When I Grow Up

The First Time You Do Anything Is Scary But Exhilarating

a cornfield in the foreground with more farmland and a pond in the background

I recently took a trip of firsts. I had the opportunity to attend a writer’s retreat (my first) just outside the city of Omaha. Since I had never before been to Omaha, nor even Nebraska, I chose to extend my visit by a few days and explore some of what Omaha has to offer.  Since this was a work trip, I was traveling solo, which meant pushing outside my comfort zone in multiple ways.

While I have flown, dined and even stayed at a hotel alone before, this was my first completely solo trip. In the past, when I have flown or dined alone, it has been part of a trip where I have met others; most of my time on those trips was spent in the company of friends and family who knew the area I was in. This time, I was on my own to decide where to go, what to do, where to stay and eat. I planned some in advance (choosing an Airbnb and setting up a rental car to be picked up on my second day) and had a rough plan of what I wanted to see and do while I was there, but no real schedule; I wanted to be open to possibilities.

a city street with cars parked on the side of the road

Downtown Omaha

Without going into too much detail, the trip was a success and I found that solo travel is not too unlike traveling with others, except that conversation is limited to talking to strangers. Though it was something I gave no thought to going into the experience, I occasionally observed a curious fact:  I did not stand out; no one was staring, wondering why that woman was eating or walking around all by herself. In fact, the most common reaction I got from others was surprise that I was from out of town (closely followed by asking what else could possibly be going on in the area that weekend besides the College World Series). I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to blend in.

After three days of exploring Omaha, it was time for the big event: Her View From Homestock, a gathering of approximately 50 writers for Her View From Home. Despite the fact I had not met anyone in person before, I eagerly headed down Route 80, the anticipation building as I left the pavement for the dirt road. The weekend was everything I expected and then some. Women whom I felt I already knew from their writings gathered to share stories, tips, fears, hugs and tears. We talked about where we came from and where we wanted to go. We discussed best practices and what worked for us, despite what the “experts” say.

We came not only from all over the U.S, but also from different faiths, backgrounds, age brackets and ambitions. Some of us were full time freelancers, others also worked another job, some consider their writing more of a hobby. Most (if not all) of us were moms, with our children’s ages ranging from newborn to 30. We came with different life experiences, talents and points of view, but with common goals: to celebrate our individual and group successes, to learn more about each other and ourselves and to encourage each other to be the best we can be. Having made it this far in life without a group of women to regularly interact with, for me, this was also a first. (Before you feel sorry for me, I do have friends, but our gatherings tend to be rather small, generally only three or four max.)

a firepit in the dark surrounded by a square of lights

Campfires provide an intimate place to share

Sharing was a big part of the weekend. We shared information about our professional selves as well as our personal lives. We talked about why we write: how we started and what keeps us going. We talked about our hopes and dreams for our writing and what passion inspires us. We talked about finding ourselves in our writing and about being true to ourselves, despite the shiny temptations dangled before us.

One conversation touched on finding ourselves as writers and discovering our niche. We talked about how to find our space in the world, how to narrow our focus and establish our “brand.” During one of these conversations, it occurred to me that this blog, in effect, has been my attempt to do that. I started When I Grow Up to explore who I am and who I want to be. In a way, it marked a new beginning for me. Over the past few years, I have shared some of my thoughts and concerns and wondered “aloud” where I will go next. (For some of us, the process apparently takes some time.)

sunset behind a cornfield

We had been given a “homework assignment” for the weekend: to write about why we write, when we began and why it matters. While pending deadlines (and life as a mom) kept me from writing down my thoughts beforehand, I did think a great deal about this. Writing is something I have always done. I wrote “books” as a small child (index cards stapled together) and as I got older, briefly stepped away from the thought of creating books while I consumed as many as I could get my hands on. In school, writing was of course part of the curriculum, so I had less time for personal writing (though I did keep a diary sporadically). In college I joined the newspaper and my first “real” job was for a magazine publisher. I stepped away for a while (in hindsight, it was for way too long), then with this blog, came back, only to discover that publishing had changed a bit and there was much to learn. For a long while I said I wrote because it was like breathing, it was impossible to not write. For years, I learned this was not true: for a time, mothering took its place; now I find there is room for both.

Firsts are scary, yet exhilarating. They force us to step away from what is comfortable, to take a chance that what’s ahead has value, to grow as individuals. Firsts are memorable, they become stories we share (and sometimes embellish). They give us confidence; we learn from both our successes and failures how to approach a similar situation later. Most of all, they give us the courage to try again, to pursue and embrace new firsts, to make our lives even more fulfilling. In the not-too-distant past, I made “Out of the Comfort Zone” a battle call of sorts. I couldn’t be happier I did. Firsts are much more enjoyable to celebrate than lasts.

a cloudy sky meets the cornfield


Can There Be Good News About Bad Behavior?

There is one thing that new parents agree on: They have no idea what they’re doing. Even when things start to go smoothly and they think they’ve finally got the hang of it, kids misbehave and parents wonder where they’ve gone wrong.

The most popular learn-as-you-go gig, parenting presents many challenges, not the least of which is discipline. Each generation has had their go-to “experts” to tell them how to get kids to behave appropriately. Oftentimes, this advice contradicts that of the prior generation, leading to conflict and criticism. Parents are blamed for being too strict or too lenient. New psychologists and theories are put forth as the definitive word on child-rearing; the old ones are quickly “outdated.” The debate on nature v. nurture rages on, and the effects of biology, free will and one’s unconscious  enter into conversations about how and why things are the way they are.

Observing that children’s behavior seems to be out of control these days, and looking for guidance with her own children, author Katherine Reynolds Lewis spent five years searching for the answer to the question: What caused this behavior problem and how do we solve it?

In addition to the observable increase in behavioral issues, she learned that over the past 20 years, there also has been a dramatic increase in depressive symptoms and distractibility among high school and college-age students. Even more concerning is the statistic: “one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder or a substance addiction by age eighteen.” Almost 40 percent will have two or more disorders. Consider the corresponding rise in childhood suicides, especially in younger children, those aged 10 to 14 and it is clear there is reason for concern.

Excessive screen time (social media in particular) is one potential cause. Another is the pressure to achieve, both academically and in extracurricular activities. Parents are sending our kids mixed messages. Today’s educational emphasis on necessary workplace skills such as collaboration and mutual respect are inconsistent with traditional parenting methods that focus on obedience. If the goal is to raise independent adults, insisting on them blindly following rules may be counterintuitive. Instead says Lewis, parents should think about the qualities they want their children to exhibit as adults.

In her recently published book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It, Lewis draws from her own personal experiences as a parenting educator as well as the insights of psychologists, other educators and neuroscientists.  The book is organized into three parts: The Problem, The Solution, and Making it Stick, and though the title suggests otherwise, provides valuable insights and techniques for all parents, not just those struggling with behavior issues.

The world has changed dramatically from the one today’s parents grew up in and many of the methods their parents used simply don’t work anymore. Family schedules and structure are different today: few children have the benefit of unstructured play. As a result, many children spend little time engaged in pretend play which, Lewis points out, helps “develop abstract thought, self-control, social cooperation, and other essential skills” as well as self-regulation.

In recent generations, parents have swung to extremes in the struggle to find solutions. Studies indicate that a middle ground is best: children of authoritative parents (those with clear boundaries and close emotional connections with their children) do better on all behavior assessments than those with either overly strict or permissive parents. Lewis goes a step further in receommending an Apprenticeship Model of parenting, which has much in common with Authoritative Parenting but adds an important component: modeling behavior.

Her approach utilizes techniques from four different “schools” and includes techniques proven in educational settings. She encourages parents to look at their own lifestyle and background and take from these philosophies whatever elements they think will work for them and abandon what won’t. Every family is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer to good behavior.

When it comes to discipline, Lewis advocates research-based models that include three components: connection, communication and capability. She says parents need to connect with kids to create an environment in which they will cooperate. They need to communicate their expectations and just as importantly, to listen to their children’s questions or concerns. Finally, parents need to coach their children, modeling skills that will build their capability. Like any other skill, behaving appropriately is something children need to practice and fail at in order to master. Parents should look at behavior issues as learning opportunities for areas in which children need to develop a skill.

This may require a change in approach and can be difficult. For starters, parents need to listen more and adapt their language. Lewis points out what should be obvious: “adults and children alike lose access to the learning and problem-solving parts of the brain when they’re emotionally ramped up.” As all parents learn, threats are not effective in changing behavior. Corporal punishment and harsh verbal discipline also have little positive effect; they cause a fight-or-flight instinct.

It is not news that children internalize the labels they are given. Lewis makes useful suggestions on how to change the way we speak and listen, such as the thought-provoking: use words you would like to be applied to your child (by himself or others) at age twenty-five. Drop the labels and instead communicate the problem or issue that needs to be addressed.

When there are lapses in behavior, ask why. When children fail to meet expectations, Lewis advises sticking to the four Rs: “Consequences should be related to the behavior, reasonable in scope, respectful of the child and revealed in advance.”

Many of the concepts suggested here are not new but are presented in ways that make sense with practical suggestions to implement. While the process is not easy, Lewis points out that once children master these skills, it will become second nature and the result will be more independent, capable adults. And isn’t that our ultimate goal as parents?


Are You Really Saying What You Think You Are?

In Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen, Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. provides a guide for parents to communicate with their children at all stages of development. Relying on three decades of experience working with parents and children as well as new research on neuroscience and biology, she provides guidance for all parents who may be struggling with communication in their homes.

She stresses that parents need to adapt their communication style to the child. Factors such as age, developmental level and even gender all play a role in determining how best to talk to a child. She points out that learning communication skills is an ongoing process and that parents should actively engage their children in conversation from infancy through adulthood. At its best, communication matches the cognitive development, interests and temperament of the child.

Parents do this instinctively with babies, and narrating everyday activities helps with speech and vocabulary development. Early conversations with children are about teaching communication skills, for example, when to talk and when to be silent. With older kids, being quiet and listening is more important than speaking. Model the behavior you want to see. Ignore your own technology in favor of in-person conversations.

Mogel discovered that techniques used by voice teachers can be valuable. Use of these techniques can influence how parents are heard, help parents hold their children’s attention and encourage engagement. She points out that the high-pitched, high-volume voice so many parents use when they are frustrated conveys a loss of control and is counter-productive, resulting in their children tuning them out. She encourages the use of vocal techniques and self awareness to promote better communication.

Studies show that male and female brains are different and develop skills at slightly different rates. These differences are spelled out with helpful suggestions on how to talk to children, using their age and gender as a guide. The author likens communicating with boys to working like an anthropologist, while with girls it is better to take an approach like a sociologist.

As children enter the teenage years, separation is developmentally appropriate. Though it may be difficult, when talking to them, parents need to remember these vocal techniques and that certain traits are common to teens (and temporary). More tips include: Ignore the attitude rather than take it personally; Use chores as a time to talk, and take full advantage of these moments.

The book rounds out with tips for talking to grandparents and avoiding/handling issues that frequently arise as well as tips for clear communication with nannies, teachers, coaches, etc. It also includes lists for parents of teens, such as: Things teens would like to say to parents; Ways to make teens feel loved; Things that parents don’t need to worry about; and Advice to parents.

Voice Lessons reinforces the importance of communication in family life. It not only addresses talking to kids, but also acknowledges that moms and dads have difference approaches and that’s okay. The author reminds parents to model appropriate communication with their partners, pointing out that kids watch how adults act and often learn more from that than what they are told.


Please, Don’t Tell Me I Look Great

 

2017

I generally don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I believe in setting goals, but making grand declarations just because the calendar changes seems silly to me. That being said, I do have one goal that I need to get serious about and I wish that more people would stop hiding behind politeness and support me in my efforts. I know that weight is only one aspect of good health, but right now it is my biggest challenge.

When I was in college, I was skinny. Though I didn’t feel that way at the time, I was content with the body I had. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it. I got some comments (from friends of my parents mostly) that I was too thin, but I didn’t (and still don’t agree). I wasn’t athletic, but didn’t have to work out to keep my shape. I had the kind of body that could wear anything off the rack (even my wedding gown fit without alterations) and the kind of metabolism that allowed me to eat just about anything I wanted.

A bride tossing her bouquest over her right shoulder

1989

Somewhere after baby number two, that all started to change. As I approached 30, things began to resettle in new places. I know the hows and whys, and of course on a certain level knew that I would have to start paying attention and take better care of my body, but I didn’t, for a number of reasons. As a result, my current weight is a little above where I was the day my oldest was born, which while not quite considered obese, is definitely outside the healthy range for my height and build. Now that I’ve crossed the 50 mark, I am facing new challenges.  My metabolism has gone on strike. A single alcoholic drink adds pounds. Miles of walking seems to make little difference. It doesn’t seem fair to deprive myself of all guilty pleasures, but I want to be healthy.

Over the past ten years, my weight has been up and down and honestly, I haven’t gotten as serious about it as I should. I know I am significantly increasing my chances of certain health problems, and I am upset that my clothes don’t fit the way they should. I try to be conscious of what I eat, but when I do, it seems that other people take issue with that. If I comment on my body, saying something as simple as “None of my clothes fit,” or “I really have to lose some weight,” I have people arguing with me, telling me I look great.

I find this frustrating, and really wish they would stop. I’m not saying I want people to point out my bulges; however, people are making it more difficult for me to be healthy. We live in a culture that places a ridiculous value on consuming food and drink. Most social occasions include or even revolve around eating and drinking, and for some strange reason, people pay attention to what others consume.

If I say no to a drink, it is questioned, or even challenged. I am told I can have just one more. I hear, “You are on vacation,” or “It’s the weekend. Live a little.” Then there’s the most difficult to refuse without being rude: “Celebrate with me.” If I counter with the fact (for me it is unfortunately a hard fact) that I don’t want the extra calories, I am told that “You don’t have to worry about your weight” or “Just one won’t hurt you.”

Saying no to dessert prompts the response:  I shouldn’t deprive myself, I deserve it. Or there is the attempt at guilt: “It will just get thrown out if you don’t eat it.” Pointing out that I am overweight often elicits an almost angry response. I am told that I should love my body and not be ashamed of it.

This makes no sense. I am not ashamed of my body. I am disappointed with myself for not exercising more and am nostalgic for the days I could eat all the desserts and still keep my tiny waistline, but I am not ashamed of my body. After four pregnancies and many years, there is no possible way I am going to have the body of 20-year-old me. I don’t have the desire to get back to my pre-first-pregnancy size, I just want to be healthy and once again like the way my clothes look and feel on me.

I am proud of all this body has done and even some of the things it still can do. However, I want to be able to continue doing these things. I want to actively enjoy my life to the very end. I want to be able to keep up with any future grandchildren I may have. To up the odds of all this, I need to lose weight and get in shape. So please, if I mention I want to lose weight, please don’t tell me I look great. Either say nothing at all or offer to go for a walk with me. It might even be fun.


Savoring the Moments With the “Big Kids”

Nowadays, a few weeks a year have become my “collecting weeks.” With two currently in college, in geographically opposite directions, one an hour and the other five hours away, this means three days of travel and then loading/unloading the car. It’s a hassle and an expense, but, to quote a popular ad, having them home is “priceless.”

There is something about having my entire family close by that is calming. I know from talking to other parents that I am not alone in this. Being together brings on a pleasant rush of peace and contentment, no matter how fleeting it may be.

I guess in part it’s because I know where everyone is. There is no wondering about where they are if they are making good decisions. If they are with me, I know what they are doing and equally important, I have an idea of how they are doing.

Just because I love bringing them all home doesn’t mean the time is all sunshine and rainbows , though. Like many families, we occasionally clash, sometimes loudly. We disagree and grouse about differing habits (like getting up too early or too late) and having each other underfoot. When we plan to go out, the struggle to get everyone ready to leave at the same time is sometimes as real as the toddler days. Use of the car needs to be scheduled in advance and accommodations made to get everyone where they need to go.

Despite the chaos, I try to savor the moments. I am well aware that they are fleeting. The years leading up to now have gone much quicker than I could have ever expected. Though I have some responsibilities that cannot be neglected, I try to rearrange my schedule to be available. I try to get some work done in advance, so that I have a little more free time over breaks. I try to expect less of myself, knowing that in the not too distant future, my time won’t be in such demand. I try to squeeze things in early in the day (when they are usually still asleep) or complete tasks in the small pockets of time when they are busy with other things. I try (and sometimes fail) to let things go, to not think about how much I’m not getting done, how much I will have to do later, when they once again are off, learning and growing.

Impromptu lunch dates and shopping trips with my kids give me a glimpse into the new world they now occupy, a world apart from me. After spending a lifetime as the center of their universe, these insights are sometimes startling, and often fresh and enlightening. I remember watching them grow from babies to children to teens, noticing small leaps in development. Now they have grown without me around, which is fun to watch, but can be disconcerting.

Nights spent snuggling on the couch, watching favorite TV shows together, and afternoons of Netflix binging seem less decadent knowing how briefly these moments last. Sunday afternoons cheering on the NY Giants with my youngest are much more exciting than watching alone. Hiking local trails renews spirits and resolves and though I know such trips are good for me, it is easier to justify them when there is the opportunity for quality parent/child time.

While the menu planning becomes more complicated again, I become reacquainted with the foods they love and sometimes discover a change in the palate. Where tomatoes were once scorned, they are now requested. Spicy food was taboo, now the tolerance has grown. Some food that were once favorites are now just “okay.”  Sometimes there are requests for new items and we are exposed to new foods as well. On occasion, this means my cooking duties are reduced or even eliminated.

The sibling relationships change too. There is a reluctant acknowledgment that the younger ones are now grown up and worthy to be part of the “big kid” conversations and activities. The alliances shift as they agree and disagree; sibling battles still crop up, yet they are fiercely protective of each other to the outside world.

During conversations, I try to figure out relationships and decipher if the friend in question is one from college or high school (my kids have a knack for finding several friends with the same first name). I hear names tossed around with familiarity, to the point where I get confused as to whether I know said person or have just heard much about him or her.

As I struggle with managing my professional goals, I try to keep in mind life goals. Sometimes it is difficult to keep the big picture in mind; the everyday can get in the way. My children aren’t little anymore; in many ways, this makes them more fun to spend time with. I know that soon, their lives will take them to new places, without me and my time with them will be minimal. So today, I choose to spend time mothering and continue to work myself out of a job.

 

This was first published on Sammiches and Psych Meds.


Hacking Parenthood Is a Useful Handbook for Parents

One of the really fun things about being a writer is meeting other writers and getting to read their work. Last month I got an advance copy of the book, Hacking Parenthood by Kimberley Moran. In this book, Moran offers helpful tips to make parenting easier and to help adults “stay calm and purposeful around kids.”

Moran is a lover of mantras and has divided her book into 10 chapters, each focused on a single mantra. The mantras are intended to cut out “the stuff that doesn’t really make you a better parent, and help you focus on what you need to do in each moment to move forward.” She acknowledges that parenting is hard. In fact, she says “parenting will be the toughest job you ever have to do because it’s always changing.”

The mantras are simple and focus on understanding needs, building relationships and fostering independence. While there are no easy answers, solutions are sometimes simpler than we realize.

She advocates using a parenting journal which she calls a Parent Resource Notebook (PRN) to record thoughts, track progress and milestones and to reflect on them, causing parents to be more intentional rather than reactionary. Each chapter includes suggestions on how to use your notebook as well as helpful ways to deal with “helpful” family members, friends and even strangers who question your parenting. A section at the end of the book offers handy templates to help you get started.

The focus here is on the individual. While learning what milestones are typical at each age is helpful, these should be used as a guide.  All children learn and mature at different rates. The point is for them to make progress. Skills are mastered gradually and in many cases, mastering one is required before attempting another.  Moran points out that “we don’t really think about all the processes involved in being a person, and that’s why we parents get so mad when something that seems so easy to accomplish isn’t being done.” As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, yet in many ways, we are learning as much as they are.

The book is an easy read (I completed it during a recent three-hour flight) and is designed to be used over time, “to assess your child within a situation, and then make a plan or use your intuition to help you and your child grow.” Moran stresses that parents need to trust themselves and shut out some of the noise of the outside world. Judgement has no place in her process. There are no hard and fast rules. In fact, she promotes flexibility in parenting and advises parents to “let go” any part of the plan that simply doesn’t work for them. In essence she has created what so many have asked for: an easy-to-use parenting manual to help get through the rough spots from when our children are young all the way through adulthood.

 

 

 

Note: Though a copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY


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

woman wearig a goofy looking foam hat with an alligator head

Post 50 style

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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