Saturday, July 21, 2007

That last column I wrote generated quite a strong response, mostly from women who either a) confessed to having their own love-of-their-life-but-can't-live-with-him stories, or b) wondered how I could admit that I wasn't with the love of my life any longer while at the same time be linked to someone else. Some people--yes, even men--emailed or stopped me in town to explain how my story brought tears to their eyes, gave them goosebumps.

I had no idea.

I mean, you live the majority of your life protecting your heart because you simply don't have it in you to offer yourself 100 percent any longer, and you tend to think it's a secret, an experience no one else shares. But there are so many who are on that same journey, albeit via different roads. If it's true that for every one person who takes the time to speak up there are seven who feel the same way but remain silent, then ours is a society of walking wounded. Every town--each individual neighborhood--is a microcosm of a global population whose hearts get broken to one degree or another, sometimes repeatedly, and yet who find reasons to get up each morning and start the day anew.

Since several people have asked me how the situation in my last column was resolved, I'll explain here briefly. Jamie was indeed in charge of the company whose platoon was involved in the ambush back in March. However, since only 30 soldiers were out on a mission, he did not accompany them, but stayed back at camp, per procedural policy. So while he was not involved in the actual incident, he was held accountable as a senior enlisted in charge.

Although the details are many, the end result is that he was relieved of duty. And since he technically retires in December, he will simply go on "permanent leave" in August and that will be the end of a life-long military career. Did his men do what the media has accused them of doing? I asked him that. He unequivocally denied that his men willy-nilly slaughtered innocent people. To explain how he knows this, he likened his role in the company to that of parent. When your kids lie, you know it. They don't look at you, they fidget, they struggle to answer your questions. His men returned from the ambush and recounted what went down, and with the exception of details relating to where the soldiers physically were in the attack, the stories were the same. He believed them; I believe him. "I trained those men, Beck. The average age in my company is 28, with more than 2 years of battle experience. I would not train my men to do what we've been accused of."

That's all I needed to hear. He's disillusioned with the military, left feeling betrayed by the silence of the higher-ups in the chain of command. But his relief at being out, finally, was palpable. I'm happy for him, and I don't think I could piece together any selection of words that would convey my own feelings of relief. Life for my old friend/lover/protector is beginning again at the age of 42. More power to him.
On a lighter note, the Windsor Weed Nazi has visited us again and issued another citation. Despite the fact that we have been out pulling weeds while MANY of our neighbors have not, we are yet again the ones to be cited. So we pulled those weeds (fewer than we've ever had in any previous summer). And then I went through the neighborhood, along Stone Mountain Drive, taking photos of all the properties that actually HAVE serious weed issues. There's one property right across from Skyview Elementary that has weeds almost as high as the privacy fence. I'm talkin' weeds so big and bountiful they could almost be classified as bushes. Yet no one has pulled them.

I took my photos and enclosed them with a letter requesting that the weed watchers get off my back if they're not going to go after other property owners with the same level of concern and dedication. I used those photos as evidence to back up my claim that I think I'm receiving special weeds haven't been nearly as nasty as some other properties along Stone Mountain. I think they just love me there at Town Hall.
On the other two dogs have been escape artists this summer. We have construction going on at the house, and these two Houdinis have found some remarkable means of escaping over, under, through fences. The animal control lady (Vicki) has been ever so kind and understanding. Really, she's been a gem. Granted, both Scout and Oliver have their registration tags, ID tags, rabies tags...they're not dangerous dogs by any stretch of the imagination. And they aren't getting out because of neglect. But I think we've used up our chances, so until the addition to our house is complete, I've got the evil eye on them. I swear these two actually commiserate about the most effective strategy for escaping...I've come outside to find them standing in front of that fence wearing expressions of great concentration. I know they're dogs, I know. But something is going on between them...telepathy or sign language or whatever. All I know is, I'm wishing I had a cat about now.
I officially turned old earlier this week when a routine eye exam resulted in my needing to buy bifocals. Yes, you read that right. Bifocals. My eyeglasses prescription has always been very minimal, and even that was only for the left eye. Now, at 42, I suddenly need bifocals? This is just wrong. And guess what happened while I was at my eye exam? THE DOGS ESCAPED. This, even though I made it a point to call home and warn my kids not to let the creatures out without supervision. I was not a happy mom that day. Old, yes. Happy, no.
I was outside this morning, watering my little evergreen trees, when I noticed my friend and neighbor walking toward me. Usually, she's one of those upbeat people whose inner light just shines. She's always got a smile, a "hello." This morning she looked drawn, weary, beaten.

By the time she got to where I was standing in my yard, I had learned through her tears and her quiet, unstoppable hiccups of breath that her eldest son (who is 50) was found dead in his home, apparently of a heart attack. I dropped my hose and hugged my friend, whose sadness and grief I absorbed. In an instant, I was back to November 4, 2004, sitting at the kitchen table as my sister informed me that our mother was found in her home, cold, not breathing. She couldn't bring herself to utter the word "dead." All those emotions--along with the knowledge that this was one of those before-and-after events that would forever mark my life--ripped through me like they happened yesterday. And as I held my friend, I cried. I imagine we were a sight there in my front yard...I repeatedly apologized to her: for her immediate loss, yes, but also for the dark, merciless grief I know she will have to endure in the days, weeks, months to come.

The thing is, we expect to have to let go of our parents; that's the course of nature, right? But a parent burying a child--even an adult child--that's not in keeping with our idea of how things are supposed to go down. It's wrong, no matter how you look at it. It's wrong.

I crossed the street to offer my friend's husband my condolences. I like this guy. A lot. He's one of those older retired guys who doesn't seem to get that retirement means chilling out, taking it easy. He sweeps his driveway! He and his wife have been caring for 2 of their great-grandchildren this summer. They're amazing people. Good people. The kind you would handpick for neighbors if you had the choice.

So when I get to his side of the street, I tell him how sorry I am, and I hug him. And that hug just about kills me because in it I can feel him slump into me as he quietly repeats himself, "My son, my son." And despite my most diligent efforts, I hear myself crying with him, and really this intense sorrow is just debilitating. I love these people; they're suffering is unbearable. I wish I could ease their pain, but I know what lies in store for them as they make the long drive to their son's out-of-state home. I remember my own very long trek across the country to Pennsylvania, where Mom lived. It seemed it would never end, and so much of that time I felt absolutely numb. And now my friends--these dear people--must bury their firstborn.

So, I come here--to you--to write. To tell you about these things, these details that make up life: weeds, dogs, death, aging, relief, betrayal, disappointment, love, loss, letting go, comfort. Everyday life is so messy. It requires so much of us on so many levels.

But it's what we've got. And the measure of our success, really, lies in how we deal with it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What Is Faith?

I find myself thinking about faith a lot lately. I believe this is partly due to some of the books I've been reading: "If God Is Love," "Grace (Eventually)," "Eat, Pray, Love," and even a couple novels in which faith is one of the themes. Perhaps my thoughts are influenced by the blossoming trees and flowers that have so suddenly decorated my life. I literally have watched the trees and lilac bushes in my backyard (where I sit as I type this) go from bare to blooming within three days. Amazing.

What does faith mean to you?

I once thought of faith solely in terms of God and religion and spirituality. That sphere only begins to encompass what faith means to me as I live out my fifth decade of life. At 42, my thoughts on faith, my idea of what it is and what it is not, are far different than what they were at 22, even 32. The concept once seemed so abstract, and as I studied existentialism in college, it almost seemed obsolete.

But then life happened--and continues to happen--and faith moves closer to the center of my world (right there with all these kids of mine) with each event, big or small.

I suppose I think about faith more these days, too, because Mother's Day is around the corner and I don't have a mom to call or send presents to. That makes me sad. I suppose it always will. But I came to the place--quite unexpectedly and utterly without direction or determination--where I can just say, without emotion or even a sense of wanting things to be different--that she is where she is supposed to be. It is that simple if I allow it to be.

And that, at 42, is what faith means to me: It is allowing whatever is, to remain what it is, without needing to dissect or deconstruct. That sort of non-analysis is not easy for me; I am a student of philosophy. Analyzing and digging in to the core is what I do. And that's the craziest part of all: In order to realize (or recognize) that faith is really quite simple, I chose a path that was complex and elaborate, full of unexpected twists and turns. I did this passively at times. Other times, my brain moved furiously in my quest for understanding. But it really isn't about understanding; it's about acceptance.

For me, faith is really nothing more than the belief that what is at any given moment is exactly what is supposed to be, whether I like it or not. That isn't to say I shouldn't try to right a wrong, seek improvement, or work for change. I absolutely should and will continue to do those things. But it really isn't up to me. My faith assures me that my kids chose the right parents. That marrying Dean wasn't a mistake, and neither was divorcing him. That Mom was slated to leave this world abruptly and without warning, as was my son. That the inadequacy I feel so often as a parent these days will one day be replaced with satisfaction. Faith has me believing that everything--and I mean everything--in my life is there because it serves a purpose. And it's up to me to determine what that purpose is.

I don't think faith is stagnant, but rather, it is always evolving, flexing its various muscles according to the circumstances at hand. Some days, I'm pretty strong in my faith. Others, well...on those days, the best I can hope for is to catch a rerun of "Northern Exposure" and apply whatever random message it may impart to the situation at hand. It's not rocket science. But it doesn't need to be.

Faith, I think, is an art. And like any other artistic endeavor, the more you practice, the easier it comes.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Of Football and Town Managers

I didn't get a column written last week. It was a deadline week for me for a couple projects, and on those weeks I usually don't have any free time at the computer. And we got another dog, so that certainly added to the chaos.

We rescued Scout (named after the narrator of my favorite book, "To Kill a Mockingbird"), an 8-month-old yellow lab female from a shelter in Greeley. It took no time--and I mean
no time--for her and Oliver to become instant pals. We couldn't ask for a better companion, and if you've got one dog, getting another really isn't a big deal. Kind of like children. For me, the difference between having one and two was no biggie; the difference between two and three was huge. By the time number four appeared, there just wasn't anything left to say.

Today the kids are home from school, so things will get noisy here as soon as the boys awaken (around 11:30 or so). I've been thinking about a couple things in particular lately:

What's with the mystery surrounding the hiring of a new high school football coach? Who decided this is how the recruitment should be conducted, and does that person not realize that there is already such a high level of distrust between the school board and the community? This secrecy isn't helping matters. I get that maybe the hiring committee doesn't want to have to deal with pushy parents who want more control and say than they should have, so they're keeping dealings on the lowdown. But if that's the case, why couldn't they just say, "Hey, this is our job, not yours. This is football. Just a game. Let us do our job."

And how about that letter to the editor in the Tribune earlier this week, the one by Mary Koehler, who voiced her concerns over interim town manager Kelly Arnold? Arnold is one of three finalists in the running for our town manager, and Koehler wrote a letter about the circumstances under which he left his last job, which was city manager of Grand Junction. The Tribune published the letter, but then wasted a lot of space chiding Koehler for her "speculation."

But the facts as I read them in the Grand Junction paper were that Arnold knew the fire chief (a guy named Beaty) was using and selling narcotics. And he did nothing about it except to place him on PAID leave, and even that didn't happen until months after a formal DEA investigation of Beaty was completed. The city attorney reported that he went to Arnold with the chief's confession on tape and the suggestion to fire Beaty. Arnold claimed he never knew of any DEA investigation, nor did he listen to a confession, nor did anyone ever suggest he fire Beaty. He never even requested Beaty take a drug test.

He also claimed the scandal had nothing to do with his resignation, but the timing, then, is a bit curious. The DEA investigation was completed in September; city officials didn't ask for the results until December. Beaty announced his resignation in late March, and Arnold said that was when he was "planning" to conduct a formal review of the situation. Beaty officially left the department on May 1, but Arnold saw that he got paid until that date.

Add to that the fact that the police chief quit months before Arnold resigned, and when the manager's resignation was made public, the police chief publicly stated had he known Arnold was going to step down, he would have stayed. A reporter in GJ told me some people saw Arnold as an empire builder, unapproachable from a public standpoint. I haven't talked with Arnold personally...I have no feel for him one way or the other, but I know what I've read. I did search for other articles about him online, something that would shine a positive light on him. Couldn't find anything. it speculation that he left GJ under difficult circumstances? Nope. It's fact.

And what I've read of and been told about the situation raises some questions in my mind. How can the city attorney and Arnold have directly opposing claims as to how events unfolded? Why were there so many disgruntled people in GJ under Arnold's watch, and why was his staff (according to our Tribune) "dysfunctional at best" in the end? Why, in the face of evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt, didn't Arnold get rid of Beaty? Shortly after the town board hired Arnold as our interim manager, I contacted a member to ask if they knew about the controversy leading up to his resignation, and the anwswer was "what controversy are you specifically talking about?" The member assured me that references were checked, but no one in his right mind is going to list a reference if that person isn't absolutely certain to give a positive response.

So then I did a little research on the consulting firm that Windsor's town board worked with to find a town manager. And what do you know? The same firm Windsor worked with to find a candidate also worked with Grand Junction to replace Kelly Arnold. How convenient was that? Could that be why this information about Arnold wasn't shared with our board? (And yes, this IS speculation, but I'm entitled to it.) I'd have a hard time believing the consultants were unaware of the situation in Grand Junction.

I can't speak for anyone else, but this sort of murkiness doesn't sit well with me.

For those interested, here's Koehler's letter:

Take a closer look at manager candidates

This past weekend my husband and I visited friends in Grand Junction. I mentioned to them that Windsor’s current interim city manager had formerly been the city manager of Grand Junction.
Our friends were of course familiar with the name Kelly Arnold. They also shared some information that I believe the residents of Windsor would be interested in knowing.
All of this was “public” knowledge to the residents of Grand Junction, for it was printed in the Grand Junction Sentinel in May 2006 and again in December 2006.
During Mr. Arnold’s time as town manager three key people resigned: The police chief, the community developer and the fire chief. The fire chief had been under investigation for using and distributing hallucinogenic drugs.
The terms Mr. Arnold left Grand Junction under appear to me to be questionable. Mr.
Arnold has led residents to believe he was “just re­evaluating his career and future” when he himself resigned from the town manager position in Grand Junction. Maybe he was, but there may be more to it.
I am disappointed that the local papers have not done investigative reporting on this matter. Windsor residents deserve to be informed about events that affect their town and its future.
The town of Windsor has narrowed the candidates for the new town manager. Kelly Arnold is one of the final three. As a taxpayer and registered voter, I do not support the consideration of Mr. Arnold.
Concerned in Windsor, MARY KOEHLER

And here's the Trib's opinion:
Get the news, not the gossip

Stories about town manager candidate mostly speculation

One of the main jobs of a newspaper is to decide what is and what is not news.
When the Windsor Tribune first learned current Windsor interim
town manager Kelly Arnold’s last year as Grand Junction city manager was a struggle, we looked into allegations that he could not manage the town of roughly 60,000.
What we found was a city manager at the end of his rope due in part to a city council that couldn’t get along with one another and a staff that had become dysfunctional — at best.
What we didn’t find was that Arnold was to blame for anything.
The police chief resigned because he didn’t like Arnold.
The community development director resigned for no real clear reason.
And the fire chief retired amid an investigation he’d been using and selling hallucinogenic drugs and Ecstasy.
It’s not uncommon for employees to quit because they don’t get along with their boss. It happens in every industry. If we reported on that every time it happened, there would be no space in the paper left for anything else.
In a June 22 column in the Grand Junction Free Press, current Grand Junction City Council member Jim Spehar said Bob Blanchard’s departure as community development director was nothing new to the city.
“His five-year tenure surpassed the total for several of his immediate predecessors,” Spehar wrote.
As for the fire chief, Arnold can’t be blamed for the criminal decisions made by others. The fact that Arnold didn’t act on it in the time frames some wanted doesn’t point to wrongdoing.
A May 21 editorial that ran in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel said it best about where the problem really seemed to lie: “A city manger’s job is one of the most damnable occupations, period,” the editorial said. “And reporting to the seven different personalities and preening egos that made up what has appeared fairly routinely over the past two years to be a fundamentally dysfunctional Grand Junction City Council had to be beyond Arnold or any other sane person’s capacity to endure.”
The average term for a town or city manager is roughly six years. Arnold’s tenure in Grand Junction was nearing that.
The city council was accustomed to 4-3 votes on the measures that came before them. With that, Arnold quickly lost the ability to deliver any measure of predictability to his staff.
In its editorial, the Sentinel also said it believed “Arnold was being pilloried for not shepherding (Fire Chief Rick) Beaty to an exit door at least three months earlier than when Beaty announced his own departure.”
Everything that surrounded Arnold’s final year in Grand Junction was speculation.
Creating a story out of speculation is not what this newspaper is about.
We came to the conclusion after countless interviews with Arnold, people in Grand Junction closely connected to the case and the Windsor Town Board that there was no story to be written.
However, a letter to the editor in today’s paper chose to point out that speculation without basis or fact.
The facts are: Three people resigned or retired under Arnold’s watch. The City Council in Grand Junction never asked Arnold to resign. In fact, Spehar also wrote in his column that Arnold left some big shoes to fill. He pointed to Arnold’s ability to solve problems between the Chamber of Commerce, the town and developers.
“Kelly provided a fresh set of eyes and ears and a different attitude that bridged many gaps and aided in resolving that particular conflict to the extent that it could ever be fully resolved,” Spehar said.
We firmly believe Arnold has been honest with the Windsor Town Board, the consultant hired to narrow the field of applicants and himself on the matter — since long before he was hired to act as interim town manager.
We also believe Arnold has the wherewithal to lead Windsor into the next decade and further if it comes to that.
We trust that our elected officials will do what is best for the town in their selection of a candidate. And following that announcement we will support whatever decision they make.
We urge Windsor residents to do the same and not let speculation and hearsay guide you through life.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

After running into the aftermath of a snowstorm in Arizona, we made it home from our vacation to California, where we enjoyed three days of Disneyland and California Adventures and one very windy day at Newport Beach.

I never thought I'd do the Disney thing; I'm no fan of amusement parks per se. I hate crowds. But the kids have wanted to go for years, and they've been saving a portion of every allowance for as long. After conducting some preliminary research, I realized it was now or never. With Max at 14 and Bella at 6, the age spread of the kids was perfect. And the price was right. Our family of six enjoyed five days in California plus a spontaneous day trip to the Grand Canyon (which set us back a day a required an unforeseen hotel stay) for $2800. This is an amazing price when you consider the cost of gas right now and the cost of food along the road.

The Grand Canyon--words can't describe it. But I feel the same about the part of Utah (see photo above) I saw from I-70. I never imagined that state was so scenic. We watched the sun rise there, and as I wiped the sleep from my eyes, I smiled to myself to imagine that the rocks formations I was enjoying were once the hideout of late-nineteenth century outlaws, including Butch Cassidy.

You don't go on vacation with Bella without having what I call "episodes." These episodes vary in nature: perhaps it's something she says, often it's something she does. This time, it was both. Outside the entrance to Disneyland's adjacent theme park, California Adventures, the word "California" is spelled out in separate-standing letters. As we approached the entrance, Bella began yelling, "People are climbing through the A-hole! I want to go through the A-hole!"

Why is it my child is prone to pick the most inappropriate of any choice? Why didn't the hole in the letter "O" interest her, or the one in the "R"? Why did the "A" hole appeal to her so profoundly? And why oh why did she have to scream it out loud? At least she gave those park-goers around us a good chuckle. And I, of course, had to snap a photo of Bella in her beloved "A"-hole.

Not all families can take road are too young to travel, they're at stages where they fight too much, they can't be in a vehicle together for extended periods of time. I get this. And knowing this makes my cherished family vacations all the more valuable to me. Sure, the kids argue, we threaten that the next vacation we'll take will be without them (they scoff and know it's all bluster), we wish everyone could coordinate their bathroom needs. But overall, I think the best way to travel is to drive. Make the journey as much a part of the trip as the destination. In the end, it brings the family closer together because there is no escape from conflict; you deal or you sulk. And if you sulk, you lose out.

I've spent this first week home battling (unsuccessfully) some sort of viral infection. I'm too tired to write more, so I leave you with this photo montage and the sincere hope that you, too, are able to work in family vacations here and there. You don't have to have a large disposable income. You just have to be able to tune out. And you must really, really love your kids.




Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ahh, the Sweet Sound of...Newspaper

One of my fondest memories from the early days of my marriage is Sunday mornings. My husband and I would make a pot of coffee and settle in to read the Sunday paper. With no distraction save a cat kneading our laps to make a bed, we could enjoy a leisurely hour or two reading and talking, debating and commisserating.

Then we had kids. Sunday mornings were no longer leisurely. Then we divorced, and Sunday mornings pretty much ceased to exist except in terms of time. Until noon on Sunday, it was Sunday morning. And I was the only adult on the scene, so sipping hot coffee and reading quickly became a thing of the past. Which was probably all for the best, because I could no longer afford a subscription to the Sunday paper. My ex took the car and closed our joint checking account; my thoughts were always focused on how to get by. Reading book reviews and the op-ed section was but a fond and (seemingly) distant memory.

Then Tavi came along and Wes joined the scene. So there was that addition of an adult, but still...we had 3 kids, ages 5, 2, and brand new. Not much changed in the way of leisure time. Add Bella to the mix and, well, you see where this is going.

This Sunday morning I was the first to awaken, which is unusual in itself. The girls are early risers and usually are up at the butt crack of dawn. They amuse themselves with books, puzzles, drawing...any quiet activity that won't result in a trip to the emergency room. But on this particular Sunday, I got up, let the dog out, made coffee, and sat down with a book. Soon Wes came downstairs, followed quickly by the girls. The boys were spending the weekend at their dad's, and they rarely get up before 10 a.m. unless I make them anyway.

But there we all sat in the family room, talking in the hushed tones people tend to use when the day is just getting started and eyes are still filled with what we in this household refer to as "eye boogers." Wes retrieved the newspaper from the porch, and we each claimed our favorite sections.

And there we sat, the silence broken only by an occasional giggle from Tavi, who had one section of comics, or from Bella, asking what a particular word was (also in the comics). At six, she has just started reading independently, and I don't know who's more excited about this milestone, she or I.

And as we sat together on that Sunday morning, I listened to the sound of turning newspaper pages and realized time had given back my beloved ritual. The husband is now an ex, and the cats have been replaced by a dog. I'm about 14 years older than I was last time I enjoyed the paper, but hey! Time is just time, right? I've lamented the loss of reading the Sunday paper many, many times over the years. Sometimes I even felt resentment that I wasn't allowed to enjoy this mundane but cherished activity.

But on this Sunday morning, there was no resentment or longing, only gratitude. And it's a gratitude made all the more intense for having lost the opportunity for all those years while my kids needed immediate and constant attention. Now they sit with me and read. And that reading leads to questions and an increased curiosity of the world around them. They drink tea and hot cider while I languish over my coffee. It is, for me, my own personal Norman Rockwell scene. Sure, it will end as soon as something else grabs their attention.

But for that brief moment in time, all is right with the world on a Sunday morning.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Calling All Teachers, Retired or Otherwise

Just want to let everyone know that Borders Bookstore is giving 25% off purchases for retired, current, full-time, part-time, even only-kind-of educators from March 21-27.

Not all merchandise qualifies, but most does. I do only volunteer work in the schools, and they give me the discount. So now's the time to stock up on those books you're wanting to read but know you can't finish in the time the library lends them to you!

Friday, March 09, 2007

There's Much to Learn from "Romeo & Juliet"

Max is reading "Romeo & Juliet" in his freshman English class. He's pretty tired of the story, since this is something like the fifty-sixth time he's had to read it for school. But he came home with an assignment I thought was interesting. He had to list traits he would look for in a partner (lover just sounds too creepy for ninth grade). Without looking at what he wrote, I had to do the same. Then I had to make a list of traits I would want his partner to have.

Max isn't too demanding: he wants someone who is "smart" and "funny." "Other than that," he wrote, "it doesn't really matter." I included those two traits in the list I made of what I believed was important for him to find in someone as well.

His list for what he anticipated I would choose as important included "being poor." "What does that mean?" I asked. "Well you always say that money can't buy happiness, so I figured you'd want me to find someone poor!" he explained. I thought about that for a minute and chuckled.

He's right; I do always say that. Speaking as someone who once had to sell a sizeable portion of her beloved CD collection in order to give her young boys a few presents for Christmas, I know what it's like to be poor, though certainly not destitute. I know what it's like to worry about how I'd pay the bills. I remember having to choose between feeding my kids and paying an ever-growing credit card bill on time. I've never been comfortable asking for help, so reaching out for assistance during those lean times wasn't something I'd considered.

My life today is different. Though not monetarily wealthy by any stretch, I have built a business which allows me to be comfortable. I can pay school sports fees, buy my kids necessities and even a few extras here and there. I live in a home for which I am able to pay monthly utility bills. I am satisfied with what I have and don't feel as if I'm missing out on anything, even though I can't spend money freely or without thought. I still have to budget.

But Max sees things differently. He can't understand why I'm happy being middle class. He says I shouldn't "settle" when the possibility of having more is within my reach. I get frustrated with this discussion, but recently I realized he has this point of view quite possibly because he doesn't have anything against which to measure his lifestyle. He was too young to realize I sold beloved collections of various things to assure his survival and security. Max has never known true fear. He can't imagine not living in a decent home that always welcomes him. He's never gone hungry, and he can't fathom going without so that someone he loves won't have to.

I constantly hear how every other kid he knows doesn't have to help out around the house, never loses privileges, and gets handed money whenever he needs it. I don't (can't) buy each of my kids an MP3 player (Max bought one with his own money, which he received as gifts for his birthday), and wouldn't even if I could. They don't live in a home with luxuries, but I've been hard-pressed enough to recognize that having money to pay my bills and buy enough groceries is a luxury, especially in these days of economic struggle. So while Max considers me less than successful, I am completely content with where my life has brought me. Do I ever want for something I can't have? You bet. But there is much to be said for having something to wish for. And maybe because I've known struggling to get by, I'm happy with what I have.

This is one area my teenage son and I might never agree on; certainly we won't until he's had to hoe his own row. I did suggest that if he thinks his life at home is so unfair, he ought to emancipate himself. That comment was met with an incredulous, horrified expression. "I don't WANT to emancipate myself! I just don't want to have to spend time with the family. I don't want to have to eat dinner with all of you. I want to do what I want, when I want. I've even tried to act really nasty so that you don't want me around, but then all you do is ground me!"

Again, I chuckled. "I know. It stinks to have a mom who actually cares about you and wants to know what's going on in your life, doesn't it?" I replied. "Yeah, it does," he grumbled.

And then I chuckled again. When Max handed me his assignment, he did so with the comment that he didn't know why his teacher always tries to make everything they do in class relevant to real life. " 'Romeo and Juliet' has nothing to do with my life," he insisted. And yet...consider the discussion that resulted from this homework.

We may have both ended up frustrated, but I think there's value in any discussion a parent can actually have with his/her son or daughter. If they're talking to us at all, we're doing something right.

Even if it's to hear how miserably disappointing we are.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Coulter's True Colors Shine Through, and WooHoo! Are They Ugly

Ann Coulter, the conservative mouthpiece and all-around darling, called John Edwards a faggot last week. In public. In front of lots of people. Even her fellow conservatives cringed. What will it take for them to realize the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be?

Put me in a room with that foul woman, and I can't think of any issue on earth we couldn't disagree on. She is the epitome of all that I do not stand for. And yet, in the past, I was able to admire her ability to stand up for her beliefs and rally for those commitments she embraced.

My admiration has turned to disgust. Coulter has morphed from an intelligent, loud-mouthed conservative to a vengeful, trashy media whore. That woman will say anything--hurt anyone--solely for shock value. And it's getting old.

I suppose we were warned when she labeled Joe McCarthy a hero.

That comment merely reflected her own bias and narrow thinking. Her homophobic remark has a more serious far-reaching effect, though. Yeah, she made herself look small, ignorant, nasty. But given that she has been the conservative party's sharp-witted mouthpiece for years, her slur makes the whole gang look bad. Shallow. Hateful. That stereotype was already alive and kicking, but Coulter gave it a whole new lifespan.

I remember a college semantics course I attended, and one point I never forgot: The word is not the thing. Spin doctors, media, political speechwriters...they all depend on us common folk to subconciously label and categorize. We give meaning to symbols which otherwise would have none. That's why, for instance, some people are so hinky about flag burning. To me, the act of flag burning is nothing more than the burning of the flag, because no one can destroy what the flag means to me.

But these days, the word IS the thing. Words carry power beyond belief because we have imbued them with such. So for anyone to hurl such hate-filled, despicable slurs at another--especially in a public forum--is undeniably repulsive.

I'm glad Coulter isn't on my side...thing is, she isn't on anyone else's side, either. She's just a woman who fancies herself a political pundit, and she's overstayed her welcome.

Friday, March 02, 2007

I said They Were Awesome

Back in the summer of 2006, I wrote in "The Family Room," which was featured in the Windsor Trib, an editorial about Windsor Auto. I praised them for their amazing and beyond-the-norm customer service.

And boy, did I catch hell for it.

From Tom Fasano at the Trib, because some reader (who turned out to be a friend of the owner or something like that of Pike's Auto) complained that what I wrote was an "advertorial." What a joke. My column is an op-ed piece...I'm allowed to say what I think. I wrote that column to share with readers in town the fact that there is a place to go for capable and trustworthy car repair. And Fasano ran that piece without changing a word of it.

But he apparently couldn't take the heat, and that's when he demanded that I consult with him before writing my columns so that he could approve whatever topic I chose. Another joke.

Windsor Chamber of Commerce just awarded Windsor Auto the annual Outstanding Customer Service Award.

Need I say more?

Well, yeah, I need. I had my van in to Windsor Auto recently and they gave me one of those free loaner cars while the work was being done. I accidentally left my digital camera in the front seat of the car but didn't realize it until the shop was closed on a Wednesday night. That Wednesday just happened to be Tuck's birthday, and when I went to pull out the camera to photograph the event, I realized what I had done.

I called Windsor Auto and left a message that my camera was probably in car number 3 and asked them to please check before loaning it out to someone else. After hanging up, I got worried that they might not listen to the messages first thing in the morning, so I had the audacity to call Scott Crowe, one of the shop's owners, at home. I wasn't looking for anything other than to ask him to please check the car in the morning (I figured he went in early).

Instead of letting me sit at home and worry all night, Scott insisted he meet me at the shop in five minutes so that we could look for my camera together. As much as I hated imposing upon him, I took him up on his offer; I was really worried that I'd lost the camera. And equally worried that if I did leave it in the car, someone might take it.

Sure enough, the camera was in the front seat. My mind was put at ease, and I was able to take my annual birthday photo with Tucker. But I ask: How many business owners would go so far out of their way for a customer? Especially at night, especially when he's already in his pajamas? The answer is not many, and if that sort of treatment doesn't bring them business, I don't know what would.

And I'm thankful I can share this sort of thing with you and not have to answer to a pander-to-my-advertisers editor. Life is good!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Did ya hear the one about the man...

While enjoying a Bloomin' Onion with Wes and the girls at the Outback Steakhouse last weekend, six-year-old Bella made an announcement. "I know a man who has a LOT of testicles coming out of his head." Nearly choking on my onion, I turned to her with what must have been a confused--or perhaps, horrified--expression. Since her birth, Bella has seen that exact expression on my face at least 436 times. And without exception, she has been the root cause of its genesis.

She didn't miss a beat. "Davy Jones," she explained. Two things you must know about this child. One, she has a loud voice. It's, well, it's just loud. So I'm sure those dining in our vicinity also had the good fortune to vividly imagine a visual of a grown male sprouting testicles from his skull. And two, she likes to play tricks on anyone gullible enough to fall for them. I'm usually that fall guy. "From 'Pirates of the Caribbean'," she further explained.

"Oh," I heaved a sigh of relief. "You mean 'tentacles'." Davy Jones is a character in the hit movie, and he is portrayed as a sort of degenerate octopus. "Tentacles, Bell. Like the arms of an octopus." She smiled sheepishly. "Oh. Yeah."

Bella's faux paux reminded me of my own very similar confusion when I was just a bit older than she. My friend Carla Pivotto had a dog who tried to clear a barbed wire fence. He didn't do so well, as I relayed the tragedy to my family at the dinner table. "His tentacles got caught on the fence. And they tore off. And he had to get an operation right away," I breathlessly and dramatically recounted the story. I was sure I had them all spellbound, because all four of them--Mom, Dad, and both my older siblings--were staring at me, forks poised midway to mouth.

Of course, it was Mom who first lost control and started laughing hysterically. "Becky honey," she managed to bleat out in between belly chortles, "you mean 'testicles'. Tentacles are what you find on an octopus." Of, for the love of god, I wanted the earth to just open up and swallow me whole, right there. Here I thought I had something very newsworthy to contribute to our dinner table conversation, and I messed it up. Testicles. Of course! How could I be so naive?

So when Bella made the same mistake only backwards, I vowed not to have that same hysterical reaction (though I've long forgiven Mom, because hey, we should all take our laughs where we can find 'em). Rather than give in to the rollicking laughter that threatened to take over my body and send it into seizure-like convulsions, I conjured up in my mind images of traffic accidents and missing appendages so as to remain as serious as humanly possible. And I was successful, for the most part. I even shared with Bella my own testicle/tentacle anecdote so she wouldn't feel alone in her confusion. It was no biggie to her; Bella suffers from no self-esteem issues.

But the experience gave me pause to remember that even the seemingly insignificant events of our lives--a dinnertime conversation, a bedtime confession, an off-the-cuff remark--can have lasting effects. When we're old and consider our lives in retrospect, will we remember it as a series of major events, with filler in between? Or will we reminisce about the journey--the dailyness of it, the traditions and rituals--and view the major events as highlights?

A dear friend whom I've had the pleasure of knowing and loving for over three decades recently remarked on how I've never had a plan as to how my life should go. So everything that has happened, good and bad, has just been the next step. I've given her observation a lot of thought, and she's absolutely right. Never having concrete plans, I never had to experience life-crippling disappointment or surprises so profound they threw me off course. Because I never had a course. So I imagine for me, at least, I will look back as an old woman and ponder my life not by its milestones, but by its many unexpected moments when epiphany crept up and bludgeoned me on the head.

In the meantime, I will continue to fight the good fight, being the best parent I know how to be. And testicles/tentacles be damned, I will find glory in the small and subtle blessings.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Teens talk: Are adults listening?

A community-wide meeting was held earlier this week at the high school to discuss the teen drug/alcohol issue that has many of us concerned. The turnout was better than I expected, though less than it should have been in a town where the high school population exceeds 900 students, the middle school, 700. I don't know how many folks attended; my guess is between 60 and 75. Could've been more.

At any rate, the meeting was productive in that it gave people a chance to voice their concerns and ask questions. A high school student council rep was on hand to speak, and she cited two reasons for the higher-than-average number of kids in this town who drink and drug. One, there's nothing else to do. And two, no one's stopping them. The first reason, I think, is as old as the hills. Don't most kids feel there isn't much to do in their hometown? That doesn't give them an excuse to turn to drink and drugs. So I'm just ignoring that one for brevity's sake. I always tell my kids if they're bored, it's their own fault.

But the second reason is of grave concern to me. "No one's stopping us," they say. In a perfect world, we could expect these kids not to indulge because the long term effects are debilitating. We could reason with them, appeal to their sense of logic. But these are hormonal teens we're talking about, and logic plays no part. It would also be an assumption to say that all parents are on the same page, that we all are trying to keep our children from drinking and drugging. And that assumption would be wrong.

Windsor has its fair share of parents who buy alcohol for their kids' parties, who have no problem serving minors. Then there are those who may not condone underage drinking, but they conveniently look the other way so they can say they didn't know what was going on. Since I'm not publishing this in anyone's newspaper, I'm going to say exactly what I think: that is pure bullshit. I'm sorry if that offends you; I'm offended by adults who willingly take part in corrupting kids, and I'm oh so tired of pussyfooting around serious issues. Everyone is afraid to seem judgemental; well, if we aren't judging those who play a part in hurting our kids, what good is our ability to reason, decide, and choose? Whether we admit it or not, every single one of us uses judgement everyday. It's a useful tool, and in the case of Windsor's teenage alcohol and drug abuse, one I think we would all do well to utilize.

It's cliche but true: It takes a village to raise a child. If my kids do something they shouldn't, I want to know about it. If they're ever disrespectful to their teachers, I want to know about it. As parents, we can't be everywhere our kids are; we need to be able to rely on one another to be our eyes and ears. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own children, but that doesn't mean we have to go it alone. And if one of us is party to the corruption of minors, we are all responsible if we've let it happen. I think adult peer pressure is in order. If you know of a parent or other adult who is contributing to this issue by supplying kids with alcohol and drugs or ignoring them when they're using, call him on it. Tell these folks what they're full of (and it isn't sugar and spice). Let them know you won't stand for laissez faire parenting since the result is hurting all of our kids. What they're doing may not be illegal, but that doesn't mean we can't make it unpleasant for them.

One other issue that came up at the meeting was the fact that Windsor's student drug/alcohol policy is more strict than those of neighboring school districts. Yet we have a higher incidence of use. Why is this? What is happening, or not happening, with the policy? Is it not being enforced uniformly, across the board, at all levels? I can't think of any other reason for the higher-than-average statistics despite a strict policy. No one wants to point fingers, but at some point, there must be the acceptance of responsibility. Who is dropping the ball? There are those who will say it isn't important to determine who is responsible. But it IS important, because until that person or those people are no longer in the position to negatively impact our kids, nothing much will change. If the solution requires personnel change, then let the changes begin. We can bust our butts trying to give our young people places to hang out, activities to participate in, and alternative choices, but until we start cracking down on those who come to school drunk or high, who use during lunch, and who sell the stuff both on and off campus, we're fighting a losing battle. And we can't crack down if we don't have people in positions of authority who stand up to those lazy parents who don't care if their kids use because to demand anything else would require consistency, involvement, and a willingness to be the bad guy. Huh. Welcome to parenting.

This week's meeting was a great place to start bringing out into the open an issue that is not always easy to discuss. Emotions will run high, as they should. Our young people deserve at least that much, and until this point, they haven't been getting it.

Wake up, Windsor. We're failing our kids. They know it. And now there's no excuse for of any of us not to know it as well.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Sex: Good or Bad, It's Not Just for Marriage Anymore

According to a Greeley nurse (I'm not naming names and that doesn't mean I'm relying on gossip; it just means I know when to keep my mouth shut to protect people), Shelly Donahue recently gave a presentation to a Greeley church in hopes of bringing her program to the youth group. Donahue is a national trainer for WAIT (Why Am I Tempted) Training, that disturbing abstinence-only-until-marriage program that tried to take over our schools' healthy sexuality curriculum not long ago. If ever there was a program with an agenda, it's WAIT. Its curriculum would be laughable if its developers weren't serious. But seeing as how they are, the contents pass beyond laughable to dangerous. Beyond dangerous to deadly.

Anyway, Donahue reportedly told the congregation that the new HPV vaccine for girls will leave them sterile. The vaccine, Gardisal, helps protect females from four forms of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to sterility (maybe Donahue was just confused between the vaccine and the disease?). In the eyes of WAIT, such a vaccine puts young people on the fast track to being sexually active, if not permiscuous. It encourages them to shed their morals for physical gratification. It is evil.

This is just one example of why I was and will remain a vocal opponent of WAIT Training in its entirety. In my opinion and those of others who would be forced to teach it or whose children would be assaulted with it, WAIT is a program based on fear and rife with medical and scientific inaccuracies. It does not educate, it preaches. It does not inform, it moralizes and demoralizes. In the very students it excludes from its audience, it discriminates. My conclusion, after reading the program's training manual word for word, is that it is not a curriculum that would be of service to Windsor students.

I believe a healthy sexuality curriculum would be just one facet of a much larger, comprehensive health and wellness program that would also encompass nutrition, exercise/fitness, healthy lifestyle choices of all kinds, and body image. Peel away all the categories and labels, wade through the semantics, and I believe the basis can be simplified into one skill: the ability to say No.

No to drugs and alcohol, to sex, to overeating and indulging unhealthy habits. No to the media, who consistently get in the faces of our teens--indeed, our elementary-aged kids--and tell them they must look a certain way to be happy, successful, envied, normal. No to doing anything they do not want to do, for whatever reason, or for no reason at all.

By teaching our kids to refuse that which doesn't feel right or which threatens them in any way, we are also teaching them to say Yes to those opportunities that present positive experiences. No, yes. They go hand-in-hand.

And we would be seriously remiss if we don't at least begin to touch on mental health. Today's troubled teens don't need someone's barely disguised edict of salvation in the form of abstinence until marriage. Sex is just one component of what might be troubling these young people who drink to forget, smoke or shoot up to numb themselves, cut themselves in ways that leave more than just physical scars. They're tuning out, and we can't possibly believe that the solution lies in telling them that the best sex takes place between married couples (recent secular surveys indicate married couples have MORE sex, but who knows if it's better? If waiting for marriage to have sex is where it's at, then how would anyone know if it's better than sex between singles? Check out this 2006 survey [esp. the last bullet]: and that they'll be forever sterile if they take a preventive vaccine.

I filled out an application to serve on Windsor's volunteer health curriculum advisory board. Knowing full well I'm not the school board's darling by any stretch of the imagination and so might be wasting my time, I figured it was worth the few minutes it took to fill in the blanks. I want to have input into what these kids will be told. So many of them are not being engaged in dialogue at home that needs to take place; yet they so desperately need to hear what isn't being said.

Windsor is not above or beyond the reality of the twenty-first century. We can't stick our heads in the sand any longer. Do I think abstinence during the teen years is best? Absolutely. But I'm enough of a realist to acknowledge that not everyone will make that choice, no matter what they're told. The decision to have sex is not a moral one, and we can't effectively talk about it as long as we view it as such. School is for education; morality must begin in the home.

And hopefully, they'll meet somewhere in the middle.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Unreasonable women may yet save the world.
~ Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins was a woman I admired. A liberal columnist who wielded the written word as mightily as a warrior brandishes his sword, Ivins was the epitome of the unreasonable woman. And when a teacher here in Windsor called me the same after I stirred up a ruckus with my column, I knew he meant it as the highest compliment. I was honored.

Molly died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Seldom does the death of someone I've never met leave me in tears, but hers did. If you're a fan, you already understand why. If you're not, Google her name and read some of her syndicated columns. Then you'll get it.

She was the best thing to come out of Texas (though she was a transplant). And she referred to her fellow Texan, our president, as Shrub. If for no other reason than that, the woman earned a special place in my heart.

May she continue to give 'em hell, wherever she may be.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

This is Bella on the morning of her sixth birthday earlier in January. She's just opened a set of Avon body paints. But I don't think that's why she's so happy.

This is just how Bella is almost all the time. Utter joy. And if she can't find it, she makes it.

When I imagine Bella, this is how she looks.
Memories...light the corners of my mind

I was fortunate to grow up with two very different sets of grandparents, unfortunate enough not to live nearby and see them often. Distance not withstanding, they all held--and still hold--very distinct places in my heart.

My mom's parents were not formally educated beyond the middle grades. Pap worked in the brick refractory (a job that eventually killed him) and Gram raised a large family while keeping the farm going. She was a no-nonsense type of gal, but never skimped on giving out hugs to us grandchildren. Neither was she shy about disciplining us when the need arose. To me, Gram is homecooked food, warm hugs, and warnings to be careful. Spending summers at Gram and Pap's house meant days spent on the big tree swing or catching crayfish in the creek (where we spread Mom's ashes in 2004), teasing the bulls and then running for our lives and, at all times, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Summer evenings meant chasing fireflies and fighting, at bedtime, over who's turn it was to sleep in the always-coveted "squeaky bed." As an adult, it would drive me mad to sleep in that bed that made noise with every toss and turn. But as a child, it was the all-around favorite, and with 6 of us (3 cousins, my brother, sister, and I), it was a never-ending point of consternation. I like to believe we resolved the conflict by taking turns, but that probably didn't happen. Sis and Chrissy (my older sister and same-age cousin) were rather brutal when it came to getting what they wanted, and their take-no-prisoners attitude usually got them what they desired. I know I for one lived in fear of being the focus of their attention and did whatever was required of me to stay under their radar.

My pap died when I was just six years old, so my memories of him are few, yet vivid. I never heard Pap raise his voice, but he had total control over us kids. How'd he do that? A look? A gesture? I've no idea, but I never would have dreamed of disobeying Pap. My memories of him are all good...sitting on his lap in the pantry rocking chair and trading a kiss for a generous portion of rock candy, which he'd break up with a little silver mallet. The tin which stored that candy--and some magical memories--now sits on my own kitchen shelf. And if my house ever caught fire, it would be one of the first things I'd try to save.

I remember the last summer I had with Pap. He took my hand and said "Let's go for one last swing ride, Squirrel Cheeks," and up the hill we climbed. He pushed me higher than he'd ever dared that day, and I felt like I was flying. Underneath me ran a little side creek, and above me was nothin' but tree branches and bright blue sky, the kind that just begs you to try to touch it. I closed my eyes and leaned back on that old wood swing, legs stretched straight as possible, never fearful of falling because I knew Pap would catch me. I do believe he was the first (and last) adult I ever completely trusted not to hurt me. Did he know that would be our last swing ride together, or did his "last time" comment refer only to that summer? I'll never know, but when he got tired of pushing, he told me to "let the old cat die," which meant he wanted me not to pump my legs and keep the ride going. I did what I was told, but oh, how I did not want to let that swing ride end. With my butt firmly planted on that wide wood plank and my little dimpled fists closed tightly around the ropes, my world was perfect. Nothing could get to me on that swing, with Pap nearby. Life was always good there.

But the swing ride did end, as did Pap's life that following spring. Mom and Dad packed us into the station wagon and we set out to battle the forces of nature as we tried to make the long drive from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to see him one last time before he died. I distinctly remember sometime during that trip Mom choking back her tears to tell Dad not to hurry any more, we were too late. And she was right. By the time we crossed the metal bridge that made a singsong sound, thereby earning from us the nickname "singing bridge," and which signalled we were entering our grandparent's tiny town, Pap had already drawn his last breath. I never saw him again, but his brief presence in my life captured a piece of my heart that will never belong to another.

My dad's parents were more cultured, refined. Distant somehow. His accountant father was rather cold, not one to show affection in any form I understood as a child. He spent most of his time in his corner bedroom, listening to the radio and reading. Always with a cigarette in his hand. Even his fingertips were stained yellow from the tobacco. I liked lying on his cool bed in that damp room, listening to the bugs outside his window. Mostly I liked interrupting his solitude because it was really the only time he paid attention to me. I'd ask questions I really didn't care to know the answers to, just to make him acknowledge me. Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly energetic, he'd toss the Frisbee with me. But that was the extent of our relationship. I wasn't sad when he died; I barely knew him. I don't know if anyone really knew that man.

His wife, a music teacher, was also rather reserved. I didn't come to appreciate the kind of woman she was until I was grown. To my child's mind, this gram was strict. Her home was more like a place grownups would want to hang out. I really couldn't relate to her much as a kid. I remember finding a bottle of witch hazel in our linen closet once and asked Mom what it was. When she told me, I replied with "Oh, Gram Shafer must use that." It was the word "witch" that made me connect it to her, though she wasn't mean in any sense of the word. She was just serious.

As I matured, I realized just how valuable my relationship with Gram was. She was directly responsible for developing my love of books and reading, as it was she who paid for subscription to a book club. Miraculously, hardcover books would appear in our mailbox each month, and at 42, I can still remember some of them. I believe it was Gram who bought the piano I've been playing for 38 years, and which sits in my living room, much worse for the wear. Gram was the one who informed me I was born with a gift, that perfect pitch and the ability to sing was not something one could acquire through practice. Time spent at her house nurtured in me an appreciation of symphonies and world travel...National Geographic and the nightly news. Tom Brokaw was as much a part of my childhood summers as back porch rockers, and I got something from my time at that house that I still value with my entire being: a love of solitude. Thanks to Gram and her home, I grew up loving time spent by myself, and to this day, I'm not afraid to be alone with nothing but my thoughts. In fact, I crave solitude, something I consider a luxury in a family of six.

And so I realize I had the best of both worlds when it came to grandparents. One set gave me the gift of hands-on love, hugs, nighttime baths and the joy of unsupervised adventures with cousins. The other encouraged my natural affinity for music and reading, and nurtured a love of learning for no other purpose than simply to know and be aware. I would not be who I am without all these people, and I am forever grateful.

Three of those four people are gone from me now; one lives in a hospice. Some days, she doesn't know her own daughter, who visits her daily and brings her two bite-sized York Peppermint Patties each time. "Oh, I haven't had one of these in years," Gram says, though she had two just yesterday. Gram sees her other daughter, my mom, waiting for her "across the river." I imagine they'll see one another again soon, though women in my family tend to live a long time, so perhaps not. Gram is 98; my other gram's sister is 101. Apparently, they've still got stuff they need to tend to.

Old people amaze me; I hope to be one someday. Then I can eat York Peppermint Patties everyday, too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

T-t-t-talkin' 'bout Their Generation; Where Was Everybody?

Windsor parents were invited to attend an informational meeting this past Monday at the high school to learn about the drug program that is going to be implemented at the high school this April.

Windsor, the town whose parents are supposedly so supportive of and concerned about their kids...14 people including myself showed up to hear the presentation. One of us was a newspaper reporter. Another was the minutes-taker. What an impressive showing that was.

I understand that even if you have just one student in the school district, it can be difficult to attend all the meetings every month. With trying to juggle a non-traditional work schedule, Wes' weekly 4-hour class, and multiple activities of my own four kids, I rarely get to attend meetings, even those I want to. But given that Windsor High was recently singled out for its higher-than-average drug and alcohol abuse problem, I naively believed more parents would show up at this meeting that took all of one hour of my time. The turnout was disappointing, to say the least.

I don't think this program (called "Every 15 Minutes") will solve the town's teenage substance abuse problems, but I do believe it's a fantastic starting point that's going to have a strong impact on all students, not just those who perhaps need it the most. If you're interested, check it out at (copy and paste the URL into your browser). We've been asked, though, not to share details with students, as their knowledge of what will happen beforehand would definitely lessen the impact of the program.

I applaud the high school and the district for moving forward with this bold program. But I can't help feeling nagged by the staggeringly low interest shown on behalf of parents as indicated by the poor attendance at the meeting. Are there really parents out there who tell themselves that their child would never drink or drug, so they don't need to concern themselves with this issue? I struggle with the idea that anyone might be that naivé in this day and age. I pray every day that my kids steer clear of the path that will lead them in that direction, but I don't kid myself: I know not one of them is immune to curiosity. And having been a teen myself decades ago, I know that curiosity, innocent as it may be, can be the first step on the path to self-destruction. I'm fortunate to have taken the road less travelled, but I had friends and family who didn't. It can happen to anyone.

I do so hope parents of all kids will take an active role in this community's efforts to stem the tide of alcohol and drug abuse among our youth. Everyone can do something, even if it's as small as sitting down and talking with our children. Please forward this column to anyone you believe needs to read it.

I don't understand the concept of doing nothing, especially where our children are involved.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Trying to Figure It All Out

I have wanted to sit down at this computer and write a column for over a week now. Yet every attempt failed. My brain simply feels overloaded, my sensory perception on cruise control. Whereas usually life feels like a road trip, with stops and adventures along the way, lately it feels like abstract art, with fragments of events and even thoughts thrown together randomly, often overlapping and eclipsing each other.

I turned 42 this past Monday. I love birthdays, even though (because?) they mean I'm older. I just don't care much about age. I woke up feeling good, checked for new wrinkles and found only the same old familiar ones. Still have all my real teeth, and my hair hasn't begun to fall out, though underneath, I've got a nice little nest of gray which I have no intention of hiding. So really, all was right with the world.

But by the end of the day, I was in tears, which is not like me. I was hit by the revelation (and yes, I should have realized this already) that as I age, so too are my kids. And one in particular is pulling away from me. And it hurts, even though I know it's necessary. Here and there since the summer, I've encountered those small but intense moments of clarity to acknowledge that Max no longer prefers his family to his friends. He practically lives in the basement and believes that a day spent down there is still a day spent with family, though he speaks to no one.

And while I know this is what is supposed to happen in a healthy family, it still sucks. I use that juvenile word because sometimes, I find myself reverting to juvenile reactions to his growth. I get mad. I pout. I feel like making him suffer. Thankfully, I haven't lived for 15,288-plus days for nothing, and my actual reaction and response are more mature. Most of the time.

I suppose the most difficult facet of this step toward independence is that Max and I have always been particularly close. And I don't really have a standard against which to measure what is usual behavior. My brother was the eldest of the three siblings, and a wild child. He hit my mom, punched holes in the walls, rebelled against parental authority in every way imaginable. And had a mouth on him that was more lethal than any weapon. That has been my experience with teen boys and their mothers. So I read a lot...books that help you understand kids at all stages of development. I talk to other moms who have grown sons and listen to their stories. And I pray each night for strength and wisdom to figure out how to be the mom my kids need me to be. But holy cow, these days of grunts-for-answers and rolling eyeballs seem endless.

On top of that, it often feels to me that I'm raising kids in a world that has lost its way. We have a serious drug problem at the high school, and that's where one of my children spends the bulk of his weekdays. That doesn't sit well with me. In one of Max's classes, an activity revealed that about half the students in class are allowed to drink alcohol. Their parents have no problem with it. They allow it. Condone it. Does it not matter to anyone that these kids are underage, that the earlier one starts drinking, the more likely s/he is to develop a drinking problem? We ask ourselves "How can we reach these kids?" But it's not the kids who need educating, it's the parents. And they simply don't care. And here I am, holding on to the hope and expectation that my kid won't lose his common sense and join the party.

But even smaller issues play a major role in influencing our kids. Max has a good friend (who, for the record, I like) who is incredibly disrespectful in the way he talks to his mom. I've even told this kid that the way he speaks to her is not only unkind, but ugly. She and I have talked about it. Her take on it? Well, if that's the worst thing he does, I consider myself lucky. I thought about this, and while I understand what she's saying, I can't say I agree. I don't believe a parent must accept a lesser evil in the hopes of warding off a greater one. If Max talked to me like this kid does on a consistent basis, there would surely be consequences. I get that shooting off one's mouth is a normal part of adolescence, and I make room for that, but it could never become a usual means of communication between my kids and me. And I hold them to that expectation at school and everywhere else as well.

So on top of being pushed aside in Max's quest for independence, I feel the daily struggle of trying to instill values in my children that seem to be losing ground in this society. Respect. Decency. Honesty. A sense of right and wrong. I sometimes recall that when I decided to become a parent, my picture of what a parent is and does was vastly different from the reality of parenting. Call it naiveté, ignorance, whatever. All I know is that when I thought about my own mom and what she filled her days with, I was sure I could do the same, no problem. Of course, that was from the perspective of a daughter, which limited my insight and understanding.

But truly, I think being a parent today is much harder than it was even three decades ago. I suppose every generation thinks that. But if Max's classroom activity is indicative of society in general, we now live in a world where a significant portion of parents have given up their right to hold their kids to higher standards. Teachers are now held accountable for students' behavior and lack of, well, anything.

As I read what I've written here, I realize that even my writing feels disjointed. My thoughts jump from one thing to another, and while I can see how everything is related, I don't know if I can explain it coherently. What I know is this: I miss my kid and he lives right here in the house with me. I hate that he spends so much time in a place that is really just a microcosm of the world at large, from which I cannot protect him but against which I hope I've given him the tools to make good decisions. And when he doesn't, I hope I've instilled in him a sense of self-worth that allows him to pick himself up and move on, bruised but not beaten.

But I don't know if I've done this. And if I survive my first child's adolescence, I've got three more to navigate down the road. And absolutely no idea what to expect, because two of those adolescents will be girls.

And one of them will be Bella.