Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"26 Angels"

I had planned to write a Christmas blog post, or maybe even two. The stress of holiday preparations, perhaps. Creating family traditions, definitely. That post was under way.

But then a severely troubled young man with access to his mother's cache of guns unleashed his fury on twenty-six innocent lives at the purest of places: an elementary school. Twenty of the Newtown, Connecticut, victims were children -- first graders, in fact, just like my son Charlie.

Like the rest of America, I am heartbroken. These were six and seven years olds just beginning their lives. They were playing soccer, drawing pictures, building with Legos, drumming, baking cookies, and buying toys for needy kids. They were in their first year of Daisy Scouts and Little League. They adored their parents, helped their younger siblings, and loved school. Looking at my son, I cannot fathom the depth of the pain the families are experiencing right now and during the Christmas season to boot!

Connecticut is my home state. I grew up only thirty-five miles south of Newtown -- in the very same county, by the way. So I have wanted to help. Well, this week I got my chance.

As part of my ongoing networking effort on behalf of my older son, I joined a Facebook page on Friday for parents of child actors in the area. Immediately, I saw a notice seeking children for a tribute video for the victims' families that would be posted on YouTube. All monies raised from the video would be donated to build and beautify a memorial park at the site of the shootings. I contacted the video's director, and Christopher was accepted for the project that evening. Less than two days later, we headed to Manchester, NH, for the audio recording in a studio atop an old mill building. And today the video was shot in the Andover, MA, High School auditorium.

My eyes welled up with tears as I listened to the brave boys and girls assembled from across New England sing the chorus to 26 Angels, a song written and performed by Justin Cohen and accompanied by five other musicians. Boston filmmaker Ben Proulx directed the children as they represented the twenty youngest victims. Each child sang while holding a sign dedicated to a Sandy Hook Elementary School student.

Christopher decorated the sign honoring Chase Kowalski, a blond-haired and blue-eyed boy just full of life. By all accounts, he was an absolute dynamo -- very much like Charlie. He loved watching the New York Yankees, riding his bike and a four-wheeled quad, being a Tiger Scout, playing baseball, swimming in a lake, and enjoying the outdoors in any and every capacity. When he was six, he won his first-ever triathlon. Yes, triathlon! If Chase wasn't a star, I don't know who is.

Now he and his equally beautiful and impressive classmates are angels forever.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Psychologically Protecting Kids: One Size Does Not Fit All

The most important job of a parent is to protect his or her child in every way possible, both physically and psychologically. The latter half of this duty has been severely put to the test by Friday's horrific acts of violence at a Connecticut elementary school.

Should parents tell their children about the mass killings of adults and first-graders? If they don't, will the kids hear about the tragedy at school from friends and become afraid that the same thing might happen to them? If parents do, will the children grow too fearful to return to school? It's been hard to know what to do.

In my case, I had some precedents. I had to put my nearly fifteen-year-old bichon frise down when Christopher was three. Sparkplug had become blind, had fallen off my back deck, and could no longer control his bowels. He was having frequent accidents on the carpet where Charlie was learning to crawl. Sparky was in bad shape, so I had to make a tough decision. Since Christopher naturally adored Sparky and had always lived with him, I needed to address the subject of death with my preschooler. I was torn about how to approach the matter, but then I found a beautiful children's book called Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. It describes a joyful place where dogs live after they have left Earth. Showing the book to Christopher was the perfect way to let my son know that his precious doggie was gone. Later, I occasionally discovered Christopher looking at the book on his own. He was missing Sparkplug and seeking comfort.

A couple of years later, I was faced with another dilemma when a friend of his and Charlie's from preschool died from a brain tumor. This boy, only five at the time, was in between my sons in terms of age. So when we had C over once to our house, the three-way playdate worked really well. I was devastated by the news and again stymied as to how to handle it with my boys. After much thought, I decided not to tell my sons. C lived in the city next door and had graduated to kindergarten there, so he was no longer in school with Christopher and Charlie at the time he died. He had basically moved off our radar screen by virtue of living in a different community and attending a different school. It's one of the most common rules in the book: You simply lose touch to one extent or another when your commonality (in this case, the preschool) is no longer there. My boys knew he had gone to kindergarten, and they had plenty of other friends to occupy their time. I could avoid the situation. They were far too young to learn of a peer and friend having died, I felt. Hence, I kept my mouth shut, and it never became an issue . . . other than eliciting from the preschool director and her assistant assurances that C's death would not be spoken of at all in front of the children.

This time around I had several factors to weigh in making my decision about what to do. And, yes, I did make a decision that I followed through on just tonight. As the Newtown incident happened on a Friday, I (and other parents) had all weekend to mull the situation over before sending our little ones off to school tomorrow morning.

First, I thought about Christopher. He is a nine-year-old third-grader with a broad understanding of the world as well as past and current events. He knows John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while president. He knows terrorists masterminded and carried out the deadly 9/11 attacks. He knows Michael Jackson died from prescription drugs. He knows about the day-after-Christmas earthquake/tsunami, the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, and the H.M.S. Bounty replica that he toured on September 1 going down in Hurricane Sandy. He knows about the big news events because he has seen or heard about them on TV or from me.

Christopher is the little man in my house. He is smart, mature, sensitive, and grounded. From a very young age, he has shown interest in, well, just about everything. I made a conscious decision not to talk down to him or baby him when he was clearly beyond that. I exposed him to Harry Potter at age five, and he immediately loved hearing me read the books to him. We watched the films as soon as they came out, and now we own every single one. I took him to Hugo, and he wants to see Lincoln next.

Knowing Christopher as I do, I felt strongly that he would be able to handle the news of Newtown, Connecticut, with just the right amount of concern, sensitivity, and anger -- and, yes, I believe it is completely appropriate for a mature third-grader to feel, and be instructed to feel, anger toward senseless gun violence. I resolved to tell him. But when? And would he have already heard the news?

Christopher was performing in a holiday show all weekend. Five performances in four days, to be exact. I needed to find the time to tell him, but I also needed to avoid rattling him before he went on stage. Then there was the issue of all the other children in the show, most of whom were older than my son and more likely to have learned about the carnage. Would Christopher overhear kids talking about it? Or might he stumble upon the news at his brother's well-attended basketball clinic Saturday morning?

Fortunately, neither scenario panned out, paving the way for me to break the news early tonight when I took him aside in his bedroom after returning from the last performance. I didn't want to upset his sleep if I could help it, so I spoke to him sooner rather than later. This was the best I could do under the circumstances because explaining the situation tomorrow morning right before sending him off to school, of all places, would obviously be far from ideal!

Well, I am relieved to report that Christopher handled our talk just as I expected he would -- and even asked me afterward if we could drive down to Newtown to support the grieving families.

What a great boy! I am so proud of him.

Next up: Charlie, my tough-as-nails six year old. Even though he is only twenty-nine months Christopher's junior, I couldn't simply lump them together by sitting them down for a one-size-fits-all family explanation. I felt I must respect the fact that Charlie is younger and, therefore, less mature in every way than his brother. The child shooting victims were, tragically, Charlie's age -- one of them only three days older, in fact. So how would it feel to hear that your exact peers in the state next door were gunned down in their own elementary school? Downright terrifying and confusing, I would imagine.

Thus, while Charlie also has had early exposure to Harry Potter, the fate of the H.M.S. Bounty -- I wanted both boys to know because it was personal to us -- and some other rather grown-up or unfortunate real-life stories, the slaughtering of these sweet innocents in the Nutmeg State crosses the line of being WAY TOO MUCH for Charlie or any other first-grader to hear about. If my son happens to learn something from someone else, I will deal with it with him at that time. But the principal of his school has assured parents via e-mail that no staff members will provide information about the situation with students.

Wise move.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sayonara, False Threat Queen!

I've turned over a new leaf. I'm playing hardball. I've said goodbye to the False Threat Queen. That's right! No more giving in to bad behavior.

Now I can't say I won't allow certain privileges, like use of a Nintendo DSi XL, that help mitigate a particular situation -- in fact, I have already done just that since changing my ways -- but I will say NO to the big treats the misbehaving child doesn't deserve.

Let me explain. Last Saturday I was planning to take my boys to Rhode Island for a fun overnight with friends. We hadn't been away for a night since the summer, so we were way overdue. We always have a great time with these people but, due to distance and busy schedules, do not get to see one another often at all. Until a month ago, we hadn't managed a face-to-face since the end of June 2011 when Christopher, then seven, was cast as an extra in "Moonrise Kingdom." Our friends put us up for one night as we needed to spend two days in their state while Chris got fitted for his costume, was given a '60s-style haircut, and shot his scene in a Newport church. Then, with schools closed on Election Day last month, we rendezvoused in Boston at the Museum of Science. The visit lasted only a couple of hours because we had to hightail it to Gloucester (one-plus hours away) for Christopher's afternoon holiday-show rehearsal. Not time enough to get through either the special SHIPWRECK!: Pirates and Treasure or Mammoths and Mastodons exhibits.

Argh.

Yet these people are much more than friends to us. They are family. Not the family I was born into but the family I created when I chose to become a mother in an unconventional way. My friends' children are half-siblings of my boys through their anonymous-donor father. S is one month to the day older than Christopher, and N is two years to the day younger than six-and-a-half-year-old Charlie. (March 25th is quite a milestone day, indeed, as it is also the anniversary of my mother's death.)

The kids get along great, and I am very fond of their two fun moms. If I met them in my town or in any other way, I would want them to be my friends. I consider myself very lucky to have them in my modern family.

Since not all of the moms are on board yet with disclosing to the kids our connection to one another, we just refer to each other as "friends." It has been tough for me to keep the secret from my boys, but I have parceled out hints. Christopher and Charlie know they have half-siblings scattered across the U.S., and they know they have met one family of them. I haven't revealed which one. "It could be a family in our town, a family we know out of town, or a family we know out of state," I've said cryptically.

Then I have asked each boy to guess which family it might be, and they both guess this family. Perhaps it is because I have described this family as "special" to us. Perhaps it is because this family, like ours, has no father in it. Or perhaps it is because my smart boys sense a different kind of kinship with the daughter and son. Indeed, part of our enjoyment in spending time together is watching the children interact with one another -- how they immediately fall into good-pal mode despite not seeing one another for a long time and how Charlie (my rambunctious one) leads N in fun, boyish physical activities like a sweet big brother.

It is beautiful to watch the four of them together.

Now in order for me to make the ninety-minute trip down to their house in Rhode Island and return the next day, I need to feel fairly rested. The problem is: I frequently don't feel this way. I suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for about four and a half years, so I have to pace myself. Or I will seriously regret it.

When it comes to the Rhode Island family, however, I have pushed myself beyond my limit because I haven't wanted to cancel plans once they are finally made. But last Saturday, a new problem arose: it was SNOWING! The first real snow of the season, though it didn't accumulate in our area and barely stuck on the ground at all. I even forgot to pick up a handful, and now I've lost my chance. Driving in the snow is NOT one of my favorite activities, especially at the very beginning of the season when I (and everyone else) are out of practice. Still, I was willing to do it that day because I needed the happy break that visiting the family always provides. I envisioned watching the daughter play basketball then going back to their house for a pizza, beer, and salad dinner; relaxing with good conversation, heaps of laughter, and a child-friendly animated movie -- it was "Despicable Me" last year -- and retiring for the night with my boys on the carpet of their renovated basement floor. (I like camping, whether it's outdoors or indoors.) In the morning, we would all eat a big, leisurely breakfast then leave in time to make it back to Gloucester for that show rehearsal at noon again.

Given the snow, I needed to be EXTRA rested for the drive. I expressed that sentiment to the boys that morning. In other words, DON'T GIVE ME ANY DRAMA! But Charlie The Younger lives in his own world, so he ignored my plea and launched into his usual routine of tackling Christopher in too rough a manner. The protests erupted; the tears flowed; and the retaliatory fighting ensued, prompting more protests and tears. And it escalated. I got mad and separated the boys.

I CAN'T STAND this behavior of Charlie's. It is my single biggest problem with the boys when it comes to family dynamics. It would be one thing if Christopher liked the roughhousing. Then it would only be a matter of making sure they kept it under control so no one got hurt. But that is not what I have on my hands. I have two boys pretty close in age who are opposites in terms of their personalities and interests. I am perpetually being put in the position of having to referee these skirmishes, physically break apart the boys (not easy to do without reinjuring my fifty-one-year-old back), and punish the offending party (Charlie, always Charlie).

Then there's Christopher. He also HATES it when Charlie invades his space and won't leave him alone. He runs to his room (well, their room) and starts to scream, "I hate you! I wish I didn't have a brother! I can't go on like this!"

The truth is: NEITHER ONE OF US CAN GO ON LIKE THIS.

And that is why I decided on Saturday that the buck stops here. I was going to set an example. I would lay down my iron fist. I canceled the trip to the Ocean State. I announced my decision in the car on the way home from Charlie's basketball clinic and the bank. "As much as I wanted to go to Rhode Island, I agree with you that you have to cancel the trip," said Christopher, who is mature way beyond his nine years.

"Snow, snow, snow," said Charlie, trying not to take responsibility for his behavior and instead blame my decision on my not wanting to drive in the snow.

NOTHIN' DOIN'. I was not about to let Charlie believe for ONE SECOND that he wasn't the cause of the change in plans, "NO, Charlie, YOU ruined our weekend with your bad behavior this morning. I would have driven in the snow if I had felt rested enough. But you WORE ME OUT before 10 a.m. You made it IMPOSSIBLE for me to be able to make the drive," I said.

"Snow, snow, snow," Charlie kept muttering.

Frustrated, depleted, and depressed, I informed the boys back at the house that I was off duty for the rest of the day, and they had to entertain themselves without fighting -- in the house. Yes, they could use technology. It was a very quiet afternoon and evening as the severity of what Charlie had done sunk in. I retreated to Facebook to reach out to my friends, and they responded in full force with praise for my decision. It seems it is very common among mothers to threaten to cancel impending fun plans when a child is misbehaving . . . but it is equally common to fail to follow through because the parent wants the fun plans to happen, too! One friend summed the problem up by calling herself the False Threat Queen. Then she gave me permission to borrow the catchy moniker. I was very grateful to be able to communicate with my friends under our stuck-in-the-house circumstances. They made me feel much better, though I by no means felt good.

As the afternoon progressed, photos of an event occurring in our town began to pop up on my Facebook page. It was Santa's arrival by boat. He was accompanied into the harbor by stand-up paddleboarding elves. I kid you not. Only a quaint coastal town such as ours could dream up such a unique Christmas festivity. Well, I couldn't exactly reward a badly behaving child with a trip to the park to meet Santa now, could I? Certainly not. If I'd had more time between returning from the bank and the start of the event, I might have thought to call the mothers of some of Christopher's friends to ask if they could take my obedient son. But I was still processing what went down that morning. My head wasn't clear enough for me to come up with an alternative plan. Besides, I didn't know how Charlie would take it if Christopher was allowed to leave the house. He might have staged some kind of a revolt -- a possibility I was not willing to risk given the fact that things had calmed down since we'd gotten home.

Instead, I made a point of showing Charlie the Facebook photos. "See? This is what we ALSO couldn't go to because of your bad behavior," I said. Charlie is a tough kid. Looking at the photos did not faze him, at least not outwardly. It was only after I'd scrolled through quite a few that he finally pulled the red blanket on his lap over his head. For his part, Christopher continued to support my efforts to drive the point home with Charlie that what he did had consequences and would not be tolerated in the future.

It has been five days since I canceled the trip to Rhode Island, and I have to say Charlie's behavior has improved considerably. Just to be sure my clamping down has made an impact, however, I have followed it up with two more actions designed to keep him in line.

The first is setting up an Elf on the Shelf in the family room, the room where we spend most of our time. According to Christmas tradition, the slender, red-suited male doll watches the behavior of children in the home by day and reports back to Santa by night. This is how he knows who's naughty and who's nice. When the elf returns from the North Pole each morning, he plants himself in a new location in the home.

We have named our elf Larry. Charlie's choice was Mike but -- in a rare and most-welcome show of giving in (good boy, Charlie!) -- he agreed to Christopher's pick, which was the name Lily on "Modern Family" gave her baby brother when it looked like her two dads Cam and Mitch would be getting one via a surrogate. Christopher and I, of course, love "Modern Family" and watch it religiously together every week.

The second additional step I have taken is to make a clear, bold sign delineating the house rules. The collection of NOs, now prominently displayed on a family-room wall, covers the gamut of Charlie's bad behavior at home from just-for-the-heck-of-it screaming to unwanted roughhousing that leads into fighting in all its various forms both verbal and physical. The sign will remain on the wall permanently as a constant reminder of what is not allowed.

Something tells me Larry will be sticking around through the off season as well!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why I Love My Thanksgiving Angels

I have the best Thanksgiving angels.

I don't know who they are going to be each year until they appear, and sometimes they don't appear . . . but that's okay. In case you're wondering, a Thanksgiving angel is a loving, generous person who steps forward before the holiday and invites you and, if you have them, your children over on Thanksgiving.

For the past sixteen years, I have needed Thanksgiving angels because I have had no plans on Turkey Day, no place to go. Thanksgiving is the penultimate family holiday, and I no longer have my birth family. My father died in 1986 and my mother in '95. Oh, and I am an only child. I am aware this is a pretty unusual situation for someone my age, but this is MY situation so I accept it.

What choice do I have?

When I was growing up, things were very different for me on Thanksgiving. We had concrete plans just about every year. First, we would stop at my paternal aunt's house in the Connecticut town next door to our own. I'd stand with the adults sipping my Canada Dry ginger ale like a small grownup while my first cousins once removed who were my age ran around and played with all manner of toys in the large house atop a long, winding driveway. I wanted to stay and join in the play, but we were off in no time to another destination, leaving me with a palpable feeling of longing and regret.

We were headed to my maternal cousin B's house in Greenwich, one more town over and just a fifteen-minute drive from our home in Darien. B is my first cousin yet, like all of my first cousins on both sides of the family, he is much older than me. His four children -- my first cousins once removed -- are my age. B's sister attended this Thanksgiving celebration as well. She lived in Manhattan with her husband and four daughters, also my age. Headed by another cousin of B's, a third family with four sons also my age came as well. Other stray relatives showed up from time to time such as my widower uncle in the early years or an elderly single woman whose exact relation to the family I can't quite place.

You can only imagine how I, the lone only child in the younger generation, felt about these gatherings involving three families of four children each. I LOVED them. TWELVE girls and boys in one fell swoop! TWELVE. For one day nearly every year, I was surrounded by all these relatives my age. It was fantastic. I got to talk to them and play touch football with them like the Kennedys. Then there was the feast -- my favorite meal of the year -- laid out amidst an array of polished silver candlesticks, delicate glass serving dishes, and a beautiful seasonal tablecloth. Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and side dishes galore including the absolutely yummy sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. Martha Stewart would have issued her stamp of approved and then some.

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day was also bittersweet for me because it came to an end, and I literally didn't see these people again till the following year unless someone in the family got married or died. My parents didn't socialize with the adult relatives and not residing in our town, though two out of three of the families lived within a fifteen-minute radius and the third just an hour away, they did not come into contact with us unless something was planned. Invariably, it was not.

I attended this gathering, which changed homes as B's family moved within the same town and B's sister was able to accommodate the group once her family moved out of the city to Connecticut, from as early as I can remember through the deaths of both of my parents. A couple of years thrown in there the party didn't happen (or perhaps we weren't invited) as I remember one or two Thanksgiving meals eaten at local restaurants. (My mother wasn't a cook.) Then in 1982 -- thirty years ago this year -- my father suffered a near-fatal aortic aneurysm at home on Thanksgiving Day. My father and I didn't make it to the party, though my mother did, briefly. (Don't ask.) Other than these few aberration years, the gathering of cousins was a steady gig I looked forward to all year long.

It was SO important to me, in fact, that I planned to keep on attending even after moving across country to Seattle following my mother's passing. The year she died I delayed my move until after Thanksgiving, and the next year I took a trip back East to coincide with the holiday so I could see my cousins. However, the following year B's wife pulled the proverbial rug out from under me during a long-distance phone call to Seattle. Her family had decided not to host Thanksgiving that year, she said. The three families would be celebrating separately . . . and that was the way it was going to be from then on is the way I understood it.

Alas, Thanksgiving as I knew it had come to an end. Just like that. My favorite day had suddenly become my least favorite day as I wondered how on earth I was going to spend the rest of those Thursdays in November and be happy about them. So began my sixteen years of fending for myself on America's premier family holiday.

Incidentally, I learned some years later through one of the families that the three had NOT gone their separate ways after all, at least not every year. Two of the families were still celebrating together regularly, and I suspect the third joined in from time to time as well since that family was actually the closer one in terms of familial relations. Liars.

What's this? An eleventh-hour invite to a gathering one other aberration year came my way many years later when B's wife let it accidentally slip in a birthday card to me something to the effect of "Hope to see you at R's house on Thanksgiving." (R is B's eldest son and the person who had taken up the mantle of holding the holiday get-togethers). Was I actually going to be invited again? Well, no, I wasn't supposed to be. R inferred as much when he placed a call to me just days before the holiday telling me what time to arrive "according to the written invitations that went out to everyone" else. I suspect I was proffered the backhanded invitation because I had mentioned B's wife's comment in the card to me to another first cousin of mine along with the information that I had been shut out of the party for the past seven years. I asked the other first cousin -- a kind and well-intentioned man -- if he was behind me getting the phone invite. He denied it, but I don't believe him.

Honesty is the characteristic I value most in a person.

Not expecting an invitation from the cousins, I made other plans for the holiday that year. Well, it just so happened that our Thanksgiving angels lived only one Massachusetts town over from R. How about that for a coincidence?! So I told R we could stop by for a little while. And that's exactly what my son Christopher (then only a baby), my boyfriend at the time, and I did.

However, R decided to humiliate me in front of everyone as we excused ourselves to go to the home of our Thanksgiving angels as planned AND as I had told him on the phone about THREE times. (He had called me back repeatedly to make sure we were coming, and I had each time reminded him that we were eating dinner at the other house per our first invitation). "You're LEEEAAAVING???" R bellowed, as we said our goodbyes and thank yous and made our way to the door, to which the others -- not privy to the fact that I had made our plans CRYSTAL CLEAR to R -- piled on with disparaging harumphs and outright abuse. My boyfriend, who had never met these people, was justifiably horrified! As was I.

I have neither seen nor spoken to R since.

If you're thinking to yourself at this point, wow, what shitty people, let me say just two things: 1. You haven't heard the half of it. 2. You're not the first to come up with that particular descriptive adjective in this context. My former psychotherapist in Seattle beat you to it by about thirteen years.

I can't recall what I did every single Thanksgiving since 1997 when B's wife placed that call to me in Seattle. I know I spent a few of them alone, maybe eating frozen pizza or going to a movie. One year a friend from a writing class invited me to her friend's celebration because she was estranged from her own parents. Lo and behold, the friend of the friend decided at the last minute to disinvite me because she'd never met me.

But more often than not, I have happy stories to tell surrounding the holiday, and many of them involve my Thanksgiving angels.

Here is a sampling of some of these wonderful people: Ju is a hilarious cousin once removed on the paternal side of my family. Ra is a friend from my Christian Science camp in Maine growing up. (Also hilarious). We were somewhat subversive cabin counselors together. The party at Ra's house, which happens to be located in my very first hometown of Katonah, New York, was highlighted by the setting off of very cool radio-controlled rockets. Christopher, then a preschooler, was allowed to press the button. We went to Ra's house a couple of times, but it was very far away. Re is a woman from my single mothers' support group. My boys had fun playing with her young twin daughters. Ja is a lovely woman who lives in my town. With her parents and brother visiting from the Midwest, she opened her home to my family and another from the elementary school. T was my Thanksgiving angel this year, inviting us to her beachfront home with many others: Ja's family, another third-grade mother whose children spent the holiday with her ex, a Guatemalan exchange student, members of T's extended family, and her husband's water-polo-playing nephew attending Harvard.

The gorgeous day turned into a starry night and the warmest I ever remember for a Thanksgiving. We went outside to the beach after a scrumptious dinner and stood around a huge bonfire built by T's husband.

My Thanksgiving angels mean the world to me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Day Everything (Well, Almost) Went Right

With Thanksgiving around the corner, the season of being grateful is upon us. It is a time to reflect on family, health, work, love, and other aspects of our life for which we feel blessed. But instead of focusing on one of these significant areas, I decided that I wanted to show gratitude for something very, very mundane -- something micro rather than macro -- a single day during which everything (well, almost) went right.

Last Sunday started with my sons and I sleeping in. Okay, as much sleeping in as is possible in a household with two young boys. As it was the first Sunday since the school year began that we did not have a football game -- Christopher's third- and fourth-grade team lost in the league Super Bowl the previous week by two points! -- we could all hang around the house in our pajamas as long as we so desired.

In fact, it was the first weekend day in SEVEN weeks that we had not had an activity or appointment requiring us to leave the house in the morning. We had driven to Boston the day before to meet one of our half-sibling families -- the half-sister and half-brother of my boys (via their anonymous-donor father) and their two moms -- at the Museum of Science. Previous to that, football practice had been moved to Saturday mornings due to a sundown-to-sunrise outdoor-activity ban resulting from a horse in a neighboring town being testing positive for a mosquite-borne illness. Oh, and a dentist appointment was thrown in there as well.

With nothing to do, I felt no pressure last Sunday to check the status of Chris's uniform first thing, i.e. was it clean? I felt no pressure to get a load of laundry going so it would be dry in time for the late morning practice followed by the game. I felt no pressure to make my son a hearty helping of scrambled eggs and bacon or toast to fortify him for playing defense. And basketball hadn't started yet.

It was that rare weekend between intense sports seasons when parents can actually breathe. Indeed, we were in kickback mode.

Ahh!

But then while leisurely emptying the dryer in the basement storage room, I noticed a pipe leaking. NOOO! Not just dripping, it was leaking copper-stained water in a steady thin stream accumulating on the floor. Hastily, I fetched and threw down numerous towels. I discovered a valve near the leak was loose unlike one in the same position on the other side of it. I couldn't imagine how that had happened since I hadn't touched it, and no one else had been in there. Of course, I considered tightening the valve in the complex, antiquated system but -- not being a plumber or heating expert -- I wanted to check with the professionals first. I certainly didn't want to do anything wrong in case the valve was supposed to be open. Well, I am happy to report I stopped the leak myself after speaking to the heating-company owner and being told to tighten the valve.

Phew! That was fortunate. We didn't have to spend the next hour or more waiting for a technician to arrive, fix the problem, and charge me an arm and a leg for the visit.

My boys were getting along very well on this day for some reason. They didn't fight. I believe it may have been because we were just coming off a particularly rough patch with Charlie acting too aggressive toward Christopher and me being too cranky while trying to manage the situation plus too tired from repeatedly staying up too late on Facebook.

A case of too many toos, in other words.

Around noontime a neighbor called to ask if my sons wanted to play with her son, a first-grader like Charlie. The boys eagerly said yes. They got dressed and met him in our driveway a few minutes later. For the next several hours, they entertained themselves in our cul-de-sac, alternating between riding bikes, scooters, and a skateboard. Charlie did a lot of fast running as usual, and Christopher and the neighbor raced each other on bikes.

We had a tense few minutes when a rough child showed up to join in the play. I watched through the front window then moved outside for a better view from a white Adirondack chair planted in our front yard. Shortly, he was scooped up by car and driven away.

Dodged another bullet! Yay.

My sons and the neighbor moved into our backyard where I suggested they build a giant leaf pile to jump in. I got a miniature rake and hoe out of the shed, and Charlie found the two sets of yellow "bear claws" in another storage area attached to the house. The boys worked hard on the leaf mound, took breaks on our swing set, and enjoyed the fruits of their labor by running and hurling themselves joyfully into the soft brown pile while I snapped their pictures.

While most of this was going on, I was inside putting away laundry. Way overdue and not fun at all . . . yet necessary. The football schedule had been so demanding that basic chores around the house had fallen so far by the wayside they were lying in a ditch! I put away four or five GIANT piles of laundry this day.

That felt GOOOOD!

When the boys were famished from playing, I made lunch. Turkey sandwiches with mayonnaise or mustard for my boys and mustard only (no turkey) for the neighbor. That's the sandwich he wanted, I SWEAR! In fact, he liked it so much he asked for and got a second. Truth be told: He wanted a THIRD! But I reasoned that three French's classic yellow mustard sandwiches might be a bit much. Might, just might give this six year old a tummy ache. So I suggested cookies for dessert instead.

Kids are SO funny!

Next Charlie had the idea to set up some oversized white plastic bowling pins in the street. To make it more interesting, the kids rolled the ball down our sloping driveway toward the pins. Since the driveway surface is rough, the royal blue plastic bowling ball invariably veered off course.

Okay, the game became less interesting and more frustrating.

Things began to wind down, and that was good because it was fast approaching the time we needed to leave to make our 4:30 p.m. commitment in Waltham. Charlie brought out his Nintendo DSi XL to show the neighbor his newest game. I could have said no to turning to technology on a beautiful, warm fall day. Yet the boys had creatively played outdoors in a multitude of ways for hours on end by that point, and the neighbor would be heading home shortly. So I allowed it.

I enjoy attending monthly gatherings of the Boston chapter of Single Mothers by Choice and have been doing so on and off for a long time. In fact, next month marks a full decade since my first meeting. They may not be exciting, but they are important to me as they provide me with a community of single mothers I don't have in my town. My boys have grown up with the children of some of these mothers, and I enjoy catching up with those I have known for many years. In the early days of single motherhood, I needed the group to answer my questions or relay experiences that could help me as I undertook raising one then two infants alone. But for many years now, my motivation for attending meetings has been social and to give back to the group by providing my answers and experiences to those thinking or trying to become mothers, those who are pregnant, and those who are parents of babies or young children.

It was time for "Revenge," my favorite TV drama, when we returned from the meeting in Waltham, having picked up dinner at McDonald's on the way home.

I am very grateful for last Sunday -- a simple, happy day. Now you might think: But she had a leaking pipe, and a rough boy interrupted the sweet playdate. Yes, that is true. However, both problems were averted, and that's why it was a great day.

The reality is there are snags in my life every single day. Some of them become bigger situations to handle, and sometimes I get lucky like I did this time around.

Blessed is the day that is slower-paced and more relaxing. Amen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Touring the H.M.S. Bounty, R.I.P.

Hurricane Sandy has been devastating and deadly for the East Coast, particularly the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Living in a coastal town one hour north of Boston, my family endured a power outage lasting less than twelve hours and a few downed branches. Nothing, basically. Friends I communicated with on Facebook fared much worse, but I really don't know the full extent of what they suffered through. As a new storm, a nor'easter, churns its way up the East Coast just over a week later -- enough already! -- I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on one aspect of Hurricane Sandy of many that has particularly affected me: the loss of the H.M.S. Bounty, its captain, and one crew member.

First, let me say that I don't consider myself a Sailor the way others are sailors. I know how to sail and can and have sailed Sunfish, catamarans, and twelve-footers in light and moderate winds. True. I have also raced both a few times -- as a teenager, I was awarded a highball glass (pretty funny considering my age and the fact that I grew up a Christian Scientist!) for coming in second in a Sunfish race at my parents' beach club on Long Island Sound but had to be verbally assisted in righting my capsized catamaran in a race not too many years ago in a Florida river while staying at Club Med. I have never owned a sailboat, though I did purchase the original Windsurfer One Design when it first came out and enjoyed tacking that heavy sailboard back in forth in whatever body of water was near my home at the time. Currently, I do not have the opportunity to ply coastal waters in a sailboat, despite my close proximity to a harbor. (Note to self: make friends with people who own boats!) So, no, I am not THAT kind of sailor -- a hard-core sailor -- much less a Tall Ship sailor.

I have the utmost respect for those who are. I also hugely admire people who choose a risky, beyond-the-norm type of life such as the men and women aboard the H.M.S. Bounty. For nearly two years while I budget-traveled around Asia and the South Pacific some twenty-odd years ago, I led such an alternative existence. Today, as a single mother by choice of two young sons (i.e. I am very tied down), I am living the opposite kind of unconventional life. Still, the travel bug and the yen for adventure remain very much with me. Hence, I jumped at the chance to tour the replica of the mutinous vessel immortalized in the classic book "Mutiny on the Bounty," built for the 1962 film of the same name, and featured in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Seeing as my elementary-school-age sons are big fans of the "Pirates" flicks (natch!), and my older son loves history, it was a no-brainer that we would venture to the city next-door to check out the three-masted schooner when it came into port over Labor Day weekend for the annual Schooner Festival.

I wish I could say I had a great talk with Captain Robin Walbridge or that Claudene Christian explained the rope system to us. But the truth is: my six-year-old son does not do well in museum settings, seafaring or otherwise. He is too rambunctious in the company of his older brother. He jumps on him, hangs on him, pulls him, punches him, and kicks him -- anything physical to engage poor Christopher. Thus, the visit on board was marked for me by all of the above plus Christopher's legitimate complaints and my futile attempts at stopping the bad behavior.

I often wish I could leave Charlie at home with another adult in order to get the most out of the event at hand with manageable and appreciative Christopher. But I don't have another adult at home, and I can't afford to hire a babysitter on top of the event's admission price time and time again. Oh, and my house is not presentable enough for a babysitter anyway. Charlie has to come along, and Christopher and I have to deal with whatever Charlie dishes out . . . in public . . . again.

As we stepped on the ship, we passed a man dressed up as Jack Sparrow, the quirky pirate captain from the "Pirates" movies played by Johnny Depp. It was the end of the day on Saturday, September 1, and only a handful of deck hands were on board. The ship was in beautiful condition. Countless ropes, a gorgeous wheel, a handsome wood-paneled control room, economical living quarters. The schooner was smaller than I expected, and I was disappointed she was not in full sail. She was in port so, naturally, her sails were neatly furled.

A woman was selling some kind of handcrafted item on deck -- knitted, perhaps? My recollection is usually much sharper than this, but I was in full-on minimize-making-a-scene mode with Charlie so my mental energies were otherwise occupied. Crew members had tee shirts, postcards, and caps for purchase on the lower level. I wanted to buy a shirt yet resisted because doing so would have precipitated protests from my sons who also would have wanted something of equal value. Always thinking ahead of the cause and effect of each action I take in the company of my boys!

I spoke to a male crew member on deck in his late twenties or early thirties about the ship's itinerary, and I listened in as an older hand explained to another visitor why the two small dining tables downstairs were attached by chains to beams above. (To keep them stable and level during storms). I believe I glimpsed Captain Walbridge. I would have said something to him if our visit had been different, if I'd been without children in tow, or if I'd just been with Christopher. When I Google photos of the captain, he looks familiar to me, but I can't be completely sure. It makes me sad to think that I can't remember this and other details of our visit. I don't believe I ever saw Claudene Christian, the striking blond former cheerleader-doll company founder and alleged direct descendant of Fletcher Christian -- the mutineer aboard the original H.M.S. Bounty who died when that ship was burned off Pitcairn Island in early 1790.

Two Christians meeting the same fate in two different ways 222 years apart while aboard two versions of the same ship: strange.

It was surreal hearing on the news of the replica ship's fate, watching the video of the incredible Coast Guard helicopter rescue of the survivors, and seeing photographs of the magnificent schooner crashed sideways into the ocean like a scene -- ironically -- out of the very "Pirates" movie in which it appeared! The tragedy occurred the day before Christopher's ninth birthday, and we both cried as I told him about it.

This morning I watched the fourteen survivors interviewed on TV together for the first time. They were happy to be alive but somber when talking to "Good Morning America" about their missing captain and deceased shipmate. Douglas Faunt seemed to speak for them all when he said: "After this, I'm never going to have another bad day in my life." Later in the day, I was further touched by the very personal obituary of Captain Walbridge that appeared in the "Tampa Bay Times."

I am grateful the paths of my sons and I crossed those of the H.M.S. Bounty crew. I hope Christopher and Charlie never forget our visit on board the ship and the promise of adventure and personal reward that can be gleaned from living life outside the box. Captain Robin Walbridge and Claudene Christian died doing exactly what they loved.

May they rest in peace.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Assignment: Halloween Costumes!

Decked out in my purple long-sleeved shirt featuring a small, tasteful, and sparkly spider design, I headed down to the mall to go Halloween costume shopping this past Monday. Even though it was nine whole days before the holiday, I felt like I was late in tackling this all-important project. The marketing juggernaut all-things-spooky has been chugging along for quite sometime now, and it has the effect of putting parents (at least this one) into a mild state of panic.

"Calm down," I told myself, "you are way ahead of schedule compared to previous years." And that was certainly true.

Since my older son's birthday is the day before Halloween, I have had to be super-organized this time of year to be ready for the back-to-back festivities, including the inevitable birthday party and Trick or Treating. Then there is the matter of getting pumpkins -- Christopher and Charlie each want their own, of course -- along with mums, gourds, Indian corn, or any other attractive fall offering from the local nursery. By the time we go door-to-door, I am so tired and frazzled-looking I don't need a costume.

Yep. I'm going as a zombie again!

Lest you've been living under a rock, finding just the right Halloween costume -- i.e. what the child wants, what is priced reasonably, what is age-appropriate, and what is comfortable to wear -- is like finding the Holy Grail. For kids, the Halloween costume is right up there in status with the big birthday present or Christmas present. So it is always with some measure of trepidation (mixed with excitement, yes, because it is an adventure of sorts) that I head out in search of Halloween costumes.

First stop: Spirit Halloween. Christopher wanted an orange prison jumpsuit. I found some. Yay! They were for teenagers. Boo. My son is big for his age but not THAT big. In any event, I took the costume out of the package and looked it over because that's allowed. It was too big for Shaquille O'Neal. Seriously. I know what I'm talking about: I've met Shaq. I went over to the lady at the cash register and inquired about smaller sizes. No luck. Not in this costume. She suggested some sort of tape to pull in excess fabric. But all I could think of was the double-sided tape J.Lo used to hold up that notorious green awards-show dress when she was with Ben Affeck. "Uh, no. That won't work," I said.

Charlie's first choice for a costume was a chicken. Spirit Halloween had no chicken costumes, but they did have bananas. Uh-uh, can't see it. My first-grader is way too cool to dress up as a piece of fruit. In fact, I was concerned that any poultry attire would be too toddler- or preschooler-oriented for Charlie.

Initial stop: a fail, to be expected. Next up was Target. No prison jumpsuits but about a dozen black-and-white-striped jailbird costumes in small and medium ONLY. Now I've been around the kids' Halloween costume scene long enough to know that these cheaply made polyester numbers (stretchy yet clingy) tend to run small. Two years ago Christopher's pirate-outfit top nearly split at the seams, and that was BEFORE my broad-chested son started playing defense on a championship football team. Needless to say, I was discouraged not to find a large jailbird getup at Target because I just knew my third-grader needed a large.

Argh. Make that double argh. No chicken costumes or fish, Charlie's second choice.

"Am I the only one starting to have a panic attack?" I asked a woman with frizzy blond hair.

She shook her head. "I'm trying to find a wig for my daughter, and these are $30!" She gestured toward a wall of hanging costumes and accessories.

"It's terrible," I concurred, spotting an almost-hidden yellow Angry Bird costume near the floor. It was a one-size-fits-all hooded poncho with arm holes. OMG, I thought to myself. A chicken's a bird. This is a bird. A bird with attitude and speed, just like Charlie. A hip (and commercial) update to a generic chicken outfit. Charlie loves to play Angry Birds. And this definitely won't be mistaken for a toddler or preschooler costume. It's PERFECT! I didn't know if Charlie would like the costume. He can be very stubborn. But a little birdie was telling me that he would!

I headed to the cash register, Angry Bird in hand. The only hurdle left: the cost. Yellow Angry Bird had no price tag on him.

The lady at the cash register looked over YAB. The price would determine whether I would buy him or not, I said. In other words, don't ring him up just yet. She made eye contact with another Target employee standing nearby then somewhat unsurely answered: "$19.99."

I wasn't convinced. "Is that the actual price? Or the default price?" DEFAULT PRICE. How did I come up with that? Is that a real retail term? Or did I just coin it? Awesome, Shelby. Love it when I'm sharp on my feet. I could see the definition printed in a store training manual: "If you don't know or can't find the exact price for a particular item, revert to the Default Price. Hint: it often has a .99 at the end of it." I chuckled to myself.

Well, turns out I WAS being given a Default Price of sorts . . . or a guesstimate. The male salesclerk inquired if I wanted to know the exact price. Uh, yeah, though it dawned on me that I was taking a gamble as I could lose out on what already seemed like a good deal if, in fact, YAB actually cost $50. "Give me a couple of minutes," he said, scurrying off to do some investigation.

SCORE! When he returned, he informed me that YAB was an online item that originally went for $44.99. I could have it for $11. I didn't understand that logic, but I was certainly not going to quibble! Eleven dollars was the price of a Halloween costume my mother might have bought me in the early '70s. Woo-hoo! I took it.

Still no prisoner costume. However, my anxiety had lessened and my optimism had increased. Time to check out iParty where, unfortunately, I heard the costumes were high-priced. Finding that amazing deal at Target, though, meant I would be amenable to spending more at iParty, but I refused to shell out in excess of $25 for a costume regardless. And I couldn't forget about accessories. Christopher had made it very clear he needed handcuffs and one other emblem of the incarcerated life. Spirit Halloween carried such items, yet I couldn't pick them up without first knowing if Chris was going to be a prisoner or hippie, his second choice. If, after all this, I had to start again and look for a '60s Dennis Hopper "Easy Rider" getup, I would be very annoyed, indeed.

I arrived at iParty and fully expected to run into someone from my past. That's because two years ago I bumped into a woman from my college and a former job in the checkout line. And this visit did not disappoint. There was a woman in the accessories aisle from both my boarding school and college. Going to iParty is really like going to a party for me!

To the task at hand: prison jumpsuits. Men's sizes only, I was told. Jeez. What about jailbird black and white? A few minutes of pawing through the hanging selections revealed -- yes! -- the large size Target no longer had in stock. This was it! It cost $14.99. Pretty reasonable, I'd say. Toy metal handcuffs and a plastic ball and chain set me back an additional $8.98. But I was happy . . . and DONE.

I would deal with the issue of makeup later. Besides, I had some left over from last year in the bathroom cabinet back home. Then, on my way to the cash register, I spotted YAB -- the very same costume I had just purchased at Target -- for $11 ($11.96 with tax, to be exact). It was selling for a whopping $49.99. Suckers! I also passed a generic turkey. More expensive and less The Bomb than my awesome YAB, natch, so I walked by with a satisfied spring in my step.

Charlie didn't want to be a turkey anyway.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mastering the Schedule: Part III (Duty to Myself)

It is not often that participation in a young child's extracurricular activity is decided upon by much else beyond the broad question "Does this work for my family?" Several considerations come into play: the activity's cost, frequency and duration, location, ease with which it fits in with the schedules of other family members, and more.

Sometimes comfort level is the deciding factor. For example, flag football may be chosen over tackle football because it is safer. Rugby was available to my eight-year-old son this fall, but I would not let him play because I got injured in the sport in college. I was diagnosed with torn cartilage. However, that was only part of the story. Seventeen years later it came to light that I'd actually suffered a torn ACL as well. My orthopedic surgeon called it "a medical miracle" I'd been able to carry on playing tennis at a high level on teams and in tournaments, traveling around the globe with a heavy backpack, trekking to Everest Base Camp, skiing, and much more without incident other than the occasional "popping out" episode I'd learned to manage. I required and underwent major reconstructive surgery that included a patella-tendon graft to replace the ligament that had atrophied down to nothing. With this kind of history, I most definitely DID NOT feel comfortable green-lighting rugby for my third-grader.

Cub Scouts posed a different challenge for me altogether. First of all, the activity did not pass the litmus test of being in sync with the rest of the family. For two years while Christopher was a Tiger then Wolf Scout, my younger son Charlie resisted attending pack meetings at the elementary school and den meetings at the local community center. ("Pack" refers to all the Scouts in the school; "den," just the Scouts in Christopher's grade.) Married couples usually didn't bring their other children to meetings because one parent stayed behind at home with the other youngster/s. And divorced parents traded off, with the father doing the lion's share of attending meetings in most cases, I observed. As a full-time single mother, however, I had no choice but to bring my reluctant younger son along every single time.

Charlie, a preschooler then kindergartener during those years, would jump out of his seat in the school auditorium and run up and down the aisles or leave altogether and wander around the front of the school or the kindergarten wing. Meanwhile, I needed to stay at the meeting to listen to important announcements, yet I couldn't when my unruly son was taking off on me repeatedly. The final straw occurred toward the end of the year last year when Charlie ditched not just the gym where the Scouts were engaged in physical activities but also the front lobby. Yes, that's right. He pushed right through the outside doors and could not be persuaded to come back in, preferring instead to hang around on the sidewalk in the cold and dark. I absolutely HATE it when he does this or something similar because it's always so public. He has no concept of being judged by other people and doesn't care one iota that I do.

Once again it was a case of being split in two between my two sons . . . or needing a leash.

At den meetings, the space was so small that Charlie's rambuctious behavior was even more noticeable, if that's possible. I started discreetly slipping him a Nintendo DSi XL to play with upstairs in a tiny game-table space. Unlike the only other younger brother in Christopher's den, Charlie did not want to be a Scout when he became a first-grader. No way, no how. Without specifically articulating it to me, I believe Charlie didn't like the regimentation of Scouts. It's just as well. From my perspective, he is not Scout material anyway.

Fast forward four months: Charlie is now a first-grader and not a Scout. Christopher is not one either. I explained the difficulty I had at meetings to my older son, but it was certainly unnecessary because he saw it for himself. In any case, Christopher is not broken-hearted. He gets it that continuing with Scouts would cause me hardship and overload our schedule. As far as the outdoors goes, we as a family are way beyond what the Scouts do for boys Christopher's age anyhow. We have camped out five nights in a row and climbed several mountains; the Scouts sleep over one night in a science and nature museum or (this year) on a naval ship and hike a hill marked by two boulders in our town.

As if these reasons weren't enough, the tip of the iceberg for me was the Boy Scouts of America's stance on gays. As a division of the BSA, the Cub Scouts -- like little brothers in the same family -- abide by the same set of principles, one of which is that gays who have come out of the closet are not permitted to be either Scouts, Scout leaders, or Scout volunteers of any kind. I was not aware of this long-standing stipulation until this year when the BSA reaffirmed its stance and made national news doing so.

Many people were upset that a large, well-respected youth organization could continue to hold such a prejudicial, seemingly outdated position excluding a segment of the male population. Eagle Scouts came forward to turn in their hard-earned awards, and letters of protest were fired off to the BSA. Just this month, a San Francisco Bay-area teen named Ryan Andresen was informed that he would not be receiving his Eagle Scout honor after working toward it for twelve years because he is openly gay and opposes the BSA's "Duty to God" Scout Oath and Law.

Incidentally, I do, too. I am Christian, but I don't believe a worthy candidate who happens to be an atheist, agnostic, or follower of a non-Christian faith should be discriminated against by being banned, thrown out of, or denied his rightful accolades by the organization.

Now it would be easy to say, "Oh, well. My son is in CUB Scouts. I don't need to bother myself with a BOY Scout matter. It doesn't affect me." Perhaps other parents are telling themselves this. Perhaps they don't want to think about it. Or perhaps they just don't care. Now I don't want to sit in judgment of other parents. They will have their sons stay in or leave Scouts as they see fit. But, for me, I need to be true to myself and stand up for the principles that I believe in. I want to be a role model for my sons in this way. They don't have a second parent to also look up to so, hell yeah, I'd BETTER be a role model for my sons!

Yet it's not just about teaching them not to condone an exclusionary policy. It's also about teaching them to embrace all kinds of people without prejudice. It's about teaching them to take action when they find themselves unwittingly caught up in something they don't subscribe to. This lesson can be transferred to cyberbullying, cheating, underage drinking, etc. -- issues they likely will encounter in coming years. It's about teaching them to have enough courage and strength of character to say, "NO, this is not for me. I will not participate in this activity because it is not in line with my core beliefs." It's about teaching them to walk away with their heads held high, knowing they have done the right thing. This is much easier said than done, of course, but who are we if not our honest selves?

While I am not gay, a couple of my cousins are. I have gay friends in and out of my single-mother-by-choice community, and we have gay women in our extended donor family -- mothers of some of my sons' half-siblings through their anonymous sperm donor dad. And even if I did not have these real-life gay connections, I would feel the very same way toward inclusion because it is the only democratic way.

Today is the eve of the release of the BSA's "perversion files" -- 14,500 pages of secret files on Scoutmasters and Scout volunteers suspected of child molestation between the 1960s and 1985. These files, which came to light via court cases against the BSA, are being made public by order of the Oregon Supreme Court.

Clearly, this issue of child sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts of America is poised to blow wide open. With it, I suspect, will be renewed calls -- shouts, I imagine -- for changing the organization's policy toward gays.

At least I know where I stand.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mastering the Schedule: Part II (Masochistic Mom Wisens Up)

When drawing up a child's extracurricular schedule, it is just as important to choose which activities to exclude as which to include. But making the decision to drop one or two can be difficult, indeed.

Each of my sons this fall is taking a break from an enrichment program he has participated in for at least two years. It is Cub Scouts for Christopher; gymnastics, Charlie. I wish I could say that the break from both is just temporary. However, in one case, it might be permanent. Like every other athletic, artistic, or other nonacademic pursuit, each needed to be weighed very, very carefully so as to best answer the definitive question: "Does this activity work for my family?"

As gymnastics was simpler and less painful to say no to this time around, I will detail the thinking behind this decision in this blog post and take up the stickier, more complicated matter of Scouts in the next. Charlie has taken clinics in gymnastics off and on at two different locations (a gymnastics academy and the local Y) for several years -- since he was in preschool. He loves the sport and is adept at it. My first-grader can do a full split and one-handed cartwheel, and he is double-jointed enough to put his foot behind his head. He is springy on his feet and bursting with energy ALL THE TIME, both of which are characteristics well-suited to gymnastics.

In fact, I feel he could have serious potential if given the chance to train beyond the usual recreational classes offered to young elementary schoolers. So when I heard about a gym not too far away being run by a FORMER OLYMPIAN -- Paul Kormann, the first American male to win a medal in that sport -- I became very interested. I went over for a tour and got the lowdown on the facility and its classes.

The next day Charlie went over after school to take a free class and be observed by the FORMER MARINE recruited by the FORMER OLYMPIAN from a gymnastics academy in FLORIDA. Now that's a lot of star power! I picked the boys up at school, but we got on the road fifteen minutes late because I got sidetracked into planning a playdate. The drive took forty-five minutes. Charlie enjoyed the class and was successfully evaluated. However, we got in the car fifteen minutes late a SECOND TIME because it takes SO long to wait for one child to put back on his socks and sneakers and buy a snack after waiting in line and the other child to finish dressing for football practice.

Sheesh!

Since it was now rush hour, I decided not to head all the way back to the highway in making our way east and north to the town next to ours for Christopher's 5:30 p.m. practice. Instead, I took trusty Route 1 north to bypass a potential traffic jam. It's fairly slow going with a lot of lights, yet I felt like the old standby was the right choice under the circumstances. Problem is: In thinking about which cutoff road to take east, I miscalculated. I should have taken the first one instead of the second, thereby saving myself several extra miles of driving. Then . . . didn't I encounter the aftermath of an accident on the home stretch to the field where Christopher practices! I've NEVER BEFORE been backed up on this road where the speed limit in places is an efficient fifty miles an hour, but I was on this day! So by the time we arrived at the field, by the time I'd helped my older son don his upper-body protective gear and practice jersey, and by the time Christopher snapped on his helmet, THIRTY MINUTES of football practice had passed.

Now the old me -- the Masochistic Mother me, or the more-masochistic Masochistic Mother me -- would have said to herself: "Oh, well! Next time you can buy the snacks before the gymnastics class ends. Next time you can hand Christopher his football clothes earlier at the gym. And next time the road won't be narrowed to one lane." Very pragmatic, indeed, but nevertheless trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I would have found ways to shave off the time in my well-intentioned attempt to justify my decision to enroll Charlie in a class that didn't really work with our schedule. And I would have been a nervous wreck for it.

Let's get real!

Thankfully, I have wisened up, folks. The fact that I got caught in the unexpected traffic on a perfectly clear day showed me that anything can happen during this forty-five-minute RACE from one Massachusetts town to another at rush hour. What if it was raining? That would delay the driving. What if Charlie changed his mind about which snack he wanted after I'd purchased it during his class? I'd have to either relent and get him a new one, which would make us late to football, or say "too bad" and have a cranky six year old on my hands. To be sure, it is most unpleasant when Charlie -- or any other six year old -- is cranky. I jump through all kinds of hoops on a regular (er, multiple times a day!) basis to avoid this situation.

So I came to the only logical conclusion available to me: I said NO to the gymnastics class. Christopher had long been committed to football, and I did not want to dishonor that commitment by having him show up late to practice one day a week. (For the record, I struggle with lateness already. I certainly did not want to have another reason to be late AND to be stressed out about BEING late.) Besides, Charlie expressed no disappointment regarding not taking the class. He enjoys going to football practice and games where he meets up with the younger siblings of the players. And, before a town official told a parent the water was TOXIC, the little boys had an adorable Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn thing going on catching frogs, a snake, and even watching the snake EAT a frog in a creek near the practice field.

Gymnastics/football was a combination that clearly was not going to work for us this go-round. However, soccer/acting does. Upon first consideration, I believed Christopher could not take the performing-arts class in the city next door because its Saturday meeting time conflicted with Charlie's soccer clinic. However, when I thought it through, I realized that the boys could do both. If we left home at 1:30 p.m., we could get to the theater ten minutes before the 2 p.m. class. Returning immediately to our town, Charlie could arrive on the soccer field right on schedule at 2:15. I stay at soccer with my younger son until he finishes at 3:30, at which time we get in the car to head back to the theater for Christopher's 4 p.m. pickup.

Talk about mastering the schedule! The arrangement is downright masterful. It runs like Swiss clockwork. I couldn't plan it better if I tried.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mastering the Schedule: Part I (Choosing Activities)

Along with new teachers and new classes, the new school year ushers in new extracurricular activities for the kids. They may be old in the sense that the child has played that sport in previous years -- a familiar commodity, in other words -- or brand new to the boy or girl or family and, therefore, an experiment of sorts. In either case, coming up with just the right mix for the youngster, the sibling/s, and the parent/s, is no easy feat. As is so much of parenting, it's an issue of balance.

The school year for us is three weeks old, and I have just nailed down the schedule for both boys. First and foremost, my older son plays football. Christopher is in his second year on a team comprised of kids from our town and a neighboring community. The third- and fourth-graders make up the "C" team. Last year this team went undefeated and won the league Super Bowl.

Football seems to be the premier sport in our town. I was amazed last year at how many townsfolk come out for games. Sunday is a marathon day starting with the "D" team (Christopher's old team) at 11 a.m. and moving right on up to the "A" team in mid-afternoon. There are cheerleaders galore, and a canteen staffed by parents and kids serves an array of food to the hungry players, their brothers and sisters, parents, and out-of-town guests. To show team spirit and drum up interest in that weekend's games, players wear their shiny dark green jerseys to school on Fridays. The teams are coached by dads, former players themselves who dish up just the right amount of  machismo and nurturing to the eager boys learning the game.

I envisioned myself more as a Tennis Mom, but here I am a Football Mom of a large, defensive player in the third grade. I don't know where this is going, if anywhere. I just take it one day at a time and make sure I attend every practice and game so that I am available if needed because . . . FOOTBALL IS A DANGEROUS SPORT! (A couple of weeks ago I watched an "A" player being strapped to a stretcher. Neither parent attended that practice and couldn't be reached right away by phone to give permission for the transport to the hospital. I made a mental note to not let that happen to me!)

As surprising as it might seem, football is a FOUR-DAY-A-WEEK commitment for an eight year old. Yes, that's right. This isn't Texas or Nebraska I'm talking about. Noooo! It's MASSACHUSETTS. Practices are held for one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half hours Tuesdays-Thursdays with one-hour games against teams from a neighboring city on Sundays. You have to really love football to be this dedicated and, despite my mixed feelings about the sport, my son really does.

When you play football, not much time is left in the week for any other extracurricular activities . . . unless you have a highly driven and masochistic mother, which many women seem to be. Since Christopher also loves to perform, I try to keep that interest alive by looking for classes or other opportunities for him. Thus far, he's sung in a regional children's chorus; taken classes in hip hop/jazz dance, musical theater, and on-camera commercial acting; performed in a Christmas musical; won an acting and modeling contract; and worked as a paid extra in two Hollywood films ("Moonrise Kingdom" and "Grown Ups 2") two summers in a row. He is currently enrolled in a stage acting class (with a magic and prop-construction component) in the city next door that meets twice a week for a total of four hours.

GADZOOKS! I think I might be one of those masochistic mothers.

My younger son is busy in his own right but not nearly so. At the moment, he has two activities per week: soccer (his choice) and Tae Kwan Do (my choice). Charlie is my challenging child, so every new activity I put him in must be weighed VERY, VERY CAREFULLY.

Soccer is a case in point. When he was four, I enrolled him in the town's clinic as I had with Christopher at the same age. Charlie took to the sport but had fits when things didn't go his way on the field. Pretty normal stuff for a preschooler but disruptive when most of the other kids aren't doing the same. By his choice, he wound up becoming the unofficial clinic ball boy, chasing down the ball when it sailed out of bounds and tossing it back into play. Very helpful, yes, but NOT WHAT I PAID $90 FOR! So we took a break from the sport until last spring. Charlie played the game well again -- he is a natural -- yet his conduct still left a lot to be desired.

Ahem. Cough, cough.



Fast forward to almost four weeks ago: Back on the field, my first-grader lost it when a second-grader cut him in line for a drill. Kids this age are expected to behave, so in no time the man in charge of the clinic pulled me aside to inform me that Charlie was skating on thin ice. He would be KICKED OUT of the clinic if he had so much as ONE MORE outburst! He needed to take a ten-minute break before returning to the field. (FYI, it took thirty minutes for him to pull himself together.) Pondering this zero-tolerance policy, I wondered if Charlie's reputation in past clinics preceded him.

Since that day, I have given him several no-nonsense talkings to that have apparently made a difference, i.e. Charlie is still in the clinic. Just as he had last winter in basketball, he made the first score of the season for his soccer team. As one of three team "managers," I stand just out of bounds assisting with guiding play -- handy for also keeping Charlie in line if need be!

Tae Kwan Do is new for Charlie and the whole family. I don't know much about it, but this class at the elementary school comes with rave reviews. The sport's physical component, I figured, would appeal to my active son while its emphasis on self-discipline appeals to me. (Charlie needs help with self-discipline, duh.) At this point, we are only two classes in. However, he's happy so I'm happy. And I've heard nothing negative from the teacher.

Yay!

The fifty minutes my son is in class is fifty minutes I can be with Christopher who, like his brother, needs quality one-on-one time with me. (Charlie gets a two-hour slot of it on Friday afternoons when Christopher takes his acting class.)

Football practices and games are yet another animal when it comes to alone time. Charlie and I could spend them one-on-one, but he prefers to run off to a playground with his friends -- the younger siblings of other players -- so I stand on the sidelines or in the bleachers contentedly chatting with the mothers and fathers. These long hours on the turf could be a real drag, let me tell you. Instead, both of us find them quite enjoyable.

It's taken me several years to come up with a seasonal extracurricular schedule for my sons that works as well as this one does. The activities do not conflict with one another; are located close by, in our town or a neighboring community; and have not become too burdensome, with the exception of only a few days since mid-August when Christopher specifically asked to take a day off football.

Indeed, I am pleased with the choices I/we have made this fall. My boys are having fun; getting good exercise; and learning teamwork, self-discipline, more advanced football plays, a new martial art, and the creative workings of the theater. They are not getting burned out and still find enough time to complete their homework.

I think I finally got it right.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Nostrils, "Johnny," and the President

Just days before the Middle East erupted into violence over an anti-Muslim video, the Obama administration was riding especially high following a rousing Democratic National Convention. I had the privilege of attending the very first campaign rally post-convention.

Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Venue: Strawbery Banke Museum grounds

In attendance: The Obamas and Bidens (along with New Hampshire Governor John Lynch and United States Senator Jeanne Shaheen)

Mood: Jubilant

Weather: Unseasonably hot (in the 80s)

Felt like: In the 90s

Even more handsome in person: President Obama

Toughest to photograph behind a TelePrompTer: Vice President Biden

Organizers were best at: Providing water to the crowd

Organizers were worst at: Getting attendees back to their cars, which were parked at the Pease International Tradeport parking lot

Reason: The school buses that transported attendees into Portsmouth failed to pick them up post-rally.

Alternate mode of transportation used to get back to car: Group taxi

Rumors flying: The buses were dropping off children after school, but school was canceled that day, I was told. The buses were caught in a presidential-motorcade traffic jam at a rotary. However, two hours had passed since the rally ended, and the President had left the area on Air Force One.

Most unwanted photo I took: My nostrils

Best photo I took: My nostrils. (Don't believe me? See for yourself. Anna Wintour, are you reading this? It's gratifying to know that after a half-century I have finally found my best angle!)

Explain: Fifteen feet from the President and First Lady, I endured the world's worst-timed camera "malfunction." Standing side by side, the President was waving to the person standing next to me (yes, practically looking at ME!); the First Lady had a huge smile on her face.

Problem: The lens was facing me, not the President.

The power of Facebook: I inadvertently spotted a friend of a Facebook friend -- the former I didn't know about and the latter I hadn't met!

English, please: While waiting to enter the museum grounds, I posted as my status: "In line behind Johnny Depp doppelgänger. Lol." In no time whatsoever, my Facebook friend named "Johnny" as a very good friend of his. I was flabbergasted but by then couldn't confirm it because "Johnny" had disappeared into the crowd of thousands.

Small world: Later in the day, I saw "Johnny" again! I told him the funny story, and he confirmed his identity. He seemed unfazed to be mistaken for the Hollywood heartthrob. I figured it must happen often. Indeed, my Facebook friend later said it does.

Biggest annoyance of the day: Waiting thirty minutes to get out of the Pease parking lot because traffic was being directed by a campaign volunteer who looked TEN! (I was told he was fifteen.)

Biggest bummer of the day: Losing a friend's paperback copy of Dry, a memoir by Augusten Burroughs I was thoroughly enjoying, and my campaign-rally ticket stub stuck inside.

Hunter-Downer Mom action taken: Phoned Starbucks -- not there. Phoned taxi company -- not left inside vehicle. Phoned Pease International Tradeport -- not found in parking lot.

My best guess: I put it on the hood of my car while loading my car post-rally. In a big hurry to pick up my boys, I forgot the book. It fell to the ground while I backed up, and someone parked near me picked it up.

No worries: I have replaced the book. And the ticket? Well, at least I'd taken a picture of it. Most importantly, I'd had it when I needed it -- to get into the rally!

Perfect way to end the day: With a dip in the cool ocean after returning to my town and discovering I had one extra child-free hour -- I love it when that happens! -- having miscalculated the pickup time for the after-school program.

Verdict: A memorable day all around!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back-to-School Jitters

Like New Year's Day, the first day of school offers an opportunity to start over. Kids get new classes and new teachers. They make new friends and wear new clothes. They play on new teams and try out new enrichment activities.

Their parents get into the act as well. They post new photos on Facebook of their sons and daughters heading off to school. They might get a new haircut or reward themselves with getting through a long summer with scarce child care with a new pair of earrings. Perhaps they have a new schedule that enables them to pick their children up after classes or attend their kids' extracurricular activities. They adopt new routines at home and shepherd their kids through new homework.

The first day of school brings mixed emotions. Children experience excitement as well as anxiety. The jitters, in other words. Will they like their teachers? Why aren't some of their friends in their class? And for parents, well, the first day of school is loaded.

Our school district must have had the longest summer vacation in recent memory. We had not one snow day to make up, and we started the year yesterday six days later than last year when we did have numerous snow days. The end result: our summer vacation was two weeks -- yes, a full fourteen days! -- longer than last year.

It was a glorious summer. The weather was fantastic. We went away camping four times on multi-day/night trips -- to the Berkshires, Vermont, and Maine twice (to the same location back-to-back weeks, that's how much we enjoyed it). We spent a lot of time in a community-center outdoor pool: the boys playing, me swimming laps. We spent less time at the beach, though that's what late afternoons and weekends in September are for. And my oldest son had TWO Hollywood movie experiences. He saw himself onscreen in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" as a boy scout ever so briefly. SO briefly, in fact, that I missed him (DEVASTATED!) and had to go back to the theater a second time to spot him as the camera panned across his face in one scene. But that was nothing compared to "Grown Ups 2." Christopher put in a few hours of work five days in a row filming a dance recital scene for the Adam Sandler sequel due out next July. (That hip hop/jazz class at the Y sure paid itself off!) It was pretty heady stuff, indeed, for an eight year old! Not to mention I got to be photographed with Adam and Alexander Ludwig (the hot young actor who played Cato in "The Hunger Games"), shake Shaquille O'Neal's hand, and see up close a host of other big stars. Honestly, it's going to be mighty tough to top the summer's highlights next year.

So as we transition to the school year, you can probably appreciate my slight apprehension. It's back to work, basically. The class I teach starts in ten days, and I need to get others lined up as well as perhaps accept a part-time job. Both of these ventures will take a fair amount of hustling. A single mother friend of mine and I have applied to lead a preparation workshop for would-be parents, yet it wouldn't be held till late fall. I will continue blogging, of course, but need to step up efforts to increase my fan base via social media. Also prominent on my plate: making a second stab at landing an agent for my memoir. After that, I need to nab a publisher. Or, conversely, pursue self-publishing, which I REALLY would rather not do. In other words, a lot must be accomplished this fall -- chief among my tasks being earning more money to support my family and pay for my house in my very expensive town.

Though I did as much work toward these ends as I could have given my sons' limited day-camp hours this summer, the past few months have largely been about having fun . . . and to THAT end, I succeeded magnificently. Sure, it would have been nice to have gone on a couple of dates, better still get into a romantic relationship. But you can't do everything, and nobody knows that better than a full-time single mother like me with no family help! Pulling the latter off with two young boys -- eight and a half and six -- would be akin to winning the Olympic gold medal in women's judo. For what it's worth, I ALMOST got invited on a date to a museum (Ha!), and I DID get invited to an adult/child party too many states away. So, for awhile there, I had my admirers: my blog fanboys.

I feel some anxiety about the start of the school year. However, I also feel a HUGE amount of relief from round-the-clock caregiving of rowdy boys. Was I ready to send them off to school for six and a half hours five days a week? HELL, yeah!!! I haven't had a break from them in nearly an entire month. Seriously. Their day camp ended at noon on August 10; their school opened at 8:25 a.m. on September 6. I was so desperate I made plans to watch FIVE children (mine and a friend's three) in order to get two or two and a half hours to myself in return. Alas (or maybe thank God), the arrangement fell through when my oldest son fell sick.

Next week will be absolutely surreal when Christopher and Charlie are in school for a full week for the first time in three months. What am I going to do with myself besides the aforementioned work? Besides the grocery-shopping, laundry, straightening up the house (bwaahahaha, I say with evil laughter), bill-paying, etc.? Maybe get a massage or facial. Go swimming in the community center's indoor pool. Take out my flatwater kayak for the first time this year.

Therein lies the excitement of transitioning to the new season. Bring it on!