Thursday, December 12, 2013

Throwback Thursday

This morning was like most mornings until about fifteen minutes before we had to leave to get the school bus. That's when several things happened that ended up making me feel like I was 25 years old again.

First, my high schooler texted me. "Mom, I left my tablet home today--I don't need it. But can you go on it and email me my Italian document? I need it today."

I picked up the tablet and, after a minute, figured out how to turn it on. Then I remembered it has Windows 8, an operating system I've only seen a few times (and haven't really used at all). No problem, use the keyboard password option instead of the Swype one, since I know it. Find the email program, start looking for a document with a title that sounds like it's in Italian. As I was doing this and instructing my younger son to go brush his teeth, the phone rang.

It was a girlfriend, and she had a request: her son needed a document printed for class today, but their printer is broken. He had shared the document in Google Docs with my son. Would we please log on and print it, and have my son deliver it on the bus?

No problem. I booted up my PC while my son was brushing his teeth, then instructed him on what to do while I continued looking for the Italian document to email my older boy.

We were such a buzz of activity, I felt like I was back on the Help Desk, doing tech support for colleagues and clients just as I did in my twenties. And just like then, even though it was chaotic and hurried (we did have a bus to catch, after all), I got such a rush from it all that I felt young again.

I see now where my sons get their enthusiasm to help out, whether it be around the house or volunteering for every community service opportunity that comes along. There's a great feeling that comes from helping others, from being a part of something bigger than yourself. For some, this type of work may make them feel like nothing more than cogs in a machine. But for others, being the gears that help keep things humming reminds us that we are all part of something bigger. And when we can help others out in some way, no matter how small, we are removing stress and spreading happiness. Ultimately, it can all add up to a better world. Didn't we all feel we could change the world when we were in our twenties? It's gratifying to realize we always possess that power, no matter how old, or young, we are.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hungry Games

When I was a kid, my mom used to make us eat something before going visiting, even if we were going to someone's house for dinner. This made no sense to me. Why eat when we're going there to eat?

"Because when you don't eat, you get evil."

It sounds like a terrible thing to say to a child, but the fact is, she was right. We'd be cranky, surly and more obnoxious than usual at the first sign of hunger. Best to make a preemptive strike.

The torch has been passed in my house (or, rather shared: I still have to keep from getting too hungry if I want to remain civil). But it's not only my children who share the trait, apparently. It's also my dog.

When the kids get home from school, they are hungry. I know it because they eat lunch at noon or before, and don't get home until three or later. It would make sense that the first thing they do after dropping their backpacks is open the fridge and rummage, but no, that's not how it works. Their brains are still back at school. They take off their coats, pet the dogs, start their homework, read the mail. Usually, I'm still writing or doing some other work, so I let them do their thing and I do mine. Until the fighting starts.

"Mom, Jacob won't let me have the comic book that was in my spot before he took it."

"No, Mom, he's had it there for two days. The only reason he wants to read it now is because I want to read it."

"Gimme it!"

"It's my turn!"


That's when it dawns on me that no one has eaten yet.

"Who wants a snack?" I offer.

Suddenly, the book is no longer important. A pop tart and a glass of milk later, everyone is happily sitting and reading, the fight forgotten.

One of my dogs, it seems, has also picked up this habit of becoming obnoxious when he wants to eat. The problem is, he's a dog. So he *always* wants to eat. In fact, my beagle will often go out and eat random who-knows-what from under the leaves when we walk right after breakfast. I know his stomach is full, so it must be a dog thing. Rather than try to decide when they are truly hungry, it's easier to just put them on a schedule and stick to it. I mean, come on. If they could talk, they'd say they were hungry all the time.

The dogs' dinner time is five pm. Lately, though, this has not been early enough for Flash. We go for a walk at three, and when we come back, each dog gets a biscuit. This has been our routine for over a year. Suddenly it's not enough of a snack. It seems it just gets the juices flowing, because for the last week or so, the biscuit has flipped some switch in Flash's brain. From 3:30 until 5:00, he just barks non-stop.

The first day it happened, I went downstairs to investigate. I knew he didn't need to go out again, so I checked to make sure Bailey wasn't in Flash's bed. Nope.

Maybe he wanted water. Check the water bowl. Empty? Nope.

Is someone outside the door? Nope.

I let him in to the playroom and gave him fresh water, then called him over to it. He walked right by and started sniffing the dog food bin.

"Uh, Flash?" I say, checking my watch. "Nope. You have an hour and a half to go."

Maybe it's because it's winter and he wants to fill out so he'll be warmer. Or maybe he's just overheard my conversations with the kids after school. Whatever it is, he has been wanting more of a snack after his walk, and has no problem complaining about it. But until they make beef flavored pop tarts, I'm just going to have to deal with his getting evil. The barking is just his little game to see how much I can take before feeding him ahead of schedule.

So far, I'm winning. But I make no guarantees: when the weather gets cold and dark and I can't retreat to the porch to get away from the noise, I may just have to start looking for those doggie pop tarts. Until then, let the games continue.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Love, Outsourced

I think I'm a bad mom. I know, I know, don't we all? But it's true. This week, I saw a pattern of behavior in myself that made me think, "Whoa. You are one selfish mother." I realized that, when my kids want to do something that I have no interest in doing, I will outsource the task.

This may not sound so terrible on the surface. I've been finding a way out of these situations since my kids were little.

"Mom, can I have a piece of candy?"


"Why not?"

"It's too close to dinner time."


"Hey, listen! It's your favorite song on the radio!" (starts doing geeky mom dance)

"Yay, I love this song!" also begins dancing and forgets about candy.

Ah, the power of distraction. It served me well for so many years. The problem is, schools like kids to stay focused. So they teach them all these tricks to keep them from losing their train of thought, even when something interrupts them. This is great for school work, but it stinks for parenting. They could have at least sent a memo warning me. One day, the power of distraction stopped working in my house.

I needed a new tool. My kids were still going to ask for things and I was still going to be unwilling to provide them. The problem was compounded by the fact that, as they got older, they wanted experiences instead of just things.

"Mom, can we go to some-ridiculously-overpriced-teeny-bopper-event-in-which-you-will-have-no-interest-but-that-I-can't-attend-by-myself?" The details are meaningless. We've all been there. I have several supermom and superdad friends who say yes. Some even go whole hog, buying the VIP tickets, driving two hours to the venue and bringing along a friend for their child. I bow to them.

But as I said, that's not me. When my son wanted to take up camping, I pawned him off on his dad and, later, the Boy Scouts. When he wanted to go to Comic Con, I sidestepped the request until one of his friends invited him along as part of her birthday celebration--all I had to do was buy the ticket. Her mom was going to drive them to NYC, park, attend the event and even take them to dinner afterward. Bless her, I would have paid triple what I did. In the end, my son got to go and I was spared eight hours of milling with thousands of adult, costume-clad comic-geeks and their attending tribes. Whew.

The pattern emerged last night, however, when I got an email that my son could go to Disneyworld in Florida, march in a parade through the Magic Kingdom and spend the rest of spring break going to all attractions Disney. He'd be chaperoned, transported and insured. All he had to do was start coming in to rehearse again with the Fife and Drum Corps before then.

Next to winter weather, Disney is my hell. I did a happy dance when my second son was born because I knew no daughters meant I would never become a slave to the Disney Princess dynasty. I went to Disneyworld when I was eleven, on a school trip. It was fantastic and magical and I loved it.

But I was eleven.

Disney today is rides with hours-long lines, tchotchke kiosks, super-sized big gulps and millions of screaming, sticky children. Yes, it's something every child should experience at least once. Yes, we've talked about going as a family. But this is one of the very few instances in my history as a parent where I have dug in my heels and resisted with every fiber of my being. As Elizabeth Bennet said of her marriage proposal from Mr. Collins, "every feeling revolts." I. Just. Can't.

So when this invitation came for Jacob, I was all over it. They'd be bused down, stay the week, perform and play and experience Disney, all for less than a thousand dollars. My first thought was, can I send his little brother too?

But Jacob, ever the mature child, decided he has "too much on his plate" to fit in the required rehearsals.

Me: "But it's Disneyworld!"

Jacob: "I know, but it would just be too much."

Me: "Well, yes, there'd be a couple of rehearsals a week starting in December. But drama club will be over, and your Italian tutoring job will be off that week since school is closed, and you won't have Boy Scouts that week either, and... and... it's Disneyworld!"

Jacob: "I know, Mom, but I just think it would be too much."

Me: "But.... it's Disneyworld!" (And it's hands-free for me!)

Jacob. "Sorry."

Yes, I was practically begging him to juggle and find a way to work it into his schedule. That way, I would not have to feel the guilt of depriving my child of the Disney experience. And he wouldn't have to know that he will otherwise never see Disney during his childhood, that's right, because of my selfishness.

I didn't admit this last fact to him. My hope is that he'll give it a try in the next couple of years. Failing that, maybe by the time the opportunity to travel there with school is no longer an option, he will be too old to care that he missed Disney as a child. And he'll never have to know what a bad mom he really has.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Foreboding of Winter

I'm cold. If you ask any of my friends, they'll tell you wryly that I'm cold any time the temperature drops below sixty-five degrees. But no matter how much everyone laughs at me, the fact is that the temps are now in the fifties during the day and the thirties at night. According to my body, it's winter.

For the last three days, I've had a chill I can't shake, so today I decided to wear long johns underneath my jeans when walking the dogs. It helped, and I'm both chagrined that it's about two months earlier than I usually have to do this, and relieved that I thought of it. This year, though, I have a bigger problem. It seems Ben has the same system that I do. This has made mornings downright painful.

Thankfully, my high-schooler is very self-sufficient. He gets up at six a.m. (bless his heart), makes his breakfast, packs his lunch and gets himself out to his bus before seven. That's about the time I drag myself out of bed, go wake Ben and proceed to put my coffee on and prep his food for the day. But even though Ben's bus doesn't come for almost another hour, I know I will have to go back and try to rouse him at least three more times.

Today, it was about thirty nine degrees outside. Ben looked like he was encased in a cocoon in his bed, blanket wrapped like a hood around his head. Part of me wanted to crawl in next to him. It's not a fatigue thing when bears like us don't want to get up in the morning. I actually send Ben to bed earlier than most kids his age, and I go to bed earlier in winter. This is to help keep me from being tired the next day because, let's face it, being cold *and* tired is a pretty good way to insure I will not want to get up unless the house is on fire. No, on these days, I've come to realize, it's about warmth. We don't want to get up because we are so very, comfortably, toastily, cozily warm. And I hate that he has to get up, because I completely understand how he feels.

I'm doing what I can to make it easier for both of us: I have the heat come up well before we have to rise so the rooms are warm. I have Ben lay out his clothes the night before so he can stumble into them drowsily and not have to get his brain going too (I'd be happy with just the body at that hour). And I have stocked the freezer with pancakes and waffles, and the cabinet with hot chocolate and oatmeal, so as soon as he makes it to the table, I can start warming his insides.

Time will tell if these tactics will work, and I'm trying to remain optimistic, but this morning was not a positive indicator. I asked Ben what he wanted for breakfast and lunch. He barked, "Waffles. Bologna. Now get out." Strangely, it didn't hurt as much as you might think.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Haunting

Boy Sundae
If you're here because this title sounded like a fun Halloweeny, crafting post, I'm going to level with you: Halloween is not involved, although there is some reference to crafting and definitely some haunting to be discussed.

Still here? OK, you've been warned. 

A few years ago when I was young and ambitious, I decided that, despite having no real crafting skill or history, I would try to make a Halloween costume for Ben. It turned out great, and inflated me with a sense that, with enough determination, Internet access and hot glue gun sticks, I could create anything. 

Today, my novel is stuck at 47,000 words. Why is my novel stuck? Because this is Ben's birthday month. Normally not a big deal. But when I asked him where he's like to have his party this year--the bowling alley, the driving range, the gym--he said "at home". I admit I had become one of those parents who throws money at a venue and bakes a cake, letting the birthday decorations, entertainment, food and cleanup be taken care of by someone else. Let's face it: it's easy, it's painless and the kids still have a great time.

But for the last two years, Ben has watched me go a bit over the top for his older brother's birthday parties (at home, where the teenagers could be supervised), planning James Bond- and ComicCon-themed parties, games, invitations, decorations, prizes and even food. And yes, it was lots of fun and the kids all loved it. But it was so much work that one per year was enough. In fact, this year I sent Jacob to the *real* ComicCon in NYC, swept the dust off my hands and called it a birthday. I figured I was off the hook for good. 

So when Ben decided he wanted a Minecraft-themed party at home for the first time in...ever, after what I had done for his brother, I couldn't very well say no. Thus, for the last week, and for the next several days, my schedule looks something like this:

print Minecraft Creeper faces onto t-shirt iron-on paper 
iron them onto green t-shirts
hot glue 12 glitter, shiny "item" boxes to hide for an item hunt
create a Minecraft-themed punch box where kids can punch through a hole in the box and get a prize
print Minecraft food labels
blow up "Enderman" balloons for a "Kill the Endermen" game
make a Ghast pinata
wrap up licorice "TNT"
burn CDs with Minecraft song parodies for goody bags
create Creeper faces to hang for a "shoot the Creeper" contest
bake meringue "bone" cookies
print Minecraft pig faces and attach to pink goody bags
bake square "dirt blocks" with green frosting "grass"

and the list goes on. 

In a way, this is all happening because I am now haunted by that first decision to make a Halloween costume, and the subsequent swell of pride that something worthwhile came out of it. But in truth, I know these parties mean a lot more to my kids than the ones at the bowling alleys and driving ranges. The boys will remember them forever because they feel extra special. Yes, they require a boatload of time, effort and planning. But my legacy as a mom will be one of making super birthday parties for my kids while they were young. I know because I'll be reminding them of it for the rest of their lives.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Back (In Time) To School

Every year, I can count on certain things: the impatience for routines to begin again in the week before Labor Day; the craziness of birthdays and holidays from October through December, and the regression of my youngest child in the two weeks after school actually begins.

I admit I was a little slow on the uptake with the last one. It took me a couple of years to see the change in Ben's behavior for what it was, then remember and recognize it again every following year.

At first I thought it was a stage, likely prior to a growth spurt, with no connection to the calendar year. After all, at the end of summer, the kids are usually as excited as I am for the start of school. Why, then, would its actual arrival cause distress?

Starting school with a new teacher can be exciting, but it can also be stressful. And for a kid who often feels deeply and articulates minimally (i.e. "How was your day?" "Great!"), burying that stress will bring out negative behaviors. Ben has been asking to play video games more often than usual, likely in an attempt to escape the new world of uncertainty and dive into a universe he can control. He's also been requesting a nightly bedtime story and having trouble falling asleep before 10:30, despite being in bed by 9. Last night I attended the middle school open house. When I got home at 9:45, I was exhausted, but he was still awake and asked me to lay down with him. I really just wanted to crawl into my own bed but, thankfully, I remembered how this went last year, so I said yes. He was asleep in less than 10 minutes.

As the boys get older and more independent, needing me less and less for the physical things, it's easy to let the little, emotional hugs from their childhood slip away. Except for September, bedtime stories together have become a thing of the past. But reading stories by William Steig, Rosemary Wells and H.A. Rey before tucking him in is something I always enjoyed as much as Ben. In fact, we've kept many of these books on his shelves because we love them so much, we couldn't bear to give them away. And curling up beside my baby and looking at his long eyelashes and porcelain skin while he sleeps reminds me of his first year, when those twilight cries came every night. I would take him from his crib, we'd sit in the rocking chair by the window and I'd sing to him to try to get him back to sleep. It was a part of our lives that feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago at once.

All too soon, the house will be filled with deep-voiced boys stomping in and out for snacks on their way from one thing to another. "Hi Mom, bye Mom" will be a common refrain, and they will no longer need me for even the emotional hugs anymore. I need to remind myself of this when it's way past bedtime and Ben is asking for one more story, when I'm tired and ready for bed myself and he is asking me to lay down with him.

I won't remember how many times I said 'no' to my children once they're gone, or feel the benefits of an extra 20 minutes sleep here or there. But they will have the security of having gotten the things they needed when they needed them, and I will have the memories of all the times I said 'yes'.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Old Man Beagle

We still refer to our dogs as "puppies" when we play and talk to them, but the fact is, at 13 and 12, they're old.

Flash, the beagle, is truly showing his age. He's slowing down in walking, he sleeps a lot more, and he's not as playful as he used to be. Perhaps the thing that keeps me from getting too depressed about it the fact that he still makes me laugh.

Granted, now he makes me laugh because he acts and sounds like an old man. He snores. He occasionally coughs and wheezes like a 2-pack-a-day smoker. Perhaps the funniest thing is his recent congestion. His nose seems to be always stuffy, and when he sneezes... well, suffice it to say that hope you are no where near his nose. My hope is always that he's outside, or at least near the tissue box so I can clean him up.

The other day, my husband took Flash outside and after calling to him a couple of times, burst out laughing. When I asked him what was so funny, he explained: Flash had come outside but rather than walk with him, he stood on the deck, very still. My husband called him, but he just stood there looking confused. Suddenly, he looked up briefly and then sneezed the biggest sneeze ever--so hard that he banged his jaw on the deck.

As silly as it sounds, it's kind of sad to think that our beloved pets won't be with us forever. Perhaps laughing makes it easier to deal with and gives us a way to continue to enjoy their company even when they're becoming old, leaky and crotchety. Flash doesn't seem to mind our giggles; he's still always open to belly rubs. And we're always happy to provide them, just as we always have.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Making Frienemies

Our neighbors have a new dog. To be more specific, they are caring for a cousin's dog for a few months. The dog is just four months old, fluffy and playful, drooly and energetic, and full of puppy exuberance for, well, everything. His misnomer is "Mellow", for he is anything but. He is a Saint Bernard.

Mellow has been introduced to most of the neighborhood, been cooed over and played with, laughed at and enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Everyone is happy to have him on the block.

Everyone, that is, except Bailey.

One of the things we've always loved about Bailey is how much he loves to play. He will dig through his basket of balls, ropes and bones to find just the right squeaky toy and drop it in your lap to let you know he wants to tangle with you. He was even open to wrestling with Flash when Flash moved in a few years ago, even though Flash is half Bailey's size, and neither dog seemed to know what he was doing.

Whenever Mellow sees Bailey, his head goes down to the ground, his butt goes up in the air and his tail starts wagging. They are just about the same size, and Mellow seems excited to have found a 'peer'; he makes it very clear to Bailey that he wants to play. But Bailey growls, backs off, and seems only to want to sniff, to get the lowdown on the new guy, and then be left alone.

We suspect it may be Bailey's age. He is 12 now; his muzzle is lightening and his movements are slowing. Perhaps Mellow's exuberance makes him jealous (he barks at us when we pet Mellow), or perhaps, like the rest of us old folks, he's just afraid this kid is going to make him throw his back out.

There is one other explanation I can imagine, but it would require Bailey's intelligence to be far higher than we already know it to be. Perhaps Bailey sees a new dog living in Flash's old house, sees us being friendly to the dog and spending time with him, and in his mind, that can only mean one thing: that the dog will ultimately come and live with us as Flash did, forcing Bailey to share his family with yet another dog.

Some might think this a bit of a stretch, but it is only now, five years after we got Bailey, that he has come to semi-accept my friend who brought us together.

Bailey had been raised from a pup by a young woman in her 20s. When she became sick with cancer, she had friends--a family of kids, cats and dogs--who took Bailey in while she underwent treatment. It was expected to be a temporary situation, but the woman did not recover.

The family had watched Bailey for a year, but couldn't keep him long term. They mentioned to my friend, who is a physical therapist and had been making weekly trips to the house, that they were looking for new owners for Bailey. She thought of us. We met them, loved Bailey, and took him home.

The first time my friend came to our house once Bailey had moved in, and for many months after, Bailey would growl, back away from her, put his tail between his legs and tremble. He had never done this at the other family's house when she came to visit. My theory is that he made a connection between being forced to leave his other family and coming to live with us, and the common denominator was my friend. As a result, any time she showed up, he was afraid he'd be taken away again. In this light, the idea of Mellow coming to live with us as Flash had done is not a great stretch.

Growing old is hard. Insecurity can be paralyzing. Bailey seems to be fighting both as best he can. All any of us can hope for as we age is a loving circle of family and friends to stick by us through the hard parts, and our pets deserve no less.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Flower Girls

As a Leader-In-Training this year at camp, Jacob has become very popular among the younger campers. And as a leader-in-training-in-training, Ben has been along for the ride, gaining popularity in his own right.

Sometime during the first week of camp, Jacob was given the nickname "Blue Flowers" by a clutch of little girls, mostly 6- and 7-year-olds. Jacob wouldn't tell me the story behind the nickname, but ever since then, he has been greeted enthusiastically each morning as "Blue Flowers!" by this group of girls.

One day not long after this, Ben got off the bus to shouts of "Bye, Green Flowers!" by this same group of girls. It's adorable and makes me smile, even though it reminds me every day how much older my kids are than the campers and, subsequently, how old I am.

The last few days, however, I have felt more like a chauffer to a rock band. As we pulled into the parking lot one morning, I could see the group of girls near our usual spot, as if staking it out, waiting for my boys to arrive. To test my theory, I pulled past the spot and into another one and, sure enough, they all came running in a group shouting, "Blue Flowers! Green Flowers!". I was half waiting for them to start rocking the car. And the day when I drove my husband's car, they didn't recognize it at all, and practically came screaming when they saw the boys in the back seat.

Today was the best though: as I parked the car, they were shouting for the boys. As I put it in park and they gathered their things in the back seat, the shouts became a chant: "Blue Flowers! Blue Flowers! Green Flowers! Green Flowers!" I offered Jacob a pen so he could sign autographs when he got out, and for a split second, it felt like they were climbing out of a limo into a throng of adoring fans.

I would never wish that kind of fame on anyone--watching the royal couple this week and all the attention the new prince garnered before he'd even arrived was a perfect example of a life that will never be "normal". Ben smiles at the girls' escapades, but is essentially shy and a bit sheepish about all the attention, as I would be.

Jacob, on the other hand, blooms in the spotlight. He was singing on stage when he was five, and has loved having an audience ever since. It's easy to see he welcomes these displays, a daily chance to be admired and revered, even if he's unwilling to reveal the backstory of his fame to me.

While I would never want my kids to be hounded by fans or paparazzi, if it were a side effect of Jacob's dream job, I wouldn't begrudge him. Who knows? Such a thing might make him nostalgic for his early days of fame, the days when everyone knew and loved him by his stage name, "Blue Flowers".

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Weighing In

It started with the pasta.

Once upon a time, one pound of pasta, a side salad and some garlic bread was enough to feed my family of four. As the kids' palates expanded, so did my recipe box. I could make a pound of ground beef into enough tacos for all of us; a two-pound bag of mussels would feed us all (half was shells, after all), and a pound of ground turkey made my much-loved chile, garlic and basil turkey dish.

Then one day, after seconds of pasta had been taken, the pot was empty. No leftovers? OK, we can deal with that. Next time, I'll just make a pound and a half. That was the beginning.

I have recently come to learn that, with two growing boys and their growing appetites, I must start doubling all my recipes. Otherwise, by the time my husband gets home from work, he will be eating yogurt for dinner, with a side of mustard.

I'd been warned, of course. Teenage boys are voracious, always with their heads stuck in the fridge looking for something to eat. No matter that they just ate lunch (or breakfast or dinner or snack) an hour ago. The old rules no longer apply. And while Ben is not yet a teen, he is well on his way. At least his stomach is. As with everything else, the appetite thing seems to be a competition between the brothers.

So I am thankful that I had my kitchen updated, my pantries expanded and that we are shopping for a new refrigerator. Fortunately, doubling my recipes doesn't take any extra time, so maybe I can go find a part-time job to help pay for all the extra groceries. In the meantime, I'll just make it a point not to let my fingers get too close to their mouths.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sun So Blue

This past winter, Ben got braces. This was important and necessary and demands a great deal of responsibility. Braces require care and food restrictions and thorough cleaning and regular visits to the orthodontist. And Ben has been great about it all.

But that doesn't mean it's been easy.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, as adults, that when you're a kid, little things are everything. Summer is about fishing and fireflies, swimming and cookouts. So when you are denied the little things, it's a big deal. This weekend, we went to a barbecue to visit some old friends of mine who I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. While we parents talked and ate and caught up, the kids played hide and seek, went searching for lightning bugs and stopped briefly to refuel on dinner.

After dinner, we went outside to check out the fire pit, something we don't have at home. Fire pit! Burning stuff! Ashes floating up in the night sky! Totally cool! And the best was yet to come: s'mores! The best, that is, unless you have braces.

Marshmallows are a no-no with braces, so that dessert-that-says-summer was off limits to Ben. Needless to say, he felt it was unfair and was not at all happy about it. To compromise, we let him have extra chocolate and graham crackers, and then he roasted marshmallows for all the adults. It broke my heart to disappoint him, but he recovered pretty quickly.

Like most parents, I hate to deny my kids things that bring them pleasure. S'mores are as much a part of childhood summers as beaches and fireworks, and I would have loved to bend the rules. But childhood doesn't last forever, and adulthood brings even bigger disappointments. I would rather my kids learn how to handle them now, when they have my help. My hope is that when they are older, they'll be able to make the right choices, no matter how hard it is or how much easier it would be to bend the rules.

Ben may not remember this as the summer of no s'mores, but he will always carry with him the pride he felt when I praised him for his maturity. And as much as it hurt me to tell him 'no', I take some comfort that, as hard as that night was, his road ahead will be easier for it because of what he learned.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Movin' on Up

Just last week, I held my newborn son Jacob in my arms. I was sitting on the couch in the morning, and my husband had just left for work after a two-week leave to be with us. It was a rainy day, that slow, steady rain that runs down the windowpanes and makes you happy to be at home with no where special to go. Jacob and I were listening to the radio, and I was whispering to him that it was our first day alone together, that I hoped we'd be OK. I knew we were both new at this and nervous, but promised I'd do my best to give him whatever he needed, despite my sleep-deprived haze because, really, nothing was more important to me than him. Nothing. Just then, a song came on the radio by Edwin McCain that I'd never heard before. It was called "Could Not Ask For More" and the lyrics went like this:

Lying here with you, listening to the rain
Smiling just to see the smile upon your face
These are the moments I thank God that I'm alive;
These are the moments I'll remember all my life
I've found all I've waited for, and I could not ask for more.

Of course, I started bawling all over the poor, unknowing kid. It felt like the song had been written just for us, and was being played at the moment of my deepest insecurity to remind me that *this* is what life is all about, and that I was right where I was meant to be.

And just the other day, I held my youngest newborn son, Ben, in the hospital. I was in complete awe over his long eyelashes, tiny fingernails, enormous brown eyes and perfect skin. When my husband and three-year-old Jacob came in to meet him, I could see the love and excitement in their eyes, feel the joy of our expanding family and the impatience to get all of us home to begin our lives together.

I remember learning all about Ben, how completely different he was from his brother; a terrific eater and a terrible sleeper. I loved watching him watch his brother, his eyes following him around the room with longing, his constant wiggling and squirming as he tried in vain to get up off the changing table and run after his brother. It was pure adoration.

This week, Jacob will be graduating from 8th grade and moving up to high school. Ben will graduate from 5th grade and be moving up to middle school. They are kind, compassionate, responsible, loving and sharp-witted boys (and I say that purely objectively). They make me proud every day, and I shudder to think about next week, when I will be attending their college graduation ceremonies, and the week after that when they will be getting married, and next month when I will become a grandmother.

Savor the moments. Take pictures, and look at them often. Write them down, then read them over and over. Share them with your children. Tell them why these moments are important to you, why your *children* are important to you, and how they make you feel. Live and re-live your life with them, as often as possible. It will keep you going on the bad days and help remind you of everything you're doing right. It will inspire you to create more good days and to continue to treasure every interaction.

A wise person once said that when it comes to parenthood, the days are long but the years are short. It was the biggest understatement ever spoken.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shock and Awe

Last week, Jacob went on his first date, something I think is wonderful. But for some reason, each time I mentioned it to one of my mom friends (who have children the same age as Jacob), I got the same reaction: "Oh my god!"

The first time it happened, I laughed. Wow, can you believe that we're old enough to have children who date? Our babies, who brought us together at the new mothers' group at the local library, are no longer babies. How time flies, I figured she was thinking.

But then it happened again. And again. And suddenly, I was wondering, what the heck? Why do these mothers sound so afraid, aghast, shocked? I didn't say Jacob got arrested. I didn't say I'd found a crack pipe in his backpack. So why all the horror?

Could it be that, since they don't know the kids involved as well as I do, their minds go down the stereotypical "teen dating" track? Dating leads to kissing leads to petting leads to--agh!--sex. It's understandable.  As parents, none of us want to think about our kids being old enough for that. 

But just because I (and the kids) called it a date, we must not forget that the interested parties are kids. So they are starting off with baby steps, as they would with any new endeavor. Dinner at a restaurant, dessert at the ice cream stand, then hanging out and drawing at the house afterwards. Sweet. By the book. Like when I was a kid.

They worked out the details of restaurant, finances and timing. I just did the driving. They have been good friends for a few years because they have a lot in common. And they are both new to the whole "dating" thing, likely influenced by hearing all of their peers talk about it. But the reality? It's just a play date by another name.

There are a lot of scary things in the world, and I need to prepare my boys to face them. And maybe it's just my own naivete, but I don't see dating as one of them.

To me, dating is the beginning of a years-long journey in emotional maturity and self-discovery. Jacob's going to have to go through it eventually; we all do. It's part of growing up. Now I'm seeing him start the journey with someone he cares about, someone with whom he's shared a strong friendship, lots of laughter and mutual respect for years already. Aren't those the very things that all lasting relationships are based on?

Like any parent, I want my kids to be happy. It's my hope that one day Jacob will begin his married life the same way--with a good and trusted friend by his side. So although that's still many years down the road, shock and awe aside, I'm pretty confident he's off to a great start.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dynamic Shift

Last week was a confusing one for Flash. For three days, my oldest son was on a trip with his class to Washington D.C. One less kid isn't terribly strange, at least to the dogs, because it happens temporarily all the time. But during one of those days, Bailey also went to the vet for a full day for some minor surgery. As the pack continued to shrink and not re-grow at the end of the day, Flash started to look worried.

Ben and I gave him lots of lovin', took him for extra walks and reminded him he was a good boy. But he spent a lot of time in his bed, only raising his head to look at me forlornly every time I came downstairs, as if asking, "what did I do wrong? How can I get him back?"

It's strange how you don't really consider the dynamic of a family until it experiences a distinct shift. Kids, of course, are the first to feel the difference. Ben didn't seem to know how to behave without Jacob in the house. Who is he when not considered in relation to his brother, the guy who's been there just like Mom and Dad ever since the day Ben was born? I couldn't figure out if he was more outgoing than usual, or if I was just more tuned-in to him. But he definitely seemed to be feeling his way, clinging a little more and acting a little differently.

Ironically, Flash seemed to be feeling the same effects in Bailey's absence. Without 'big brother' by his side, he was hesitant to walk far from me when we went out, and was particularly happy to be petted indefinitely, getting closer and closer as I scratched his ears. He'd likely have crawled into my lap if I'd let him.

More than love, I think the little guys were feeling an indefinable loss of themselves with the big guys gone. As much as they squabble, jump claim on each others' toys and beds, they look to their elders for guidance in their behavior. Sometimes it's annoying when they're around, because they're around ALL THE TIME. But when they're suddenly NOT around, things just aren't right. There is comfort in knowing they always come back, so when they don't, there's doesn't seem to be proper closure to the day.

Happily, the entire pack was reunited by Friday night, along with the addition of my writers' group. To say it was crowded and chaotic is an understatement; to describe the noise level would be difficult. Everyone stayed up far too late. But one thing is certain: everyone was happy to have everyone home, to get back to our regularly scheduled, messy life.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Night At The Library

When I was a kid, my library was walking distance from my house. A three-story building with thousands of books and lots of nooks and crannies for curling up far away from my noisy brother, it was my second home.

Fast forward, er, a bunch of years. As soon as I had kids of my own, I sought out the library in our town for books, story time, sing-a-longs and every other bit of magic libraries offer. To this day, my kids love the library, for various reasons, including the after school clubs. My middle-schooler has been part of an Anime/Gaming club this year, and it's a great way for him to socialize with friends who have already moved up to the high school. Once a year, the library holds a lock-in: an overnight event open only to members of the club. This year, Jacob got to participate.

With Jacob's permission I offered to chaperon if necessary, and the staff took me up on it. I'm not sure who was more excited: me or Jacob. This past Friday, we showed up as the library was closing, sleeping bags, pillows and toothbrushes in hand, for our first ever library sleepover.

First off, it should be noted that, in this particular instance, the very definitions of 'library' and 'sleepover' go right out the window. This is because:

1)  I am fairly confident the library walls have never contained the volumes it did that night (I'm talking audio, not literary or crowds). There were 15 of us: two adults, four teenage boys and nine teenage girls. If my calculations are correct, 9TeenG + 4TeenB (pizza + Doritos + Pepsi) = energy + volume levels200. When glow sticks are factored in, the exponent doubles.

2) Very little sleeping occurred. Apparently, teenage brains closely resemble those of bats in that they are most active at night and in the wee morning hours. As a result, things didn't really get rolling until about 10pm (note: this is my usual bedtime).

Despite appearances, teenagers are really just little kids in adult bodies. Even though I expected everyone to play video games, watch movies and text all night, none of that happened.

When the energy got high, there was a library-wide scavenger hunt, a multi-round game of hide-and-seek and a 100+ glow stick fight. And when it slowed down, there were lanyards and friendship bracelets, cookies and books, card games and nail polish, music and lots of conversation. One student even pulled out his favorite kiddie books from the Children's Room: Goodnight Moon, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and a stack of others. He read them all, out loud, and had an attentive audience.

I was able to stay awake until about 2:15, then dozed for another hour until it was finally 'lights out'. With the girls in one section of the library, the boys in another and the librarian and me in the middle, I slept like a cat, rousing whenever I heard the slightest sound. By 6:15am, kids were headed back and forth to the bathrooms, and it was time for breakfast.

Despite having too much junk food and not enough sleep, it was a great night, even for me. I got some reading done, some writing, and learned a few things from each kid I spoke with. Jacob loved it too. He had hours of play time with his closest friends, with no little brother or bedtime to interrupt the fun. Mom was there but somehow managed to not embarrass him. And best of all, a girl he's liked for a while asked him out, and everyone applauded.

(PS: he said 'yes'.)

On the way home, I asked Jacob if he would do it again next year. Through his yawns, he said his only complaint is that he has to wait a whole year. Would I do it again? Yes, especially if the kids are as terrific as the ones from this year. Next time, I may even get in on the glow stick fight.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Groupie

My eldest son, now 13, has always loved to sing. He graduated from chorus to All-County Chorus in school a few years ago, took some private voice lessons for a while and is also a part of the drama club at school (think: musicals). So most people would assume it was only a matter of time until I would hear him utter those fateful words: "Mom, I joined a band."

I was not one of those people.

When I hear the word "band", I think of horns and clarinets and off-key productions in the school auditorium. No, Jacob explained, a rock band. He saw a flyer in school, he went to the audition and passed the test. I was looking at the new lead singer for Black Magma.

Oh, ha ha, OK, great! Sounds like fun, I encouraged. The next day, he asked if he could host band practice at our house on Saturday. As far as I knew, they were still looking for a drummer, so I said he could. Five teenage boys and no drummer. How bad could it be?

Further investigation revealed that practice would include a keyboardist, a bass player, two guitar players, multiple amps and microphones and lots and lots of volume. We quickly deduced we did not have the space, relegated them to the outside deck and prayed for good weather.

Saturday came. We rounded up power strips and extension cords, warned the neighbors and locked up the dogs. Four vans full of gear arrived and emptied out. My husband was the roadie. Snacks and drinks were distributed. Plugs were plugged in. Instruments were tuned up. Lyrics were printed out. Our neighbors had guests over, and just as practice was beginning, we noticed them all filing out onto their deck. Had they forgotten our warning? Apparently not, because although it was chilly, they remained outside and the music began.

I went inside to try to do some work. I figured since the boys were outside on the lower deck and I was inside on the upper level, I might just get some writing done. Clearly, this was my first band practice. I got nothing done. But I did enjoy watching them from the window, listening to them laugh as they talked and worked together. When I heard them belt out songs by KISS and Iron Maiden in their sweet, on-the-verge-of-changing voices, and saw their smiles and pink cheeks in the cool air, I had to resist the urge to tell them how cute they all were. (I double-checked with my mom on this one: 'cute' is a definite no-no word when talking to rock bands.) But when they finished rehearsal and the neighbors all stood up and applauded, my heart swelled more than it would have if they had been at Madison Square Garden.

Yes, the dogs were out of their minds. Yes, it took 1/4 of the practice to set up and break down all the equipment and they only practiced three songs. But they had a great time, are planning their next rehearsal, and the whole experience made me realize my little boy isn't a little boy anymore. As I stood around chatting with the other moms about it, this sad realization was tempered when a few of the band members, after packing up, made their parents stay a few minutes longer so they could go play on the swing set in the corner of the yard.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Connoisseur

Recently, Flash (our Beagle) has been on antibiotics. It's a three-week, twice-a-day regimen of big, chalky pills that must be taken with food. Never a fan of regular ol' dog food, Flash is already a tough customer when it comes to selling him on finishing his meals. So in order to be sure he'd take the pill and then finish his food, we have developed a complex choreography of song-and-dance most often reserved for picky toddlers. 

At first, we would wrap the pill in a small piece of bread and feed it to him. To get him to eat the dog food in his dish right after that, we'd pour warm water over his kibble to form a gravy. That worked for a day or two, but then he started eating the bread and spitting out the now-mushy pill. So I started melting a little chicken fat and dipping the bread in the resulting liquid to give it a bit of flavor and enticing aroma. Then I would mix the remaining fat with warm water and pour it over the kibble to warm it up and give it some flavor. That worked for a couple more days. Then Flash figured out how to get the pill out of the wet bread and starting spitting it out again.

So then I decided to try wrapping a thinly sliced piece of roast beef around the pill. I figured if he didn't take my fingers off with it, he'd snarf the whole thing down so fast, he wouldn't even realize there was a pill inside. I was right. To get him to eat his kibble afterward, I would pour warm water over it, and bury a few little pieces of the roast beef in the pile so he'd eat his way down to it.

Not to be outsmarted, Flash used his infamous nose to sniff out the pieces of beef, digging through the kibble and dropping it on the tray around his dish. Why fill up on that garbage when you can have real beef? Eventually he would find all the beef and then go back and eat the kibble because he was still hungry. But today, he decided he only wanted the meat. When he finished eating, his food tray looked like the underside of a toddler's high chair. I'm running out of options.

I laugh because when we first got Flash, Ben commented on how he would just wolf down his food, unlike Bailey, who would 'savor it.' Clearly, raising the bar of what goes in his dish has gone to Flash's head. The worst part is that he is going to be sorely disappointed when he finishes his medicine this week and goes back to being served dry kibble. But he's obviously a smart dog; eventually he'll realize there's nothing else coming. Maybe then he'll go back to clearing his plate.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Winter, A Day At A Time

It has never happened to me before. Perhaps this winter has been more harsh than usual, or my body less able to cope with it. Regardless, today was the second time I experienced it and, even more than the groundhog, it has given me hope.

The first time was a few weeks ago. I was walking my dogs on the same route I always do: down my block, past my neighbors' houses, then round the bend toward the little stream. When I got to the end of my block, bundled under two hoods, thick fleece gloves, long underwear and snow boots, just before turning the corner, it struck me: the smell of lilacs and freshly mown grass. I stopped still. Ignoring the confused dogs, I stood like one of them, sniffing the air, turning around, sniffing harder. Where was it coming from? I walked a few more steps and smelled it again, looked around, for what I don't really know. A still-warm lawn mower? Shaking my head at myself and glad that no one else was crazy enough to be out in this weather and see me acting like a fool, I rounded the corner and it was gone. But on the way back, in that same spot, I smelled it still. Though I knew it was ridiculous and likely just some fabric softener venting from a nearby dryer, I didn't care. I stood there basking in this Bermuda Triangle of spring freshness for as long as the dogs let me, then walked home smiling.

Today, in the same spot, it happened again. But this time, it was roses. I turned, half expecting to see some blooming bushes on my neighbor's lawn, poking out of the snow, riotous with color. But of course, there was no such thing, only dead branches that had blown down in the past days' high winds. Nearby, discarded Christmas trees with the tags still on the trunks made a depressing scene in the woods. Deer tracks in the snow wound between the bare trees, past an abandoned and falling-down shack. I walked on.

The human brain is an incredible thing: it can block out trauma when it is more than one can bear; hold vividly detailed, decades-old memories; learn all our lives long. Perhaps mine has had enough of my self-imposed hibernation, the same four walls day after day, broken only by pages of poetry for escape. Whatever sparked it, my brain has found a way to induce me into walking around the block daily, regardless of the weather, with the promise of something too long dormant, something it knows I need more than anything else right now. And though my brain knows nature can't provide it just yet, it's going to draw on its amazing tools to remind me to just get up and get out tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; that each of those tomorrows will ultimately bring me back to the heaven of spring.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Wanted: Comic Relief

I can already tell that this post is going to make me come off sounding like a prudish old granny, but here goes: what the heck is up with comic books these days?

My 13-year-old recently asked me to reserve a book for him at the library called "How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You". It's a few months old, and contains cartoon drawings and humorous ways to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you, such as, "Kneading on You: you may think this is a sign of affection, but your cat is actually checking your internal organs for weaknesses." Sounds funny, right? Kid- (or at least teen-) oriented, right?

Suffice it to say I felt no need, after seeing a few pages, to fully screen the book before my kids got a look. They had seen some of the comics online already at, which is how they came to request the book.

Imagine my surprise on discovering there are words in there like D-bag (spelled out and no, it doesn't mean dirtbag, as my youngest previously thought), dammit and God... dangit.

So what's a mother to do? I think I am like most parents, thrilled that my kids are reading anything. I barely have time to keep up with my own reading, and now I have to screen and possibly censor my kids' reading?

And that's another problem. Now I have to censor comic books? What's next, book burning? I know some Manga drawings can lean toward the, er, sexual side. But this is about a cat. I wasn't worried, and thought I had no reason to be. Sadly, it seems the line was blurred between adult and children's humor when animation for grownups started gaining steam on television. South Park. Family Guy. King of the Hill. And don't even get me started on the stuff they show on Cartoon Network. I don't think much of it is fit for *human* consumption, let alone kids. It's only natural these things would show up on the Internet and in books.

I grew up on Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Magilla Gorilla and Wacky Races on Saturday mornings. I read Peanuts and Garfield books, and Richie Rich and Archie comic books. I can understand the cautionary tale for parents on the dangers of letting television babysit their kids without checking up on them, but books? Is this part of the downfall of publishing?

Thankfully, I have a great Young Adult librarian in my town whose services I'll clearly need to seek out more than ever before. I'd be interested to learn if this is a new phenomenon parents are facing, or if I'm just now being introduced to a years-old dilemma. Anyone?

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Wrong Crowd

Like most parents, one of the (many) things I worry about is that my kids will end up hanging out with 'the wrong crowd', a.k.a. kids that make questionable decisions that might get them locked up or, worse, negatively influence my own children's behavior. To give myself a false sense of security, I clearly and regularly communicate with my kids about our value system and what I expect of them. If nothing else, I figure that if they even *think* about making a bad decision, it will inflict such terrible guilt that they will run screaming for the nearest confessional.

So what do you do when the bad influence is on your pet?

Ever since adopting our beagle Flash, we've treated both of our dogs the same--plenty of play, food, water, walks and lovin'. Flash had never really been trained, so our house with rules took some getting used to, to say the least. We had hoped, as we did when we had children, that the newest addition would learn from the already established, bigger sibling on how to behave and score the most points with his parents. Lately, though, the reverse has been happening, and I'm starting to wonder if Bailey has a previously untapped rebellious streak that Flash has managed to bring out.

Bailey is a very clear communicator. Like a baby's many cries, he has various whines and barks that let us know when he needs something. "I need some water" is different from "I need to go out", and "play with me" is different from "there's a bogeyman at the door and I want to go for his throat before he gives you the package in his hands that is clearly a bomb".

Flash, on the other hand, seems to bark for no reason. Sometimes incessantly. I was starting to wonder if he was hearing cat voices in his head because sometimes, I just could not figure out any reason for his barking. He also barks at every other dog in the neighborhood, whether the dog is present or not. Monty had a walk two hours ago? I smell him, he went this way, bark bark bark bark bark. There's a doberman walking on the next block; I can hear his chain jangling. Bark bark bark bark bark. Spot is inside his house, but I can see him through the glass in the door 100 feet away. Bark bark bark bark bark. Annoying, but not earth-shattering. Until recently.

Bailey, who was always very business-like on his walks (sniff, do the job, keep walking) has changed. If he's being walked by himself, he acts as he always has. But if I am walking the dogs together, Bailey starts barking as soon as Flash does. He may not know why, but that doesn't stop him.

Flash is also a jumper. If I pick up a leash, or start putting on my coat, Bailey will pace and whine, knowing we're going out. But Flash will jump up and down and run circles around my feet. I have to be careful not to trip on him. Well, the other day, Bailey got it in his head to try the jumping thing too. Except that he's twice the size of Flash. And he did it while I was bent over him, trying to fasten his leash on. My black eye is almost gone; the lip swelling faded by that afternoon. The neighbors seem to know better than to ask.

So what do you do when one pet is being a bad influence on the other? I praise Bailey for his good behavior, and scold them both when they act up, just like I do with the kids. And now, I am walking them separately and putting leashes on veeeery carefully. It seems to be helping, and the upshot is that I'm getting twice the amount of exercise I was before. But so help me, if I find Flash smoking cigarettes in the back corner of the playroom, there will be a cone of shame with his name on it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pencil Me In

Ah, man, you clever creature. You created the measurement of time passing, instantly devising a way to plan, schedule and otherwise put pressure on yourself. Expanded to calendars, you can now start every "new year" with a feeling of urgency to get your act together, life in order and long back-burnered projects into the forefront of your to-do list.


Is this calendar-oriented calculating we do every year (lose weight after the holidays; honor Mom and Dad on their designated days of each year, send that someone special flowers because it's mid-February) really helpful? Or does it instead just give us license to stop thinking about the things and people of true importance in our lives until a little reminder pops up on our screens?

I know from personal experience that the more gadgets and apps I have to keep me organized, the less time I seem to spend with my children, my husband, my books and myself. Look at how efficient I've become! I can schedule in dozens of things this week, and then race around ticking them off my list as I do them!

At the end of the day, though, I feel exhausted instead of energized, and empty instead of productive. Sure, I got my kids to all of their clubs and made sure they did all their school assignments. Yes, I did my banking and shopping and helped out friends with things here and there, went to the drugstore and changed the oil in the car. But when I finally climb into bed and see the stack of books I want to read on my nightstand, I groan with disappointment at the realization that I'm too tired to open any of them. And heaven forbid a kid or pet should get sick! Then all planning goes out the window as I tend to these unforeseen 'emergencies' and I end the day feeling resentful and overwhelmed at all the catching-up I'll have to do tomorrow.

Like most people, when I turned 21 and could drink legally, I was thrilled. I could go out with friends, colleagues and to parties and drink whenever and however much I wanted. Before I was 22, this turned out to be a great lesson. Once the novelty wore off, I realized that just because you *can* do something as much as you want, it doesn't mean you *should*.

When I applied this lesson to my current dilemma, it came down to a simple question. Which is more important: productivity or presence? Since I only get one shot at this, I'm going to do my best to choose wisely.

I've decided that, except in the areas of schoolwork and meals, planning is highly overrated. Personally, I'm much happier going with the flow of the day--doing what needs doing when it needs to be done, and having flexibility to handle any surprises that might come along. Just because I *can* schedule in more things to my day doesn't mean I *should* overtax myself. Reflection has made me realize that setting my schedule according to my own priorities, rather than filling in all those empty time slots on my organizer, is what makes me most present in my own and my family's life. And my being present makes us all feel better.

True, if it wasn't for man's decision to measure time passing, we'd probably be a lot less 'productive' than we are today. But I also think that if it hadn't happened, we'd probably all be a lot happier, more self-aware and more present in our own lives.