Monday, December 14, 2009

Paranoid Parenting

A couple weeks ago, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled "The Case Against Over-Parenting". (,8599,1940395,00.html) Most Friday afternoons when I pick up the mail, I quickly toss out the junk mail, (pretty much anything without a first class stamp), look futilely for anything personal, file away the bills and glance at the cover of Time. The cover story is usually some hot button political issue that rarely draws me in immediately. (I have become such a news junkie that I am often on overload by the time Friday afternoon comes around.) But this headline grabbed me. I dropped everything and immediately read the entire essay, which was excellent. It is a well-written expose of the current generation of "helicopter parents" who hover constantly around their children. Most of us are all too familiar with this phenomenon and probably guilty of it to some degree. The focus of the article, however, is on the emerging backlash against over parenting, a growing rebellion against the "almost comical over protectiveness and over investment of moms and dads". Time received more letters on that story than on any other story posted that week and the responses ran ten to one in favor of the article. It's about time!

Like most Americans of my generation, my six siblings and I grew up in a household with a very different parenting dynamic than that which our children are experiencing. Make no mistake about it, my parents defined with painstaking clarity the limits of acceptable behavior and there were swift and significant consequences for our errant ways. But we were given the opportunity to prove ourselves within fairly wide physical boundaries that we navigated independently. However, we clearly understood that our personal freedoms were a function of our personal responsibility. As most of our peers had even greater latitude, we thought our parents were hovering too much.

When Emily was a newborn and we were preparing to leave the hospital, I anxiously looked around for the supervisor who would assess our abilities as parents and authorize us to take her home. I was sure we could not just leave and take her without some kind of permission slip. But our only parting words came from a lovely German nurse named Helga who offered this profound advice: “Love the baby. You cannot spoil the baby with love.” As simple and obvious as it seems, we took it to heart. We made a lot of mistakes but we seemed to have enough wins to offset them. Of course, we also got caught up in the whirlwind of sports, school and social activities and our kids have far less control over their daily lives than we did as children. But we are ever mindful that ultimately our goal is to not raise children but to raise adults, to not only deliver them safely from their childhood but to release upon the world three amazingly talented, resourceful and responsible individuals.

Shortly after the Time article ran, Al and I were chatting with a young couple expecting their first child. They are everything you could hope for in future parents. They have a strong marriage and an obvious respect for one another. They are smart, personable, fun and responsible. They both come from in tact families of origin and have great childhood memories. They made a thoughtful decision to have a child and they are very excited about beginning this new chapter of their lives. They are also terrified. She has a stack of books on her bedside table, mostly gifts from well-intended friends and family, outlining everything she needs to learn about being a “good” parent. She felt the challenge seemed almost insurmountable. My only advice to her was to put the books away and use them as occasional reference rather than for daily consultation. Yes, there are those who need real instruction to be effective parents. But two loving people with common sense and good intentions should not be shamed into adopting a parenting style that is finally being called into question. Over parenting takes child rearing to a logical extreme and risks delivering into adulthood a generation that is ill prepared to fend for themselves.

In 1981, David Elkind published "The Hurried Child" in which he warned of the dangers of accelerating a child's academic learning in advance of the development of his cognitive abilities. Parents were undeterred. As more and more children started dazzling us with their seeming academic brilliance at younger and younger ages, the fear grew that our children would be left in the dust if we did not push them toward the same early successes. Perhaps in our effort to foster scholastic achievement and how it reflected on our own parenting prowess, we relaxed our expectations on the development of personal autonomy and responsibility. "You just focus on school, sweetheart, and we'll take care of everything else." We handpicked our children's friends and scheduled and supervised their play dates. We arbitrated their interpersonal conflicts and made sure every child had equal access to resources, often negating the need to negotiate, compromise and share. Our children never went anywhere without a responsible adult -- with the appropriate background paperwork in order -- and we armed them with cell phones with GPS so we could track their every move and always be in touch with them. No one stayed after school any more to play with friends and we closed rank against those reckless parents who allowed their children to walk home alone. Clearly, the best parents were the most protective parents who sacrificed everything for their kids. The peer pressure among parents can be intense, leading to a gradual cultural shift from raising responsible adults to forever managing children.

So, join the rebellion and stand up to the forces that dictate that we supervise and manage every waking moment of our children’s lives. We have to learn to distinguish between when they really need us versus when we are obstructing their development. Our kids can learn perhaps even more on their own than they can with us hovering over them.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Last Christmas List

It is amazing the lengths to which some of us parents will go to create and perpetuate the legend of Santa Claus for our children. Starting with Emily as a toddler, we eagerly filled her head with stories of Santa's midnight ride on Christmas Eve, the elves toiling away in his workshop and the importance of being a good girl. There were lots of presents under the tree the night before Christmas, but those were all from Mom and Dad, some for our family and some for extended family and friends. They were all carefully wrapped in several coordinating papers with curled ribbons and colorful gift tags. Santa's gifts, always wrapped in different paper after Emily noticed one year that he had the same gift wrap that we did, did not appear until after all the kids were asleep. Like most children, our kids had a hard time falling asleep as they were filled with anticipation for the next morning. Emily was especially restless because she was a bit freaked out by the thought that a fat man in a red suit was going to soon be shimmying down our chimney. We had not considered that side effect of our subterfuge. Once they were all finally asleep, we dragged out Santa's presents from their many hiding places. We would set out the plate of milk and cookies, making sure to spill a little milk on the plate and to leave bite marks in the cookies. Al drafted a letter from Santa to the kids, complimenting them on their accomplishments of the past year and thanking them for being so good. In one letter, Santa apologized for taking a banana for his hungry reindeer. Al threw the banana peel onto the roof as evidence of Santa's petty pilfering. The kids were absolutely mesmerized. When Joey was about 9 and beginning to doubt, Al showed him the NORAD website that tracks Santa's progress around the globe on radar. He was dumbfounded. If the US military believed in Santa, who was he to question his existence?

The Christmas list tradition began when Emily was about 6 or 7. She and Joey would scour the Toys 'r Us catalog from the Sunday paper. I told them that Santa would not bring them more than 4 things and had editorial discretion if their lists were longer than that. Furthermore, he would not bring anything of which we did not approve. Emily questioned how he would know. Without skipping a beat, I told her that I could write a letter to Santa just as easily as she could and that he and I communicated all the time. She was in awe of my inside track with the big guy at the North Pole. Joey and Jack have embraced the same rules of engagement and I have never received an unacceptable Christmas list.

The lists quickly evolved into an invaluable tool for this time strapped elf. The kids would cut out the pictures of the items they wanted and paste them to a sheet of paper. I taught them to include item numbers, prices and sale dates so Santa would know when was the best time to purchase that which he could not produce in his workshop. Christmas lists were due by December 1, leaving me plenty of time to go to and place my shipping-free order. As the years rolled on, the lists continued to evolve with the kids' improving usage of Word. I eventually was presented with full color laser printed lists, complete with clip art in lieu of cutouts. Last year, Emily did not make a list as she said there was nothing she really wanted. I still received lists from Joey and Jack. This year, I only have a list from Jack, age 11, and I am realizing that it will probably be the last one I receive. To a certain extent, I am ready to let go of the charade. It can be exhausting. But with its passing comes the realization that my kids are leaving behind childhood and one of its most memorable traditions. Intellectually, I am ready to move one, but it still very emotionally conflicting.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Billboards with Boobs

We went to the Laker game the other night at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Jack was very excited because the Lakers were hosting the Houston Rockets, who recently acquired Trevor Ariza, his favorite player, from the Lakers. Before the game, there was an emotional ring ceremony during which Trevor received his championship ring from last season. Jack was riveted and I was so moved by the intensity of his admiration for this player. Jack is an impassioned basketball player. He still plays baseball each spring, mostly to please his father, but his true love is basketball. He has informed me that he will provide for us in our retirement years with his big NBA salary. Thus, we encourage his love of the game. He spends many hours each week down on the driveway working on his jump shot. He has beautiful form and thinks that Joey could learn a thing or two from him. As Joey towers over Jack by at least a foot, he is not inclined to take him up on his offer.

The Lakers came out strong and quickly posted a commanding lead at the end of the first quarter. As I sensed the game was going to be a blowout, my attention started to wander and I began focusing intently on the Laker Girls. I realized that Emily is just a few years younger than most of these girls. As a mother, I wondered about the journey that had brought each one of them to this time and place and if they were satisfied with the fruits of their labor. During the pre-game activities, we had seen a video of their auditions, and the skills and talents they displayed impressed me. As I watched their live performance, however, I was underwhelmed. Although there was lots of "T & A", the routine was mostly boring and uninspired, resembling nothing more than a well-executed drill team. All those years of training and practice had culminated in this, the pinnacle of their careers, shaking and spinning in silver skirted bikinis.

After the first performance, the dancers trotted off court and headed to the locker rooms for a wardrobe change. They returned a few minutes later wearing shorts and black tank tops with some writing across the chest that I assumed said "Lakers". However, as they took center court for their next set, the multiple overhead video monitors lit up with trailers for "Ninja Assassins", some bloody R-rated movie due in theaters later that week. I realized that the script across the Laker Girls' shirts was actually the movie title. They were no longer dancing for the team, they were promoting a crappy action film that the critics described as "awash in blood" that "spurts and sprays in geysers". The dancers kicked their legs high, shook their big hair and flashed their beauty pageant smiles as the monitors rolled a relentless sequence of fight scenes and a ridiculous torrent of flying blades. I am sure I was not the only one who was stunned by this display of obvious incongruities but I held my tongue and waited for the game to resume.

At the start of the second half, the Rockets had cut the Laker lead to a slim margin and we had ourselves a real ball game. The Laker Girls returned in a new costume, some sci-fi looking leotard with a black body and bright yellow sleeves. I strained to see the writing on their backs, finally realizing that it said "Carl's Jr." At the next commercial time-out, the dancers again bounced out onto the floor, kicking and waving before they settled into formation, facing away from our seats. The lights dimmed and all the marquees in the arena flickered with "Carl's Jr." logos. A pulsating bass beat filled the center as the girls awaited their cue...5, 6, 7, 8. They sprang into action, lifting their heads and greeting the fans across the way before spinning around to greet us. Now regarding them in full frontal, I was immediately drawn to the Carl's Jr. star logo placed strategically at the top of each of their pubic bones. “Fire crotch” was the first thought that came to mind. I looked around for a woman, any woman, who shared my disgust and finally spied an older mom a few seats away whose mouth was agape.

I remember being a freshman in high school the first time I saw the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders on Monday Night Football. Incredulous, I asked my dad when pro sports added cheerleaders. He had not seemed to notice them before I pointed them out, but reassured me that it was a fad that would never last. While professional cheerleading seems to be here to stay, at least it has less commercial origins in high school and college athletics. But with the newest mutation that I witnessed that night, commercialism seemed to have achieved a new low. These women were no longer cheerleaders or dancers, they were just billboards with boobs – “This space for rent”. I wondered if any of the dancers objected to being exploited by the sponsors so distastefully, or if they even questioned it. As the Lakers let the Rockets run off with the lead and the game, we slipped out before the final wardrobe change, never to know which lucky sponsor got the last dance.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Homecoming

Thank goodness for holiday traffic or we might have seen very little of Emily this Thanksgiving break. Originally, she was scheduled to arrive home on Wednesday evening on the train. She texted me on Tuesday morning to say that she was thinking about coming home that evening. A friend from high school had driven up for a visit and would give Emily a ride back to Los Angeles. She seemed so anxious to come home that she decided to blow off her Wednesday classes and had given her homework to a friend to turn in for her. I asked if I should plan dinner for her and I receive a quick "Yes, please!" in response. This is all coming in via text so I was assigning all the emotions that I was sure she wished to convey.

I quickly began planning a dinner that would be an appropriate "Welcome Home" meal that would not screw up Al's planned cholesterol test for the following morning. Salmon would work. The boys were out of school for the week and already plugged into the Playstation, so I convinced them to come with me, luring Joey in with the promise of a pit stop at the game store so he could blow his hard earned tutoring money on the latest combat game.

I was feeling a bit nervous about going to the grocery store with them as they have little patience for shopping and can only keep their hands off each other for about 90 seconds before the horseplay starts up again. (The reintroduction of the word "horseplay" into our everyday vernacular is one of the smaller joys of our parenting years...that, and "bellyache".) Surprisingly, the produce section was a great distraction. Both Jack and Joey took a keen interest in how to choose bell peppers, cucumbers and zucchini. Joey rolled his eyes at me when I told him he had to smell the pineapples but was taken aback when he discovered a difference. When Jack asked what an orange should smell like, Joey and I looked at each other a bit incredulously and responded in unison, "An orange!" Considering it was only two days before Thanksgiving, we got out of there pretty quickly and my cost for the pleasure of their company was held to only two root beers and a $5 4-pack of grapples.

Jack and I spent the afternoon in meal preparation while Joey was at basketball practice. Jack had been counting down the days until Emily came home and was visibly gleeful that her arrival was coming a day early. Late that afternoon, while picking up Joey, I got a text from Emily. You knew it was coming, right? She and her friend were just leaving Santa Barbara and she was coming home first to get her car and then head out to Pasadena to meet some friends for dinner. Our long awaited homecoming was quickly morphing into a fly-by. However, her continuous texts from the road kept us apprised of their slow-going. “Should it take this long to get through Santa Barbara? How far is it to Carpinteria? Will traffic break up after we get into the valley? (Ha!) I have to pee!” When she finally pulled in around 7:30, she had missed dinner with her friends. She was exhausted, hungry, a little crabby and looking for the bathroom. But her unexpected delay, (I think you have to be at least 30 before you truly believe that holiday traffic is a reality), became our good fortune. We spent the evening at home, watching reruns of “Bones” and listening to the kids bicker and banter. For this, we are truly thankful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Facebook: To "Friend" or "Unfriend"?

I am a member of the generation that has hijacked Facebook from our kids. It started out innocently enough. Before the start of her junior year in high school, Emily created a Facebook page to better stay in touch with friends she had made during a trip to China over the summer. I had long held my ground against both MySpace and Facebook, having seen far too many incidents of reckless postings by naive teenagers. However, Emily was then 16 and had consistently demonstrated a level of personal responsibility that would allow her to navigate cyber space safely. My occasional glances over her shoulder reassured me that she was being smart, having fun, and not posting anything too provocative. I found it somewhat intriguing, but never thought of it as a tool that I would use.

The next year, I received a "friend" request from one of my best friends who lives with her family in India. Neither of us are great correspondents and the expanse of time and space created by our mutual globetrotting had made it increasingly difficult to keep up with one another. The appeal of having more regular communication with her was too hard to resist. In 10 minutes, I had created a Facebook profile of my own and sent a friend request to virtually every personal contact in my address book. I was surprised to discover how many of them were already on Facebook. I reconnected with one of my best friends from childhood. Our post college years had taken us in different directions, seemingly relegating our friendship to our distant past. When we met again, we were both thrilled to discover how our disparate pursuits had still given us so many common life experiences. And the deep bond from our childhood was still there, in spite of our protracted separation.

I found myself reconnecting with old friends from school and work as well as friends to whom we had said good-bye in one of our many moves. Each friend with whom I connected was like a Hydra, leading me to at least 2 or 3 new friends. Facebook has become a great way for us to stay in touch with family and friends around the country whom we do not get to see as often as we would like. However, in cyber space, a friend can be almost anyone with whom one has ever crossed paths. I befriended a woman from high school who had created her senior yearbook page in the Runic alphabet. One of my brother's friends, whom I had not seen in more than 25 years, not only friended me but offered us college guidance counseling. I accepted one guy's friend request because he said we were friends in high school. For the life of me, I cannot recall a single memory of him. The only request I flat out ignored was that of a guy who had carved a swastika into his forehead in high school. I was not interested in his story of personal redemption, assuming he had one. Emily is the one friend who has consistently refused me, saying it would just be too weird to be friends with her mom. But, as I said, I trust her.

I now find myself having enough Facebook friends, allowing me to be more selective with new requests, which are easy enough to ignore. To "unfriend", (the newly named 2009 Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary), however, is much dicier. After having received several snarky responses to posting I had made, I decided that girl from high school whom I used to think was just a quirky nonconformist was now just mean and rude. So I blocked her. It felt kind of good. There is another friend whose Facebook life hangs in the balance. I have not yet had the courage to off her but I certainly regret befriending her. I will probably never see or interact with her outside of Facebook but I am still subjected to her polarizing political rants. Yet I find myself surprisingly hesitant to unfriend her. I recently discovered that a former high school classmate had blocked me. I recovered from that rejection quickly enough so perhaps I should just bite the bullet and hope for the best.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Family Day

Last Saturday was Parent and Family Weekend at UCSB. For $30 per person, you could arrive on Thursday for a full weekend of planned activities and events for your family and your student. Options included attending classes with your kid, several campus tours and student comedy and improv shows. We opted for our own plan and drove up to Santa Barbara on Saturday morning to spend the day with Emily. It was a great chance to reconnect and to see Emily in her new role as college student, roommate and dorm resident.
Earlier that week, I had received from Emily a list of items she wanted us to bring. Among them were shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent and a printer cartridge. I was a bit surprised as she does get a monthly allowance to cover her expenses. I quickly realized that she thinks of her allowance as her money, to be used towards things she wants. The items on her list were necessities, hence we should pay for them. I wondered what she would have done had we not come up for the day. The other items on her list were all snack options. Knowing what a nutritionista I am, she made sure to ask for something healthy to offset every junk food request: apples and fruit snacks; carrots and Cheezits; edamame and candy. Al loaded up a duffle bag with Nestle candy, feeling a bit like Santa Claus. Her friends in her dorm had all been anticipating this delivery of sweet treats and were drawn to him likes moths to the light as soon as we arrived. With not a shred of humility, they came with their backpacks to load up on an assortment of Crunch bars, Kazoozles and Nerds. We met several of her friends, including the track star and the surfer. It was amazing to see how quickly they had all bonded and how much they seemed to enjoy each other. Unfortunately, we missed the maneaters, two girls who live in a room down the hall. According to Emily, they bring a different boy home each night, hence the nickname. It is remarkable how these two girls found each other. Back in the beginning of the summer, Emily had to complete a roommate questionnaire, which posed questions such as: Do you study with music on or off? Are you an early bird or a night owl? Are you neatnik or a slob? (Shockingly, she answered "neatnik", thinking of it as some kind of goal setting.) Nowhere on the questionnaire was there anything about promiscuity, so how these two girls ended up as roommates is some strange twist of fate. Perhaps that question should be added so they too could be encouraged to amend their bad habits.
Some college truisms transcend all generations, especially laundry. Walking to the elevator, we were sideswiped by a shirtless freshman, loaded down with two enormous mesh bags, making a mad dash for the laundry room. He was hoping to get his laundry finished before his parents arrived. One could only assume they were not coming for several days. Emily had done her best to hide most of her dirty clothes in her closet but they still burst forth from her bulging laundry bag. One of Emily's friends joined us for dinner that evening. She was wearing shorts and a tank top. At 6:00 in the evening, the sun had set and the moist beach air draped heavily around me. I asked her if she was chilly but she assured me she was fine. Leaving the restaurant a couple hours later, I heard her say how cold she was and that she had to do laundry soon. I asked her if she was dressed as she was because all her other clothes were dirty. She sheepishly copped to the truth but gladly accepted my sherpa jacket.
Al's brother and sister-in-law drove down from San Luis Obispo to spend the afternoon with us at the pier. After lunch, we walked along the beach. Joey and Jack made up some crazy game where the tried to keep their balance while running along the edge of a ridge at the shoreline. One misstep and down they rolled toward the surf. Delighting in making his brother and sister laugh, Jack took a dive time after time. Back on campus, they found a basketball and shot around for a bit until darkness and their hunger chased them back indoors. It was great to watch them having so much fun just being together. One could have expected that at age 15, Joey might have been reluctant to spend the day away from his friends but I think the appeal of seeing Emily was enough to make spending the day with his family seem worthwhile. She will be home for Thanksgiving in a couple weeks and then for winter break a few weeks after that. So, it appears that we will successfully manage her absence for the first quarter as we will have enjoyed several restorative pit stops with her. But I am battening down the hatches for a long winter.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Life Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

I am of the"get a bigger hammer" school of thought. I am always looking for a shortcut, a step to eliminate, a trick to minimize the clean-up. That whole "measure twice, cut once" mentality does not come naturally to me. Al says I am a "hack". But some of the most valuable life lessons and handy family and household tips I have learned came completely by chance or trial and error. Some have scarred me, physically and emotionally, but I am better off for the knowledge I have gained. Like the many uses of a hot glue gun. Did you know that piping hot glue could burn off a wart? You might be tempted to forgo that trip to the dermatologist and that ever-increasing co-pay, but I would not recommend it. So here, in no particular order, is an incomplete listing of my stumbled upon helpful hints.
  1. Don't tell your pediatrician if you still use a mercury thermometer. They work fine if still intact but are frowned upon by the medical community.
  2. Do not let your teenage son use the guest bathroom. Ever. Guaranteed, he would use it at an inopportune time and the aromatic candle has not yet been made that will clear the air quickly enough to avoid an embarrassing situation.
  3. Your eyelash curler works much better if you heat it up with your blow dryer. Be sure to use a low setting and cool the ends with your thumbs to avoid burning your brow bone.
  4. Onion skins, cucumber peels and potato peels will all hopelessly clog your garbage disposal.
  5. Rolling down all four electric windows of your car at the same time will overload the circuit and cause a short. There is usually a reset button under the dashboard.
  6. Baking soda is underused. In addition to its use in baking and as an antacid, it is a great household and personal cleanser. It is a great inexpensive teeth whitener and facial exfoliant. It will also douse most small kitchen fires
  7. Apple tart en flambe is surprisingly good.
  8. A turkey baster can double as a medicine dropper.
  9. A three-year old boy will usually pass the metal marble from a "Mousetrap" game within 24 hours.
  10. To a harassed mom, her husband's unsolicited participation in household chores constitutes foreplay.
  11. When attempting to talk your way out of a traffic ticket, "cute and plaintive" goes a lot farther than "argumentative and sarcastic."
  12. When stringing the lights on your Christmas tree, plug the light string in first and start at the bottom. Although they say to connect no more than 3 strings, you can probably get away with 5 but definitely not 10.
  13. McDonald's french fries have restorative properties. Getting tired on the road? Grab a large chocolate shake and an order of fries. Hungover? Try a large Diet Coke and fries.
  14. At a crowded venue such as an amusement park, dress your kids in bright-colored tops so they are easy to spot in a crowd if (when) they get separated from you. Surprisingly, tie-dyed shirts act more like camouflage.
  15. Add a clean sewing needle to a manicure kit and you have everything you need to get out a splinter, remove stitches or pop a pimple
  16. Tell your kids that a car's engine must be kept running after a successful jump start. Do not let the tow truck driver leave before you double check that the engine is still going.
  17. Teach your teenage driver that the burning odor they detect while driving is probably because the parking brake is still set.
  18. On a 1986 BMW, the neutral safety switch was not standard and the key could be removed from the ignition when the car was not in "Park" or "Neutral".
  19. Watching your 1986 BMW roll perfectly straight down your driveway, across the street and into the the neighbors landscaping constitutes an alignment check.
That is probably enough for now. There are many more to come.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Ghosts of Halloween Past, Present and Future

Another Halloween has come and gone. Al pulled out all the outdoor ornaments and we elicited the requisite "oohs" and "aahs" from all the elementary school kids who walked past our house each day. He really does a great job and the kids love it, especially the cat eyes in the top windows. But now that it is all behind us, I can't help but feel a little let down. When the kids were all younger, we had great neighborhood traditions that were fun for all of us. Emily was always going to be Jasmine, or some other glamorous Disney beauty. Joey would always choose a weapon first -- nunchucks, sword or gun -- and then find a costume to work with it -- ninja, pirate or soldier. And after some brief experimentation with the ubiquitous licensed costumes such as Spiderman, Jack too graduated to the weapon-based art of self presentation.
Our house was on the corner of a neighborhood densely populated with families about the same ages as ours so Halloween was a big deal. Each year, we would have a big pot of curried pumpkin soup, plenty of pizza, cold beer and wine. Several families would meet up for a quick bite to eat and then load up with some road beverages and a passel of trick-or-treaters. I would head out with several friends as our kids scoured the streets for the best offerings. We tried to stay close enough to make sure everyone (mostly) behaved but far enough away so the kids did not think we were hovering. However, we were often still chatting with a neighbor at his front door while the kids were two or three houses ahead of us.
When the kids were really little, they could barely hang in there for an hour. We would return to our house to swap duty, sending the menfolk out to forage, as we hung back with the younger kids and a fresh glass of wine. There was a steady stream of trick-or-treaters young and old, including the parents who came to rely on us as a refueling station. Unless someone was sick or otherwise detained, we could all count on Halloween as an exhausting but fun-filled evening.
Now that the kids are older, our role in Halloween is becoming more and more behind the scenes. Emily is now away at UCSB, home of the largest annual Halloween street party in the state of California. Some 40 to 50 thousand kids flock to Isla Vista each year where the partying starts two days before and does not end until a day or two after Halloween. We try not to think too much about what was going on but we are thrilled to know she survived unscathed. Joey went to a party with a friend in coordinating thrift store outfits that they picked up earlier that afternoon. I cannot say exactly what he was dressed as but his costume included neon colored beach pants and "Bud Light" Mardi Gras beads. Jack was a crazed clown, sporting a rubber mask and his favorite shirt which reads "It's my brother's fault."
I took Jack and four of his friends to a festive street a couple miles away. Virtually the whole street decorates big for Halloween and there are thousands of people milling about. It is quite a spectacle. While the kids delight in the carnival atmosphere, they complain about the slim pickings in the treats department. Make no doubt about it, this is a well managed process and each child gets one small piece of candy from each house. Many families have dispensing stations set up at the end of their driveways in an effort to promote efficiency and protect their landscaping. Although I usually bump into someone I know, I could easily wander about anonymously as I do not know any of the families who live on the street. I cannot quite come to terms with the fact that we drove here. When did Halloween become a destination?
While I wax nostalgically for the Halloweens of old, I realize that this transition would have occurred regardless of where we lived. Halloween is a holiday for kids and my kids are growing up. Jack is 11 years old and I doubt he will want me trick-or-treating with him and his buddies next year. Al says I can stay home with him and pass out candy, probably watching a baseball game while we are waiting for the doorbell to ring. I can delight in the faces of a new crop of children who watch wide-eyed as I drop handfuls of full-sized candy bars into their bags. Sounds okay. But I will cherish the memories and the ghosts of Halloween past.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How I Became a Volunteer

My name is Ellen. I am 47 years old. And I volunteer...a lot! In 1997, after 13 years in fashion merchandising and retail management, I hung up my pumps and took on the role of stay-at-home mom. Immediately, I began searching for a job description that was more impressive. "Stay-at-home mom" sounded so banal but more importantly it did not give me any idea of what I was supposed to do all day long. I was used to tangible results at the end of each day to measure my productivity. So, how was I supposed to evaluate myself now: how many diapers I changed each day? how many loads of laundry I finished? how many types of body fluid stains remained in my carpets? I briefly considered the whole Martha Stewart/domestic diva path but had to remind myself that my German "get a bigger hammer" mindset and my naturally brown thumb were really not conducive to success in this pursuit. I struggled to come up with meaningful criteria that would provide me with some goals and structure to my new daily routines.
I dabbled in some classroom assistance when Emily was in first and second grade. I even donned a toga and acted out scenes from Roman history. But then we moved and I found myself once again in a new community feeling disconnected and a bit bored. I must have been giving off some kind of scent because the parents -- okay, the moms -- who ran our elementary school parent club soon sniffed me out. It began innocently enough: would I be willing to run the school t-shirt program. With my retail background, it seemed very manageable, so I said yes. Then, Joey's kindergarten teacher asked each parent to volunteer once a week in the classroom to help out during "stations". I was reluctant at first as Jack was only a year old and I was not sure I wanted to relinquish precious nanny-time to spend it with 34 kindergartners. Mrs. Roy gently but firmly assured me that "yes" was the only answer she would accept. And so began my true foray into the black hole of need known as volunteering.
What originated from a sense of obligation and personal discontent quickly evolved into a true calling. Over the past 12 years, I have discovered that working in my kids' classrooms is a fantastic way to get to know the teachers and students as well as the other parents. I encountered a wonderful world of (mostly) women like me, both in and out of the work force, who wanted to be a presence in their children's school lives and give back to the community. I developed life long friendships with amazingly talented people. We created a wide support network -- it really does take a village -- and assisted one another with carpools, parenting dilemmas, school challenges, family management and more than the occasional glass of wine. While I had been looking for this kind of dynamic for myself, I was surprised to find how much it benefitted my children as well. My understanding of their school environment helped me develop a home and extra curricular structure that better supported their personal growth and achievement. My interaction with the teachers and the school administration provided for an appreciation of what school could and could not do for my kids; when I needed to push and when I needed to pull. And, unexpectedly, my volunteering became an example of how giving back not only adds value to a community but to our role within it.
With our subsequent moves, I have looked to recreate this sense of community for my family by throwing myself again into the pool of academic activism. It is different each time as my kids get older, are no longer all in the same school and develop independent interests and activities. And as Jack, my youngest, is in his last year of elementary school, my career in the classroom is wrapping up. But I am hooked and plan to remain active in K-12 public education although I find my focus is shifting to a more macro orientation. Now, if only I could get paid...In hindsight, it would appear that I should have made a career in education and volunteered in retail.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Today's Horoscope

This morning, my horoscope said, "Some people peak early in life. Aren't you glad you're not one of them? It's taken awhile but your bloom is coming on. Get ready for some well-deserved success." I cannot begin to express how inspired that made me feel. At this stage in my life, midlife crises are rampant among my peers. One prevailing theory I subscribe to suggests that these crises are brought on by our realization that our best years are behind us; our greatest accomplishments have already occurred. I see both men and women struggling with our sense of self and the choices each of us has made that brought us to this point. We ponder our career choices or our decision to forgo a professional career to be at home with our children. Finances and the economy weigh on us heavily and we wonder if we are poised to manage college and retirement. Our children are growing up and seeking their independence, leaving many of us with free time that we do not know how to use. And, as we turn to our life partners, it dawns on us that they are seeing the same waning youth in us that we are seeing in them. If we choose to envision our future as nothing more than the fading glory of our past, then it is indeed a good time for a crisis.
Here is my theory: a midlife crisis is a choice. It is not something that strikes suddenly but rather a gnawing sense of doubt that insidiously takes root in our psyche and starts to grow. It is so easy to become consumed with how we stack up versus our peers and our own ambitions. In doing so, we all too often underplay the value of what we have achieved. Perhaps that is because our most important accomplishments usually do not come with public commendations. I may never achieve a level of success that is measurable to the outside world. But I have a wonderful husband, three amazing kids and apparently, I am not yet in full bloom! So today, I am taking solace in the fact that I was born in the house of Cancer and I still have great things ahead of me. Perhaps tomorrow's astrology reading will tell me something more specific.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Home for the Weekend

Emily came home this past weekend for her first visit since she headed off to UCSB last month. She called -- okay, she texted -- at the beginning of the week that she wanted to come home. I immediately grew anxious: was she having trouble with her roommate? were classes too hard? was she homesick? The answer I received was, "No, I just want some good food." After four weeks of dorm food, about which she did not complain but merely described as repetitive, she was ready for some home cooked meals. At least, that was what I thought. She took the train down Friday afternoon and my husband picked her up at the train station. We had take-out Chinese that night. For lunch on Saturday, she made herself one of her world-famous sandwiches, complete with tapenade and Lays potato chips. We stopped at In 'n Out that afternoon for a chocolate shake and we went out for Italian food for dinner. So much for home cooking.
The kids and I took a trip to the Glendale Galleria on Saturday afternoon as Emily needed a cardigan sweater and Joey needed an outfit for homecoming. We went to Macy's where Joey bought the first sport coat he was shown and the only pants that he tried on. He went to a tie table and quickly chose a bold stripe purple tie. Jack found a coordinating violet dress shirt, leaving just a pair of dress shoes to complete the ensemble. I was tempted to let him wear his black tennis shoes as I knew the chances were slim that he would ever have an occasion to wear a pair of dress shoes again before his feet grew. However, we bit the bullet and found a relatively inexpensive pair of size 12's for him. I will save them for Jack and then can always pass them on to someone. It took us about 30 minutes to select his entire outfit, get Emily's approval and complete the purchase.
We then headed upstairs to the women's apparel areas to look for a sweater for Emily. She had previously scanned the Junior department with no success but I felt sure that I could find something for her quickly and easily. We scoured through the entire second floor, but everything was dismissed -- too short, too long, too dark, too light, too heavy, too skimpy, too fancy, too plain. Joey's eyes were glazed over and starting to roll back in his head. Jack, a secret shopping enthusiast, found a great sweater that Emily really liked. It was more expensive than I had prepared myself to spend but I quickly decided we would go for it. Alas, no pockets. Our search continued.
As we entered the next store, "White House, Black Market", Joey, in his inimitable monotone, commented, "I can't help but notice a complete absence of color in this store." Emily and I just looked at each other and sighed. We kept moving. We struck out at the next two stores and I knew I was running out of time. I broke my own rule and entered "Abercrombie and Fitch", a store I loathe, thinking it would be good for something fast albeit expensive. We were quickly driven out by the overpriced poorly constructed merchandise, driving techno beat and pheromone saturated fragrance that clung to our nostrils. Realizing that Joey's shopping induced coma was bordering on irreversible, I resolved to find something in the next store. By the grace of God, Emily found something that would work, not perfect, but acceptable. It took twice as long to find one basic sweater for her as it did to put together an entire outfit for Joey, a fact he did not fail to notice.
The weekend came to a rapid close. Aside from our excursion to the mall, and a quick visit with some good friends, we did very little. The truth is that we mostly just spent time with one another, watching football, baseball and some "quality" reality programming. But we had a great time and I think we all reconnected as a fivesome. I loved every minute of it. I can't wait for Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Student of the Week

Yesterday, I helped my 11-year old son put together his student-of-the week poster. For those of us with elementary school-aged children, this is an annual rite of passage. It usually occurs during the student's birthday week unless his birthday is during the summer, in which a case a free week is arbitrarily assigned. Jack came home yesterday and announced that the third week of October was all about him. The first time I took on this project when Emily was in 1st grade, we began the necessary preparation a week in advance. We got the poster board from the local art supply store and began gathering photographs that chronicled each major milestone in her life. We carefully arranged the photos on different sizes and colors of construction paper to create a stunning visual display. She drafted the verbiage but I wrote everything out in my best Catholic school block lettering. It was fabulous. Now in my 13th year of constructing these projects, I was able to pull together the necessary materials within a few minutes. I went to the computer and found the requisite photos -- last year's Christmas card with the kids and the dogs, a family photo with my husband and me, Grandma and Grandpa, and a couple shots of Jack engaged in some frolicking good times in our favorite summer vacation spot, Yosemite. I printed them out on standard white printer paper with a color ink cartridge badly in need of replacement. Using a blunt tip pair of school scissors, he crudely cut out each picture to fit on his display board, two pieces of white drawing paper that I had taped together. He quickly arranged them on the paper and pasted them down with a glue stick. He found an old brown marker in a kitchen drawer and wrote out his name across the top of the poster. In the upper right corner, he penned several key facts about himself, each line drifting slightly upward. We completed the entire project in about thirty minutes. As I looked at the final poster, I could not overlook the contrast between this effort and the earlier ones that I had done with my kids. I began to feel a bit sheepish but Jack was completely satisfied with the results. This morning, as we rolled it up and tucked it under his arm to protect it from the drizzle, I realized that this was probably the last of these posters that we would create. My sentimental moment was interrupted by the realization that the progressive decline in the quality of these kinds of projects had reached its nadir. Like Picasso's blue period, my elementary school era is coming to an end.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three Weeks and Counting

The summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school, our daughter, Emily, went to China for three weeks. Today, at 3 weeks plus one day since she left for college, it is officially her longest absence from our home. She called last night and I reminded her of this fact. She did not seem to find it quite as compelling as I did. However, I must admit that while I am poignantly aware of her absence, I am not bereft. At freshman orientation during the summer, I attended an evening seminar led by a UCSB psychology professor. The topic was parental separation anxiety and how we could better cope with our children's pending departure. The speaker painted a portrait of completely incapacitated parents, pacing their empty home like Mrs. Haversham, awaiting the return of our loved ones. I somewhat smugly admitted to myself that I was not anticipating this kind of reaction, that I felt ready for my daughter to begin this journey. As the speaker droned on and on about our forthcoming loss, my resolve softened. Was I fooling myself? Would I, too, find myself devastated by her departure and never find meaningful life experience to fill the vacuum that her absence had created? Intellectually, I felt I had the coping skills to effectively manage this dramatic change in our family dynamic. Emotionally, I began to worry. But, today, as I find myself at this milestone, I have to admit that I am doing just fine. Our goal for each of our three children has always been to prepare them for a successful transition to college life and the opportunities that would ensue. Thus far, we are one for three, and counting. So rather than wringing my hands in despair, I am patting myself on the back for that which we have so far done right.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Teenage Boys: Part 2

Did I say that teenage boys are a thing of beauty? Well, they are also a source of immense frustration. My older son is brilliant, truly. In the third grade, he tested into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. I was so proud of him. I also privately thought that this would mean that he would sail through school and perhaps find it too easy. I worried how we would keep the challenges of school equal to his vast intellectual abilities. Throughout most of his elementary school years, this was the case. And then, he became a teenager.
Our first indication that the tide was turning happened when he was in the 7th grade. He had always excelled in math and I was surprised to see his grade slipping in his algebra class. I consulted his teacher who informed me that he had not turned in several assignments. I was stunned. Where did he get off thinking that he could pick and choose which assignments he completed and if he submitted them? I confronted him, committed to nipping this problem in the bud. Thinking of my daughter, who has always been extremely conscientious about her schoolwork, I expected him to be contrite and disappointed with himself. Instead, I encountered indifference. After all, he still had a "B" so what was the big deal. Paraphrasing my sister-in-law, who had met with similar challenges with my brilliant but lazy nephew, I told him I expected him to do his best work every time and not to settle for the path of least resistance. He shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and sighed. He was clearly not bending to my will.
I have lots of family and friends with teenage boys and virtually every one of them describes a similar dynamic. There are Mensa kids, average learners and boys with a range of special needs. Some of them are young for their grade level and some are a full year older than most of their peers. It does not seem to matter. They all share this attitude of apathy and a willingness to settle for mediocrity. So, for those of you wondering what happened to your boy prodigy, take some comfort in knowing that the rest of us are scratching our heads too.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Mantra

The eye roll. The heavy sigh. The angry back talk. If these sound familiar, and start your blood to boil, congratulations! Your little baby is growing up. You thought that if you could just survive those early years and get your child into school that the hardest phase of child rearing would be behind you. But now you have discovered that as your pride and joy teeters on the brink of adulthood, her snotty tone, know-it-all posturing and pretzel logic might just lead to the end of one or both of you. If you let it, this infuriating dynamic will continue into perpetuity. But there is an alternative. Are you ready? Take a deep breath and repeat after me, "Focus on behavior, not attitude. Focus on behavior, not attitude". This mantra can save you.
I am not known for my patience or for my zen-like ability to check my temper. But I stumbled upon this sanity saving device when my daughter was about 10. (If you are the parent of a boy, you might have a couple more years before you wade into this quagmire.) It seemed that most of our exchanges would begin peacefully and then quickly evolve into an escalating cycle of confrontation. I would assert, she would push back, I would assert more firmly, she would push back get the picture. I would become angry, frustrated and indignant that she could treat me so disdainfully. I would begin each interaction with a renewed commitment to maintaining my cool and not letting her get the better of me. Inevitably, I failed. Finally, after another such pointless encounter, I had an epiphany. What did I really want: to win an argument or to positively influence her behavior? By engaging, I was giving her the power to affect my attitude, to bring me down time after time. "Focus on behavior, not attitude. Focus on behavior, not attitude." The chant slowly repeated in my head. I could handle her impertinence as long as her behavior outside of these bouts was acceptable. My self esteem was strong enough to absorb the blows. And trying to win pointless arguments was only turning me into a screaming banshee and radiating tension throughout our home. Ultimately, I had to concede that the best way to improve her behavior was to focus on my own attitude.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Real Housewife from La Canada

Now that we are a household dominated by boys, sports rule our airwaves. At this time of the year, we are never without a sporting option, college or professional. Football is in full force. Saturdays are devoted to college ball and Sundays are taken up by the pros. The Monday night football tradition continues and seems to have spread to every other night of the week. The baseball season gets longer every year as the boys of October move into November. And, prideful of our world champion Lakers, Los Angeles is already embroiled in preseason basketball buzz. My sons love watching with my husband who is the consummate sports fan. We are allowed brief conversation during commercials but most of the time we are engrossed in instant replays and post-game analysis. As I drift into a numbing ennui, I make an ill fated attempt to change the channel. Thrice rebuffed, I usually retreat to another venue.
My daughter has a much better success rate at gaining control of the TV remote control. On her watch, our viewing habits were tranformed into a steady feed of pop culture and reality programming. It always amazed me how she could corral her brothers to sit and watch "The Real Housewives", (the New Jersey ones are her favorite), "America's Next Top Model" or "Project Runway". She and her dad loved to watch cooking shows together. They both love Paul Dean, Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay but not the Barefoot Contessa. She even got me to watch "The Hills" with her, a horrible show that I embraced as a lesson on what not to do. I drew the line at "Dog the Bounty Hunter" as I found it visually offensive. As much as I do not truly miss all those crappy shows, I do miss the chatter and laughter as we parsed the shows plots and characters. Every family searches for ways to spend time together and enjoy each other's company. I hesitate to admit it but we have been guilty of bonding through television. Maybe I should keep watching "The Hills".

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Channeling Emily

It has been nine days since we brought our daughter to college. Her absence is palpable. There are moments when I acutely miss everything about her -- her heavy footsteps coming down the stairs at the crack of noon, her Dagwood-inspired sandwich making, complete with sliced olives and pickles, her spontaneous bear hugs and her rapier wit. Mostly, I miss her energy. As my grandmother would have said, she is not a shrinking violet. She does not enter a room, she infuses it. She artfully asseses everyone else's mood and zeroes in on the one whose spirit is most in need of lifting. She is almost always sucessful, especially with her father. She called him Sunday afternoon after the Yankees beat the Red Sox. He was at work in our home office, engrossed in preparations for the upcoming week. His face lit up as I handed him the phone and told him that she was calling to speak to him. "Hey, Sweetie," I heard as I left the room. Moments later, he came downstairs, practically skipping, clearly done with work for the rest of the day.
My younger son misses how she would explain things to him. Last night, he asked me what "flirt" means. I answered, "To interact with someone of the opposite sex whom you find attractive to solicit their interest in you." He responded that Emily would have given him a simpler answer that he would have understood. I channeled my daughter and rephrased, "The way a boy or girl talks to someone they like." That seemed to work. What would Emily do? I will have to remember to ask myself that more often.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Teenage Boys: Part 1

Teenage boys are a thing of beauty. Not unlike teenage girls, they have a remarkable ability to be extremely irritating and charming all at once. However, their tendency to eschew the typical drama and mood swings that define teenage girldom is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. Recently, my older son got stood up by one of his buddies. He was ticked off and let his buddy know in no uncertain terms. I had to speak to his mother for other reasons and she was very apologetic for her son's behavior. I assured her that I felt no need for either of us to mediate the situation and that the two boys would figure it out. Half jokingly, I said, "If we were the mothers of two teenage girls, we would be fighting this out in court!" Perhaps a bit of hyperbole but we unquestionably would have been embroiled in the center of the dispute. A couple days later I asked my son how things were with his friend. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Whatever." I thought that maybe this was a big deal to him and would not easily resolve itself. However, by the next weekend they were together again. While I hesitate to say that all had been forgiven, it had at least been put behind them. I doubt they will ever discuss it in any way. There will be no dissection of the experience yet they will move forward. My son will not need to let his friend know how he felt and will never ask him about his motivations or his expected outcome. Beyond, "Sorry, dude", there will be no apologetic overtures. As a lifelong girl, I can unequivocally assert that I have never so quickly and easily resolved a dispute with someone, male or female. My husband has often stated that men and women are just different in this regard: one angry man might knock another down in a brawl but then pick him up, take him for a beer and give him a ride home. No need for soul searching, soul baring or closure. And, apparently, it begins in childhood. Beautiful!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Tooth Fairy

In my life as a parent, I have been an exceptional Santa Claus, an acceptable Easter Bunny but a lousy Tooth Fairy. My kids learned from an early age that they could only ask Santa for 4 things and that Christmas lists were "due" by November 1. They would scour the "Toys R Us" catalog that came in the Sunday newspaper, looking for their hearts' desire. Then, they would cut out the items they wanted and paste them to their letters to Santa. Not only did I know what they wanted, I had detailed lists with photographs, sale prices and dates and UPC's. With the advent of online shopping, I became Super Santa. Just me and, making spirits bright.
Easter was less involved and we always managed to get the baskets together and set out the night before. We always got the eggs dyed on time with only one real disaster. Don't ever try that stuff that is supposed to tie dye the eggs. What a mess! I had to us WD40 to clean the sink! We also learned to switch to hiding plastic eggs outdoors after our dog discovered all the protein treats we had left for her around the back yard.
But the Tooth Fairy business I could not master. I was constantly forgetting, giving the Tooth Fairy a bad reputation for tardiness in our family. I even crafted notes of apology, manufacturing plausible excuses for her being a day or two late in getting to that bloody tooth under the pillow. There was a late fee that kicked in on the second day that doubled the cost of a tooth. I even convinced the kids that the tooth fairy was having difficulty getting to the tooth under the pillow as she did not want to awaken them. They started setting out the little silver box on their desk, anything to bring forth that stupid fairy. It once took me three nights to make the exchange. When my daughter was about 11, she looked at me slyly and told me that the Tooth Fairy had not come the night before. I looked at her straight in the eye and said, "How about I just give you 5 bucks and you give me the tooth?" She was shocked! "Mommy! Do you realize that you just admitted to me that you are the tooth fairy?"
It is funny how we feel so compelled to perpetrate these deceptions on our own children. There is a sense of liberation when they no longer believe and we can let our guard down. For my older two kids, it seemed to just sort of happen. My youngest, at age 11, intellectually knows that it is all a hoax. I think he fears admitting it because somehow it would end the flow of presents, cash and candy. I was two days late on his most recent tooth. It is only September. Let's hope I can keep this going for a few more months.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Today we brought our first born to college

Today we brought our daughter to UCSB for the start of her freshman year. I am filled with a mixture of emotions, ranging from euphoria to acute anxiety. As parents, is this not what we have been striving to do for the last 18 years? To raise a child from infancy, bring her through the trials and tribulations of K-12 education and marvel at the bright, witty and capable adult who stands before us, poised to take the world by storm? I delight in my daughter. I am thrilled for all the opportunities that lie before her and have great confidence in her future successes. But as we left her, teary-eyed in the hallway of the 6th floor, I had to force myself to stay strong, to be the role model of resolute conviction. My husband, two sons and I opted out of the shuttle bus back to the parking lot and took a soulful stroll across campus, dragging her oversized empty suitcase behind us. My 11-year old son remarked, "It feels like we're forgetting something." My husband called her before we reached the car to ask her if she missed us. She quickly responded "yes". My older son posted a sad face on Facebook because his sister was gone. These are the moments as a parent, sad and conflicted, where I have to remind myself that our goal was not to raise a happy child but to deliver unto the world a competent, self sufficient adult who would do great things, globally or locally, and perpetuate this continuum. My heart is full but there is a hole in my daily life that I will hold open for her. I hope my love for her shines through like a beacon in the dark, cheering her accomplishments, comforting her in times of distress and illuminating a path to a home that will always be here for her. I love you, sweet girl!