Friday, December 24, 2010

Short and Sweet (Like Sugar Plums)

Merry Christmas! Happy belated Hanukkah! My daughter has asked me to make latkes for Christmas eve. Glad to see my little seven year old black girl is in touch with cultural roots. Someone else's cultural roots, but that's okay for now, too. The more culture the better. So I'm going to make sweet potato latkes on Christmas Eve as a new family tradition. Happy New Year. No resolutions really, more shifts and adjustments.

Have a wonderful holiday! Track Santa's sleigh ride tonight on

Friday, December 17, 2010

No Naughty Children Here

Santa has a list. He checks it twice to see who has been naughty and who has been nice. I’ve always hated that depiction of Santa, yet have been guilty myself of warning my children that they better be good or they’ll end up on the dreaded naughty list. A punitive Santa – a guy who will retaliate against a kid for their bad behavior by denying them toys on the one day of the year when everyone should get a present. Not a nice concept when you really sit down and think about it. We want our children to behave nicely regardless of the threat of the naughty list. But anyone who has children knows that just doesn’t happen and we need everything (from bribes to threats) to keep them in line.

But really, when you think about it, for the most part, there are no naughty children. There are children who are scared, misunderstood, frustrated, tired and hungry. There are children whose parents are impatient or distracted or frustrated in their own right and taking it out on their kids. Under those circumstances, those kids are going to act out, they are going to misbehave and they will end up with the naughty label and their name on the dreaded list.

Recently, when my kids were going bonkers one afternoon and really making me crazy, I started to lay into them, shouting (or barking as my daughter likes to describe it) and ordering them about. But before I exploded, I stopped for a moment and tried to think about how we went from peaceful morning to afternoon anarchy with more bad behavior than you’d find in congress on any given day. I caused it. Not my children. They were behaving badly, naughty enough to end up on the list, but they got there because I had been rushing them, not listening to what they were saying, misinterpreting their actions and yelling at them because of it. My bad behavior incited their bad behavior. Now I’m not saying my kids are angels or that they never behave badly on their own. There are too many instances for me to mention of them crossing the line from good little girls to unholy terrors. In fact, one of my oldest friends affectionately calls them “Children of the Corn.” But in this particular instance, they were naughty not nice because of parental bad behavior. I think, probably more often then we’d like to admit, it is our own unfortunate reactions to things, our own bad behavior which brings out undesirable behaviors in our children. Conversely, we can bring out the nice as easily as we can incite the naughty. I’m only hoping my behavior doesn’t earn me a spot the naughty list this year!

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Tis the Season for Behaving Badly

Is it the holidays that tend to bring out the worst in everyone or is it just that we notice it more now because the bad behavior is such a contrast to the expected seasonal cheer? The foul attitudes, childish antics and rude comments are on display everywhere - from the grocery store, on the daily commute, and at holiday open houses. I had a septuagenarian try to bum rush a seat I was saving David at a school holiday concert yesterday. She asked if the seat was empty and when I told her I was saving it for my husband (and I was not the only person saving a seat – in fact, I might have been the only person saving just one seat), she snapped, “Well, he’s not in it now, is he,” and started to climb over me to claim the chair. I thought about tripping her but figured those calcium deficient old bones of hers would probably snap and she’d crack a hip or something. But before I could come up with another plan, the woman in the seat next to me, on the end of the row, contributed a silent assist, refusing to move her legs, blocking the row and keeping granny from pushing through. The old woman hissed at us both and moved on, trying to find someone else to bully. I was actually caught off guard by the old hag’s behavior. I guess I was fooled by the silver hair, sweet smile and the cheap but festive looking Christmas tree brooch pinned to her red wool lapel and thought, “Oh, here’s someone’s sweet grandma.” Yeah, right…sweet in the way that arsenic tastes sweet until it kills you.

And then there is the usual bad behavior resulting from holiday regression which, despite all vows to keep it from happening, occurs to anyone over the age of 30 when forced to be in close proximity with their parents for more than 48 hours. Before they arrive, you swear that you will not let them push your buttons, treat you like a child or allow yourself to behave like one in response. You’re able to manage maintaining your adult persona for a day or two, three if you’re a therapist, Oscar winning actor or trained hostage negotiator, but after that, the facade explodes, usually over something trivial like your dad leaving dirty socks on the kitchen table or your mother sneering at your choice of landscaping, and you find yourself engaged in a screaming match with your parent. There is shouting, maybe even a little foot stomping involved, names might even be called and inevitably your parent will accuse you of behaving in a way that you haven’t since 1982. You will respond as if you were back in 1982. And let’s face it, that tactic didn’t work then and it won’t work now. But these little holiday induced temper tantrums and acts of childish behavior aren’t limited to interactions with your parents. Try spending even a few hours with your siblings when your parents are around and see what happens. I do find it odd that my brother and I can get along great when my father isn’t in residence, but as soon as he enters California air space, the temptation to start acting like we’re 6 and 10 again is almost more that we can resist. A few years ago, over Christmas, my brother and I were out and I snatched something from him as if I was in second grade. He grabbed it back and I took it again. He responded the way any teenage big brother would and punched me in the arm. It was hilarious to us, but a woman passing stopped and glared at him, I guess assuming she’d just seen some spousal abuse or other horrible act of violence. My brother, in an effort to explain the punch he’d just thrown, said, “It’s okay, she’s my sister.” The woman laughed and continued on. Her parents were probably in town, too.

Ah, the holiday parties, another excellent place for witnessing completely inappropriate behavior fueled by brandied egg nog and other holiday stresses. I was at one recently where a group of five or six moms had gravitated into the living room while the husbands watched the game on the flattest of big screens. While they were watching pigskins, we were listening to a pig. This one mother rattled on about her perfect children and their perfect lives and the perfect private school that she insisted – and here’s the piggy part – they had to go to because they couldn’t possibly attend their local public school which was overflowing with too many minorities! Yes, she said it. If you have that world view, you might think it, you might even say it in the privacy of your own home, but out in the open at a holiday party? There was a very awkward pause as the other women looked down at the floor and the perfect mother realized what she’d said in front of the two minority moms. I took a deep breath, kicked back my Merlot and tried to figure out the best way to respond without putting a damper on my friend’s party. However, before the words, “Listen you bitch, what’s wrong with a little diversity…” could come out of my mouth, the other minority mom changed the subject. She had to go to school with these people, I didn’t, so I guess overlooking the comment was her way of surviving. But I was immediately angered that I’d let the moment pass without at the very least pointing out the stupidity of her comment. I felt guilty, almost complicit in her bigotry by letting her statement go. But by the time I’d worked through all of this in my head, they were onto talk of winter breaks in Aspen and where to get the best take out in Beverly Hills. Another mother came over to me later and said, “Oh, she was talking about the Latinos, we have a big population of them in our area,” as if it I would think it was okay to make fun of the minorities as long as it wasn’t my minority group. So much for Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men.

Twenty-two days until the holidays are officially over. I know the bad behavior will continue after that, but at least the behavior won’t seem so ironic in contrast to all the good tiding that are supposed to be inherent in the season. I sound cranky. I guess I better be careful or three ghosts will visit me in the middle of the night. My luck, the ghosts will leave laundry, dirty dishes and bills for me to pay.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What Parents Shouldn’t Do

One of a parent’s main responsibilities is to keep their under-aged kids out of bars. Yet a few weeks ago, we spent the better half of a weekend trying to sneak our 7 and 10 year old girls into a club where their father’s band was playing.
David invited us to join him for the weekend in Palm Springs where his band had booked a gig at an Indian casino. Rarely do the girls and I get invited along on gigs, and given that there was a free room in a new hotel with a nice pool involved, we drove down and met him there, ready to enjoy.

The first time he mentioned trying to get them in to see him play, I pointed out that he was performing in a club in the casino and that even if the girls were, “…with the band,” their age would not be overlooked. But David got it in his head that he really wanted them to see him play and he was going to “explore” every opportunity to get them in. He asked the front desk to check and see if there was an age restriction in the lounge where they were playing. Of course there was. It was a bar with people kicking back shots and the shots were not smoothies. Then he talked to the sound man and asked if they could stand next to him in the booth. He asked the waitress if there was a dark corner in the VIP lounge (because that’s where you want your kids to be, in dark corners in lounges with bottle service) where they could sit unnoticed for 15-20 minutes. He tried bringing them in during rehearsal while the club was closed and having them sit at the table by the stage. The bartenders and waitresses were fine with it, but when the manager saw my girls sitting ring-side, she quickly informed David that they had to go. He tried to feign innocence, seeming surprised that even with the bar closed, it was off limits to them. I used to waitress in a bar in college. I knew his multiple schemes were not going to work. After all, a liquor license is a terrible thing to lose.

At first, I tried to talk him out of it. Then, I mentioned how (truly) tired the girls were. There are many reasons kids shouldn’t be bar hopping, one very basic one is that they get tired early and want to go to bed. Finally, I told him that I didn’t want to be the one to get yelled at or incarcerated because he wanted me to sneak them into a club to watch him play. Yes, it was important to him, and in many ways his reasons were incredibly sweet and sentimental, but was seeing him worth a criminal record?

As a compromise, I looked around and realized that the ice cream parlor next door to the club lounge was open from 5am until 2am – because every club needs an ice cream parlor next door – and that if the girls and I ordered ice cream and stood directly in front of the ice cream parlor door pretending to read the menu, we had a direct view of the stage from the front door of the club.

So my children got to see their father play without breaking local, state and probably federal laws. I’m glad, because even though it’s holiday time, my idea of a family Christmas portrait is not a mug shot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Happy Hellidays

Okay, calling the holidays, hellidays is horrible and I’ll probably go to hell for saying it. I vaguely picture myself being roasted brown on a spit like a large stuffed pig complete with apple in my mouth by Lucifer himself, who in my mind vaguely resembles a mortgage broker in a pink polyester suit. But honestly, the holidays can be hell. I feel them approaching with impending trepidation about all the things to be done – of which there are many, of all the money to be spent – of which there is not so much, of all the extended family issues to navigate – of which there will be too many. I was in Ralphs grocery store on Wednesday trying to accomplish an hour’s worth of shopping in the twenty-five minutes that I had before picking up my kids from music class and I realized that I was talking to myself. Shopping for Thanksgiving dinner had driven me to talk to myself. Not just a word or two, but a full blown conversation trying to talk my way through the list of over fifty items from granulated sugar to canned yams to dinner rolls. I was talking to myself and honestly, I’m pretty damn sure the canned corn talked back. The bad thing is, I realized I was talking out loud to myself, and I didn’t stop. I needed to do it in order to get myself through the task at hand. At that moment, I clearly understood why crazy people talk to themselves. It’s comforting. It’s like someone’s with you. You’re not alone on this treacherous journey (in my case down the dairy aisle) that you are undertaking.

The hellidays, those thirtyplus days from Thanksgiving to New Year’s - although it seems longer because all the retailers have had Christmas lights and garland in the stores since before Halloween – are a time where regardless of whether you feel thankful or merry or newly resolved, you are expected to behave as if you are thankful or merry or newly resolved. It’s a conspiracy. You have to go along with it because everyone else does. Maybe it’s the idea of faking it until you make it. If you force yourself to go along with all the holiday cheer, the merry sentiments of the season, then eventually, you really start to feel that way. You recognize the things you have to feel thankful for, find merriment even in the midst of all the chaos, angst and family drama, and you steel yourself to face the New Year with the optimism and resolution to face even the most challenging tasks and personal improvement projects. Maybe that is the magic of the holidays-- that you can be transformed by the spirit of the season, at least until January 2nd when you fall of that new diet and realize the can of creamed corn is still talking to you.

Enjoy your turkey, be thankful, and stay out of my way in Ralphs. Happy Thanksgiving – in advance.

Friday, November 12, 2010

So Many Reasons to be Thankful

November and the impending holidays always trigger more frequent conversations with my daughters about being thankful. Back when grocery stores would give away free frozen turkeys for purchases over $150 (they don’t seem to do that anymore), I would cook up two or three (because how many turkeys does a family really need???) and all the accompaniments – gravy, mashed potatoes and stuffing, plate them, drive around my neighborhood looking for homeless under overpasses or by the freeway exits and handout the plates of food the day before Thanksgiving. I did it for several years before I was married and had children, but last year my husband, David, suggested that it wasn’t the safest idea. I really hadn’t had a problem and the response from the homeless who I gave the food to was always one of surprise and gratitude with the one exception of the woman who complained (and in retrospect, rightfully so) that there was no beverage to accompany the meal. So this year, I will be content with taking my daughters to pack food boxes for a shelter to hand out, rather than doing our own makeshift meal delivery.

But I struggle with how to teach my kids about need and want, particularly when they are surrounded by messages that confuse the two. Do they need an iPhone? A flat screen in their bedroom? Real Ugg boots? No, they want those things, but they certainly don’t need them. And yet in their world – being hit by ads, tv, music lyrics and friends who have and encourage them to want the same - they believe they are deprived without them. I had to bite my tongue from snapping at Natalie when she came home and rattled off a list of things that another child at school had, wants of hers which she considered needs that I refused (and in her mind stubbornly and maliciously so) to provide her with. They included a European vacation over winter break, horseback riding lessons and a credit card at Justice. Not that I could have done any of those things right now anyway, but even if I could, I wouldn’t. Yet, her seven year, old credit card toting friend had all those things and I was the mean mommy keeping my second grader from having them. Natalie complained that we must be poor because she couldn’t have those things. That’s when I regretted that I wasn’t making them come with me to take turkey to the homeless. Then they’d see what poor really was.

It also feels like what kids think they need nowadays has changed drastically since I was young. Maybe I’m having selective memory, but I don’t think I ever coveted lines of credit in elementary school. So, I’ve ramped up the being thankful discussions and all this talk about it inspired me to come up with a small list of my own:

Here are ten things – in no particular order - that I’m thankful for beyond family, health, friends and shelter:

Bubble wrap and the fact that popping it still makes me laugh

That JJ Abrams cast black people as leads in a television drama series that isn’t about race, even if NBC was silly enough to cancel it

Playdates that don’t end in children (or parents) crying

Dark chocolate

My ten year old telling a boy who asked her, that she was too young to be anyone’s girlfriend

Having ten minutes alone in the bathroom without someone under five feet tall knocking on the door and needing me from something

That even with my bad back, I can still touch my toes without bending my knees

Feeling energized after arguing politics

Getting old enough to realize that whatever it is, isn’t as bad as it seems

Being able to appreciate (and mostly accept) myself and those around me for who we are

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cheaper than Therapy

A few months ago, David looked at our cell phone bill and asked (in a rather suspicious fashion) who I was calling 3-4 times a week at 8am and talking to for a half hour on my drive in to work. I admitted that my friend (I'll call her Judith rather than put her real name and associated admissions out in the street) and I used that time to chat, talk about how are lives are going complain or boast about our kids, jobs, politics, you name it. We cry, we laugh, we compare and contrast our childhoods and family dysfunctions. We admit things to each other that we probably don't admit to many other folks. It is our own personal rantfest. Another friend, who I'll call WH, and I have similar exchanges but not as often, mostly because she works from home and doesn't have the leisure (or burden) of a drive in rush hour traffic to let off steam. But oddly, our exchanges seem mostly to revolve around health and sex and relationships - probably because she teaches that to teens - but also because she's very frank in a way that other women tend not to be. She'll call and tell me about her health or ask me about something very personal in a way that is disarming and freeing, allowing you to open up in a way that you might not even feel comfortable doing with your own doctor without blushing. Some people have a gift, or a curse depending on how you look at it. I have other friends who are my food buddies or my home repair pals, women I can chat with about those subjects and bemoan the house fixing up that never gets completed or the challenges of finding gluten free pizza in the valley.

But the point is, we have these discussions, often, because they are not only enjoyable (and helpful) but because they make us happy. I knew this already from experience, but then was surprised and pleased to find an article in the New York Times called, “Why Sisterly chats Make People Happier,” and felt that what I had suspected all along had finally been validated. ( And the great thing is, the sisters don’t have to be biological sisters, just women with whom you connect with on a certain topic or no particular topic at all – someone you just know you can chat with and even the most frivolous or benign conversation will bring you as much comfort as that call which helps you through a bad diagnosis or a marital crisis.

Now whenever David looks at the cell phone bill and sees Judith’s number showing up repeatedly, he knows better than to comment. He realizes my sisterly chats with my friends are vastly cheaper than therapy (and far more enjoyable).

Saturday, October 30, 2010

By The People, For The People

Yesterday my seven year old, Natalie, described an incident on the playground. She and her girl friends were on the jungle gym and an older boy told them they needed to get off because a group of boys wanted to play on it. The girls got off and watched with anger and hopelessness as the boys took over their play area. Natalie said to me with great gravity in her voice, "I realized at that moment that segregation was happening all over again." I was tickled - clearly she's been paying attention in class during their social studies lessons, but I was also struck by how deeply the issue had touched her and how she was motivated to do something about the injustice.

With the midterm elections coming up on Tuesday and all the concern in the media about lack of voter turn out, her comment also reminded me of the importance of setting aside time in our very, very busy lives to have a voice, take a stand, continue to believe and have hope that we can effect change - no matter what you think that change is. There is often the feeling that we cannot change anything or that our vote means nothing. We may feel disappointed or let down by our leaders (left, right and center), and be tempted not to participate out of frustration, anger or disgust. Get over it.

If you think there is no reason to forget about the sink piled high with dishes, the report due at work, the PTA meeting you promised you'd attend, watch this clip outlining the stance of some of the candidates and then decide if your vote matters or not:

Tuesday could be one of the most important elections in the 21st century. Vote.

P.S. - if you want a good laugh with a message, check out this video from

Friday, October 22, 2010

It's the Little Things that Consume You

Is it just me or does it make your head explode when you end up spending a good portion of your time correcting mistakes that other people (aka the bank, the grocery store, the IRS) make? Last week we got a letter from the IRS saying that we owed a huge sum for our 2008 taxes. My heart stopped when I saw the letter. I actually turned it over and looked on back side to make sure it was addressed to me. And of course, I'd opened it after I got home at 6pm so I couldn't call about it until the next day. That meant an agonizing night of no sleep where I ran facts and figures through my head trying to figure out how we could made an error on our taxes so large that it would have paid for a nice trip to Hawaii. The following day I called my accountant, a man who is the epitome of calm and cool - which I like - who told me to fax it over for him to review. Guess what? When all was said and done, they were in error and we only owed six bucks (which won't even by 4 people coffee at Starbucks). However, after thanking my accountant profusely, rejoicing (and saying some prayers), I thought about all the worry and TIME that went into discovering that someone else had made a mistake and that their error meant time out of my day (time I didn't have in the first place and will never get back) and stress (which I have too much of already)that I don't need.

Soon after, I got a letter from my credit union saying I was ten days late on the payment for my car loan. Only problem was, I'd actually paid my car loan several days before the due date and the money had long since been out of my account. (I'm actually rather fanatical about sending bills in early, so much so that it makes David crazy because he insists it is okay to send it in right before it is due rather than as soon as I receive the bill). Of course I called and fussed and found out that they'd lost my check. But only after Bank of America kept me on hold for forty minutes...40 MINUTES...waiting to talk to the bill pay customer service rep. But guess what? When the rep finally picked up, Bank of America had transferred me to the wrong department, so I'd waited forty minutes for nothing! Finally connecting with the right person, I pointed out the error of their ways, insisted they send a letter to my credit union explaining their mistake and requesting a reversal of late fees and a reissuing of the check. Did I ever get an apology for the mistake, the error that took 4 hours out of my life that again, I'm not getting back (the older I get, the more I am aware of losing my time...okay, not just aware, obsessing). Again, someone else's error was eating into my time and screwing with my money. Two things that make me cranky...or rather crankier than I already am.

What I think frustrates me and worries me almost more than the loss of time, frustration and civility in discourse these days (did I mention that almost every customer service rep I spoke with was nasty and accusatory until I was able to show them the bill pay print out which proved I'd paid on time. Until then, they treated me like Bernie Madoff, trying to pull a fast one), is that we live in a country which has pretty much stopped making things and on the whole, have an economy which is based on customer service. The problem is - nobody knows how to provide customer service any more!

It feels like they are making less time these days. Like there is a shortage. In the past, it seemed like we had more time or maybe it just felt that way because our time wasn't being eaten away by all the little details, all the errors you have to correct, all the t's that need crossing and i's that would only be straight lines without the dot on top, all the gadgets and gizmos which do help our lives, but also take time to open, view, click and delete. It's time I'd much rather use going on a bike ride with my younger daughter or listening to my older daughter play the piano. But what am I doing instead? I'm waiting on hold for customer (dis) service. I'm only hoping that this time, they transferred me to the right department.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


This week we had back to school night at our daughters' school. BTS is where parents get to visit the classrooms, see their children’s work posted on the walls and listen to the teachers, room parents and principal talk about plans for the school year and how parents can help and support their kids through it. Here are ten things I love about Back-to-School Night.

1. Our principal has more enthusiasm than Cheerleader Barbie on her fifth shot of Red Bull and has brought the school into the 21st century and infused it with a much needed shot of energy!
2. Nurturing teachers who are still able to talk passionately about what they do and why they love doing it despite having been at school since 7am. (Twelve hours days should in fact be outlawed)
3. How the school holds school beautification day two days before open house so everything is tidy and pretty.
4. How the teachers manage to lay down the law about how they want the children to behave in class, while at the same time cleverly disguising the fact that they’re also laying down the law about how the parents need to behave.
5. Extra curricular activities. ‘Nuf said.
6. Teachers who are also parents who share a bit about their own lives and struggles balancing work, family, and marriage. You don’t feel so alone when your kid’s teacher also admits to struggling to get their kid’s homework done after school and practice and music classes.
7. Warm and fuzzy room parents. We have a pair of them, a husband and wife, who I swear, if they ran for elected office I’d be the first to volunteer to campaign for them. My daughter calls the whole family, the happy family because they’re always smiling, friendly and welcoming to everyone on campus and never seem moody, irritated or pissed off as if they just had a fight with their kid before heading off to school. (Unlike me at pick up and drop off, when I’m usually crankzilla after dealing with parking, morning clothing and hair battles and unfinished or lost homework)
8. That our school is a neighborhood, public school that has been around for sixtysome(?) years. We have parents at our school who attended when they were in kindergarten, now sending their own children there.
9. Information, information, information. The rest of the year, trying to get any accurate information from my children about what’s going on at school sometimes feels like I’m in a Soviet news blackout from the cold war era.
10. That for (at least) one night of the year, the principal, teachers, parents, staff can come together to support our kids and continue to make our school a great learning community.

Ten Things I Wish Were Different About Back-To-School Night

1. An over energized principal. It’s seven at night, I’ve been up since four in the morning, and at work all day…seeing anyone with that much energy can be a little overwhelming. Okay, I guess I really just wish I had whatever it is he’s on so I can be as peppy.
2. By the rules people. They’re just a guideline, folks.
3. Trying to get a sitter since kids can't come to back-to-school night.
4. Street parking or lack there of...
5. No pizza.
6. Okay, this I adore and hate – competition over who makes the best looking baked goods for the bake sale fundraiser. Some of the homemade items were over the top, looked like and were packaged as if they came from a high end bakery! I’m probably just bitter because I don’t think anybody bought my chocolate cake! If I’d only made the Halloween themed bloody finger sugar cookies with almond nails individually hand wrapped in cellophane with ribbons…
7. The fact that they made the janitor (and the teachers for that matter) pay a dollar for a cookie at the bake sale. I know it’s a fundraiser, but for Christ’s sake, the janitor cleans up the mess our kids make in the restroom, the crossing guard makes sure our kids get across the street without getting tire tracks across their midsection and the teachers spend (in some cases) more waking hours with our children every day than we do. Give them a cookie. Don’t worry about the buck.
8. How the school holds school beautification day two days before open house so everything is tidy and pretty. You can’t fool us. Yes, it looks nice for Back-to-School Night, but we know it doesn’t look like this all the time and the rest of the year there will be trash in the corners, dirty benches and tables, bathrooms which breed plague like bacteria – kids live here, we have them at home, we know. (P.S. I’m also probably feeling guilty that I had to work on beatification day and couldn’t go). Also, can I just say, I have never, ever before seen a principal who has a broom in his hand as often as this one does. First time I saw him with one, I did a double take. I wonder if he does that at home, too.
9. Professional room parents. Your kids have been at the school for five years and you’ve been the room parent in their class every single year? Don’t you think you could sit down and give someone else a chance??? (Not the couple I mentioned above. I actually have a parent crush on them – I’ve idealized them as the perfect parents. I know I’m probably wrong, but at least I can maintain my fantasy and feel like I have something to strive for).
10. Paperwork. If I have to sign one more sheet providing contact or emergency information, I think I’m going to scream and break my pencil. We have computer databases for that folks. Can’t we keep the info there and carry it over from year to year so I don’t have to spend more than three hours of my life (three hours I’ll never get back and am doomed to repeat) every year filling out the same old forms with the same old info?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Thoughts in the Aftermath

Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide recently because his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Dharun's friend, Molly Wei, videotaped him having sex in his dorm room with another male and streamed it live over the Internet on a webcast. Dharun, who apparently was upset because his new roommate was gay, had also tweeted his frustration about his living situation. Tyler's death is a horrible tragedy. What was done to him was cruel and unacceptable, an invasion of privacy in its most extreme form aided by technology which is outpacing our ability to teach our children how to use it and unhindered by society's governance of how it should be employed.

It is almost impossible to imagine that Ravi and Wei could not have understood that their "prank," as I heard someone call it, would not be devastatingly hurtful and have horrible repercussions. Was their intent for Tyler to commit suicide? Probably not, but it doesn't matter. He's dead, they could possibly face expulsion from college and a good five years or so in jail. Honestly, three lives are destroyed because of youthful stupidity, selfishness and arrogance. But also because none of these people felt there was a caring adult in their world who it would be safe to turn to with their troubles. I'm sure there were people who would have supported him, his parents being the first in line, but he didn't feel like he had anyone to turn to. What if Tyler, instead of committing suicide, had reached out to his parents, dorm RA, a gay and lesbian group on campus? Someone who could have dealt with what happened and supported him through the horrible bullying he was enduring from his roommate? He needed someone who could have assured him that the embarrassment of what happened was, as awful as it felt, something that in time would pass and that others, relatives, friends, classmates, strangers, would support him against this invasion and support him for who he was as a person - not because he is gay, but because it is the right thing to do.

It bothers me a little that this is being framed as a gay rights, gay bullying issue. What was done to him could easily have happened to anyone, gay or straight. That this incident was most likely motivated by his roommate's ignorance, fear and bigotry of gays is what people are focusing on, but honestly, I can envision any young college freshman, male or female, gay or straight, having their privacy invaded like that would be humiliated and devastated on many levels. It is not only an invasion of their privacy, it is an attack on the core of who someone is as a person, something Tyler seemed not yet comfortable enough with to survive this assault. But at 18, again, gay or straight, who is really comfortable with who they are?

I was also struck by the other side of this tragedy, and again, how good parenting and support might have stopped this from happening. What if Ravi had been mature enough to express his upset at having a gay roommate by talking to his RA, going to student housing or just picking up the phone and talking to mom and dad about it, asking them to intervene on his behalf? But no, instead, in his immaturity, he turned to derisive and bullying behavior which resulted in someone dying. And I'm trying to imagine why Wei got involved in this crime rather than being the voice of reason when Ravi enlisted her help. In what universe do you think it's okay if a friend comes to you with an idea, "Hey, let's broadcast my gay roommate having sex," and you respond, "Yeah, great idea, let's do it!" I always talk to my girls about evaluating situations that they are presented with and if the situation looks like a bad idea because it will get them in trouble or be dangerous to themselves or others, to be the voice of reason or turn and go the other way and stay out of whatever mess your friends are about to get into. I tell them they can blame it on me, say, "My mom wouldn't want me to..." Lame, I know, but it works. So where was Wei's "This isn't a good idea" moment? Why did she willingly go along with something that these clearly smart, academically gifted kids should have known was both morally wrong and would get them in trouble...big trouble? I can only assume gang mentality kicked in. It was a way to get back at someone they didn't like because he was different. They thought it would be cool and funny, a joke. But it wasn't. And now, nobody's laughing.

My parents always taught me that it wasn't any of my business who someone was sleeping with. As long as they are a good and thoughtful person who cares about others and their community, that's all they should be judged by. And it sounds like that's who Tyler was. Too bad his community, and by that I mean not just the gay community, but all of us, weren't able to support him when he needed it most.

Out of this awful loss comes lessons to be learned about helping and supporting kids, teaching them how to be more mature and to think through the consequences of their actions. But what we are also left with is the question of how to deal with the rapidly changing technology and the new (and often destructive) ways that people, particularly young ones, find to use it.

For more on Tyler's story, visit:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

And So It Begins...

My soon-to-be 10 year old daughter got a phone call from a boy last week. As I listened to the very thoughtful, obviously well rehearsed message he left her, it took a moment for it to register with me that he was calling her because he liked her. The call wasn't a homework help request or to check the due date of a class assignment. It was a call to chat, to see how she was doing and to arrange to "hang out" together at a school function. It was the start of what I (think, fear and yes, for her sake, even hope) will be years of messages from (to quote my best Blanche DuBois) "gentleman callers" which will be left at our house. Not to mention the hours of phone time or cell minutes that will be burned up as tweens and teens try to negotiate the ins and outs of adolescent body changes, hormonal flux, crushes and first (not to mention, second, third and fourth) true loves.

The following weekend, my daughter rendez-voused with caller boy at the park. As they strolled around (always within our view), Nicole, who is usually a frenetic bundle of energy who can barely keep from bursting out into dance moves or stop from talking long enough to let another human get a word in, walked calmly and quietly next to caller boy, listening intently to him talk, nodding when appropriate and laughing a cute little laugh which clearly she reserved for him because it was a far cry from the snorting that she does at the dinner table despite repeated demands for her to stop. Whenever she passed us, she'd give a small smile which screamed, "I'm so happy right now," but would continue walking with him, self possessed and demurely, in an almost (dare I say it) flirty way in the playground area. Calm, soft spoken...AND flirty? Whose child was that? Certainly not mine.

Aside from the fact that I need to sit down with her and have a chat about being yourself around boys or anyone else, I was struck by (and yes terrified by) how easily and early attraction starts - even before they understand what any of it really means. Later that day, another boy from school started talking with her and told her he wanted to be her boyfriend. As she told me this, I tried to keep my head from exploding and instead, calmly asked what she told him. She said, "That's very nice of you to say, but we should just be friends because I'm too young to have a boyfriend." I was so proud of her for saying that without my prompting and it made me hope that perhaps some of the things we've been trying to teach her were actually absorbed and have started to work in action. But then she told me what she added as he started to walk away, supposedly to keep from hurting his feelings. She said, "Maybe in the sixth grade," to which he replied, "What school will you be at?" My head hasn't explode yet, but listen closely for the boom.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Help Wanted

I’m always surprised (not to mention really humbled and flattered) when people ask me for help with their problems or say they got good advice from my blog rants. I guess I feel that way because most of the time I’m grappling with so many of my own issues, I can’t possibly see how I could have any helpful suggestions or advice for anyone else. But recently I realized that in some ways, that’s the point. Because of my personal experience, because I am working through my own marriage, work and family issues or ranting about what’s going on in our nation and our world, my efforts to try to understand and make sense of it all for myself, is what helps me empathize or give advice to someone else.

We all want help with the issues challenging us, no matter where we are on our life journey. Everyone - regardless of age, race, gender, economic status or political persuasion – seeks answers to the things that confront and occasionally confound us in our lives.

I started thinking about some of the things people have asked me about over the years – some seeking answers, some venting, others needing a shoulder to cry on. The questions ran the gambit from marriage, divorce, family and work life issues to concerns about child rearing, schools and developmental milestones. I’ve had men and women (who in some cases I barely knew) confide in me and ask about fertility concerns, substance abuse, grief issues, domestic violence and even whether or not they should consider aborting a pregnancy that was the result of a one night stand. (I’ve come to think I must be the kind of person, like bartenders and hairdressers, who people feel comfortable confiding in, either that or I'm just way too into hearing everyone else's business!) More recently, the concerns of the sandwich generation seem to echo in my ears, just as I’m feeling like the cheddar in a grilled cheese sandwich myself. I even had someone ask me a financial question, which if you saw my last Amex statement you’d know why that is ludicrous – that question I farmed out to a good financial planner. Oh, and the fashion questions…really, fashion??? I can hear my friend Allison laughing now…given that I missed that day of instruction at girl boot camp and that my idea of dressing up is changing into a clean pair of sweat pants and a headband which isn’t stained with perspiration, fashion questions are ones I’ve never tried to field.

I think having these conversations with others is something I have been able to do, benefited from doing, and hopefully was able to be helpful doing is because in most cases I have (or someone close to me has) gone through these issues before. I’ve done my own research and fact finding, and asked myself the same hard questions I needed to in order to empower myself to help myself. Some of the issues I've been successful at addressing, others are challenges I continue to try to work through. But from my experiences, I have been able to pass whatever I had learned to someone else dealing with one of life’s many questions, both important and trivial. BTW, one of the reasons I love talking to really old people is because I think, for the most part, they have a fabulous perspective on life, having spent so many years living it. They generally seem nonplussed by things that make the rest of us rush for the Zoloft.

I really think all these tv, radio, newspaper, internet advice givers are, in a more formal way, really just the 21st century version of neighbors talking over the back yard fence, sharing ideas and common sense. We’re making suggestions, giving tips, and providing advice that will help point us towards the tools, resources and courage we need to help ourselves.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ten Back-to-School Tips You Really Need

Okay, so here are my 10 back to school tips that I’ve learned now that the first week of school is over:

1. Try not to forget the first homework assignment (completed ahead of time) on the front hall table.

2. Stash jackets (that fit) in the trunk of your car so that when your kids walk out of the house without jackets and insist they are warm until the moment you arrive at school and they are suddenly freezing, you will have something to put on them other than the 2T jacket (and diapers and wipes) you had stored in the car for them when they were toddlers but hadn't bothered to replace since then.

3. Don’t piss off your kid’s new teacher by asking them too many questions on the first day of school.

4. Don’t piss off the office staff by handing them too many forms on the first day of school.

5. Avoid other parents who are trying to find out if your kid did better than theirs on the spring standardized tests.

6. Don’t buy back-to-school supplies just because you’re in Target and everyone else in the world is there buying them. You’ll only be upset when your kid gets to school and you learn that the teachers have already provided everything your kid needs that was in Target on sale.

7. Don’t bother trying to explain to your child why cold grilled cheese sandwiches do not make good school lunches.

8. Remember that everything your kid is raving about now (how cool their new teacher is, how great their classmates are, how little homework there is) will soon be replaced by how tough and unfair their teacher is and how much drama there is with his/her classmates and how there is too much homework.

9. Remember that everything your kid was complaining about before will be replaced at the end of the year by how cool their teacher is (again) and how great their classmates are (again) and how the homework wasn’t that bad (again).

10. Have a glass of wine on Friday after school. The week is over. Two days until Monday and it all starts again.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The End of Things

I don’t like endings. My mother always said you should look at an ending as an opportunity for a new beginning. She was frequently optimistic like that. I am not. I face newness with hesitation. I hate for things to end, not only because of the sadness of the loss, but because of the uncertainty that lies ahead. Summer is ending, kids are going back to school – new teacher, new classroom of friends, new set of parents, new academic challenges. This is my daughter’s last year in elementary school. That phase of her life is ending and in addition to heading into middle school and all the associated anxiety that goes along with that process – deciding where to go, which program best suits her, which school is good, affordable and geographically desirable and won’t require us to camp out overnight on the street to get her a permit to attend (seriously, it’s an option) – what will truly be ending is her time as a little girl. She’ll be diving head first into tweendom, complete with changing hormones and that teenage cockiness and confidence which can only come with a considerable lack of knowledge about how things really work. Although she’s not even a tween yet, I can see sparks of it already. From her eyeing my spot in the driver’s seat and envisioning herself there, to her new and growing love of phone, text and email, to the look of her face and body which no longer resemble the baby faced toddler who used to bounce on the sofa and sing along with Blues Clues.

I always get somewhat wistful around this time of year. I don’t like to see summer end, I never have. I don’t really relish endings of any kind. Once I get into a groove, I like it there. It is comfortable and secure and routine. That works for me. But endings mean change and that’s something I’ve never been fond of.

Endings in all possible variations are tough, and yet as mom said, they are really beginnings. Endings bring change. The changes may not feel desirable or even possible at first, but often, in retrospect, we realize that the changes were not only for the best, but that they were required to take us forward to the next step, to show us that we can cope and stand up and meet any challenge that change may bring. Seasons, school years, jobs, marriages, childhoods, relationships, lives – they all start and often end too soon and never in the way we planned or even expected.

There have been so many endings around me lately, not only my own, but for my friends and family. Sometimes I wonder how we’re all coping with the chaos caused by those changes. Then I started noticing how a friend who was dealt a terrible blow in her life, an ending that I can barely imagine dealing with, was moving on. In the face of an awful situation, she was okay, she was helping her children be okay, she was using the change to motivate her to step out of where she had been in life, where in fact she had felt stuck, and move on. I asked her how she continued to go to bed in the morning and get up at night. She smiled and joked, “…with lots of medications and a glass of merlot.” But stimulants aside, she said that despite what had happened, the ending which had turned her life upside down, she was oddly optimistic. She saw the ending as a beginning.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wedding Band: Lost and Found

Less than two weeks before our 12th anniversary, and less than a mile away from where we exchanged vows, while stretched out on a sandy beach enjoying some (very) rare childless time, my husband lost his wedding band in the sand. Earlier, I noticed him wearing it on his pinkie finger instead of his ring finger and teased him, joking that he was trying to erase the tan line. He gave me a crooked smile, and then rolled over to tan his other side and put on his noise canceling (aka) wife canceling earphones while I went back to reading my mystery novel.

We were on our second day of vacation and it was the first opportunity we’d had to get to the beach. We were alone – something that in the last nine years since having kids, almost never happens. So when the grandparents offered to take our girls, we jumped at the chance for some grown up downtime. After a few hours, we realized we needed to get back to the house to relieve the grands, so David got up and started to brush sand off of his legs. But the brushing motion caused his wedding ring to fly off of his little finger and into the sand.

The moment the ring hit the sand, it vanished. David stood motionless, fearing that if he moved his feet, he might step on it and bury it further. At first, I didn’t know why he was standing there, legs apart, frozen. Then I saw the naked finger on his left hand and immediately started scouring the ground with my eyes for something small and gold glinting through the sand.

Two retired ladies seated not too far from us put down their summer reads and asked what was wrong. The moment I explained that my husband had lost his wedding band, one of them asked if we were newlyweds. David and I both laughed. Almost 12 years into it, the honeymoon had been feeling over for sometime now. “Newlyweds or not,” the retired lady said, “It’s a wedding ring, it means something, and we have to get it back.”

My cousin Karen, an engineer, joined us at the beach and helped in the search, making suggestions on the direction the ring might have gone based on the motion of his hands. Next, a father of a young boy stopped their beach football game and they both joined in the hunt. Another man came over and shared his strategy for searching, warning that if we didn’t find the ring by high tide, it might wash out to sea.

David knew I was truly upset because of what I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t yelling or saying I told you so, I wasn’t nagging him about why he was wearing the ring on the wrong finger in the first place. He explained that he put his ring on his little finger because it had been feeling tight (the result of vacation noshing) and that he had moved it to his little finger so he would be more comfortable. I was surprised at how deeply I was saddened by the loss of his gold band. After all, it was just a piece of metal. I could be replaced, right? But it wasn’t just metal, it was more than that. I continued to search frantically, in silence, and pushed back my sunglasses so no one could see that I was about to cry.

Forty minutes later, we were still searching. We had to get home. I gave up and as we headed back to the car, told David to call our insurance company, tell them what happened and see if and for how much we were covered.

On the ride home, I realized how close this was to our anniversary, that we were on Martha’s Vineyard where we got married, and that the minister who married us might even be on the island and willing to remarry us. I had wanted to renew our vows on our tenth anniversary when we went to Hawaii, but David had been hesitant, didn’t understand why we needed to, saying, “We’re already married, why do we need to do it again?” His response disappointed me. Maybe he didn’t need to, but I wanted to, and that should have been enough for him, but it wasn’t. So I said aloha to my dream Hawaiian vow renewal.

But now, it seemed that the marriage gods were in collusion – the lost ring, the location, the timing, there was no way he could say no this time. That night I fell asleep planning the where, when and how of the renewal ceremony – when would we get the new ring and have it engraved, what bouquets of wild flowers would I carry, what would I dress the girls in given that I’d packed them nothing but shorts and t-shirts for days at the beach and quiet family nights at home playing scrabble. I wanted us to say our vows in the historic campground just outside the church where we’d actually gotten married. The campground is surrounded by tall trees, has a grassy lawn and is circled by quaint and colorful gingerbread cottages which haven’t changed much in over 150 years. It would be simple and perfect – a wonderful place to rededicate our vows. It would be a chance to recommit ourselves to our marriage and to each other, to rekindle the devotion and passion which, although may not have eroded over the years since we said “I do” the first time, have definitely been strained by the day-to-day of being together, being parents, taking care of house and health, and following our own individual goals. The lost ring was a chance to find each other again.

The next morning, David got up and left the house early – something which is very rare, especially on vacation when he likes to sleep in until ten or eleven. He went back to the beach to search one last time before calling the insurance company. He hoped that maybe the tide had come in and made the ring more visible.

Instead of being gone for an hour, David was gone for three, interrupting the plans we had for the day. Usually, that would have pissed me off, but I knew what he was doing, even though I thought it was futile. A ring lost in sand was the beachy equivalent of a needle in a haystack. We waited, but finally, kids bouncing off the walls, I packed a picnic lunch and took my youngest daughter to a different beach to go swimming. We were in the water when David arrived. He was talking to us for several minutes, explaining why he had been gone so long when I realized that the ring was back on his finger! He explained that he went to the police station to see if they could help and they told him where to get a metal detector. He’d driven half way up island, rented it, returned to the beach and started to look again, but still couldn’t find it. As he was about to pack it up and go, a man approached him and offered to help. The man explained that metal detectors were tricky and that even if you didn’t know what you were looking for or where it was, there were subtle nuances in knowing how to look in order to find what you wanted. Within a few minutes, this stranger helped David zero in on his ring. The machine beeped rapidly and David dug a few inches or so down into the salt and pepper, pebbly sand and there it was, a braided gold ring with David’s initials and our wedding date engraved on it. David admitted that he went back to try to find the lost wedding ring again not so much to avoid a renewal ceremony – although I’m sure that was part of it – but because he knew how much it meant to me and how hurt I was that he’d lost it.

As we all rode home from the beach that afternoon, the girls in the backseat, covered in sand, their bodies tanned despite the SPF 50, singing along to the music pounding in the car, I looked over at David, wearing the wedding ring I’d given him a dozen years ago. It was sparkling in the sun as he drove, one hand on the wheel, the other hand thumbing his iPod like a happy DJ eager to fulfill yet another a song request on the kiddie playlist he’d lovingly and painstakingly created for our daughters, and I realized I didn’t need to renew my vows either. Losing the ring was like finding the things that were good and valuable to me about my marriage all over again. When David lost the ring, and we started looking for it, it was just like using the metal detector, sometimes you don’t even know what it is you are looking for or what you will find. What I found wasn’t a ring at all, it was a reminder of the importance of our marriage, our feelings towards each other, our commitment to our family. Finding the lost ring, was finding each other. And it didn’t take a renewal ceremony to do that. Yes, I’d still like to renew our vows one day, but I don’t need to…Maybe on our 30th anniversary…or if I lose my ring next summer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rosanne's Reasons Why Writing is Easier than Parenting

I’ve noticed several correlations between writing and parenting since I started doing both simultaneously about 12 years ago. In fact, there are several correlations between writing and life as well. This comes to mind as I contemplate my second guest blog entry for Dawn because I’m faced with the toughest of all those correlations – choice. I can write about whatever I want, but I only have this one space and time to present that piece of writing, therefore how do I choose which story, which topic to tell before I go? That’s exactly the conflict created in parenting. I don’t like football so when my son asks to play on this year’s team do I choose to say ‘No’ simply because that’s my choice for his life and as his parent I get to make that choice? Or do I choose to say ‘Yes’ precisely because it is his life and therefore his choice? Whichever choice I make will have a definite effect on the story of his life. He’s either a jock or a geek, potentially a buff dude or a slightly pudgy brainiac, possibly a popular-with-the-girls guy who gets his girlfriend pregnant or a mama’s boy. Talk about too many choices!

With characters on paper the only real consequence to a writer’s choice is how marketable the characters with those chosen personalities will be to producers and potential audiences. With my son, the consequence is his life, his happiness, his future. So what’s a mother to do?

When I talk to folks who profess a desire to be writers, many times they’ll tell me the plethora of stories they intend to write, as soon as they can choose which one to do first. Consequently, those types of folks rarely write anything – why – because they can’t even make that first, critical choice. How would they ever make the myriad choices required to finish the script and then choose what types of studios to market the piece? Writing then is merely choosing – parenting is choosing well with little chance for rewriting and/or re-choosing. See, here’s the deal. Last year, in 6th grade, all the boys but two were on the B Boys Football team. Guess who one of the two was? Yep, cause I have had a definite dislike of most sports, but mostly football (and it’s not just based on being turned down for the Sadie Hawkins Dance by a guy on the football team – Augie Markuzic was his name, see how choosing to ask him effects me 30 years later?).

So I steered my son to baseball – the gentleman’s sport (or at least it used to be). I even heard baseball described by one of the coaches as ‘the chess of organized sports’. You want met to choose your sport for my son, compare it to chess -- or anything else I imagine they play in the hallowed halls of Harvard. Heck, I even chose to let him have a go at hockey for a couple of seasons because that’s the sport Ryan O’Neal played when he played Harvard student Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story all those rerun years ago. But football? Please. Interestingly enough, though I’ve chosen geeky pursuits for my son (chess club, robot club, Lego First League) and he has enjoyed them, he hasn’t become the class geek. Some part of him inherently has jock inside and that part of him keeps wanting to join the other jocks on that football field. Funny thing is, I like the dad who volunteers to coach and I like the idea of daily exercise and practice and lots of the things that go with sports like discipline and strategy. But I don’t like the aggression, the possible injury, the potential for arrogance, …

In my generation we grew up with the ad line “Choosy Mothers Choose Jiff”. What keeps running through my mind right now is, do Choosy Mothers Choose Football? Or do they hold their ground and say, “We’re just not a football family.” That’s a fair choice. I read where astronaut Shannon Lucid took each of her three kids up in an airplane within a week of their births because they were a flying family and she wanted to let her kids know, “You joined our family, we didn’t join your family.” I’m good with that. Then again, parenting forces me to face the (very frightening fact) that at some point I stop being the one who makes the choices in the story of his life. Is this the time?

If dying is easy and comedy is hard, parenting is (sometimes) impossible!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rosanne's Reasons Why "Eat, Pray, Love" Ought to be in the Parenting Section

I’m going to begin by honestly confessing that I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert this week on the excuse that I needed to in order to discuss adaptations in my writing classes. Then I have to confess that I loved it. Sure, the author wallows a bit much in her lousy divorce during the Italy section rather than giving me more Italy, and yes the ending is a bit fairytale princess-y for me. But it also stayed true to a theme I first read in the 1970s in a piece of teen girl lit that had been published back in 1946 – Going on Sixteen by Betty Cavanna. The theme of both pieces is: You have to be yourself before anyone else can love you. ‘Cause if you perfect the art of being someone else and then someone falls in love with that fabrication, it will end badly for both of you.

That’s a long lead in to this week’s guest posting for Dawn while she’s enjoying a couple weeks on what I like to teasingly call her ‘Family Estate’ on Martha’s Vineyard. I’m pleased to be asked to fill in for her as we so enjoy working together (though, of course, this doesn’t involve us even being in the same room, which is the only bummer).

So what does Eat, Pray, Love have to do with parenting? That question takes us right back to my love of the theme. It’s my sincere belief that this may be the greatest lesson we teach our children in their time with us – to love who they are and not try to be anything else, certainly not merely to attract someone to them. Funny how humans need to keep being told the same thing over and over again before it finally sinks in. But it is not funny to realize how many adults I’ve met over my career who were never taught this. And ya’ know what that means? Massive amounts of insecure grown-ups leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation as our trouble-making, diva-bad-behaving bosses, neighbors and friends. Who wants to raise their kid to be those people? And yet, somehow, so many people do. I imagine it’s not the kind of thing we often realize, especially if we had no self-esteem given to us in our own childhoods. But that means we have to work on our own security issues so we don’t pass that on down to our kids, which in the end is true to our entire career as parents – it’s our job not to continue negative cycles.

What is does NOT mean is that we compliment them every time they do something as basic as taking dishes to the kitchen or emptying the dishwasher. Or that we give them participation ribbons for merely being on a team or taking part in some practically mandatory event such as a school fundraising Jogathon. That kind of behavior creates the silliness we read about now where the current generation of overly-complimented kids need to be thanked for showing up to work on time in the ‘real’ world. I fervently doubt it teaches them they are special as it is clear everyone is getting the same participation ribbon, trophy or medal.

Face it folks, we’ve raised a particularly smart bunch of kids in the last generation or so and they catch on quick when an award means nothing. My favorite story on that count comes from the First Grade Science Fair my son’s school ran to give them a taste for choosing a topic, doing age-appropriate research and filling out those 3-part foam core boards. Our school even had judges come in and interview all the children about their projects. Because one of the parents before the event vociferously insisted that awarding place ribbons (first, second and third) would cause crying among the children who didn’t win, the whole class full of parents decided not to award any place ribbons. When the judges were through and the students all streamed back into the auditorium I watched my son grab the ribbon off his project and shout to the kid next to him, “I won a ribbon!” But then that other kid said, “So did I.” They proceeded to compare their ribbons and found that they were identical participation ribbons. Then they proceeded to toss the ribbons on the ground and go back to checking out each other’s displays, wondering who received the ‘real’ ribbons.

I take that lesson into the orientation classes I teach at local colleges. In the last class it is recommended that we get the students in groups and have them come up with award titles for the kids in the other groups so that everyone is acknowledged for having taken part in the class. You already know how I feel about that philosophy so what do you think I do? I explain that idea to the students, then I tell them the story about the First Grade Science Fair ribbons, and then I hand out large chocolate bars to the top 5 or 7 or 9 kids (no need to round out to an even 10 if an even 10 didn’t stand out in my mind) with silly awards written on the wrapper such as “Contributing in Class King” or “Most Attentive” or “Best Reader”. Heck, I even do “Most Likely to Succeed in College” ‘cause it’s such an American icon.

Anyway, I highly recommend Eat, Pray, Love (and Going on Sixteen) and any other reading that reminds us of this all important lesson that we must love ourselves as we are.

AND if any of you are writers out there and need my adaptation-studying excuse for reading Gilbert’s book, then I also recommend the Written By Magazine article about adapting Eat, Pray, Love into a movie which you can read online at:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Grinch Who Stole Summer

I can’t take credit for that title. I read it in an article written by David Von Drehle in Time Magazine. The article was called, “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” I meant to read it weeks ago, but somehow, with all the summer activities, I couldn’t find the time. So last night, I discovered it buried on my desk with all the other things that in addition to cleaning my office, I meant to accomplish during June, July and August. And now August is here and almost gone. Summer has raced by and as I notice that the swimsuits are now moving to the clearance rack at Target –all the better for someone else to buy and expose their cellulite – I am begrudgingly realizing that fall will soon be on us, the kids will be back to school, and in less than two months, I’ll start worrying about getting ready for the holidays.

So why is David Von Drehle's article suggesting we put the kibosh on summer vacation? He and the reformers he writes about are trying to do away with the traditional concept of summer vacation because they believe that during that time, children are susceptible to the “Summer Slide” in learning achievement. They argue that in those 8 to 10 weeks that kids are not in school, they suffer learning loss, which is most detrimental to the most vulnerable group of children, those from low income families who do not have access to camps or enrichment programs during the summer which can prevent that learning loss. These kids are already at risk and the summer break only worsens the condition. Drehle states that, “By ninth grade, summer learning loss could be blamed for roughly two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.” For students who already struggle to overcome significant odds in order to get an education, this lack of educational enrichment can take a tremendous toll. And in a country where the divide between the haves and have nots is growing greater by the nanosecond, the implications of this are troubling.

I've always had an idyllic view of summer. As a kid, it meant sleep away camp, family car trips to visit relatives, trips to the beach. As an adult, I still relish the summertime, the longer days, the sense of peace that comes with breaking from the rush about routine of the school year. In February, my daughters and I went to a camp fair to look at all the different kinds of camps and enrichment activities they could take part in. We took brochures for one or two and then mulled over our options through the rainy L.A. winter trying to make our summer plans come into focus. This year we did a traditional outdoorsy camp a couple of days a week, supplemented by two amazing young women who babysat my kids on their off-camp days, working with them on math and reading, piano, cooking and crafts. They helped my gals do lemonade and snow cone stands, sell homemade soap and sand sculptures – clearly my daughters have an entrepreneurial streak – but I’m afraid I’m going to come home one day and find my furniture for sale on the sidewalk. One of the sitters even had them clean out their closets! (I say a little thank you every time I open Nicole’s dresser drawer.) Overall we got through the summer with enough stimulation so that my gals won’t be hit with too much summer sliding. But we can afford it, if only barely. What about in families where camp or super sitters aren’t an option? Maybe summer is, as the Time article suggests, an outdated idea which dates back to when America was a farm based economy and kids had to leave school in the summer to go work the crops and help with harvests. Maybe we should abolish summer vacation all together to avoid having kids suffer learning loss, or be left without supervision, and in some cases hungry – those roughly 30 million kids who get free or reduced price school breakfasts and lunches during the school year don’t get those meals during the summer and many of them simply go without until classes start again in the fall. Maybe the idea of summer vacation doesn't work anymore.

They tried year round school in our area for a while but it seemed to be a special kind of hell for the parents whose kids were in it because the district didn’t do it in a uniform fashion so only some schools were on year round and others weren’t. If you had one kid in a year round and another in a traditional calendar school, your kids were never off at the same time and you could never go away on a vacation without having to pull someone out of class. Also, most of the summer camps and enrichment programs are set up for the June to August period, so the families that had kids in the year round schools and would have them home for a weeks at a time in November or February found that they never had enough choices for child care coverage, no camps to step in and watch the kids from 9 to 6. It was pretty much a nightmare that seemed to go away quietly after continued parental protest. There are still a few around, but I think the grand plan to turn all LAUSD schools into year round schools died a needed death.

I would hate the idea of being in school year round. I like summer and all it represents - vacations, picnics, beach days, star watching, playing out in the yard until the street lights come on, roasting marshmellows over a bonfire, BBQs, concerts in the park and yes, summer camp. I like knowing that there are 8 to 10 weeks where we can feel a break from the rest of the year. We try to address our own personal summer slide issues, but as a nation, we can’t ignore the fact that there are significant numbers of children for whom summer is not a joyful time. I love the back-to-school backpack drives that ask families to assemble a backpack to donate to a child from a low income family who may not get new school supplies or back-to-school clothing. Maybe we need to address the summer vacation disparity in the same way. Perhaps, just as we support back to school efforts, we can support programs in our community which provide summer enrichment activities for kids who don’t have the options that many of our children have. Next summer, my daughters and I are excited to volunteer for a week at a summer camp for children from low income families who have sickle cell disease. It provides the kids a camp experience they might otherwise not have, a chance to get away and forget about being sick for a while, but at the same time gives them the medical support they need. This is a great program, but there are many, many more across the country which could use your support.

So when February comes around - and it will be here faster than you can say, "What happened to 2010," and you start worrying about what camp to stick your kids in for summer camp to give them a stimulating, fun experience, (and so you can get some work done and have a moment’s peace), consider reaching out to a program or group that helps all kids enjoy the same kind of summers we remember – ones full of fun, play, and the kind of learning that comes from experiences you can’t get in the classroom, but only during the lazy days of summer.

You can read the Time article at,8599,2005654,00.html.
Oh, just wanted to let you know that for the next couple of weeks my friend Rosanne Welch is going to be guest blogging for me. In addition to being co-author and co-editor with me on our parenting book, Three Ring Circus, Rosanne is completing her dissertation at Claremont Graduate University on the work of married screenwriter couples in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, teaches One-Hour Drama writing at California State University, Fullerton and UCLA Extension, and is a tv writer whose credits include Beverly Hills 90210, Picket Fences, Touched by an Angel and a two-part documentary for ABC NEWS/Nightline entitled Bill Clinton and the Boys Nation Class of 1963. So have a read and enjoy. I've gotten some of my best advice from Rosanne about a number of things from personal to career stuff. Although she claims that my advice convinced her to have a child when she was on the fence. Apparently, during a hike, when she said she wasn't sure she wanted to have a baby, I said, "At the very least, think of it this way, why would you deny yourself the opportunity to do something that only 1/2 the people on the planet can do?" So she had a baby. Clearly, I need to be careful what I say to people. But over a dozen years later, she was a really cool kid who smashed (lovingly) cake in my daughter's face on her first birthday and has taught both my girls to answer the phone with a professionalism which rivals any assistant I've ever had. Rosanne's son is great, so I guess I give pretty good advice, too. But if you're trying not to have a baby, I suggest you don't go hiking with me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mommy as a Four Letter Word

Okay, so the word mommy has more than four letters, but my point is, I actually heard someone use the word mommy as an insult. And you know what? It was more hurtful than being called a bitch...and a bitch is a female dog and capable of motherhood, too, so maybe his insult made sense. I was at the grocery store and a woman pushing her baby in a stroller and this guy were getting into some conflict concerning produce. I wandered into the controversy after it started, but from what I could gather, the woman had said something to this man about tasting the fruit while it was still in the store and before he had paid for it. A pet peeve of mine as well, but I don't think I'm bold enough (or do I care enough or have enough time on my hands) to worry about whether or not some stranger pulls a couple of grapes out of the bag and tosses them into his mouth. But she did. And after a few real four letter words were exchanged between them, the woman started to push her stroller away and as a parting shot the guy said, "See you around, mommy." He said the word mommy in such a twisted, derogatory way, so mean and hurtful that I could see the woman flinch as his words hit home. The way he used it was so mean-spirited and filled with such contempt that I cringed a little, too.

What about calling her mommy was an insult? I'm sure she loves her kids, just as much as I do. And I'm betting all the grapes in that bag that she's proud of being a mother. But in a way, I get his insult and I've felt it's sting myself. No matter how much this woman may have accomplished in her life - she might be a two time Nobel prize winning scientist with degrees from multiple ivy league schools, fluent in French, a skilled jazz pianist and sit on the board of several charitable organizations, but to some, no matter what she has accomplished or even dreams of accomplishing, it will always be overshadowed by one thing - her kids. And sometimes let your mom-side be paramount in your life isn't such a bad thing. But by calling her "Mommy" he reduced her (perhaps not for the first time) to a person who has no other identity -- and that's hurtful, scary and a feeling that most mothers seem to battle with from time to time.

I've talked with moms who were lawyers or surgeons and they complain that they feel like they are getting dumber by staying home to take care of their children. As much as they enjoy staying home it and chose to do it, they feel like they are losing a large part of themselves which had once been defined by work. They feel as if they are losing track of knowledge in their fields, and have been redefined by their peers and accorded less respect because of having children - even if they went back to work. They feel as if being a mother is crashing in on them. And sometimes it does.

I saw a conference presentation recently, an analysis of a novel called Cane, by Jean Toomer, which I remember reading years and years ago. I didn't get it then, but today it resonated with a depth that surprised me and reminded me of the woman in the grocery store I'd seen almost reduced to tears earlier in the week. The premise of the book was that words are incapable of fully describing identity. And in a way, he's right. No one word can ever truly capture a person's identity and it is painful to try to find your identity when there is no all encompassing way to describe it. Words as labels can attempt to describe parts of who a person is, like the woman in the grocery store being called a mother, that is her identity, but she is so much more. And the inability of that word to encompass all the things she is - all the things a mother is - lifegiver, caregiver, teacher, researcher, chef, nutritionist, entertainer, CFO, COO, supervisor, driver, domestic engineer, gardener - on top of whatever career or aspirations defined her before having kids.

Perhaps it is the collision of identities that people struggle with or how our identities morph over time - whether we want them to or not - that is the most difficult for people to accept. I had a strained phone conversation with someone recently, and as he struggled for something positive to say to me, all he could come up with was, "You're such a good mommy." The word mommy stung me. It came out as a put down. It came out as something he said because he didn't know any other part of who I am, so he chose that word to define me. And in his mind, no matter what I've done or what I might do in life, I was nothing more than a mommy. His words made me mad. At first I felt funny for being upset by what was supposed to be a compliment, for being upset for being called something I enjoy and am proud to do. But I realized that I was angered because I knew that I, like the woman in the grocery store, had more going on than that, but to him,the word, mommy, was my only identity.

So I tried to think of what I would have said to the man in the grocery store if he had tauntingly called me a mommy. I came up with several not so clever come backs (something I am notorious for in my family - ah, yet another identity - bad comedian), and then I struck on my favorite, a few choice words to define his identity, at least partially, in a way that told him exactly how I felt about him. If he had called me a mommy, I would have said, "Have a nice day, grape stealer!"

Friday, July 23, 2010

Drop and Roll

Nicole set herself on fire yesterday. Over the last year, she has begged to take on more duties in the kitchen, graduating from mixing and measuring to working with the oven and more recently the stove. Mac and cheese has become her signature recipe, with variations added each time she makes it as she tries to expand her repertoire of recipes. But yesterday, while making ice cream, she wanted to take on the job of stirring the milk mixture in the pan while it cooked on the stove. I hesitated for a moment, but since she has been boiling the noodles for pasta for months now, I didn’t see the harm in letting her stir while the pan was over an open flame.

As she stirred, I insisted that she hold the pan so that she didn’t accidentally knock the mixture off the stove and onto herself. Having done that once when I was younger, I remember being so thankful that I had decided to wear jeans that day and that the pot of hot cream sauce hit my pants and not my bare skin. But since that day, my rule has always been, hold onto a pot when you’re stirring it. But the pot handle was hot, so Nicole used an oven mitt so that she wouldn’t have to touch the pot handle directly. I turned my back for a second to get another ingredient and that’s when it happened. And it happened very quickly.

I smelled it first – it was like the faint smell of bad incense. But then the smell grew more intense. I turned around and saw that the oven mitt Nicole was still holding in her hand was on fire. The odd thing is, she continued stirring, not realizing that it was burning. I couldn’t even speak – it seemed to happen so fast. A thousand thoughts raced through my brain in an instant…Fire, fire, fire, get it out of her hand, don’t let the pan spill on her, don’t let her hair catch on fire. I think I yelled. I’m not even sure. I know I kept saying, “The mitt, the mitt…” unable to form a full sentence. As I was babbling, I reached for the mitt, trying to take it out of her hand, but since she didn’t realize it was on fire- because she was looking at her mother going beserk instead of looking at her hand- she pulled her hand, with the burning mitt on it, away from me, trying to keep me from taking it away from her. She pulled the mitt back towards her shoulder, setting her shirt on fire.

At that point, I started hitting her arm, trying to squelch the flame, then the fire drill practice I’d been taught in second grade kicked into gear and I threw her onto the floor and started rolling her around. It was all I could remember them telling us to do as a kid, “Don’t run if you’re on fire, it will only make the flame grow. Fall to the ground and roll.” So that’s what we did. Natalie walked into the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about and saw Nicole and I rolling on the floor, trying to put out the fire on Nicole's shirt sleeve.

It was over in a second. The mitt was totaled. Nicole’s shirt slightly singed. Nicole is perfectly fine. The funny thing was, she didn’t even realize she was on fire. She thought I was jumping on her and couldn’t figure out why. I couldn't stop shaking. Even after it was all over and everything was fine, I had to sit down because my legs were shaking and I didn't let on how upset I still was thinking about what could have happened.

When we told my husband the story at dinner later that night, Nicole proudly showing him her shirt and the burned oven mitt, David looked at me and said, “You tried to put out the fire by rolling around on the WOOD floor?” Maybe he has a point. I don’t know. In an emergency, you act by instinct. Hopefully, that instinct is correct.

Natalie listened while Nicole finished telling what happened, finally interrupting to say, “After all that, that ice cream better be good.” She’s right, it better be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Brain Drain

I want my pre-baby brain back. The brain that could remember a list of things that had more than two items on it. The brain that could remember the names of people I met for longer than ten seconds. The brain that wouldn’t force me to stop mid-sentence because I had completely lost my train of thought. I want the brain that allowed me to explore theories, understand the intricacies of language and behavior, and vigorously debate my passions with facts and figures that I had stored in my head. Instead, I struggle to remember my children’s names. I look one of them in the face and call them by the other’s name. I’ve started doing it with colleagues as well. Last week, I called a woman I was working with by the wrong name, not once, not twice, but three times in the same conversation. She probably thought there was something in my coffee until I told her that I did the same thing to my kids. She said, “Yeah, my mother did that, too.”

So it is parenting that has sucked my brain dry. I don’t know if there is any scientific research to support that conclusion. I don’t really care if there is. Anecdotally, everyone who has a parent and then became a parent knows that it is true. I used to HATE it when my mother and father called me by any name but my own. My father would call me Shirley (my mother), Karen (my cousin), Brian (my brother), before finally getting to me. I used to think that they should just rename me Shirkarian and make it easier on themselves. My mother was no better and I could see the frustration in her face as she looked at me, wanted to call me by name, but couldn’t find the name in her brain even though I was her own daughter. I vowed I would never, ever do that to my children. And then I did. When it first happened, I laughed, thinking it was just an occasional lapse in memory or that my mind was moving so quickly in an effort to get a thought out that I didn’t see it as an ongoing problem. But it was. I did it more and more. My husband does it, too. Not only were we becoming our parents, we were developing their feeble brains as well. David and I tried to turn it into a joke. Now, when we call a child by the wrong name, we follow it up with the name of someone who isn’t in our family. So if we call Natalie by Nicole’s name, we say, “Natalie…Stuart Murray, whatever your name is…” It’s become a running family joke which always makes our kids giggle and hopefully they won’t hate us for not being able to remember their names until one day they grow up and find that they are doing it themselves.

I like to think that the brain drain happens because parenting is the last straw before your body decides that you have taken on too much in life and something has to give - that something being your razor sharp memory and clear thinking. Once you become a parent, the number of things you have to think about, big and small, multiply exponentially, and your brain just decides, “I’m done.” I began to suspect that was the case when the naming issue developed into the inability to say the appropriate word in the heat of the moment. It first happened one morning while rushing to get the kids dressed and off to school. I had been up since 4am, on a conference call back east at 5, wrote a few notes until 6 and then starting the wakingthemupgettingthemdressedpackinglunchesfeedingthembreakfast routine. In the middle of trying to get a shirt that was obviously too small for her over Natalie’s head -because she insisted that at age 7 she could get one last wearing out of a size 4 shirt - Nicole ran into the room, frantically trying to tell me about something that was anything but urgent. Finally, I blew up at her and instead of yelling, “Go in the other room and brush your teeth,” I said, struggling to complete my thought, “Go in the other room and BREATHE!” Later, after both girls had recovered from laughing at me for misspeaking, Natalie came up beside me, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Poor mommy, she’s losing her mind one piece at a time.”

Maybe Natalie was right about me losing my mind. Sometimes, particularly when names and words escape me, I wonder if I didn’t have a nervous breakdown but somehow I was too busy to notice. I hoped it was something dramatic like that, rather than just admitting that parenting had in some ways left my brain depleted. The breaking point came when I felt embarrassed recently because someone asked me what the last book was that I read which wasn’t something I had to read for work. I struggled to remember and couldn’t, finally blaming it on my drained brain.

So a few months ago I started a concerted effort to exercise my brain by going back to doing the intellectual things I loved to do but put aside in favor of the more immediate needs of parenting, work and family. I have a 94 year old cousin whose mind is sharper than most twentysomethings, who swears by the crossword puzzles she’s been playing daily since she retired over thirty years ago. The women on my block with older children are devoted to their book club and read things that don’t have to do with parenting or self help. Several couples we know make it a habit to go to concerts and lectures once a month. My friend whose daughter is about to go to college has returned to reading the newspaper from front to back every day. I remember doing all of those things, but it seems like a lifetime ago. And in many ways it was.

In the past few months I’ve been to three plays – Cousin Bette, King Lear and In the Heights. I had only been to the theater periodically in the last nine years of raising children and going again felt like I was exercising my brain. Trying to remember how to listen to Shakespearean language alone was a real brain twister. I actually felt more alive and more stimulated by seeing the plays than I have by anything in ages. After one of the shows, I drove my friend home and we sat in the car and discussed the themes in the drama and how they related to our own, infinitely more simple lives. I confessed to her how I was finally feeling like I was coming out from under the fog which I feel has been clouding my brain since the day I left Cedars with a newborn in a car seat. Maybe I will be able to look my children in the face and call them by the correct names one day soon! I hugged my friend and as she started to get out of the car, I said goodnight, unfortunately, calling her Nicole.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Meaning of Things

I sometimes forget that children are born without knowledge. Everyday, they acquire information through experience. They form impressions, develop understanding and attach meaning based on sensory information, social involvement and direct and indirect teaching. It is an acquisition of knowledge that is constant, rapid and in some ways so subtle, that it is easy to forget that it is going on until you probe deeper to see what is being learned. The process of attaching meaning to things struck me like a stray firecracker last week when we took our daughters to Tucson for the Fourth of July. Given my previous rants about Arizona and my strong feelings about their immigration law, I went with great trepidation. But my husband’s band was performing there and rather than have him drive the 14 hours round trip on his own, we tossed the entire crew in the car and went.

As we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel and observed preparations for the evening fireworks display, my kids talked excitedly about America’s birthday party. Their conversation made me wonder exactly what they thought the celebration was about.

“America’s turning another year older,” is what my seven year old said, lamenting the fact that there was no birthday cake involved in this party.

My older daughter added with the certainty and wisdom that only a nine year old can have when trumping their younger sibling, “It’s a celebration of our country’s independence.”

I asked them who we were trying to be independent from and they both looked at me, confused, knowing they should know the answer, but realizing in that moment that it was a fact they just didn’t have in their heads. Then the wild guessing began.

“Independence from George Washington!” Natalie shouted.

“No, don’t be silly,” Nicole said, dismissing Natalie’s theory for her own. “Europe. Independence from Europe.”

Well, at least she got the continent right. David and I gave them a mini history lesson, which I swear we have given them every year prior on the same day to explain the same holiday. But for some reason the fireworks and pool parties which have come to dominate the celebration made more of an impression in their memory than the story of a bunch of guys in white wigs back in 1776, sitting around a table and signing a document saying that they no longer wanted anything to do with an English king and his increasingly unfair tax codes.

But what the exchange reminded me, other than the need to watch more programming on the history channel, was that kids get meaning from what they see around them and unless we give context to the meaning, they can go on for years, for lifetimes with impressions and ideas which neither inform or serve them well.

We were at a movie screening recently and a father with his two young children in tow, was trying to get into the event early to get the best seats, even though his wife, who had the screening passes to get them inside, was still parking the car. After being told that he needed the passes to enter, the father became angry and started swearing at the usher, eventually bullying his way in after using a few unprintable words. It was bad enough that his own children had to witness his behavior, but I didn’t appreciate mine being subjected to it as well. I know what I thought about pushy dad, but I wondered what meaning they attached to the incident. My older kid, knowing better, but also catching the disapproving mom look on my face, talked about how and why his behavior was bad – the curse words he used, breaking the rules for his own purposes, being impatient and rude. But my younger daughter pointed out that he got what he wanted while we were still waiting outside of the theater. She learned from his bad behavior that if you act up, you get what you want. That was the meaning she walked away with from the experience. She saw the exchange in a completely different light, in a way that makes perfect sense for a young child, but in a way that if I hadn’t corrected her impression, would have been behavior that she would have thought was acceptable and adopted as her own.

Both incidents reminded me of the tremendous responsibility that we have as parents to give background and meaning to what our children experience in the world around them so that they grow up with a deeper knowledge and understanding of things and the ability to be open minded, interpret interactions and ascribe their own moral and ethical compass to them. And if we don’t, I guess we can be like the mom I heard the other day on the news. Trying to explain away her son’s fifteen years of criminal activity, she finally threw up her hands and said, “Well, I did the best I could.” In the end, I guess that’s all any of us can do.