When I Grow Up

Homeless and Hungry Are Situations, Not People

Yesterday I attended the second annual #RealCollege: A National Convening on College Food & Housing Insecurity. Just about a year ago, I learned that there is a significant issue on college campuses today: too many students go without proper housing and not enough to eat. I was surprised at this fact and the deeper I explored the issue, the more surprised I became. Earlier this year, I wrote about the incidence of college hunger for Pacific Standard and The Progressive.

A two-day conference (one day of panels and one of workshops), #RealCollege was eye opening in many ways. Many speakers commented (in a thankful way) that they knew they didn’t have to explain the issue, that those in attendance already knew the scope of the problem; many also expressed relief that finally people are talking about it. As evidenced by the attendance (twice what was expected, which was more than double than last year’s number) those who are working for a solution are now finding each other and sharing resources.

Sara Goldrick-Rab (founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab that has fast-tracked researching the issue and connecting resources) stressed that unlike many other fields, this research is collaborative, not competitive. Their research found that “people were doing this work around the country and had no way of communicating about it.” This year’s 400 attendees came from 29 states and the District of Columbia, included representatives of 108 colleges and universities (including presidents and faculty), as well as foundations, community-based organizations and 40 students.
Some important takeaways of the day for me were:

We need to increase awareness of problem.

The incidence may be higher, but this is not a new issue. Insufficient food and housing has been a concern for some college students for decades. Awareness is growing, but it is still an invisible issue. We need to acknowledge that it is a societal problem, not an individual problem. We have the data to demonstrate the issue is significant and systemic. There are many intertwined circumstances that contribute to the problem and we will need to use a multi-pronged approach to find solutions.

We need to increase awareness of available services and programs.

Programs and services aren’t effective if no one knows they exist. The communication and collaboration of the past few years are encouraging, but more needs to be done. Many people are unaware that they are eligible for programs such as SNAP, TANF, AFDC, Medicaid and HUD services, or do not know how to apply for them. Some individuals even lack the resources to access the FAFSA. Some states have supplemental programs and many community organizations provide more specialized services. More than 500 colleges today have food pantries on campus (some are open to all students, not just those with demonstrated need) and some offer text alerts about when and where free food is available. At some schools, professors have been encouraged to provide lists of resources on syllabi or through other means. Though all this is useful, more needs to be done to inform students that they have options and resources.

We need to reduce stigma and shame.

Food and shelter are basic needs. There is no shame in asking for and accepting help. Many of us are just a paycheck or two from being in the same situation. We need to look at hunger and homelessness as temporary, with those experiencing it as “going through a rough patch,” not as a static state of being. Moving resources out of the shadows has proven effective at many schools. Providing a community approach, with help applying for services and positioning food (and wardrobe) cupboards in central locations has increased participation rates. Professors who offer to help students who may be struggling with food or housing insecurity make themselves more approachable to students in need while also educating everyone that these situations are not isolated incidents.

We need to include students in the solutions.

This requires two-way communication. We need to advertise services in a way that gets the message to the people who need to hear it, and we need to listen to what they really need. This will likely vary from school to school. Students at urban and rural schools have different needs, as do students of different ages and from different cultural backgrounds. Food pantries are nice, but in most cases can only solve part of the problem. Housing, transportation and child care concerns are other common issues that need addressing. Some students also benefit from guidance in things such as financial management or cooking skills. Open, non-judgmental communication is necessary.

We are all in this together

The most emotionally powerful moment of the day came during one of the Q&A sessions. One of the panelists, Justice Butler, until recently a homeless student, in a clearly impulsive moment, asked all those who have at some point been homeless to stand. The room was silent and a significant number of attendees (close to 10 percent) stood, some nervously. She then asked them to look around. Many were visibly surprised how many others were standing, as were those of us who remained in our seats. It was a powerful visual of how invisible the issue truly is and how you have no way of knowing what others’ lives are or have been like. You can’t “see” homelessness.

Before leaving to catch my train, I took a moment to talk to Justice, whom I interviewed for my articles and had been looking forward to meeting. A few of us talked a bit about the moment she asked people to stand, how powerful it was and how it was impressive that a safe space had so clearly been created during the day that enabled so many to be willing to share that fact. Justice introduced me to people who had traveled with her from Houston, making a point of telling them that I was the one to write the PS article, making more fuss than I thought warranted. A bit embarrassed by the attention, I protested, but was stopped and thanked by one of the young women. She pointed out that it is exhausting simply trying to survive and to have to tell your story, over and over, is sometimes just too much. I replied that though I felt it wasn’t much, sharing their stories is one thing I could do. We parted with a hug.

As a society, we can and should do much more. As former U.S. Secretary of Education and current CEO of Education Trust, John King, said in his keynote address, students should be able to “prioritize their education without it becoming a competition with their basic needs.” No one should have to choose between learning and eating.

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My First Year on the Other Side

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Last year I celebrated a milestone birthday, one that is frequently met with black balloons and obnoxious cards (thankfully my family spared me that). It was my second year as an almost-empty nester and I was still adjusting to the quiet.  How does it feel on the other side? The same, but very different. I have more years behind me, which has given me more confidence and loosened my filter (we are still determining whether that is a good thing or bad). I am re-evaluating what really matters and leaving behind the things that don’t. I am determined to enjoy life, even if others disagree with my choices (like dancing wearing a sloth head).

My fiftieth birthday came at the end of a summer of political tension and before a presidential election that promised nothing. I learned something I should have known — nothing is impossible. Like many others, I was shocked at the results of the election and impacted by the discord in our country. Since I no longer have small children, I have the luxury of living outside my personal bubble and made a conscious effort to keep up with current events and (for the first time in decades) really pay attention to politics. Having studied the legal system in college (I once considered law school), I have a pretty good base of knowledge on how things are supposed to work and was distressed at how things have been going and more so at how many people have minimal knowledge in this area.

I heard rumblings about a protest in January, but ignored it, until events made it impossible for me to stay uninvolved. It was a game-day decision, but I did participate in the Women’s March and have since used my voice to speak out when it was necessary.

Politics aside, the year was surprisingly full. I have often been asked what I will do when my children are grown, the implication being that I will have so much time I’ll get bored. This is far from the truth. Though my kids are grown, in some ways, my life seems busier. I don’t have the day-to-day activities, but many weekends have been filled with college events or simply shuttling back and forth for breaks (one of my children goes to school five hours away). Of course it doesn’t make sense to simply drive there and back, so I have made a point of discovering things to see and do to make it more interesting.

The year was also filled with special events such as weddings and birthdays that necessitated travel and provided us the opportunity to spend more time with extended family (and have mini vacations). Having a flexible schedule also allowed me to tag along on a business trip with my husband where I got to spend a day exploring the National Archives. All this travel has resulted in me catching a serious bug  — the travel bug. I have always liked to travel, but I am now finding that a month at home is too long. I am itching to be on the move.

One benefit of the nest emptying is the ability to pick up and go with little notice, which is exactly what we did last spring, taking a weekend at Cape May, and another over the summer when we flew to Florida to surprise my mom for her milestone birthday. We have talked about planning more trips like this in the future.

I expect that the next couple years will have more of the same, then we may be looking at a truly empty nest. If the warp speed of the past couple years is any indication, that time will be here before we know it.


The Teddy Bears Picnic to the Rescue

teddy-1335169_1920I just discovered that National Teddy Bear Picnic Day was this week. Though it is unclear when the holiday started, it is celebrated on July 10 and was likely inspired by the song “Teddy Bears Picnic” composed by American John Walter Bratton in 1907 with words added by Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy in 1932. It has been recorded by multiple artists and was the subject of a short film in 1989.

The song talks of a trip to the woods where “every bear that ever there was” has gathered for a picnic and paints a picture of teddy bears frolicking without a care. This celebratory day apparently is intended to encourage families to go outside and have a picnic with their favorite stuffed friends (though the song does warn children to “not go alone.”) Many nature centers have embraced the concept and planned educational programs around bears while enjoying the outdoors.

I have a special fondness for this song though I never heard of it before becoming a mom. One of the many gifts we received was a brown teddy bear with a wind-up music box built in. Thanks to my mother-in-law, I learned the song it played was the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” We thought the bear was cute and it had its place in the nursery.

One night, in a fit of desperation (every new parent has a tale to tell about nights of desperation), I wound up the bear, hoping it would soothe the cranky being who had taken over my cherubic child. To my delight, it did. Then the music stopped and the howling once again began. I wound it again, and again, and again. Obviously, this was not a long-term solution.

My husband, the engineer, came up with the solution. He wound the bear and recorded the music onto a 90-minute cassette (for those of you too young to remember these, Google it to see what you missed out on).  He then repeated the process (he may have recorded the recording at one point, but that’s not really relevant to the story), until the tape was full, on both sides. To maximize our peace, he recorded a second tape so that we could run one after the other (we had a cutting edge player that held two tapes and could be set to automatically start the second when the first ended). If necessary, we could quickly flip the tapes and play the other side (again, just Google it).

This was our baby calming miracle. The cassette player and tapes went with us when we traveled and was part of the necessary gear when baby spent an overnight at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Unfortunately, this only worked with the first child; the others had no interest in this music.

Years later, we discovered the song had words when we discovered the band Trout Fishing in America who perform a less lullaby-ish version on their album Big Trouble. So now (as is often the case when an album that both children and parents enjoy is discovered), we all know what the words are and can sing along.

 

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Basking in the Smells of Summer, Memories Flow and Make Me Smile

SCAN0647Certain smells bring back memories. I find this to be particularly true in the summer, maybe because I spend more time outdoors. Certain summer smells bring me back to my childhood and make me smile, even some that are not so pleasant.

The smell of fresh tar brings me back to the days in the early 1970s that I roamed our neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs. We lived in a new housing development, surrounded by cornfields. With just a handful of streets, I couldn’t get too far from home and spent most of my time walking on two streets – the one I lived on and the adjacent one that took me to my best friend’s house down the hill. Each summer, the roads were freshly paved and closing my eyes, I can still catch the pungent odor. Our bare feet would end up blackened from the inevitable street crossings, requiring a steady scrubbing to return them to normal color. Summers were spent outdoors, playing simple games, coming inside only for bathroom breaks and food. While repaving is infrequent where I now live, the smell still makes me think of those carefree summer days.

Coppertone cocoa butter tanning lotion was a staple in American households in the 1970s. These were the days when the ozone still provided a protective barrier and before the potential damaging effects of the sun were fully understood. We knew we didn’t want to get a painful red sunburn, but the worries stopped there. Skin cancer was not a concept anyone talked about and was something few if any were likely aware of. Sun tanning lotions and oils were applied to enhance a tan, not protect against one. Though application of coco butter-containing lotions tended to make me itch, the smell was decidedly summery. This smell makes me think of lazy days, sitting in beach chairs in the backyard, playing in the dirt or reading a book or magazine.

When we were kids, my parents bought a pool which entertained my sister and I for many hours throughout the summer. Of course owning a pool involves maintenance and one of the items on this list is keeping the water safe for swimming. This is how I became acquainted with the sharp smell of chlorine. Regular testing ensured that the levels were appropriate (when they were too high, there were unhappy kids who had to stay out of the water until it was regulated), but the smell alone sometimes served as an indicator. If it burnt the inside of your nose, it was too high. No matter how often things were washed, the chlorine smell lingered, on towels, suits and even hair. This smell lasted all summer. Today it reminds me of splashing in the pool, creating our own whirlpools and lounging on pool floats.

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Even with closed eyes, I can tell when I am approaching the beach, especially in the summer. While it is true that I rarely go to the beach in the winter (and generally have the windows closed when I do) I believe the smells do vary, depending on the season. In the summer, you can smell the salt in the air and sometimes the remnants of fish and other sea creatures. The beach is my special place. Though I am not necessarily a fan of the sand or even of swimming (but do enjoy them in limited doses), the ocean calls me, unlike any other body of water. The smells associated with approaching the spot where land meets sea is instantly relaxing. I can feel any tension draining as I close my eyes and inhale deeply.

I know I am not the only one who can identify the smell of cut grass. After all, it is not an uncommon scent for “scratch-and-sniff” books. The smell of cut grass makes me think of picnics, spread out on a blanket in the yard or a park. It reminds me of the feel of short strands of grass sticking to naked feet. This leads me to remember washing the grass off said feet before entering the pool (to keep the water cleaner) and then the inevitable smell and feel of mud as a puddle forms at the edge of the wash basin from too many trips in and out of the pool. These memories extend to my children. Though I’ll admit to feeling annoyance at the change from soft clean grass to muddy swimming hole, the change in texture would bring smiles (even if the smiles were prompted by the faces made by those now finding their toes squishing in mud).

Though it may not be something you think about, it is also possible to sniff out fairs and carnivals. Where else do you find the combination of aromas such as cotton candy, kettle corn, funnel cake, diesel engines (powering the rides) and sometimes animal sweat (pony rides)? The combination of sweet and acrid smells, mixed with earthy sweat (human and/or animal) almost makes my nose wrinkle just thinking about it. These events appeal to multiple senses. They tend to be noisy and bright as well. And it is almost mandated that you sample some treats, after all, they only occur in the summer, (so by the time the novelty wears off, we have a few seasons to wait for the next time they come around). Fairs and carnivals are associated with fun and laughter, and some happy memories of finding one purely by accident on a Sunday drive.

Since we always had a dog, there was another smell I became very familiar with. Like all other creatures, dogs sometimes “have to go.” Unlike people, they use the backyard, which is often where children play. It is not always possible to pick up after the dog quick enough to avoid an encounter, which results in a squishy unmentionable substance between the toes. On many occasions, my sense of smell enabled me to avoid that warm, unpleasant experience. Of course this is a year-round occurrence, but the smell is more present in the summer. While it makes no sense, this makes me smile remembering the carefree days that allowed running through yards with no schedule to adhere to. It was a much simpler time.

Of course it is well known that the sense of smell can trigger memories and often influences our emotions. What summer smells take you back to happy times?

 

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Pretend Play in the Old West and Llama Kisses

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When our kids were young, my best friend and I spent a week away with her three kids, my four, plus my niece (two boys and six girls in all). The boys were attending a ranger program at the nearby state park and while they were occupied each morning, we took the girls on other outings then the whole group out in the afternoons. By mid-week, we were running out of things to do with the girls.

We wandered around town, stopping in what is often described in this area as a “junk shop.” We casually perused the odd assortment of used items, sometimes exclaiming at our finds when we spotted some forgotten item from our childhood or when we couldn’t quite figure out what something was. There were only a few other people in the shop, including an older couple who keep looking our way and finally couldn’t resist asking about our little gang. (It was of course apparent that we “weren’t from around there.”) The gentleman, Don, wore a cowboy hat and invited us to their home to see his playhouses. The conversation continued, and it was apparent he was serious about us visiting, even telling us how to find his home. He wanted us to come by on Friday. We agreed.SCAN0134

The plans called for our husbands to join us for the weekend, but this changed over the next day. My friend and her family needed to return home Thursday, as did my niece. My husband was still arriving Friday, so I planned to keep my word. Though he was skeptical, he agreed we could visit Cowboy Don and his wife.

The directions were accurate and we drove under the sign announcing the property. At the end of the drive were the “playhouses” small scale replicas of an Old Wild West town. A general store, a church, a police station and a saloon were all  perfectly-sized for young children to play in and contained some props and costume pieces as well. As we pulled up, the couple came out, visibly surprised and pleased that I had kept my word. Not only did the kids get to play in the town, they also got to meet the barnyard animals, ride a horse (walked on a lead by Cowboy Don himself) and get their first llama kisses from Babe, the resident llama. We got a tour of the barn, which included Don’s impressive collection of cowboy memorabilia, including old movie posters and some signed and framed photos. Before letting us leave, they insisted on giving us all ice cream and asked us to come back anytime.babe llama

We never did make it back, but still occasionally reminisce about the visit. After all, you never forget your first llama kiss.

 

 

 

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A Personal Connection to a Cold Case

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The show Cold Case sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Living in the same area that the show was set sometimes makes the stories a little too real. Things became a little more real recently, when I discovered a personal connection with a real-life cold case, one that was quite close to my childhood home.

Through a Facebook group, I was reminded of a tragedy from my youth. A girl I went to grade school with was brutally murdered when we were in high school. Though we were close friends in our younger years, by that time, we had fallen out of touch. She left our Catholic elementary school after a considerable amount of bullying and went to the public school.

Sharon and I had some things in common. We were both on the quiet side and though I cannot be certain, I believe that is where some of the bullying came from. I know it is why I didn’t come to her defense.  I never thought of her as unattractive, but some of the kids implied that they did, calling her “a dog” (the ultimate insult at the time) on a regular basis. As is typical with kids who are bullied, she tried to shake it off.

Things came to a head one day playing Red Rover on the playground. For those unfamiliar with the game, two teams line up facing each other, with all players on a team holding hands. One team would pick someone from the other team to challenge our hand-holding ability and try to break through the line. Failing attempts meant the player was adding to the winning team’s side; those who could break through picked a player and returned to their team.

Sharon and I were on opposite teams at this point and one of the boys leaned in and suggested we call Rover. Oblivious as I was, I had no idea who he was talking about. So we chanted “Red Rover, Red Rover, we want Rover over.” Sharon turned red, yet she answered the call, fiercely. This time she was angry. I don’t recall whether she was successful in her attempt, but I remember the shame I felt in taking part in humiliating her. We were friends; she had spent time at my home. I should have protested, or at the very least, refused to participate. In hindsight, we all would have benefitted from the sort of bullying awareness and prevention programming that goes on in schools today.

Coincidentally, her mother was our gym teacher at the time. I believe it was the very next gym day that she exploded at us. With her thick accent, she demanded to know why we thought it was funny to call her daughter this “Grover” name. Some of the kids laughed, but she wasn’t backing down. In no uncertain terms she made it clear that what we did was unacceptable. Within the month, Sharon and her mom had left the school.

Being around 10 or so years old, I went on with my life and didn’t think much about her until one day my mom picked me up from my job and mentioned her name, asking if I knew her. I replied yes and that she did as well. I reminded her that Sharon had been to our house several times and the details around her leaving the school. Then my mom dropped the news: Sharon had been found in the woods behind a local restaurant. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death with a cinderblock and a 2 by 4.

At 16, I was shaken. I had no real experience with death aside from family pets and this happened not too far from my home.  Things like this didn’t happen in the suburbs and in those days, we had only five channels, so there was not the constant inundation of violence on TV to numb us to this sort of reality. The early 80s crime shows consisted of things like Charlie’s Angels, ChiPs and Hart to Hart. In hindsight, I wish I had contacted her family or gone to her funeral, but these were things outside my experience at that time of my life. I didn’t know how very much such a gesture could mean to a grieving family.

Time went on and we moved out of the neighborhood. Since I didn’t attend the public school, I had little contact with others who had known Sharon, and I only rarely thought about her. Recently another classmate brought her up in a Facebook discussion. The case was never solved In 2009, there were new leads that reopened the investigation, but it seems nothing came of that lead. After 35 years, I suspect we may never get an answer.

 

 

19 of #52essays2017

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The Mistake that Landed Me in a Hospital Bed for Mother’s Day

SCAN0243cThe morning of my first Mother’s Day, I opened my eyes to the sterile view of a hospital room. I hadn’t slept well, but not because my 10-week-old baby was up half the night. Instead, it was because of the moaning coming from the bed next to mine and nurses coming in every few hours to check vitals. Beeping sounds echoed off the bare walls and more moans and cries came from the hallway, from adjacent rooms.

A young girl brought me breakfast on a festive paper plate and she cheerfully wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. I began to sob. She quickly apologized and hurried out of the room.

The day before, I had been riding a horse in a grassy paddock, when he spooked. Unprepared, I was thrown off balance, landing on his neck. He sped into a full gallop as I struggled to get back in the saddle. I thought about bailing, slipping off the side, but the row of pine trees went by in a blur. “That would hurt,” I thought, so I hung on. At this point, I was sitting on the horse’s neck; the reins had fallen forward. I talked to him, hoping to calm him so we could slow down and I could get my seat back. We made another turn and I inched back into the saddle, feet back in the stirrups where they belonged. Then as the man standing on the ground reached for him, the horse turned, a sharp right, and I went to the left. Uumph! I hit the ground hard, rolled and my head gently tapped the paddock fence.

I was stunned and in pain, but not sure from exactly where. Cold  crept in shortly after I hit the ground and someone ran to get me a blanket. Soon the ambulance arrived. I was outfitted with a neck brace and body board. The EMTs kept talking to me, asking me questions. I knew that they were doing so to keep me alert. In a surreal way, I realized I was going into shock (I had paid attention in that First Aid class). I was sleepy and thought I should mention that. They kept cracking jokes and I asked them to stop making me laugh because laughing hurt.

We all have done something that looking back may not have been the wisest choice. This Saturday in May, I was 21 with a newborn. (This was not my questionable decision.) Throughout my pregnancy, I was told to expect a 6-week recovery period after giving birth. Though I overdid it, activity-wise the first few days, I quickly learned that I had to give my body time to recover. At my six-week check, I was given the clear to resume normal activities. I was free to do anything I had done prior to becoming pregnant.

One of the things I had given up during my pregnancy and missed very much was horseback riding. I had spent the past few years working at a local barn in exchange for riding twice a week. I now had a new job and my boss wanted someone to exercise his horse. There would be no mucking out of stalls or cleaning tack. He was going to pay me to ride. I jumped.

He wanted to get started right away. My helmet and boots were at my parents’ house, but I worried that if I waited a week, I would risk the job going to someone else. This was one of the worst decisions of my life. While I have ridden without a helmet and in borderline appropriate footwear before, I neglected to account for the change in my fitness level. A year prior, I was in good shape and riding regularly. I had quickly lost much of the 50 pounds I had put on with the pregnancy, but the muscle tone was not close to pre-pregnancy levels. Fortunately, a helmet was found for me, but the boots would really have made a difference.

My husband got to the field just in time to see me flying around the paddock and then fall. He and our daughter met us at the hospital where the extent of my injuries was not immediately known (in fact, it would be days before they determined I had a pelvic fracture and joint injury). An X-ray was taken, but since it was the weekend, there was a limit to the amount of tests they would run. I was admitted. My bed had a trapeze bar above me (to help me lift up when I needed to be moved) and an intricate pulley system tugging on my legs which made the pain worse. (I still don’t understand why they had me in traction.)

I got breakfast in bed my first Mother’s Day, but I ate alone. I spent the next couple hours waiting as the doctors made their rounds. There was no word on how long I would be in the hospital or what might be wrong. A CATSCAN was scheduled for the next day. I mentioned my discomfort with the traction to the doctor, who said it could be discontinued. That was a relief.

My husband and daughter came to visit later that morning. I was very happy to see them. I was able to forget the fact that I was in tremendous pain and no one seemed to know why. After a short time, my mother-in-law arrived. My husband had asked her to watch our daughter while I was in the hospital and she had made the hour-plus trip to pick her up. Though I knew she would be in good hands, I also knew that meant I would not see her every day.  I didn’t even consider the fact that my mother-in-law had left her own young daughters at home (on a day she should have been asked to do nothing) to come collect mine. I didn’t want them to leave. I was also distressed because I did not know how long I would be there In fact, I did not know if I would be getting up and walking ever again.

When my mother-in-law and daughter left, my husband went with them to move the car seat and transfer my daughter’s things. I felt incredibly alone. This was not how the day was supposed to be. Our plans had been to visit our mothers and celebrate both Mother’s Day and my uncle’s birthday. Instead, I was lying in a hospital bed, having had my daughter taken from me on the first holiday I got to celebrate as a mother. Instead of hearing her happy sounds, I was subjected to moans and cries of pain from the adjacent bed and nearby rooms. I worried about what would happen if my injuries were permanent. My impulsiveness could have cost me dearly.

Though it took a while to get a diagnosis, it could have been much worse. My injuries would heal, but it would take time. My first attempt at walking again with the physical therapist was frightening and painful, but I was back on my feet and fully cleared for regular activity within eight weeks. I did get back on a horse that summer and was surprised at my apprehension. (I was on the gentlest, most easy-going horse I knew.) Other circumstances kept me away from the barn which has since been sold, but I have ridden once or twice since then and hope to soon return to riding regularly. Though the negative memories have stuck with me, I can’t shake the longing to be in the saddle, especially this time of year.

 

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The Amazing Power of Certain Inanimate Objects

baby looking at largestuffed rabbit in polka dot suit

It breaks my heart whenever I see a post about a missing beloved toy. Last year there was a story that went viral about a bunny (different than this one) that had been left behind at a hotel. The staff had some fun with it, posing the rabbit enjoying its extended stay, with spa treatments and choice dining room seating. This and other stories like it show how many people understand how very important these special items can be.

Some of my children had lovies and life would have been different without them. Although there was a considerable hassle when one went missing or was left behind, they were able to soothe tender feelings even better than I could. These items provided reassurance in a sometimes scary and unpredictable world.

The first beloved object in our family was a white bunny with pastel polka dots and a clown ruff at its neck. We thought it was fortunate that this item was chosen, because by pure chance, I had received two identical stuffed rabbits as baby shower gifts. We had hit the jackpot! We could rotate the items when washing was necessary, without tears from being without the precious toy. When I found another very similar bunny (this one was pink with pastel polka dots), I purchased it, thinking that an extra would be useful. A family member found the same bunny in a larger size and it was given as a birthday present. Though these extra bunnies were met with shrieks of delight, they never achieved true “Bunny” status and were set aside.

Our mixed blessing caused us on more than one occasion to turn around and drive 45 minutes back to where Bunny had been left behind. Remembering to ask if we had Bunnies became part of our leaving-the-house-ritual. At times this was frustrating and we questioned why we allowed this toy to become so important, but other times we were thankful that Bunny was there to help soothe a very unhappy child.

All was good, until the day the child realized there were TWO. We thought, “Crap, we’ve been caught; now we are in trouble.” We expected outrage when it was discovered. But no, the reaction was shock and then glee. Two bunnies was better than one and from that day forward, both bunnies traveled everywhere with us.

small child dressed in polka dot outfit and weraing bunny ears holding two stuffed bunnies

Halloween, dressed like the bunnies she is carrying

Perhaps my views have been colored by some of my favorite childhood stories that show stuffed animals in a very human light. Both Corduroy the Bear and The Velveteen Rabbit evoke strong emotions in their stories of being loved by a child and stress the idea that no one wants to be left on a shelf. Every Christmas, we watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and look forward to the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys finding new, loving homes. It is clear that for generations, children have grown attached to inanimate objects and put great value on them.

Though there are some who say that allowing children to grow attached to a particular toy, blanket or other item is a bad idea, in fact, these things help children to adjust to new situations. In their familiarity, they provide comfort.  Trusted child expert Dr. William Sears says that developing such an attachment to these “transitional objects” is healthy. He explains that young children are learning to attach to things as well as people and that this helps them as they become more independent.

He advises against taking these objects away, saying that doing so may teach your child that you can simply dispose of your attachments. “Allow her the luxury of her soft friend,” he says. “Don’t worry; she is unlikely to drag it down the aisle on her wedding day.”

Though I would not have changed a thing if he had disagreed, I am happy for the validation. I had no doubts that the day would come that these lovies would not join us on every trip, and agree with Sears about the wedding day. However, part of me is a little sad to see them put away. Given the well-loved condition of these items, perhaps a small part of them can walk down the aisle. After all, every girl needs her “something old.”

 

 

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My Love/Hate Relationship with T-ball

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When my youngest was in kindergarten, she heard something at school about this great activity T-ball. She wanted to play; my husband decided to coach a team.  The teams were formed and we soon had a practice schedule on the fridge. This gave me the unexpected benefit of one-one-one time with my second born and when Saturday practice coincided with naptime, the luxury of an hour to myself. Despite having to adjust the dinner schedule to accommodate this new activity, this all sounded great to me. The season lasted through the spring.

Opening day in our town is a big deal. There is a parade of teams of all ages, T-ball through “majors” which ends at the ball field where all the players and coaches are treated to hot dogs and drinks. Then there is the ceremonial first pitch and some practice innings. Again, this sounded like fun. I could go watch the parade with my two-year- old and we could play at the park for a little while.

Then the regular season began and I discovered that I was expected to come watch. Really? I thought this was a father/daughter activity. But apparently I was wrong, so I went and sat, and got up and chased a two-year-old and sat, and watched children run from home to third and chased a toddler and looked up to see the outfielders all run in and crash into each other after a infield fly ball, and so on. Before long, I determined that I did not like T-ball. There were many things I would rather do, many of which I did not have a special fondness for at any time before or since. But the rest of the family liked it, so off I went to the ball field each spring. As they got older and their skills increased, the games became more enjoyable to watch, at least when I wasn’t chasing a toddler instead of actually watching the game.

When we got to the point where we had three children involved in the baseball program, we realized that having only one coach in the house was going to be a problem. My husband had successfully juggled two baseball team schedules, but a third was pushing it. Not coaching one of them was something we didn’t even consider.  I never played any sort of organized sports, but I did play baseball with the neighborhood boys on my street (most times, actually in the street). I had also sat through four T-ball seasons, so I knew what to expect.

So I signed on to coach. Because I was a little concerned about being the only woman coach in the T-ball division (there were some female coaches, for the relatively new softball division for the older girls), and also because I believe that if you are going to do something you should do it well, I spent some time preparing for the season. I researched coaching techniques and how to teach basic skills (I was a purely intuitive player – no one had taught me anything). I picked my husband’s brain and worried that I was not up to the task.

I know, this is silly, it was just T-ball. Most of the kids were in it just for something to do. But I had seen how some kids later on were missing some of the basics and I wanted to actually teach them something, not just have chaos on the diamond. One of my pet peeves was when the kids would slow down when they approached first base. (I came up with a creative solution to this. I stationed a coach a couple feet beyond the base with a sheet of stickers. If you overran the base, you got a sticker. After a few weeks, most of them had it figured out.)

This was my first experience working with a group of young children and it was eye-opening. Of course I had spent time with kids this age before, this was my third, so I knew that developmentally, these kids were all over the map.  I know that it is easier and better to learn to do something correctly the first time, that unlearning a behavior is more difficult than learning one, and that habits are tough to break. So I tried to give them a good foundation. I had two other coaches working with me and we had about a dozen kids on the team.  We managed to teach some basic skills, and learned some ourselves (such as making sure to hold the bat when helping a young player set up at home plate, then stepping out quickly, getting hit with a bat hurts). I found that being on the field with these kids was actually a lot more fun than sitting and watching.

The season went much like others. There was at least one moment when the entire infield went for the ball at the same time. A handful of kids ran to third instead of first. The shortstop would be looking at a bug on his shoe when the ball came his way. The outfielders would be watching passing planes or birds. Someone would actually catch a fly ball and he or she (and parents) would look shocked and then break out in a goofy grin. In some ways it was like being out with my own kids: constantly looking around for danger, reminding them to pay attention to what they were doing and performing the occasional head count. I still see some of these kids on occasion, and a couple of them remember that season.  For the next few years, I got used to hearing Coach Kim, both on and off the ball field, and today I find that I actually miss those days.

This was previously published at Parent.co

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The Tale of Rabbit the Hamster

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For years, one of our children had been requesting a pet rabbit. Having had a pet rabbit as a child, I knew the care required to keep a rabbit healthy and so I was very aware that it wouldn’t fit it with our lifestyle or our home. So the answer was, repeatedly, no.

As spring break approached, another child’s teacher had put out a request for two families to care for the class hamsters for the week. A weeklong obligation was manageable and, having had hamsters as a kid, I knew the care required was within reason. So, I said okay. My daughter was thrilled and happily went to school to notify her teacher. When she came home that day, she asked if we could take both hamsters, as no one volunteered to watch the second one. The teacher said they could share the cage for a week, so the second would take up no additional space. This all sounded reasonable enough, so again, I said yes.

Spring break came and was mostly uneventful. The hamsters had a few squabbles, but mostly got along fine. Each got some hands-on time (which actually made things easier since all the kids could have some time) and things went smoothly.  A couple weeks later, my daughter burst into the house after school and announced that the class hamster had babies and that they would need homes.  Of course this was followed up with “Can I have one? Pretty, pretty please!” This question was not as easy to answer. Pets are family members and come with responsibilities. They need their own space and someone needs to dedicate time to feeding, cleaning and socializing them. I replied with a definitive “I don’t know. We can talk about it.”

I went over the responsibilities in caring for a pet, stressing that animals can’t take care of themselves and that it is unacceptable to forget things when you are dealing with another life. She insisted that she would take care of everything – she would feed it, give it water, clean the cage, and play with it. I told her we’d have to talk to Dad as well.

That night, I talked to my husband, arguing that we were in part responsible for the appearance of these little ones, and agreed that I might be the one ultimately in charge of its care. It was decided: we would become hamster owners. When the babies were old enough, one came home and a name was needed. As part of the deal of allowing the new pet, the child who was responsible for the encounter was deemed to be the pet owner, which came with care responsibilities, and also naming rights. What did she go with? Rabbit. To this day, I am uncertain whether this was a dig at the sibling who was not allowed to have her desired pet, or in honor of it. (To be honest, I think it was just a funny thought, and it stuck.)

The experience was overall a positive one. Reminders were sometimes needed, but the care went mostly as promised. Hamsters don’t have very long lifespans and I actually found myself missing the critter after she was gone. This time, it was all on me. I made a trip the pet store and Rocky joined our family  Our lives do not currently fit with this sort of pet, but if things change, I wouldn’t rule another one out in the future.

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