Monday, December 15, 2014

Weight Training

When Ben joined the track team, I was super excited about how much he loves the sport and how little he minds practicing outside in all kinds of weather. But there was another perk that I hadn't anticipated: he comes home famished.

Some might say, "Um, he's a pre-teen boy. Aren't they hungry all the time?" But the answer in Ben's case is no. While he has an adventurous palate and a love of food, his appetite is not what I would call 'voracious'. In fact, I would hesitate to call it 'big'. On some days, even 'good' is a stretch.

This would not be too terrible if his metabolism wasn't off the charts. Really, it's ridiculous. If I could bottle that metabolism and sell it, my entire extended family would be financially set for the next three generations. So with that combination, and the fact that Ben has always been active, he's always been thin and it's never been a problem.

Until now.

For the last several months, his doctor has been telling him to eat more. Each visit, she says something about it.

"Are you eating dessert every night like I told you to?"

"Do you like cheeseburgers and milkshakes?"

"Let's see if we gained some weight this time around."

And my personal favorite, 

"Boy, would I love to put some meat on those bones." 

At the most recent visit, after plugging his stats into the computer and plotting it on a graph, the doctor showed us how the growth chart works. 

"The red line shows kids that are heavier than average. The blue line shows kids who are right where they should be for their height and age. And this green line is for kids who could stand to gain a few pounds. That's OK as long as you're gaining along with the line as it goes up. But see here, Ben? You're sort of laying down on the line. We just want to make sure you don't fall off."

I was happy to tell her that he had joined the track team and it had increased his appetite. But my excitement was quickly shot down. 

"Yes, but he's also burning more calories." 

Dang. "But won't he gain more because he's building muscle?" 

"Let's hope," she said.

Now whenever we visit the doctor, we top it off with a trip to Dunkin' Donuts. A couple of Boston cremes for the road, and Ben is grinning all the way home.

It's a bit of a silly problem to have, a kid that you have to push to gain weight, eat more, fill with calories. I'm thankful that he's healthy, hopeful that he'll still be tall enough to prevent him from having a complex, and building my own will power by avoiding the donuts that are slated (appropriately) for him. 

Now that we're running together on weekends, I have different hopes for each of us: that he will gain weight, and that I will slim down. And the holiday break coming up means we'll be running together every day for two weeks straight.  I admit to not having an ├╝ber grasp of weight and calories, carbs versus protein, and all that athletic jargon that explains how the whole weight thing works. Add to that my poor math skills, and I'm blissfully ignorant enough to think that we may both end up getting just what we need. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Running Commentary

My seventh grader has joined the track team. I've known since he was in utero that this kid was born to run, but it was only this year that he became eligible for modified sports. Ben loves to run and is great at long jumps and sprints, so I've been talking up the track team to him since last year. He's been excited since I mentioned it and his enthusiasm never waned, not even when I told him they'd be practicing outside two hours a day, five days a week. Not even when I told him track season is from December to February (he hates the cold as much as I do). And not even when it rained and snowed the first week of practice and he was exhausted from running one, two, three miles.

He still loves it.

What's better is that he is in a great mood every night when I pick him up from practice, no matter if he has homework or other chores to take care of after dinner. It's like this is the sport he was born for.

When the weekend comes, they can't just not run. Training requires commitment and stamina, so he has a practice schedule for either Saturday or Sunday. Stretching, core workout, warm-up and then 25-40 minutes of running. I knew I couldn't send him outside to do this alone, so the family agreed we'd ALL train with Ben on the weekends, and he'd be in charge--our coach, as it were. This weekend was our first outing.

You never fully appreciate how out of shape you are until you start exercising with someone who does it all the time. I knew when I got winded during the warm up that I might have a tough time. Fortunately, my husband and older son were with us. Stretching? No problem. Core workout? Not terrible. A slow run on level ground around our neighborhood? Manageable. As a team.

We all ran the first block together. When we got to the second block, Ben, his brother and my husband continued to run and I slowed to a fast walk to catch my breath and clear my throat. I caught up at the end of the block and ran back with them. On the next block, we all ran together. But when we turned around, Ben and I left my husband and older son in the dust. By the fourth block, it was still just me and Ben and, though I was cold, I kept going. That's when he told me he hadn't really wanted to run with his family but it turned out to be fun. You can't fault the kid for his honesty, but I really should press him to find out what was fun and why he didn't want to do it with us.

My husband and I let the brothers run the last block together and mused about how out of shape we were. But we also agreed that the camaraderie and group support of Ben was important, and it definitely helped to get him to do his weekend workout. We covered two miles and Ben was very proud. He's going to make a great runner. And if the rest of us don't keel over, maybe we'll get in better shape by default. It's certainly something to aim for. Here's hoping for a mild winter, at least on weekends.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Soothing the Savage Beast

I hate homework. I know I've mentioned this before, and some might think I should just shut up about it because I'm not the one that has to do the homework. But here's the thing: I could deal with doing it. What I can't deal with is the kid who has to do it and doesn't want to, and instead chooses to whine, complain, yell, gripe and kvetch about it. To me. While I'm trying to work. And then when I offer to help, he yells at me even more.

This happens a lot, and even more when it's the end of the marking period and every teacher is heaping on the assignments, projects, quizzes and tests the final week before grades are due. So what's a mother to do when the level of homework threatens her sanity and the potential health and safety of her children?

Blast some music.

Yes, it sounds simple. And listening to music is the oldest study aide in the history of schoolwork. Sure, the methods have changed from record players and AM/FM radios to cassettes, CDs, MP3 players and Internet radio. But it's not the method of delivery that matters. It's the music.

The old saying is often misquoted. In fact, the phrase was coined by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, in 1697:

"Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak."

In my house though, anyone with ungodly amounts of homework automatically becomes a beast, so I stand by the title of this post. Yesterday, my younger beast was close to being locked out onto the porch for how difficult he was being about the amount of homework and studying he had to complete. It was that or beat my head against the wall until I hurt myself. Voices were being raised, ultimatums issued, and I saw the escalation potentially soaring. Then something occurred to me, and I stopped.

"Ben, what's that song you heard on the radio last night that you loved? Let It Burn?"

"Huh? Let It Go you mean?"

"No, it was Burn something." I Googled 'the Burn song' on YouTube. Boom, there it was. I hit play. Ben said, "Oh, YEAH! This one!" He watched the video the first time, then I hit play again and he sat down to start working. When the song ended, he got up and went to his room, but before I had a chance to call him, he returned with his portable Bluetooth speaker and his cell phone, complete with playlists. He hooked them up, put them on the table, hit 'Play' and went back to work.

And it worked. The music, that is. By the end of the night, Ben had completed six Social Studies worksheets and studied for his Spanish exam. Yes, I had to listen to Minecraft parody songs repeatedly until I thought I would have to leave the house myself, but it was better than shouting. And way more effective.

So when the homework load gets heavy in your house, I highly recommend popping the 'Frozen' CD (or whatever tunes of choice will make your student drop everything and start singing) into the player and letting it rip. If your kid is anything like mine, it will make the process far less painful. For everyone.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Homework Conundrum

I hate homework. Granted, it's been several years since I had any assigned to me directly (hey, I went to grad school. When I say "several" I don't mean "dozens." I mean, like, eight.). But as if to help me appreciate the misery that my middle- and high-school-aged sons must suffer, teachers make sure to pile on the homework so that no kid can really do it alone. Invariably, they will start off fine. But before long, they need to call in reinforcements. Read: Mom, just as she's starting to cook dinner.

This year, however, has been different. Ben comes home, sits down, takes out his planner and his books and gets to work. When he says he's done, I pop onto the computer and log in to the school website, click on his name and check all the assignments he has due tomorrow, listed by class.

"Ooh. Science test tomorrow. Did you study?"
"Yep, we studied in class."
"OK, we'll review after dinner. Math worksheet?"
"Done." Holds it up.
"Spanish vocabulary words list?"
"Done." Holds it up.
"Did you start your music paragraph on jazz yet?"
"I started it at school, but it's not due 'til Friday. I'll finish it tomorrow."

And I brush the computer dust from my hands as he heads outside to play.

Jacob, however, is in high school. They use a different grading system, which means the assignments can't be posted on the school calendar site the way Ben's can. This year, it's up to Jacob to write it all down, keep track of it and get it done. And he has stated categorically that he hates homework and doesn't see the value in it.

But with my ignorance of the assignments, and the inability to check them, I have to take him at his word when he says the work is done. The fact that he's a sophomore means he should be mature enough to handle the responsibility. I mean really, what 15-year-old needs his mother nagging him about his homework? I was excited to have a hands-off year with him, finally.

Until the grades started showing up.

"Um, hey Jacob. What's with this chemistry homework grade?"
"Oh, yeah, that. I didn't realize it was two pages so I didn't do the back."
"Hey Jacob, what's with this math homework grade?"
"Oh, I didn't realize it was due today."

Etcetera, etcetera. Control freak that I am, I went a little crazy. Crazy to the point of lecturing every day, threatening to take away privileges, following him around the house and telling him he couldn't possibly be done with his homework because he had hardly done any at all and I'd better not see another bad grade or else blah, blah, blah.

It was so effective that I managed to end every afternoon in a shouting match with him, and every bedtime became a mutual apology session.

Then the other day I read a quote by Ben Franklin that I loved:

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."

And it dawned on me that maybe this new situation is a good thing. Maybe the fact that I can't go on line, see what his assignments are, remind him and nag him and ride him about getting them done is a sign that I need to let go. I need to allow my kids make their own choices and mistakes, regardless of whether I agree with them. Will it impact his ability to get into college? No. Will it ruin the rest of his life? No. So do I need to start World War III over it every single day? Unquestionably no.

Jacob is old enough to do this stuff on his own. And he is the one whose grades will drop if he doesn't figure out how to manage it all. He'll be disappointed in himself when we don't go out to dinner at the end of the quarter to celebrate his making the honor roll. Maybe the only way for him to learn is to let him see what happens when he does the work on his own, and when he doesn't.

Maybe homework does have some redeeming educational value after all.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Odor Control

My kid stinks. Not his attitude: his body. But he can't smell it on himself. When it first started happening, I tried not to hold it against him. But soon, I didn't want to hold anything against him, including myself. How do you avoid hugging your stinky kid when he wants to be hugged?

Of course, it's not his fault. He's a teenager--it comes with the territory, and we made sure to tell him that. We explained that when wet sweat and hormones mix with bacteria in a warm place, it becomes a petri dish of growth and stink. Then we set out to help him manage it. We tried deodorant. We tried deodorant soap. We tried daily showers. We tried a combination of all three. I've also read that drinking lots of water helps, and antibacterial wipes can come in handy after gym if there's no time (or desire) to shower after class. Finally, we decided he has to shower every morning, not before bed, because physiologically, he is only capable of remaining stink-free for about 18 hours post-shower. This seemed to do the trick.

As this is my first-born child, the whole situation is new to me. But apparently it's a widespread issue that impacts families, peers and even teachers, as a high school teacher friend recently pointed out to me. She was scheduled to spend an 87-degree day hiking in the company of a group of teenagers, subjecting her to multiple cases of body odor. And she was not at all happy about it.

But how does one approach the parents of stinky teens and have them instruct their progeny on the mechanics of their changing bodies, and their responsibility to maintain order when in the company of others? Or should teachers be offering tips and tricks to their students on using wipes, re-applying deodorant and showering daily?

Personally, I think that goes above and beyond a teacher's duties, even if she is looking out for the well-being of her students (in addition to trying to maintain a healthy classroom that's conducive to work). So parents, listen up! Take a whiff! Save your teen the embarrassment of being told by peers that they are smelly, and spare their instructors the uncomfortable job of a hot classroom full of B.O. After all, aren't raging hormones and late-summer heat enough for them to contend with when trying to educate our kids?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Trying to Get Demoted

I'm trying to get demoted from my position as super-mom.

When the kids were little, of course, I did it all. That's when my control freaky nature was helpful--I had to take care of every little thing, so being detail-oriented was a perfect trait for the job. Then Jacob started to transition to just "needing a little help" and he'd roll with the rest of the job himself. Cooking dinner?

Me: "Figure out what you want to make."

Jacob: "Stir fry."

Me: "What time do you want to serve dinner?"

Jacob: "Six."

Me: "And how long will it take to prep and cook it all? Work backwards from six and that will tell you when you need to start prepping."

Jacob: "Hm. I have to start now."

Me: "OK, take out all your ingredients: chicken, veggies, sauces, rice, oil. Then your tools: cutting board, spoon, measuring tools, knife, bowls, pot, pan."

Jacob: "Got it."

Me: "All right, all your stuff is assembled. Now what's going to take the longest to cook? You want to start that first."

Jacob: "The rice. OK, I'm good, Mom. You can go."

Sweet. Now, Jacob can do all these steps himself without my help. I figured I was well on my way to being demoted. Next, I tried to help Ben do the same type of thing: take control of whatever he's trying to accomplish, with me standing by and handing him the tools he'll need.

Then I was reminded that my kids are two completely different people and don't operate the same way at all.

When I offer Ben tools, he seems to keep lifting his hands up, as if the tools are too hot to handle, and he'd rather I do it for him or leave the job undone.

The problem is, my control-freaky nature is trying to rear its ugly head back up, and I know that's exactly the wrong tool for the job.

Take riding a bike. Ben never learned how when he was younger. We did get him balancing on a bike with training wheels years ago, at the end of the fall. I could see we'd be able to remove the training wheels shortly, and he'd be on his way. Then a snowstorm hit. Several feet. Power outages, school closed, the works. And just like that, bike-riding season was over. The following spring, he had no interest in getting back on the bike.

"That's OK," I figured. "They say once you learn, you never forget."

This summer, I tried to get him on his brother's (bigger) bike. He was not enthusiastic. I pushed it. He conceded, grudgingly. It wasn't long before we both learned that, apparently, you can forget how to ride a bike, especially if you'd only learned for about five minutes.

But I can't let it go. I keep pushing him to learn, and to learn to swim, and do all the things kids are supposed to do in summer, acquiring skills they can carry into adulthood when they will ultimately NO LONGER NEED ME AND MOVE AWAY TO START THEIR OWN LIVES. Ben is having none of it.

I remember talking with him once about "someday", when he's married and living in his own house, and he cut me off and said, "Mom, I don't ever want to leave. I want to live here with you forever."

Oh dear.

I've read that the more you push a kid, the more he will resist. But rather than step back into the do-it-all-myself role, I'm going to try a different approach. I'm standing right beside Ben. And just like when he was a picky eater as a baby, I just keep handing him the same tools over and over. I change the form they take, or the way I hand them to him, but I'm making it clear that they are not going away.

My hope is that, with a little maturity and a realization that I have faith that he can do these things, he will one day decide to take the tools and give them a try. I figure all he'll have to do is surprise himself once or twice with his true capabilities, and he'll be confident enough to be on his way too. Then maybe I'll be able to get that demotion after all. Hopefully before he's twenty-five.

Friday, June 13, 2014

No Longer the Know-It-All

This week, my husband attended a retirement party for the director of his division. This man had interviewed my husband for his first position at the company, over 20 years ago, and my husband still remembers one of the questions the director had asked: What is the binary representation of the number eleven?

My husband had gone up to talk to the man at the party and relayed this little story to him, and was telling me and Ben about it when he came home. Before he could finish his story, though, Ben said, "Wait!" and started thinking. We could see the gears in his head turning, and his fingers working, keeping track of something as he calculated. After a minute or so, he said, "1011!"

"Huh?" I asked.

"The binary representation of 11!" he answered.

"Whoa!" my husband said. "That's right, Ben!" He was clearly as impressed as I was confused.

When they were babies, everything my kids learned came from me. We'd play, sing, move, go for walks and they'd learn about their world. Ben has always had a keen aptitude for math and science, so I shouldn't have been surprised at his math wizardry. What did surprise me was the realization that he knows things now--amazing things--that I could not have taught him.

It's so fascinating to watch children grow, mainly because it doesn't happen all at once. When we are adults, we go through experiences that help us to grow emotionally, and perhaps take classes so we can continue to grow academically and intellectually. But kids? They are doing it ALL, and all at the same time: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social and likely many more -als that I haven't even thought of. Think about how hard that must be!

But looking closely, I see that it comes in fits and starts. There may be an academic leap, and then a social setback. Or maybe after a social event or a big test, we'll be graced with an emotional meltdown to balance things out.

Every spring, as school winds down, my kids go a bit berserk. Their listening skills are skewed (I'm trying to be kind, as this is a family website), their language slips ("what did you just call him?"), their sleep and appetites are off and they are generally cranky little pills. I used to think it was allergies; as they got older, I attributed it to spring fever and the excitement of summer coming.

But I also began to notice that, just after this spring "spell" they go through, both my kids seem to have big emotional growth spurts in summer. Just a few weeks after I'm fretting over their being able to handle the next grade in school, they turn around and show me that they are more than ready.

The best part about all this growing? Watching how each element feeds off the others. When Ben wows us with something mathematical, he gets an emotional boost; that, in turn, makes him feel more confident, which spills over into his social life. When that puts him in a good mood, he's less likely to tick off his brother, and then Jacob treats him more like a peer, which feeds the fire even more.

My overall goal in this job as Mom is to work myself out of a job, and it's already happening. By outgrowing the need for my help in most areas of their lives, my kids can then go out and live productively and happily on their own. So when I get frustrated at a setback, I just need to remind myself that it's likely a precursor to yet another leap toward adulthood. They are keeping themselves in balance as they learn, change and grow. My boys won't be with me forever, I'll make sure of that. So I need to enjoy every moment as much as possible, both good and bad, as they continue to become the men they will one day be.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

It's Not What It Looks Like

Some time ago, someone gave me a few bottles of bitter lemon soda. It was good on its own, but I thought it would make a perfect mixer. I put it in my fridge and there it stayed.

Last week, I stopped to buy a bottle of wine at the liquor store while running errands. Just as the supermarket checkouts have candy, gum and mints as impulse items for kids, liquor stores have little novelty bottles of alcohol for grown-ups. This day, one caught my eye because it was made with Sriracha, a hot sauce our family uses. The liqueur was recommended for use in Bloody Marys as a substitute for Tobasco sauce. Next to this was a blue, berry flavored mini-vodka bottle. As I stood in line, I read it: mix with lemon soda and serve over ice. Hey! I thought. I have lemon soda! I paid for my wine and added this in as an afterthought, tossing the little bottle into my purse so it wouldn't get lost.

Fast forward 24 hours. It's raining. The high-schooler is home and we are driving to pick up the middle-schooler to take him to the eye doctor. I don't know if I reminded him this morning not to get on the bus after school. He doesn't have his cell phone. We wait at school until all the kids getting picked up are dismissed. None of them is mine. I get back in the car and text my neighbor's daughter who rides the bus with my son to ask if he is on the bus. No answer.

We begin driving back home to meet the bus. My cell phone rings. I tell my high-schooler to go into my purse to answer it. It's my neighbor's daughter: yes, my son is on the bus. He will meet us at home. My high-schooler hangs up, then says, "Mom, what the heck?" At the red light, I look over at him. He's holding up the bottle of vodka that was in my purse. Oops.

I am forever talking to my kids about distracted driving, cell phone use, and other unsafe practices that too few think about and that get too many into trouble. I'm like a preacher sometimes with the lectures. And I practice what I preach, never looking at my phone or answering it in the car, with or without my kids present. But this situation was, like the liqueur, a novelty.

I explained about the lemon soda. I told about seeing the Sriracha bottle and then this one and my thought process. I said it's not what it looks like. Of course, I grew up in the smoky-hazed 70s. Most memories I have of adults from that decade include them holding highball glasses or beer bottles. So to me, "what it looks like" is probably completely different from what it looks like to my fourteen-year-old. And yet.

When it comes to hypocrisy, kids are like bloodhounds. Telling them that not every night is a dessert night means nothing if they see me eating Oreos each evening on their way to bed. The same goes for just about every other rule on behavior. Kids won't learn to share if we don't model generosity. They won't learn compassion if we bully them at home.

What I constantly remind myself is that rules are not made to keep the children in line until they are responsible adults. The rules are made to help them become responsible adults. And that's not going to work if the kids have to follow rules while the adults do whatever we dang well please. As they move toward driving age, I know my kids will be much more likely to remember what I did than what I said.

My son knows me very well. He follows me on social media: we're connected on Facebook, he comments on my tweets, reads my blog and even tells his friends about it. Deep down, I wasn't worried that he would think he had discovered some dark secret about his mother because of a little bottle of vodka in my purse. In the end, we both had a good laugh about it.

Still, I made a mental note not to drive around with alcohol in my purse anymore, for this and a million other reasons that could cause the situation to end badly. And I have to admit it did mix very nicely with the lemon soda.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Toddlerhood: The Second Coming

The other day, my husband and I were recalling the diaper days, those messy, smelly, never ending years of baby- and toddlerhood. I guess I had blocked out the memory, just as I've blocked out most of the joyless aspects of parenthood: things like sleepless nights, food jags and tantrums.

Someone once told me the reason all babies are so cute is so their parents will keep, care for and not harm them, despite the tremendous amount of work and sacrifice they demand. It made perfect sense. My kids' cuteness certainly saved their young lives more than once.

So why don't we turn them out of the house when they are teenagers? If you think about it, the teen years are a lot like the infant and toddler years combined. The children become noisy, smelly, disagreeable, back-talking eating machines that can't be reasoned with. They're emotional, throw tantrums, make you want to tear your hair out and cause you to lose sleep. To top it all off, they don't appreciate a single thing you do for them.

Despite being a teenager, my son Jacob is one of the sweetest kids I know. He frees insects that get caught inside the house. He doesn't go fishing because he hates that the worms have to die. He's kind to everyone. But when he was in middle school, he was bullied. He was small, had glasses and braces and was very chatty. Some kids decided these were good reasons to push him around.

The fact is that too many kids in too many schools get bullied for multiple reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. It tore my heart out to see my sweet boy hurting, especially because I knew he would never fight back--it's just not in his nature to fight.

Fast forward three years. Yes, he still has glasses and braces, but he's grown. He's found his "tribe" in high school and feels accepted and respected among his fellow drama club members and artists. He's no longer bullied. Some kids would put the negative experience of those days behind them, maybe chalk it up to one of those things that "all kids go through," or just block it out of their memory. But he didn't.

This week, Jacob participated in the GLSEN Day of Silence. The DOS is a national youth movement aimed at bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. It's intended to echo the silence caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. This was no small feat. Jacob is still very chatty. I knew that going a whole day without speaking would probably be one of the most difficult things he ever tried to do, and it was. But he did it.

Though Jacob isn't bullied anymore, I realized that he carried that experience with him. He hasn't forgotten what it felt like to have no voice, to be unable to speak up or fight back when he was being picked on just because he was different in some way.

Teenagers have a bad reputation. As they approach these volatile years, parents tend to brace themselves for "the worst". We're warned that they will start experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex. They're going to fight the rules, push back and make life difficult for everyone in the household. They're going to start acting like big babies all over again.

But what's really happening is, they're growing up, and figuring out who they're going to be. And just like when they were little, they're learning how to  make choices. These choices have higher stakes though, and consequences much more serious than the time-out sessions of their younger years. So as parents, our job of guiding and teaching them is even more important. No wonder we worry and cringe.

I have yet to walk on eggshells with my teenager, and I know I'm lucky to be able to say that. I'm sure there will be tough days ahead. But seeing my child making selfless choices, based on his priorities and convictions, is an amazing experience for me as a mom. So if the bad days are tempered by moments when he's thoughtful and respectful of others (even if it's not me), then no matter how bad those days get, I'll take them. Because in those good moments, I see a young man that I'm proud to call my son.

And I can just block out the bad days from my memory later.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Just The Facts, Ma'am

I'm writing a novel, and one of the things I've been struggling with most is point of view. I'm one of those crazy, scientifically-minded people who tries to see every situation from every angle and then approach with objectivity.

The problem with doing that in fiction is, it's boring. I didn't realize this before. I figured knowledge is power, so the more the reader knows, the better. Makes sense in life, makes sense for fiction, right?

This week I was handed a situation that exemplified why knowing every angle of a story makes it boring.

I live in a small, close-knit neighborhood. I know everyone who lives on my street, as well as what their cars look like. We all have driveways, and there are no sidewalks or curbs. Visitors park in the driveway of whoever they are coming to see. A car on the street is unusual unless there is a party going on.

Yesterday, there was a car parked on the street outside my house, and I didn't recognize it. It was empty, but on my way back from walking my dog, I saw a young man get in the car and drive away. I didn't know where he came from, so I dismissed it. Today, after putting my son on the bus, I started walking my dog again, and the same car pulled down the street past me. It went to the end of the block, turned around and sat facing me, waiting for me to pass my house. It became a game of 'chicken'. I picked up my newspaper, looked at the headline. The car didn't move. I put the newspaper delivery bag into the recycling bin. The car didn't move. I began walking down the block, in the direction of the car. Once I passed the next driveway, the car drove past me and parked outside my house again. The young man in the large-brimmed baseball hat sat in the car, engine off, sipping a large drink from a straw. I couldn't see his face.

I kept walking, calling a friend and my husband for consult. Is this guy casing the neighborhood? Watching for kids getting on and off school buses? Taking notes of who's in what house and which houses are empty? Waiting to make a drug deal? The possibilities were endless. My tension was high.

When I got back from my walk, the car and driver were still there. I memorized the license plate, went into my house and double-locked the door. Upstairs, I began searching for the non-emergency police number which, apparently, is no longer listed in the phone book. (If you have to ask "what's a phone book?" you are too young to appreciate my tension.) Five minutes had passed. The car was still there. After giving up on the phone books and Googling the number, I called police. They took my name, address and the details of the situation. They said they'd send a car. I waited.

The minutes ticked by. I knew another school bus was coming soon and the kids getting on it were young, and often came out alone to go to the bus stop. What if the police didn't come before the kids came out? Should I call the parents and let them know about this strange car? Should I go out myself? Now the stakes were rising.

The kids came out. I watched through the window. A dad drove with one of them to the bus stop and stayed until they got on the bus. The strange car stayed put. Now I was alone in the house, and most of my neighbors had gone to work.

See how intriguing all of this is from just my perspective? I had no details, no police backup yet and no idea what was going to happen next.

If I was reading this story, I'd keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in story arc, language, voice and plot that we forget our characters need to make the reader feel something as they join them on their journey. That's why readers keep reading: they care about what happens. And the best way to make them care is to keep some of the details from them, raise the tension and make them wonder where they're headed. My goal today will be to keep this fear, tension and excitement in mind as I sit down to work on my writing.

Ultimately, the police showed up. The driver was the relative of my neighbors, and had been living at their house. Why, then, didn't he park in their driveway? He'd been avoiding them. The reasons for that haven't yet become clear, but I'd met this young man once and felt bad that I'd called police on him. Once I had all the information, though, I realized he was not a rapist, drug dealer or pedophile. Just a young man who needs to work out some family issues.

But having all that information up front makes for much less interesting fiction, don't you think?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Nothing


Nothing


A secret place within

deep forests, waiting

to be discovered.

Paper airplanes, yearning

to be flown. Gliding every

which way in a mass of paper.

Birds dodging quick-flying

airplanes in a flurry of wings.

Doing something on a day

when nothing has to be done

is much better than doing

nothing.



--Jacob Adler, 2007
Age 8
Honorable Mention in Sarah Mook Poetry Prize competition

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Foreign Correspondents

Go ahead, admit it: Barbie is probably the last character you'd expect to find on my blog. I mean, come on. I have nothing but boys in this house (if you doubt me, listen closely and take a deep breath. No matter where you are, I'm pretty sure you'll be able to hear and smell them). I considered changing my dog's name to LEGO. I'm a great shot with a Nerf gun. I've written essays about how happy I am not to be raising girls, mainly because (personal gender aside) I feel completely ill-equipped to do so. I think girls have a hard enough time in this world, thanks to our messed up society's values and messages, without me getting involved with my loud opinions and anti-pink attitude.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered today that:

1) I have an active Netflix account;

2) It is being used on multiple devices, all Apple-based (the closest I've gotten to Apple is boycotting iTunes because it's so user-hostile. We are a Windows/Android household);

3) It is being charged in Euros (apparently whoever is using the account is in the Netherlands) and

4) For the last month, it has primarily been used to watch all varieties of Barbie movies.

Ummm... yeah, now I'm definitely thinking 'fraud'

Like most people, I've had to deal with compromised credit accounts in the past, so I knew what to do about it. But I think the thing that upsets me most about this whole thing is not even the Barbie tarnish on my good name. It's the fact that, obviously, whoever hacked my account is a parent.

I tell myself that my disappointment is my own fault; I've long held people in higher esteem than most of them deserve. I'm a cheek-turning, benefit-of-the-doubt-giving, do-unto-others type recovering Catholic. Personally, I think parents should be held to even higher standards that non-parents, mostly because they have little trainees in their charge. If parents aren't doing the right thing, what the heck kind of world are we going to have in the next generation, especially if the kids outnumber the parents now? An even worse society than we've already got.

While I'm sorry for these girls in the Netherlands being raised by unscrupulous parents, ones who are willing to indulge these Barbie binge viewings at someone else's expense, I feel worse that their little habit is about to come to an end. But I have to admit that a teeny part of me--the tomboy, Barbie-is-an-unrealistic-and-evil model-for-girls-and-part-of-what-feeds-the-mentality-that-still-prevents-women-from-being-paid-the-same-as-men part of me--is thrilled to be pulling the international plug on the Barbie flicks. Especially since I won't have to be the one to deal with their screamy little tantrums when it happens. Maybe the parents will learn a lesson from that, if nothing else.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Looking Forward, Looking Back

I remember when my kids were babies. We'd visit the pediatrician every month for the first six months of their lives, then every three months until they were a year old.

"He grew an inch. He gained a pound and a half. His head circumference grew. Here are four more shots he'll need today."

It took me a long time to stop shaking my head in awe at such exponential growth every few months, but after a while, I got used to it.

When the kids got older, their exams dwindled down to once a year. This seemed like an awfully long time to go before checking on things. And when we did go, the growth for a year was about the same as it had been each month when they were infants.

But after a while, I got used to that too.

"Grew an inch, gained three pounds." This became our new way of measuring. "Eats well, sleeps well, likes school, no scoliosis. Flu shot, booster shot, see you next year."

Well now, it seems, the annual physical exams will hearken back to those of their infancy. I imagine this is a pre-teen/teen thing, as this year's was the first glimpse I've had.

"Your 11-year-old will need to see the eye doctor; his vision is 20/70. He'll probably need glasses."

"Your 14-year-old is doing well. You can expect him to grow about four inches this year."

I'm sorry, what? He's going to be as tall as me in less than a year? Yes, that visible, fervent morphing from boy to man is beginning.

How did I deal with this news? Like any rational mother when she's told her firstborn is leaving his childhood behind and there's not a damned thing she can do about it. I told my husband to brush up on his shaving lesson skills, and stocked the refrigerator with lots of meat. Then I pulled out all the baby pictures and videos I could fit in my lap, sat down on the couch and cried at how fast it's all going.

OK, not really, but I felt  like doing that. Because for all the trials and tribulations of sleepless baby nights, tantrum-y toddlerhood and social navigation maneuvers that the last 14 years have wrought, I could not give you a single detail about any of it that I'm happy to leave behind. I only remember the good, none of the bad (though I'm sure there had to be some bad, right?) and what I do remember all feels like a dream.

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend time with my neighbor and her 22-month-old son. Little M is at that stage of development where everything is fun: reading Elmo books, playing with trains and having stuffed animal tea parties. For me, participating in these activities with him was like a gift. The memories of my own boys' early years came flooding back, and I could not stop smiling.

I know the next several years will be full of new experiences: dating, shaving, driving, college. After that, the boys will be gone--on to their own lives and worlds, and no longer part of my immediate orbit. And I know that those years are going to be challenging, probably even more so than the toddler years were. But I also know that they are going to fly, leaving me to replay them over and over in the rear view mirror of my mind.

So I'm hugging my man-boy a little tighter these days, even as he makes his way forward toward independence. I try to plan experiences with him that will create fond memories for both of us to recall once he's gone. And maybe when he does, he'll pick up the phone and give me a call to say hi, and tell me what kind of big changes he's looking forward to that week, that month, that year.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Love, Loss and Learning

There are a lot of things I say these days that make me sound like a mother:
"I don't care who started it."
"Homework first."
"Because I said so."

But the one that's echoing the most these past couple of weeks is, "Life isn't fair." I often say it when someone who didn't get their way and feels he should have cries "that's not fair!" in the hopes of some change. I want my kids to learn that just because something isn't fair doesn't mean it isn't right. We might not always understand why events have to happen the way they do, but we still have to accept life as it comes.

At the end of the year, my kids proved that they understand this a bit better than I.

Almost three years ago, we lost our dear friend and neighbor Augie, who left behind a goofy little Beagle name Flash. Augie's wife Mary had passed away just a couple of years before, and now Flash was completely alone. So we took him in and our pack grew. Bailey was both excited and dismayed to suddenly have a brother, but we had known Flash for years, so the two just had to get used to living together, which they quickly did.

Learning how different our two dogs were from each other was a lot like being a parent and learning the differences between your children. You raise and care for them equally, they share the same experiences, but how they approach life reveals much about their personalities, outlook and interpretation of the world.

It didn't take us long to fall in love with Flash. Silly and unpredictable, with big soulful eyes, and ears that felt like mink, he soon grew comfortable with us. He went from a one-on-one family with his dad to a boisterous, busy family of five, but he didn't seem to mind it a bit. So many hands for belly rubs! So many people to beg for snacks! And of course a big brother to tussle with. We had to teach him the rules of the house, no easy feat with an 11-year-old dog, but by gosh, he got it.

As kids, we worry that our parents love one of us more than the other, especially when it's a big family. And parents always explain that they love their children equally, that love is not a finite thing to be divvied up between family members. More members of the pack means more love grows. I hope Flash was able to feel that in his new home.

Right around Christmas, Flash slowed way down. He tolerated all the comings and goings of holiday revelers but stayed in the background. Then all at once, he stopped eating and drinking. He wouldn't get out of bed, and his breathing became very shallow. We carried him up to the vet who ran tests and told us of multiple problems throughout his body.

We knew what we had to do. Flash was weeks away from his 14th birthday. We had talked about this in the past, and agreed we wouldn't put either of our dogs through excessive testing, medications and treatments just to avoid saying goodbye. Yet somehow, now that it had become real, it all seemed terribly unfair. And I was angry. Angry that I had to make such a decision, angry that he could get so sick so fast, robbing us of the chance to give him time to heal, angry that I felt so helpless.

What helped me get through it was the strength and stoicism of my kids, so full of love and hugs for Flash and for each other and me. I reminded myself that Flash would be joining Mary and Augie again, that he wouldn't be suffering anymore, and that we'd had great fun with him for the short time he was with us.

We stayed with him until the end, which was peaceful and painless. He closed his big brown eyes as we caressed and cooed to him, telling him how very much we loved him, what a good dog he was and that Bailey loved him too. Now we are all giving Bailey extra hugs and petting, since he seems sad and a bit lost. I wish we could explain to him that Flash is in a better place now, but of course, we can't.

Life isn't fair, but there's nothing we can do about it. We just have to love each other as much as we can for as long as we can.