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.