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".