Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas = Hare Krishnas; or, How I Spent December 24th Many Years Ago

Snow! Glorious snow! Christmas of 2006 will definitely be white one for those of us who got hit with the blizzard. I just finished reading a news article about how thousands of airline passengers are stuck at the airport in Denver. My own dad and his wife have extended their stay in Mexico because they can't get a flight into Denver. Stuck in Mexico...could be worse fates, I think.

But thinking of all those people longing to get home to their loved ones by Monday reminds me of a Christmas Eve many years ago when I was stranded in an airport due to inclement weather. I was young...was I even 20? I've traveled a lot...years blur and in the end, don't matter anyway. What I remember most is feeling depressed at the prospect of spending the holiday without my family or boyfriend, who was in the Marines (and still is, actually) and had gotten leave so we could spend a few precious days together. Sigh. He was waiting for me on the other end of my itinerary, flowers in hand. He ended up giving them to an old lady and making her day.

I, on the other hand, tried to get comfortable on the floor since it was quite clear I would be spending the night. I must have dozed off, because when I awoke, I was looking up into a sea of orange. Now, of all people I might have found myself in the company of that cold and snowy December 24th, the last I expected were Hare Krishnas. But there they were, looking at me with as much interest as I'm sure I was looking back at them with. The first thought that popped into my head was "I wish Sis was with me." My sister and I would have laughed hysterically at the absurdity of the situation. And that mere thought of her sharing my experience made me start laughing out loud. I'm sure that did wonders in terms of what these bald, orange-robed men thought of me. Yeah, this was going to be quite a Christmas Eve.

I smiled awkwardly up at them and arose to choose a seat near the giant window so that I could watch the snow. I've always been mesmerized by falling snow. As a child in Wisconsin, I saw my fair share of blizzards. And I remember Dad making fun of me because I always wanted to camp out in the living room on the night of a snowfall so that I'd be closer to the snow. You and I know that idea is silly, but to my child's brain, I was that many steps closer to my snowsuit, hat, mittens, scarf, and parka in the morning. I would leave my brother and sister in the dust.

As I sat watching those fat flakes float to the ground, I managed to forget where I was. And I began to sing. I do that a lot, too. Bored? I sing. Happy? Sing. Sad? Sing. I remember events in my life by songs that were popular at the time, or ones I just really liked. So there I sat, one young lonely girl amidst a rather large group of Hare Krishnas. The only thing we had in common was that we wanted to be somewhere else.

I don't remember what Christmas carol I was singing when I realized my voice had been joined by several others. In harmony! I thought all Hare Krishnas did was chant, but boy, was I wrong. Those guys could sing, and they weren't bashful about it. Pretty soon, other stranded travelers joined us in song, and it was truly like a scene from a movie. None of us wanted to be where we were, yet the spirit of the season would not let us down. We joined together that evening and let the music be our bond.

I can't tell you how long our singing went on, but there are a lot of Christmas carols, and between us, we knew them all. And I distinctly remember the feeling of loss and disappointment leave me. For a while, I was actually happy to be where I was: in a cold airport with bald dudes draped in orange robes and hundreds of other people I'd never see again.

Not a Christmas goes by that I don't remember that experience. However long it lasted, its feeling of fellowship and human kindness has stayed with me for decades, and I can't help but smile whenever I recall the memory. It warms my heart and reminds me that we choose our paths for reasons both obvious and unknown, but what we choose to make of our situation is up to us.

I've sung on television. I've sung in front of live audiences on stages across the country. I've sung to my children, and I sang to my mom as I scattered her ashes two years ago. But never have I been so thankful for my voice as I was that Christmas Eve so long ago.

May this holiday season bring you your own special memories.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Honoring Tina
For reasons unbeknownst to me, I've been thinking a lot about a little girl I once knew back in my early childhood in Wisconsin. Tina was the youngest of four daughters, the eldest of whom had died before I ever knew them.
I was friends with Sandy, the sister who was a year or two older than me. And I knew Suzy, who was already grown (at least in my eyes, she was; could be she was only in high school, but I think she was older than that). At any rate, though Sandy was technically my friend, it is little Tina who fills my memories.

Tina was several years younger than I. Mostly I played with her because she was Sandy's little sister, and our moms made us play with her. I remember feeling most days rather ambivalent toward Tina. I found her annoying (much as Tavi finds Bella, Tucker finds Tavi, and Max finds Tuck). She cried a lot. She tattled on the littlest things and didn't even have the decency to try to hide the delight our punishments provided. She tagged along when we did not want to have that third wheel. Often, she played with us when Sandy wasn't even around, and I was playing with my good pal Bridget. Tina was still there.

And yet, even during those tender elementary school years, I felt an enormous amount of compassion for Tina. As mad as I would get at her, the feeling was never as intense as my pity. Looking back with the wisdom, however slight, I've gained over the past 3 decades, I realize now that a primary reason I resented playing with Tina is that hours spent with her were sorrowful. Being with Tina made me sad, and there was enough sadness inside my own home to deal with. I didn't want more. Yet more is what I got.

Tina was dying since the day I met her.

She never made it out of childhood, but died shortly after Christmas and before her tenth birthday. Or could it be her ninth? Some of the years of my childhood are incredibly blurry; I lose track of dates and times. Doesn't matter. Tina went into the hospital on Christmas day that year, and she was buried in a red and green plaid taffeta dress her mother had bought her as a gift and let her open on Christmas Eve. I didn't go to the funeral; Mom wouldn't let me. I wish she had. How I felt about it then, I don't remember. I do remember feeling horrendously guilty for all the things I could have done to make Tina's life a bit happier but didn't. I could have been kinder even when I didn't feel like it. I could have been more willing to share my Barbie dolls and their clothes. I could have done more. Always, there is more.

But I did sing to her, and we would sometimes spend hours playing LPs and 45s on my plastic record player. She loved music and had no one to share that passion with. I loved it too, and was always happy to turn her on to new musicians. A few years before Tina's kidney disease claimed her life, I took her up into my pink bedroom to play her a song I had fallen in love with, the Carpenter's hit release "Top of the World." It's a catchy, upbeat tune. Tina immediately fell in love with it too. Whenever we played together from that point on, she asked me to sing it to her. And that much, I did.

One day we were playing, and after singing her that much-requested song, she put her warm little hand (TIna was always, always warm) on my arm, paused her play, and said, "Make sure they play that at my funeral." All those years ago, and the memory of this moment still makes me cry. Perhaps she knew hers would not be a long life. I like to think she didn't, but really, she probably did.

I gave Tina that 45 record that day. She knew I loved it; I knew she loved it more. I told her to put it in a safe place so that when the time came, I would know where to find it. And after she died, I talked with her mom. I didn't really like the woman. She yelled a lot, seemed indifferent to Tina and her fate. I remember once that she and her husband ate lobster for dinner but gave Tina and Sandy bologna sandwiches. All the years I knew them, and that is what I remember most clearly. It made me so sad. It still does.

I realize now that Tina's mom was probably doing the best she could. She had already buried one daughter and knew that the early death of her baby was imminent. She didn't really live, I don't think. She coped. And since anger is the easiest emotion to resort to, that's what she lived with, what they all lived with.

Anyway, I told Tina's mom that Tina wanted "Top of the World" to be played at her funeral. "Sing it to me," she said. So I did:

Such a feelin's comin' over me
There is wonder in most everything I see
Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes
And I won't be surprised if it's a dream

Everything I want the world to be
Is now comin' true, especially for me
And the reason is clear, it's because you are near
You're the nearest thing to heaven that I've seen

I'm on the top of the world
lookin' down on creation
and the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I've found
ever since you've been around
Your love's put me at the top of the world

Tina's mom cried. I did too. Tina got her wish. They played that song, along with "Seasons In the Sun," at her service. It was the perfect ending to a less-than-perfect life.

When I look back on Tina and my reluctant friendship with her, I see now that we served a purpose for one another. Though loving her brought sadness, our friendship was a gift to me because it gave me someone to take care of, to think of and take my mind off my own tribulations, of which there were plenty. And by showing her love, even if I did so grudgingly at times, I gave Tina a place of security and happiness that she could not find in her own family, who suffered alongside her day after day.

So it is nearly Christmas, and Tina lives on in my heart. Writing this helped me remember, honor her. My tears, well, they'll always be there. But as an adult, thoughts of Tina conjure up the final verse to her favorite song:

There is only one wish on my mind
When this day is through I hope that I will find
That tomorrow will be just the same for you and me
All I need will be mine if you are near

Spend some time remembering...the Front Porch will return the first week of January. Thanks so much for sticking with me through a year of change and evolution.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Keeping It Real

As I sit here at the kitchen table, steaming mug of coffee to my left, glorious Christmas tree to my right, I hear a rattling sound. I turn in the direction from which it's coming, and all I can figure is that my Deep Rock water supply is thawing and making wierd noises. Sometimes the cooler "talks" and startles me. It always happens at night, when the kids are in bed and all is quiet. From the dark recesses of the kitchen, buzzing.

But that's not what I'm hearing right now. It's as if someone is knocking on the walls of my house. And then I realize--someone is! I had poured birdseed into a wall-mounted feeder earlier this week, and if I turn my head and glance out to the back patio, I see birds everywhere. They've found my treat for them. Some are fluttering their wings madly, attempting to get every last morsel from the feeder.

There's nothing unusual about birds feeding in people's backyards. Nothing at all. But at this particular moment, hearing and seeing them is a gift, a reminder. Just last night, I sat in my big purple chair, feeling overwhelmed. Amidst the hustle and bustle of buying gifts, wrapping boxes to mail, writing and mailing holiday cards, caring for sick kids, listening (grudgingly) to their complaints about whatever, planning and fixing dinner, talking with Max for the umpteenth time about why settling for less when doing more with minimal effort is not an admirable quality, and trying to find enough hours in the day to work at my job so that I can feed my family, a sort of gentle melancholy overcame me. A few moments of solace, just me and my art supply catalog (when I die, someone is going to inherit an amazing collection of art supplies and pens), and I was able to get up and face the world again, which at that time, translated into giving Bella a bath.

But when I awoke this morning, I still felt somehow less than. Than what, I can't say. I got the kids ready for school, and here I sit. And then came the birds. And I realized what I was missing were those moments that present themselves on any given day, those where I notice the world around me. I like getting glimpses into lives that don't include me, but which surround me. Like when I notice the light of a winter's day. I love light on snow, the way it makes me feel, as if all is right with the world. It's a different light than the one in summer, and one I infinitely prefer for its softness, its glow. Or when I get to witness one of those rare moments when Bella is still, as she is when she's drawing a masterpiece to put into my Christmas stocking. Her face is one of intense concentration, and when her task is completed, the sparkle in her eyes is brighter than the Hope Diamond. Or when I'm in the car, listening to NPR, and a song is playing that I don't know but absolutely must hear through to the end. Unless I'm on a schedule, I'll pull over somewhere just to listen.

Those quiet moments are what I treasure, and lately, life's just been moving so fast that those moments are passing me by, unnoticed. Until the birds. In the short time it's taken me to write this, they've emptied the feeder and moved on. But I'll fill it up again, make some suet as my little holiday gift to them. And tonight as I sit in the darkened family room, enjoying our beautiful Christmas tree, I'm going to squint my eyes as I admire the lights. I did that as a little girl, and the way the lights became extra-twinkly is one of my favorite memories. Crossing my eyes also distorts the little lights, but I don't like to do that because even though I know better, I still hear Mom warning, "They'll stay like that!" So I just squint.

I hope you find some of your own squinty moments during this busy holiday season.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Discipline Policy Too Strict? Seems Not

Last July, I wrote a column that hit a nerve with our illustrious school board and certain members of our community whose teenage boys vandalized the high school but then managed to dodge the punishment of expulsion. That punishment was in keeping with school district policy and was supported by the high school principal as well as the interim superintendent and others. In that column, I voiced my opinion of what went down in that situation: The parent of one of those boys is an influential and wealthy developer here in Windsor, and he used his clout and power to see to it that his son did not have to (fairly) pay for his crime. And of course, he generously used that same clout to give the other boys the same treatment because otherwise, what would that look like? It was ugly. It was unjust. It was corrupt. And I still maintain that this is what happened.

School board member Cathy Norris wrote a letter to the Windsor Beacon in response to my column (glad to know she's reading!), singing the praises of our present school board, upon which sits no member I can remember actually being elected. After my column was published, my editor called, telling me he was "really taking some heat" for my column, which he read and edited before publishing. He made it clear that he did not agree with my stance (big shocker), that I had to understand that the district discipline policies were written post-9/11, and so were considered too strict and reactionary by some. I heard this argument from one other person, someone near and dear to the situation. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now. And a recent Beacon article seems to reinforce my doubts.

The 11/25 article, titled "Severity of Discipline Policy Questioned" and written by Megs Burd, indicated that a task force met with community members, educators, and parents, and "found many positive things in the district's policies as well as some that needed some strengthening." What "strengthening" means, I can't say. Burd didn't elaborate. Superintendent Karen Trusler was quoted as saying, "They do affirm our present policies. We have policies in place that are good for our kids."

Burd's article goes on to state that the task force felt "certain policies or disciplinary measures could be firmed up." Again, who knows what "firmed up" means. Members also support the superintendent's discretion in dealing with individual cases. Our interim superintendent did just that with the vandalism case, and she supported the original sentence of expulsion. Odd then, don't you think, that those boys are back in school? What's the point of case-by-case consideration if the superintendent doesn't have the final say?

What I noticed completely lacking in the article is any reference to our discipline policies being too strict or reactionary. Since the last board meeting, three expulsion cases have occurred. Did any of those kids' parents manage (or even try?) to get their students' punishment revoked? Or did they comprehend that when their kid breaks a rule for which there is a clear and formally stated consequence, said consequence is meted out, regardless of who they are? I like to think that in this age of permissiveness, lazy parenting, and privileged kids who have an overblown sense of entitlement that comes directly from their own folks, there are still adults in positions of authority who believe that rules are rules and should be followed. Period. No excuses, no exceptions.

Alas, I don't see any of those adults on this school board. Members are concerned, rather, about insuring those expelled students get some form of education. For crying out loud, where the hell does this end? Isn't there already a school in Greeley for expelled students to attend? Why is our district spending time and money on researching alternatives? This is like sending a child to her room but going to great pains to be sure that rooms has cable TV, a stocked fridge, and all the toys she could want. Perhaps knowledgeable professionals could be on hand to act as educational consultants, but give the responsibility of the legwork to the parents of these students who gave up their right to attend our schools when they made bad choices.

But since our district can't seem to manage enforcing the policies as they are clearly stated in the handbook, I guess it's too much to expect them to take a hardline approach to anything else. Discipline among students at the middle and high school levels is a serious problem in Windsor. But what do teachers and educators have to rely on when they can't even have the security of knowing their administration backs them up? How can they discipline rowdy, disrespectful, rule-breaking, foul-mouthed, apathetic, violent students when their superiors don't have their backs? That kind of support should be a given, yet such is not the case in Windsor RE-4. And until we get some people sitting on that board who aren't afraid to incur the wrath of certain parents or community members in the name of justice and fair play, it ain't ever gonna be how things work around here.

I don't think the problem lies in the severity of our discipline policies, and given that the task force affirms them, I'd say I'm not alone in my assessment. The problem lies in having a school board that refuses to consistently enforce those policies for everyone, but chooses instead to let someone outside the realm of school authority dictate what will happen. The problem lies in not realizing the limits of an entity's responsibility. Expel a kid and then give him his own special classroom? Come on.

This district needs some real leadership, the kind that lays down the law and then abides by it. What are policies for if not enforcement? The Beacon hails the school board for scrutinizing its discipline policies; I'd join in the accolades if I believed any real change would come of such an effort. But I think we're going to see more of the same. And down the road, lame excuses will be made, policies won't be followed, and we'll still hear unending (and justified) complaints of discipline issues from our teachers.

I called it right back in July.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Table talk

This family is not fun to be with.

The pilgrims didn't have many chairs, and if there was one, the dad sat in it because he was the head of the house.

We're an abnormal family because you are so involved in your kids' lives.

The pilgrims signed a peace treaty with the Native Americans. That means their team wouldn't fight with the other team.

There are too many people in our family.

The pilgrims were cold and hungry. Half of them died. Half of them didn't.

Can I just live in the basement?

Thus went dinner conversation around the Valentine/Godfrey table for the past couple nights. In less time than it took to prepare the meals, eat them, and clean up afterwards, my kids have pushed me to the brink of insanity with all this talk of pilgrims and teen angst. I can't take any more.

Bella came out of her kindergarten class with a gaggle of other girls, all of them resembling the Flying Nun (remember her?). It took her pathetically slow mother a moment to realize she wasn't wearing one of those nun hats, but a female pilgrim's bonnet. Why didn't I know that? She and Tavi both have obviously been learning about the first Thanksgiving (no turkey served), and they remember every detail of the lesson. Every. single. freakin'. detail. I tuned out when Bella explained that the pilgrims brought over only a little food, some horsetooth (what the????), and some other completely made-up concoction. She lost me at that juncture, and from then on, I heard only bits and pieces. But that was okay, because she REPEATED EVERYTHING at tonight's dinner, for my listening pleasure.

Max cannot stand being around us anymore these days. I figured the day was coming, and I have basically been relegated to the role of cook (his loss), chauffeur, and maid. I don't like this one bit. According to him, I ruined his life by giving him siblings whose sole purpose is to mess with his serenity. What was I thinking? And do I really expect him to take time away from listening to his iPod, playing guitar, and sending text messages to actually talk with me? Didn't he do that long enough...14 years, to be exact? Sigh.

I want to slap him, or at least push him into the wall. I don't do either. And I know as a mom, I'm not supposed to even admit I have thoughts like that. But I do. Fleeting visualizations of minor violence purported against my children don't negate the overwhelming love I have for them. It's just a coping mechanism, and one I've come to rely on when times are, well, challenging.

But for all the frustration I've had lately as a parent, as Thanksgiving approaches and I give serious thought to all that I am thankful for, my kids top the list. They always have; I imagine they always will. In the past almost-11 months, I've made some major strides in my life. I managed to get to a place of comfort and peace regarding the death of my mom and my son. It came when I least expected it, and my life was forever changed. I wrote a 3-volume reference set on American history. It was a major assignment, and one that I was pleased to get, proud to finish. It will be published next month...a major milestone for me. I've written several books, but this was the first with my name on it. I can't wait to hold those books in my hands.

And there were several smaller ah-ha moments for me in 2006. It's been a good year. But when the day is done and I'm lying in bed, reflecting on what the past 24 hours have put in my path, I always return to my family. My kids. They are my motivation, my pride. Sometimes my shame and sadness. They amuse me, confuse me, bring me to my knees in wonder. They are the reason I yell, laugh, cry, worry, celebrate, breathe. They are what makes this life bountiful and breathtaking.

So when Wes and I sit at that chaotic dinner table and wish we were in Mexico, lying on the beach, just the two of us, I feel a glimmer of guilt because I really don't want the kids there in my fantasy. I want an umbrella drink that is so cold it burns my chest when I swallow. Something with an exotic name, that smells like suntan lotion and makes me smile even as the glass freezes itself to the palm of my hand.

But that fantasy is as much a blessing as anything else; it has great value. Maybe one day we'll get back to our beloved Isla Mujeres. In the meantime, we take deep breaths, eat as fast as possible, and try to escape the pilgrims and the angst.

Happy Thanksgiving to you. May you find yourself many ways in which to feel thankful.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What Do You Believe?

I love the public library. Not just the one in Windsor, but every public library I've ever walked into. Some are admittedly nicer than others. But it isn't the building or the layout I enjoy; it's the smell, the atmosphere, the hordes of books and CDs and audio books and movies and magazines that surround me. When the world ends, I want to be in a public library.

I usually go to the library armed with a list of books I want to read. My "Books to Read Before I Die" list is a pipe dream, really. I know I'll never have the time to read every book on my list, or the ones that will one day appear there. Still, I like my list. It's long. It's comforting. And I can add and delete book titles for any reason I like, or no reason at all. My book list is my little effort at rebellion.

On my way to the checkout line at a library recently, I spotted a book I'd never heard of. "This I Believe" was published this year in association with National Public Radio (NPR). The subtitle is "The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women." The intriguing title, along with NPR's endorsement, led me to do what I tell my kids not to do: check out the book without even opening the cover to see if I'll like it. I knew I'd like it.

I don't like this book. I cannot get through it because every brief essay gives me reason to pause and think. No, that's not the right word. I ruminate. Perhaps contemplate. Evaluate. Brood. Cogitate. Mull over. Ponder. Reflect. Consider. Examine. But most of all, I appreciate. This book I keep reading and yet don't seem to progress through is an amazing compendium of thoughts belonging to people both famous and non. It speaks to me in a quiet way that demands my attention. And long after I've read one of the short entries, I find myself thinking about it. No, I don't like this book. I love it.

What I most enjoy about this book is that its subjects range from important topics such as God, compassion, and attitude to the seemingly more insignificant subjects, including happiness, Barbie dolls, and indecisiveness. People--most of them not writers--were given the prompt "This I Believe," and they had as much freedom of expression as could fit into a few hundred words. What they've done with those words astonishes me.

In my recent years as a weekly columnist, I have been both criticized and praised for writing about everything and nothing. What one person considers inconsequential and not worth writing about, another deems life-altering. What a reader might disregard as too personal to put into print, another finds permission, allowance to feel for herself, and there is a resulting communion. Writing is an intensely personal pursuit, regardless of subject. And that's what I find invaluable in this book. These people had something to say, and they said it, condemnation be damned.

I may have my own opinions and personal philosophies, and you know I've never hesitated to share them. But they're not all etched in stone; they are, as am I, constantly shifting and evolving, and my philosophies reflect that growth. "This I Believe" is written by "remarkable" people, according to the title. We tend to think of that adjective as one meaning "outstanding" or "unusual." But really, it just means "worth remarking upon." One need not be larger than life, exceptional, or amazing to be remarkable. Despite the resolute title, not all the essayists know what they believe. They reserve the right to be "wobbly," as one man puts it. And while I'm not a middle-of-the-road type of gal (you get hit by traffic from both directions if you stand there too long), I can understand not always having a firm belief in something one way or the other.

At any rate, this book is a keeper. I think the personal value of any literature can be directly linked to the time in which it is written as well as to the circumstances under which it is read. In these days of endless war, political gaffes up the wazoo, economic hardships and a general lack of (what I believe is) intelligent leadership on multiple levels, I find the simplicity and direct honesty of the messages that lie between the two covers of this book to be uplifting and inspirational. They feed my soul as surely as food nourishes my body, and I hope you'll pick up a copy and give it a try. Prepare to have your own beliefs challenged as well as echoed, and perhaps allow yourself to be nudged outside your comfort zone if the opportunity presents itself.

We are, after all, each of us remarkable, if imperfect, in our own way. And if nothing else, we each have something to offer, even (especially?) to those who may not realize it.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

How Can Anyone Not Vote?

This is my least favorite time of year, for several reasons. I'm no fan of Halloween, but not for reasons that stem from religious beliefs or anything like that. Halloween conjurs up childhood memories of the holiday, and they almost always ended in tears as my brother and his evil henchmen friends took joy in smashing my jack-o-lanterns. Sounds silly now, I know. But I never understood why he found delight in destruction, especially of something I made. I feign enthusiasm each year, though, because my kids love this holiday and the creepiness of it. We decorate, dress up, gorge. In the end, it's all good.

This is also the beginning of the season of loss for me, and I'd know it was upon me even without the convenience of a calendar. I lost my son and my mother in the month of November and well, there's really nothing more to say about it. Words are powerful, sometimes as much for what they cannot say as for what they express.

And ads. Politically oriented ads, automated phone calls, and commercials have me insane with disgust. These mudslinging campaigns are tiresome; they bring out the worst in all candidates, regardless of platform. By the time Election Day rolls around, I don't like any of my options. That ugly nature of politics today makes it nearly impossible for anyone to run a clean campaign that focuses on a candidate's positive aspects. To do so is certain death. Instead, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars exaggerating and flat-out lying about their opponents' past while simultaneously trying to defend their own. It's up to us voters to do our own research and sort the truth from the garbage. It requires time most of us don't have and effort we don't feel like putting forth.

And yet the option is unthinkable: Believe what each candidate has to say about the other and take their remarks at face value. Yeah, I don't think so. And as fed up as I get every year (and admittedly, have remained throughout the entire Bush administration), I wouldn't even so much as entertain the idea of not voting. To vote is to express hope for something better, brighter, more representative of our interests and needs. It is a simple gesture that holds great meaning, a ritual that, in and of itself, is motivated by a desire for something much greater than ourselves. To vote is to believe.

And yet, not everyone who can, votes. Voting has never been easier or more convenient. Do it early. Do it while you're away. Do it on Election Day. Doesn't matter how or when you do it, just that you do it. When someone tells me s/he doesn't vote, it's all I can do not to slap the mouth that uttered those dirty words. I can't understand why anyone would give away one of the few powers we as individual Americans have left to wield. Especially women. In 1776, Abigail Adams reminded her esteemed husband to "Remember the Ladies" as he and his cronies worked on developing the Declaration of Independence. He blew her off by telling her the Declaration specifically stated that all "men" are created equal.

Throughout most of the following century, woman was forced to conform to a society that inducted her into the Cult of Domesticity. Her role was that of nurturer, housewife, upholder of family morality. Forget her own ambitions and desires, and God forbid she use that brain of hers. I surely would have been in prison on First Degree Murder had I lived in the 1800s. Lizzie Borden and her ax would have had nothin' on me.

The struggle for women's suffrage continued into the twentieth century, and it wasn't until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. It took more than one hundred years of struggle, sacrifice, sweat, marginalization, ostracism, and sheer determination for women to enjoy the right to be heard. And yet there are those today who do not vote for one reason or another. To me, that is the epitome of hopelessness and defeat.

As long as there is breath running through me, I won't give up hope. As much as I abhor the negativity and ugliness of American political campaigns, I won't let that deter me from exercising my right (while I still have it) to have a say in who represents me. To neglect my duty as a voter would be to dishonor the struggle of the hundreds of thousands of women--and enlightened men--who allowed me this voice. If I don't vote, I have no right to complain or dissent or engage in civil disobedience. Where would that leave me?

I tried the Cult of Domesticity; doesn't work for me. And with all its flaws and foibles, the voting system we have in place beats the bunzolas off not having one at all. Miscounts, hanging chads, mysteriously misplaced ballots...there's definitely evil at work here, no doubt. Still. Hope is where it's at for me.

How about you?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Playground games: The Latest Casualty

An elementary school in Massachusetts has banned tag, dodgeball, and touch football on the recess playground. According to the principal, this drastic measure was taken in an effort to keep children safe (and thereby, avoid lawsuits) and avoid "inappropriate touching."

I want to say something about this, but the sheer absurdity of the situation leaves my fingers paralyzed. (It took me 3 minutes to type that sentence, and I'm not kidding.) My mind reels at the idea that society has sunk to such an all-time low that school administration is willing--and feels the need--to revoke one of the few carefree childhood activities our kids are still allowed to enjoy: chase games.

While a first-grader, I participated in a version of tag called Boys Chase the Girls at nearly every recess. We all played from my neighborhood, kids from across the highway, kids from other classes. These were kids whose families I knew, whose faults I was well aware of and loved anyway. They were my friends. One sunshine-filled winter day, the kind where ice covers the tree branches and ground and the air is so cold it burns to breathe, we were running wild around the playground. It was how we got our wigglies out, expended that excess energy that drove our teachers mad in the classroom. We were Wisconsin children; freezing temperatures and icy conditions didn't slow us down. That playground was our domain, and we took advantage of it.

In the midst of our game of tag, the bell rang, signaling it was time to channel our chi, calm down, and get in line to retreat to the confines of the school building. I abruptly stopped running, unaware that my little pal, Joey Messenger, was hot on my trail and had not heard the bell. Upon seeing me stop, Joey seized the chance to tag me. Only what would have normally been a gentle shove morphed into a serious body slam, and I hit the ground, face first.

The pain blinded me, and when I was able to sit up, Joey began screaming at the sight of blood gushing from somewhere on my face. It turned my new, white mittens scarlet, and in that innocent way kids do, I was more concerned with ruining my pretty Christmas gift mittens than I was with the sensation that I was chewing on gravel.

Turns out I was chewing gravel. That collision tore my mouth up and caused my right eye tooth to slice completely through my upper lip. That tooth was literally sticking out through my top lip. And if you've ever seen or experienced a mouth injury, you know how profusely they bleed. Poor Joey stood by, sobbing and apologizing. I didn't want to hug my friend and get him bloody. But I remember telling him through my dazed tears that it was okay, I'd be fine.

I managed to hang on until my mom arrived to whisk me to the doctor's office. Clearly, I was a mess, because when she saw me, her eyes grew wild and her mouth fell open. But what really signalled the seriousness of the situation was her hair. Mom was in pink foam curlers, the kind you can sleep on. I can't stress enough how shocking this was. My mom never went anywhere without doing her hair, makeup, nails, and dressing nicely. I was always immensely proud of how she looked, despite the Marge Simpson hairstyle she favored. Mom was not a sloppy woman, so for her to show up in public looking like that, I knew I was in dire straits.

The injury required 3 stitches in my lip, but only after the doctor peeled it off my tooth, dug the gravel out of my gums and cheeks, and gave me anesthesia via a large needle through my lip. It was by far the worst accident of my childhood. I still bear the scar. Mom was pretty shook up, too. But I don't think it ever entered her mind to sue the school or Joey's folks. She understood what so many today seem to have forgotten: Sometimes things just happen.

But the point is, I survived the trauma, perhaps better than Joey did. Kids have accidents. They play hard, they sometimes suffer. I don't think this is a fact that translates into a problem needing a solution. If we want to keep our kids safe, how about keeping pedophiles locked up, revamping child protective services so that children don't die or suffer at the hands of their parents, or even simply having communities policed by local government employees for trash? I found last week, just outside our privacy fence, a used hypodermic needle as the kids and I were walking home from school. I've already told you how I often find used condoms, broken glass bottles, etc. on the journey to and from school. All of these pose serious health risks to our little people, and yet the problem remains.

I understand we live in litigous times. I get that some parents are off their rockers and punch each other out over grade-school sports, threaten teachers not to give their children failing grades (though they may be well deserved), and make spectacles of themselves in various and sundry ways. But haven't we taken enough away from our children already? Some of us allow them to sit in front of a TV screen for hours on end because at least that way they're not in our hair. We have no problem subjecting them to unceasing violence through the media. There are parents who willingly serve their minors alcohol while others choose to ignore the fact that their kids are sexually active. We are raising a generation of kids who have no sense of responsibility or accountability or even human decency. Shame has become taboo and a conscience is becoming nearly extinct. Seems to me we've forced our children to grow up way too fast as it is.

Do we really have the right to steal from them one more childhood activity? In a society that's increasingly lenient and unsupervised in ways it shouldn't be, and more strict and rule-oriented than it should be, what impact can such a limitation have on a population for whom days of innocence and simple fun grow shorter with each passing day?

Go to your local park, sit on a swing, and pump your legs until you're really high in the air. Then lean back and close your eyes and remember what it was like to be a kid. Let your stomach be tickled, your laughter escape as the wind blows your hair and brushes your face.

What you've got is simple joy. That is what will keep our kids safe.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Let's Give God a Break

A twenty-year-old mother in North Carolina suffocated her 9-month-old twin boys on Wednesday because they were crying and she didn't feel well. Those babies were on the bed next to her when she murdered them. Then she rolled over and took a nap. Authorities found the body of one boy on the bed, the other on the floor. The mother has been arrested on two counts of homicide by child abuse.

So here we have the ruined lives of three people, not to mention other family members. Obviously (to me, anyway), this woman never should have become a mother. She was not equipped to deal with the harsher moments that go along with parenthood. I don't know a mom alive who hasn't had to deal with needy children when she herself did not feel well. I don't know one of them who killed her kids over it.

I don't know any further details of this story. But based on the few I've mentioned and some other pieces of information I've gleaned from news reports, I can imagine she was a single mother, low-income. Uneducated, unskilled, perhaps unemployed. No one ever explained to her the resources available to her and her children. No one paid any attention to her, at least not when she needed it most. And now two innocent lives have been snuffed out.

This is just one of hundreds of similar stories that unravel throughout this great nation every day. Maybe they don't all end the same. Instead of death, children suffer sexual and physical abuse, emotional such an intense and irrevocable degree that they would rather die. But they don't die. So then they seek escape by turning to gangs, drugs, prostitution, get the picture.

I can't imagine a life like that. I hope my kids can't, either, though I would sometimes like them to understand that the life they have isn't unfair simply because I expect them to help with chores around the house and do what I ask the first time I make the request. I'd like them to have at least an inkling of what it's like not to be them because being them seems (to them) to be a rip-off when I don't just hand them money for no reason, or when I hold them accountable for their actions. Sometimes, being a parent really blows. It means being the bad guy, the nag, the one who says No when saying Yes would be so much easier.

But although we require training and licensing for driving motor vehicles, obtaining certain jobs, and constructing buildings, we don't provide mandatory training for parents-to-be. Oddly enough, some counties require a course for parents who are divorcing, to help them smooth the transition for the kids and remember that they are the adults, regardless of the circumstances. So we are, according to law, trained to handle divorce, but not parenting.

I wonder how that North Carolina mother might have better handled her frustration had she received some assistance (and I'm not talking welfare) before her babies arrived. Or, perhaps even better, before she got pregnant. Instead, we have folks who want to ban sex education in favor of abstinence-only rhetoric AND outlaw abortion. Where is the logic in this?

The idea of having an abortion fills me with unutterable sadness. Really, I can't put together words to express how devastating the thought is to me. But in a world filled with thousands of unwanted children who endure unbearable suffering at the hands of those who are supposed to love and cherish them most, I can't find the logic in revoking one of few options available. To the young girl who is repeatedly raped by her dad or brother, or the woman who is abused in every manner by her psychotic husband, abortion is, perhaps, the only ray of hope. I don't know; I've never been in such a situation. But I can't for one moment pretend that I know what is best for someone who has had this experience.

I want a presidential administration that values everyone, not just the rich or religious (but it has to be the "right" religion), the white or powerful. Everyone. If that were the case, there would be little need to ever discuss the rights of the unborn vs. the born. We would all get what we need, those basic necessities such as education, food, shelter, health insurance. If life weren't a dire struggle for so many hundreds of thousands of people just to survive, maybe there would be more time to devote to bettering ourselves so that we might just be able to give our kids what they need.

Instead, we have mothers barely out of their teens, suffocating their babies and facing life in prison. And we have young boys and grown men storming our schools and terrorizing our children, murdering some and traumatizing the rest for life. We have young girls and grown women dying from self-induced abortions and those performed by back-alley pseudo doctors because men are passing laws telling us what we can and cannot do with and to our own bodies. Everyone in these scenarios is a victim, from the dead babies to the suicidal, gun-wielding maniacs.

I'm an idealist. At various times in my life, it's been the only thing between me and a very bad choice. I believe in the overall goodness of the human race, that there still exists the possibility that things can change for the better. I need to believe that something new and improved lies just beyond the horizon, because the news I read yesterday and today, the headlines I will surely read tomorrow, are soul-crushing. They could easily rob me of my hope and determination if I hadn't already spent more than forty years learning how to detect that sliver of potential in the mountain of disappointment.

The family of the slain boys say they're giving the situation up to God, that it's in his hands. Maybe if more people here on earth would take responsibility for what happens not only to themselves but to their neighbors, we wouldn't need to keep giving God so much to do.

In the meantime, our simple leader has made us the police of the world, and we're spending billions of dollars we don't have fighting a war we can't seem to bring to an end for a reason we can't seem to remember (oh, that's right; there wasn't [a real] one) while our own people suffer needlessly and endlessly due to poverty, ignorance, and destitution. Then, that same simple leader and his henchmen pass laws that are rapidly making second-class citizens out of anyone who isn't white, straight, wealthy, and male. Despite my idealism, I can only predict that this will end badly.

Abortion. War. Poverty. Murder. Foreign policy. Parenting. Ignorance. Politics. You may think these concepts aren't related, but they are. In its simplest form, everything is related in one way or another.

And it isn't God who provides the common thread. It's you. And it's me. And until we truly understand this, every effort we make is destined to fail.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Spilling of Innocent Blood

The murders of young Amish school girls in Pennsylvania earlier in the week hit me hard. It's not as if we don't have our own school shootings in this state; we seem to lead the troops in that sad scenario. Every time I read or hear of yet another shooting, a small part of me is shamed. These are our children, and we're failing them miserably in so many ways.

But the shootings in Pennsylvania ripped through me on several levels. My sister and brother were born in Lancaster, PA, home to thousands of Amish folk. My extended family lived (and a few still remain) near that region, and I spent many childhood summers there. From the time I was small, the Amish and their horse-drawn buggies were a familiar sight as I enjoyed carefree summer days with my cousins and grandparents, aunts and uncles. I remember feeling sorry for the little girls whose dresses were so drab, whose dolls had no faces. And always, always, I pitied them having to spend those humid days in full clothing while I cavorted in shorts, tank tops, and flip flops. In my eyes, the Amish children seemed so serious and sullen. I wanted for them the same fun and laziness I had the luxury to enjoy during those summer months.

In my teens, I looked at the Amish more with disbelief than anything. My lifestyle was so far removed from theirs; I had little understanding of how a life so simple and removed from my reality could be fulfilling. No phones, no lights, no motor cars, not a single was Gilligan's Island without Gilligan or the Island. I just didn't get it. Why would anyone voluntarily adopt that way of life?

It was not until adulthood that I came to admire the Amish and what being Amish actually meant. Because they are a throwback to centuries long gone, society has tended to mystify and revere them. I never fell into that trap; I'm sure they have their bad seeds just as we English do. I find it hypocritical that some sects are not allowed to own cars or phones or any modern conveniences that might make them slaves to their trappings, but that they can use them if need be. I absolutely hate driving behind them on long stretches of highway, moving, as Max would say, at the speed of smell. But.

To the extent of my understanding of and familiarity with the Amish, I consider them the one population truly closest to God. In a world that is a political jungle, they take no side. They live in a war-waging country, yet are unapologetic pacifists to the core. They have no need to impose their beliefs on anyone, whether from the pulpit, the classroom, or the White House. And as their reaction to this recent horrific tragedy demonstrates, they embody the essence of forgiveness. Their daughters' simple pine coffins not underground yet, they spoke of the need to forgive the deranged murderer. And despite their own grief and immeasurable loss, they crowded his funeral so that they might offer solace and comfort to his tormented family.

These people live their beliefs not only publicly, but in private. They shun those temptations that might lure them further from their God, yet they offer their teenage children a respite from the strict limitations of their lives to give them a chance to see what life outside the Amish community is like. During this time, their children can engage in any activity they choose: drinking, drugs, name it. The purpose of this milestone is to allow young people to make a choice to remain Amish or to choose a life in mainstream America. I know of no other Christian denomination as a whole that gives its young the room--not to mention the trust--to make a faith choice based on experience. Perhaps that's why there's such a rebellion from the church among young people today. To me, the Amish don't talk the talk; they walk the walk.

And now their gentle community has been desecrated. I can't help but wonder what went through the minds of those innocent girls as they experienced those last moments of life. Surely they had nothing against which to compare what they were going through. They had no reference to the outside world and its evil. Did this ignorance of their fate deepen their fear, or lessen it? According to newspaper reports, even in their terror, they were seeking meaning, asking their captor why he wanted to harm them. And one 13-year-old volunteered her own life for the safety of her younger peers. Even in the face of death, she rose above the sheer wickedness of the situation to offer herself as a sacrifice. That is an example of the love of God, and it was manifested in the selflessness of a young girl.

There is no ending to this story. I fear this is but a beginning.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Nothin' to Do and All Night to Do It

I attended a PTAC meeting earlier this week at Skyview. Due to schedule constraints, I was never able to attend the PTAC meetings last year, so I was thrilled to realize that, at least for now, I can make it to these Monday-night affairs.

At one point in the meeting, we were brainstorming ideas for events the schools could hold to help bring parents and students together, maybe raise some money, show school spirit...that sort of thing. And while I consider myself a creative person, my mind was a complete blank. I couldn't think of one activity or idea. On top of that, I didn't like any of the ideas others came up with.

After the meeting, while I was getting ready at home to let the day come to a close, I thought about my inability to contribute to or even support what went on at the meeting. After putting Max and Tuck to bed (the girls were already there), clearing off the kitchen table, folding that last load of laundry, getting lunches ready for the next day, and checking the calendar so that there would be no unwelcome surprises come Tuesday morning, I flopped into my recliner, exhausted. And that's when it hit me: I had no good ideas, nor could I support anyone else's, because I don't want one more thing added to my schedule. I don't want another school event I feel obligated to attend, no matter how fun it might be.

What would truly be great is if the school district could get together and give its families one night a month--one night--free of sports practices and games, extracurricular activities, meetings, events, and homework. One night a month to just be together as a family, with nothing to do, nowhere we have to go, and all night to enjoy that nothingness. No responsibilities to school...just empty hours for us to fill --or not--as we choose.

We've never been a family that schedules every waking moment with some sort of organized activity. I have the good fortune to work from home, so I have even more flexibility than many parents, and I don't need to rely on daycare schedules. I usually walk with my elementary-aged kids to and from school; Max rides in with Wes at 6:40 a.m. each weekday so that he can be on the marching (band) field by 7:00 sharp (and I do mean sharp, or the entire band has to run laps if one kid is late), and then I pick him up from cross country practice between 5 and 5:30 p.m. most days. Evenings are spent with the kids doing homework, us parents helping when appropriate. Add to that bath time, story time, and the getting-ready-for-bed process, and we're until well into the night. And then there are those nights when Max has an out-of-town cross country meet, or a band competition, and I have to stay up waiting for the phone call to pick him up. Last weekend, he called at 12:10 a.m. on Sunday, having just arrived back at the school from a band competition that was supposed to get the kids home by 11 p.m. Saturday night.

All that (and I didn't even mention the community playhouse, which requires the younger kids to be at 2 practices a week, 2 hours each practice, efforts which will culminate in more than ten performances and will require them to miss 2 full days and 2 half days of school), and I have just one kid at the high school level, where extra-curricular activities really seem to kick into high gear. There are families who have more than one there, and who still have children in the middle and/or elementary schools as well. It's a logistical nightmare.

So the thought of yet another event or activity does not appeal to me. I see how hard students are pushed in school, and while I understand that we're just trying to keep up with the pace of the world, I want there to be some sort of boundary where these kids come home and have a chance to just be kids again. Not students. Not athletes. Not thespians. Just kids. Kids with time on their hands to do whatever...even nothing, if they choose. I remember doing nothing; it's a sweet memory.

I don't think my fantasy is unrealistic. I was an involved student myself. I played tennis and basketball, helped manage the track team, wrote and edited the yearbook, participated in two choirs, competed each year in state vocal competitions, took piano lessons, was a member of several school clubs and organizations, and eventually was a peer mentor for kids from families where substance abuse was an issue. Add to that youth group at church and, by the age of sixteen, a part-time job at the public library, and I was busy.

But I fondly remember, despite my crowded schedule, having down time when I could read, play piano, play with friends (an activity we later called "hanging out" because it sounded cooler), or just stay in my bedroom with the door shut, thinking...dreaming...imagining. I don't see Max getting much time for that sort of thing, even though I monitor and limit how many activities he's involved in simultaneously so that he doesn't spread himself too thin. He's currently in marching band and cross country. That's it. And he's a strong student, academically. He should be able to handle 2 activities and school. And he does, but not without paying the price of having some freedom.

Free time, time with family...these shouldn't be luxuries. Kids should be able to participate in extra-curricular activities (from which, I believe, they learn important skills) and still have a life. I don't see that happening. Those kids who choose to engage in sports and other organizations are now expected to give early mornings, after school, precious summer weeks, and part of their weekends away, too. It isn't enough that these sports and clubs get five days a week; they want more. I have a hard time with that demand, especially when the schools stress parental involvement in their students' lives. How can we be involved when many, if not most, of us are just trying to keep up as maid, chauffeur, and time management consultant? I suppose if a family consists of just one child, the schedule isn't so rigorous. But for those of us who have kiddos across the spectrum, everyday life gets so crowded that there isn't room for connection of any real quality. When I have to stay up until nearly 1:00 a.m. to pick up my kid from a weekend school function and then have to get up six hours later to start the day with my younger kids, how can I be the parent I want to be?

Life is undeniably rushed on every level any more. Society as a whole has forgotten how to be still, and I think the schools play into that. I know: Kids don't have to sign up for sports, band, or anything else outside of academic classes. But for those of us who want to raise a whole child, those activities that mirror our children's personal interests aren't "extra." And they shouldn't require so much of the kids who participate or their families. I don't see why this has to be an all-or-nothing scenario, but that's pretty much what it is.

Family dinners, family movie night, game night, whatever...these are just as important as anything the kids are getting from school. Yet homework and extra-curricular activities and the stupifying number of hours they require prevent family time from happening.

It's a shame, really, because the very people who are working so hard at all these activities are the ones who are paying the price by having nothing but one goal after another that they must achieve and no time to enjoy just being kids.

No more activities or events. Please. Give us one night a month to ourselves. Surely, that's not too much to ask.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fourteen and Counting

School pictures have arrived for high school students, and as I was switching out the old for the new in a frame I keep on the piano, a very old photo of Max fell out. Staring up at me was a blond, brown-eyed boy of 13 months. Next to that fallen photo was Max's most recent, taken just one month ago. Brown hair, green eyes covered by glasses, a retainer soon to be followed by many changes, yet the smile--the expression--was the same. He knows oh so much more than he's letting on.

Seeing these two versions of my eldest child side-by-side gave me pause. I sat down and studied the face I once felt I'd waited several lifetimes to see. And I remembered the very strong sense of familiarity I'd experienced the first time I laid eyes on Max. Although I had spent that pregnancy in great anticipation of meeting this baby, once I saw him, I realized it wasn't meeting him that excited me. It was seeing him again. I'd been missing that child and wasn't even aware of it until he was there, studying my face with wide-open eyes.

This knowing him is what allows the two of us to communicate without talking. I'll be in the middle of a thought, and Max will come into the room and finish it for me, out loud. In my head, I'll be singing a tune, and he'll start to sing it aloud. We often say the exact same thing at the same time, and sometimes, he answers a question I haven't yet given voice to. This is weird stuff, I know. Believe me, I know. We're both used to this sort of thing now, but it still gets kind of freaky sometimes when we see something on TV or in a movie and have the same response, word for word. More than any of my other kids, I have a connection with Max in terms of how we think and process information. We are two sides of the same coin. It is creepy and cool at the same time.

Some kids--most, I suppose--are born brand new. Or at least they seem that way. That wasn't the case with Max. He was a complete package the moment he arrived, and everyone who met him knew it. They expressed it differently, of course. "He seems like such an old soul," some would say. Others commented on the depth of his facial expression, or the feeling they'd get that this was no baby. I had those same gut feelings, but because he was my first, I had no other children against which to compare him. He wasn't unusual in any way at first. He was just Max.

As he grew, however, he began to share with me vivid memories of events and people from what he called "my life before." In hushed tones, he would speak to me, late at night as we watched the stars, of the future, and how he would die before I would. He instructed me not to be sad, because that was just the way God wanted it to be. Imagine hearing this from a two-year-old as he holds your hand and gently pats it, much as an adult pats a child's hand as a gesture of comfort.

Max turned 14 this past Monday. His memories of his "life before" have faded, but not entirely. And still he believes he will come to an early demise. It is not something he frets over or laments; he simply accepts this knowledge and expects me to do the same. Outwardly, I accept; I will not disrespect him by doing otherwise. Inwardly, I scream and rant, curse and weep. This is no stranger we're talking about; this is my son. My firstborn. Everything he has ever told me...every event he has ever predicted, has happened. It's another thing we share. Not that we're able to tell the future, per se...but we have both had quick blasts of images and scenes, and those images have always come to pass. I have seen events from the past--long before I was born--in much the same way. Again, creepy but cool.

So it is with unfathomable relief and gratitude that I celebrate each anniversary of Max's birth. In some ways, he is a typical teen: operates with finely honed selective hearing skills, talks back when he feels he's being made to do something totally outrageous (such as taking out the recycling), forgets what he's told 5 seconds after you've finished speaking to him. But in other ways, he's atypical: How many teens would be okay with having their moms write about them in a public forum? He's uncommonly secure in who he is; peer pressure and teen angst claim no space in this kid's life. He is very much marching to his own beat, with little regard and absolutely no need for the approval of others.

Often, children of a family "belong" to one parent or the other. Bella, for instance, is very much her daddy's girl. She is like him in most ways, both physical and behavioral. Max is mine. He's been mine from the moment he "found me again," as he was fond of saying as a little boy. What I have with that kid is valuable beyond any treasure. It is a love that we both know has superceded time, a devotion that needs no explanation or expression.

That Max is my son is a gift. That I am his mother, an honor. He's not perfect, but he's mine. And I'll take mine over perfect any day.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Where Were You When the Towers Fell?

Today is the five-year anniversary of the tragedy known simply as 9/11. Say "nine-eleven" out loud to anyone in the country, and no further explanation is needed. Today, every news channel on TV and news site online is filled with survivor stories, photo collages, lists of the dead. We must relive that horrific event whether we want to or not.

The only other event that has occurred in my lifetime that shook the nation to its core was the death of Elvis Presley in 1977 (and arguably, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, though someone had to remind me of that one). I mean no disrespect in comparing the two events; they both often enter into conversations with the question "Where were you when..." I can answer that question for both events. I was twelve years old, bouncing my Super Pinky ball off the concrete wall of our garage in small-town Wisconsin when a radio announcer interrupted whatever tune was playing to inform us listeners that the King had been found dead in his bathroom. Never a devoted Elvis fan, I still knew enough to know at that very moment that this was news that would leave America as a nation in shock. And it did.

As for 9/11, I recall that morning just as clearly. Bella was only 8 months old, and I was nursing her in my recliner in the family room. I clicked on the TV in hopes of getting a weather forecast for the day so I could dress the kids appropriately for school. Max and Tuck were eating breakfast in the kitchen; Tavi was still in bed. It was just around 7 a.m. The horrifying images that assaulted me from the television left me speechless. I set Bella down on a blanket on the floor and ran upstairs to wake up Wes. "Get up," I said as I shook him. "Get up. Terrorists have attacked New York." And then I started to sob. Heaving, stuttering sobs. A bleary-eyed Wes just looked at me. "What?" he asked in a disoriented tone. "The Twin Towers. Planes crashed into them. They're gone," was all I could manage.

We went back downstairs and I tried to compose myself so as not to scare the boys. As I packed their lunches and filled their water bottles, I thought how absurd it was for me to be going about my daily routine while, on the other side of the country, human limbs and pieces of scalp were raining from a bloody sky. How could I do this? Before the details, before learning of who orchestrated the attack, before knowing much of anything, I still knew America would never be the same. Life as I had known it for over three decades was irrevocably changed in those minutes between the attack on the North Tower and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93.

And changed, it is. In those immediate months following the attack, we seemed to reach a level of human kindness never before achieved, at least not in my lifetime. We were Americans. Not whites or blacks, upper- or lower-class, believers or non-. We were simply Americans, all of us mourning for losses that couldn't possibly be measured. We accepted the heartfelt condolences so graciously offered us from around the world, and we wept. For days, months. We wept tears of sorrow, fear, anger. We wept for those we knew and those we'd never know. For the loved ones left behind, the babies yet to be born, the lives so viciously stolen.

But as the years passed, so too have those days of grace and kindness. We waged a war on false pretenses, and we're still there. Fighting. Fighting. Fighting. Thousands of innocents are dying, and we don't want to hear about it. On the homefront, we're divided. It's not a blurry, dotted line, but a solid chasm that pits us one against the other. Those of us who speak out against our leader, this war, are labeled unpatriotic. Fervent nationalism has taken hold of this country, and like racism and sexism, it is a prejudice. While so much of the rest of the world looks upon America as an arrogant imperialist, we raise our flag high and continue to insist we are in the right, even as our soldiers are imprisoned for their brutality and conduct unbecoming.

For all their bluster and alleged efforts, our government has not made America a safer place to live since 9/11. On the contrary, terrorist attacks are on the rise. And though we look back on the unfathomable tragedy of 9/11 with the hindsight of five years, I ask: Where is the humanity? What happened to that nation of folks who tirelessly gave of themselves, past the point where they had anything left to give? Where went that kinder, gentler nation?
We waged war in Iraq, to be sure. But we waged it right here at home, too. And for all our tears and empathy, we will never return to the charitable, selfless nation we were for those few months following 9/11.

It's us against them, only we're the us. And we're the them.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Sitting at the Big Folks' Table

The other evening, Tucker was sweeping the kitchen floor, Max was in the living room allegedly doing homework, and I was in the family room folding laundry. Our home is a split-level, so even though the three of us were in different rooms, it was easy to communicate with one another.

Tuck seems to do some of his best thinking when he's sweeping and mopping the kitchen floor. I can't tell you why; but that job takes him approximately three times longer than it has to simply because he continuously stops to chat. That evening, he had explorers on his mind. He's in fifth grade, and his class is knee-deep in a unit on global exploration. Whenever I hear the names Magellan, de Gama, and Ponce de Leon, I am instantly transported back to my own fifth-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Wisconsin. Explorers and fifth grade go hand-in-hand.

Tuck began talking about what he was learning, and Max chimed in with his two cents (which is always more like five hundred sixty-two dollars), and then I got involved in the conversation. For ten minutes, the three of us discussed the pros and cons of each explorer in terms of how interesting each was. It was a lively conversation.

And when it was over, I realized that for the first time ever, Tuck was able to participate in an intellectual conversation with his older brother. Those two talk about music, guitars, bands, and playing techniques all the time. But dinner time is often taken up with a discussion begun by Max regarding some current news topic. This stuff often goes right over the heads of the younger kids, and then boredom sets in and Bella breaks the serious atmosphere by burping (or worse) like a truck driver.

But this time, Tuck got in on the dialogue, and it was really fun for me to listen to those two go back and forth. At bedtime, I asked Tuck if he realized what had come to pass in the kitchen with that conversation, and he grinned and said "Yeah. I actually had something to say that Max felt was worth listening to." As most younger siblings do, Tuck has always compared himself to his big brother, and in his estimation, has often come up short. Not this time. I could see how empowering those few minutes were for him, and I silently celebrated the milestone. And for the rest of the evening, Max treated Tuck more like a friend and less like a nuisance; he recognized what happened, too. For those few minutes, Tuck was a peer.

Anyone who has more than one child realizes that scenes like the one I just described are blessings. The kids put aside their differences and get caught up in whatever it is that's brought them together, even if only for a short time. I'll take that sort of thing anywhere I can get it. I imagine teachers experience this now and then, too. It's got to be one of the definite perks of the job.

His whole life, Tuck has been the child of mine who never seems to age. In my mind's eye, he's still a small child with a bowl haircut and a face that wrinkles up with glee. That perception was shattered Tuesday night, as I listened to him confidently debate with his big brother which explorer would be more interesting to research for a social studies project.

It's hard, in a way, to let go of the visual of Tuck as a toddler. But it's nothing short of divine to embrace the preadolescent he's become. And that he recognizes his own progress and claims ownership of just doesn't get any better than that.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Johnny Mathis, Stick Pins, and Felix

The last few years of her life, my mom lived in a side-by-side duplex in a small rural town in Pennsylvania. Had that house been situated anywhere else in the continental United States (with the possible exception of backwoods Kentucky), it would have been condemned. The electrical wiring alone was enough to bring on the wrecking ball, and it wasn't worth fixing. From the outside, it was a residence like many others on that street: old, ugly, falling apart.

But once inside the door, you found yourself embraced by a welcoming environment carefully crafted by someone who very obviously loved her home and made the best of what she had. If a piece of furniture was ugly, Mom painted or reupholstered it. Hole in the wall? A framed Victorian Era postcard covered that up nicely, and no one was the wiser (except that Mom was always so proud of her abilities, she made sure she showed you the hole). And as my sister was fond of saying, everything else that didn't move got decoupaged.

Little children and adults alike took comfort in Mom's house. No matter the time of day or night, a pot of coffee was brewing, its aroma wafting from the back kitchen to the front of the living room. Mom drank way too much coffee. In fact, we found no fewer than seven coffee pots in her home after she died. And yet she wondered why she could never sleep.

Add to the smell of coffee any one of the glorious aromas emanating from Mom's oven, and it was almost easy not to notice the pitch-perfect voice of Johnny Mathis singing softly in the background. I grew up listening to his mesmerizing pipes, and to this day I cannot hear the song "Arianne" without my eyes tearing to overflowing:

Arianne is Mama's crystal
bread that's nearly finished baking
She's a rainbow in a puddle
and the happiest of birthdays
She's the going off on Friday
and the coming back on Monday
with a tan

That song, to me, is my mom. That and Dobie Gray's "Drift Away." Mom couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but that never stopped her from singing. And dance...the woman could dance. People would clear the dance floor to watch her; I've seen it happen.

In the other half of the duplex lived a woman named Phyllis. Tavi endearingly called her Felix, something that never failed to make both Phyllis and Mom double over with cigarette-hacking laughter, the kind that threatened to make them pee their pants. Phyllis was one of those neighbors found in small towns across America. She was loud, talked incessantly, and Mom often complained that she was nosy. But when they were together, I could tell how much Mom loved her pal Felix. There wasn't a thing in the world that woman would not do for my mom, and I know Mom appreciated that. And when Mom died, Phyllis was devastated. Two peas in a pod, and now the pod was feeling too roomy.

Phyllis died last Saturday. She was 77 years old. I don't know the cause of death. I only know she wasn't feeling well, so she went into the hospital and never came back. When I went to Pennsylvania this summer, I thought about visiting Felix. But the thought of doing so felt awkward; the one thing we had in common was Mom, and she wasn't there. I just didn't know how I could go back to that house, revisit those memories. So I didn't. And I didn't call. And I'll never have an opportunity to do that again.

There was a time when a less forgiving version of myself would have grabbed hold of that weakness and berated myself with it for weeks, maybe months. I've learned the futility of that sort of behavior, realized that my energy could be spent in more productive ways. But it will always be a regret. More than that, though, I'm feeling a melancholy rooted in the fact that I've lost yet another link to my past. It happens everyday, to everyone, in some little way. I know this. Knowing it doesn't make it easier to handle.

Felix was like the pot roast in the oven, the coffee in the pot, the overkill of decoupage. As sure as I knew I'd sit on one of the 863 straight pins Mom kept stuck in her sofa (she was a seamstress, after all, and pin pricks in my butt, arms, back, and legs were just a fact of life), I could always count on seeing Felix when I visited Mom. She was a fixture in Mom's life, and now she's gone.

I sigh. Cry a bit for reasons both selfish and benevolent. Wish for her grown children a sense of peace, knowing full well they've got some powerfully dark days ahead of them. And I say goodbye.

If only Johnny Mathis had a song for this.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Is Formal Schooling Mere Crowd Control?

I was talking with a mom of young children recently, and she informed me she had decided to homeschool her kids. I told her I admire that decision because it takes serious commitment and dedication.

At any rate, this parent told me that formal schooling is really nothing more than crowd control. I immediately filed that statement away in the "to do" list of my mind so that I could give it further thought at a later date. At the time, I was standing in the produce section of King Soopers, not the ideal setting for deep contemplation.

I've had a couple weeks to think about what she said. And while I agree that there are areas of concern regarding formal (I can't say public, because this mom lumped all schooling together: public and private) education, I think it's an undeserved simplification to say that it's nothing more than crowd control.

I have wondered at times how much of the formal school day is spent actually learning. Figure in the time it takes to get to and from classes as well as the time spent having the teachers deal with "problem" students and other crises, and I imagine that percentage might be somewhat disappointing. And given that there are more than a handful of learning (and teaching) styles, it's inevitable that some students are not being taught in the way that would benefit them most.
A kid in Tuck's fifth-grade class was highly disruptive from the first day. I heard about this kid from other kids in class, too. How can a teacher effectively teach--or a student effectively learn--when a student's negative behavior demands so much attention (fortunately, Tuck has one of the most capable teachers in his school, and he's reported improvement of the situation)?

Formal schooling also does us no favors in terms of learning social skills. After just a few days in kindergarten, Bella has already been introduced to negative behaviors she's never had to deal with at home. For instance, at our house, no means no. No exceptions. No, don't touch me. No, don't tickle me. No, don't take my shoes and throw them around the playground. Other children in her class don't seem to understand the meaning of the word no, and she's frustrated by this lack of respect. As a parent, I am too.

And yet. Formal schooling as a journey isn't just about what kids learn from the books, lectures, and handouts. It isn't all about memorizing dates and names, or the details of wars and presidential administrations. Formal education, lacking as it may be in some areas, prepares our kids to live in the real world. It presents children with situations and scenarios they will eventually confront in life, and because they will have already traveled that road, they'll have the knowledge and experience to deal with them effectively. Granted, sometimes kids are forced to face situations much earlier than is healthy; the subject of last week's column (parents serving their young kids alcohol) is a prime example of this. But if parents are involved in their kids' lives, they can guide them through these difficult situations by sharing wisdom and insight to help shine a light on the path. I'd rather my children go through some of life's hardships while I'm still directly involved in their everyday lives than have them be bludgeoned with them as adults.

Formal schooling has other advantages. If they have dynamic and effective teachers, young people learn that what's good enough for one person is not acceptable for another. Throughout the years, Max has often complained that his teachers required more of him than he felt they did other, less capable students. I explained to him that that's how it is in the real world, too. I taught him that along with natural gifts comes a responsibility to use them to their potential. What needs to be looked at isn't the final result of an assignment or project so much as the effort put into it. One kid's best effort might mirror a half-hearted attempt by another kid. Despite Max's numerous "that's not fair" complaints, he realizes that fair doesn't always mean equal. He couldn't have learned that on a consistent basis by the age of 13 anywhere else.

Formal schooling, by its very nature, requires children to learn to deal with ignorant, loud, obnoxious, mean, lazy, arrogant, apathetic people--a skill necessary to get through life without blowing someone's head off. School is where kids will learn what works best for any given encounter: confrontation? ignoring and walking away? conflict resolution? I've seen this countless times with all 3 of my older kids. One of the kindest things anyone ever said about Max was that he gets along with everyone; yet if you talk to Max, you'd realize he's not one to suffer fools gladly. But he's already learned how to coexist in a healthy way with people he does not like or respect, and that will serve him well for the rest of his life.

But perhaps the most important thing formal education gives our children is the regular opportunity for learning self-control and taking responsibility. While there are a lot of kids who don't seem to grasp the concept that they are responsible for their own actions and choices, our schools are filled with children who obviously do. In school, students are immersed in situations that allow them the chance to participate or not, excel or not, do their best or not. And they learn that their choices directly affect the outcome of any given situation. Mom and Dad aren't there, supervising their behavior or learning, and teachers don't have time (nor should they take the responsibility) to babysit students by making sure they're doing what they should in the form of taking notes, listening, etc. Our students are making their own choices and living with the consequences; I think that's fantastic. If the results are disappointing, then parents and caregivers have a responsibility to step in. Ideally, they're already involved in their child's education anyway.

Choosing a child's educational direction is a personal decision; a parent has to do what s/he thinks is truly best for the individual child. Many people I've talked to believe homeschooling is just wrong; I disagree. I think homeschooling, given the right parents and the right circumstances, is a terrific option. I feel the same way about Montessori and Waldorf schools. No option, however, is perfect. And not all options are right for all students.

As in everything else involving kids, I think it comes back to the parent or primary caregiver. Know your kids, their strengths and weaknesses, and their abilities. Keep in touch with every aspect of their lives, even when doing so makes you feel like Sisyphus.

I believe we're luckier than the hopeless Sisyphus. Sooner or later, our labor will pay off. And our kids will reap the rewards.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Kindergarten and Underage Drinking

About 30 minutes ago, I dropped Bella off for her first day of school. Not accustomed to needing to be at the school for the first bell (which is when the kindergarten students go into the classroom), I was, of course, late. Tavia had a shoe crisis at the last moment, and although the kids had been up since the butt crack of dawn, we still managed to be in "rush" mode once we hit school grounds.

Anyway, Bella never had time to stand in line with the other munchkins. Instead, I walked her to her classroom door, hugged and kissed her, and sent her on her way into the warm smiles of her very courageous teacher. No time for tears. And I walked home, I couldn't help but think that here we pass another milestone. I will never have another first day of kindergarten as a parent.

And as I experienced that bittersweet feeling a parent experiences over cutting another notch in the apron strings, I thought about Max, who is a 13-year-old freshman this year. His initial reaction to high school is that it is a vortex of evil, but he'll manage. I, on the other hand, felt the sting of parental angst recently, and I'm not sure I'll manage at all.

My family attended a party last weekend, and to my shock and amazement, the 14-year-old son of the host family was allowed to drink alcohol. His mom explained her philosophy: If he is served at home, he won't sneak and hide it, like she did at his age. At home, his underage drinking can be supervised. Holy crap-ola. I could not believe my ears.

We left the party shortly after this discovery; I simply could not wrap my brain around the idea that this kid was served alcohol by his parents. Disappointment and fear threw me in a tailspin. But mostly, I was just really sad. There's no other word for it. Earlier in the evening, the mom was voicing her concern over the lyrics of some heavy metal music her son listens to; within hours, she was trying to legitimize giving beer to a kid, a concept I can't make sense of no matter how I look at it. Truly, I spent the rest of that weekend in a funk, reassessing my values and beliefs in an effort to determine if I had become a constipated prude. Am I so out of touch with reality that I'm making a big thing out of nothing?

No. I came to the conclusion that it is not out of touch or prudish to abstain from serving a 14-year-old alcohol. What is unrealistic is to encourage destructive behavior by giving it approval and then expecting that such allowance on the part of a parent will curtail more of the same behavior. I find it appalling that any parent would willingly start his child down a path that is not healthy either physically or mentally. This is a kid we're talking about, not a young adult. A kid. Someone not even 6,000 days old.

I know...we all parent as we see fit. And I know the kids in this family are very loved. I simply can't follow the logic of allowing a kid to drink as a solution to a problem that might never occur. To everything a time, right? Well, the time to drink is not as a kid. The brain is still developing. Impulse control is at a lifetime low. There are all sorts of things physiologically going on in a teen's body that should not be influenced by alcohol. Given the loopy logic of the argument, how would a parent handle teen sex? Escort the young couple to a candlelit bedroom, with John Coltrane playing softly in the background, rose petals strewn about the bed? Come on. Some activities should not be pursued by hormonal kids...boozing it up and sex are two of them, at least where 14-year-olds are concerned.

I know teen alcohol and drug abuse are serious issues facing families today. That's nothing new. But encouraging your kid to take part in harmful activities in an effort to keep him from hiding such behavior is just, well, lacking. In everything. By the same token, being too strict or overprotective...fear-based parenting...that doesn't work either. Isn't there a middle ground here? Tell our kids we expect them to obey the law, but if they should choose to make a poor choice, avoid further trouble by calling home and extricating themselves from the situation. The night of the party in mention, I had given Max permission to spend the night. After learning that his friend was drinking, I changed my mind. Once home, I explained to Max that while I trust him, I also know that when a group of kids gathers and there is drinking involved, really stupid ideas can start to seem glorious, and it's easy to get caught up in the moment. Thankfully, Max assured me he understood, and told me he thinks drinking is about the stupidest thing a kid can do. (I hope he can hold on to that belief, but if not, I hope I react out of love and the memories of being a teenager.)

As a parent whose job it is to love and guide him, there's no way I'm going to put him in the situation of having to choose between doing something I think is wrong (and illegal) and harmful, or having to resist and be the odd man out. He'll find himself in situations like that his whole life; do I need to push him into one at the age of thirteen? I don't think so. And though Max is comfortable with who he is more than most kids his age, I just can't see the point of placing him in a precarious situation if I don't have to.

I'd be interested in hearing from others who've had experience with similar situations. How did you approach it? And those of you who have raised your kids...did you ever have to deal with this sort of thing? What works? What doesn't?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Is Summer Over Already?

Until this past weekend, I was lamenting the onset of another school year. I like lazy summer mornings when we stay in our jammies much longer than we should. I enjoy letting the kids stay up later because, after all, there's nothing they have to do in the morning. And almost always, I enjoy the company of my kids.

That all changed within the last week, beginning right around the time this little gem occurred:

Tavia: I found Bell's Silly Putty! It was behind the TV.
(understand that the elusive glob of Silly Putty had been AWOL for some time, to Bella's great consternation.)

Me: Where is it now?
(understand that while I vividly remember my own great love of the stuff, I detest Silly Putty as an adult, for reasons which are about to make themselves obvious)

Bella (with great glee): I put it in the banana chips!

At this point, I pull the bag of banana chips off the counter, and sure enough--therein resides a disgusting ball of Silly Putty, complete with carpet fibers so plentiful that it resembles a Picasso-like rendering of a cat.

It was at that moment that I silently thanked the Powers That Be for the return of the school year. And as the week has worn on, I've been just a touch more thankful with each passing day.

This has been quite a summer for Bella, who earlier in the season informed us her soul had left for Mexico in a red convertible, and that was the reason for her naughtiness. Turns out her soul had quite a vacation planned, because she's remained this summer's biggest challenge. Just last night, when I asked what happened to that wonderful little girl I used to know, Bella matter-of-factly informed me--without hesitation or obvious contemplation--that "Good Bella" was stuck behind the bookcase and no matter how hard she's tried to free her from her jail, she's had no success.

Of course, I do my best not to laugh when my white-haired imp feeds me these lines, but in the back of my mind, I'm looking ahead and realizing that, in the matter of one week, she's going to be under the care of another adult for 2 1/2 days a week. Bella starts kindergarten this fall, and I don't know any of those teachers. And--may the Force be with them--they don't know Bella. Boy, are they in for a treat.

I have no worries about the quality of care or teaching Bella will get; I don't think there's a bad teacher at Skyview. No, my concern is FOR the teacher, who will not realize that under that cherubic exterior dwells a charming maniacal midget. And while Bella is not malicious by any stretch of the imagination, she is prone to reacting first, thinking later. That tendency doesn't always give the best results.

So it will be with mixed emotions that I walk my youngest (and final) child to her first day of school next week. She has been warning me that she's shy (what the ???) and has changed her mind; she no longer wants to attend school. So there may be tears--hers and mine. But I'll follow the advice I always give my kids and try not to let my fear get in the way of my progress.

And then I'll walk the 2 blocks to our home and say a prayer that Bella's teacher survives that first day.