year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for that, I’m blaming Norman Rockwell.

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think I’ll try that next year.

Life on the launching pad

Our oldest is a senior in high school.

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded sympathetically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

And I think he knows that, too.

Use Paula for good

paula

Paula, Paula, Paula.

What were you thinking?

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

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

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

At least give Paula points for honesty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight ignorance with information and teach America a few things.

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

rings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s happening,” he said.

It’s about time.

Community organizing: The power of working together

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.

Image
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.

Image
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.

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.