Sunday, July 05, 2015

Seeing rainbows everywhere

I was positively giddy. From the highest court in the land, filtered through the black robes of jurisprudence, came a rainbow.

There was cheering in the front yard.

It was the sound of kids being kids that summer promises, but only the wanton use of water delivers. They couldn't care less about the news that day.

The humidity, this early in the season, had been treading on every inch of our humanity.

The boy was facing off on the girl; the girl was spitting it right back. With venom.

I thought a bright, plastic sheet attached to the garden hose would help cool things down.

After wrestling the cling wrap slide from its packaging, and charming the tangle of hose into a nozzle, there was a moment of awe. Thin rivulets sprang up from the slick river that cut a straight path through the lawn.

Sunlight caught the mist, and the faintest of rainbows appeared.

For the better part of an hour they slid and splashed together in a soupy peace.

I knew it wouldn't last, but I wasn't thinking about that.

Dripping wet and towel-less, they scampered toward the house where they would shed water and grass clippings as efficiently as a dog shaking off his bath.

I wasn't thinking about that, either. I was thinking about the rainbow.

As I draped my son's soggy Slip 'n Slide over the steps of the front porch to dry, I joked that it looked like a rainbow rung out from all the excitement.

Today is certainly a milestone,” I said aloud as the kids filed past me up the stairs.

My kids just rolled their eyes and went inside to slosh their spent fun throughout the house.

How could I condemn the absence of tidiness when the presence of justice seemed all around me?

But as I cheered the day the US Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, my kids were nonchalant.

"What's the big deal," asked my 11-year-old as she tried to wrap her head around "gay marriage."

"Isn't it just 'marriage'?"

"It is now," I answered with a grin.

In fact, she didn't believe me that it hadn't always been so.

To her marriage is marriage, and family is family. The definition is all about function, not form.

After all, she's been around families with "two moms" for as long as she can remember. Our neighbor, Massachusetts, led the way more than a decade ago when it and an Internet network of like-minded moms introduced us to families that didn't look exactly like ours.

We all loved our children exactly the same.

We all wanted them to be happy and healthy and kind and good people.

As friends do, we had get-togethers in person and online. Soon, we all seemed like old friends.

Straight or gay, of color or not, they came from all walks of life and all occupations. They were journalists, and lawyers, and entrepreneurs. They were homemakers and hippies, conservatives and liberals. They were Christians and Jews and atheists. It was as wonderful and eye-opening as it was infuriating at times. We didn't always see eye-to-eye.

The kids were just being kids. They didn't judge. Neither did we.

We were all just people gathered together by some modern algorithm.

Ten years later we are here. Celebrating this national milestone. We've grown past the toddler stage in our friendships, as well.

Some of us have stay married, some divorced. Sadly, we didn't all stay friends. Now we talk about the next stage of trials and losses that visit us as our children and our parents age.

And that is life, too. Even if we end up having to agree to disagree. But a part of me hopes that we will all accept equality the way children can:

People are people. Marriage is Marriage. Love is everywhere. And rainbows always come after it storms.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The universe and everything in it

My kids rarely want anything.

Of course, this is what I think because of all the time I've spent languishing in department store aisles waiting for one (or both) of my children to make a decision. I swear I've seen my own hair turn grey in those shiny plastic stickers that pass for mirrors.

But the truth is they want a lot of things. And once they've collected all the goodwill and birthday money they can muster, they don't want to be blinded by all the fancy packaging. The tragedy of tragedies would be making the mistake of schlepping home a box of colorful dirt or a fuzzy orange worm with googly eyes.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time ..."

Yet, I know every minute they spend mulling the options adds only a second or two to the item's longevity ... not counting temporary abandonments and what will happen if the dog goes and retrieves it before the kids do.

This time was different, though.

He'd been asking for this Xbox thing for years. Every birthday. Every Christmas. Every Fourth of July. Didn't matter that we already have a video game console. Or that he never played with it. It didn't matter he wanted to play a game on this device that he was already playing on three other computers in our household. And it certainly didn't matter that his parents had always said “No.”

"We are not buying an Xbox."

It was always on his mind: He put a giant X on his list. He stalked it at the store. He waited for a special occasion, and then he pounced.

Turns out he'd also been saving his Christmas, birthday and tooth fairy money for just such an occasion – a sale.

With a fist full of crumpled dollars and a check for $100 made out to him, he bounced around the living room like a rubber ball. “I have enough money for the Xbox, the game and the tax!” he said with exuberance. “Can you take me to the store?”

Of course I wanted to say “No.”

Every fiber of my being told me I'd be well within my mission as a parent in the legislative branch of this family to veto any and all house spending that could be considered “pork." And the look from my husband indicated he wouldn't filibuster that decision.

But I wanted my son to have some independence. I wanted him to sacrifice something, however, intangible as money is to a newly-minted eight-year-old, it was his birthday loot to blow.

Sure … the acquisition would necessitate some new laws.

Taxes would have to be paid . …

Allowances might need to be garnished. ...

He'd have to hook into our electricity and internet. And no doubt, he'd be mindlessly consuming our junk fuel by the fistful as he sat in the living room building imaginary cities and fighting imaginary foes inside of our television.

He's not the only one who wants to use it, after all.

There are other foes that must be dealt with … like the teenage drones his sister wants to watch on Netflix … or the three English blokes, who talk about cars and race reasonably-priced sedans through continents, of whom his father is so fond.

But this is not a democracy.

Not even a representative one.

Sometimes it feels just a little corrupt.

But then I feel I would be foolish not to get something out of it.

So, in order to cash his check, get to the store and purchase his luxury item, he has some chores to do. He's got school work to shore up, pets to feed and an entire room to clean up.

And, since he's agreed to the small print, I've agreed to bring him shopping.

After all, we're just one family with a universal remote.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


We fought on Mother's Day. Over everything and nothing. Mostly, however, the day was punctuated by silence.

Card holidays, I find, despite all the best intentions, can be incendiary.

Too many expectations go beyond cards and trinkets. Adoration, for instance, on demand. A day filled with breakfasts in bed and family harmony.

Just one thing goes wrong, and all of a sudden, everything seems to go up in flames.

I can admit, the simmering fire was my fault and entirely my responsibility to extinguish.

I also knew how it would end ... With an apology and walk around the block with the dog.

Didn't stop me from dragging it out. Fanning the flames a little as I let them burn out.

The cooling off time can still feel oppressively warm. Like hot flashes.

Eventually, we end up fixing all with a little ice cream and sprinkles.

Ice cream is the plaster of our lives. It doesn't matter that it's temporary, it can always apply.

It looked like Father's Day was going to be the unplanned sequel.

Humor that lands with a thud has its own way of spoiling even the best of intentions. Feelings, after all, are fickle things.

Knowing which expense accounts are backing my jokes isn't one of my better skills. Sometimes I can be opaque.

But suddenly increasing the volume of our voices as if we were in a commercial break from this marriage rom-com was clearly apparent.

We couldn't help it. Feeling the anger of 1,000 slights, we just started arguing.

In the car.

With the kids trying to melt into the backseat, as kids will do when their world careens out of  control and the people who are supposed to help them navigate, seem to be driving recklessly.

How many years had we tried to not argue in front of the kids? How many times had the words "this is not the time nor place" crossed our minds and traveled through our lips?

Countless, fruitless times.

Not lately.

Lately, we make time. We talk, yell, argue, debate, bring up old wars and admit that we are not perfect.

Eventually, we agree to a truce. There is calm and quiet. The children begin chattering again, a sure sign that the angry wrinkle in this day has been successfully smoothed out.

For now.

The kids don't want to know that there will be other angry exchanges. I can remember those from my childhood, too. We'd all rather tread water in the uncomfortable silence.

They sound like experts when they point out their discomfort:

"Please don't fight," they say in unison. "It's not good for the kids."

"Not fighting is worse," we reply as a pair. “Jinxed.”

"See what happened there?" He asks them. "It's important you see all the good places disagreements can lead."

Like to real forgiveness, no matter how temporary it seems.

And it's good to remember: we're not jinxed; we're on the same page.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

Ice cream ... with sprinkles.”

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The kindness of strangers

“Are you sure you want to do this by yourself?” my husband asked as he stuffed an extra pair of shorts into his already bulging suitcase. “Because, I could …”

But I'd made up my mind, and I didn't need him to talk me out of it.

All by myself I had brought a newborn infant and a talkative toddler on a six-hour journey to Maine in stop-and-go traffic; I had managed to get one kid to baseball and the other to basketball almost simultaneously; I had juggled dance class and theater practices and an untold number of playdates with minimal fuss; and I've successfully navigated at least 300 children through a total of 18 birthday parties during the past 11 years.

I would manage.

I didn't need him to change his plans. It was settled: He would be away for the weekend on business, and I would be running a 5K with our seven-year-old son. What could go wrong?

“Well ... For one thing, you will probably be WALKING the 5K,” he laughed as he zipped the case and started to haul it to the door.

“That would be OK,” I said. To which he responded with a single, raised eyebrow.

He was right. I was deluded.

For weeks, the boy had done nothing but talk about how he wanted to run with his mother, and I believed him.

I believed it was more than just words.

He had even become teary whenever I walked through the door on Saturday mornings, already sweaty and tired from my long-run, before he'd had time to rub the sleep out of his eyes.

“I wanted to go with you,” he'd lament.

“Tomorrow,” I would say, negotiating a two-mile out-and-back before breakfast.

Of course, tomorrow would come and the mother-son run we'd planned inevitably would be postponed.

Maybe it was rained out. More likely it was preempted by some other thing that caught his attention, like Minecraft or a second bowl of Apple Dapples.

“There's always next weekend ...”

But eventually "next weekend" rolled right into race day. And neither of us had changed our minds.

I imagined my son, with his non-stop energy, would be able to run the race twice.

He agreed, but more than likely imagined three miles to be the distance between our front porch and the mailbox.

My husband, turns out, isn't the only one who worried about our sanity. Several people became suddenly silent after they asked about how we trained for this milestone and I just shrugged my shoulders.

"Well ... Good luck."

Even so, I hadn't been worried until the sound of the airhorn, when the crowd started to lurch toward the starting line.

“Are you sure we won't be trampled,” asked the boy as he grabbed for my hand.

“I am sure,” I answered as we started to jog. “Runners are some of the nicest people on earth. They won't run you over. ... Just remember not to run too fast. You want to pace yourself.”

The novelty of running with a pack kept him steady for at least seven mailbox lengths. And then the Are We There Yets began.

“When is this over? You're going too fast. I can't keep up. Can we walk now?”

And so … we walked. And it occurred to me that we were walking more slowly than we have ever walked before.

“You know this is a race … even when you walk, you're supposed to walk fast.”

He just scowled and walked slower, kicking dust up with each belabored step. No manner of cajoling on my part could get him to even pretend there was a clock ticking.

I realized at this pace my wits would meet their end long before we reached the finish.

Luckily, there are always saintly souls in any 5K race. And in our case, these beatific angels were wearing pink shirts with the word “Boobies” across the front.

“I'm going to win,” the lady on the left to my son. “I'm getting ready to pass you just around this bend,” said her friend on the right.

And off he went. I had to sprint to catch up.

The challenge was leveled and accepted at regular intervals until we all crossed the finish line.

As I thanked our pace angels for helping us through, I thought about all the people who ever held a door … or an elevator … or just a pat on the back after I'd bitten off more than I could chew. And it occurred to me, I've never really been alone. Not when I have the kindness of strangers.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

DARE to be different

I'll admit, I was miffed. My fifth grader was preaching temperance, and it was grating on me.

Smoking is bad. It causes lung cancer and wrinkles … and man, did that D.A.R.E. Officer have stories. I about jumped out of my skin at least once,” she declared in a voice like a roller coaster.

It's not as if she needed to convert me. I'd already joined that particular church long before she was born. Of course, she also knows I had my heathen moments … especially in college.

If I've learned anything from the experience of explaining how a Jolly Old Elf can travel around the world delivering presents with the help of eight tiny reindeer, it's that trust is difficult to regain once it has been lost. Let's just say, I'm not one to mince words.

But I've also learned "telling it like it is" ... isn't necessarily the same as telling it accurately.

I know drugs are bad …” she continued, ready to toss me another sobering fact she learned during the 10-week drugs and alcohol resistance program, which, critics claim, hasn't done anything in decades (statistically speaking) to curb the use of drugs among the nation's youth. “... but I don't know what they are.”

"You don't know what what are?"

"Drugs! I don't really understand what they do."

I suppose I can understand the confusion. Talk of drugs is everywhere in the pop culture landscape. From illegal narcotics, improperly used prescription medications, regulated and unregulated food additives, and even to flavorings that coat our breakfast cereals, we have a tendency to over-prescribe. People even talk about some rare side effect of physical activity known as a “runner's high.”

If I were 11 I'd be confused, too.

So what have you learned?” I asked, as she handed me an invitation to the fabled DARE graduation, an annual event that promised to be fun, festive and, as it claimed in bold type, filled with barbecued meats.

Well … I learned a song,” she explained, warming her voice before starting to sing:

D, I won't do drugs; A, Won't have an attitude; R, I will respect myself; E, I will educate me.”

Grammatically it's a bit off, but I'll admit it was a catchy tune.

The look in my child's eye told me I was being too harsh. And as I saw her ernest self deflate as she tried to recall her required D.A.R.E essay from memory, I regretted suggesting she write about D.A.R.E.'s shortcomings.

She is not a bastion of unpopular speech.

And, since I am a bastion of open mouth, insert foot, I decided to go to the Dr. Google Algorithm School of Research and Finding Out Stuff to make sure my knowledge of soundbites was at least up to date.

Turns out it wasn't.

It is certainly true that during its first 20 years, most research of D.A.R.E.'s programs suggested it was not effective in curbing drug use in any age group – elementary, middle or high school. And it's true that no substantive changes in curriculum were made until after the Department of Education removed D.A.R.E. from its National Registry of Effective Programs in 2001 because it didn't meet federal guidelines for effectiveness.

But having friendly-faced police in the classroom is a popular idea, and one that conventional wisdom embraces.

So in the early 2000s, a nearly 14-million dollar grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped develop a new program for DARE known as “Take Charge of Your Life.” It was intended to improve skills students could use to resist substance abuse, however after eight years of study, the program had mixed results. Namely, that marijuana use declined among students who had already tried it when they went through the program, but tobacco and alcohol use had increased among students who hadn't experimented prior to seventh grade.

In 2009, DARE shifted course again, this time to a program called “Keeping it REAL – a research-based model that encourages students through role playing and other exercises to Keep it R.E.A.L.:

"Refuse offers to use substances;
"Explain why you do not want to use substances;
"Avoid situations in which substances are used; and,
"Leave situations in which substances are used."

This one seems to have a promising future, at least according to Scientific American, which cited a sample of student questionnaires that indicated these D.A.R.E. students' anti-drug attitudes were higher over time than control groups.

So there it was … a shred of proof that that thing in my mouth that was garbling my speech was indeed my foot.

But I did take your advice,” said my new DARE graduate. “I couldn't promise I'll never try cigarettes or alcohol, but I know I can promise to respect myself and make my own decisions.”

I can only think her own decisions will be for the best.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Homeschool and holograms

I could barely comprehend the letter in my hand …it just didn't add up. … Which, I'll admit, was ironic since the page-long epistle was trying to spell out how my second-grader would surely benefit from summer school.

As I reread the words, I pictured his beloved summer camp and all of our day-trip plans disappearing with the liquid-y snap of a soap bubble.

He needs summer school? I thought he had improved so much this year ...

Of course, his teachers didn't call it summer school.

They called it “Invitations,” and sprinkled the script with colorful words that made it seem like it would be more fun than a barrel of simian superlatives.

They'd have to be crazy to think such a name would fool anyone, (much less a kid) into thinking a two-hour literacy class, scheduled smack-dab in the middle of July, was going to be a party.

Not if it didn't have basketball …

or Knock Hockey …

or ice cream and cupcakes ...

or firefighters, with a big red truck, who would spray all the kids at camp with a cool mist from the hose.

“How am I supposed to sell this?” I asked the dog, who had sidled up to me and dropped her head on my lap as I opened the mail. She was no help, though, and disappeared once she realized the fine people at Milkbone hadn't sent her any samples.

As a parent, I don't have to SELL anything.

It's having to do the unsavory for the good of humanity, or at least for the good of my future grandchildren who should have a father who can read.

No, this is just one of the many moments when parents have to do The Hard Thing.

The Parenting Thing.

The thing that rocks the boat and muddies the water.

The thing that hurts us more than it hurts them.

The thing that will, hopefully, make all the difference in the world.

And, according to the letter, the thing that will make a difference is sixteen more days of school.

I am prepped and ready.

I am talking the talk:

“Of course education comes first, of course it does,” my mother's mind says reflexively.

“Buuuuut … Education shouldn't be punitive,” rationalizes the kinder, gentler, pushover-like being in my soul who yearns for the calm and tranquil waters we will miss if we aren't poolside.

“Perhaps we can make some kind of compromise,” this touchy-feely mush mouth proposes. “Lots of people homeschool.”

“We know so many teachers … and there are so many programs we could use to supplement summer reading.”

Of course, I'm not opposed to threats.

I picture The Talk. The one where I sit him down and show him the letter. I tell him the predicament and give him a choice. He buckles down and does his reading and comprehension from now until school ends, or I sign him up for summer school.

He cries. I stay calm, cool and collected. The world doesn't implode.

I am patting myself on the back at my newfound fortitude. My we-pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps mantra when … an imaginary bubble hovered over my psyche. In it I can see my daughter vigorously shaking her head.

“Oh ye of modern motherhood's discontent,” her hologram-like apparition warns. “Woe to she who can't say no.”

“I know,” I reassure my tisking conscience. “Home schooling would be a huge mistake. ...”

Plip. Her bubble pops while mine slowly expands:

“But home summer schooling seems entirely possible.”

For a moment, my daughter's imaginary bubble returned, but she was speechless.

I took that as a good sign.

No, really. I can do this. Who volunteered in her kid's Literacy Block every Wednesday since October? I did.

And who actually went to Third Grade and didn't fail? Again … Me!

Who found all these cool, age-appropriate reading programs that even seem like video games? Me, that's who.

“We can do this. It's not rocket science. … it's third-grade reading.”

My mature child's bubble returned … and with it came another proof of my folly:

“And who celebrated a cavity-free dental visit with lollipops and licorice?”

To which I can only respond: “And who doesn't have cavities?”


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Magic miles

I was at the starting line.

I wasn't nervous. Not one bit.

Of course, I had been facing backward, but that's a mistake anyone could make.

“I'd trained for this,” I told myself and everyone who was in listening range. Two days a week whenever time allowed, and at six o'clock on Saturday mornings. I'd drag myself out of bed and lace up my sneakers, rain or shine. In just a few months time, I had accumulated an ever expanding weekly distance despite moving at a glacial pace.

Two hours and thirty minutes. That's when I expected to cross the finish line.

At some point during this middle-age experience filled with blisters and chafing and jogging uphill (both ways), covering 13.1 miles without using wheels had become not only thinkable but doable. It had also seemed like a two and a half-hour vacation at the end of each week.

I wasn't proud, exactly. I was amazed.

The kind of amazed I felt when I got married …. or when the kids were born … or when they started making their own lunches.

The kind of amazed one might feel when they get a hug from a child or a smile from a stranger.

Granted … it's not the kind of amazed one feels when seeing a George Lucas film for the first time. Or when a hypnotist at the county fair makes a whole bleacher-section bark like dogs. But that's beside the point.

This was real and somewhat elusive, albeit mundane. As I joined the ranks of the Spandex-clad huffing and puffing by the side of the road, somewhere inside my head I had to wonder:

Why do we put ourselves through this?

Shin splints, stress fractures, muscle tears and a laundry list of self-diagnoses ending in ITIS.

It has to be for something other than the subtraction of a few seconds from a stopwatch.

We all have our reasons: Testing limits; pushing boundaries; setting examples; strengthening our bodies; clearing our heads.

I used to think it was all just mind games, mostly.

But that's always how we all feel in the beginning.

When the gun goes off, and you start to run -- a slow jog that stops short a few times before the pack thins itself out – you realize how often we forget to hold ourselves back.

Starting out too fast is a common problem in all human races.

Eventually, I will pace myself. I will settle into a cadence I can sustain.

My body doesn't have much of a choice once my mind realizes it has to pitch in and help.

Miles one and two fly by as I keep up with the pack.

Eventually, I do begin to pace myself. Though my brain – the sad, tired, mathematically impaired thing that it is – can't seem to keep up. The mile marker has a number four on it. That can't be right.

What happened to mile three?

I kept rounding downward.

Mile nine seemed like mile seven. I had scaled the wall I usually hit full on.

I came up on Mile 12 with the feeling of invincibility.

So, of course, finally being the hare in this tortoise fable, I did want all hares historically do.

I started to walk, which startled the nice lady I'd passed at least five times already. She touched my elbow as she passed me again, this time saying the magic words: “We got this.”

We did have this.

I was going to finish.

I just wasn't sure my family would see me cross that line if I didn't slow down.

They'd never expect me to pull a rabbit out of my hat.