Table for one: Join the club

I’ve been thinking about loneliness lately.   I am not lonely.  Or alone.  Nearly ever. The last time I can remember feeling lonely was in college. It was junior year. 1992.  Folks, that is a long time ago.  And the ironic thing is that I was not alone.  I was surrounded by people.  People who I loved.  People who loved me.  Living with my sweet,  gentle, long-suffering roommate/best friend.  I think I felt misunderstood. I was likely depressed. I felt isolated from others. Left behind. And quite full of self-pity.  It passed. Tip: If feeling lonely at 20 years old AND assigned to read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day AND then choose to fill other hours watching Oprah (often about weight loss or family estrangement) -You will feel worse.

Being alone has never been a negative for me.   I know that some people hate it.  I relish eating lunch alone.  Coffee out somewhere by myself.  Lunch alone. I see movies alone.  That is certain bliss.  I can choose the movie, the time, eat my popcorn without passing it, think my own thoughts and nobody interrupts to talk to me.  (I know I’m so selfish)  I enjoy a long drive alone.  I enjoy a few quiet hours in the house when the dog is at the groomers.  I think this means that although I fall squarely in the middle of the extraversion/introversion scale…I need introverted time.  But also…I’m very spoiled because I have options if I want people.  I have the people. They are everywhere underfoot.  My people are very loud people.

We volunteer as a family at a housing complex a few miles from our house.  We do odd jobs like cleaning windows and moving furniture, flipping mattresses, hanging art and boxing up holiday decorations for residents.  And then we also make and serve them lunch.  This is my favorite part.  That crew loves a good lunch.  I love to try to serve a good lunch.  I am always struck, every single time, how lonely people seem.  They are desperate for connection with others, with us.  They are excited to see us and see our children.  They just want to watch and talk to my children.  What classes are they taking? Do they LOVE school?  (they are begging my children to lie to them)  Do they like to fish? Do they play football?  They love our stories about pedestrian things.  They ask where we bought our spinach leaves and where I got the recipe for the egg bake.  They want to know if I know that HyVee will cut whole fruit for only a $1. I did not!  Many of the residents are elderly.  Most live alone.  Some are good at joining in.  Some are not as comfortable doing so.  There is a cool table.  I kid you not.  There is a cool table at the senior housing complex.

But when we leave, and this may all be in my head, I feel a lift in the mood.  The energy is good.  They have had a meal together.  Literally broken bread together-some of it gluten free.  They have had camaraderie.  A laugh. If someone is under the weather, someone brings up a plate.  They discuss the new changes at the building, the weather, politics.  They have heard a new story from outside the four walls of their apartment and shared a story of their own. (below a 2015 photo of dessert service)

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We all end up there, if we are lucky.  Living more on our own and with more strangers than family. Such is the cycle of life.  Some people seem better cut out for it than others.

I wonder how much craving a sense of belonging contributes to the strife in our crazy world.  Humans so desperate to belong that they will belong to the wrong things.  Young kids who don’t stand up for a classmate who is bullied.  Teenaged girls who get drawn into a rumor mill out of fear they too will be cast out of the group. All the hurt and vitriol when the student athlete doesn’t make the top team.  Neighbors who don’t include “that family” at the BBQ.  An employee who goes against personal ethics because coworkers expect them to protect the company.  Groups united by hate against something/anything/anyone because being united in rage is more important than being civil, moral, compassionate.  Is membership more of a survival skill than empathy?  It was MLK day two days ago.  I think he might openly weep at how few strides we have made.  If I read too many news stories, I think we are sliding backward if not standing still as a society.

Last week I dropped off my middle schooler at school in the morning.  There were groupings of kids standing around outside.  Girls with matching hair and matching backpacks and matching everything.  Boys playing basketball.  Kids at the curb on their phones.  My son had his backpack, his ski bag, his skis, and 3 other things in his hand.  He awkwardly hauled it out of the car, banging his bag on the side of my car.  A lot of the kids were watching as he got out of the car and I was thinking how lonely middle school can be.  I imagine there were lonely kids on that curb standing in a group but not invited to a birthday party.  Left out of the group text. Not included at the lunch table.  If loneliness was ever a mental construct , surely that age group has nearly perfected it.  Lonely plus narcissistic is a deadly combo.  As he shut the car door and juggled all of his things I heard someone yell, “JACK!”  Then another, “Jack!  with a wave.  He smiled.  And it made me smile.  And I held back any tears since Jack really needs me to ‘calm down’ these days.  Someone was happy to see him.  Someone called out.

Is that all it takes to not feel alone?

We need to have someone call out our name.

We need to call out to one another with a wave.

You Say It’s My Birthday

*The following is simply the way I remember it.  Memory is faulty.  If you remember it differently we will have to agree to disagree.

I just celebrated my 46th birthday.  I’m now closer to 50 than to 40. I have lived longer than Jesus and Princess Diana longer than Elvis and River Phoenix but I’m not even halfway to Betty White.  So, I’m really focusing on Betty.

My birthday has always coincided with back to school chaos which was fun when I was a child.  New shoes. Old friends. Mom buys me Sassoon jeans. It’s not quite as much fun when the day opens with your own kid blaming you for ‘nearly missing the bus’ because they were not awakened at the perfect time.  Alert: Concierge parenting services are no longer available here starting on Monday. I’m 46 for pete’s sake.  I need my beauty sleep.

This is my birthday in 1974 in my graphic lion dress.  I’m not clear why there are 19 candles on the cake when I was 3 but I am clear why they held my hand so that I wouldn’t fall face first into a 3rd degree facial burn. Polyester can also be quite unforgiving with open flames.
In elementary school, I associated my birthday with friends coming home on the bus with me, our little legs in terry Izod shorts sticking in the high humidity to the green vinyl seats on the school bus.  Home parties with favorite foods and games and favorite friends and Pepsi served in crystal glasses.

This is 1978.  I’m in my yellow gingham “Jenny” dress.  Nice feature to have your name embroidered on your clothes in case your friends forget who you are. (In later years I would force my brother to wear that dress and march him around in it.  I called it playing “Fashion”. He was a very good sport but a hopelessly clumsy runway model.)

 

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This is a few years later.  The 80’s.  We had english muffin pizzas and someone gave me an ice cream cone puzzle.  Look at those fashion icons.  I’m in front wearing my “crayon shirt”.  Nothing will catapult you to popularity quite like wearing school supply graphics on your clothing.

Then there were some years of stress with birthdays.  Who to invite.  Who not to.  Would my dance theater friends blend with my school friends. Did I have to invite so-in-so just because I went to her party?  Someone was mad at me, should I include them? The middle school birthdays are a blur as the middle school years are a blur.

High school.  My very best high school birthday was junior year. 16.  My grandma made me a bouquet of sugar cubes tied with pastel ribbons for a “sweet 16”.  I’ll never forget the time and care she put into making that.  I had spent the previous summer at The School of Cleveland Ballet and was eager to see my friends again.  My friend Eric picked me up in his sporty car and we were going out to dinner.  Very decadent. I dressed up in my “I spent my summer with artsy people” grey and white striped floor length skirt and long grey t-shirt knotted to the side. We went to TGIF’s and several other friends were there to surprise me.  It was a happy shock. I deeply regretted wearing my weird skirt.  Friday’s was not yet ready for the avant-garde apparel. God I loved that skirt.

College.  Freshman year my birthday happened less than a week after arrival.  It felt weird and sad being in this unfamiliar place on my birthday away from my family.  I had exactly one friend on campus.  Paul.  We had known each other forever but he was dealing with his own adjustment…and everyone else around me was new.  But then my entire corridor of 7th floor Mohn made me signs and cards and brought chocolates and made a huge deal out of it.  Near strangers. I was floored.  Unbelievable.  It was going to be ok.  These were good people. Later, a few of them would be in my wedding party.   Later still, one of the sign makers would be my very first phone call when my dad died.  And Paul, even amidst his own swirl of the new normal stopped by and gave me a white t-shirt and black cotton cardigan from the Gap.  In a box with tissue paper. And it was wrapped with a ribbon.  I cried.  I wore those shirts until they were threadbare.  Senior year I turned 21.  I was the last to turn 21.  Many of my friends were abroad studying in other countries.  Two friends set aside the fact that they didn’t know each other and took me out to a bar called the Rueb that is closing this month after 50 years.  One friend was Paul. The other was Tam.  Tam ordered a Japanese import beer and Paul ordered a tap beer.  They both disapproved of the other order but kept it to themselves. I didn’t know what to order.  They gained consensus on assuring me I would love numerous long island iced teas. 21!  Woohooooooooo!   I had exactly one that gave me a blinding headache and then I went to bed VERY early for a 21st birthday.

The pre-children years.  Dinners out. Parties. Cards and coffees and phone calls with singing voicemails.  One year my husband surprised me at a local restaurant with friends at a long banquet table on an outdoor patio.  The weather was perfect. The mood was perfect. It was so much fun.  My husband pointed and said, “Look!!!  I found Tam.  I FOUND HER!  I even FOUND TAM!”  It was quite a feat.  I mean she was just in Minneapolis but this was before Facebook and Google and somehow he found her digging through my mysteriously curated address book.

The kid years.  The first year we had a baby we went on a boat ride while my parents watched the 5 week old.  It was 50 degrees.  We had cocoa on the boat and wore fleece jackets and had to cut the boat ride short because I was nursing.  I bolted from the car into my house screaming, “GIVE ME THE BABY-MY BOOBS ARE EXPLODING!”  Memorable.

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This was 40.  Family over for dinner.  The glasses do not help facial symmetry.  Look at that glorious cake.
Years of sweet cards from the kids. Trying to behave themselves and keep the sibling punching to a minimum because “It’s Mom’s birthday.” Punching resumes September 9th.   Take a picture with Mom.  Sit still for just ONE photo.  It’s her birthday.  Just do it.

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Good takeout on my birthdays. Well wishes.  Phone calls. Facebook love.  Emails. Texts with emoji’s. Tiny nieces and nephews singing on my voicemail.  Some birthdays spent at curriculum night or dance carpool or both.  Some with breakfasts out to celebrate my birthday AND the kids going to back to school.  Below is year 42.

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And now 46. It’s easy to think that there is nothing new on the horizon for birthdays the older you get.  But expect the unexpected.  I had a delectable coffee and french croissant with my Mom.  I got my hair cut and colored from my dear friend Patty.  She mercifully squeezed me in last minute so I didn’t have to turn 46 AND have grey hair.   I got surprise presents on my doorstep.  A friend of 39 years sent me flowers.  I went home to assemble egg bakes for 50 people for Saturday when my friend came over with some sporting equipment for my youngest son.  We were discussing how it would have be fun to go the U2 concert.  While we lamented and I whisked eggs, my husband bought tickets, sent the email link and pretty much made the decision for us because we are both professional procrastinators.  I got to see U2.  Finally.  Bought my very first concert t-shirt at age 46.  Finally.  Did something spontaneous.  Finally.   I felt 16 again because I knew every song.  Bono…he still has it at 57.  It would have been a different experience at 16 since Bono seemed so much older then and I wouldn’t have had my miniature gin and tonic because…well illegal PLUS $10.  $10?

And this…

I took my puppy on a short walk in the afternoon.  A woman in a small car stopped and jumped out, leaving the car running.  She said, “Oooooh.  I don’t believe I’ve met this little guy yet!.”  She hands me her business card.  She is cooing to my dog.  She says, “Well, he’s cute.  But that fur?  It will get matted if you aren’t careful.”  I look at her card.  I am defensive.  I say, “He’s just a puppy.” I am defensive about my dog’s unruly fur.  She says, “I do IN-home grooming. I come to you.  I groom a TON of neighborhood dogs. So let me know.”  I’m not feeling it.  She criticized my puppy on my birthday.  20 seconds before she hops into her car, she turns and says, “Just so you know…I do it ALL.  Everything. I groom, do their teeth, the ears, trim their nails.  I do it all in your home.  I even do the anal cavity.  What I’m saying is, I will come to YOUR OWN HOME and do the anal cavity if that’s what you are looking for.

Then she sped away.   And I’m speechless on my birthday.
So-The important memories and people remain important. I am still in contact with everyone mentioned above.   A birthday wish is never wasted.  I am overflowing with gratitude and love for all the people in my little world.  People are so good.  My birthday means I’m aging but I’m getting more grateful and more focused.  I don’t have the luxury of wasting time but have the gift of knowing how fleeting it is.  And I celebrate just being here to make another trip around the glorious sun.

Don’t give up middle aged people. You never know…you may just get an offer this year on your special day that you just never EVER expected or never knew existed.

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Delta Chi Latte: Accepting late pledges

I have never had a huge group of friends.  I have many good friends.  Cherished friends. But generally, even as a little girl, my friends were not all friends with each other.  The biggest group I was ever part of was maybe three or four girls.  Groups of friends in elementary school formed pretty naturally driven by activities or geography or moms.  But by middle school I had narrowed the field quite a bit.  I think I almost preferred it that way.  I’m a secret introvert and even now if I go to a party where I know I have to make small talk with 30 people, I feel a little ill.  I want to grab one person and hold their face in my hands and discuss their relationship with their mother at length.  I know.  Now you won’t invite me for coffee.  It’s ok. I just generally suck at making ‘light conversation.’

In late high school when we were actual women making friends with other women, I had one ‘best friend’ and we floated between groups of other friends and hung out with a group of boys as a duo. This totally worked for me.  The guys were a blissful counterweight to any drama she and I might attempt to stir up.

1989 and 2014 below…


College was similar.  Again, I had lots of women I spent time with but not a sorority atmosphere certainly. I have several friends from those four years-but they aren’t friends with one another.  I found my future maid of honor in college.  We disliked each other a great deal the first few weeks of freshman year.  She found me bold and over confident.  I found her shy and irritatingly not wanting to be the center of attention.  Plus, she wore mysteriously preppy rugby shirts and I was trying out my REI meets goth look with all black clothing, dark red lipstick and hiking boots.

We must have pushed past all that since now she is the executor of my will.  Below you will find a montage of our early relationship and no, no alcohol was involved in striking any of these poses. Sadly, no mood altering chemicals were involved when I chose any of those haircuts either.  I can own it.

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Then I made “couple friends” and anyone who is over 14 knows how difficult that is to navigate.  The odds of both people in one pair really enjoying both people in the other pair are well…let’s just say even match.com or tinder wouldn’t dare try to code that algorithm.  And then large groups of couples who all enjoy hanging out together?  Even more tricky.                                                                 (note: 3 of my favorite couples to hang out with in our 20’s…all divorced now-maybe it was me?)

Graduate school.  In two years of seeing the same people every.single.freaking. day, I made a few friends.  Three.  And I made one lifelong close friend.  We were like hecklers at a comedy club except we were in Psych classes.  I’m not sure everyone appreciated our bond.  We thought all of the same people were exactly the same kind and same amount of crazy.

Work.  Various settings.  Various people.  Please.  I have yet to find an adult human who relishes attending their own company party let alone hang out with their co-workers every weekend. Worlds colliding.  It rarely works out ideally.

Church.  Surely church is filled with a lot of nice women.  I never did find 6 that all wanted to hang out together though. Never.  Acquaintances yes. Cohesive friend group?  Nope.

Neighborhood.  No.  We live on a street that ranges from newly married to retired couples. There are no block parties.  No progressive dinners.  No pool parties.  Last year we had 0 trick or treaters.  One banner year we had five.  They must have gotten lost. My closest neighborhood friend lives next door and I surely couldn’t have survived the last 18 years without her but we have our differences.  She is 69.

So-over the years when I see on social media photos of 8, 10, 12, 15! women together on trips or dinners or book clubs or scrapbooking weekends or reunions or 5k’s or wine tastings or etc…I always think…really?  How?  How did I never end up having a group of friends?

And then I realized I have one now…my first friend group.  At 44 years old.

I have finally found my sorority.  Accidentally.  It’s my ‘mom friends’.  The extensive group of women who surround me who are raising their children alongside me are my tribe.  Phenomenal, intelligent, strong women.  They know me.  They know each other.  We have a lot in common and the kids bond us together even though some of our kids are different ages and don’t even hang out with one another.  Doesn’t matter anymore.  They are women who work outside the home and women who work inside the home.  They have one child, they have four children.  They are single, married, widowed, divorced.  They are estranged from their parents, have ailing parents, have dead parents, have under involved parents, have over involved parents, all while parenting their own kids.  A few are over the top optimistic and a couple are intensely sarcastic and a couple are so wicked smart and a couple are wild procrastinators. They are volunteers and coaches and organizers and entrepreneurs and piano teachers and writers and religious and not religious and some are great cooks and some are ultra crafty and some exercise and some talk about exercising but never actually do and some are loud and outgoing and some aren’t and I value and cherish them all for their gifts and their challenges and their grit.

These women, they make my life so much better.  My circle of trust.  They make the grind of life tolerable.  They are my go to when I have a question about what the heck is wrong with my kid(s) or to tell when something goes well with my kid(s).  They celebrate my successes and lament with me when it all goes to shit.  Some of them I see in person 3 times a year, others I see weekly.  We go on mom field trips and do important ‘doughnut research.’  It is my first experience of having a large number of women who make me feel “we are in this together”. I have 20+ women who would drop everything and pick up my son if I needed it.  I would do the same for them.  They are my emergency contacts.  I have cried with them in Target.  In Target.  Right there next to the light bulbs and laundry detergent and bananas.  That is friendship.  It is an intricate but strong and supportive web of friendship that holds me together some days during these intense parenting years.

These women…they teach me.  They educate me on camps to look into, where to buy something for less, why a particular teacher is so valuable, what to open my eyes to and when to shut my ears.  NO KID REALLY NEEDS TO BE 6 YEARS AHEAD IN MATH.  They know stuff.  They recommend books and doctors and websites and restaurants.  They gently explain the reality of why I could never actually survive being a hockey mom and how many things are likely going to turn out just fine and probably don’t need my micro-management.  They point me in the right direction when I need to get whipped about something and present convincing arguments for when I really need to calm the hell down.    (It’s almost always the second one)

This photo was taken on my birthday last year.  Not even nearly everybody who is important to me is in the photo (obviously)…and I didn’t even have a chance to talk to everyone this day and hold their face and delve into their inner soul.  But it’s ok.  They know I care what happens to them.  I’ve got their backs.  I’ll catch up with them at school or on the soccer field or in the church parking lot or over lunch or maybe at Target.

We will cry at Target.  Together. Sisterhood.

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I am a Cross Country running champion (spectator)

If you are a parent, one of your primary jobs seems to be serving as a witness to the lives of your children.  I’ve witnessed a lot.  Although if you ask my youngest son, he will tell you I missed one preschool field trip to the apple orchard and ALL the other moms were there and he was completely and utterly alone.  So-we both have to live with that failure.

So far, my children have participated in what feels like 1,000 school, church and extra curricular activities that include t-ball, soccer, football, dance, choir, scouting, orchestra, cross country, knowledge bowl, and a few others I have blocked from my mind.

A lot of it has been fun.  Some of it has been not so fun.  Some of it has been downright irritating.  I’m not a great spectator because I lack a fiery competitive spirit and yet am sitting amongst the superfans.  I don’t care who wins.  I don’t get any great thrill when one team wins over the other or when one person beats out all the others.  When I watch the Olympics, and I LOVE the Olympics, I fall in love with the personal back story of all the athletes.   I will always root for the person with the toughest personal history every time. I will pray for the athlete with a compelling twist in their journey where they almost didn’t make it to compete after years of effort. I will root for the athlete who tells a story about how his mom drove him to practice for 15 years without complaint. (maybe I’m rooting for her)   But I’m not a great spectator. My cheers are very vague, “Oh go YOU!”

Until I discovered my love of spectating at cross country meets.

At most kid sporting events, you can hear spectators cheering/yelling at the kids, yelling at the coaches, yelling at each other. There is lots of yelling.  More yelling than cheering sometimes.  It took up all my yelling energy just to get everyone clean, packed, dressed, fed and in the car and at the destination on time. I suspect by the time we arrive at the event, I’m all done with yelling. It’s time for me to sit in my chair with an iced tea.  But I can hear a lot of other parents that have plenty left in the tank to scream on the sidelines. Calling plays. Making position suggestions. Lamenting the amount of play time doled out to their kid.  Complaining about the referees’ ability, a particular call, their age.  Screaming at their own kid to PUSH themselves.  Reminding their kid (loudly) that they will get ice or or $5 or other such incentives if they score.  I heard a coach on an opposing soccer team tell his team, “Swarm them like angry bees. Swarm them!”

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Dance is no better.  Studio dance culminates with a recital. There is a quiet subversive chatter at those events.  Kids didn’t get the part they wanted.  Kids got put in the back that should have been in the front.  Wrong kids featured.  Kid with poor attendance got the lead. Music choice sucked. Recital is too long. Teacher wasn’t good so choreography is too hard/too easy/too jazzy/too old/too young/too much.  (I should know the teacher critiques-I taught dance for years.) I love watching dance.  But even I find it difficult to watch a 3 hour recital where I can see 2 minutes of my child after they have put in a year of instruction.

I watched competitive dance this year for the very first time. That’s a whole new world.  It’s not your mother’s dance team.  There are some phenomenal dancers on high school dance teams.  Seven, eight, nine consecutive pirouettes.  Please.  I bow down to you.  However, I sat next to a mom who clapped when a student on a different team fell down.  Seriously.  She clapped.  She followed it up with verbally blasting her own daughter because she missed a turn.  We can’t be friends now. Ever.

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Music.  Generally not too bad.  Choirs is virtually painless.  Orchestra?  It’s almost an endurance test in the early years.  Have you heard a 9 year old try to play the violin? I have.  Two different kids.  Please no. No.  My daughter has played for 6 years now.  I have to say…it didn’t sound like music until 7th grade. That was year FOUR for those of you keeping track.  Even at the music concerts there is chatter about private lessons, what ensemble group to audition for next year, who got the solo, first chair, practice habits.  I’m coming clean.  Kids in this house-they didn’t get in their 5,438 minutes of music each week.  Never.  Math comes before music. I can’t fight ALL the battles.  I’m only 1/4 Chinese rendering me virtually useless when it comes to being a Tiger Mother.

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Knowledge Bowl.  Have you witnessed this craziness?  Hundreds of kids from everywhere battling it out to answer questions like, “In what dystopian novel could you find the quote ‘We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought'”?  Buzzers are rung all over the room while I try to think of more than one dystopian novel.  Wow.  By the way…It’s from Fahrenheit 451.  These kids are middle schoolers who are well versed in Bradbury.  I was reading the Sweet Valley High Series in 6th grade.   Those crazy Wakefield twins and their romances NEVER said anything deep or memorable and I liked it that way.  Hundreds of parents are walking up and down the hallways watching kids answer questions and discussing how their school runs practice, what teams are the best, and other things I’m not interested in.

This brings me to Cross Country.  Watching cross country is my thing.  Finally, I’ve found my sport.  Truth be told-I cried at nearly every meet.  Cried.  This is why.  It’s all outside at a school on (mostly) lovely fall days for about an hour.   They run in huge groups divided up by grade and gender.  I can pick out a couple of kids I know in the blur that go by but I’m keenly watching for my son who is fairly easy to pick out since he refuses to wear actual running shorts because (“Mom-they are insanely short”)

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On both sides of the course, the spectators watch and wait and cheer.  And everyone cheers and claps and smiles.  For everyone.  I learned some things from the high school runners who were there watching the younger kids.   They yell, “Pace yourself!”  “Pass a couple!” “You’ve got this!” “Go go go!” “Finish strong!”  Now I say those things.  I can belt out a really good “pass a couple”-it’s such a reasonable cheer for a non-competitive person.  And when they are finished…many of the runners go back to cheer on those behind them…their teammates and those who are competing against them.  And some of the kids have buddy runners who run with them and encourage them to keep going and to finish. This makes me cry every time.  The kids who need the extra help giving it everything they have and the kids who are giving the extra help giving it everything they have make me cry in equal measure.  And everyone cheers those kids on until the very last one crosses the line.

This. This is what appeals to my deepest sense of what I think is right and important about athletics.  Participation.  Being part of a larger team.  Belonging to the group.  Get out there and do something and try even if you are not first, or second, or twelfth.  Do this with joy.  Do we not all benefit when everyone crosses the finish line?   The pure joy of participation is not exclusively owned by the winners.

Next up for my professional spectator role: Track!?  My son said he would like to try track.  I said, “Great.  I’ll sign you up. What made you decide to try track?”  He said, “It sounds fun.  It’s all the cross country kids.”   I hope he does his very best.  I hope someone in front of him is pulling for him and mostly I hope he turns around at the finish line to root for anyone still running.

I plan on swarming them all with cheers. An encouragement swarm. Finish strong!

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2015 Back to School Speech: Please please please don’t be a Jackhole

It’s back to school time.  My kids start next week.  Fresh pencils, shiny non-marking soles on clean shoes, class schedules, haircuts all around, locker combinations and the fresh hope of a new school year with possibilities of making a new friend.  A clean slate.

We have done our ‘meet the teachers’ and walked the halls to find classrooms. We went to the orientations. We have signed slips and sent money for the lunch accounts. Everyone has a backpack. It’s time for the annual back to school lecture.

I usually have a talk this time of year with each of them as my kids face their excitement/anxiety/anticipation about the up and coming year and I’ve given all 3 of them some pointed lectures as they transition to high school, transition to middle school and transition to first grade respectively.  3 different schools. 3 different start and stop times.  Big changes are underway.

In fact, everyone around them keeps commenting, “WOW. Big transitions. How do you feel? Are you excited? Are you nervous?”  Over and over and over and over.  I say it too. To other kids.  Isn’t that what we do as adults?  Promote excitement laced with hints of our own anxiety?

My back to school lecture series usually are cheerful pep talks about having a great year and not sweating the small stuff.  Big transitions are happening for me too.  I’m hitting them hard this year.  I’m getting deliberate with my message and I have needed to spell.it.out.

My theme-Don’t be a jackhole.  You are better than that.  The world is filled with jackholes and you are NOT to be one of them. Ok.  I haven’t used that exact phrase (I do NOT need the first grader to have that in his repertoire) but basically I expect better from them because they have no excuses. None.  They have it easy.  This year should be about making it a great school year-for someone else. 

School can be wonderful.  School can be terrifying.  While I appreciate the vast efforts on the part of the school as a whole, wonderful teachers and support staff to encourage kids, help build bonds between students, teach respect, fight bullying, create a tight knit community, it ultimately falls to the kids to build a positive culture.  The atmosphere created in any group is largely dependent on the participants. I want my kids to be an active, purposeful part of building a positive and welcoming atmosphere because they can.  They have all the tools.  And if they are either mere bystanders or pulling in a negative direction-I’ll…I’ll…I’ll..well-they will regret it sorely. Kids are the real foot soldiers in the war against school misery.

They can do better. Do more. It costs them nothing but means everything.

The high schooler got the “You can get over yourself.  You can. You might feel apprehensive in situations A,B,C…but suck it up.  Step out of your own mind for a minute…There are likely 50 girls around you who would give their LEFT leg to live your reality.  Find those girls.  Say hello to them. Walk with them to science. They need you. Find those people who have an actual problem.  A poor shoe choice that leads to a blister is not an actual problem. (that happened here recently-we had to have a discomfort versus pain conversation)  Look for the girl who just lost a parent.  Look for the boy who failed 3 classes last year and now is paralyzed with fear that he can’t cut it in high school.  The childhood friend who feels like they have been left out or left behind.  The kid you have known for years that didn’t get enough for breakfast and never does.  The transfer student who literally doesn’t know anyone.  The friend of a friend who looks ‘perfect’ but a lot of not perfect is going on and she is suffering. For real. Some of these kids are in disguise.  They are in real trouble but they have Uggs and Vineyard Vines and play competitive softball and get good grades. Outward appearances can be very misleading.  High school is full of kids facing adult problems.

The middle schooler got the, “I know it is all new for you too but it is PAINFUL for some of the kids…a new school, a much bigger system, it can be overwhelming and isolating.”  He didn’t get it.  He needed a specific example.  I asked him about a classmate he has known for years.  It went like this:

“Who is so and so friends with?”

“Oh-he hangs out with such and such.  Mainly just him. They are close friends.”

“Ok.  What if they get different lunches this year?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean if they DON’T have the same lunch…who will he sit with?”

Shrugs. “I dunno.”  Me waiting silently.  Watching to see if any synapses fire.  Waiting.  Engage deep breathing while waiting.  I can’t take it.  “In the lunchroom…where will he go…if his bestie isn’t there…he is kind of shy. Maybe he has trouble joining in.”  More waiting.

“Oh.  Mom, seriously.  What do you want me to do?  Find him? Track him? Watch for him at the door?” (synapses did fire)

“Yes.  That is what I want you to do. Watch for him.  Watch for others that you have gone to school with for SIX years.  Invite them over to sit with you if they look lost. Ask the girls you know to sit with you if they don’t have a spot.  They need a spot.  It is so hard when you feel like you don’t fit in and it feels good to be asked. It can be brutal for the girls.  Just cut them a break. It could change their whole day or week!  How would you feel if it were you? It just takes so little on your part.”

OKAY. Sheesh.”

We also then covered this diagram.  Not kidding. The school has tables that have fixed spots in groups of six.  If you have a group of 4 but then a group of 3 walks up there is an odd person out which inevitably leads to trauma and/or drama.  This led to the tutorial, “Then see with an odd number you could offer to go with the single person and start a new table.”  Honestly.  It should be simple.  But it isn’t.  It looks like a complicated football play.


The first grader got a modified speech (attention span of a fruit fly), “Be a kind friend to everyone because everyone needs a friendly face in first grade.  On the playground. Or on the bus. If other kids act up and get sassy or tease another friend, I expect you to act like a gentleman.  Other kids will follow your lead.   I know you can do this.  Let’s use all your charm for good.”

They might not get it.  I’m thankful I can’t be a fly on the wall.  They are coping with their own insecurities and stresses during the school day.  They might not be able to do it.  They might not be strong enough. They might think they are on the outside of the inner circle.  I keep reminding them “There really is no inner circle.  It’s an illusion.  You can just draw your own circle.”

But I hope they will try.  I hope they look around and are vigilant and spend just a minute thinking about someone else.  I hope they include someone who needs to be included.   I hope they say hello and use the other persons name.  I hope they occasionally notice what is going on with somebody else instead of focusing on themselves. I hope they make FREAKING EYE CONTACT to acknowledge they saw another classmate in the hallway. They are in this together even if it doesn’t feel that way to them.

I believe these 3 could do it.   They have nothing but their own self-consciousness standing in their way.  Self consciousness may be a developmental hurdle but not a real roadblock. And if they do, if they can get out of their own way and if these three can just bring in 3 others into the fold with circles they draw themselves I will be satisfied.   If they make even infinitesimal progress toward making school a calmer, safer, more tolerable haven for everyone this year, I will stop lecturing on this topic.

Until 2016.

I hope the ice cream truck has Red Bull

I recently read an article about the trend of “Slow Parenting”.  The article was not only discouraging; I found it a bit naïve. Maybe I’m just jealous. I can’t do it. I can’t get into the slow parenting.

I’m fast parenting.  Like, wear your seatbelt.

My first two children are 27 months apart…then there is a five-year gap and then the last one. The first year that I had all 3 of them with those age differences I thought this was a huge disadvantage. Actually the first year I cried a lot. Oh hell…I don’t remember much of the first year.  I do remember being exhausted and eating MANY chocolate croissants to make myself feel better and inconveniently dragging my big blue eyed boy around EVERY SINGLE MINUTE like a court ordered home monitoring bracelet…but way heavier. It felt like the movie Groundhog’s Day but without any of the fun parts.

But now I love the age difference. I mean, nobody has expressed any interest in me teaching a family planning class…but it’s working out nicely now because I get to enjoy them all in their own unique phases and stages. It’s a lot to absorb but they are fun and funny.

When I don’t want to beat them, they are my favorite people. But it’s not slow. Ever.

The Slow Parenting movement favors less structured activities and letting children explore.  Explore like let them live like I did in the 70’s. Maybe you did too. I read a lot upside down in chairs, in the car, in a hammock, in a fishing boat. I stared at seed pods floating by through the air. In the 80’s in the summer I watched MTV videos until my eyes hurt, taking a 4 minute break to go outside and cut a bouquet of zinnias from the side garden. Sometimes I saw my friends but sometimes I didn’t. I had lemonade stands. I talked on the phone quite a bit. Every summer I nourished the fantasy that I would ‘transform’ over the summer and dazzle everyone in school in the fall after an incredible summer of physical and personal metamorphosis. Never happened.

My most out of the ordinary summer was in between sophomore and junior year of high school. I lived in Ohio and did a summer program at the School of Cleveland Ballet. Leaving for the summer was fairly common among my dance friends but unheard of among my school friends. But now…it seems like the ‘opportunities for summer extraordinaire’ for my kids are endless. Camps, classes, theme parks, public beaches, pools, water parks, travel, video games, service projects, volunteering, ways to earn money, a community triathlon , art shows, fun runs, PLUS the lemonade stand thing.

I once had a professor whose wise words come to mind over and over and OVER again. He said (paraphrasing here) the grand challenge of parenting isn’t to parent your kids in an effort to repair your own childhood. Don’t try to give them the perfect childhood that you didn’t get. (i.e.: I never got to take piano lessons and therefore I’m going to force you to take piano even if it makes you physically ill because then I can live vicariously through you and you better appreciate it, etc.) He said, the challenge is to raise them the very best way possible given their own reality.

I can’t get enough of those words.

My kids are growing up very differently than I did. The basics are similar. But there is a lot that is very different. We are a bigger family than my family of origin, my husband and I are not the people our parents were, the world of school and technology and activities and expectations are different. And while I don’t want to schedule the summer away…I need to have a plan.  Big plans.

I love those old Country Time Lemonade ads with the tree swing and the haze of summer heat and kids outside running down the dock with inner tubes and the soothing voice over of nostalgia…The reality though…summer is so short. Phineas and Ferb claim we have 104 days of summer vacation. Our school district only has 91 days. 91 days of summer??? Plus we have to jam in a few teeth cleanings and haircuts and I suppose people are going to need to eat?

There needs to be time for camp and lemonade stands and going to the beach with friends and playing basketball in the driveway and planting/tending/harvesting cherry tomatoes.  We have to get in some chores and some tennis and a lot of freaking out when the giant dragonflies land on our faces. There needs to be time for bike rides and stargazing and sparklers and playing at a new, never been to before park and many minutes of listening to the frogs. There needs to be a family trip with time in the car and reading Calvin and Hobbes and sidewalk chalk and outdoor movie night and badminton tournaments in the yard that end participants knees (that actually happened two years ago-the husband and the brother got competitive and let’s just say a knee replacement for my husband is now on the bucket list). There needs to be time with friends over and time without and long lectures from me about the great blue heron in the backyard. (I’m a little excitable over the great blue heron.  I want to hug him.)  There needs to be long walks and giant ice cream cones and the State Fair and being out on the water.  We have to have bonfires, and friends over to grill out and cheer at soccer games and farmers market trips where I embarrass the children by buying far more blueberries than I can carry.  And there has to be day where I teach them to roast a chicken.  Yep. That’s in my plans tooMG_1143 IMG_9008 IMG_0025 IMG_9801 IMG_9014 IMG_0578IMG_1141

We can‘t possibly do it all in only 91 days, can we?

You’re darn right we can.

I want to do it all. With them. THIS is part of the why of why I had the children. To show them the best of the world and try to prepare them for it and then sit back and watch them take it in. I can’t let everyone just free range it because at 6, 11, and 13…everyone will be free ranging in disparate directions.  They are young for such a short shot and with the age gap…they only overlap in this house for 11 years. So I’m fast parenting.

So get ready kids-it’s my summer too. We are having a Red Bull Lemonade Summer. We are going to squeeze the life out of it. We are going to drink up summer while driving to and from soccer or sitting still at the campfire. We are going to bookend a beach trip with a pancake flipping contest and so many S’mores you are going to stick to your pillow. We are going to work our way through our summer list (which this year includes a family stay on the island in the BWCA) and fill up our bags with library books to devour like the world is ending. And we are going to do it fast.  Before summer gets away from us. And before your collective childhood gets away from me.* IMG_1373

*There WILL be a couple of times in this 91 day period that I will want to run away from home. Get in my car and leave this crew in the dust.  It happens every summer.  Then the irritation melts away like a bomb pop on the 4th of July. Ooh-BOMB POPS!