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50 For 50.

I’ll be turning 50 in seven months. To be honest, it’s the first “milestone” birthday that I haven’t felt great about. On my 30th birthday, I was planning my wedding and had a job I loved. When I turned 40, I was busy with 6- and 2-year-old sons, teaching part-time and freelance writing.

And here I am now, almost 50 — still teaching part-time, still writing. My boys are in high school and middle school; they still need me, but the job of parenting has changed and requires less of my time and more trips to the gas station. My husband and I have, in recent years, often been ships passing in the night, so to speak, as we juggle jobs and parenting.

I’ve been struggling with finding a way to make this birthday meaningful. What gift could someone possibly give me that I don’t already have (except for, let’s say, better vision and a good night’s sleep)?

After seeing several ideas online, I decided to make a commitment to what I’m calling my “50 for 50 Project” — 50 random acts of kindness to celebrate my 50th birthday. I asked friends to join me with their own acts in honor of their own milestone birthdays.

I started today; one down, 49 to go. And I started simple — a handful of post-it notes with cheerful messages, left in random places. I wrote out the notes, and after being sarcastically mocked, not necessarily unexpectedly, by my teenage and almost teen son, I took them with me on a few errands.

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I started at the drive-through at the bank. I planned to leave one of my happy post-its on the drawer after I completed my transaction. But I finished up and took my receipt; the teller didn’t leave her post, and seemed to be challenging me to a staring contest. I chickened out and drove away.

Next stop – the ATM at a different bank. I drove through, took my cash and smiled as I stuck a post-it to the machine. But it immediately fell off and fluttered under my car. I was still determined to brighten someone’s damn day, so I drove up, got out of my car, walked back and stuck the corner of the note into the part of the machine where the cash is dispensed. As I got back into the car, it started making a weird noise, so it’s entirely possible that rather than making someone happy, I broke the ATM.

Off to the supermarket. On the way in, I stuck one of my notes on the seat of a shopping cart. I’d planned to put a few of them on items around the store, but it was jam packed, and I knew I’d feel weird if someone saw me sticking “have a great day” notes on their cereal, so I did my shopping and left. On the way back to the car, I saw that the cart I’d gotten to earlier had been taken, so I imagined someone smiling their way through their shopping. I loaded up my car, and put another happy post-it on my cart before returning it.

I’m going to count this as a successful start, even if it didn’t go exactly as planned. I hope that at least one person found one of my notes and smiled. I hope that each subsequent random act I do will feel a little less weird, but I’m glad I’m taking some steps outside of my comfort zone. And I REALLY hope I didn’t break the ATM.

 

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Embracing the Dalmation.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I had this sort of vision of what I thought my future life with a spouse was supposed to look like. Tall, smart, cultured husband with dark hair and a serious job. Nice dinners out. Nights at the theater.

And then I met Dave. Smart? Check. Dark hair? Check. But we were the same height, he had a job working in college sports, little interest in culture, and his idea of fine dining was anything a step above McDonald’s.

I loved him anyway, and he loved me, even though he was clearly disappointed that I didn’t fit the mold of his dream girl, who could challenge him on the basketball court and didn’t ask questions when he was watching sports on TV with her.

But rather than being joyful about finding someone who made me laugh, who let me be who I was without taking myself too seriously, who I could talk to for hours and really imagine making a life with, I worried that he couldn’t possibly be the right person for me, because he didn’t match my checklist.

I explained it to Dave this way — imagine you’ve spent 10 years dreaming of adopting a Golden Retriever. You’ve thought about your future with this beautiful creature by your side — taking walks, snuggling on the couch, brushing its long golden coat.

So you go to the animal shelter, still dreaming of your life with this Golden Retriever. When you walk in, before you can even find your Golden Retriever, you see a Dalmation. And for some reason, you’re drawn to him. You ask to meet him, he looks at you, and there’s some instant connection. For a moment, you forget about that Golden Retriever. You’re in love, and you know that you can’t leave this Dalmation at the shelter. He’s yours. You were meant to be together.

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So you take the Dalmation home. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty great. But every once in a while, you look at him and wonder how you ended up with this dog with the weird spots. And what about that Golden Retriever?

But with each day that you and the Dalmation are together, you somehow stop noticing the spots. The short hair that you thought was going to be golden and flowing. The long, brisk runs that you’d imagined would be ambling walks.

You realize that those aren’t the things that really matter.

Dave and I learned that he could teach me about sports, and I could teach him about the arts. That sometimes it was okay if we pursued those interests alone. And while he’s still quite content to eat a bowl of cereal for dinner (and still refers to too-fancy restaurants as “big plate, little food” places), we can enjoy nice dinners together.

We all have Dalmations in our lives — the husbands who came in packages different from what we expected for ourselves, the kids who aren’t the student or athlete we thought they’d be, and the friend who wants to meet for brunch instead of a late night out (okay, that one’s me).

But when we take the time to get to know the Dalmation, instead of focusing on that Golden Retriever we thought we wanted, there can be some pretty wonderful things in store.

 

 

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14 Years Later.

It’s been a year since I wrote this, and 15 years since this day. Wishing peace to those who were touched by the events of this day.

Really??!

When my kids were younger, I remember asking someone how I would ever talk to them about 9/11. We live in a New Jersey town where lots of people commute to Manhattan; our community lost more than a dozen that day, and we were close enough to see the smoke that rose above Ground Zero. It was a terrifying, world-changing day. I couldn’t imagine telling my kids about this horrible day without frightening them.

911

Here we are, 14 years later. Matthew, who was a newborn on that day in 2001, is now a high school freshman, and Michael is in 5th grade. They both know about 9/11. They’ve learned about it in school, and we’ve talked about it at home. I’ve realized as they’ve grown that because they didn’t share the collective fear that encompassed us on that day, they would never feel the same as those of us who lived…

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What’s the answer?

There has been so much violence, hate and sadness in the news lately. I feel it, and I want to say things. But as a 40-something white woman, I often fear that my comments will be misunderstood or judged because others think this fight is not mine.

Over the last week, I’ve seen multiple comments from friends on social media who have concerns about their own safety simply because of the color of their skin. This makes me desperately sad, because I know these are not people to be feared.

About twenty years ago, I witnessed blatant, hateful racism for the first time in my life. An employee at my company was late to work, and when I asked her why, she recounted the story about how she was in a minor fender bender. The tale ended with her telling the other driver (who she had mentioned earlier was black),  Listen, I’m trying to get to work. You’re just going to pick up a welfare check.”

She walked out of my office, and I never said anything to her. For a long time, I told myself it was because I was so stunned with her comment (which I was), but now I know it was cowardly to not speak up. I still regret it. Coincidentally, that night we had dinner with black friends, and I told them the story. There was first silence at the table, and then the comment, “I always considered this discussion off-limits with white friends.” We sat for three more hours as the restaurant emptied, and talked about it. I heard stories of our friend, who is a soft-spoken, petite black professional woman, and how white women walked by her, clutching their purses close. Even if I didn’t know her, I couldn’t imagine that I’d find her the least bit threatening, and it bothered me to think that other people could.

black and white

I do find it hard to believe when people tell me they “don’t see color.” I wonder how that’s possible, especially when many people live in places where the majority of faces are white. Of course I notice the color of people’s skin, just as I notice the color of their hair, their height, or other characteristics. But the color of someone’s eyes, hair or skin doesn’t define their character or who they are.

I wonder how things might change if people like me felt like it was okay to talk about all of this, and I’m not sure how we could even start. Some of us get tongue-tied just trying to decide if we should use the term “black” or “African-American,” because we fear that we might offend. And if we can’t even get past that, how can we have a meaningful discussion?

It saddens me that friends need to have conversations with their black children about how to respond if they encounter a police officer. Because the conversation should be no different than the one I have with my white children — “Obey the law, and be respectful.” Because parents of black children fear that might not be enough.

I hate to think that people I know can’t be comfortable commuting to and from work, because they feel they are being scrutinized by fellow commuters, merely for how they look. They worry more about “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” because just the color of their skin puts them at risk.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I do think that if we all felt just a little more comfortable talking with each other about it, maybe that would give us all a little more understanding.

 

 

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I’m a happy camper.

When our kids were younger, their summer activities were pieced together for the 10 weeks between school years – swim lessons, a week of baseball camp, a few weeks of gymnastics camp – whatever they were interested in that year. My husband and I had both gone to more traditional camps; some of my favorite childhood memories are from day camp, while my husband spent summers starting at age seven at sleepaway camp.

I thought our boys might be missing out, so we looked into a few day camps for them. At the time, a friend was working at the camp where his kids went. It wasn’t something that I’d considered doing before, but since I was teaching just one college class during the summers, and wondered how I’d fill nine hours a day while my kids were at camp, I decided to look into it. I thought that being an arts & crafts counselor would be something I could handle and might enjoy.

On a chilly April Saturday, we went and toured LakeView Day Camp. It had everything we were looking for, and by later that week, we’d enrolled the boys.

Unfortunately, this camp wasn’t looking for anyone on their arts & crafts staff. The camp director thought I might be a good fit for an open position for the camp office. I liked the idea of access to air conditioning all summer, and the director was right – even though I have some formidable glue gun skills, I was definitely more suited for an office job. We talked it over, I thought about it, and ultimately I decided that I’d give it a try. I’d just be along for the ride with my kids, and I figured I could do any job for just eight weeks.

camp

As I expected, the boys thrived at camp. They made new friends. They learned to swim better than they ever had. They learned that they loved activities they’d never tried — archery, zip lining, performing, lacrosse. It was even more than we hoped it would be.

But here’s what I never expected to happen -in my 40s, one of the oldest staff members at camp – I thrived too.

The job wasn’t always easy. The days were long, wrapped in a 45-minute commute on either end. Managing the needs of parents of the hundreds of campers could be complicated. Searching for the one staff member who left her car lights on in the staff parking lot was daunting. Getting through the piles of paperwork that came through the office each day was exhausting.

But at my age, even tucked away inside, sometimes seemingly far from the hustle and bustle of hundreds of campers and staff, I made new friends – ones I expect to be in my life for a long time.

I got to be myself. I could be silly and start a rubberband fight in the middle of the day. I could cry happy tears because I saw one of my kids having fun in the pool or singing in a show. I could give someone a hug just because it was the first time I’d seen them in a few days. I could dance just because I heard music. I could laugh until my stomach hurt.

I got to try new things; I’ve flipped on a bungee trampoline, driven a go-kart, gone down an inflatable water slide, and taken a ride on a fire truck. I got to wear shorts and a t-shirt to work, and dress up in goofy costumes on theme days.

So, it seems  I was not just along for the ride with my boys, but this was going to be my camp experience too.

Tomorrow starts our seventh summer at this wonderful camp. I’m still one of the oldest working there, but nobody else seems to mind. And because I’m around the energy of the rest of the staff, most days I don’t even notice. For eight weeks, I get to be a part of something magical – where kids (and adults) come to be who they really are, try new things, laugh and cry.

We have a motto at LakeView — “Live Camp, Love Camp.” We all do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Elementary School.

I know we’ve been together for 10 years, but as our youngest child is finishing up 5th grade, it’s time for us to break up.

It’s a bittersweet ending to what I can truly say has been a pretty amazing relationship. On one hand, it’s time. Our 5th grader is ready to move on to middle school. As parents, we’re beginning to feel a little out of place among the parents herding younger siblings on the playground and pushing them around in strollers.

On the other hand, even though we know it’s time, it’s still so hard to leave.

When we first walked through the door, you were a little intimidating, despite the small stature of the people inside. We were about to trust you to take care of and educate our kids, who frankly we’d only known for a handful of years. We hadn’t yet figured out how to get them to eat anything but plain pasta, so we were wondering how in the world you’d get them to actually learn anything.

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I think of how much we didn’t know when we came into this relationship, and how much we’ve all learned in 10 years.

You taught our kids how to write in cursive. How to check out a library book. What to do if you think you’re going to throw up someplace that’s not home (Answer: try not to do it on the floor. But when you’re still this little, it’ll all be okay if you do). How to write a book report, do long division and play games on those little scooters in gym. How to make conversation during lunch, and how to play nicely at recess (and what happens when you don’t).

You taught our kids that getting a bad grade isn’t the end of the world. That if you fall off the monkey bars, dust yourself off and try it again. That kindness matters.

You worked with us to give our kids the confidence to participate in nerve-wracking spelling bees, to learn how to play an instrument, to give a presentation in front of the class, to ask for help when they needed it. You helped them set goals like making our town’s all-city music ensembles or district art show; you celebrated with them when they achieved these goals, and helped them know it was okay when they didn’t.

We learned lessons too. That sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your kid is just not going to eat that lunch you packed for him (Bonus lesson: he won’t starve to death). We learned that every kid picks up different skills – social and academic – at different times, and comparing your kid to another one is probably not going to make anyone happy.

Together,  we learned that sometimes people are going to disappoint us. And that others are going to be there for us in ways that we couldn’t even anticipate.

Thank you, elementary school. You’re a very special place. I know you’re going to make some other family very happy.

 

 

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You’re a big fat liar, Facebook.

I was talking with a friend recently about the difficulties in parenting teenagers (and really children of all ages, for that matter).

And what I took away from our conversation was that a lot of us are lying.

Because what this friend told me is that when she looks at Facebook, her friends make it look like raising kids is all sunshine and rainbows.

When instead, it’s really a lot of eye rolling and slammed doors.

I’m just as guilty of this. If I look back at my last few Facebook posts about my own children, they’re about the funny things they’ve said or accomplishments I’m proud of.

Because really, I assume that nobody wants to read about the argument we had because someone told me they didn’t like what I was making for dinner, or about the 237 times I had to ask one of them to put away their clean laundry before it actually got done. I don’t write about the times that my kids are doing homework together at the kitchen table and one throws a pencil at the other because he’s annoyed by the other one talking himself through math homework. I post vacation photos of my smiling family, but leave out the anecdotes about the screaming match that happened during mini golf.

But maybe our friends WOULD be interested in reading about this stuff. Because if we all posted about the crappy days too, instead of just about dance recitals, achievements and family trips, parents might realize that we’re all in this together, and that someone is probably having the same problem that you are.

It’s interesting, because most of us give our kids this lesson about social media, but we often forget about it ourselves. We remind kids that there’s more to those selfies posted on Instagram. And the post about that beautiful semiformal dress? I can’t think of a teenage girl who is going to also post about the arguments she had with her parents about the appropriateness or cost of that dress. And unfortunately, neither is her mom.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that I (along with most of you) will continue to put my happy face forward on Facebook. But the next time you see a photo of one of my kids at a concert, smiling and wearing a tie, please try and remember that they might not have been so nice to me when their pants weren’t ironed at the exact moment they had planned to put them on. And that I may have yelled at them because those pants were crumpled in the bottom of a closet since the last concert until they were handed over for ironing.

In the end, we wouldn’t (most days, anyway) trade our kids for the other ones who look so perfect on Facebook.

Well, maybe that one in the tutu….

 

 

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