Picture Perfect Moments

The mother trailed behind her two girls down the lighthouse pier to the end where the bay empties into the Atlantic. Along the way, she watched her young daughters snap picture after picture on their smart phones. It didn’t take long for her to catch up. “You don’t have to take a picture of everything,” she declared. “Try and enjoy the moment.”

Mac, who was helping our boys and me collect rocks from the jetty below, heard the parent’s battle cry. He popped up from his hard labor, flashed a knowing grin and cheered, “Yes! Listen to your mother!”

The mom gave a half turn and returned the smirk. I couldn’t tell if she felt validated or violated. But as they moseyed away, I did hear her repeat the words – a little louder the second time.

I told Mac to mind his business, but couldn’t resist a response. “And here I thought I was the only one.”

Put down the phone flashes through my consciousness anytime I see it being used to record our every waking event. I think it to strangers and say it to our children and myself.

The televised parade of athletes during the Olympics’ opening ceremony, a tradition I’ve enjoyed since I was a girl seemed stained this year when several nations, in an effort to memorialize their experience, marched into the stadium accompanied by a blur of glowing screens held as high as the country’s flag.

This summer, family members designated Bubbe, “Spielberg”. He borrowed a defunct phone with a working camera to document a trip he took out west with his grandparents. It was the first time he had his hands on a device dubbed as his own and boy, did he go to town. Although it was great to see my son tap into the creative spirit, the child had a hard time letting go so much so that my in-laws sent me videos of him shooting videos.

I become engrossed with moment capturing too. Smart phones make the process sexy, easy and instant. Thanks to modern technology, I have a bulging photo folder of every cheeky smile, wave jump and sand marble run of our annual beach vacation since Bubbe and Skootch were small.

But there’s something satisfying about taking it all in. When swiping through the most flattering filter becomes a nuisance, I shut down the phone and keep my fingers crossed I’ll be able to recall the drippy ice cream faces, bike rides and hole-in-ones after the boys are grown.

I consider such restraint a generational skill. Unlike my children and the girls on the pier, their mom and I grew up in a low tech world; cameras had film, movie equipment was bulky, quality was a risk and we had to wait weeks to see the results. Even well into adulthood, camera viewfinders were small. We had no choice but to absorb the sights, sounds and smells; breathe, wonder and have the experience. And decades later, it’s those undocumented memories I return to when it’s quiet.

Had I stored those memories on the cloud, would I still consider them cherished moments?

If Mac had his choice, our family would implement a no picture taking policy. I prefer a balanced approach. We’ll continue to ban Bubbe and Skootch from tablets and phones while on vacation. If Spielberg gets inspired, he can borrow my camera. And I’ll still quick draw the iPhone when I get inspired by a pretty setting, Mac’s Dangerfield-esque antics and our growing sons.

At the same time, I’ll encourage the boys to join the parade, follow the drifting clouds as they take shape in the summer’s breeze and teach them that the picture perfect moments are not the ones they swipe click, caption and share; but the ones only they can see.

No Peaking Allowed

HS class picture

The text read, Come to room 307.

I adjusted my Spanx, grabbed the overnight bag and made my way up from the lobby. Behind the door stood two of my senior year gal pals, Shazzie and Pumpkin.

Although introduced in seventh grade and kindergarten, respectively my adult relationship with these ladies had fizzled to comments, likes and emojis. No matter. There was an easy joy about being together again.

We moved through pleasantries and tossed out filters. First order of business: pre-25th high school reunion cocktails. After a few sips, we got reunion ready while discussing work, shoes, travel, preferred products for color treated hair and of course, raising kids.

 “When my son turned three,” Shazzie said, “I told a friend, this boy can’t get more cuddly, loveable, or sweet. He’s peaked. Now, every year on his birthday she calls me and asks, is it true he peaked at three?”

“Well?” I said.

Shazzie pulled out her phone and played the recent I love you, Mom message her hoarse voiced tween left when a sleep away camp counselor returned his phone during a field trip.  “Not yet,” she replied.

We sipped some more, snapped selfies sporting party outfits and solo cups, and made our way to the main floor. I slapped on my name tag and entered the windowless, dim, pint-sized banquet hall. Waiting was a small gathering of some 125 classmates from my rural town. It was as if my mom had dropped me off at the 8th grade dinner dance equip with a cash bar.

And I wondered, had I peaked? Had any one of us peaked?

Determined to find out, I shimmied past the DJ and hot buffet, quickly refilled my cup and began to flutter about the room.

I ran into my old locker neighbor, intrigued by the cross-country mountain biking adventures he shares with his wife, concurred with my former art class tablemate who opened a restaurant after rediscovering his creativity through cooking, and was happy for the classmates who came out, found love and live life open and proud.

I chatted with my elementary school bus buddy who embraced her small town roots, adores fur babies and helps to raise her nephews, admired the crew huddled around a table who, despite time and distance sustained their decades long friendship, told Pumpkin, a working mother who nurtured her artistic talents and built an impressive career in advertising, a girl I envied as a child how much I respected her, and nestled up next to my high school crush; a sweet gentleman close to retiring from a career in law enforcement who looks forward to tending his Christmas Tree farm.

Many of my classmates married; most are raising children, some are nurturing sick parents. They have been graced with experience lines and silver hairs but the essence of who they were as children lives on.

And not one of them has peaked; not the jocks, pretty chicks, worker bees, artsy rebels, drama queens or goodie two shoes. Each seemed content with who they became; aware there’s more growth to be had.

And I, who was remembered for big hair, oversized sweaters and an even larger opinion felt inspired by my first friends.

When the clock struck midnight, the lone security guard directed us to the hotel’s neighboring bar, ushering me back to the 21st century. I thought about my own tween who was due back from sleep away camp the following week and a concerned letter he wrote about his lovie. Please sew Baby Lamb when I get home. I don’t like when he loses stuffing.

Middle school is on the horizon for my boy and so begins the battle of growing up. I can already feel his struggle; the image, fitting in, friendships, the wrestle with self and his place in the world.

I’ll continue to offer the mother to son advice he has come to hear ad nauseum: follow your passion, stay kind, always be yourself.

But from now on I’ll be sure to add, Hang tight. You’ll make it through. Just remember, no peaking allowed.

HS Reunion picture

My ABCs of CrossFit

Photo cred: Lynda Shenkman Curtis

Photo credit: Lynda Shenkman Curtis

School’s out but this teacher is still thinking about her ABCs; of CrossFit.

Yes, I’m one of those folk who sit in the dentist’s chair visualizing toes to bar to distract me from the grind of the drill, rehash snatch progressions while stuck at a red light, and strategize the following day’s work out when I really should be writing.

Here’s my take on an experience that leaves me plotzed in a puddle of sweat on the floor of a place I consider my 60 minute respite and second home; not from the perspective of Trainer or a Games Athlete, but as a forty something, part-time working wife, writer, teacher and mother of two trying to stay strong, sane, fight mid-life sag, and eat food deemed unhealthy with but a fraction of guilt.

My ABCs of CrossFit

Attitude. Leave it at the door

Builds a badunkadonk booty

Community is key. Cliquey is sticky

Diet, much to my dismay does wonders

Each movement can be modified

Form. Learn proper technique

Give progress time

Hello. Say it. Especially to someone new

Intimidating-yes. Impossible-no

Jokes and jargon are best kept dirty

Keep consistently coming

Lifetime personal records can erase a lifetime of insecurity

Mental toughness changes the game

No rep yourself

Oly shoes and fitted jump ropes make a difference

Potty breaks, strategically timed do too

Quality coaches warm up, watch carefully and address woes

Rest. Roll out. Retest

Strict before kip

Tatas in tanks sometimes fall out

Underestimate ability; undermine potential

Variety is the spice of life

Write down results

X-tra practice when possible

You are the machine

Zealots who bond at the box become family beyond fitness

Ready to give it a go? Already a Crossfitting, fire jumping, power lifting cobra posing, soul cycling, triathloning, marathoning, coccyx curling enthusiast?

Then what keeps you coming back for more?

To The Suffering Veteran

PTSD Awareness

The Mighty

Pushups. 22 per day for 22 days to raise awareness that on average, 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide daily.

With each press against the floor, I think of you.
When my triceps collapse from strain, I think of you.
As my form turns solid and shoulders stabilize, I think of you.

The #22Kill movement, created in response to the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 2012 Suicide Data Report works in conjunction with Honor Courage Commitment, Inc. Together, they educate the public about mental health issues like Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can lead to suicide and offer empowerment programs to transitioning military brothers and sisters.

#22Kill strives to “bridge the gap between veterans and civilians to build a community of support.” The final words to flash across the screen of the website’s video are “We’re here for you. We hear you.”

Today is day 22. As I post my last set of pushups to social media and tag fellow CrossFitters to accept the challenge, I need you to know something.

I feel you.

I am a civilian. I have not sacrificed my life and time to protect our country’s freedoms, but I have survived child sexual abuse. I have experienced trauma. I know what it’s like to live with darkness, peer down the spiral, and question the value of my life.

For 25 years, vigilance, control, mistrust, and detachment managed the pain, angst, hurt and rage brought on by traumatic experience. But I found a way to push up; to rejoin life and contribute in a way I always imagined.

Treatment through therapy made the difference. With a pride too big, walls so thick, and shame so deep, at first I couldn’t ask for help.  I didn’t value myself enough to reach out; vulnerability translated into weakness. There was peace in solitude.

But I valued those who loved me. When I could no longer dodge my husband’s plea, when I reached the edge; feeling as if my skull might split, I answered this question:

Who do I have a responsibility to?

Mac and our new marriage suffered from my trauma. I knew my mental health would damage our children. This was unacceptable and unfair. I resolved to do my part and agreed to keep the appointment Mac had made with a social worker on my behalf.

Once there, I harnessed the strength used to endure and suppress my experience to open wounds and talk.

The session discussions, albeit uncomfortable and scary at times encouraged trust. With consistent support, I learned tools to tackle triggers, reframe the rage, be mindful of mood shifts, channel destructive tendencies into a safe and productive rush, express vulnerability, and deepen relationships. I came to understand the genesis of my emotions, recognize they were typical for survivors, and accept I wasn’t alone.

The likelihood of full recovery is slim. But now, over a dozen years later, I’m equipped to fight the funk when it drives a heel into my back. With each win, trauma loosens its grip and I gain power.

I’ve also gained direction, purpose and most importantly, worth. I can approach parenting with a healthier perspective, contribute to a more loving, respectful, and meaningful marriage, and pursue career goals, creative passions and fitness aspirations with assurance. I am a better friend; know how to navigate social situations, and enjoy being with people.

Bad and unnatural things happened to me. My mind and body reacted to them. That doesn’t make me less deserving of a rich, positive, and fulfilled existence. I have every right to be here; to push, to grow and to live.

And so do you.

VeteransCrisisLine

 

Lessons From A Crossing Guard

A few weeks ago, I tagged along with Bubbe, Skootch and the local crew during their 3 block walk to school. As we approached the 4-way, main street intersection where the library, high school and last stretch to the elementary school meet, our young neighbor turned to the boys and whispered, “If you don’t say thank you to Doris the world will blow up.”

I think the kid might be right.

Doris is a pillar of our sleepy, suburban town and a force to be reckoned with at that. Torrential rains, icy roads, blaring horns, and testy commuters can’t stop her from parading dead center into this congested intersection during school drop off and afternoon pick up to yell, “Crossing!”

A sentinel for youngsters and teenagers, siblings in strollers, parents and pets as they travel to and from parked cars, school, practice, religion, and home; pedestrians welcome her presence.

Many drivers do not. They are forced to sit, wait and wait some more until Doris releases them with a flick of the neon flag. Held up for work or a midday appointment; some grumble, honk, and huff. Others rant on social media; the rest stress in silence.

I get it. There was a time when I dropped Bubbe and Skootch to school on route to work and inched my car too close to Doris’s east end cross walk. She took one look at my tires, locked eyes and stepped off the corner. “Hey, don’t you see children here?”

Jolted from my to-do list daze, I sputtered an apology. “Sorry Doris. It won’t happen again.”

I got over it. We regular walkers know something about the way our crossing guard approaches her job that drivers may not notice from behind the windshield.

Doris teaches children the value of a greeting.

Skootch first met Doris when he was three. Every day he watched her from his wagon as I wheeled him across the street on the way to his big brother’s school. Doris was never too busy to say “Good morning.”

As they developed a rapport, she added compliments about Skootch’s smile, noticed haircuts, and congratulated him when he was able to walk the distance sans carriage. Doris showed Skootch respect.  He reciprocated the sentiment.

Now, not a morning goes by on my little guy’s way to Kindergarten that he doesn’t wish Doris a good day. The same holds true for many middle and high schoolers who take time to look away from friends and up from phones to say Hello, leading me to believe her lesson has been repeated before.

She models generosity of spirit.

New to the district, I was shocked to see Doris sitting in the audience of Bubbe’s first grade play. The parents who had older children were not. As it turns out, she does her best to attend each of the roughly 24 class plays held annually at the elementary school.

And during the holiday season, those who walk her way will find Doris’s open car trunk spilling with free cookies for the kids.

Such gestures are not taken for granted. When a few families found out she was having a “big” birthday, moms spread the news on Facebook. The next day, her “office” was decorated with signs, balloons, flowers and handmade cards.

She gives parents peace of mind.

Bubbe often walks with our young neighbor long before Skootch and I head out for the morning.

One day, Doris stopped me. “Your son and his friend are good walking buddies,” she said. “They walk, talk, there’s no fooling around and they follow the rules.”

Even though she and I have only exchanged pleasantries, Doris knew which child belonged to me and took the time to report he was making good choices.

And reminds us to take it easy.

Doris was cut off mid sentence during one of our pre-pick up exchanges by a speeding car. “What are you doing?” she hollered at the blurry sedan. “Where do these people think they’re going in such a hurry?”

I smiled and shook my head. “Doris, I don’t know.”

I continued onward, slowing my gait for the last block and a half to my destination feeling pretty confident that, after spending my few moments with this special lady, the world was safe from annihilation for one more day.

It takes a village to shape a community.

“Thank you, Doris.”

To The Young Lady Who No Repped Me During The CrossFit Open; Thank You

Courtesy: CrossFit

Courtesy of CrossFit

HuffPo Women

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my chest to touch the pull up bar.

It was the third workout of the CrossFit Open; an annual fitness test involving judges and score cards where over 300,000 CrossFitters worldwide do the same prescribed workout once a week over a five week period, or as in my case, a scaled version of said designated torture.

The 2016 Open was the first time I paid the twenty bucks and entered my name in the system. After 4 years of pursuing evidence based fitness, participating in mild competition holds me accountable to an exercise routine. Besides, the Friday Night Lights set up gave me a reason to forego evening parenting responsibilities. Plus, the coach stores beer in the gym fridge.

I felt confident going into this third Friday.  The task at hand involved jumping chest to bar pull ups. I’m 5’9. I can jump. I know how to do a pull up. I thought; piece of cake.

But I underestimated the importance of the angle of the pull toward the bar. Perhaps during my pre-kids, D cup days it wouldn’t have been an issue, but now a deflated C, I left a sizeable amount of air between the girls and the iron.

Each unsuccessful repetition of the movement resulted in a “no rep” from the judge. I hung from the bar like a sloth, praying for the clock to run out while convincing myself to go at again. Then, 15 seconds before the final buzzer the coach said, “Switch your grip.” I held on to the rig in chin up position and jumped. Slam! My chest hit the bar with ease.  Unfortunately, my renewed optimism was short lived. “5-4-3-2-1…” The music went silent.

Afterward, a young lady who assists with the kids’ class asked, “How’d it go?”

“What a debacle,” I huffed.  “That switch grip was the golden ticket, but I ran out of time.” I skipped the beer and went straight home, determined to improve my score.

Two days later, I did what any self-respecting, half crazy CrossFit disciple would do; I went back to redo the workout during open gym.  The same young lady was the designated judge for the morning.

When I was ready, she cranked up the tunes and started the clock. I made my way through the jumping pull ups using the reversed grip. After a few rounds my forearms stiffened and quads stung. My chest began to miss the bar.

“No rep!” she called.  “Almost there.”

I tried again.

“No rep! Let’s go, Red. You got this.”

But I didn’t “Got this.” My thoughts turned dark. Who does she think she is with the no reps? I’m not an uber-athlete. I skipped my morning newspaper to be here. Not to mention the fact that I could be this girl’s mother.

I wanted a break and I wanted her to give me one. Miss teenager could have let the no reps slide. She could have turned a cheek.  But she didn’t.  She could have felt intimidated. But she wasn’t.

So, I took a few breaths, regrouped and forged ahead. By the end of the seven minutes, I had a beautiful battle scar of bruise on my chest. What I also had was a legitimate and nearly doubled score compared to Friday night. And I had my judge, who held me to the standard to thank for it.

The following week, I took note of the young CrossFitter’s approach during regular sessions and the remaining Open workouts.  Each time she completed an Olympic lift or moved through a workout, she held herself to a high standard of form and function; and when she made a mistake, she no repped herself. Turns out, my judge hadn’t asked me to do anything she didn’t expect from herself.

At seventeen, this young lady already owns the integrity and courage that took me half a lifetime to cultivate, making her a powerful role model for girls and us masters, alike.

Soon, she will apply to college, graduate high school and move out on her own. As she cycles through life events, I hope she highlights these qualities when speaking with admission officers and future employers. And I hope she seeks out similar traits in others as she builds friendships and falls in love. Resume worthy accomplishments, physical strength and youthful outer beauty will fade; character will endure.

Integrity and courage are sometimes met with gossip, envy, and judgment. So when she catches slack for the high standards or the backlash cracks her confidence, I encourage my judge to hang tough and perhaps recall the time she refused to let this old timer break the rules during the CrossFit Open; because young lady, when it comes to life, “You got this.”

I SAID WHAT?…Standardized Testing; My Case for STILL Opting In

LifeSavers

Brace yourselves.

The 3rd-8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Common Core standardized tests are coming. You know the ones; the high-stake assessments pitched by politicians as guaranteed to close the achievement gap, ensure children are college and career ready, and monitor the health of school districts.

Ten years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I had the experience of administering and grading the state ELA and Math tests under No Child Left Behind in the same school my children attend today.

Last April, my then third grader took the Common Core version for the first time. Many of his peers and an estimated 20% of children statewide did not. Their parents “Opted Out.”

Those who joined the Opt Out Movement poignantly expressed concern citing that the current, mandated state assessments cripple public education, compromise the professionalism of teachers, steer time away from creative, meaningful curriculum, suck the joy from learning, and kill young spirits with its developmentally and grade level inappropriate language and length.

Despite the fact that I agree with these points, am a supporter of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s platform, and believe the assessments in their existing form offer no diagnostic value for teacher or student,

I Opted In.

It wasn’t because I’m worried about the loss of district funding or the perceived reputation of my son’s school, nor was it because I’m a data hungry mama.

Truthfully, if I felt his learning needs weren’t being addressed, I may not have exposed him to a testing environment that requires nine year olds to sit several hours over a 3-day period for two consecutive weeks. Furthermore, if my school district had Opted Out, I would have obliged.

As a public school student, my son is automatically a pawn in the conundrum of educational reform; ammunition in a grown up battle.

But he doesn’t know it. And that’s good.

He is fortunate to attend a child-centered school that takes pride in their programs.  Inside the classroom, teachers do their best to thoughtfully integrate test prep into an already rich curriculum. Since state testing commenced some 15 years ago, the school district has stood behind their mantra; standardized assessments are a snapshot in a child’s day.

Buzz does not exist.

Outside the school, administrators publically voice concern about high-stakes testing.  Board of Education members travel to the state capital to fight for school district rights and have been known to stand firm outside the Chairman of Education Committee’s office until the senator answers their questions.

Advocacy is a priority.

Out of respect for my son’s innocence, love for his teacher, our leaders’ efforts, and in keeping with the belief that anxiety breeds anxiety, I don’t express my testing distaste at home and I don’t initiate conversation with my child about the “big state test.”

He knows it’s happening.

Had I Opted Out, my son would not only know it is happening, but also be acutely aware that he’s stuck in the middle of a movement that effects the quality of his education. And in my opinion, a nine year old does not need this additional burden thrown upon his shoulders.

So like the time he fell off the playground swing and looked to my reaction for his, I bit my lip and played it cool as the test date approached.

As such, when he came home after the first day of the English Language Arts test last spring, this is what he told me…

“Today was the big state test. The teacher put our desks in a line, the old-fashioned way so we could have space. She gave us gum to help us focus. I didn’t like the flavor so I didn’t have any. We took the test for about an hour. Then we got two recesses. During one of them, I played Knock Out and took second place against a 4th grader. We don’t have any homework; I have no idea why, but we don’t. It was a great day. Can I have a snack?”

My response? “Good for you.” I did not ask test specifics, how he worked, whether or not he finished, or how he performed. “Yes, help yourself.”

The morning of the Math test a week later, his primary concern was to make sure he packed orange flavored Life Savers in his backpack. “Mom, sucking on them helps me focus.  Plus I like to trade them with friends.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

The 2016 standardized tests are being administered in less than one month. Now what?

I don’t believe the elimination of standardized testing is realistic and the likelihood that I will Opt Out my child this year is slim. But I do believe a compromise is necessary.

Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News said, “Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77% of students statewide were proficient in English. The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57%. A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more; to 31% statewide. Same children. Same teachers. Different test.”

Step one: Ensure the learning standards are based on principles of childhood development.

Step two: Reconstruct the test.

Developmentally appropriate standards and tests are the foundation for a balanced educational landscape where learning is more joyful than not and standardized assessments play a small but meaningful role in shaping a young person’s school experience.

The Opt Out movement and those who support it are effecting change, but there is much work to be done. So instead of having a casual conversation with a board member or reading education experts’ blog posts, I need to get proactive and stand alongside them.

But I’ll be sure to leave my son home; to play Knock Out, sample Life Savers, and enjoy his final year of elementary school because that’s his job.

Advocating for a sensible public school education is mine.

Take Away One

Courtesy Little Rock Family

Courtesy Little Rock Family

ML_published_badge_red_Mamalode

“I hate Thursdays,” Bubbe barked.  “I wake up early for band, go to school, spend two more hours in religious school, come home, and do homework.  I need a break.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.  “But education is not an option.  Band is a commitment and you need to finish what you started.  Please put your clarinet away, get one homework sheet done, and pack a snack for Hebrew school.  We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Later that evening, I scrolled through registration emails for the upcoming season’s optional extracurricular activities:

Baseball: League 1 and/or League 2.  Travel team.
Tennis, soccer, swim, lacrosse
Martial Arts
CrossFit Kids
Lego Engineering
Hip Hop
Drama, drawing, Junior Chef…

and thought about the last line of my response to Vicki Abeles’s New York Times’ Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”

Let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

In my Letter to the Editor, I complimented the Irvington High School community in Fremont, California for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods by limiting homework requirements and encouraged parents of young learners like me and those of my students to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening enrichment in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

I often fantasize about what might happen if children, from toddlers to teenagers who live in a community laden with a multitude of well intended non-school related activities gave them up.

Would the children be lost; bored and confused by the lack of structure?  At first, until they learned how to organize and occupy themselves.

Would they stare at screens instead of reaching out to each other?  Probably, until an observant grown up or precocious peer stepped in.

Would their resumes suffer, leaving them unable to prosper in a society fixated on success, competition and career?  On the contrary; extra time and space would give them a chance to practice the socialization, thinking, and problem solving skills needed to thrive later in life.

After the initial shock wore off, I think the children would forget how busy their lives once were.

I imagine they would pack the playgrounds,

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

pick up the sport they previously raced off to play with whoever was nearby,

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

put on shows,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

hang from trees,

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

visit with friends,

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

relax with family,

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

get more sleep,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

and take that necessary break.

And I’m pretty sure the adults in their lives would come to welcome the change.

Perhaps if these young people had scaled back schedules, their schools would not have to revamp homework policies like in Fremont, delay start times to accommodate the sleep deprived like in Seattle, and implement mindfulness training to battle the growing epidemic of childhood anxiety and depression as did New York City.

While the educational system has a responsibility to promote childhood wellness, we parents and guardians do as well.  Children schlepping from class to practice to workshops and back again offsets the effort made by teachers and administrators and puts additional stress on kids and families.

Still, my under-scheduled fantasy is a daunting reality for this worried mom.

What if my boys are the only ones who opt out?  They’ll feel excluded and alone.

What if they lose a competitive edge?  How can they impress college admissions let alone make any high school team?

Doesn’t formal exposure to the arts, technology, and team play breed well roundedness?

It’s healthy to take risks; sample new and different things.

Besides, Bubbe and Skootch seem happy when they are busily in the mix.

But their childhood is not mine, nor is it about my parental goals, expectations, angst or insecurities.

With that, I marked the registration emails as unread and approached Bubbe.

“Here’s the deal,” I explained.  “You know school and band are a given.  Think about the three other activities you participated in this time last year.  Rank them.  Keep the top two.”

“I definitely want my tennis lesson,” he said.  “And I’d like to try baseball again.  So I guess I’ll stop CrossFit for now.”

I cringed.  Bubbe nixed the one extra I believe physically and mentally benefited him most and chose a sport that requires a greater weekly commitment.  “Okay,” I said.  “Sounds like a plan.”

Gaining a free afternoon may not reflect the childhoods of yesteryear, but it’s a start.

Let’s bring back rest, play, and old-fashioned fun.  This season resolve to take away one.

Why Write?

why-do-you-do-what-you-do-2

My favorite place to be is in my head.

As a young girl, I soaked in the bathtub with the boom box blaring, dreaming up dance routines and doodled across my paper bag book cover until graphite designs swallowed the cardboard colored wrapping.

But it never occurred to me to try my hand at creative writing; I didn’t like to read and the physical act of writing only ever led to a callus on my middle finger.

Then one of my teachers assigned our class the task of writing an original story, forcing me to apply my healthy imagination elsewhere.

Inspiration didn’t take long.  On the bus ride home from school the same day, I was struck by images for an opening scene so fabulous in my ten year old brain that I immediately took pencil to paper and composed what I believed to be the start of a master piece.

This rush of innovation convinced me I was the next Judy Blume.  I labored over my story, submitted the completed manuscript with the exuberance of A Christmas Story’s Ralphie, and waited for my Ms. Shields to award me with accolades and an A+.

My young author fantasy collapsed within a week.  As I read through Ms. Shield’s blanket of edits, I could hear the red ink cackling, “You’re not good enough, kid.”  Already a perfectionist, I cast my new ambition aside.

Sort of.

In high school I dabbled in poetry, in business school took fiction writing and literature courses, and as an elementary school teacher, loved to teach the craft.  Each time, self doubt swallowed the artistic undercurrent.

Then I became a mommy with young children desperate for a hobby that fulfilled me in a way diapers, laundry, and sleep training never could.  I sampled dance classes but lost interest when I couldn’t remember the routine from week to week and researched community art classes but concluded my drawing skills were best left in the margin.

Nothing stuck until one snowy morning on route to preschool drop off, words stepped forward.

My youthful, creative energy plunked down in the passenger’s seat beside me.  “You don’t need fancy degrees, a library spilling with classics or outside approval to write,” she explained.  “You have heart, experience, and curiosity.  It’s time.”

Here I am, six years later writing picture books for children and essays for the grown-ups in their lives.  Why?

I write to share my truth after 25 years of secret keeping.

I write to honor the child; to validate their place in this world, capture their joy, experiences and feelings and to preserve the innocent spirit I lost too soon.

I write so Bubbe and Skootch have access to a growing collection of their mother’s thoughts and beliefs so they may learn who I am in addition to being Mom

I write to model for them what it looks like to pursue a passion.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why I do what I do.

So whenever my ego swells, I become consumed with clicks, views and audience expectations, the idea pipeline shrivels, deadlines approach, rejections mount, a critique breaks my spirit or life just gets in the way, I take a breath…

relax into my favorite place,
hone in on my heart,
open the flood gates
and write.

I SAID WHAT?…My Letter to the Editor in The New York Times

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

I wrote to The New York Times after reading Vicki Abeles’s Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”  Today, The Times ran my response in the printed paper as well as online.

The link to today’s Letters page: Reducing the stress on students

Here’s what I had to say:

Kudos to the Irvington High School community in Fremont, Calif., for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods such as limiting homework requirements and implementing pass-fail grading in some classes.

As an early childhood educator and mother of elementary-school-age children, I think we parents of young learners also need to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening extracurricular activities like sport travel teams, dance, music and STEM workshops in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

A multitude of these well-intended additions eats into down time, rest and unstructured play and creates stress for children and families. With a new year upon us, let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

JENNIFER REINHARZ

Pleasantville, N.Y.

Let Him Be Late

Walking to school

tpt-badge_contributorScary Mommy badge

Late is something I am not.

Not to meetings or meet ups.  Count on me to help the host kick off her party or the coach unlock the gym door.  In the words of my grandmother, “Five minutes early is on time.”

Then I gave birth to Bubbe who arrived one week late and after two hours of pushing.  A little guy who stopped to collect pebbles from the sidewalk, admire makeshift rivers on a rainy day, and construct block towers when he was supposed to be eating breakfast, Bubbe’s dawdling challenged my timely tendencies.

The slow approach appeared to stem from his developmental delays.  As a toddler and preschooler, Bubbe worked regularly with speech, occupational and physical therapists.  He and I did much schlepping to services during the early years.

To ensure my son got what he needed when he needed it, I planned our schedule around his clock.  I laid out clothes, organized the diaper bag, and packed snacks hours in advance.  I set timers, offered reminders, and built in daily dawdle time.  There were days when Bubbe played along, but those were rare.  “Hurry up” became a staple in my vocabulary and carrying his boneless body out the door and onto the next appointment became my primary source of exercise.

After a decade of exposure to my anxious nudging and keen management skills coupled with his hard work and a little maturity, I expected Bubbe to come to value my vision of time.  No such luck.

This tortoise syndrome became a wider concern at the end of third grade when it led to academic road blocks.  His teachers investigated.  Turns out, Bubbe’s brain doesn’t send signals as fast as mine and most peers.  To process, organize and focus thoughts and movements takes hard work and energy.  Dawdling is part of his DNA.

Armed with the information, I intended to shift my parenting approach.  But the thought of giving my child space to figure out his day at the risk of him being tardy rattled me to the core.

It doesn’t matter how Bubbe’s brain is wired.  I thought.  He has to learn how to move faster; use time wisely.

I held the reins.

Bubbe’s fourth grade year commenced with him hearing my voice on auto replay each morning.  “Get dressed.  Eat breakfast.  Find your backpack.  Don’t keep your friends waiting.  C’mon let’s go.”

Too big to fling him over my shoulder; prods graduated to threats, coaxing converted to yelling.  I was met with eye rolls, I don’t cares and whatevers.  Our home transformed into a battleground, leaving Bubbe and I frazzled and fried before the day began.

Then I went back to work.

My responsibilities multiplied overnight.  I no longer had space in my brain to try and change his.  I was forced to accept Bubbe was older and in charge of his actions.  I was also forced to accept that he no longer needed me in the same way.  I resolved to “do” my tween differently.

Step one: let him be late for school.

One morning soon after, I awoke Bubbe as per the usual routine and announced, “We are leaving at 7:45.  You have until then to get up and do your thing.”

At 7:40 he was still in bed.  “Your brother and I are leaving in five minutes.  Just lock up on your way out.  The school bell rings at 8:15am.  See you there.”

The neighbors knocked on the door.  Skootch and I left Bubbe behind.

As we walked the three blocks, I looked back but there was no sign of him.  I dropped off his brother and headed across the school grounds toward the front gate.

Still no Bubbe.

I turned the corner toward home.  There he was, strolling up the sidewalk; dressed appropriately, jacket on and with backpack in tow.  For the first morning in weeks, Bubbe was smiling.

I smiled back.

As we passed each other, my son leaned in and nuzzled his brow into my chest.  “I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.  Enjoy the day.”  We went our respective ways.

And no one was late.

What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

Mindfulness quote

The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.

Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.

Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention.  Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.

As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire.  As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood.  But I am a grown up.

Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid.  Why?  Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.

Children live in the present.  Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard.  Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.

A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience.  His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult.  That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.”   Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.”  By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour.  Minutes are not introduced until second grade.

While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven.  Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.

For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality.  Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.

Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety.  He was not cognitively ready.

Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source.  But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.

But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.

Children need love.

A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.

Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”

Children need time.

Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.

The time scheduled for mindfulness  in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center.  This is what helps them focus.  This is what teaches body and environmental awareness.  This is how they were intended to manage stress.

Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free.  So let’s give them love.  Give them time.  And then, let them be.

My Brush with Greatness

Me and Pop 2015

Grand Magazine

My grandfather remained in his living room’s Lazy Boy beside my grandmother asleep in a hospice bed where her twin recliner once stood until she took her final breaths.  They shared the space for sixty-five years and would not have had it any other way.

A few hours before my grandmother died, I talked with my grandfather for what felt like the first time.

With poor hearing and an often fiery spirit, I spent most of my forty plus years watching Pop share his World War II experience and debate about the political climate of the day from a distance.

Yes, we connected over old movies, late night cheese and crackers, Sunday afternoon football and his enthusiasm for teaching me about gadgets, opera and gymnastics but I did most of the listening.  Any of my thoughts were voiced through my grandmother.  She didn’t require me to repeat or clarify, knew how best to communicate with her husband, and preferred to be in charge.  The arrangement seemed to work best for everyone.

Sadly my grandmother was now unconscious; breathing aided by machine, pain numbed with morphine.  And although I was convinced she could hear us, it was clear my buffer was gone.

There Pop sat.  Face heavy: heartbroken, devastated and confused.

“The world is different today.  There is no goodness left,” he said.

I held his hand.  “No.  That’s not true.  There will always be violence, war, corrupt governments, and terrible decisions but most people are decent and good.”  I pointed to my resting grandmother.  “Like her.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

The family, who had gone outside for air, made their way back into the apartment.  Late into the evening as I said my goodbyes Pop looked up from his chair.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“No, really.  Thank you.  Stay how you are.  She would have wanted it that way.”

The moment redefined our relationship and revealed the essence of my grandfather.

It has been one year since my grandmother’s death.  I relied on her to shape my experience with my grandfather and I assumed Pop leaned on her in the same way.  Alone, I was sure his flame would extinguish.

Instead, he got up every morning and made himself coffee and eggs.  He learned how to launder his clothes, vacuumed the floor, stopped drinking wine and scotch for fear of losing his balance, and eventually opened the curtains in the bedroom.  Pop spoke openly about his grief and need to work through it on his own terms.

He accepted an invitation to a Veterans’ lunch at his grandson’s middle school and found himself unexpectedly and for the first time recounting his World War II experience aboard a ship that fought in the Battle of Normandy and Okinawa to a classroom of tweens.  When a student asked, What were you afraid of the most? Pop’s eyes filled with tears as he shared with these young people what it was like for an 18 year old boy to witness death.

He sent me an email after Bubbe left for sleep away camp to see how I was coping with the separation.  He stressed the importance of letting our children go and commended me for giving him a chance to spread his wings.  “Let your boys have their space to play, but always watch,” he advised.  “Just don’t let them know you’re doing it.”

He questioned the owner of my CrossFit affiliate as to why we do tribute workouts to honor fallen soldiers from recent wars.

“You honor one guy?” Pop asked.

“One at a time.  It’s a way for the CrossFit community to remember the ultimate sacrifice they made,” the owner explained.

“And you don’t know them?”

“No.  Not personally.”

Pop furrowed his brow and stared at the group photograph gym members took after one of the Hero WODs.  It was as if he was recalling the 400,000 American soldiers who died during the war in which he fought, remembering the 2,500 soldiers who lost their lives in one day on Omaha beach where his ship was offshore, adding up the 5,000 Americans who were killed at sea during the battle of Okinawa, and thinking about friends who saw combat but never came home.

“Okay.  But a lot of guys died.”

He stocked his refrigerator with ice cream and chocolate sauce so he was always prepared to build sundaes with Skootch, crouched on the carpet and shot marbles with Bubbe, and devoured the cannoli I brought him on Grandparents Day because according to him they help people “live to be one hundred.”

At the end of each visit he said, “Be happy.”

Perseverance.  Sacrifice.  Honesty.  Humility.  Empathy.  Patriotism.  Simplicity.  Optimism.

Greatness.

Pop embodies the mindset of his generation, The Greatest Generation; a group of ordinary men and women who survived the unimaginable.

These folks were staples of my childhood and young adulthood.  When I am with my grandfather in the quiet of his apartment today and am flooded by memories of afternoon stoop parties, Saturday night card games, Sunday dinners, holiday gatherings and family celebrations, it becomes quite apparent his generation is almost gone.

Pop strolled over during Skootch’s recent birthday as I pressed the candles into the cake.  “How are you all grown up?” he asked.  “You were only a toddler not long ago.  It went by so fast.”

My laugh lines smiled back at his and I thought, He’s right; now it’s my turn.

I only hope I do him proud.

In the meantime, I plan to relish in grandfather’s greatness for as long as God wills.  He has a lot more to give and I have much to gain.

On Becoming an iPhone Addict

photo credit: Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun

ML_published_badge_red_Mamalode

Mac and the boys mix a seaweed soup off the distant jetty.  I gaze into a misty horizon, body limp; Yingling nestled in the sand.  The rhythm of the waves at low tide aim to sooth.

Poing.  A hand twitches.

Ding.  Temples throb.

Whoooop.

The allure of mommy solitude is not enough for me to ignore the sound.  I reach for the iPhone.

Whose texting me? 

Who shared my post?

How many friends “liked” my status? 

Did a literary agent send an offer email at long last?

It’s the final evening of our family vacation.  It shouldn’t matter.  And yet my brain sizzles with curiosity.

Outsiders observe.  An intervention ensues.

Crash.  The waves argue their case.

Ring.  The ice cream vendor shakes his bell with disgust.

Whistle.  Even the diving kite overhead has something to say.

Nature’s hum is no match for the cocaine colored Otterbox clutched in my palm as I tap and swipe and stare.

Bubbe is wise to my growing affliction.  “Mom, you’re always on the phone.  Didn’t you say no electronics at the beach?  We are on vacation, you know.”

“You’re right,” I nod, tweet discreetly, and drum up an excuse.  “I only use it to take pictures.”

Skootch is convinced the world’s problems can be solved and the universe’s questions answered with a search engine or app.  “Why did my bucket float away?  Where did the wave take it?  When is it coming back?  Mom?  Mom?  Mom?”  He lifts my chin.  “Type it in.”

Many of my peers seem in control.  A walk on the beach with a childhood friend revealed her reasoning behind a quiet Facebook presence.  Upon stowing her iPhone in my fanny pack she shared, “Years ago, I found myself sifting through a wedding album of a friend of a friend and thought, what am I doing?  It was then that I made a conscious decision to stop.”

Tongue tied and stupefied, I rationalized a half-assed reason why, as a writer building a platform and in search of representation I needed to be savvy with social media.

There was a time when I sneered at the mother who looked at a smartphone in lieu of my face during a conversation at a preschool birthday party and rolled my eyes at the texting parent who barked orders from the playground bench.  Now I am that mommy.

And I know better.  I follow Hands Free Mama’s Facebook page.  I Pinterest technology articles.  I even held onto my Blackberry and a flip phone before that until recently because I prefer not to be plugged in.

I teach my children moderation.  Bubbe survived an electronic free sleep away camp, Deletion Day, and is painfully aware that a phone in his immediate future is unlikely.  Skootch doesn’t ask for technology at restaurants, in the car, or on vacation.  Both follow usage rules at home.

But my do as I say not as I do approach will not last much longer.

The sun is setting.

Skootch giggles up the dune chased by Bubbe who lizards across the sand.  Mac brings up the rear.  I stash the phone in the pocket of the Tommy Bahama lounger, pretend to scribble in my journal, and mindfully confess – I am an iPhone addict.

Quick.

Someone point me in the direction of rehab.

Still Here…

cobalt sky

A cobalt sky

The South Bronx

Sixth grade place value

Fifth day teacher

A principal

The hallway

An airplane struck a tower

An accident?

Call your husband

Robert’s mother was the first to arrive

She was sobbing

A second plane

Little information

No images

A vague announcement

More

The Pentagon. Capitol Building? The White House?

A field

One by one, children trickled from the classroom

I taught

They worked

It was Alake’s 11th birthday

Many stayed ‘til the day’s end

At three, my colleague walked to Queens

I drove north on an empty highway

Not realizing I was a lucky one

Until the television showed me

Sickened

Horrified

Paralyzed

Outside a father played catch with his son

My husband played golf.

We can’t stop our lives; we can’t live in fear.  That’s what they want.

Grasping for normalcy

Forever changed

But not broken

United

Determined

Resilient

And here.  Still.  Years later.

To remember.  Pay tribute.  Share memories.

To teach

To serve

To live

We are still here

There must be a reason

September 10th rainbow

 

An Open Letter to the Real Deal

Friendship quote_C.S. Lewis

MID-LOGO-small-copy

Dear E,

I didn’t think dropping Bubbe off at your son’s 10th birthday sleepover would leave me verklempt.

After the gaggle of celebratory tweens scurried off to play Nerf Gun combat, you encouraged me to stay for our customary cocktail and chit chat.  Happy to oblige and assist in the effort, I carried the wasabi peas and pita chips to the back patio table to find a chilled prosecco flanked by the birthday root beer waiting patiently for our arrival.

It was then I spied the set of chaise lounges nestled in the corner.

I took one look at those chairs and flashbacked to my Bubbe, your son, and their rolls of baby deliciousness that used to sit there side by side munching Goldfish.  I thought about our boys being born 10 days apart.  I thought about how this past summer marked their 10th year of friendship.  Too embarrassed to share the sentiment, I fanned my tears with a chip and blamed the reaction on the peas.

I regained composure and got on with the festivities.  We poured the bubbly and toasted to our sons’ double digit birthdays.  But in my stir of emotion, I forgot to toast something equally as important; our 10 years of friendship.

We had our first date at The Newcomers Club Mommy and Me.  I showed up as a nonmember.  You came late.  The other attendees likely took note.

A frumpy, post partum version of myself watched from the sofa as you and your bouncing boy, each decked in blue worked the room; two blonde rays of sunshine to whom the mommies were instantly drawn.

When the crowd weaned, you parked on the rug near my feet and a sleeping Bubbe.

Any hormonal blah and sleep deprivation you may have been feeling was eclipsed by a genuine excitement to be out of the house and in the presence of empathetic adults.  Your warm introduction disintegrated my walls and quelled new mommy insecurities.

I thought, E is positive, easy, and kind and I hoped we would be friends.

The Newcomers eventually dispersed but fortunately we did not.  Your friendship has remained constant even when separation seemed probable.

When our boys reached the point we had to shelve play dates because they butted heads, we made sure not to suspend our own.

When I had my second child, you came to the hospital with sea salt brownies for me and open arms for Skootch even though our mom of an only child dynamic had changed.

When we moved in the dead of winter, you trekked to visit our new place before I unpacked a box despite the added drive.

When, six years ago, you started a business while simultaneously chasing your dream job, you took the time to encourage and help me pursue my passion even after you landed it and went back to work full time.

It only takes a glance at my Wonder Woman Lego key chain, Believe Giving Key necklace, or 40th birthday golden clutch you knew I always wanted to remind me of your thoughtfulness, generosity, integrity, determination, creativity, and faithfulness.  The qualities you possess that I so admire; the ones you have instilled in your son.

An unexpected and welcomed by product of becoming Bubbe’s mom was finding you.  And so, on our aluminum anniversary I raise my glass.

Thank you for being the real deal.

Love,
Red

Birthdays & Back to School

Today Red said what? turns two.  Mamalode is helping me celebrate the blog’s birthday by featuring this Back to School version of “A Mother’s Mantra.”

Mamalode Mothers Mantra Picture

http://mamalode.com/story/detail/a-mothers-mantra

Thank you for your continued support and encouragement.  If you didn’t take the time to read my essays, this blog couldn’t exist.

Do I have a new piece prepared for September?  Yes.  It’s waiting in the wings…

Turn Jew and I’ll Marry You…#IAmInterSomething

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InterFaithFamily picturehuffpo-blog-badge

Mac and I struck our deal over Sicilian pie.

“Turn Jew and I’ll marry you.”
I shook my head.  “You’re crazy.”
“Then raise the kids Jewish.”

Bringing up nonexistent children in a faith other than my own seemed easier to digest than lukewarm mozzarella.

“Okay,” I shrugged.

One civil ceremony, two children, and fifteen years later, Mac and I have put some mileage on our interfaith marriage bus since that momentous meal.

Turns out, there are many of us traversing a similar highway.

Hoping our collective experience might offer insight to couples merging toward the on ramp, I reached out to a handful of drivers in my lane.  Together we created a travel guide we wished someone had stashed in our glove compartment.

1.  Know your baseline

A clear belief system is the anchor for future decision making.

Leah, a Jewish woman whose spouse identifies as agnostic found questioning and self-talk freed her of dogma that didn’t sit well.

Flushing out what spiritually, culturally, and religiously, if anything was important to me:

not extended family,
not community,
but me

before I was in a committed relationship would have saved me years of agita.

2.  Face Fears

Fear is at the root of all issues interfaith.

Jill, a spiritual woman who is married to a Jewish man, raised Jewish children, and is active in her church and synagogue believes,

“If you are strong in who you are, then there is nothing to fear.  Notice when you feel threatened and investigate within yourself.”

My decision not to convert to Judaism is partially driven by fear.  While I’m proud of and dedicated to fostering Bubbe and Skootch’s religious and cultural identity, I am convinced that keeping a foot firmly planted in each camp will protect my sons’ from stereotype, anti-Semitism, and feeling left out.

Fear continues to outweigh rational thought and so, I have more investigating to do.

3.  You are you

My ideas, values, and traditions were not lost when I married someone from a different faith.

Individual identities are often clarified and strengthened when one is in an interfaith relationship as its nature requires each party to listen, reflect, and respond regularly.

I still hear Mac say, “Marrying outside my faith made me a better Jew.  It puts me in a position to think about what really matters.”

4.  Your children will always be yours

About a minute after Bubbe’s bris an outsider remarked, “He should go to the mikvah.  It’s part of the deal.”

Emotions muddled by post partum hormones, I felt torn between the conviction to do right by Mac’s Conservative Jewish upbringing and dread that Bubbe’s formal conversion would jeopardize our mother-son bond.

In search of guidance, I went to see a Reform Jewish rabbi.  She explained the difference between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox interpretations regarding matrilineal descent and ultimately offered,

“Think of bringing your baby to the ritual bath as a beautiful rebirth.”

Screw that, I thought.  What was wrong with his first one?

Bubbe never made it to the mikvah.

From dirty diapers and first words to stomach flues and first good-byes, believe you me, the kid is all mine.  And when it comes time for him to stand on the bimah as a Bar Mitzvah, this Catholic mom will beam with pride.

5.  Make a plan

The interfaith jury has spoken.  Whether it’s before the nuptials or on the second date, but definitely before babies make an appearance;

Decide.

How will you raise the children?

Will your family stick hard and fast to one religion, formally teach two, or like Laurie who is one-half of an interfaith and intercultural couple, celebrate and observe all holidays and life cycle events with a focus on spirituality, values, tradition, and gratitude?

Discuss religion even if one party isn’t religious.  Make your position known. Be aware of choices and stay open to compromise.  Do your relationship a long term favor; don’t rush this conversation to avoid cold pizza.

Invest the time.

The original plan will likely change, but a shared vision will minimize confusion, create the structure and identity children crave, and help all parties feel safe.

6.  Show up

Stacey, a proud Italian who was raised Catholic and her husband, a conservative Jew decided to raise their children in the Jewish tradition.  He was responsible for schul shopping and schleps the kids to Hebrew School.  She holds court during the holidays and planned each child’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations with care.

Laurie and her spouse deem it the responsibility of the parent whose tradition is being celebrated to teach the children about it in a meaningful way.

Regardless of approach, each person takes a turn behind the wheel.

7.  Resentment happens

Humans err, life is messy, and resentment happens regardless of how hard we interfaith folk plan.

When a wife is stuck writing out the family’s Happy Holiday cards all alone when she wanted them to say Merry Christmas in the first place or a husband plans a Passover Seder solo because his non religious partner won’t budge, bitterness ensues.

When the bus gets wedged in a ditch, Mac and I talk honestly about needs and feelings; then come up with a strategy to dig our way out.

8.  Find a friendly rest stop

Sometimes I feel banished to purgatory, belonging to neither side.

When my children were young, I was fortunate to find a local interfaith group.  During our regular “Coffee Talk” meet ups, we kicked around ideas, vented, listened, sought validation and understanding, and offered guidance.  These women and men were my leaning post and sounding board.

Every now and again, a new driver pulled in and shared her story.  Within a few sentences, she cried.  It never failed.  As the group watched the newbie let the air out of her tire, we recalled the struggle and welled up too.

The Coffee Talkers always left our friendly respite a little more relieved and a little less alone on the journey.

9.  Holidays and life cycle events are rough

The ride gets bumpy during holidays and life cycle events.  Isolation, frustration, sadness, and anxiety gurgle to the surface causing the bus to overheat.

When I find myself reaching for Tums, I make connections between Christian and Jewish traditions and then, build my own bridge.

10.  Build your own bridges

After agonizing through years of Hebrew laden High Holiday services and prayer heavy meals with extended family, I cracked.

“This is not my holiday. I don’t get it.  It’s too much and I’m not going anymore.”

My outburst and subsequent conversation with Mac gave us permission to create a Rosh Hashanah tradition where we each felt included and able to derive meaning from the environment.  We started with a relatable rabbi, the children’s service at our Temple, and a meal with friends and have since graduated to grown up services and food with Mac’s family.

I don’t touch Yom Kippur.  These things take time.

11.  Celebrate your spouse’s traditions

Mac, who was raised in a moderately observant home void of Christian symbols, had a post decorating nightmare after he participated in my mother’s Christmas tree trimming party for the first time.

But he kept it up out of respect for me and to model for Bubbe and Skootch the importance of honoring their mother’s tradition.

When we decided to put up our own Christmas tree a few years ago, I brought home a modest bush worried a grand statement might make him squeamish.  Mac gave our five footer the once over, examined the nine foot ceilings and announced,

“This tree doesn’t do the room justice.  Next year it has to be much bigger!”

Last Christmas, Mac drove the family to the Methodist church’s seasonal tree sale and picked one out himself.

12.  Give extended family a chance

Let extended family on the bus.  Offer to take a ride with them.  Prepare a kosher meal.  Attend a mass.  Kindness, sensitivity, and respect breed growth and mutual acceptance.

Those in our family who wondered about the idea of a non-converting Christian raising Jewish children now remark, “I forget she’s not Jewish.”

13.  Be honest with children

From brises and baptism to heaven, holidays and Jesus, at a minimum, Mac and I talk to Bubbe and Skootch about our family’s belief systems.

Any time our boys make an observation or inquire about Mom’s Christianity or their Jewish heritage we keep the response simple and direct.

“The Jewish people believe…”
“Mom grew up believing…”

So far, so good.

14.  Embrace the gift

Jill feels being part of an interfaith family is

“An opportunity for you and your children to learn and understand not just one but two cultures and religions on a very deep and intimate level so learn and embrace as much as you possibly can.”

What a special gift.

15.  Be open to the journey

The scenery doesn’t look quite the same as when Mac and I shared our Sicilian pie.  Our collective and individual spiritual perspectives have and will continue to evolve.  Interfaith marriage is a journey.  And we are a work in progress.

Interfaith.  Intercultural.  Interracial.  Intergenerational.  We are magnificently growing society of

Inter-Somethings.

While we need to map the course which best suits our family, honoring each other along the way will make the ride more enjoyable and all the difference.

A Mother’s Mantra

The bunk

ML_published_badge_red_Mamalode

I stand behind the ironing board affixing labels to socks

and watch

you weave Stampy Cat from yellow bands

The knot in my throat

grows

An adventure looms

For each of us

Soon to camp

One month away

Your first time

Reminders simmer

Stay in groups.  Be modest.  Don’t let anyone take advantage.

Use your voice

Use soap

Use a tissue

Never spoken

Instead,

A mother’s mantra

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

We drive the twisted parkway

Duffle in trunk

You stare beyond the glass

Wondering

Raindrops camouflage my tears

Focus.  Don’t dawdle.  Clean up.

Take a risk

Trim those nails

Try the baked ziti

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

I stuff sheets into a top bunk

You flip cards with new mates

throw a glance

and disappear with the pack

It’s almost time

Brush your teeth. Wear glasses. Spray for bugs.

Be organized

Be flexible

Be you

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

The Gaga pit

A kiss good-bye

Stay a boy forever

One more squeeze

Experience it all

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

What’s Your Story?

Small world sign

Mac leaned across the handrail to get the lay of the ride’s land as he commentated into the iPhone.  “The happiest cruise that ever sailed.  It’s a Small World is the only thing I remember about my first trip to Disneyland, and I remember everything about it.  Even the boats are the same.  That was 1968.”

My wide-eyed husband entertained our boys with his broadcast as we herded our way around the corral, down to dockside, and into holding pen number three.  Mere seconds passed before our craft expeditiously floated into place.  We boarded, sitting four across in the center row: Me, five-year old Skootch, big brother Bubbe and Mac.

“Mom and Dad, there are 16 in the boat.”  A divine voice with an undertone of Disney princess addressed the crowd from a microphone equip cotton candy hued canopied chair perched above our heads.

Our crew patiently waited for the boat in front of us to move.

It didn’t.

The Divine Princess spoke again.  “Sit the child on your lap so there are only 15 in the seats.”

As I thought, Who is she talking to? my quads seized, chest blotched, and shoulders went stiff.

Oh crap! She means us. 

The disembarking Happy Boats stacked up behind ours while lines of guests stared us down in the midday sun.

“Take him,” I ordered Mac.  He reached across and hoisted Skootch up.

“I want to sit next to Mom!”  Our brawny boy wrestled his way off of Mac’s lap, knocked into his brother who fell into me.  The ride rocked.  Passengers braced.

“Leave the boat,” I instructed my husband.  Mac returned to the dock to await the next cruise.

I counted fifteen passengers.  Problem solved.

“All four of you get off and wait,” the princess summoned.  “I said all four.”

“No!  I want this boat!” snapped Skootch.

I shooed Bubbe to shore and stepped over my stuck puppy hoping his fear of abandonment would set in.

It did.

“Okay Okay I’m coming,” he said.

Back in pen three, I stared at the concrete, gripping my boys’ hands for moral grounding until the new boat slipped into place.

Again, we sat four across.

Still displeased, the Divine Princess made a final pronouncement.  “Sit two and two.”

Mac and Bubbe moved up a row.  Skootch stayed with me for safekeeping.

At long last, the happiest cruise set sail.

Small world boat

Serenaded by the world’s children, our shipmates marveled at the unfolding spectacle in Mandarin, German, and English as we drifted through the tunnel.

Skootch hardly cracked a smile.

He skeptically squinted at Alice

Small world Europe

and curiously cocked his keppe at the carpets overhead.

it's a small world

Jiggled ever so slightly to the jarabe

Small world South America

and silently shimmied his way through the South Pacific.

Small world, south pacific

It wasn’t’ until Skootch was embraced by a chorus of children adorned in white and gold that he completely settled into the experience.

Small world finale picture

Our exiting vessel halted just shy of the Divine Princess’s throne.  “So what did you think?” I asked.

My son looked up with a cheeky grin and sang,

It’s a small world after all.

When Disneyland celebrates its 100th anniversary, perhaps Skootch will be the father leaning over the handrail recording into a device.

“The happiest cruise that ever sailed.  It’s a Small World is the only thing I remember about my first trip to Disneyland, and I remember everything about it.  Even the boats are the same.  That was 2015.

Kids, let me tell you something.  This small world is filled with harmony, variety, and life.  But if you truly want to enjoy the ride, sometimes you have to heed a higher voice, leave Mommy’s lap, and switch boats.”

On a recent visit out west, we squeezed in our first family trip to Disneyland between the measles outbreak and the park’s 60th anniversary.  Recalling our Small World experience at a Passover Seder, we were surprised to hear how many guests could relate.  From getting kicked out of a park for mischievous mischief to being trapped on It’s a Small World, it seems everyone had a Disney story.  This one is ours.

Common Core Testing; My Case for Opting In

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Let us all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The 3rd-8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Common Core standardized tests are over.  You know the ones; the high-stake assessments pitched by politicians as guaranteed to close the achievement gap, ensure children are college and career ready, monitor the health of school districts and in my state, dictate the quality of teacher instruction.

Ten years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I had the experience of administering and grading the state ELA and Math tests under No Child Left Behind in the same school my children attend today.

In April, my third grader took the Common Core version for the first time.

Many of his peers and an estimated 15% of children statewide did not.

Their parents “Opted Out.”

Those who joined the Opt Out Movement poignantly expressed concern citing that the current, mandated state assessments cripple public education, compromise the professionalism of teachers, steer time away from creative, meaningful curriculum, suck the joy from learning, and kill young spirits with its developmentally and grade level inappropriate language and length.

Despite the fact that I agree with these points, am a vocal supporter of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s platform, and believe the assessments in their existing form offer no diagnostic value for teacher or student,

I Opted In.

It was not because I’m worried about a potential loss of district funding or the perceived reputation of my son’s school, nor was it because I’m a data hungry mama on a mission to mold my child into an international marketplace competitor.

Truthfully, if I felt his learning needs weren’t being addressed, I may not have exposed him to a testing environment that requires nine year olds to sit several hours over a 3-day period for two consecutive weeks answering sophisticated and language heavy reading, writing, and math questions.  Furthermore, if my school district had Opted Out, I would have obliged.

As a public school student, my son is automatically a pawn in the conundrum of educational reform; ammunition in a grown up battle.

But he doesn’t know it.  And that’s good.

He is fortunate to attend a child-centered school that takes pride in their general, special, character, and arts education programs.  Inside the classroom, teachers do their best to thoughtfully integrate test prep into an already rich curriculum.  Since state testing commenced 15 years ago, the school district has stood behind their mantra; standardized assessments are a snapshot in a child’s day.

Buzz does not exist.

Outside the school, administrators voice concern about high-stakes testing and its implications in the local newspaper.  Board members write letters to the Board of Regents seeking change and travel to the state capital to fight for school district rights, standing firm outside the Chairman of Education Committee’s office until the senator answers their questions.

Advocacy is a priority.

Out of respect for my son’s innocence, love for his teacher and community, our leaders’ efforts, and in keeping with the belief that anxiety breeds anxiety, I don’t express my Common Core testing distaste at home and I don’t initiate conversation with my child about the “big state test.”

He knows it’s happening.

Had I Opted Out, my son would not only know it is happening, but also be acutely aware that he is concretely, conspicuously stuck in the middle of a movement that effects the quality of his education and the future of his teacher’s job.

And in my opinion, a nine year old does not need this additional burden thrown upon his shoulders.

So like the time he fell off the playground swing and looked to my reaction for his, I bit my lip and played it cool as the test date approached.  I made absolute sure he had a decent night’s sleep the nights before each assessment, breakfast in his belly the morning of, and plenty of down time in between.

As such, when he came home after the first day of the English Language Arts test, this is what he told me…

“Today was the big state test.  The teacher put our desks in a line, the old-fashioned way so we could have space.  She gave us gum to help us focus.  I didn’t like the flavor so I didn’t have any.  We took the test for about an hour.  Then we got two recesses.  During one of them, I played Knock Out and took second place against a 4th grader.  We don’t have any homework; I have no idea why, but we don’t.  It was a great day.  Can I have a snack?”

My response? “Good for you.”  I did not ask test specifics, how he worked, whether or not he finished, or how he performed. “Yes, help yourself.”

The morning of the Math test a week later, his primary concern was to make sure he packed orange flavored Life Savers in his backpack.

“Mom, sucking on them helps me focus.  Plus I like to trade them with friends.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

The “Opt Out” or “Opt In” choice for the 2014-2015 school year has been made.

Now what?

I don’t believe the elimination of standardized testing is realistic and the likelihood that I will Opt Out my child next year is slim.  But I do believe a compromise is necessary.

Juan Gonzalez, journalist for the New York Daily News recently made this valid point,

“Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77% of students statewide were proficient in English.  The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57%.  A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more; to 31% statewide.  Same children.  Same teachers.  Different test.”

Step One?  Reconstruct the test.

  • Decrease the length. Requiring nine year olds to sit for 60, 70, and 90 minute stretches will only demonstrate how a child performs when fatigued.
  • Make the reading passages grade level. This year, it was reported that at least one 3rd grade English Language Arts test passage registered at a 5th grade reading level.  The 6th grade test apparently included vocabulary that could stump a grown up.
  • Offer a combination of concrete and inference ELA questions as well as Math problems rooted in mathematical concepts void of unnecessary language. Children develop differently; some minds are not ready or grounded enough in the language to tackle a multitude of higher level thinking questions.
  • Reduce testing frequency. It is possible to monitor a child’s general academic progress without subjecting him to standardized assessments for 6 consecutive years.  As former President Bill Clinton quoted in The Washington Post, “I think doing one test in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.”

Do. It. Right.

By creating fair tests, maybe we can begin the return to a balanced educational landscape where standardized tests play a small and perhaps valuable role in shaping a young person’s school experience.

Those who support the Opt Out Movement have outlined their future demands to state government officials.  Let’s see what happens.

In the meantime, instead of having a casual conversation in town with a board member or reading articles about my district administration, I need to get proactive and stand alongside them outside that stubborn senator’s office.

But I’ll be sure to leave my son home; to play Knock Out with friends, sample Life Savers, and enjoy his final years in elementary school because that’s his job.

Advocating for a sensible public school education is mine.

I SAID WHAT?…Preventing Child Sexual Abuse; This Survivor’s Synopsis

The word Empower in magazine letters on a notice board

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. 

Child sexual abuse is an uncomfortable but necessary topic that I think deserves revisiting.  As such, I am re-posting my essay from a year ago in lieu of an April guest post. 

Providing our children with the tools to prevent abuse is a critical step in preventing it from happening.  Fortunately, many schools take time to address the difference between good touches and bad touches.  For those that do not, there is a movement in place to enact a law that requires it. 

School programs are great but conversations need to start at home.

If we work together now to empower our children and ourselves, then perhaps the next generation will have less predator stories, abuse memoirs, and survivor synopses to read.

Child sexual abuse is pervasive in our society; it knows no race, religion, gender, or economic status.  It has impacted generations of children; stripped them of their innocence and burdened them with trauma that can last a lifetime.

Last year, I wrote a blog post describing the day I first told my mother I was a survivor of child sexual abuse.  I stayed silent until I was 30 years old.  After countless conversations with fellow survivors and curious parents since that post, I felt it was high time I weigh in on this uncomfortable but necessary topic.

According to an article in Baby & Blog, “6 Ways to Protect your Child from Sexual Abuse”, “It is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. To put this in perspective, that means “in a classroom of 25 High School Seniors, 3 of the girls and 2 of the boys will have likely been sexually abused.”

Child sexual abuse is about power.  Child molesters feel powerful when they exploit and take advantage of children.  If we tip the scale and take away their power, then perhaps we can stop the abuse.

How do we do that?  Empower the children.  Empower ourselves.

Empower the Children

“The fight against child molesters begins by teaching the children.” – Norman E. Friedman

When Norman Friedman, a veteran mental health professional, educator, and author of Inoculating Your Children against Sexual Abuse; what every parent should know! made this statement during a lecture I thought,

That makes sense.

Based on Mr. Friedman’s years of experience working with the predator population, he concluded that one cannot cure a child molester.  Therefore, the most effective thing we can do is empower children about their bodies and rights, and create an environment where they feel confident communicating with a trusted adult.

No Touch Zone.

First, teach them that everyone has a No Touch Zone.  This zone is not limited to the child’s private parts.  Friedman’s book outlines his definition and offers a noninvasive, appropriate, step by step approach to help trusted adults teach children about body parts, body rights, and what to say if a person attempts to court, solicit, or make them feel uncomfortable.

No Secrets.        

“We don’t have secrets in our house; we have surprises,”

is a phrase we adopted in our home thanks to Friedman.

Secret is a word we innocently use with children.  However, a predator’s efforts to create an inappropriate relationship with a child often includes secret keeping.  Friedman suggests that if we stop using the term, a child will recognize when it’s out of place and subsequently say something to that person as well as his trusted adult.

No Secrets policy in a family encourages open communication.  Once a child feels confident that he can speak freely, we need to make sure we are listening.

Listen.

It is important we make it a priority to send verbal and nonverbal cues that convey to our children we are available; always, whenever, and no matter what.  Listening and responding respectfully to both the good and bad things that are on their mind builds trust, offers reassurance that we care, and confirms that what they say is meaningful.

Young people exposed to life is tough and keep it in the family attitudes and who hear messages that it is their job to be responsible for adult feelings and needs add up to one thing in a child’s mind;

why bother talking, no one is listening.

Listening to our children is critical, but believing is lasting.

Believe.

When a child confides that someone approached him in an uncomfortable way, it might be easier to swallow the shock and impossibility of it all by downplaying the incident, particularly if it’s someone familiar.

But we need to take their words seriously.

Regardless of how the information made us feel or who the party was; that child felt violated on some level and had the courage to speak up.  That means we need to find a way to help him feel safe again as well as confront the party in question.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an adult recount their abuse experience and share how he had the courage to tell a trusted loved one only to be brushed off, ignored, told he was wrong or the cause of it.

Can you imagine being that little boy who was brave enough to say something, not believed, and then continually abused?

Empower Ourselves

It’s not enough to empower our children.  We trusted adults have to get in on the act.

Go with your gut.

A friend felt conflicted about telling her neighbor to take a hike when he wanted to play basketball with her eight year old son.  She felt bad for the lonely, old man even though her gut told her his request was odd.  Confronting him would be impolite, so she protected her son by making excuses when the child continued to ask if he could play with the man.

She ultimately took action.

To her son she said, “In many ways, he’s like a stranger to us.  We know him but we really don’t.”

And to the man, “Come on.  You know grownups don’t play with kids.”

After that, he left my friend’s son alone.

Advocate at all costs.

If you know someone in your family has a history of abusing others and you suspect that the person is being inappropriate with a child even if it isn’t your child, call him out on it.  If that’s too scary, anonymously call Child Protective Services.

It is not enough for us to avoid an abuser in the family because it is likely he is out in the world hurting someone else’s children.  So for the sake of that little boy and girl, their innocence, emotional health, and future please be strong;

take a stand.

We can’t wait for predators to rehabilitate or the laws to punish them accordingly.  And since the majority of molesters are not strangers, they will continue to live in our communities, interact with children, and be part of our families.

I’m sorry if this frightens you, but it is true.

So empower your children.  If a predator tries to court a child equip with the right tools, he’ll realize that he doesn’t stand a chance and will back off.

And empower yourself.  Let those who are inappropriate with children know that we trusted adults are paying attention.

Scale tipped.  Power stripped.

A Pleasant Passover

Seder table picture

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Kveller

Born into a Catholic family with a Jewish surname, I should have expected that I would one day find myself leading a Passover Seder.

To date, Mac and I have hosted eight Seders, seven of which I’ve had the honor to lead. This role was bestowed upon me after my Jewish husband concluded that in light of my organized, creative, teacher-like nature, I was the right person for the job. The trade off was food prep, which he happily agreed to tackle. Not one who enjoys cooking, I acquiesced. Besides, the man makes a mean brisket.

I love a good Passover Seder.

The parallels to the Easter story coupled with the springtime symbolism and my personal affection for The Ten Commandments movie make Passover a welcomed and relatable holiday.

The Seder service creates a setting where both the newcomer and the experienced guest feel connected.

It’s a forum to discuss physical and emotional freedom, think about the responsibility one has to repair the world, question injustice, and reflect on values and relationships. The Story of Exodus and the blessings translate into modern life and are meaningful for young and old, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Lastly, the traditions are designed to keep children engaged, which make it easy to add elements of fun.

I didn’t always love a Seder.

In the beginning, I found it a tough ceremony to swallow. I felt like the token Christian; the stranger in the wrong outfit eating the matza out of order. The structure of the service confused me and the intensity associated with staying on task gave me the perfect excuse to keep quiet. I felt excluded by the deluge of Hebrew spoken by those in the know and in general, lost; drowned in a Red Sea of rigidity, pomp, and circumstance. For years, I couldn’t wait to suck down that fourth cup of wine and hightail it home.

Determined to do right by my Catholic self and our Jewish children, I set out on a mission to create an outreach friendly Seder.

I compiled a Hagaddah chock full of catchy ditties, kid friendly verses, and hands on plagues. I switched up the order of the service, made the blessings accessible in English and Hebrew, added passages about civil rights and the human condition, and offered readings that would appeal to different belief systems.

It took a few years to earn our Seder hosting chops, but eventually Mac and I found something that worked for us.

Fast forward to Passover 2014.

Walking by a local church the morning of Passover I noticed a passage carved into the steeple.

How wonderful it is

How pleasant for God’s people

To live together in harmony

Psalm 133

I thought about our Seder guests. That evening, sixteen people; Jews, Catholics, Muslims, a son of Methodist missionaries, family, old friends, and new faces would gather around our table in Pleasantville like a bona fide interfaith, intergenerational jamboree.

As suspected, it turned out to be just that.

We waited to kickoff the festivities so my Muslim neighbor could run home to say her afternoon prayers.

My father, a good ole boy and the son of Methodist missionaries who has a mezuzah affixed to his doorpost out of respect for our Jewish ancestors, joined us for his first Seder and my first holiday with him since I was a baby.

Adults and young people alike wore sunglasses to symbolize darkness, the ninth plague and enjoyed an enthusiastic food fight of marshmallow hail.

Twenty somethings and teenagers were just as jazzed as the under ten population to hunt for the Afikomen.

The widow and sister of a dear friend, a devout Irish Catholic who always attended our Seders but passed away a few years ago, recited the concluding poem together, a job historically reserved for him.

And when the Seder ended that sister, a retired high school special education teacher, mother of four and grandmother who attends daily mass, and a Passover newcomer stood up and addressed the group. She shared,

We are a society of self-absorbed immediacy. It seems that all anyone cares about today are the latest trends, the hottest stars, and themselves. It is important to pass on traditions, talk about ancestry, tell stories, and make connections to the past. Doing this creates a necessary foundation for our children. For me, the Seder represents hope and a renewed determination to keep ALL the traditions we have alive and fun.

Then she took our Hagaddah home to use as a teaching aid in her Catechism class.

Three days later, a gust of anti-Semitism blew through the dining room and knocked me off the kumbaya cloud as I read about yet another account of worldwide religious intolerance and persecution.

This time it was an article about Jewish residents in the Ukraine who were stopped outside the synagogue after Passover services by masked men, and handed a leaflet citing that anyone over the age of sixteen was required to register themselves and personal property as Jewish or face deportation.

I was not raised Jewish. I did not convert to Judaism. But as a person raising Jewish children, the institutional nature of the attempt made me sick. It made me angry. It hit home for this Mama Bear.

So to the bigots who ordered, printed, and distributed the leaflets; raspberries and middle fingers to you.

And to all those who continue to hurt others because of or in the name of religion, I invite you to climb down from your bully pulpit.

Take off the mask, put down your weapon

Grab the marshmallows, slip on the sunglasses

And join my family for a Pleasant Passover; there are sixteen people who value freedom, tradition, inclusivity, harmony, and humanity that we’d like you to meet.

Discomfort Revisited; To My Future Self (with a side of recipes)

Avocado health picture - April 1 2015 option

Dear Post Whole Life Challenge Self,

I see you my little sugar plum fairy.  Don’t even think about downing that bag of gingersnaps.  Come now, haven’t you learned your lesson?

Eight plus weeks ago, somewhere between plank holds and hollowed rocks you tuned into Coach BE’s voice pitching the latest gym event; a 56 day nutrition and lifestyle challenge.

Even though your New Year’s resolution had been to reign in copious amounts sugar consumption, the notion of trying, not muscle fatigue shook you at the core.

I chuckled and thought, here’s a woman who survived child abuse and child birth, Weight Watchers and CrossFit, and yet there she planks; paralyzed, petrified, and underestimating her grit again.

Competitive and conscientious, I knew you could steer clear of the Skittles.

A rule abiding perfectionist, I knew you could tweak nutritional habits accordingly, practice the weekly lifestyle challenge diligently, and input a daily score religiously.

At the very least, I knew visions of a chiseled six pack dancing in your head would keep the sugar, cheese, and gluten out of your mouth.

Still you remained frozen in the britches.

As the challenge approached and the chatter grew, the last thing you wanted was to be left out of CrossFitter conversation.  In the end, peer pressure prevailed.  You coughed up the fifty bucks and bought a one way ticket back to

The Discomfort Zone.

Lethargic, cranky, and craving ice cream scoops and pizza pie slivers; the first 12 days sucked.  By day 21, you felt less bloated and more energized, but the lack of physical change almost caused you to throw in the towel.

But you kept at it.  Today you’re done and writing a letter to your future self because the challenge creators encouraged participants to do so.

Yes, you expected to come out the other side a Photoshopped version of yourself.  And it’s hard not to fixate on the lack of dramatic weight loss.  Yes, the scale tips 160 and your thigh gap is more of a slit.  The funk pecking away at your ego stems from female stigmas, girlish insecurities, and societal expectations.

Ignore it.

In 56 days you gained stamina and muscle:  mental and physical strength, a revised relationship with food and cleaner insides.  Besides, a little bass never hurt anybody.

Try to embrace these true measures of health and remember that despite middle age, marriage and motherhood, you are far from humpty or dumpty.

Find future value in the required weekly lifestyle practices as well.  Thanks to the organizers, you got more rest, practiced gratitude, kindness and mindfulness, enjoyed activities you love, and trudged through meals technology free.

Remember waking up after seven hours of uninterrupted sleep wondering what the hell happened?  Hold on to that the next time you stay up futzing on Facebook to then be awoken by a five year old with a 2am water request.

Remember the morning you experienced a few minutes of peace in the car at preschool pick up?  Hold on to that the next time you think you can’t find space to just be.

Remember the conversation with Skootch about Superman’s powers and Robin’s lack thereof over a bowl of soup?  Hold on to that the next time you open a laptop during lunch.

Remember the appreciation you felt those hours after the nearby train accident just to be able to sit and watch television with your husband and children?  Hold on to that the next time you tantrum about life being unfair.

I’m sorry but this exercise does not mark the end of your journey.  Continue to be wary of the Achilles heel: portion control.

In the meantime, feel proud.  You proved you could switch up your diet and survive.  This was an obstacle you were not remotely willing to tackle until now.

Discomfort is in fact still good.  Moderation however is great.

So enjoy some emotional eating with your team to celebrate a job well done.  The party bus and hard cider you’ve been saving are waiting.  Next stop, Peter Lugers. Bring on the schlag

Sincerely,
Your Conscience

My Go To Recipes

Egg Muffins:
Courtesy of Coach BE

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  • Spray down either a muffin tray or cup cake tray with Pam/olive oil spray
  • Dice pepper, onion, and spinach (really any vegetables you like)
  • Chop up chicken sausage (some prefer cheese or both)
  • Make a 2 egg scrambled egg mix (salt, pepper, milk)
  • Add the raw vegetables and sausage to the mix
  • Pour into the cupcake/muffin tray. The mixture should fill up about 2 ½ cupcake spaces.
  • Bake for 30 minutes or until you can stick a butter knife through and the blade comes out dry
  • Store in the refrigerator and reheat in microwave for 1 ½ minutes

Baked Oatmeal Bars
Courtesy of Karen the Baker

Oatmeal Bar Picture

Note: Feel free to add nuts, apples, dates, and/or coconut.  Double the recipe and use a 9×13 pan.

  • 3 cups oats
  • 2 t baking powder
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t cinnamon
  • 2 eggs slightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk (use whatever type is acceptable)
  • 1/4 cup butter melted
  • 2-3 cups of frozen berries, a cut up apple, or whatever fruit you have on hand (Add a lot more fruit than it says here.)
  • Combine oats, baking powder, salt and cinnamon
  • Combine eggs, milk, butter and add to dry ingredients
  • Stir in fruit
  • Bake uncovered in 8×8” pan for 35-40 minutes at 350 degrees

Sweet Potato Chips

  • Preheat oven to 225 degrees
  • Peel and slice thin.
  • Toss sliced sweet potatoes in oil and sea salt
  • Bake for approximately 1hr 45 minutes

Dear Mom…Please stop calling me Buddy

Dear Mom picture

Dear Mom,

Please stop calling me Buddy.  I don’t like it.

At first, I was afraid to say anything because you’ve used the nickname since I was little.  Now I’m 9 ½ and Buddy sounds weird.  It’s embarrassing.

I was also worried I would hurt your feelings.  You always seem so excited to call me Buddy.  I can tell it means a lot to you.  I think you think calling me Buddy automatically brings us closer together.

It really doesn’t.

I know you love me when you sing to me in the morning, sneak a hug and a kiss on the corner before school, helped me wash the toenail out of my eye after it shot up off the clipper, taught me how to follow my basketball shot, pay me allowance, cook me perfect pasta, and stay for a cuddle talk at tuck in.

Like you always say, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Another thing; why do you call me Buddy when you’re mad?  Buddies are supposed to make each other happy, but every time you say

“Shut the Wii U off now, Buddy.”

“It’s late, Buddy.  Go back to bed.”

“Buddy come on, you left the student planner in your desk, again?”

with a growl or snake-eyed glare, I only feel scared and to be honest, a little angry myself.  The whole thing doesn’t make sense.

Know what else?  I like my name.  I like when you say my name.  I remember the story of how I got it.  You decided in eighth grade that if you ever had a son you would name him after your grandfather.  And you did.  So why don’t you use it?  You wouldn’t like it very much if I called you Red instead of Mom.  That’s not respectful.

The definition of Buddy is “a close friend.”   For real.  I Googled it.

Mom, I have friends.  I wasn’t a natural at making friends, but you showed me how to introduce myself, share, and speak up.  And when I felt shy about joining classmates in the block center or had a hard time sitting at a crowded snack table in preschool, you got me a helper teacher.  Now I’m good.

William from the baby playgroup, the kids in my class, the boys I have snowball fights with on the walk home from school, and the guys from my team; these are my buddies.

The ladies you meet for lunch and a chit chat, Daddy on date night, and that funny guy who fist pumps and belly dances in an elf hat at CrossFit; those are your buddies.

Maybe when I’m in college or living in my own apartment we will be close friends.

Right now, I need you to be my mom.

So please stop saying Buddy.  I know it’s different and might be a tough habit to break, but you can handle it.

I Love You,

Your son

I never got into the habit of calling my children Buddy.  Bubbe, Big Guy, Skootch, Kiddo, and Bubbeleh yes; but never Buddy.  If I had, I hope that one of them would write me this letter.

 

Since you asked…The Inspiring Bloggers Award

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Two of my writer friends, Leslie and Katey were kind enough to nominate Red said what? for an Inspiring Bloggers Award.  As such, I am taking a break from the personal essay circuit this month to happily accept their nomination.

Bloggers typically nominate each other for awards to show support and generate interest.  To accept this nomination I am required to:

  1. Display the award badge on my blog…check
  2. Link back to the people who nominated me…check
  3. List 15 blogs that inspire me…check
  4. Share 7 snippets about myself.  Thank you in advance for the indulgence.

In an effort to respect the “award free” policy of some of the below sites, I am sharing them with the hope that someone might also enjoy the content.  To the writers, by all means consider yourself nominated for an Inspiring Blogger Award if you would like to participate.

Blog Inspiration by category…

Health, Fitness, and “Strength”

Catalyst Athletics        Words with Lisbeth

Education, Relationships, & General Good Stuff

A.PROMPTreply        Diane Ravitch

Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner’s Life is an Adventure

life in a flash              Safekeeping Stories        Stacey Wilk

Reading, Writing, & Illustrating

Amalia Hoffman

Gold From The Dust: Bringing Stories to Life

Raising Readers       The Jersey Farm Scribe

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)         Writing & Illustrating

Z is for Zampetti, L is for Librarian & W is for Writer

7 Snippets…

1.  As a high school senior, I won a $50 prize sponsored by Shop Rite for “Most Personality and Common Sense.”

I think the hairdo gave me an edge...
I think the hairdo gave me an edge..

2.  During college, I worked in the library’s periodical department.

3.  With the exception of Rhythm Nation, I have seen Janet Jackson on tour every other time.

4.  Margarita.  Straight up.  No salt.

5.  Play the “right song,” and I will bust out the dance moves; anywhere, anytime.

6.  Favorite CrossFit movement?  The overhead squat.

Unfortunately, not me.

Unfortunately, not me.

7.  I know how to fire a musket.

Still not me, but it could be.

Still not me, but could be.

Please contribute to the pool of inspiration.  Take a minute to comment and share:

1 personal snippet (I figured 7 would be over kill)

and/or

1 blog, website, article or book that inspires you.

C’mon… indulge.

Thank you Lisa and Katey.  And thank you Red said what? readers for inspiring me to write what feels right.

8 Steps to Taking Rejection

Four years ago I was a part-time teaching, newbie mother of two ready for more; more from the “real” me and ready to embrace a creative energy suffocated by Urb-Burb expectations, thirty-something responsibility, and motherhood.

One December morning while ushering Bubbe down the driveway en route to my work gig and his Fours class at our local preschool, an original story title dropped into my head.  The words sounded like something straight out of a child’s picture book.

I have been writing ever since.

I get great joy from piecing together a picture book story.  However, as a Fours mommy, yoga buddy, and KidLit publishing veteran kindly forewarned me at the outset, “Next to poetry, the most difficult thing to get published is the picture book.”

Translation?  Learn to take rejection.

Aah, yes.  Experiencing rejection from literary agents and editors when one is attempting to traditionally publish one’s work comes with the territory, and I have traversed that land more times than I care to count.

Regardless of how many I know who have paid it a visit; Rejection seems perpetually barren when I’m there.  It is a lonely place that stings the creative spirit, erodes an already exposed ego, and paralyzes dreams.

When all roads lead to Rejection, I am tempted to curl up and quit; but I don’t.  Instead, I take 8 steps and continue the journey.

Step 1:  Throw a pity party. 

Traces of the endorphin rush filled with hope and possibility that flooded my system upon hitting “Send” disintegrate, replaced by artistic misery when, after investing effort into a project, crafting a thoughtful query, and researching where to place it, the answer comes back

“No.”

Given the circumstances, wallowing in self pity is natural.  So I cry over cookies and cocktails.  When the party winds down, I take a deep breath and walk away; the mess can wait.

Step 2:  Find a shoulder or seek solitude.

After the party, I reach out to two people; my Dad and Mac.  They consistently tell me what I need to hear, “Just keep going.  You’ll be alright.”  There are days when I don’t feel like talking to anyone.  Then I find strength in silence.

Step 3:  Say “Thank you.”

From there, I send a professional note of thanks and well wishes to the agent or editor who sent the rejection even if the response is a form letter or the answer took a

very

long

time.

In my discouraged state, I try to remember that most people don’t relish in the failure of others and that relationship building and reputation are just as important as a polished, marketable, and unique manuscript.  Rejection becomes more tolerable of a place when I build bridges to cross.

Step 4:  Make a move. 

When the pain dwindles, I know it’s time; time to pull myself up by the bra straps, step into a pair of gritty calloused footie pajamas, zip them up to my chin, and get back to work.

Step 5:  Reflect.

Upon giving birth to a picture book manuscript, the last thing I want to do with my precious story is examine its flaws and make changes.  Reflecting on rejection is however, a catalyst for growth.  It is also a balancing act between an open mind and following one’s gut.

If specific comments accompany a rejection, I comb through them to see what makes sense, face my chronic weakness; submitting before a project is ready and ask myself,

What does this story still need? 

Then I write a bit or at least think about writing, and go on to the next step.

Step 6:  Get Feedback. 

Sometimes I’m more productive when I step out of my head and investigate outside the bubble.

I find it helpful to reach out to writing partners for additional guidance, sign up for professional feedback at conferences, seek out critique opportunities from valued resources, and listen to what the children have to say.

Step 7:  Embrace the nuggets. 

Through it all, I embrace the positives.

Rejection is laced with signs of life.  The first time I graduated from a form to a personalized rejection letter, I viewed it as cause for celebration because it meant I was growing as a writer.  Whenever an agent pays a compliment, a contest recognizes a story, or an editor publishes an essay, I am reminded that although my path to picture book publication has yet to be a straight line, it is moving in the right direction.

Step 8:  Try again.

To a catch a dream, one must cast a net.  Eventually, I submit my work to another agent or editor.  And while I wait for that response, I keep a writing schedule, form connections, enter contests, submit blog essays, apply for grants, and build a platform.  I continue to put myself out there because in the end, I make my own luck.

Marty McFly moments happen.  Just when I think I can’t take that kind of rejection, I do; because I love to write.

Wherever your passion lies, here’s to collecting nuggets, casting nets, and pulling in your 2015 dreams.

Happy New Year!

From Sidelines to Service

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

Veterans Day 2014 started out no differently than any other; with good intention and marginal action.

Each November 11th, I’d think about my grandfather Joe, a World War II Navy Veteran.

The thought was typically followed by an appreciative email or indebted Facebook post.  Some years I’d even make the old fashioned phone call.  Soon distracted by child rearing logistics and household priorities, I’d call it a day and opt out of making the 45 minute drive to pay a visit.

This time however, I had left Skootch’s red accordion at Joe’s house a few days before and much to the child’s dismay, had only the purple one at home.  So in an effort to temper a peppering five year old, the boys and I piled into the Outback and joined my grandfather for lunch.

Joe greeted his great-grandsons at the door, offered respective kisses, and held them on the landing.

“Did you see my American flag?” he asked.

It was no surprise and nice to see that despite having recently lost his wife of 65 years, Joe remembered to dress the pole he had raised between a patch of hedges adjacent to the front stoop to commemorate the holiday and a defining time in his life.

“Do you know how to do a soldier’s salute?”

My grandfather faced the flag, modeled the salute, and instructed the boys to pay the toll.  “Now you do it.”

Bubbe smiled shyly and gave it a go.  The Skootch puffed his chest, cupped his palm and looked at it.  Joe helped the effort along.  The group crossed the threshold and stopped in the front hall.

“Do you fly one at home?” he asked.  Joe didn’t wait for an answer.  “Here take these.”  He snatched a pair of parade flags from a collection stored in a nearby bucket.

The Skootch marched up to the second floor apartment, waving his new toy.  The parade was short lived.  Toddler sized penguins and a Santa Claus were performing center stage in the living room.  He dropped the flag.

My grandfather rescued it.  “No.  Never let it touch the ground.  Out of respect and honor, the American flag should always point toward the sky,” he explained.  “Let’s put it in a safe place.”  He tucked the base into a puffy coat curled up on a Captain’s chair.

Bubbe followed suit; partially to secure the flag but mostly to search for his great-grandpa’s Kindle Fire and Oreos in a nearby hutch.

On route to the cookies, he noticed a glass display case perched near the front of the hutch shelf.  It was filled with mounted, decorated ribbons laid out like a Holland tulip field.

“What are these?”  Bubbe wiped away the dust.

“Those are my war medals,” Joe said and went on to explain them one by one.

“American Campaign…

European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign…2 bronze stars

Asiatic, Pacific Campaign…2 bronze stars”

There were six in total.  He circled back to the top row.  “These are my dog tags.  I wore them around my neck the entire time I was away.  Do you know why soldiers wear two tags?”

“No,” Bubbe said.

“If a solider dies, one stays on the body; the other gets sent home.”

“Oh.  I get it.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen I thought,

Will he ever really get it? 

When my children are grown, what will service, sacrifice, and country mean to them?

It is wonderful that we have a proud, willing veteran in our family to share experiences but unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of service men and women we know.  Outside of my grandfather, Bubbe and The Skootch have had only the opportunity to interact with veterans or those in active duty during elementary and religious school programs.  And as Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd recently noted, with “one percent of the population voluntarily enlisting in the service,” it is likely that in the future, my boys will be exposed more regularly to comic book heroes than to everyday ones.

Thankfully sacrifice, service, character, and citizenship are still being communicated in schools, through extra-curricular activities, at houses of worship and in our homes.  Still, teaching young people the value of contributing to the greater good feels piecemealed, fit in, and a vehicle for resume padding.

The potential for further disconnect in these formal settings seems imminent now that such lessons are being muscled from the spotlight by college, career readiness, English Language Arts requirements and STEM.  In my state, there is even a motion to de-emphasize Social Studies.

Israeli citizens get it.  Out of necessity, conscription exists for most of the country’s Jewish Israeli population.  Upon turning 18, men and women are obligated to serve in the military for three and two years, respectively.  As a result, my 65 year old friend can relate directly to the experiences of an active soldier as well as identify with the five year old who knows he will one day fill those shoes.  There, generations of citizens connect through collective responsibility and common experience.

In 2010, my husband Mac’s Letter to the Editor was published in The New York Times in response to the article, “The Way We Treat Our Troops” which in part offered support for a mandatory draft.  The guy was onto something.  He wrote:

“If the good problem arises where we have an abundance of young people in the military during peacetime, they could be deployed toward other national services like helping the elderly, the indigent and the disabled or for cleanup after national disasters, mentoring children and so on.  America is a terrific place to live; if young people gave something back and worked alongside other Americans from all walks of life, it would tie us closer together as a country.”

In February 2013, New York State Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a most recent version of the Universal National Service Act to the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee.

The bill requires all persons between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, citizen or otherwise to perform two years of national uniformed or civilian service.  Those choosing uniformed service may also be inducted during wartime, a national emergency, or a contingency operation.  This CrossFit junkie would add that prior to selecting a service type; able-bodied participants attend basic training in cohorts.  There is something to be said for intense, group exercise.  It fosters camaraderie, physical and emotional growth, and team pride.

To date, the bill has not moved in Congress.

Yes.  I realize the devil is in the details and that bigger government doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes.  Yes.  We do have a responsibility to teach our children in our families and community about service, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  And yes, I too wonder about the mandatory component of such a program in a free society.

Regardless, I think it is time to take meaningful action.

Perhaps a national service requirement will shift expectations for and alleviate pressure on high school students, change the way the college admissions process is managed, reduce some of the direct financial burden on families trying to pay for higher education, and offer guidance for college graduates looking to take the next step.

More importantly, perhaps it will build awareness and understanding for soldiers and veterans suffering trauma, make care and reentry a priority for when they return home, and simply bring us closer as a nation.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women

in the service of our country can never be repaid.

They have earned our undying gratitude.

America will never forget their sacrifices.”

-President Harry S Truman

There is a way to repay veterans like Joe.

Poppie in the navy

Let us step away from the sideline to work in tandem with those on the front line in an effort to strengthen and preserve the solidarity of an already great nation.

Let us pay the toll.

One, Lucky Granddaughter

Gram and me as a baby

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Two weeks ago, I lost my grandmother to cancer.  The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

When the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home, gathered my notebook, and made big plans to capture my grandmother’s talkative mood.

My mind raced with possibility; perhaps, as Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll or perhaps, as a member of her church’s quilting guild she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I got back to my grandmother’s bedside, she was already in a final sleep.  Weeks whittled to hours.  Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain free, and at home surrounded by loved ones.  Her last days, passing, and funeral were a fluid waltz.  Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I stretched my accordion memory file in search of tucked away treasures.  Two stepped forward; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.”  Sixteen was her forever age; the age at which she liked to see herself.

Pic of Gram sweet 16

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

More memories began to surface.  My notebook soon filled to form Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.

Definitely…

1.     Listen for understanding.  When conversing with others, don’t uh-huh, right, or yes them.  Take it all in.  Dot was everyone’s ear; mine included.

2.     Visit the sick.  My grandmother was not afraid to go into the fray.  She recognized that one’s comfort was more important than personal or situational anxiety.  The key to helping those failing feel alive, she recently told me, was to talk about old times.  Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3.     Create a warm and inviting home.  Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house.  Even as the family grew, her apartment was the place to be; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table.  A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4.     Keep an open door policy.  Dot always left an empty plate on the table.  Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends traipsed through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parm, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle.  No appointment needed.  Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them.

5.     Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest.  My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting and boy, could she work a room.  From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged.  In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology.  “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said.  It made her sad.

6.     Be a good time Charlie.  Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing.  Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

Gram in curlers

7.     Send cards.  I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark.  My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise.  Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.  Relatives can’t help but smile when they talk about Dot’s cards.

8.     Watch your television stories, but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant.  When my grandmother told Mac she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9.     Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility.  My grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties.  She loved to drive.  With a dashboard pat for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go.  As her housemate until age five, I don’t remember ever being home before supper.  But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10.   Forge ahead.  My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication.  Not once did she complain.

11.   Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever floats your boat.  My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as Homemaker.  More so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.  You name it, she did it because for her, the making of homes took a vested village.

12.    Say “I love you.”  Dot had a hard time doing this; showing love was easier.  The last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13.    Avoid self pity.  Dot was a Depression kid from a broken home who left school in the 10th grade.  These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14.    Communicate.  My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time.  “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised.  “Grudges are worthless.  Life is too short.”

15.    Keep the faith.  Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church; attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement.  She held fast to what spoke to her in this universe and at the end, wasn’t afraid to let go.

16.    Love well.  During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort.  At her funeral, it was no surprise to hear that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”  My grandmother left an imprint on the hearts of many because above all things, she valued love.

Three days before Dot’s death, The Skootch said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospice bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came; all too soon and all too suddenly it seems and I miss her.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine.  My grandmother was an exceptional lady who, during the era of her teenage crush, Frank Sinatra but long before Derek Jeter did things her way.

This way, her spirit, and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one, lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Gram and me wedding picture

The Day I Deleted Minecraft; a letter to my son

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Dear Bubbe,

I never intended to do it; really.  One second it was a quivering icon, the next it was gone.  Just. Like. Magic.

Honestly, it brought on a smile.  I’m not trying to be mean.  Chalk it up to a Mommy epiphany, a moment of clarity.  The day I deleted Minecraft, I liberated myself and you of a virtual, addictive burden.  Pressing that shaky, little X ushered you back to real life.  That made me happy.

In the beginning, I was a fan.

Compared to the other choices the video game world has to offer, I could see why you wanted to tap the piggy bank to invest in one that requires players to scavenge for resources, earn survival treasure, design landscapes, construct villages, and defend against intruders.  As a lifelong rock collector, forager of sorts, visual thinker, and creative designer it appealed to many of your natural sensibilities.

A popular topic of discussion at summer camp and later in the school cafeteria, Minecraft was also something to bond over with friends.  Game play and conversations led to art projects, dissecting handbooks, sharing song parodies, and pretend play.  It was a vehicle to stretch your imagination, apply ingenuity, problem solve, and socialize.  So like organized sports, enrichment programs, and play dates, this Mommy approved video game quickly became outsourcing I could justify.

Not only did I feel like I was doing right by your development; it kept you busy, safe, in an earshot and out of my hair all at the same time.  My afternoon was still my own and I didn’t necessarily have to entertain or engage with you all that much.

Then I began to notice screen time and giving up the screen made you cranky and angry.  You responded less to Dad and me, ignored guests, and blew off friends playing outside.  Preferred downtime was spent in the basement; alone in a Minecraft cave.

Even with the game shut off, I was living with a one note Bubbe on Enderman autopilot.  It was all you wanted to talk, draw, write, and think about.  And when The Skootch got access, twice the misery ensued.

So in an effort to find balance, we set up a schedule to earn and limit play time.

It didn’t work.

The timer chime was drowned out daily by your pleading, sometimes screaming voice, “I wasn’t done; I just found iron, I need a diamond sword, a creeper destroyed my supplies and all I have left is a raw chicken!”

It was only after the drama escalated to the point where I found myself ripping the IPad from your grip and yelling back, “Who cares; it’s not real!” that I knew we needed a big change.

All craziness combined led me to Deletion Day.

In the future, I’m not ruling out screen time completely; that would make me a hypocrite but Minecraft was sucking wind from your childhood and it needed to go away.

Proof of my decision came the morning after Deletion Day when I read an article about Steve Jobs; the man who invented the tablet on which you play.  He was brilliant for many reasons, particularly in his choice to limit his own children’s access to technology.

A few hours later, you played with months old Minecraft Legos for the first time and said, “Mom, this is fun.  I never would have known if I kept playing video games.”  I then knew we were heading in a better direction.

Your Lego comment got me thinking more about fun and parent approved outsourcing, both today and when I was your age.

Like you, I kept busy after school and like you, my mother gravitated toward outsourcing.  She didn’t have insight into child development or the value of play, I’m just pretty sure that when she came home from work, she didn’t want to see my face until dinner.

But I didn’t play video games, do gobs of after school activities, or have scheduled dates to see friends.

I was let out of the house and off the leash; in an earshot of only the person on the bike next to me and left in an unstructured and by modern standards, unsafe environment to play pickup games with neighboring kids, defend myself against obnoxious villagers, explore the nearby pond, collect crystals from a stream, build forts, and roam through the woods.

Call it my own, private Minecraft.  No IPad needed.

And it was good fun.

Listen, growing up isn’t easy but parenting isn’t simple.  You can’t always get what you want when you want it, and I can’t always do what makes my life easier.  In an effort to raise you to be a thinking, well adjusted, connected, kind, happy, independent human being I sometimes have to check myself and then love you enough to say

Enough.

Your childhood is just out of my reach, but it is not yet out of yours.  Embrace.  Enjoy.  Experience.  Take time in the real world to discover uncharted lands, dig caves, build cities, mix it up with the villagers, and have adventures.  You’ll be glad you did.

Now go.  I’ll see you at dinner.

I Love You,

Mom

Laundry Room Mishpacha; a Rosh Hashanah Tale

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InterFaithFamily picture

After Hurricane Sandy, roughly six weeks post Rosh Hashanah 2012, we temporarily moved into my in-laws’ apartment.  The building is home to a number of observant Jewish families, my in-laws included.

Waiting in the laundry room, I noticed a grandma folding clothes while her four-ish year old twin grandchildren, a boy and girl played nearby.

“I’m going to sing a Rosh Hashanah song,” announced the light eyed little guy.

After he got a few lines into his song I said, “That’s a nice tune.”

“He’s a good singer,” Grandma replied.

“Yes.  I haven’t heard that one before.”

Right then his sister whipped her auburn curls, looked me dead in the eye and declared, “That’s because you’re not Jewish.

“Watch what you say to people!” Grandma barked.

Watch what you teach her, I thought.

I bit my lip and explained, “The Rosh Hashanah song I know is different.  It goes like this…”

I sang a few lines of my holiday ditty.  Thankfully the dryer’s buzzer went off.  I took my clothes, wished them a good day and left – fuming.

Why do I have to be Jewish to know a Rosh Hashanah song?  Why did the girl assume I was different than she?  We were in the laundry room, not synagogue and it wasn’t Shabbat.  Could she really have drawn her conclusion simply because I was dressed less conservatively than her grandmother?

It wasn’t clear.

What was clear was this little girl had been taught either directly or indirectly to identify, judge, and draw a conclusion about a person based on one’s appearance relative to the other grown-ups in her life.  As a Christian woman married to a Jewish man who takes pride in raising Jewish children, I felt offended and sad.

This week, my family will celebrate the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and new beginnings.  Whether you observe or not, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about the symbolic gestures we feel bring us closer to God.  Although seemingly benign when practiced with a similar group, the question remains;

Do these gestures create an unhealthy divide, particularly when our children form false and hurtful conclusions based on them?

When all is said and done, I personally don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about what clothes we wore, the food we ate, the holidays we observed, or how many times a day we prayed.

It is how we view and treat each other while we are here that matters.

But let’s be realistic; life is wonderfully diverse and so our lifestyles will vary and symbols sustain.  So in an effort to close the gap, let’s be mindful about consistently teaching young people that all religious and cultural perspectives are valid and deserve respect.

Grandma, you and I may have different ways of approaching our day to day living, but my hope is that we embody the same values.  With this New Year upon us, let’s show our children that when we look beyond the laundry room, we are all mishpacha.

Learning to be an Athlete

Yogi Berra or Jim Wohlford (depending upon the Google search)

Yogi Berra or Jim Wohlford (depending upon the Google search)

Summer morning CrossFit classes in my hood are notorious for crew shifts.  Vacationing teachers, students, and corporate types working summer hours show up as the morning unfolds to mix it up with us daytime regulars.

One recent hump day, I walked into our gym to find a swarm of angels.

Charlie's angels picture

Strong, confident, tenacious, fit; nothing stops these ladies.  Not age.  Not kids.  Not career.  Not cancer.  Nothing.  When the tough get going, they step on the gas and when the weights get heavy; these gals find a way to lift them.  They consistently lap my veteran CrossFit ass, leaving me to wallow in their well-sculpted sweat angels.

Sweat angel

They are women who, when asked what they did they did before CrossFit rattle off a lifetime of athletic achievements: college soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and volleyball, gymnast, kayaker, marathoner and trainer.

I adore the Angels.

A salt of the earth group, they play musical chairs in a rainstorm, foster and rescue neglected animals, offer unsolicited hugs for all sorts and no particular reason, and embrace known entities as well as new faces with respect, genuine interest and open arms.

But when a gaggle of them showed for class the same hour, my hour; I felt compelled to back squat with the dust bunnies.

A gritty, tough cookie born with athletic tendencies, perhaps; but an athlete I am not.  I stopped wearing any semblance of that hat just shy of thirteen when I traded it and organized sports in for a drama beret, a couple of mock trial caps, and my model student beanie.

It wasn’t until drinking the CrossFit Kool-Aid two years ago that the notion of being fit enough in my lifetime to be called athlete crossed my mind.  However, after consistent discomfort, fortunately and often surprisingly I am thrilled to share that I’m able to tackle most tests thrown my way.

Still, anytime Coach Herc or BE calls out, “Look at these great athletes getting it done!” I can’t help but half smirk, cock my head, and scan the room because I can’t imagine they are talking about me.

Why?

Because fitness level isn’t enough.  The Angels know this.  What they own is the ability to stay mentally tough when presented with a physical challenge; a nurtured skill from a young age.

This combination is new for me and I have some catching up to do.

But I’m learning.  Learning to…

Relax

Coach BE used to stare me down regularly and say, “Relax Red, relax.”  He was right.  Excess tension wastes energy and I need all the fuel I can get.  Now this two syllable mantra helps me scale hills, get under a clean, and go back for more burpees.

Stay in the moment

During a workout, the same coach stood next to me and said nothing.  His presence, a quiet push, encouraged the kettlebell to keep swinging and me to focus only on that task.  With life darting about, staying in the zone is no easy feat but doing it transforms the unbearable into manageable.

Make a plan, set a pace

My husband, a fellow CrossFitter laughs when I strategize the scheduled workout a day in advance and classmates love to comment on my marked up whiteboard.  Mock they may, but a plan offsets anxiety and marginalizes intimidation.  Pace preserves gas and rationalizes the agony.

Dig and push

When the dark side creeps in and the Angels are on the verge of breaking, they dig deep, shift gears, and turn up the performance. Experience tells them what their bodies can handle and they go for it.  It’s an admirable sight.

Keep it real

Beating myself up and inflicting unnecessary pressure to perform or eat a certain way drains the psyche and limits my ability to grow.  Witnessing Coach Herc’s tabletop foil wrapper glacier as evidence of a devoured bag of Hershey kisses and watching him take time to heal an injury are wonderful reminders that life is a balance and athletes are human.

As the summer winds down and the Angels rejoin their respective crews, I’ll once again be left alone with my WOD notebook, aspirations, and will to learn.  But thanks to these ladies and our coaches, the next time someone yells something about a group of athletes; I’ll be peeling my ears for that ringing bell and peeking over my shoulder,

because this angel is sprouting wings.

Crossfit barbell jump

The Loss of a Therapist

I used to tell people I would never see a therapist.  Then my young marriage to Mac began to crumble.

Having spent a lifetime immersed in family dysfunction, crumbling traveled with me; gaps in the sidewalk were the norm and I was a comfortable expert at skirting them.  It was only when Mac and I tried and failed to get pregnant, and the reality of possibly never adding Mother to my resume sank in that my feet got caught up in the cracks.

Still, I refused therapy.  “We don’t need a shrink,” I told my husband.  “We can deal with problems on our own.  It’s not anyone else’s business.”

Frustrated and tired, Mac took himself to see Amy; a well regarded and highly recommended social worker who conveniently had a home office across town.

“She wants to meet both of us,” he said afterward.  “You need to go to a session so Amy can understand how to help.”

We’d been down the counseling road before, but this was the first time Mac actually met with a person. His suggestion was Amy’s request and there was no talking my way out of it.  With her involved, ignoring Mac’s plea translated into losing him, our marriage, and the prospect of starting a family.  Backed into a corner, I made the appointment.

Amy’s home office was on the second floor of her well kept Tudor style home.  Up a small set of stairs adjacent to the living room, it was a guest bedroom, library, TV room and therapy space rolled into one.  One wall was filled with a pale, but inviting sofa adorned with embroidered pillows partnered with a cubed pouf.  I shoved myself into its corner, scratching my back against the pillow stitching.  The balls of my feet pressed against the base of the cube.  There I sat, stiff with pride ready to convince her that I didn’t need help from any therapist.

Amy settled into an over-sized swivel chair across the room, slid off her flats, and rested a tiny pair of feet on a nearby stool.  Behind her sat a narrow desk flanked by impressively organized wall length shelves.  Magazines, photographs, Judaica, and a sculpture of a molar gave me a glimpse into her private life.   I stared beyond the chair hoping my fascination with the decor might deflect attention from me.  But to no avail; there she sat, petite, blonde, plump, suntanned, manicured and ready to listen.

“Why don’t you tell me about your background; your upbringing,” Amy suggested.

That’s all it took.  As a logical thinker, model student and frugal realist, I knew on some level it made sense to embrace this chance and bank on Amy’s expertise.  The clock was ticking, the check was written, so it was time.  Out it came; the family secret I had harbored for twenty-five years.  When the session was over I knew it was going to be the first of many.  That conversation commenced our eight year relationship.

Whenever we met, Amy escorted me from the front door to the office where I took the customary position.

Because she worked from home, she made it a point to conduct our sessions with arm’s-length professionalism.  Still, Amy managed to convey a maternal sensibility rooted in spirituality and common sense.  I quickly learned that she was a little lady with a powerful presence, a strong sense of justice and an unwavering conviction to improve the lives of others.

Amy always said the right words, gave effective homework, and provided the necessary tools to help me treat wounds, shed skin, and grow up.  Some weeks her office was a welcomed respite; other times a dreaded box.  Regardless, I always felt safe.  Over time, I joined the sofa’s center and let my heels crawl up the back of the ottoman.  Together we worked through my list:

Childhood trauma, abandonment, reconciliation…

Self worth, family, love, intimacy, marriage, faith

Career, pregnancy, birth, motherhood, betrayal …

Initially once a week, then every other; sometimes with Mac, sometimes alone that office, the list, and Amy’s guidance during those first years were a constant.  Inside that space, the only variable was the magazine covers.  Consequently, on the outside I got healthier, my marriage began to mend, and our family grew.

Needless to say, Amy and I had a good thing going.

During year five, things changed.

At the end of one session Amy casually announced, “Tomorrow I’m having a medical procedure.  I will not be working for awhile.”  She confidently handed over contact information for her back up therapist and reassured me she’d return.

Several weeks later, Amy and I reconvened.  I immediately noticed a shift in the tenor of our conversations.  Her approach, albeit professional was more direct.  She also began to sprinkle my therapy with an occasional personal anecdote.

Treatments followed the medical procedure.  Amy shared very little information; only that as a result, she might need to change our schedule.

For months, I sat on the couch and watched her deteriorate; plump shrunk to thin, her blonde hair faded, and the suntanned skin grayed.  Amy seemed tired but determined to live her life.

When her color came back and hair grew thick, Mac and I breathed a sigh of relief.  She shared that whatever growth she had was smaller, but required ongoing medication.  Amy sounded stronger and had a renewed outlook.

Two years and she never used the word cancer, but Mac and I knew.

Then Amy took a downturn; more treatments, more medication.  Each time I saw her, it felt as if she was fighting less for normalcy and more for life.  But because I was her client, our time together was focused on me.  She wanted it that way.  I was deeply concerned about her health but I let her do her job.  Amy wasn’t giving up on me, so I refused to give up on her.

One evening session, her office phone rang several times.  Amy uncharacteristically picked it up.  I noticed her elevated legs were bloated and swollen.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I thought it was the doctor’s office.  Let’s continue…”

When time was up, Amy paused for a moment; long enough for me to believe she was debating her thoughts.  Then she asked the usual question, “Do you want to schedule an appointment now?”

“No, I’m going on vacation,” I reminded her.  “I’ll call you when I get back.”

She walked me down the stairs to the door.  “So we’ll plan to meet in two weeks?”

“Yes.”  Then I said something I got used to not saying, “Thank you, Amy.”

Two weeks later, I went back to her house.  This time, I let myself in; I didn’t go upstairs.  Instead, I joined a group of familiar faces on low, hard, black leather chairs.  I kept my feet firmly planted on the living room rug, hands clasped in my lap.  The faces were Amy’s family.  I was paying a Shiva call.

I listened to her adoring husband share his memories, watched her devoted son, daughter, and pregnant daughter-in-law keep busy, and smiled at her spirited grandchildren as they played on the stairs, disappearing into the office.  These people were no longer the characters in Amy’s anecdotes, the aging images in her photographs, and the fairies that left toy remnants on the rug.  They were real people who lost a cherished loved and I felt sad for their devastating loss.

But it was my loss too.  I was there to pay condolences, but needed some of my own.  Yes, my relationship with Amy was professional; it was also intimate and sacred.  Even though I needed to mourn the loss of my therapist, I resisted the urge.  “Amy was not family or friend,” I thought, “It’s not my place to grieve this woman.”  Surrounded by those closest to her, I felt guilty and unworthy of sympathy.

I soon realized that it was okay to grieve, just not right then.  I spent close to a decade healing in that house but now Amy’s home was no longer my therapy place, and her husband and children were not the ones to console me.  It was again time; to turn inward to my tools and outward to my loved ones.  My work with Amy was done.  I was ready.

As I left, Amy’s husband and I exchanged a knowing glance, smiled and said, “Stay well.”

It has been years since Amy passed away.  Larry and I sometimes talk about her when we have an issue, need to reflect, or feel sad she’s not here.

Recently, we were recalling Amy’s modestly attended funeral.  She was our rock star.  Her work changed my life and saved our marriage.  It will have an impact on us, our children, and family for generations.

“Why wasn’t there a line of mourners spilling from the sanctuary?” I asked.  “Where were all her other fans that day?”

Then Larry reminded me, “Amy was an ordinary lady who happened to do extraordinary work.  She was the best kind of person.”

He was right.  For that, I am grateful.

Two Sides of a Coin

Beach picture of the boys

Bubbe and The Skootch are two sides of a coin.

Bubbe, now a smidge under nine was the two year old who got off the classroom rug at dismissal only after he knew the other children had a place to go and the little guy who sat in the corner and covered his ears at birthday parties.  He is the child who relishes in engineering golf courses and marble runs out of anything he can get his hands on and the boy who recently told me after I advised him to push back as needed, “Mom, I’m not that kind of kid.”

Four year old Skootch, on the other hand, is a one speed, rock and roll, let me smell you ninja machine.  He is the kid who proudly wakes his parents at two in the morning to show us the late night grape juice he poured for himself, the child who sings loudest at birthday parties, the one who pops a balloon and tries to fix it, and the boy who loves a good boxing match.

On a recent family outing, we found ourselves here;

stepping_stones_museum_children

The Celebration Courtyard of a nearby children’s museum.

I’m pretty certain this foamy, cerulean hued open play area is meant to encourage calm but on this particular Saturday it looked more like a loony bin for babes.

Bubbe naturally made a beeline for the blocks.  Swarms of children surrounded the construction materials, moving in and out, taking them at will.  He tried to grab what he could, but the other children kept getting there first.

The biggest boy of the bunch became a regular culprit.  Not a caregiver in sight, this young Lummox grabbed at our son’s small stash again and again without so much as asking.

Bubbe began to hold his temples in distress; his thoughts piercing the cerulean calm.  “What am I going to do; how am I going to manage this problem?”  Thirty seconds of frozen agony seemed like a lifetime for the poor boy.

Our golden-haired fire hydrant watched Bubbe desperately trying to get his bearings, sensed the angst, and swooped in for the rescue.  He marched right up to the Lummox who was twice his size, waved a southpaw, pudgy finger up at him and yelled, “Hey this is our space and you don’t take anything from here!”  Then he stepped in and offered a right hook.

The Lummox jumped back, recoiled, and found a new space from whence to steal.

As soon as The Skootch was confident that Bubbe’s artistic space was clear and safe, he asked his brother, “Ok, now what?”

Bubbe gave the order.  “Go get a couple of blocks.”

“Alright,” The Skootch scurried off and successfully returned with the coveted blue, foamed mass.

For a serious ten minutes, Bubbe constructed and sent The Skootch into the wild as the little boy happily obliged his big brother’s instructions.

Together they created quite the structure.

Too pooped to pop, Skootch lied down in the center of the masterpiece.  “Thank you for building my castle,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” Bubbe replied.

We never expected to have two children; Mac and I were content with one, healthy Bubbe.  The Skootch was a happy accident.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.  Our sons, these brothers, are a gift; to us and to each other.

They are most certainly two sides of a coin, but together their value is immeasurable.

Six ways to 65 years; Relationship Advice from a Platinum Couple

Grandparents' wedding picture

At my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party, my new fiancé, Mac gave an impromptu toast to the happy couple.  Fifteen years later, we never imagined we would once again be celebrating with Joe and Dot for their 65th anniversary.  Last month, we were lucky enough to do just that.

My grandparents are part of The Greatest Generation.

He, a World War II Navy veteran saw The Battle of Normandy in the Atlantic, Okinawa in the Pacific, and lost his parents and almost his own life in a tragic accident all before the age of twenty-one.  A devoted husband and well-meaning father with a strong work ethic who can fix anything, Joe greets life with a smile.  My grandfather is a youthful, spirited song and dance man, musician and opera lover who has serenaded and entertained generations of children.

She, a family and community matriarch who experienced divorce, fierce sibling rivalry, and an alcoholic, estranged father during her youth is a compassionate but no nonsense lady with strong opinions who keeps emotions close to the vest.  A church elder, domestic financier, caregiver, therapist, hostess, Frank Sinatra enthusiast and rabble rouser, Dot has raised, fed, housed, guided and knit elaborate sweaters for generations of children.

Joe and Dot are salt of the earth folk who grew up only a few miles from each other.  They met at work after the war, fell in love and married in four short months.  In their hometown, they raised three children in a modest, two-family house where they still live today.  Now in their late eighties, while the rest of us are busy reading up on which way to lean, they are quietly leaning on each other; much more now it seems than days long ago.

Grandparents 65th anniversary picture

And so with sixty-five years of couple hood under their belt, I asked my grandparents to share six pieces of relationship advice, one for each decade of marriage.  Here is what they had to say:

  1. Have your own friends, take time to socialize individually with them, and be supportive when your partner does as well.  Trust each other; jealousy is not love.
  1. Swallow your pride.  Even when you know you’re in the right; let your partner think he is the right one every now and again.
  1. Let the person who is committed to and better at saving money be in charge of the finances.  Then try and save as much as you can.
  1. Life is a bowl of cherries; some picks are sweet, others rotten.  Always try to keep a cool, level head when snacking.
  1. Sing to your child if you have one, especially as he awakes in the morning.  If singing isn’t for you, create a daily ritual; he will always remember it.  And when your child does something wrong, don’t always tell your partner.  Sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen complicate things.  Work it out one on one with your kid; he’ll remember that too.
  1. At the day’s end, take time to decompress and give your partner time to do the same.  Be thoughtful and aide the process; have a cocktail ready for her when she gets home from work.

6 ½.   Follow your heart, stand by your love, and keep promises to each other.  If you have second thoughts or believe you can’t keep your word, don’t get married.

As the eldest grandchild who lived with them until I was five and then again at twenty-two with countless visits in between and thereafter, I had a ringside seat to much of Joe and Dot’s relationship.  My take away from watching them?

Flirt, dance, sit outside, visit, celebrate, play cards, laugh, argue, reconcile.  Life is a fast and fleeting ride so keep the relationship as interesting as you collectively see fit and be sure to have a good time.

Couple hood is complicated work; everybody has their stuff and it’s not all moonlight and canoes.  But if you go by Joe and Dot, trust, compromise, balance, communication, support, love, honesty, commitment, cocktails and a song go a long way.

Gram and Pop dancing

The Hovel

cherry blossom tree pic

Here in the Northeast, the mourning doves are cooing again.  The sound reminds me of the spring I was pregnant with my first son.  That year, a couple built a nest in a cherry blossom tree outside the window of our soon to be nursery.  When we brought him home from the hospital, two eggs hatched from the nest.  The family took a liking to our Urb-Burb neighborhood and set up permanent residence.

Each season, after the first buds appeared my son, Bubbe and I would sit in his rocker, peer down onto the pink and red blossoms, and watch for the doves.  When the birds returned, much like my growing boy, they were a little bigger, bolder, and wiser.  Our rocker time evolved into a game of I Spy for him and a welcomed mother and son tradition for me.

This spring things are different.  One year ago our family said goodbye to the doves, that glorious tree, and our home of two decades; The Hovel.

The Hovel was originally my husband’s place.  Mac purchased the quaint, turn of the century Victorian style house in the late eighties using money his father had left him in his will.

For a dozen years, he rented out spare bedrooms to supplement mortgage payments to, as a friend described, “a parade of cretins.”  Rock stars, sparrow heads, and a couple of regular guys made up the crew.  Together they enjoyed poker games, Tyson fights, dates, beer, and general shenanigans.  It was good fraternity house fun.

Around the time Y2K threatened to destroy our technological way of life, domesticity disrupted The Hovel’s rhythm.  I moved in.  Newly engaged, moderately enthusiastic, and abundantly neurotic I immediately commenced The Hovel’s fumigation.

Curtains went up.  Neighbors took notice.  The family to our right, who had yet to acknowledge my husband, invited us to go for ice cream.  When I planted flowers in the front yard, the elderly lady across the street yelled, “It’s about time!”  And after single handedly de-jungling overgrowth that swallowed the side yard, the father to our left said, “Whatta ya know, you have nice property.”

My newly betrothed begrudgingly went along for the ride.  Mac eventually got over the domestication hype; but so did I.  As projects piled up, responsibilities ensued, and my husband’s stubborn connection to The Hovel became evident, my enthusiasm waned.  I wanted out.

Then Bubbe was born, followed a few years later by The Skootch.  Our children breathed life into The Hovel.  She started to feel more like home.

But as they grew, her quaintness became claustrophobic.  I felt burdened by the upgrades and upkeep.  I wanted out again.  Each time I suggested a move Mac repeated the mantra, “People live with less.  We know what we have.  It’s a good house.”  I cursed him and The Hovel.  He was gum stuck in a sneaker groove and I resented it.

Well into my seventh year of scraping, Mac finally caved when my tune changed from lack of space to lack of confidence in the schools.  We prepared the house and put her on the market.  Two weeks later I received a new lease on life; The Hovel sold.

The evening before we closed, I stopped by to finish cleaning.  Our home stood empty; a hollowed, lifeless shell.  I went up to the nursery, looked out the window and for the first time, cried at the thought of losing her.

Too sad, I avoided that Urb-Burb neighborhood until recently when I had to pick up a package that was accidentally delivered to The Hovel.  The new owner offered to give me a tour.

With the exception of a fresh coat of exterior paint, a stately historic house plaque, and some thoughtful, decorative touches the house was more or less the same.  My brain rewinded like a mixed tape of greatest hits.

There was the living room; home to cushion forts, flying sessions, and makeshift mini-golf holes.  The kitchen countertop where the boys took their first sponge baths and Bubbe sniffed spices, always tasting the cinnamon.  The familiar nicks in the floor cabinet that The Skootch emptied daily to make drum kits from pots and skillets.

We walked through the dining room that hosted two brises, several Seders, countless birthdays and our first Christmas tree, and across the pine wood floor where my little guy took his first bowlegged steps.

I peeked in the narrow, upstairs bathroom where the boys innocently called from the window to their friends below to let them know they were out of the bath and naked, stepped around the iron floor registers whose ducts no doubt still housed my big guy’s marble collection, and admired the dent in the attic carpet where his bed once stood.

Outside, I gazed at the corner of the driveway where Bubbe and The Skootch shot hoops with Mac and smiled at the garden hose that fed a cascading irrigation system that always seemed to run long after I told the boys to stop wasting water.

The owner and I said our goodbyes at my favorite place, the front porch, where Mac and I spent endless evenings just trying to figure it all out.

It was strange to be in a space that I knew intimately, looked similar, still felt a connection with but knew didn’t belong to me.

But it was okay.

It was okay to mourn the loss of my house.  The lack of the tangible did not erase the intangible.  I no longer have the setting, but I still have my stories.  Thankfully, those memories will live for as long as my brain allows.

Leaving The Hovel behind was not a sad occasion but a passing of the torch.  She will always be the first home Mac and I made; the place where our children spent their first night after coming home from the hospital, and the place where we loved, laughed, grew, built friendships, and became a family.

To the new owners; as you welcome your newest addition this spring, keep an eye out for those doves.  Embrace the blossoms.  Write your stories.  Cherish your memories.  Love The Hovel.

We know you’ll take good care of her.

Preventing Child Sexual Abuse; A Survivor’s Synopsis

The word Empower in magazine letters on a notice board

Child sexual abuse is pervasive in our society; it knows no race, religion, gender, or economic status.  It has impacted generations of children; stripped them of their innocence and burdened them with trauma that can last a lifetime.

Since posting A Great Hill, I have had several adults share their survival story with me, have listened to enough friends express worry when weirdos try to groom or build unhealthy relationships with their children, and have heard one too many accounts from those who know of a predator in the family but feel paralyzed that I felt it was high time as a survivor, parent, and educator I weigh in on this uncomfortable but necessary topic.

According to the article in Baby & Blog, 6 Ways to Protect your Child from Sexual Abuse, “It is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. To put this in perspective, it means in a classroom of 25 High School Seniors, 3 of the girls and 2 of the boys will have likely been sexually abused.”  But because sexual abuse is often hidden, I wouldn’t be surprised if these statistics are low.

Child sexual abuse is about power.  Child molesters feel powerful when they exploit and take advantage of children.  If we tip the scales and take away their power, then perhaps we can stop the abuse.

How do we do that?  Empower the children.  Empower ourselves.

Empower the Children

“The fight against child molesters begins by teaching the children.” – Norman E. Friedman

When Norman Friedman, a veteran mental health professional, educator, and author of Inoculating Your Children against Sexual Abuse; what every parent should know! made this statement during a lecture I thought, “Duh; that makes perfect sense.”

Based on Mr. Friedman’s years of experience working with the predator population, he concluded that one cannot cure a child molester.  Therefore, the most effective thing we can do is empower children about their bodies and rights, and create an environment where they feel confident communicating with a trusted adult.

No Touch Zone.

First, teach them that everyone has a No Touch Zone.  This zone is not limited to the child’s private parts.  Friedman’s book clearly outlines his reasoning and definition of the area and offers a noninvasive, appropriate, step by step approach to help trusted adults teach children about body parts, body rights, and what to say if a person attempts to court, solicit, or make them feel uncomfortable.

No Secrets.        

“We don’t have secrets in our house; we have surprises,” is a phrase we adopted in our home thanks to Friedman.

Secret is a word we innocently use with children.  However, a molester’s efforts to create an inappropriate relationship with a child often includes secret keeping.  Friedman suggests that if we stop using the term, a child will quickly recognize when it’s out of place and subsequently say something to that person as well as his trusted adult.

Having a No Secrets policy in a family encourages open communication.  Once a child feels confident that he can speak freely, we need to make sure we’re listening.

Listen.

It is important we make it a priority to send verbal and nonverbal cues that convey to our children we are available; always, whenever, and no matter what.  Listening and responding respectfully to both the good and bad things that are on their mind builds trust, offers reassurance that we care, and confirms that what they say is meaningful.

Young people exposed to life is tough and keep it in the family attitudes and who hear messages that it’s their job to be responsible for adult feelings and needs add up to one thing in a child’s mind; why bother talking, no one is listening.

Listening to our children is critical, but believing is lasting.

Believe.

When a child confides that someone approached him in an uncomfortable way, it might be easier to swallow the shock and impossibility of it all by downplaying the incident, particularly if it’s someone familiar.

But we need to take their words seriously.

Regardless of how the information made us feel or who the party was; that child felt violated on some level and had the courage to speak up.  That means we need to find a way to help him feel safe again as well as confront the party in question.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an adult recount their abuse experience and share how he had the courage to tell a trusted loved one only to be brushed off, ignored, told he was wrong or the cause of it.

Can you imagine being that little boy who was brave enough to say something, not believed, and then continually abused?  The thought of it breaks my heart.

Empower Ourselves

It’s not enough to empower our children.  We trusted adults have to get in on the act too.

Go with your gut.

A friend felt conflicted about telling the creepy old guy who lives on her street to take a hike when he wanted to play basketball with her eight year old son.  She felt bad for the lonely, old man even though her gut told her that his request was odd.  Confronting him would be impolite, so she protected her son by making excuses when the child continued to ask if he could play with the neighbor.

She ultimately followed her gut and took action.

To her son she said, “In many ways, he’s like a stranger to us.  We know him but we really don’t.”

And to the man, “Come on.  You know grownups don’t play with kids.”

After that, creepy old guy left my friend’s son alone.

Advocate at all costs.

If you know someone in your family has a history of abusing others and you suspect that the person is being inappropriate with a child even if it isn’t your child, call him out on it.  If that’s too scary, anonymously call Child Protective Services.

It is not enough for us to avoid an abuser in the family because it is very likely he is out in the world hurting someone else’s children.  So for the sake of that little boy and girl, their innocence, emotional health, and future please be strong; take a stand.

Here’s the deal; we can’t wait for predators to rehabilitate or the laws to punish them accordingly.  And since the majority of molesters are not strangers, they will continue to live in our communities, interact with children, and be part of our families.

I’m sorry if this frightens you, but it’s true.

So empower your children.  If a predator tries to court a child equip with the right tools, he’ll realize that he doesn’t stand a chance and will back off.

And empower yourself.  Let those who are inappropriate with children know that we trusted adults are paying attention.

Power stripped.  Scales tipped.  Game over.

Additional resources

Good Touch Bad Touch school program

Stop it Now

A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend

Martin Luther King Jr Quote

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Dear Friend,

Thank you for introducing yourself to me on the school yard when I was new to the community.  Had you not, I don’t know if I would have extended a hand.

When I initially saw you in the neighborhood, I avoided eye contact.  I couldn’t see passed the hijab. Your headscarf represented to me a religion of negativism and extremes, a culture of anti-Semitism, and a stifling of the modern woman.  I passed judgment, was ignorant and afraid.  I quickly concluded that we were from different worlds, and hence unable to find common ground; until we did.

Our sons’ fast friendship, much to my surprise, led to ours.  Several conversations, a few CrossFit WODs, and a shared hookah later, I learned some things.

First, your commitment to Islam is rooted in a spirituality that transcends all religions.

When I recently asked, “What did you learn from making pilgrimage to Mecca?” you shared with me along with the young people at the local mosque that in light of the experience, both positive and negative, you returned grateful for the gifts God gives us as free, healthy human beings and with an understanding that He loves us, imperfections and all.

At home, modesty, daily prayer, study, and diet are the tangible rituals you choose to demonstrate your love for God, but that love is also deeply evident in the thoughtful way in which you respect yourself, interact with others, approach parenting, nurture relationships, and care for patients.

Your words and actions remind me that we are all connected; Muslim, Christian, Jewish or otherwise.

Second, you have an open, accepting, and generous heart.

As a Christian woman raising Jewish children married to a man with a strong connection to Israel, I was worried that friendship might be tricky.  I was wrong.

From day one, you welcomed my family into your home.  You share your culture, answer questions, appreciate our traditions, and join us for holidays.  When my son swallowed a marble, you were at my door despite having worked a full day to help out and offer advice.  When I had jury duty, you spent the afternoon with my boys even though your children had busy schedules of their own.  You think of my family whenever you cook or travel, and thanks to your charming sweet tooth, my children affectionately refer to you as, “The Candy Fairy.”

The goodness that emanates from you inspires me to be better.

Third, you are an advocate for women; a role model for your son and daughters.

Your dress might be traditional, but your ideas and actions are progressive, willful, and strong.  I was moved when in an effort to understand practices, question inequities and evoke change, you approached Muslim women in the streets of Mecca and asked how they felt wearing a khimar, a long garment covering their head, neck, and shoulders, ran errands in pants to encourage dialogue, and questioned local leaders about the sanitation of the city.

Every day I watch you work tirelessly to support your family, use your education to help others, handle conflict and struggle with grace and perseverance, tackle new adventures with uncanny energy, act zany, be fun, and simply love life.

You are an exemplary, modern American woman who I am proud to call my friend.

Connection and communication helped me to confront prejudice, challenge stereotypes, and understand a culture that I knew only through media, politics and hearsay.  I have renewed hope for future generations when I see our sons playing, laughing, and treating each other as brothers.

The hijab is not a symbol, but a frame; for the beautiful person you are outside and within.

Much love,

Red

2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year Reception

2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year Reception

A Great Hill

Sharing resolutions and lesson learned from a personal experience with the hope that it might one day help someone.

Sharing resolutions and lesson learned from a personal experience with the hope that it might one day help someone.

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
Nelson Mandela.

Eleven years ago today, I climbed a great hill.

Sitting in the mall parking lot in the passenger’s seat of my mother’s white Oldsmobile, I told her the family secret that I had harbored for over twenty years; that her then husband of twenty five years sexually abused me as a child.

When the words finally came out, my body decompressed like a flattened tire.  I thought I was done, fixed, as if sharing this piece of information would easily mend everything and solve all problems.  That New Year’s Eve morning I stood at the top of my great hill expecting to see a welcoming horizon.  And at first, I did.  But understanding that I couldn’t stand in one spot forever, I continued on my way.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones.  I was born into a generation of women and men who, when experience trauma, are often encouraged to talk about it and seek help.  I eventually had someone to tell and immediately had someone who believed me.  I had the guidance of a talented, dedicated professional who worked tirelessly to give me the tools I needed to work through the rises and falls.  And I have a husband who has supported me every step of the way.  Even the bad guy went to jail for a short time.

These fortunate circumstances coupled with determination to live clean, if you will, helped me to move forward.   As a result, I have been able to scale more overgrown, rocky, and unmarked hills than I thought existed.  And although I couldn’t reach the top every time, I’m content with where I ended up.

However, one of many things I’ve learned in the last ten years is that there are consequences to pursuing one’s truth.  Expecting people to reflect, discuss, and perhaps change is a tall order.  Maintaining thin relationships, living in a box, and avoiding issues are seemingly much easier paths to take.

So why rock the boat?  Because as I started to value myself, I realized that regardless of what I was going to get back, I had to let people know where I was coming from.  Several times I’ve been pleasantly surprised; other times, not so much.  I’ve had family members haul off like a Real Housewife of New Jersey, friends just throw in the towel, and to mourn relationships of key people who weren’t able to meet me half way.  It’s unfortunate and sad but as my grandfather says, “That’s the way it goes.”

I’ve often wondered if it is worth some of this residual agida to continue my version of clean living.  It may sound reminiscent of a Kelly Clarkson song, but for someone who lived the first third of her life putting up walls, keeping things surface, and feeding the elephants in the room, I intend to spend the next two thirds of it living the most honest, genuine, meaningful, loving, and forthright way that I can.  For myself, loved ones, husband and most importantly our children; this I resolve to do.

As we welcome a new year, I wish you a year filled with health, truth, cleanliness, and the courage to climb.

College & Career Readiness: The Fancy People vs. The Leaf Pile

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The table of contents of the Common Core Learning Standards has the words “College and Career Readiness” written so often that it’s no wonder the public tone surrounding this latest round of educational reform is one of anxiety, concern, and contempt.

From the father of a five-year old who supports the Common Core’s goal to make students competitive in a global environment and believes educators only started questioning tests when they became tied to job performance to the well meaning mommies who vent through social media about their child’s school experience as well as the image conscious, high performing school district superintendent who misrepresents that his administration only had four months to prepare for these changes, communities are wrapped up in the notion that the Common Core is the primary determinant of a child’s success.

Now, in theory, I agree with the idea of a common educational standard.  As a former commercial banker turned fourth grade teacher turned nursery school teacher and mother of elementary as well as preschool aged children, I welcome the idea of an educator generated, developmentally appropriate uniform set of learning standards that applies to all students regardless of the state in which they live.  So at the very least, if a child moved, he could enter a new classroom on par with his classmates.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there.  After reading the documents and listening to teachers who are active in the classroom, it’s clear that, like in the past, the majority of requirements are still developmentally inappropriate.  Plus I’m hard pressed to believe that they are truly teacher generated.  Furthermore, the related tests are unnecessarily hard, even when compared with the tests created in conjunction with No Child Left Behind, which were rigorous in our state and also, by the way, questioned by teachers at the time.

But it will be ok.  I promise.  Veteran educators will tell you that there have always been evolving standards, requirements, pedagogy, and new ways to assess teacher performance.  In the twelve years that I’ve been in education, all or part of our state’s standards and the related tests has already changed three times.

Strong teachers with thoughtful and consistent administrations who put children first will carefully plan and adapt their curriculum as necessary to accommodate change and continue to work tirelessly to give students what they need regardless of how these changes may affect their jobs.  Furthermore, professionals dedicated to educating children will communicate to them that The Fancy People tests, as my former students and I affectionately called them, are a snapshot in time; a moment that does not define who they are, determine whether or not they go to college, or have any bearing on their level of success as adults.  Most importantly, these people will continue to encourage children instead to get wrapped up in simple school global readiness tasks like building a leaf pile.  Let me explain.

Earlier this month, Bubbe our socially sensitive, creatively thoughtful, and independent minded child enthusiastically chatted me up on the walk home from school about such an endeavor.  What started as a solo project soon turned into an effort of about thirteen kids strong.  First, a girl, he didn’t know impressively initiated a conversation and asked to play.  As their leaf pile grew, it caught the attention of another classmate who is known to be an interrupter of sorts with a thin verbal filter.  Then a third friend joined; a sweet, atypically developing child who had confidently constructed with Bubbe in the past.  The kids were having fun when a conflict ensued.

“What a stupid pile!” a boy yelled, jumping into the leaves without asking.

“Hey!  That’s not nice,” the group said.  “The pile’s not done.  And you have to ask first.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry,” he said.  “Can I help too?”

The group quickly forgave him.  “Sure you can.”

When the pile jumping got old, the Interrupter came up with an idea.  “Let’s make a leaf water slide!” he said.  Together, the group transferred the leaves to the playground slide.  They first tested the leaves alone; then the kids took turns sliding with them and into a pile at the bottom.  Recognizing the fun, a bunch of football and soccer players stopped their game and joined in.

What did Bubbe’s teacher and the recess aides do?  They watched knowingly and lovingly.  And as they blew the whistle to line up, the gaggle had one final leaf fight, threw the leaves in the air and yelled, “It’s Fall time!”

As far as I’m concerned, that experience prepared those children for college and careers in a global, competitive environment better than all the Fancy People standards and tests combined.  Twenty minutes of leaf play taught them to lead, initiate, share, imagine, invent, create, communicate, collaborate, take risks, play a part, make mistakes, forgive, be forgiven, and get along with different kinds of people.

Think about it.  Aren’t these the most useful and lasting determinants for success?  Aren’t these the skills we adults look for when hiring someone?  And aren’t these the traits we want in a classmate and coworker? 

So to the school official who feels pressured, the father who is hell bent on preparing his five-year old for our competitive world, and the worried mommies, please remember that stress breeds stress.  Tests and standards will become a distant memory.  Playing in the leaves with friends at recess will not.

But The Fancy People are at it again.  So what do you do?

First, read the Common Core Standards, at least for your child’s grade level, understand who crafted them, and learn more about the current College Board President’s role.

Two, advocate: positively, proactively, and collectively.  Sit down with your principal, superintendent, curriculum coordinator, and Board of Education representatives.  Find out their long term education plan, ask about curriculum adaptations, adoptions and timing, understand their philosophy about teaching children, and while you’re at it, inquire about how the current reform relates to funding sources and state mandates.

And finally, do the most essential thing we can do to prepare our children for the real world; get wrapped up with them…in the leaves.

Common Core Standards

Education Advocacy and Reform

Local Efforts

Discomfort

Discomfort

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GRAND PRIZE WINNER: BUILD CREATIVE WRITING IDEAS’ 2014 1,000 PROMPTS, 1,000 DOLLARS WRITING CONTEST

Discomfort is good. At least that’s what I told myself before stepping into my first CrossFit onramp.

After a year of prodding by a neighbor, feeling the need to get fit before forty, and a whole lot of self talk, I mustered up my courage and scheduled an appointment with the owner of our local affiliate. The CrossFit sounded like my kind of workout; stripped down, personalized, guided and quick.

Then one chilly Thursday in March, I found myself in a yellow, industrial, concrete shell nestled behind an auto glass manufacturer and a door I wasn’t strong enough to open, with no heat, enjoying the odor from the neighboring sanitation department, surrounded by chalky poles, stacked weights, and clammy rubber desperately trying to hold a push up position.

An insightful, seemingly sensitive but stern coach who was guiding me through the session reached for AbMats to support the wide gap between the floor and my chest.

“She doesn’t need AbMats!” boomed the owner and head trainer.

“He seems to think I’m strong enough,” I thought. “Maybe this guy knows something I don’t.”

One push up. Not bad.

Two, eh.

Three. Not happening.

“Can I do them on my knees?” I asked the sensitive sergeant.

Before she could answer, the owner’s voice flew over my shoulder, reverberated off the concrete, and knocked me in the jaw. “This ain’t no New York Sports Club fairy princess class! No. You cannot do pushups on your knees.”

“Who does this guy glued to that swirly chair think he is; the burning bush?” Scared straight and getting the sense that he knew what he was doing, I kept my mouth shut and went back to work, AbMatless.

When my onramp was over, Sensitive Sergeant said, “You are a strong person. The only one getting in your way is you.”

The Burning Bush stood up, smiled earnestly, gave me a high five and said, “Excellent job for your first time.”

Their disciples, who cheered me on during the timed portion of my workout, came over and did the same. And when I hobbled out, my body feeling like a dented can of preserves, a golden goddess of a woman smiled and said, “No matter what, just keep coming.”

I heeded the advice, knowing discomfort was coming my way, but not realizing I was about to get more than I bargained for.

You see, as a teenager, I was the big boned girl who couldn’t climb the rope in gym, the non risk taking solid citizen who longed for validation, and the secretly shy, moderately social, but most certainly insecure person who soldiered through life alone, never getting too tight with anyone, especially a group of girlfriends. CrossFit resurfaced, challenged and then chipped away at each of those lingering childhood discomforts.

In CrossFit, egos are checked at door. Because the only way to get fit, fast, and strong in a place like this is to take risks, be vulnerable, put yourself out there, make mistakes, and trust your coaches and classmates. And for someone like me, that was slightly unsettling. But I did it anyway, and I started to get better.

Success is magical. Whether it’s running 400 meters without stopping, throwing a weight over your head, doing a pull up, getting a handstand, jumping rope like Rocky, or beating a personal best, it feels like you did as a kid learning to ride without training wheels or whistle for the first time. The emotion is pure, unbridled elation especially if you never imagined you’d be able to do it.

Gaining ground, being pushed to my physical and mental edge, and kindling that inner flame time and time again convinced me that I wasn’t as limited as I thought and encouraged me to draw on my strength consistently in and outside the gym. I got out of my own way; and eventually, climbed that rope.

However, the CrossFit picture isn’t always pretty. Things can and do get raw. But anytime I hit a wall, needed guidance, lost a skill, or had a bad day The Burning Bush, Sensitive Sergeant, and my fellow disciples had my back. For that designated hour, our job was to work together, help each other, cultivate community, and have good fun. In this place, you can’t help but feel validated and confident.

Sometimes, amid the blood and burpees, you also make a good friend. Mine was Sparta. She and I started CrossFit that same Spring. Because we had a similar schedule and were of similar ability level, we quickly became training partners. After a year of laughing, lunging, chatting and cleaning she asked me to join her team of lady friends for an upcoming mud run. She thought nothing of the gesture. It was a natural extension of our new friendship.

As the girl who always wished to be tight with a group of women, but usually found herself on the peripheral, Sparta’s thoughtfulness meant the world to me. A couple of mud runs with these ladies have come and gone since her invitation, and now it’s understood that whenever there’s an event; we’re a team.

And so I declare to you from the Plylo Box on which I jump; discomfort is in fact, good. Discomfort opens doors. It helps you grow. CrossFit just happened to be my cherry Kool-Aid.

Whatever your discomfort is

Tap into it, and find your flavor.

Then chalk up those hands,

Crank up the Katy Perry,

And get on it.

3, 2, 1…

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Define Interesting

Richard Scarry Busytown

Life in urban suburbia is all amped up.

Working, parenting, schlepping, socializing, shopping, exercising, creating, competing, volunteering, networking, hiring, reinventing, and renovating; we residents don’t quit.  At any given moment, look above the head of the person in the crosswalk or the parent at school drop off and you’ll see a swirling cloud of thoughts polluting the air.

From nannies and nursery schools, tennis and travel teams, hot yoga and country clubs, the café with the best salad and the coffee house with the best scene to dinner parties and day camp, cliques and careers, book clubs and PTAs, local arts and big city connections, even casual conversation at the playground feels wired and burdened by the need for it to be about something.

I liken this way of life to Richard Scary’s, What Do People Do All Day? Just slap some riding boots on Lowly worm, switch out Mr. Frumble’s bananamobile for a luxury SUV, and squeeze Mommy Cat into a pair of Lululemons , and you have it; the Urb-Burb version of Busytown.

Where everybody is looking good; doing something; being interesting.

So when some Urb-Burb families take a vacation, the getaway destination becomes increasingly attractive if the activities and environment is simplified, back to basic, and dare I say, normal.

One day, I was chatting with a couple from the community about summer family vacations. They were gushing about a country retreat that they and their children take every year.

I grew up in the country and my husband likes anything rural, so I was excited to learn more. “What’s it like?” I asked.

“It’s a great place to visit,” the wife explained. “Nothing too fancy, very low key, with activities for everyone. Plus the same families try and go back the same week each summer, so you really get to know people.” Then with her face as serious as stone she said it, “Interesting people, too.”

“Interesting people? What the hell does that mean?” I thought.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the term, Interesting People used as a qualifier. Tongue tied, I didn’t ask what she meant. Instead, I cocked my head and gave a standard Urb-Burb response, “Aah, is that right?”

Let’s define interesting. What attracts you to a person that makes you want to learn more?

Is it financial success, formal education, knowledge of the arts, volunteer efforts, travel experience, fashion style, dedication to the environment, fitness regime, family background, social prowess, or whatever the local majority decides?

If so, then we’re too caught up in our busy towns, swirling clouds, and skinny jeans to realize that we are missing the mark.

Interesting is found on the inside. It is goodness, generosity of spirit, integrity, courage, decency, positive intention, and kindness. And our communities, Urb-Burb or otherwise are teeming with people just like this.

Unfortunately, interesting is not always easy to see. It requires us to go below the surface, strip away insecurities, dial it down, stop trying so hard, extinguish formalities, examine priorities and perceptions, reach out, branch out, and be inclusive.

And that’s scary.

With October on the horizon, it is safe to say that we are back to the usual routine and are out and about in the community. So the next time you’re waiting to cross the street, buying time at the swings, or kicking back at that café try taking a page out of a preschool handbook.

Stop. Look. Listen. And then talk to someone.

Perhaps then we’ll begin to appreciate that everyone is interesting.

RED’S WRAP SAID WHAT?…The Lasting Memory of Exclusion

jan-profile

If you’ve never been the Queen Bee or held court in the hive
If you’ve ever ached alongside a child or grown friend who felt the sting of exclusion
If you’re climbing a social ladder or building one for your children

Then please read this post by Red’s Wrap.

Red's Wrap

jan-profile

The sting is at once startling and searing.

At first, you think. this isn’t what’s happening. You’re misinterpreting what you see. And then it hits you. You’re being purposely excluded. Those girls  are crossing the street to avoid you. You think you’re imagining something but you know you’re not. It’s real.

It happened to me in high school. When I went to California for a two week visit, I had a best friend, the same best friend I’d had for years. When I came home, she had left me. She said I was ‘different’ but never explained what that meant. I puzzled over this and thought it might be true. The trip was the first time I’d flown anywhere and I went by myself, hunched in the window seat, face up against the glass the entire way. I’d never seen things from that high up. In L.A, my sister handed me the keys to her…

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DENIS IAN SAID WHAT?…Mind Time

Denis Ian is a father, grandfather and education activist. He does not appear have his own blog, but I’ve read his piece on 4 different ones so far. And it’s a keeper.

Here are Denis’s thoughts about hurrying up, slowing down, the value of time and the expectations we have for children and ourselves with each passing year.

I’m already anxious about what to expect from Bubbe, Skootch and myself as we start to gear up for September. So thank you, Dennis for this beautiful math lesson.

Kindness Blog

I’m an old father now. Suddenly it seems.

My sons have sons. I own lots of memories. I polish the sweet ones and never dust the ones that hurt.

I mind time now. I didn’t used to. In fact, like lots of you, I was reckless with time. Not any longer.

When I was a boy of about 9 or so, I had the temporary misfortune of being the last to the dinner table … and that meant sitting just to the left of my father. That was like sitting next to the district attorney … or the pope. My brothers loved my dilemma … because that’s what brothers do. It’s in the Irish Manual of Life.

So … there I was … waiting for my moment of challenge. The knives were clanging plates and there were two or three different conversations happening around this table with the fat legs…

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STACEY WILK SAID WHAT?…I Told You So

Courtesy: Flicr Creative Commons

Courtesy: Flicr Creative Commons

Bigger kids. Bigger problems. Can’t wait.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll dye my hair blue; with Stacey’s permission, of course.

Stacey Wilk - Author, Teacher, Editor

finger pointingCourtesy of Flicr Creative Commons

I told you so!” 

Don’t you just want to say nah, nah, na, booby when someone says that to you? Of course you do. I do. So, you must too. It’s that awful moment when you know you’ve made a mistake and some other person thinks they’re smarter or better than you and is about to point out that ugly truth. Go ahead and say nah, nah, na, booby to me. Go ahead. ‘Cause I’m about to say, “I TOLD YOU SO” to you.

Well, not all of you. Just a few (what few? Tons) of you who told me to let Noodge 2 die her hair blue. Do you remember that conversation? If not, or if you missed our discussion, you can check it out here and get up to speed.

About a week or two ago I was in the car with…

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RED’S WRAP SAID WHAT?…My Father Mended Me

While pregnant with Bubbe, I wrote a letter to my father after a 17 year estrangement. I can’t remember whether he responded via email or call, but like Red’s experience, I do remember middle ground, apologies, and him standing on the other side of my screen door ready to do whatever necessary to have his daughter back.

I was the kid who dreaded Father’s Day and the angry young adult convinced a father’s role was trivial. Thankfully, people and circumstances can change. My father and I have spent the last decade mending our relationship; and it’s been worth it.

Love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.

Fathers Day post

Red's Wrap

1940 Roy with Majorie in background at Chrystal Lake MI _002

I’ll leave it to other people to talk about how swell their dads were, how their dads taught them to fish and play ball and inspired them to be honest and hardworking. I have a different story to tell. It’s a story of how my father mended me, how he stitched up an old, tiny oozing wound, how he held open the screen door after ten years and told me to sit down while he finished making dinner for me and my family.

I sat down in the chair I’d always sat in and I watched him put a bowl of instant mashed potatoes in the microwave and take a turkey loaf out of the oven. One of those cheesecakes out of a box with cherry pie filling on top sat on the counter. He had gone all out.

We ate dinner. After ten years of not seeing or speaking…

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