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:

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

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.

 

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.