Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In Defense Of Valerie Bertinelli

It's been five years since Valerie Bertinelli -- the bubbly brunette from the classic sitcom of my youth One Day At A Time and current hit Hot in Cleveland -- lost more than forty pounds on the Jenny Craig diet. As the spokeswoman for the plan, she was not only my personal inspiration for my own weight-loss journey but also nearly the same age as me. (She is seventeen months older.)

She made the cover of People wearing a bikini and looking fabulous in it. I cut out a small version of the photo and stuck it to my refrigerator. If Valerie could look like that, I also want to go on JC. And so I did. I lost twenty-five pounds quickly and wore a bikini that summer as well. I didn't look as good as Valerie, of course, yet I was passable.


Well, like me, Valerie has put back some weight. (I've put back all the weight, but that's beside the point. Okay, it's part of the point. Anyway I'll talk about that later.) Like a child with her hand in the cookie jar, she has been caught by the paparazzi looking curvier. Gasp! And now she is taking heat for her more voluptuous figure. So much heat, in fact, that she felt obligated to go on The Talk to, you got it, talk about it. "I think we all need to give each other a break. Especially women -- let's leave each other alone!" she said.

Yes, let's give her a break! She turns fifty-four in three weeks and broke her foot a few months ago. Her doctor told her not to get her heart rate up. She is only recently getting back to the gym.

What kind of a society do we live in that a beautiful actress, wife, and mother has to feel the need to explain her weight gain to the world? It's a twisted society, the kind that has brought us the current round of female-driven fat-shaming. The "What's your excuse?" Maria Kang and the like. If this is the treatment that a beloved TV icon receives, what hope do the rest of us average women have about feeling good about our own bodies?

Not many women want to pack on pounds beyond their regular weight. They don't choose to gain weight. But they do so for many reasons: a medical condition, a personal crisis, age, pregnancy, etc. My weight gain has coincided with my years as a full-time single mother, so you can draw a conclusion from that.

I always had a slim, athletic physique. At the time I got pregnant with my first son, I would call my figure solidly athletic. I was playing #2 singles on my 4.5 USTA league tennis team during the week and entering New England tournaments on weekends. I was ranked in my region in three categories. At nearly forty-one and a half, my metabolism had slowed down somewhat. I was not as slender as I once was, but I was still toned. I liked the way I looked.

That pregnancy I gained twenty-one pounds and twenty-two the next -- not a lot of pregnancy weight! Both times I dropped every single lb. and even a couple of extra within one month of giving birth to each nine-pound boy. If I were a celebrity, People would have written an article about me.

Instead, I am a 24/7 single mother without a built-in support network. The past decade has been very challenging for me for a host of reasons: years of chronic fatigue syndrome due to sleep deprivation, sons who are complete opposites, two moves to different communities, toxic neighborhood experiences, being the only single mother by choice in my entire very small town, disappointing attempts at dating, falling victim to a scam, and more. End result: I gained weight.

Heck, who wouldn't have under those circumstances?!

When my eight year old was a preschooler, I decided to try to lose the unwanted padding. I reached for Slim Fast, as I have in the past. I have found it to be an easy way to shed a handful of lbs. Beyond that, however, it doesn't work so well for me. I get bored with the milkshakes, and they start to give me headaches, frankly.

But with Valerie as my guide, I was able to drop twenty-five pounds on the Jenny Craig plan in a matter of months, making my total weight loss thirty pounds. Thirty pounds. Pretty impressive, if I do say so myself! I looked fabulous. I was ready to get back to dating, so I ordered up a professional photo shoot in June 2010 to showcase my good looks.

Not long after I made these efforts, it all went for naught as life intervened in a cruel way. I was taken in by a Nigerian fraud on Match.com who wasted my entire summer. I was off the Jenny plan by this point, so my ability to maintain my desired weight was already tenuous. I certainly didn't need an emotional heartbreak as well!

In hindsight, what happened next was totally predictable: the weight came back on. Argh.

In case you're wondering, it doesn't just materialize all at once. It creeps up on you in such an insidious way that you don't even see it coming. First, the jeans get tight. Next you feel a slight stomach roll when you are sitting. And then you become a bit winded from walking a short distance. You can see the change in photographs and the mirror, so you avoid both. The damage has been done.

Depending on how much importance you place on your physical appearance, gaining the weight back may be a little frustrating or very frustrating. For me, I would say it was the former. I don't pay too much attention to my (and other people's) appearance. I do pay close attention to my (and other people's) character, however.

With lackluster motivation, I rejoined JC. I can't remember if it has been one or two years since signing back on, but my weight has not dropped quickly like it did before. It's hard to muster up the necessary energy to do something difficult once you have blown your success at it. So this recent go-round has been like one of those kiddie caterpillar roller coasters at small town fairs -- gently up and down, not terribly exciting, and not very productive.

I'm sorry to say that this week I recorded my heaviest-ever weight during my weekly JC weigh-in with my consultant. I was .4 (or maybe it was .6) lbs. above my previous high point. Obviously, I'm not proud of that, but I'm not crushed either. Like Valerie, I suffered from my own foot injury. I had plantar fasciitis for five months. What's more, our New England winter was particularly harsh this year, which made it challenging to get out on a regular basis to exercise. Yet the winter is also to blame (or possibly to thank!) for my newfound desire to make myself over weight-wise this spring.

As I work to slim up, you can be sure of one thing, however. I will not be shaming myself. Like Valerie, I will be giving myself a break.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dear Tyler Perry,

I saw your latest movie, The Single Moms Club, advertised on TV a couple of weeks ago. As a single mom myself, I was naturally intrigued yet doubtful that my kind of single mom -- a single mother by choice -- would be represented.

As single moms go, we are still very much in the minority, though our numbers are increasing. My guess was that you -- the creator and performer of the outrageous Madea -- might not know about SMCs or, if you had heard of them, would choose to ignore them when assembling a group of single mothers. Please don't take offense. It would hardly be the first time someone in the entertainment field overlooked the SMC!

So let me first apologize for my ignorance about you. Indeed, I was happily surprised to look up at the big screen and see the talented Wendy McLendon-Covey (Beverly on The Goldbergs) proudly state in an early scene of your movie that she (Jan) was a single mother by choice.

Fantastic! Of five single mothers prominently featured, one of them was an SMC. Kudos to you, Mr. Perry.

Let me take another moment to make a second admission. I have never watched any of your other films. I've seen Madea in commercials and trailers, of course, and not found that over-the-top brand of humor my cup of tea, so to speak. Thus, I have not taken the time to go to any of your movies until now. Suffice it to say, my expectations for The Single Moms Club were low.

Again you happily surprised me. I enjoyed it. I liked the premise: five stressed-out single moms whose children are getting in trouble in school are told to work together on a school project. Though they are very different, they learn to take comfort in the sisterhood they create together. I liked the cast. I liked the dilemmas the women and children faced. (In other words, I found them believable.) And I liked the poignant resolution to the lost-boy story.

Some aspects of the film bothered me a little, but I'll forgive you because I understand this is Hollywood. You needed a crowd-pleasing ending for your feel-good film. You needed to make things more simplistic than they would be in real life as you only had so many minutes of screen time with which to work. I get it. You weren't making Inception after all.

For example, how convenient that a gorgeous, available carpenter just happens to move next door to one of the moms! During her acrimonious divorce proceedings, she could use a thoughtful boyfriend as well as someone to build an enchanted-forest set for the moms' fundraiser project. Or how about the very first man the SMC considers in a romantic capacity in ten years being an equally gorgeous co-worker of another single mom?! (In case you're wondering, being celibate for a decade like Jan is not unusual for SMCs, as surprising as that may seem to the general population.) Your predictable devices were not inspired, but I'll give you a pass on them.

However, what I do want to take issue with is your portrayal of the SMC character. Honestly, could you have made Jan any more unlikable?! Wow. She has got to be one of the nastiest female lead characters I've seen on film in recent memory. She is full of herself, uptight, rude, bossy, and a know-it-all. Completely insufferable, in other words. She is determined to make partner at her large publishing company but is held back by her daughter whom she finds annoying and "a brat." Not surprisingly, Jan's daughter Katie doesn't feel loved by her mother. Katie spitefully tells Jan that she wants to get married when she grows up so she won't be a single mother via anonymous sperm donor like her mom. Ouch!

Here's the problem, Mr. Perry. You've got SMCs all wrong. I have been one for a decade and have been talking to them for even longer. SMCs are not self-centered, as you make Jan out to be. They are the complete opposite: self-sacrificing. Every day they are focused on making money to financially support their child or children and meet his, her, or their basic needs by putting food on the table, washing their clothes, creating a comfortable home, etc. Assisted by no tag-teaming with a husband or ex, SMCs take their children to every sports practice and game (unless they arrange a ride with another parent); pay all the monthly rent on their kids' trombones or clarinets; and singlehandedly juggle luggage, a baby carrier, a stroller, and the young ones contained in both through airports and rental-car agencies so that everyone can once in a blue moon have a much-needed vacation.

SMCs willingly and happily do all of this solo because they wanted their children so much. They arrived at their decision to have a child or children in various ways. In some cases, marrying a man as a means to having a family is not a choice they would make because they are gay. In other cases, they have thrown themselves into their careers to such an extent that their social lives and romantic lives have suffered. They simply didn't have time to pursue a relationship that might have led to marital union. Still others tried hard to find Mr. Right but didn't have him when they needed him, i.e. when their biological clocks were ticking loudly.

While some women finding themselves in this predicament might have settled for partners who didn't seem exactly right, others held the institution of marriage in such high regard that they opted not to chance a likely divorce scenario. Still, they had love to give, so they elected to undertake the radical and life-changing process of giving birth to or adopting a child or children on their own.

It remains a very difficult decision to make, for obvious reasons: bringing a child into the world or into one's life is a huge responsibility that cannot be understated. But just because a male partner may not be there doesn't mean the desire to have a child is also not there!

Going from being a childless woman to an SMC is no easy transition, let me tell you. It is very costly. It can take a lot of time. It can cause a lot of frustration. It often involves many fertility treatments; years of failed pregnancy attempts or adoption snafus; and, needless to say, heartache from both. I won't bore you with any more specifics. I shouldn't have to because after enduring all of this don't you think the woman who finally succeeds in becoming a mother is going to be eternally grateful? Of course, she is! She has worked long and hard to achieve her dream. She is ecstatic.

Very soon she will discover that single motherhood is no cake walk, especially if she has a weak or nonexistent support network, sketchy finances, or a challenging child. She may learn that her workplace is not SMC-friendly and eventually change jobs, as Jan did. She may feel some aggravation that she can't reach her work goals due to her family obligations. Who could blame her after all her years of higher education and career experience climbing the ladder of success? Yet one thing is very certain: she would never call her child a brat or make her child feel unloved! Her child or children are most important to her in life. That's what it is to be an SMC, Mr. Perry. It's to put your child first. It's also to want to put your child first.

I have a couple of suggestions for you. If you were set on creating a character who loves her job more than her child, then you might have chosen to make her divorced or going through a divorce. Men and women in countless numbers end their marriages for all sorts of reasons including one spouse (or both) being a workaholic. You certainly wouldn't hurt the legions of divorced women as a whole one iota if you had changed Jan's marital status. However, by making her the rare SMC instead of the garden-variety divorcee, you are making a statement that is both incorrect and insulting. You are feeding into a "selfish" negative stereotype that has no basis in reality and only serves to offend.

Unfortunately (and, personally, I really resent this), many of us who are SMCs have suffered through being labeled "selfish" when we announced to our families and even some of our friends that we planned to pursue single motherhood or having a second child. (For the record, some SMCs are raising more than two children.) The breaking-the-news conversation can be quite unpleasant -- with additional name-calling, blaming, and belittling. I have received this treatment from members of my own family, and I know plenty of other women who have as well. Not surprisingly, the would-be single mother is left feeling isolated and demoralized by the very people who should be supporting her.

If you were determined to include an SMC -- and, by no means, am I opposed to you and others doing so! -- you could have chosen a different problem than her horrible personality for her to overcome. Maybe she couldn't invite friends over because she was stretched too thin by her job and child-rearing to have the time and energy to put her home in order. Now that's a credible predicament. Perhaps The Single Moms Club could have converged on her home and all worked together to clean it up. Or suppose the SMC lacks balance in her life and can't find time to visit the gym regularly. The ladies in The Single Moms Club could take turns picking her up at work and taking her to the gym to make sure she gets there. The workouts help her improve her mood and shed the Ben & Jerry's muffin top she is trying to conceal. The other moms, meanwhile, could coordinate the care of daughter Katie during that time -- making her dinner and being available for questions about her homework. Instead, you gave Jan a boyfriend (or what looked like an almost-boyfriend), which is far from an SMC's greatest need and the easiest trick in the book, frankly.

I realize that my ideas wouldn't produce glamorous resolutions for Jan, i.e. they're not Hollywood enough. But they are real. They are authentic. And they are an immensely satisfying ending for a single mother by choice -- both the one onscreen and the one in the audience.

In short, please be more careful with your future characterizations, Mr. Perry. They have repercussions on real people. As such, they should be accurate and handled with sensitivity. Otherwise, thank you for an entertaining movie.

Sincerely yours,

Shelby

P.S. If you need a consultant to help you better understand the life of an SMC, I am available.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Food and Children's Behavior: Exhibit A, My Son

Many children are allergic to eggs, peanuts, milk, shellfish, and other food products. Others need to go gluten-free. Obesity is a nationwide epidemic, and more than half a million teenagers suffer from an eating disorder. Parents struggle with getting their kids to consume vegetables. Heck, books on the subject practically make up their own cottage industry! And then there are the kids with a limited palate. They only eat pizza, mac 'n cheese, chicken nuggets, and other fast or fried fare of questionable health value.

In the food realm, I consider myself very fortunate. My two sons have no allergies, are not overweight, do not have an eating disorder, happily eat vegetables (See "Ate Their Veggies," 10/3/13), and willingly down all sorts of exotic menu offerings. Last night, for example, they had sushi for dinner. Chicken and pork gyoza dumplings, shrimp shumai, and California rolls.

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For the first time in a decade of motherhood, however, a food issue/habit/peculiarity (I don't know exactly what to call it) has arisen with one of my sons. Charlie, who turns eight in two weeks, is a grazer. For lack of a better word, I'm going to call it his eating style.

Discovering that my younger son eats differently from the rest of the family has made a huge impact on our household. It's only been a few weeks, but things have markedly improved in several areas already.

First, let me explain how we got to this place: A couple of times (maybe three, I'm not sure) in the past two school years, an employee at the school has asked me to provide more snacks for Charlie in his lunch box. Since I gave both of my boys the same collection of snacks every day (though it varied from day to day) or the same number of snacks every day, it seemed strange to me why I was getting complaints only about Charlie. Why wasn't Christopher -- a ten-year-old football player who is large for his age and not surprisingly has a big appetite -- asking for additional or different snacks? Why wasn't the school making it an issue with my older son?

Since Charlie has always been my challenging child, it was easy for me to relegate this discussion like so many others to the here-we-go-again pile. It's always something with that child! Anyway, I dutifully did what was asked of me, and we all moved on.

Then breakfast became a topic of discussion with the school. Just like with snacks, my boys are served the same breakfast as one another every day, though the meal varies from day to day.

On weekends, I cook eggs and bacon. The former are usually scrambled or fried -- and often placed atop a piece of buttered bread the way my father and I used to like them when I was a child. (When broken, the liquid yellow yolk tastes so yummy as it soaks into the bread.) On occasion, I make omelettes, pancakes, or waffles.

On weekdays, however, like most other mothers of school-age children, I am in a rush. A mad rush. Okay, a Mad Mom rush! Between 7 a.m., when we get up -- I am not an early riser by choice! -- and 8:25, when the boys are due at school, I juggle numerous tasks. I make breakfast for the three of us; eat my own; pack snack bags; put lunch money in labeled envelopes (or, if I do not have exact change, grudgingly make both lunches); watch a few minutes of news and weather on The Today Show; pick out clothes for each son to wear (yep, still doing that, but it sure beats arguing over their wardrobes); check over homework; quiz a child or two on spelling, science, or social studies for his/their test/s; load up the backpacks with all the items needed for the day including sneakers (because they wear snow boots to school), snow pants (in case they go out at recess), folders, notebooks, and books; and, finally, get them to school, either by car or on foot. With all of this running around, I usually only offered cereal for breakfast. It's also all I ate. Yet if a son asked for a second bowl, I was happy to oblige.

Well, unbeknownst to me, my younger son decided to partake in the school's hot breakfast. I'm not exactly sure how he managed to swing it, but I started getting mysterious charges from the Food Services Department (again).

Truth be told, I have had an issue with the FSD for several years. This is why I put exact change for each lunch in each envelope in each boys' backpack each day. The FSD continues to insist that I owe money for each of my boys when I have never once not provided them with lunch money or an actual lunch. Some days Charlie forgets to hand over his lunch-money envelope. I find it in his backpack that evening, write a date on it, and return it to school the next day with that day's envelope. In this way, I have accounted for every single day. Yet Charlie's "debt" is growing. Why?!

To test the system, a couple of years ago I sent a bigger bill in to cover two days' worth of lunches, and I put it in writing what I was doing (not the test part). Well, much to my chagrin, the FSD didn't follow my plan because I had to then chase down an itemization of the so-called debts to match their dates against my record of the date I sent in the larger bill. Sure enough, I was charged on the second day even though I'd sent in the larger bill to cover it. To make matters even more confusing, my son had been home sick on the second day. He hadn't even been at school to eat a lunch! Another time, checking dates against a debt itemization, I discovered that Christopher was being charged for lunches during a week we were actually away! It was the only time we ever took a spring vacation not the regular vacation week but one week off to save on high-priced Easter airfare. Naturally, I protested those charges. The fact that another boy in my son's class had the same name threw yet another monkey wrench in the situation. I wondered if there'd been a mix-up.


Thus, once again receiving e-mails alerting me to increasing debt in a lunch account did not set off alarm bells. It was more like here-we-go-again all over again! Only this time it was concentrated in Charlie's account. With too much on my plate (pun intended), I ignored the messages -- viewing them as annoying and unjustified anyway. Then I got two calls from the school. I can't remember if they came from the classroom teacher, guidance counselor, nurse, or another staff member. But the gist of them was: I was being accused of sending my then-first-grader to school with no breakfast! Since that is not what I'd done, I vehemently denied the charge. It must have been either Charlie's claim or an assumption staff made to explain why my son was going to the cafeteria to order pancakes like he was at IHOP! The school will not turn away a child wanting food, so Charlie was served. I was charged, and I couldn't figure out why . . . until the phone calls came.

At that point, I made it clear to staff that I had most definitely not authorized my son to get hot breakfasts at school. I gave Charlie a talking-to and resolved to do better in regard to making sure he -- just like Christopher -- ate the breakfast I'd given him. That was the issue, I believed: Christopher was finishing his breakfast and other meals while Charlie was not. Very simple, indeed! The problem vanished for a period of time, but then Charlie found another way to obtain food at school. One employee kept a stash of tasty crackers. Like a few other children, my younger son started visiting this staff member, and he wasn't opposed to exaggerating his need!

One morning after dropoff I returned to the school for a completely unrelated reason. I was in a happy mood. Yet it quickly soured when an employee confronted me with: "YOU SENT YOUR SON TO SCHOOL WITH TWO CRACKERS!" NO, I most definitely had not, I assured her. Admittedly, that day's snack assortment was not the best I'd ever provided. I was at the end of my grocery week. Still, I had no doubt what was inside that lunch box: eight or nine Ritz crackers and a grapefruit fruit cup. Well, the employee acted as if she hadn't heard me. "Little Charlie?! Who is YAY HIGH?!" She held her hand up to her waist for dramatic effect. "Two crackers? You sent TWO CRACKERS!!!"

I corrected her underestimation of his height. Charlie is one of the tallest kids in the second grade. He is 4'5 1/2. And I repeated that she was wrong about the two crackers. "I KNOW what I sent to school for his snack! I packed the lunch box myself," I declared.

I then went to find the employee with the cracker stash, and I relayed the nasty exchange to her. She promptly turned beet red and sheepishly shook her head no. Obviously, she didn't expect me to show up at the school that morning. Obviously, she didn't expect to get BUSTED for spreading misinformation that made me look bad and resulted in me getting bullied!

After leaving the school in an irate mood, I headed to a grocery store to stock up on snacks. I showed them, including a small cup of applesauce, to the offending employee upon my return to the school and added: "Charlie won't need a spoon because he has his from the fruit cup!" It felt good to stick it to her just a little bit. After all, she had it coming.

Following that unpleasant episode, Charlie got another talking-to. I explained how his "I only got two crackers!" resulted in my humiliation, which I certainly did not appreciate. Shortly thereafter, I fired off an e-mail to the principal telling him about the unprofessional gossiping about my son's snack and how it was not even based in fact. His response assured me that such an incident would not happen again.

My son is willing to tell a little white lie and/or manipulate a situation to get what he wants. I am not calling him bad. Many children are capable of the same behavior. Moreover, if he's hungry, then he's hungry! Of course, I don't want him to be hungry.

During this time, he was having increasing difficulties at school. Not academically, athletically, artistically, or socially. Rather, every once in a while a scenario would set him off. A couple of times said scenario involved an activity in the classroom that for one reason or another hadn't gone his way. Charlie is very good at math and can even multiply, though he's not been taught how. So he took it especially hard when he had trouble following instructions for a math game. Another time a student accidentally answered a question wrong on an iPad program when it was Charlie's turn. There have been two incidents in which classmates have provoked my son by flinging something at him or hitting him with a piece of sports equipment. The conflict is then dealt with, apologies are obtained or at least requested, and the other child involved moves on. But Charlie has remained upset. He has trouble pulling himself together when someone else does something to him either by accident or on purpose.


The school started to notify me about these types of incidents for the first time last spring. There weren't many yet just enough to make me take notice. At the end of the first week of school this year, I received a call from Charlie's second-grade teacher. Many parents are accustomed to fielding calls from their children's teachers on a regular basis. Happily, I am not one of them. However, something about it being the first week of classes prompted me to make a preemptive strike. I contacted the school's brand-new guidance counselor and scheduled an appointment.

A little background: two years ago I spoke often to the then-guidance counselor. Then she got pregnant, had a baby, and took a year off work. After putting my trust in her, I have to admit that I was a little annoyed she was no longer available to me, though of course for a good reason. I didn't have the energy or motivation to get to know the next guidance counselor, so I didn't. As it turned out, I really didn't need her. Well, not until the end of the school year anyway.

Last September, I introduced myself to the third guidance counselor in three years (actually, her title is "adjustment counselor") -- by golly, I hope she stays a long while! -- and told her about our unique family and my/our challenges. I talked for probably an hour.

Fast-forward six months: she has been a wonderful comfort and resource to both Charlie and myself. Until about three weeks ago, I was being contacted by the school on average about once a week for one situation or another. Then one day Charlie's classroom teacher phoned me with different news.

"I think Charlie is a grazer," she said. As soon as she began speaking, I felt the pieces of the proverbial puzzle all coming together. It was a Eureka moment for me! It was fantastic. She told me that she believes my younger son is one of those people who needs to eat small meals throughout the day rather than larger meals three times a day. She told me that she believes my younger son needs protein in the morning before school and at various times throughout the day to keep his energy level up and his mood balanced. It made perfect sense to me!

It's one thing to learn about your child's eating style. That alone is terrific and so very helpful. Anything you can learn about your son or daughter will make both of your lives a lot easier because understanding will always lead to a better place. But it's a whole 'nother ball of wax altogether to realize that this new knowledge -- this honest-to-God breakthrough! -- can improve your child's behavior to a significant extent. And that is exactly what has happened with Charlie.

Since the classroom teacher called me roughly three weeks ago, I have not been contacted even once about any problem with Charlie at school. He is much happier, and so am I! That's because I now make packing his snack bag with a greater number of items (protein among them) and choosing his breakfast offerings a major priority. It's not that they weren't a priority per se before. It's that now I really get how my selections impact my son's experience at school. Now I send him off in the morning most days with an egg or two in his stomach. He prefers them soft-boiled. Some days I fry up several pieces of bacon for him as the accompaniment to his cereal. Or I mix it up with toast and jam, yogurt tubes, and fresh fruit.

At school, he tends to have trouble regulating his mood or coping with a challenge at times during the day when he is hungry. So the teacher now lets him go to his lunch box and nibble on a snack to satisfy his need. She suggests it to him, or he asks for permission. It might be a Slim Jim or two; ten silver-dollar-sized slices of Italian sausage; chunks of rotisserie chicken; or rolled-up ham, turkey, or bologna.

This strategy may not wind up as the be-all, end-all panacea every time my son has a difficulty. However, it has worked like a charm thus far in the school setting. Indeed, it has been a long, rough road with the school getting to this place with my son. But I am extremely grateful to his classroom teacher for her keen observations and willingness to pass them along to me. Hats off to you, Mrs. M!

Teacher-parent communication at its finest!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Top 10 Reasons Why I Am DONE With Old Man Winter!

Tonight, as the third polar vortex of the season bears down upon us, temperatures are expected to drop twenty-two degrees. Snow is also in the forecast. Really? Haven't we had ENOUGH this winter???!!!

Three months ago I -- like countless others, I suspect -- had never heard of this extreme weather phenomenon that sounds like a giant funnel cloud from Inuit country. But now it's the dreaded terminology slipping all too frequently from the lips of meteorologists like some kind of atmospheric Dementor. Unfortunately, however, pointing a wand at the sky and shouting "Expecto Patronum!" with the utmost conviction will do nothing to dispel its nasty effects.

Still, it's not just the multiple bouts of brutal cold we've been experiencing here in the Northeast (and elsewhere in the country) that are wearing people down. It's also the ridiculously frequent heavy snowstorms that have pounded the region. Put together, with barely any respite in between, they have spelled ONE SERIOUSLY GNARLY WINTER.

Exactly why have the freezing temps and abundance of snow been such a royal nuisance? Let me count the ways in no particular order.

1. The Unpleasant Factor. Frigidity just doesn't feel good against the skin, period. Dressing like a Michelin Man to keep warm is neither attractive nor comfortable.

2. School Closings. Amazingly, my sons' elementary school has had only two snow days this year, and one of them was actually a scheduled half day. That's because our district waits until the eleventh hour before making a decision on whether to hold classes or not or impose a start delay. We, the parents, receive a recorded phone message from the school superintendent at something like 5:40 a.m. on the day in question.

By contrast, other school systems call it the night before. The upside: parents get more time to prepare for the inconvenient problem of children being home instead of at school. The downside: mistakes are made, i.e. school is sometimes canceled when it doesn't need to be.

After all of last winter's five allotted snow days were taken, you can guess how happy I am that only two (or, technically, one and a half) have been used thus far this winter! The 2013 summer break lasted exactly two months, which is beyond pathetic. At least we are on track for a longer vacation this year.

Here's the thing about school closings: they are just one more way kids get to miss classes and parents are deprived of their time . . . desperately needed time! Other means to that end include Monday holidays, half days (for professional reasons, ahem, just kidding!), sick days, and doctor- or dentist-appointment days. (For the uninformed, which happily included me until very recently, tooth procedures beyond a standard cleaning are conducted during the school day, not after school. Regrettably, several such days of ours have been cut in two by a pulpectomy here, a pearly-white extraction there.)

"They're hardly ever in school!" is a running joke line among parents for a reason. Indeed, I'd have to go back to mid-December, if not earlier, to locate a week during which both of my sons put in the full 8:25 a.m.-2:55 p.m. school day five days in a row. (Last week was typical. Thursday was lost because my younger son, Charlie, was home sick.)

3. Driving. Does anyone enjoy taking the wheel in a snowstorm? Or an episode of freezing rain? I doubt it. I know I certainly don't! Yet that is exactly what must be done to get from Point A to Point B if the situation calls for it at that time.

4. Being in a Too-Frequent State of High Alert. The TV news puts us in a panic with its warnings of snow measured in feet rather than inches, coastal flooding into neighborhoods, pipes bursting, and tree limbs snapping. The Weather Channel piles on with its ridiculous naming of storms. Nemo. Hercules. Maximus. Come on! Who isn't going to freak out, at least a little, after learning that the storm arriving tonight is named Titan?!

5. Needing to be Constantly Ready. It's stressful to have to drop what you're doing every few days in order to head to the supermarket to stock up. The refrigerator and kitchen cabinets must be full in case we are snowed in. Canned goods must be on hand if the power goes out, and I can't cook. Are you prepared with spare flashlight batteries, extra toilet paper, plenty of milk and bread, and more? Is your shovel within easy reach? Thinking about all of this endlessly is a hassle!

6. Exhaustion/Pain. De-icing the car and shoveling the driveway and front walk over and over again is tiring and causes a middle-aged back like mine to hurt. Unlike many people, I am fortunate to have a carport, so I don't need to do the former. We live on a private street and contract out our snow removal. The plow driver comes during and/or after a significant snowfall. He clears our cul-de-sac and the three driveways shooting off of it then returns again and maybe even a third time if the storm is big enough. He does not show up for just a few inches of white, fluffy stuff. Street residents take care of that themselves.

Despite having someone to plow, I end up doing a fair amount of shoveling myself . . . when he chooses not to come and due to my somewhat anal obsession with keeping my driveway very clear. (I can't get my house in order for the life of me, but you should see the bang-up job I do on my driveway!) It is of medium length, neither what you would consider long nor legitimately qualifying as short. Sometimes I enlist my sons to help -- or Charlie volunteers, bless his soul! -- but we are presently down one shovel because a neighborhood kid broke it and hasn't replaced it.


7. Sickness. You don't have to be a PhD to recognize that people tend to get ill more frequently in the winter than other times of the year. I can't remember the last time I was under the weather for more than three days straight. Three years ago? I am frequently exhausted, however. Well, you guessed it! I am suffering from cold symptoms right now. I'm on Day 7, as a matter of fact. Chicken noodle soup is my new best friend. Like me, Charlie is hardly ever sick. Yet the winter of 2013-2014 has done even him in. He missed only his second day of school ever due to illness on Thursday. What a rare occurrence that was for the two of us to have to remain home!


8. Cabin Fever. Being stuck inside thanks to North Pole-like temperatures and wind-chill factors is challenging, much more so if you have children. They want to get out, play in the snow, and see their friends. But that is not possible for safety reasons. So they get cranky. They fight. Meanwhile, poor mom is slowly going insane because she needs a break from them!

9. Stress. Being pushed incessantly by the elements is tough to take mentally. It's that needing-a-warm-vacation feeling x 1,000. Sensing you might snap. Knowing you've reached your limit. Feeling sick of it, just all-out DONE WITH IT!!! Imagine if I didn't get that pre-first-polar-vortex trip to Florida over Christmas! Wow. I am so grateful for our first week-long sojourn in almost three years, even if we did return home with absolutely no color in our faces from mostly cold, rainy, and cloudy weather down south!

10. Expense. The exorbitant price of heating your home. In my case, the high cost of having my street and driveway plowed. It's $30 a pop for me. So far this season I've paid $270, and I still owe $90 more. That's twelve plowings! God forbid a pipe bursts, or you crash your car on black ice. Countless people around the country have endured these and other horrible fates this winter. I'm thanking my lucky stars I'm not one of them. (Knock on wood for the remaining eighteen days of the season!) Staying in a hotel or getting your vehicle repaired can really hit your wallet hard. Fortunately, I haven't had to get my roof cleared of snow like I did a few years ago. That adventure set me back a whopping $800! I almost had to buy my older son, Christopher, new snow pants the day before February vacation, though. Great time to lose them, right?! Thankfully, two friends came through for me, and we were able to borrow a pair.

Reading this list, you might think (but I suspect you won't because you agree with me): Oh, she just doesn't like winter! NO. I chose to live in northeastern Massachusetts. I chose to go to college in Vermont. I grew up in Connecticut. I am a proud New England woman through and through. (Well, other than my Big Apple-issued birth certificate; the first two years of my life in Westchester County, New York; and four years in Seattle.)

Downhill skiing is my favorite sport. I also cross-country ski, sled, and skate outdoors. I just bought myself a pair of snowshoes. And I've even camped in the snow -- though only once and, truth be told, it was an unseasonably warm night.

I'm bringing up my boys to love winter as well. To that end, we recently returned from our third February vacation trip to King Pine, a low-key family-friendly mountain in New Hampshire. There we skied, went tubing, and loved every minute of it.

Yet the winter of 2013-2014 has been excessive. EXCESSIVE. At this point, I am so ready to spot a purple crocus. I am so ready to glimpse a patch of green grass. I am so ready to watch a red-breasted robin build its nest.

Be gone, Old Man Winter!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Olympic Fever: Pass It On!

When I was a child, watching the Olympics was a great bonding experience with my parents. We would sit around our clunky TV with our giant calico cat named Puss keeping warm in front of the rabbit ears as we marveled at Mark Spitz and Dorothy Hamill.

We revered these incredible athletes: Peggy Fleming, the Mahre brothers, and Bruce Jenner. There were too many to name. They lifted us up emotionally. They inspired us.

A large book with photos of Jesse Owens, Sonja Henie -- my uncle claimed to have been in a movie with her once -- and other famous Olympians sat on our marble-top coffee table. I loved this book. It was paperback, basically an enclopedia of the Games. It listed record holders and included blank lines for readers to fill in gold-medal winners and their times. With my pencil poised ready to jot down results, I found it thrilling to watch a final because I was participating in the excitement.

Now I'm the parent, and the Olympics are back on TV. My parents and cat have long since died. Our flat-screen television doesn't have rabbit ears, and I haven't seen that book in two decades. But, at fifty-two, I still get a childlike zing out of watching the Games.

I hope to pass my Olympic fever onto my sons.

Four years ago when the last Winter Games were held, my eldest was six. We sat together on our red cloth couch and watched the action in Vancouver.

Christopher is ten now, but he recalls quite a bit from those Games. He remembers wild-haired Shaun White, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso (in tiara on the podium), Lindsey Vonn (sidelined this year while recovering from knee surgery, unfortunately), Apolo Ohno, Evgeni Plushenko, and others.


Not bad for a kindergartener!

My younger son, almost eight, was only four in 2010. Charlie says he has no memories of watching the Vancouver Olympics. These Sochi Games will be the first Winter Games he remembers.

This year we've watched Shaun, now short-haired (and very wealthy from his clothing line at Target, etc.), attempt to repeat his winning snowboarding performance in the halfpipe. He came up short, placing fourth.

You win some, you lose some.

We've talked about how Bode Miller, in winning the bronze in the Super-G -- "What's that?" asked Charlie -- became the oldest Alpine skier to ever win an Olympic medal.

Don't let age quash your dreams.

I even mentioned how "Bode" was on my short list for my second son's name. (Charlie was born one month minus one day after the 2006 Turin Olympics closed.)

We've learned many new names this year: Sage Kotsenburg (see "Sage!", 2/10/14), T.J. Oshie, Charlie White, and Noelle Pikus-Pace to name a few. We've heard about a dangerous snowboarding run and poor (balmy) weather conditions for skiing. We've watched a revolving door of prime-time commentators fill in for Bob Costas, suffering from pink eye.

We've seen Billy Bush from Access Hollywood join The Sochi Walrus Club in the Black Sea. We've discussed the underwhelming finishes of the U.S. speedskating team. Were those high-tech Under Armour (Under Performer?) -- suits the culprit?

Moreover, I've relayed to the boys how Bode was brought to tears by reporter Christin Cooper after his bronze medal-winning run because NBC wanted him to get emotional talking about his late brother Chelone.

Shame!


Chris and Charlie have seen the amazing photograph of the broken door after bobsledder Johnny Quinn got stuck in the shower. They've heard about the malfunctioning snowflake/Olympic ring.

They've watched The Russian Police Choir perform a rousing rendition of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." And they've laughed at the open-mouthed expression of figure skater Ashley Wagner because they remember gymnast McKayla Maroney's similarly hilarious "not impressed" meme from the 2012 London Summer Games.

If my sons had to choose between entering a bobsledding or skeleton event, they'd pick the former. "I don't think I want to go down headfirst," said Christopher.

Wise boys. I'd have to concur.

The Closing Ceremony -- sniff, sniff -- are in three days. Before Sunday, we will learn many more new names and be told many more new inspiring stories of competitors.

I, for one, will be very sad to see it all end. Then again the Rio Summer Games are only two years away.

I can wait. I'll have to wait.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sage!

Utah-bred Sage
is a snowboarder for the age.
Doesn't train in a gym,
shreds the gnar while chewing gum.

His blond hair like Spicoli is wild.
His rad event: Slopestyle.
Learned the sport with big bro Blaze.
Hmm. Do I suspect hippie ways?

He's only twenty
yet caught air aplenty
doing his inaugural 1620
in his quest for gold
at the Winter Games in Sochi.

So bold was he
to "wing" the aerial trick!
Would he stick
the landing? Oh, yes.
Who could have guessed?!

Sage is his own man:
laid back and nonconformist.
No Corporate Dan.
Gracious, funny, and popular,
he doesn't see himself as a star.

"Whoa how random is this
I made finals at the Olympics!"
he was stoked to tweet.
The favored Canucks went down in defeat.











Friday, January 31, 2014

Seasonal Haikus





Untouched whipped cream peaks
bury chairs, top round table.
Snow blanket: warmth fail.













Plane window captures
winter solstice sun setting.
Seat belt light alarms.















Chairlift riding joy
anticipates a ski run.
Sudden halt then sway.















Buddha head beckons
visitors to pause, reflect.
Jet ski whir breaks peace.














Hot cocoa delight --
cold day heavenly reward.
Stop! Sipping fast burns.







Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy Place

Do you have a Happy Place? A place where you can fully relax, be yourself, and recharge? A place of comfort not stress?

If you're lucky, it is your home. You spend the most time there, so wouldn't it be wonderful to feel utterly at peace in that comfy environment surrounded by friendly, helpful folk? Perhaps it is your parents' residence, your sister's place, or your best friend's apartment. You seek refuge with these loved ones on holidays, vacations, or weekends. They give you strength and remind you who you are when times are tough.

But maybe you don't have that kind of neighborhood, and maybe you don't have a loving memory-filled childhood home still in the family. Maybe you don't have siblings, and maybe your best lifelong friends don't live nearby. That is my situation, unfortunately.

It would be fabulous to be able to escape once in a while to a rustic lake house or ski mountain A-frame. A few lucky souls can do that, but most of us including me can't. We need to find our Happy Place. Create our Happy Place.

For the past decade, mine -- make that ours -- has been Club Med at Sandpiper Bay in Florida. It's not the most beautiful Club Mediterranee in the world by a long shot. It's not situated in an exotic locale. Heck, it's not even on the ocean! Yet it is the only Club Med now in existence in the United States. It is fairly easy to reach from our home. It is family-friendly. And it offers plenty of activities to keep my two sons and myself contentedly busy, if that's what we choose.

I first visited this Club Med in 2004 when my first son, Christopher, was nine months old. I was an exhausted full-time single mother of almost forty-three. It took everything out of me to get my baby down to Florida by plane and to the club by shuttle van. But once there, I was able to kick back because the club has a terrific child-care program. Christopher, who had recently started part-time day care in Brighton, MA, near our Cambridge apartment, slipped easily into the program.

Boy, was I grateful!

I met many parents whose babies or kids even had a hard time adjusting to being in the care of strangers in a strange environment. Mom and Dad would have to pick the children up early, or they couldn't go to the program at all. The parents would then be annoyed because they felt that they weren't getting their vacation.

Not me.

Christopher, bless his tiny soul, was a champ! He must have known how much I needed the break that the six-day-a-week care provided me. I can't remember too many specifics from that very first visit due to the sleep-deprived fog I lived in for years. But I do recall that the highlight of my week was seeing my son on stage in a baby show. He was sitting in a turquoise-colored foam tub and dressed and made up as a clown. His incredible cuteness brought me to tears. Little did I know at the time that this sweet first performance would usher in a decade of many more.

If you are a single mother who has no one to pass your child or children off to, such as an ex-husband or parent of your own, then you have very few choices when it comes to vacations. And who needs a vacation more than a single mother?!

If you have more money to spend on airfare and possibly the club itself, you might choose a Club Med in a foreign locale. Not every club accepts young children. However, the ones in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and Cancun and Ixtapa (Mexico) do, for example. I've been to the Cancun resort pre-children, and Ixtapa is pretty far away (read: unaffordable airfare). Thus, Punta Cana is very appealing to me. Unfortunately, getting there requires passports for the three of us -- mine is expired, and I haven't obtained any for the boys -- but, mostly, the added costs for the flights makes that destination prohibitive to us.

Someday. . . .

Beaches doesn't have any U.S. locations, and I don't know a single soul who has been to South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island in Florida. If you bring a nanny along with you, or do some sort of group share involving nannies and other families, your horizons can open further.

However, my kids do well in a structured program with a lot of others their own age, so the Club Med experience is a sure thing because it is very familiar to me. Since the age of twenty-five when I visited the Copper Mountain ski site, I have stayed at a total of six Club Med locations -- half of them now gone the way of the dodo bird.

Indeed, Club Med is like an old friend. I know what I'm going to get. The relationship takes no effort. And I walk away happy.

Please don't mistake me for someone who resists hard travel. I've zipped around Western Europe and Great Britain alone and spent nearly two years total on two separate trips backpacking Lonely Planet-style through Asia and the South Pacific. Many of the countries I hit are in the Third World, and roughly half the time I was away I traveled alone. But that was long before I became a mother. That kind of exploring is possible with one child -- though I'm sure it's very difficult -- but certainly not with my rambunctious two. Not on your life. Not at their young ages. I'd rather walk across a lava field.

No, what the full-time single mother needs on a vacation is whatever is COMFORTABLE and EASY.

So I've made a point of going back (and back and back and back) to Club Med Sandpiper Bay, which is situated on the St. Lucie River in the City of Port St. Lucie. The club has recently completed a $28 million renovation. It looks very different than I remember it. I certainly didn't mind it before and never found fault with the amenities or accommodations. Yet now it is significantly upgraded with a new spa, picturesque adult pool and hot tub at the river's edge, impressive exercise room complete with triathlete personal trainers, renovated sleeping quarters, and so much more. Suffice it to say, the takeaway for this Sandpiper Bay veteran is that this is almost a brand-new club.


But not completely.

The three of us, as always, have a great time when we visit. The boys love the kids' program. They spend their days in circus school; on the flying trapeze; playing soccer, basketball, and tennis; swimming; sailing a catamaran; creating art; preparing for the evening shows; and more. They transition into a new social setting seemlessly, making fast friends among the other kids and the wonderful staff. And for my part, I swim; skipper my own catamaran; play tennis, beach volleyball, and ping pong; do water aerobics and yoga; dance; etc.

Each time we've gone to Club Med our vacation has looked different, and that has kept it interesting. For the boys, that has meant more activities as they've gotten older. Charlie, age 7 3/4, was able to sail for the first time this visit. Since he is not yet a strong swimmer, I went along with his group in the catamaran. Though he wore a life vest, I was pretty stressed out sitting beside him when the wind picked up, and the boat began to keel. Another time during the week Christopher, age ten, took a turn at the tiller while both Charlie and I were aboard. It was my older son's first time ever sailing a boat himself -- not just getting a ride -- so it was extra special that his brother and mother got to witness the milestone.


Proud mama.

For me, every trip to Florida has been unique. The first few times at Club Med I was a complete wreck from exhaustion. Some days I took naps in the room. I participated in few sports because I simply couldn't muster the energy. Somehow, though, I managed to pull it together enough to not only enter the weekly ladies singles tennis tournament but also win it.

As the years passed, I grew more rested. I played more sports at Club Med, but one thing was a constant: that tennis tournament, which I always won. I always took home at least one medal. One year I treated myself to a rental jet ski on Mother's Day. Another year we explored the estuary via airboat. A third year my vegan boyfriend at the time joined us for half the trip. Club Med definitely wasn't his scene, yet he had fun and was very helpful when it came to the travel day -- assisting me in getting our rental car back to the agency, carrying bags and pushing a stroller through airports, and hailing a taxi back to my then-apartment in Cambridge.


One time I capsized during the weekly regatta. The sailing staff had to come out in a motor boat to give me instructions on righting the craft, but I sailed it to shore myself without any physical help. I remember a year when a murder-mystery play was offered during dinner. I recall watching stand-up comedy in a small club-within-the-club behind the golf shop. Waterskiing was very popular in our early years. I loved slaloming on the river, though I was a bit nervous about the alligators.

Eek!

Christopher saw a manatee near the beach. A rare sighting, indeed. Charlie and I have only glimpsed snakes and many geckos. However, we've all watched a brazen squirrel eat bacon right off Christopher's breakfast plate! My oldest son lost a tooth eating an ice cream cone in the dining room one year. Regretfully, I was so distracted by the largest bowl of chocolate mousse I'd ever seen that I forgot to take it with us when we left the meal. I returned soon after and searched high and low with no luck.


Our most recent trip, which began with a Winter Solstice flight into the glorious sunset, overlapped Christmas. We celebrated the holiday by taking photos with Santa and a Benjamin Button-like Mrs. Claus, participating in or watching a parade, and opening one small wrapped present each set under an orange lamp in our room!

Most years I have elected not to rent a car. The club offers a shuttle service to and from the airport, so we have availed ourselves of that. Even this amenity has changed over the years. We've ridden in a small bus-like vehicle; a minivan; an SUV; and, this time, a white stretch party limo complete with a colorful starry-light sky!

A couple of times I have driven an Enterprise compact in order to visit cousins in nearby Vero Beach and Palm Beach. Those get-togethers mean a lot to all of us because we rarely see any of our cousins. A different year a third family of cousins picked us up at the club and took us to a hamburger joint and their home where we listened to the two school-age sons play their musical instruments.

However, the lion's share of our time visiting Club Med Sandpiper Bay is spent within the resort's confines. Enough is offered to keep us occupied and then some. The food is plentiful and beyond delicious, and the presentation is first class. It's difficult to leave lunch or dinner without grabbing a piece of white chocolate bread on your way out.

For the first time in nine visits, I was injured -- more like semi-injured -- during our stay last month. I had plantar fasciitis in my right foot. As a result, I did not play tennis (or win any medals), volleyball, soccer, or basketball. I also kept away from the exercise rooms and classes for fear of putting too much weight on my painful foot.

However, I was able to swim, do water aerobics, sail, and play ping pong. It may not sound like much, but it was plenty because my primary goal was to relax and recharge my batteries. To that end, I happily lounged in the (scarce) sun, cooled off with a dip, reread The Catcher in the Rye, and soaked in a hot tub with other visitors.

Mission accomplished . . . and, one month later, my plantar fasciitis is much improved! I've since gone downhill and cross-country skiing several times each without issue. I am not ready to go for a run, yet my week at our Happy Place did me more good than I imagined it would.

If, like me, you don't have a built-in Happy Place then go out and get one -- because everyone needs a Happy Place.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Year Mood Modification

I thought about doing a typical New Year's resolution blog post, but honestly I wasn't too motivated. I've done them before (1/16/13 and 1/13/12), and everyone is doing one (or, probably, has already done one). Only 8 percent of people actually keep their resolutions, according to Forbes.com. That's a rather depressingly low statistic.

I aim to give you the unexpected. As the details of my day-to-day are frequently unexpected, I don't have to try very hard, frankly. Drama just seems to come to me. Still, I never thought I'd be titling a post "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1/1/14) or have a series called "When Things Get Dicey" (2/15/13 and 2/25/13), for example.

So instead of offering up yet another piece on resolving to lose weight, exercise more, or keep the house in better order -- blah, blah, blah -- I would like to put out something different. While it is certainly true that I intend to work on the aforementioned four and many other goals (professional and social, in particular, don't even get me started!) in 2014, what I really plan to focus on this year is something intangible: mood.

This shouldn't come as a surprise if you read my last post -- the one mentioned above and named after a movie starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver -- about starting off last year on the wrong foot, which made me feel out of control and then some. Tell me: who can be in a good mood while feeling that way? No one I know.

As a 24/7 single mother, things are often out of my control or, at least, not in as much control as I would like. Sometimes that can be changed; sometimes, not. The challenge becomes: how do I reach and maintain equilibrium throughout the year?

First, get off to an enjoyable -- if not all-out propitious -- start. Ring in the new year in a way that genuinely makes you happy. If you are limited in your ability to celebrate because of young children at home and no babysitter then make do as best you can. Raise a glass. Watch Anderson and Kathy. (This year the bold Ms. Griffin handcuffed herself to the silver-haired CNN anchor, which provided an unexpected level of amusement.) Have a small party with your kids or a big one with other families. The important thing is to make New Year's Eve an occasion of sorts. By doing so, you give the new year -- like a good friend -- a proper welcome. You've set the stage for positivity to come.


The new year is only eleven days old, but so far so good is what I say. I've been able to maintain a happy demeanor, though everything hasn't transpired perfectly. I'm speaking about two calls from the school this week (same day) regarding a nauseous child who needed to come home and a frustrated child who needed to visit the guidance counselor.

With my new outlook, I was able to take the calls in stride instead of feeling annoyed by the loss of "my" time and rattled by the latest upset-son scenario. I carried on with my day in an even-keeled manner and even managed to gain back some time by sending the boys to the after-school program the following day.

Also, as part of my strategy to protect my time, I turned down an invitation to do something that would have eaten up almost my whole afternoon before school pickup. Accepting the invite would have made me feel resentful -- I knew from past experience -- because I needed that block of time to work on this very blog post.

In retrospect, I'm pleased I was able to compartmentalize my emotions when staff at the school phoned. I'm grateful I thought of extended care for my boys. And I'm proud of saying no when my gut told me the invitation didn't serve my needs the best. Under the circumstances, I was good to myself -- a lesson I hope to carry with me throughout the year.

The next day my somewhat sick child returned to school feeling well while my agitated child experienced a calm day of classes. A win-win

What's more, I didn't even have to sacrifice something else I very much wanted to do. Since I rarely get to a movie that isn't animated, I had planned to see a matinee of a live-action film. My choices had been narrowed down to three due to my time restriction of making school pickup.

However, with the unexpected company of my child -- he had a sore throat but wasn't coughing, a slightly nauseous feeling with no vomiting, and felt a tad warm though had no temperature to speak of -- the R-rated picture would have to wait. My son is ten years old but has the maturity and size of a thirteen year old. Thus, I didn't consider it too much of a stretch to take him to PG 13-rated Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Hey, I know some fourth-grade classmates who have seen Ted! Besides, who wouldn't want to watch Will Ferrell and Steve Carell acting as nitwits to make themselves feel better?!

Goofy movie? Yes. Great for one's health. (Though hold the popcorn.) Evening basketball clinic? No. My son was afraid the running around would cause him to lose his cookies all over the elementary school gym floor. Staying home was the right decision.

Talk about a model at handling unexpected circumstances! Now if I can bring a similar psychological control, problem-solving attitude, and just-say-no-ness to each and every challenge I experience this year then I will surely be in good stead.

One situation. One day. One week. One month. At. A. Time.

Difficulties don't have to defeat us mentally if we can approach them with ingenuity. Keeping our mood uplifted will translate to having a great, good or, at least, a better year. I intend to have the first of these.





Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Year of Living Dangerously

With a title like that, you'd think I'd taken up skydiving or robbing banks last year. Well, hahaha. Far from it!

As a single mother by choice, i.e. a full-time sole caregiver, my life is rather restricted by the school calendar, the home front, and the need to keep myself healthy and uninjured for my two school-age boys. Angelina Jolie may have flown planes when she was the single mother of Maddox, but she has Brad Pitt now as her backup. I do not. I can only dream about such eye-candy assistance!

No, I must keep myself intact and in working order every single day because I am my own Plan B. In other words, consciously living dangerously cannot be a choice I make . . . at least not now while my children are still young. But the thing is: being an SMC is living dangerously.

After a decade, I have gotten used to weathering daily challenges, though they have changed over the years. What is constant is the drama. Oh, the drama! And last year, the year that was supposed to be my lucky year -- as in, good lucky -- the drama was over the top. It reached a crazy level I couldn't have imagined or written about even with my creative writing graduate degree!

Plain and simple, 2013 was a doozy.

When we have such years, it is easy to think: What a horrendous twelve months! What just happened? Good riddance! We want to turn the page. Get a new calendar. Shake off the old and put on the new. But before we do that, we should take a serious look at what transpired and see if we can learn something from it. That is what I've chosen to do, and I'm much better off now for it.

From the get-go, I felt off balance. That's because the year began with a failed New Year's Weekend trip. I had only the best of intentions when I registered for a three-night Appalachian Mountain Club adventure in northern New Hampshire. We would stay at a quaint, rustic lodge near Franconia Notch and play in the snow by day with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. However, if you read my blog post about The Trip From Hell ("Vacation Box of Chocolates: Part I (Franconia Fiasco Edition)," 1/6/13), then you will remember how a big snowstorm followed late the next day by the threat of black ice and after that continuing freezing temperatures caused our plans to deteriorate. Cut to the chase: we never reached our destination.

Maddening!

Starting off the new year on the right foot is very important because it sets the stage for the twelve months ahead. Beginning on a negative note feels inauspicious. The figurative ship needs to be righted immediately, before even leaving port. It can be certainly, but that will take extra effort. For me last year, it never happened.

The disastrous trip put me $385 (reduced to $295 after the outdoor organization reimbursed me a pathetic $90) in the hole, which grew much deeper when I learned shortly thereafter that I needed $2,701.66 worth of car work. (See "Lucky 13?", 1/26/13.) Sheesh. But January was hardly over! One morning I made a very poor choice while attempting to drive to an appointment twenty-five minutes away. Instead of swinging by a gas station in my town before hitting the highway, I decided to tempt fate with my fuel tank. Oh, crap. Didn't I wind up out of gas on the side of Route 128! Yes, in the middle of winter. (See "When Things Get Dicey: Part II (Risk-Taking Gone Awry), 2/25/13.)

Unthinking!

As the snow piled up, so did my troubles. In early February, Nemo the Blizzard knocked out power and heat to my home for one weekend-plus. (See "When Things Get Dicey: Part I (The Wrath of Nemo), 2/15/13.) The latter problem would have been rectified one day earlier if I hadn't elected to take the boys skiing in the fresh powder instead of wait at home for the heating guy.

Prioritizing!

In April, the day a Boston federal courthouse was in lockdown following the Marathon bombings two days earlier, my younger son had a minor freak accident one mile away during an expensive photo session. The incident, followed by my seven year old's inevitable reaction, disrupted the shoot and affected the final product. I then spent three solid weeks stewing over what would come of Charlie's brand-new modeling contract. (See "Back-to-School Conundrum," 8/24/13.)

Frustrating!

Worn out from stress-induced exhaustion, in early May I hit a deer on the road leading from my town to another. The accident was unavoidable, and the deer appeared unhurt. Still. A precious deer! I interpreted the event as a clear sign that I needed to slow my life down. (See "Hitting the Deer," 5/6/13.)

Upsetting!

By the time summer arrived, I was a certifiable wreck. Instead of agonizing over how much work I could -- or more accurately -- couldn't get done during the exactly two-month-long school break, I made an instinctive executive decision to focus my time almost entirely on my family. The boys were engaged in frequent power struggles, and I was having great difficulty dealing with my younger son whose impulsive and often aggressive behavior toward his brother had all but hijacked the family. As much as I could, I took them away camping or set up the tent in the backyard as I've discovered that a change of scenery and/or sleeping outside in snuggly close proximity to one another has a beneficial effect on our bond. We are all at our happiest at such times, and that reflects well on our dynamic.

Coping!

Life picks up at a rapid clip once school resumes. It feels like a train, an Acela Express, pulling out of the station then gaining speed steadily as it heads to its eventual destination -- the last day of classes at the end of June. Both of my boys do well in school, yet on occasion last fall I received calls from the school nurse or guidance counselor about something involving Charlie. An accident in gym. A classroom situation that upset my second grader. The mother of a competitive, risk-taking child comes to fear the phone ringing during the school day.

Worrying!

You don't have to be a mother very long to learn how much you are judged by other people. But in order to do your job right, you have to be able to block out prying eyes and be willing to do what you need to do to raise your children with an awareness of safety, health, ethics, etc. When they are not behaving properly in public, you need to discipline them at that moment. Does a mother want to raise her voice to make herself heard above the child's laughter when he or she is acting in an unsafe manner? Of course not! It draws attention. Negative attention. Not many people want that. I certainly don't! Does a mother want to reason with her child till she's blue in the face when he or she just keeps saying no to something that must be done for his or her own good? Hell, no! Does anyone put herself in the mother's shoes and come to her defense in the heat of the moment to help her handle the errant child? Don't count on it! A person whose situation is diametrically opposite yours, who doesn't know anything (or very little) about your life and nothing about what you go through on a daily basis or what you've experienced in the past or that day will step forward to judge you. Oh, yes! He or she has no qualms about punishing you via any available method. And if you are a single mother -- particularly a full-time one via an alternative conception method of which they may not approve -- well, GOD . . . HELP . . . YOU. You feel defenseless like a wounded bird. It's shameful. Really shameful, that's what I have to say, because that clueless yet ballsy person doesn't have the CHOPS to come after the single mother. (See "Thanksgiving: When No Plans Are the Best Plans," 12/2/13.)

Crushing!

Caution: don't ever underestimate the single mother! She may feel demoralized for a period of time. However, you'd better watch out. She is processing and gaining strength. In righting the wrong done to her, she can bring you to tears and have you begging for forgiveness as she confronts you and explains how out of line your unfair attack has been. Moreover, if you have dared to strike her where it hurts the most, the universe will make sure you don't get away with it. Her supporters will go to bat for her and demonstrate the cruelty and outrageousness of your actions because they know her much better than you do.

The Year of Living Dangerously (by choice or circumstance, as both applied at variously times) brought to me a level of stress and insanity the likes of which I had never before experienced. As a result of what I went through, I am now a changed person. I learned so much about other people, myself, and how to take care of myself. (See "Self Care: A Mother's Salve," 10/23/13.) I do not regret any of my actions and would probably handle things in exactly the same way if I had them to do over again. But I have witnessed firsthand how others can misinterpret a situation through their own lack of knowledge and then brazenly take it upon themselves to slam you because they think they know better. They know nothing! Forces tried to beat me down last year, yet they didn't succeed. They just empowered me.

By mid-fall -- recognizing the depths I'd been brought to (and they went much lower later) -- I made a decision guaranteed to lift up myself and my family. I booked us Christmas week at our Happy Place: Club Med at Sandpiper Bay in Florida. As always, our ninth (yes, nine!) visit did exactly what I needed it to do. It provided me with rest; relaxation; warmth; good food; interesting company; and, despite my four-and-a-half-month-old painful plantar fasciitis, plenty of opportunities for exercise.

I ended last year completely rejuvenated. Starting off the new year in a very positive way, I have a much better chance of experiencing a great year.

Bring on 2014!