Removing the Names to Protect the Guilty

Apparently I’ve been on a hiatus. In general, if I don’t post for awhile, it probably means one of two things: either someone in my family has done something–possibly involving body art, sexual exploration, illicit substances, and/or the police– that I am absolutely forbidden to blog about, or paid work is taking precedence. Thankfully, in this case, it’s the latter.

But if it were the former, I wouldn’t tell you, now would I? After all, this blog is only as “unvarnished” as I allow it to be. Blogging about loved ones is a sensitive business. Family harmony, of course, is much more important than spilling secrets, venting, or entertaining readers, at least until the six-figure book contract comes through. (Any minute now, I’m sure.) From the beginning I have allowed my husband and children–at least the two older ones–to vet the entries specifically related to them. So far, only one entry has been nixed entirely (it involved “the authorities”) and in a handful of other posts, I have changed a few words or identifying details as requested. That’s it. My theory is that the tales I have to tell are not substantially different from what the kids have been saying about themselves for years on Facebook. Plus, they rather like the attention. (As one of my favorite SNL skits puts it, they’re “Twitter famous,” meaning “not famous.”) My 17-year-old has even threatened to launch an “unvarnished daughter” rebuttal blog to set the record straight.  As for my husband, he’s willing to put up with a lot in the service of the six-figure book deal.

Still, I have been accused of over-sharing. “My kids would kill me if I ever wrote that about them!” people have said to me. Or: “You’re so mean to your husband! Doesn’t he mind being called ‘Mr. 70 Percent’?” (Truth? Not really: he is both exceedingly secure and a very good sport. Plus, the 70 percent figure, which, in case you’ve forgotten, refers to his average rate of completion on household tasks, is definitely rounded up.) But with a few rare exceptions, I have made it a point to avoid using my family members’ names, in an effort to protect their privacy–or more accurately, to make sure it’s not my fault if they don’t get that dream job or acceptance letter in the future. Someone, somewhere down the road–whether it’s an admissions officer at Middlebury, a partner in a New York law firm, or a pair of prospective in-laws–is going to Google them, and the last thing they need to discover is my blog, detailing my son’s boyhood obsession with AirSoft guns or my daughter’s inappropriate  Variety Show dance.

I have been thinking about these boundary issues a lot: part of the “paid work” that has kept me from blogging is, ironically, teaching high school students about blogging and other forms of new media. Now, you may be thinking, as I do daily: “What could someone who still has an IBM Selectric in the attic and who grew up conducting research via card catalogue possibly teach the digital generation about digital media?” The answer is: not much, but also a lot. They may be “digital natives,” as John Palfrey calls them in his book  Born Digital, living, learning, and socializing online with unprecedented ease. But as a “digital settler,” I’ve got perspective. I’ve seen both the old world and the new, and I know what transcends both. And while I certainly understand the increased risks of over-sharing in the Internet age, I also believe that blogging one’s story, even slightly varnished, can make both the blogger and the reader feel less alone–in a way that an old-fashioned, hand-written journal never could.

My students will soon start blogging weekly, and I have every intention of joining them. But if I don’t post for awhile, it probably means that I’ve gotten bogged down in work again. Or possibly that someone in my family has been arrested in a crack house while getting a tattoo.

Posted in Blogging, Parenting, Reality check, Teenagers, Working motherhood | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Vacation from the Kids

I am now three days into the highlight of my summer, the holiday I’ve been eagerly anticipating for months. No, I am not wine-tasting in Napa, beach-combing in the Caribbean, or sight-seeing in Paris. In fact, I’ve never worked harder. I spend 10 hours a day hunched over my computer, taking breaks only to exercise and enjoy quasi-romantic dinners with Mr. Seventy Percent. Yet it feels like the vacation of a lifetime because we are living in a kid-free house! My oldest daughter left in mid-June for  her job as a counselor at a YMCA girls’ camp–the same job at the same camp I held 32 summers ago. Though I miss her, she texts me just as often as she does when she’s sitting in her bedroom upstairs. Then on Sunday, we ditched the two younger ones: the 10-year-old joined her big sister at camp for the third year running, and our 14-year-old Mountain Man flew to Colorado to conquer some 14,000-foot peak with Outward Bound.

It feels like the old days, before we knew how messy and disruptive kids could be. No dirty socks litter the floor, no ketchup-caked plates cover the coffee table. I cannot hear Sponge Bob’s grating laugh blaring from the next room. The cover remains firmly on the toothpaste, and the bathroom counter is free of Band-Aid wrappers. No one is asking me to make grilled cheese, drive them downtown, or help locate a missing sweatshirt/cellphone/pair of goggles. There are no toy guns on the sofa, stuffed animals  in the cupboards, or embarrassing Cosmo covers–“Why Guys Love it When You Bite Your Lip”–on the magazine pile. I can make the chicken curry as spicy as I want. In the grocery store yesterday, I walked right past the Cheez-Its and Oreos; my cart was so full of healthy food that for once I hoped I ran into someone I knew. The only person cluttering up the kitchen counters with loose change, golf tees and crumpled pieces of paper is Mr. Seventy Percent, and he usually needs to be asked only once. When I put something away, it stays put away.

I am trying to savor the days, but the two weeks already seem to be flying by.

And yet … I feel slightly adrift. No one calls, except for the telemarketers, who now suddenly seem friendly. The only person ringing the doorbell is the UPS guy. No one is asking me to make grilled cheese, drive them downtown, or help locate a missing sweatshirt/cellphone/pair of goggles. The dogs still rouse themselves every afternoon around 2:30, in anticipation of the banging door, shrieked greetings and dumped backpacks that usually announce the kids’ arrival home. But no one comes. So they wander over and lay their heads plaintively in my lap. I know how they feel.

I can’t stop thinking that while the calm is a reminder of our newlywed days, it’s also a taste of our empty-nest future. What will happen when they’re gone not just for two weeks, but forever? In a pique of panic, I tell Mr. Seventy Percent, over a crisp Riesling and a plate of extra spicy chicken curry, that I will fulfill his fantasy and learn to play golf when we retire–if he promises to take up bridge. He enthusiastically agrees. And while such a future can never compete with making grilled cheese or picking up dirty socks, I must admit it holds a certain appeal. Especially if he remembers to keep the tees off the counter.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Marriage, Parenting, Pets, Reality check | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Who’s the Winner Now?

It was somewhere around the fourth hour of the softball tournament that I started silently rooting against my daughter’s team. “Swing!” I’d telepathically command the batter as the ball sailed two feet over her head. “Call it a strike,” I begged the ump. It’s not that I dislike softball; both my daughters play, as I did, and I am a devoted and enthusiastic fan at regular season games. Weekend tournaments I find more troubling, though that’s true of almost anything that takes longer than two hours: movies, concerts, meetings, road trips. Even so, I had no problem adjusting my attention span for my older daughter’s division-winning high school varsity season.

But this was a league of third- and fourth-graders, who can hit much better than they can field and who, if my 9-year-old is any guide, are far more interested in scanning the horizon for the ice cream truck than in turning a double play. Or even a single play. Billed as a fun, all-day family affair (an oxymoron if there ever was one), the Round Robin tournament promised a DJ, face paint, and [alcohol-free] tailgating. Starting at 10 a.m., the six teams would play three two-inning games apiece. The four “winning” teams would advance to the semi-finals, whose victors would compete in a four-inning final. The whole thing would wrap up somewhere around 6:00 pm.

Perhaps I am the only spoilsport, and the other parents were actually hoping for runs so they could spend eight hours sitting in the sun on hard metal bleachers. But I doubt it; they’re just better at faking it than I am. Still, I knew to suppress my  groan when our little “Green Dinos” won their first game. The girls immediately bombarded our tailgate tent–whose coordination had involved about 40 “Reply to All” emails bearing information like “I’ll bring napkins”–for Gatorade, watermelon and brownies. It was 11:15.

Plenty of my thinking peers are aware of–and alarmed by–our reputation as overindulgent, hyper-competitive parents. Yet when it comes time for events like the Round Robin tournament, which effectively showcases both traits, no one wants to be the Debbie Downer who says, “This is ridiculous! They’re 9 years old!” Even I am only brave enough to say it in a blog that no one reads.

After the Dinos lost the next two games, I cheered up. I might get the laundry and grocery shopping done after all! But as we gathered in the tailgate tent for lunch (thankfully, someone had had the excellent idea of ordering pizza instead of lugging gas grills and hamburger patties to the field), word came down that one of the teams with two losses would play in the semi-finals; it all depended on the scored-run differentials. I paced around tensely while the coaches and umpires conferred.

Finally, the coach gathered the girls around. “Well, Dinos,” he said, “you played great… but it’s the end of the line for us.” I started to cheer, but quickly converted it into a groan. My daughter came bounding over, sparkly green ribbons flying. “Am I free now?” she asked. It was only 3:15, and one of her good pals was on a different “losing” team. Playdate possibilities suddenly loomed, full of promise. So while the Lemonheads and the Purple People battled it out on the diamond, they spent the rest of the afternoon running through the sprinklers and chasing balls in the yard.

Definitely worth watching in a tournament…

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, Sports | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Hoping for a Cavity

I  felt a little surge of joy when the dentist recently reported a cavity in one of my 9-year-old’s molars. That’s because I have long suspected she doesn’t always brush her teeth when I send her into the bathroom each morning and night. Sometimes I think she just turns on the water and lets it run for a minute, so it sounds like she’s diligently scraping away the gummy worm residue. Perhaps I am revealing a major flaw in my child-rearing, but I’m not convinced her older brother and sister brush their teeth with any regularity, either; I recently spent two days sharing a room with my eldest daughter in New York City, where I observed–and she admitted–that when she’s tired, she only tackles them in the morning. I wish she’d get a cavity, too.

It’s not that I want their mouths to resemble my own silver-filled monument to the flouride-free 70s. But it’s about time they faced a consequence for something. Lately I have noticed that my dire warnings–“You’re going to be late!” “You’re going to freeze!” “You’re going to be starving!” “You’re going to get an ‘F’!”–never come to pass, completely undermining my “natural consequences” approach to parenting. Rather than nag, cajole or micromanage, I believe in letting the breakfast-skipper go hungry and the procrastinator take a zero on her lab report, under the theory that it’s the only way they’ll figure out how to manage their lives. But what, exactly, do they learn if a classmate hands over a Luna bar in homeroom or the physics teacher graciously grants an extension? They learn that I’m always wrong! They won’t actually starve or fail. At least the dentist proved me right on one score: you will get a cavity if you don’t brush.

“Still Life With Guitar,” by Pablo Picasso, 1942

Ironically, teachers appear to be the biggest obstacle to my children learning these life lessons. My 8th grade son was recently assigned a poetry project for English class, which involved writing and illustrating a dozen poems in a variety of genres. He had two weeks to complete the project, and I only started bugging him–“You’re not going to finish in time!” “You’re going to get points deducted!”–in the final few days. Even so, he spent the morning it was due frantically concocting lame haikus about household objects, and dashing off sketches to match.  He looked so miserable and disappointed in himself that I refrained from piling on. I figured his grade would be punishment enough. Well, so much for natural consequences: the teacher awarded him an A-. “She called it Picassoesque!” he said proudly.

To be fair, I am not blameless in this cycle of cause-and-no-effect. As a closet enabler, I regularly flout my own policies, unable to bear seeing my children suffer–even if it’s their own damn fault. I have, on more than one occasion, purchased a new sweatshirt for a child who insisted “It’s not cold!” when we left the house, stubbornly ignoring my meteorological foresight. I have definitely shared my sandwich with someone who initially said she didn’t want one. And I have turned back with a child who refused to wear the proper footwear on a hike or bike ride. In fact, more often than not, I’m the one who ultimately suffers the consequences of their actions. At a barbecue last weekend, my little daughter–the one with the cavity–kept eating ice cubes out of a cooler filled with drinks, not to mention, grass, pebbles and all sorts of bacteria from the dozens of hands constantly reaching in. “Stop eating the ice!” I warned her, repeatedly. “It’s dirty. It’s going to make you sick!” Chomping away, she ignored me. And yet, who was beside her the next morning, holding her hair as she bent, ashen-faced, over the toilet bowl? Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than right. But at least she won’t be eating ice from a cooler any time soon.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, School, Teenagers | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Day Like Any Other

I didn’t have high expectations for Mother’s Day. That’s because on Friday, Mr. 70 Percent called and asked, “What do you want to do for Mother’s Day?” I was pleased that he had thought of it two full days ahead. But, as he should well know after 18 and a half years of marriage, what I most want for Mother’s Day (as well as for my birthday) is not to be asked what I want. For once, I just want someone else to take charge of the plan. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he says in my fantasy. What follows is utterly unimportant. It could be, “Put on your: hiking boots/flip flops/stilettos” (which might first involve going to the mall to buy some). Or, “Get up; it’s time to go… to the museum/out to brunch/sky diving.” (Point of clarification: poker, golf and fly fishing do not count. It has to be something I enjoy.) The Mother’s Day gift lies not in the object or the activity, but in his assumption of the responsibility. I spend the other 363 days of the year planning, arranging, scheduling, rescheduling, organizing, overseeing, managing and coordinating. Is it too much to ask that someone else deal with it two days a year?

Apparently, yes. But luckily, I’m not much for contrivance, and I recognize the folly of forcing your family to appreciate you on a particular day. I much prefer the spontaneous flashes of sweetness my children show, however rare, to the socially-mandated ones. It helps that I spent three years writing greeting cards for Hallmark, where I learned just how manufactured a holiday Mother’s Day is (along with  Grandparents’ Day, Secretary’s Day and Boss’s Day). It was so hard for me to write the treacle that sometimes I had to get the sarcasm out of my system first. In fact, I recently came across a Mother’s Day card for new mothers that I once wrote and presented to the editors as a joke. It shows a scrawny, squawking baby bird in a nest and reads:

Congratulations on adding to the nest
A new member of your family
A baby to regurgitate slimy, raw worms for,
And teach to fly, eventually.
This cuddly, bald bundle of joy
With its beak outstretched to you
Will need you to keep it “under your wing,”
And show it the proper things to do.
It’s your job to teach it just how to fly
And soon it’ll be winging afar.
You’ll probably teach it how to fly into windows
And then how to crap on a car.
So now that you’ve hatched your blessing from heaven
Treat your new life of motherhood with zest.
Because before you can say, “Look out! There’s a cat!”
You’ll be left with an empty nest.

Of course, those words hold a tad more poignancy now, with my oldest child looking at colleges, than they did when I wrote them back in my 20s. I have come to understand that ultimately Mother’s Day is about acknowledging all that goes into being a mother, and this year mine certainly achieved that. I folded the laundry, did the grocery shopping, ran some errands, planted some flowers, sewed on a button, filled out camp forms, and fielded complaints about Hebrew school, exhaustion, and a stuffy nose. I also went out to lunch with my husband, had a drink with a friend, and made the kids do the dinner dishes.

The best thing I received was a fill-in-the-blank booklet my 9-year-old daughter had made at school, along with some sort of glittery ceramic paperweight that might be a heart or an acorn or possibly a shell. It said things like: “My mother loves me best when…” “My mother looks prettiest when…” (“she is just her self,” my little angel wrote, inaccurately.) I learned that my favorite book is The Hunger Games, which I’ve never read, and my favorite meal is not seared scallops or filet mignon with a red-wine reduction but “fruit.” However, she nailed it when she wrote that my favorite outfit is “casule ware.” But the best line of all? “I like being with my mother most when….” We cuddle? We go shopping? She takes me to CocoKeys water park? No. My unvarnished girl had filled in:  “…she’s in a good mood.” The rest of the family readily agreed. Now if only they could figure out how to put me there.

Posted in Family life, Holidays, Kids, Marriage, Parenting, Reality check, Teenagers | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Good Enough for Grandma

Now I understand why my mother always brushed my bangs out of my eyes before we visited my grandmother. There’s something about seeing your parents that makes you turn a critical eye on your own child-rearing, and nothing says “bad parenting” like  bangs in the eyes. Except, perhaps, pajamas during the daytime, long hair on a boy, and total silence, which is pretty much what my children presented to my parents when we arrived in New York City last weekend to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday.

Normally I am proud–or at least tolerant–of their quirks, but they became less and less appealing the closer we got to New York.  My youngest daughter, who is 9, has a very distinct fashion sense, which runs toward flannel pajama pants, her brother’s ratty, old football t-shirts and deliberately mismatched socks. Most of the time, I find her style immeasurably preferable to the Hollister and Abercrombie her peers are starting to wear. But when I turned around to look at her in the back seat on our way down, all I could see was the stains on her t-shirt. At least when we went to see “Mary Poppins” the next day, she put on a skirt over her PJ shorts, though I had to talk her out of pairing it with the Nike soccer sandals that her big brother recently outgrew. As for my boy, he and some other 8th graders had made a pact not to cut their hair before Memorial Day. Well, the other kids have abandoned their end of the deal, but my son is still holding true. When I suggested he get a haircut “before we see Grandpa,” who likes his grandson to look like a grandson, he scoffed gleefully. “Nope, I like it long!” he said. And, being 14, he likes to deny every parental request he can.

But the icing on the cake was my oldest daughter, 17, who elected to take a vow of silence the very day we left for New York. She wasn’t being sullen, defiant or difficult, but she was trying to make a statement: she was participating in the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s “Day of Silence,” in solidarity with all the teens who feel they can’t express their sexuality. Whenever anyone tried to talk to her, she handed over a little slip of paper that read:

Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence (DOS), a national youth movement bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward building awareness and making  a commitment to address these injustices.

I totally admired her empathy and conviction. But I still felt annoyed that she couldn’t answer my parents’ questions and had to pantomime what she wanted for dinner. In any case, my father wasn’t buying it. “What about Rachel Maddow?” he said. “She’s certainly not silent about being gay!” “She’s not a student, Dad,” I answered for my daughter.

I suppose it’s natural to want your children to look and act their best when they visit your parents; after all, we’re all still trying to make Mom and Dad proud, aren’t we? But that’s my problem, not theirs. They figured out a long time ago that Grandma and Grandpa will love them no matter what they’re wearing or how quiet they are, and that they can get away with behavior my brother and I never could have. Little surprise, then, that we had an absolutely lovely weekend, and my parents didn’t mention the word “haircut” once.

Posted in Family life, Grandparents, Kids, Parenting, Teenagers, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Love Me, Love My Foibles

My friend Linda has a theory that the qualities that first attract you to a mate are the same ones that will annoy the crap out of you later. So if, for instance, it’s his mild- mannered agreeableness you first fall in love with, you can be sure that in due course you will find yourself screaming, “JUST MAKE A DECISION!” If, at the start, you admire her vegetarianism, eventually it will ruin every meal you eat together. And if you are thrilled by the extravagant way he tosses around his credit card while you’re courting, you will later feel compelled to snatch that card out of his generous little hands and snap it in two before your children’s entire college fund disappears.

By this logic, I can only surmise that my husband once found endearing my inability to close any cabinet or drawer I open. For awhile, he proved quite tolerant of this foible, following me around the kitchen closing doors behind me. But the magic wore off by the thousandth time he bonked his head, a milestone I believe we hit last week. I am not suggesting that this is my only or even my biggest shortcoming, but it is probably the most obvious one–and certainly the most hazardous. My brother once walked into our kitchen, looked down at a bank of drawers neatly arrayed like a flight of stairs and remarked, “A perfect trifecta!” Another time I was at a friend’s house and her husband came downstairs, found us and said, “I knew you were here because all the kitchen cabinets are open!”

I can offer no satisfactory explanation for this character flaw. I’m too busy? Always in a rush? I’m just going to open them again later anyway (the same justification I use for not making the bed)? Our house is so old they don’t shut all the way? The point is, despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to close a drawer. The good news is that while it does, in fact, drive Mr. 7o Percent crazy, he has mastered the art of letting it go. That’s the real story of marriage, isn’t it? Not all that embracing and accepting nonsense, but just letting things go. Mostly my husband achieves this by mocking me relentlessly–and always checking for protruding corners before he stands up.

Now, I have very few pet peeves of my own, but my children manage to fulfill most of them: wet towels on the bed, dirty socks on the floor, ketchup-caked plates on the coffee table, a TV blaring in an empty room. But since I view the kids as works in progress, I am more forgiving. After all, it’s my duty to break them of those habits, which explains my endlessly repeated mantra: “Hang up your towel. Pick up your socks. Dishes in the dishwasher. Turn off the TV.”

With my husband, I’ve given up. After 18 years of marriage, I recognize that his foibles are as ingrained as my open cabinets. In addition to leaving roughly 30 percent of every task incomplete, he possesses the uncanny ability to embark on a non-essential outing at the least convenient moment.

So I wasn’t really surprised when he came rushing into the kitchen last week, two hours before we were to host a Passover Seder for 21 people. “I need to go to Staples!” he said. He had been clearing off the dining room table, which was covered in bills and tax forms. “Why?” I asked calmly. “I need to buy some files for all those papers,” he said. I muffled a snicker: another of his foibles is the perennial quest for the ideal organizational system. It’s like he’s waiting for Godot, or searching for the holy grail: if he can just find the perfect storage bin or expandable wall file, his life will fall effortlessly into place. But because I’m practicing letting it go, I  kept my mouth shut and focused on heating up the matzo ball soup. And when I opened the cabinet to take out the salt, I even remembered to close it.

Posted in Division of Labor, Family life, Marriage, Reality check | Tagged | 4 Comments