Deer in the Headlights

teenage boys are like deerThe other night –

Okay, I say night, but if you’re from these parts (New England) you know that a summer night can still yield bright sunshine. Seriously bright sunshine. That’s why the deer which darted out in front of me-alone-was an actual anomaly.

No, deer aren’t unusual. In fact, with the plethora of McMansions sprouting around here like daylilies on roadsides and evicting the creatures from their natural habitat, deer are downright plentiful. However, they seem to fill the fields in accordance to some patterned path of behavior. I like to believe that those black and yellow deer postings are akin to our crosswalk signs and that the deer actually do agree to cross the roads within those human-set boundaries. They seem also to follow the safety-in-numbers motto; they travel in groups. They like early mornings, late dusky days and ridiculously late evenings. If you drive the back roads of our suburban neighborhoods at night you understand that you’re more likely to hit a deer than another car. In fact, you’re more likely to see a deer before you encounter another human. It’s the nature of the environment.

But there he was, forcing me to slam brakes, utter curses, and wonder where the heck his mother was.

Oh, it was most definitely a boy.

And somewhere behind him was a worried doe. He was darting from the fold and into the surely-forbidden roadway in the heat of some testosterone-induced fit of fury, no doubt.

Why did the deer cross the road?

Likely, a girl on the other side.

Or judging from my own experience with teenage bucks of the human variety, it might have been some young stag tête-à-tête. A doe enticement might trump and triumph over a gathering of the same-sexed-species, but a party in the woods is still –well, a party.

And so they run into the festivities, roadways and regulations be damned.

In the deer’s case, an easy, albeit life-threatening hurdle, past my car accomplished his mission.

In my son’s case, I am also the impediment. Well, I, or my ridiculously constructed obstacles. Let see –there’s homework and chores –not much competition there. But then there are all those other mindlessly delaying (and utterly unnecessary, from his point of view) questions. Stupid ones like: Where are you going? With whom? And the worst –What time will you return to the herd?

Annoying is the term he most often uses to summarize my intrusions into his life. In less generous vocabulary, he’ll actually admit that he prefer if I didn’t speak at all. And there are times, I wish I could oblige. Certainly, setting him off to wander in the woods and the world on his own would entail less argument. Cutting him loose might indeed be freeing –for the both of us.

I understand freedom. I can’t tell him that, though. I can’t tell him that my sometimes faltering memory doesn’t yet include memory erasure of my own adolescent yearnings for freedom. I wouldn’t suggest that my own reply to “where are you going?” was generally the same as his: “out.” To which, by the way, his grandfather would always retort: “out’s a big place.” Which then also meant that I wasn’t really going out anywhere until I handed over details. Nor can I reveal too many of my own tools of circumvention.

My father loved the fact that the parlor grandfather clock granted gonging confirmation of just how late his little girl returned home from an evening out. And with all the times he carefully pulled those chains to assure accuracy of his beloved timepiece, you would have thought his gaze might have noted the “silence” option on the clock’s face and done some teenage math.

His most soundly sleeping nights, I believe, were not because I had come in early, as requested, but rather because they were uninterrupted by any gonging at all. In preparation of a late night out, I would always set the chimes to “silence.”

But I can’t tell Michael that I was once young. He wouldn’t believe me, anyway. I also can’t tell him that my tethering questions aren’t strictly motivated to constrain. It isn’t his freedom I fear so much, as it is everything else. I can’t tell him that at the end of any horror play of a parent’s imagination, her child is victim to more than his mere bravado against the boogeyman.

In rational moments, I do the math. Statistically speaking, Michael will be fine. We’ve safely skirted the childhood abduction scenarios simply through his own growth. He’s a big boy. And we don’t live in a danger zone where gang recruitment pulls from the alleyways.

In the sanest of days, I know all this. The days are rational. The nights –not so much.

So while I can swallow my caveats when Michael relates an after-the-fact-adventure, and attribute the harrowing details to youthful hyperbole, the replay of it all in my dreams is another matter. I bite away the criticisms I might render to keep the conversations coming –his words are now dispersed, as if from an eyedropper, in drips.

But I can’t overlook a blown curfew or a communication blackout. Especially when daylight can burn like a two-ended candle. The question of whether I am wasting precious time with inaction lurks like a skulking figure shadowed by the torch of media-lit klieg lights. If only, if only, I imagine, as I watch the eleven o’clock news recaps of the horrific turn-of-events that could have been forestalled by action –if only.

I try to rely on the math.

I do.

But then, from a family who cared and had the means to save him, how could he have fallen so deeply into the bottle? Why did another drugs from his friends as if they were gift-wrapped treasures, rather than the death knell they would become? A taken chance, a wrong split-second action, and gone –an airline ticket away to retrieve a body, instead of a boy. A motorcycle accident, a car crash. If losing a single child to a freak accident was such an aberration, then how was it possible to lose a second to an accident that could only, when set against his brother’s, be described as impossible?

These are the impossibilities we fear. They happen. They couldn’t, they shouldn’t, they do.

And that’s why the metaphor.

Somewhere there’s another young buck, on a mission.

And in the immortality of his soul and the passion of the moment, he tries to hurdle an accelerating automobile –and misses.

 

Best. Day. Ever.

riverAlex only really scared me once. It was really serious –life or death.

We got life.

Michael, on the other hand, managed to raise the fear factor on a regular basis when he was in high school.

I cared less when it was dad who was blowing things out of proportion and worried that his only male offspring might be dead on a river somewhere. Probably partly because dad’s first over-the-top panic reaction occurred simultaneously during a rare, less-than-a-weekend getaway in which all I wanted was to be family-free.

He called me 28 times. Seriously.

Michael was fine.

He just hadn’t bothered to communicate that fact to his father.

When Michael went on a similar river journey with me sort of at-the-helm, the worry-meter shifted. By nightfall, I was ready to call out the U.S. Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, I may have been mildly complicit at the start of his errant adventure. I might have nodded some tepid assent when he told me that he and his buddy were going canoeing again (this was a regular pastime) and this time they’d make it. By “make it,” I refer to a canoe trek from river to ocean.

Before you think that I’d totally lost my mind with such a blasé response to my teenage son’s planned adventure, you really, really have to understand the river. This is NOT Lewis and Clark exploring uncharted territory along 19th century untamed rivers. The Ipswich River is less than 40 miles long and can run to barely a trickle in some spots. You actually may need to pick up the canoe along a few low water sections. This is hardly a raging river. On the other hand, it does, as rivers must, let out in an ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. In this one area, perhaps I should have taken him a bit more seriously.

But, I wasn’t at the drop off, wasn’t the parent privy to this particular trip’s details—or lack there-of. His friend’s dad had dropped off the boys and wished them well. Whether or not the return time or location was made clear is still up for debate.

My own instructions to Michael were mostly about lunches and lifejackets, both he had. Both he agreed to use. But also included were pretty specific warnings about how and why he needed to communicate. I even handed off a plastic bag to make certain that cellphone-in-the-river wouldn’t be an excuse for losing contact.

It wasn’t.

Instead, somewhere along his journey, Michael decided that shutting the phone down entirely to preserve its battery was a good idea.

Ugh.

The last I heard was –We made it to the ocean.

Then his phone went dead.

The other boy’s dad said the agreed meet time was 6:00 pm.

It was well after 6:00 when I drove absently to various sections of the river and started shouting his name. Yes, I know how absurd this sounds. How ridiculous it was. But my baby’s last point of contact was somewhere along that little river –which now seemed really, really big.

We didn’t call the Coast Guard. But we did call the cops.

Eventually, sometime just before 10:00, the two explorers were found, alive, on land, walking from the beach. They’d made it to the ocean without killing themselves. Even if they had nearly killed their parents with worry.

My dad’s friend had an oft repeated mantra: If your kids don’t kill you, it’s not because they’re not trying.

I was one of those “kids” at the time so the sentiment was lost on me then. I get it now.

The thing is, I know Michael’s intent wasn’t to actually kill me (that’s just a side perk). His wandering water voyage had absolutely nothing to do with me at all. In the most literal sense, it was about exploring –his world and himself. And all that exploration is a good thing.

Even if the missing-at-sea adventure took a few years off my life, Michael’s interpretation of the event was entirely different from mine. What was a really, really bad day for me, not so much for him. His Facebook post the next day: Best day ever.

He’s had days since that he probably counts as even better. I like that. I like it even more that some of those best days ever now belong to us both.

 

No Plan B

Julia head shot2   One of the perks of a private prep school is that the on-staff academic counselors do a pretty good job of plotting clear paths to college for their students. As antithetical as it may be to most incoming freshmen, the counselors start early on asking their young charges to think long-term.

  So Julia’s advisor may have missed a key point in their recent meeting. Julia was thinking long-term; just because that long-term vista didn’t neatly align with the square peg dictates of the woman’s role doesn’t mean Julia doesn’t have a plan. On the contrary, she does.

    My guess is that those incoming meetings generally last a good 20 to 30 minutes. Jules was outta there in five.

    So what career do you hope to pursue someday? What are you plans?

    I’m going to be a supermodel.

    Fly-on-the-wall –can’t you just picture the juxtaposition? The slightly cynical stare of a parochial pedagogue, sans even a trace of makeup, being full-frontally faced with the wide-eyed certainty of youth.

   From behind her desk, perhaps there was a knowing nod, a hidden eye roll, a stifled chuckle.

Well, what about your Plan B? In case that supermodel thing doesn’t work out for you?

    I don’t need a Plan B.

    And the thing is –Julia doesn’t.

    In the wake of Steve Job’s passing, there’s been a small flood of his life’s philosophy via writings and speeches he gave. When he rejoined the company he founded, he set in motion the Think Different campaign with a letter to the public reminding the masses, among other things, that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    Perhaps also then it is the people with no Plan B who possess the perseverance to bring their first choice lives to fruition.

    Jump out into the great unknown without a safety net and you damn well better make sure your first choice plan works.

    Michael doesn’t have a Plan B, either.

    Which would be fine but for the probability that he may not have a Plan A.

    That’s not to say he doesn’t have a vision or even a goal. I just haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that he has an actual plan on how to reach it.

    I could be wrong here. Communication is sparse.

    In a trickle of words last year, he informed me that just because he wasn’t going about things in a way with which I might be familiar didn’t mean that he wouldn’t get to where he wanted to be.

    I can’t argue with that. Partly because, truth is, I don’t really know the path he should take.

    I only know the level of frustration I feel when I watch him close doors which I think are better left open.

    And he looks at me as if I haven’t a clue; as if I don’t want him to pursue a dream.

    But I do.

    And that’s why I’d like him to have a plan.

    Not a Plan B, but a single, missile-focused Plan A.

    The kind he can pursue, without a parachute, to the sacrifice of most everything else. Because it’s his passion, his dream, his calling.

    I’m all for not having a Plan B.

    I’d just feel a whole lot better if there were at least a Plan A.

 

Through Someone Else’s Eyes

mardis gras 2On occasion my kids have made me crazy doubt my parenting skills. From the choose-your-battle incidents of their toddler years to the sleepless nights of teen-hood, they’ve both left me wondering at one time or another what the hell am I doing wrong?

Luckily, my version of them wasn’t the only one to which I was privy. I had other people, other eyes, to remind me that the personalities I was getting to know weren’t necessarily those they were showing to the world.

One of my friends who worked in the schools knew Michael on a kid-in-the-classroom level and she often assured me long after he’d graduated from grammar school, that buried beneath his teen bravado was still a good kid. Same for Alex, when people who knew her from the local bagel shop would tell me they adored her.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen lots of signs on my own that my kids didn’t actually suck; it’s just that in the heat of a bad moment, those shining examples fell to dust. That’s why it was so nice for Michael and me to step out of our world for a little while and reconnect in another. On our recent trip to New Orleans, Michael got to interact with a wide cast of colorful characters and I got to look at him through their eyes. And it was good –for both of us.

I often serve as that other set of eyes for my students.

Sometimes I give them a reality check –tell them that their work could use some work, that they’re not going to sail through yet another class on good looks and charm alone, and that it may be time to step up, even to grow up a bit.

I’ve had students balk at the notion that they were less than perfect, jump ship early on because of the truth I was trying to tell.  But those who were willing to hang in there with me came to appreciate my honesty –even insist upon it.

And because I told them that they sometimes fell short, they were more inclined to believe me when I bestowed the occasional compliment.

More likely, but not always.

They’d pretty easily hear my good job, or I’m proud of you after an academic assignment was checked off their list, but they were often less willing to believe me when I placed the admiration more squarely on their shoulders, instead of their work.

I’ve found a puzzle in dealing with this generation of kids. The very students who come in with an edge and an attitude of entitlement are often those who don’t easily accept an earnest accolade. When I offer my outsider’s view of who they are in a positive light, I sometimes hit a brick wall of skepticism. Even after I remind them of the many times I’ve been willing to tell them they’re wrong, they doubt me when I tell them they’re right.

That’s the paradox of the millennials I know. They come in ready to conquer the world with a hell-bent bravado, but after a first skirmish, they’re often left scarred and retreating, unwilling to take up arms for another foray into battle.

And I know why.

The same parents who told these kids they’re wonderful are also those who’ve provided instruction on how to get a better grade with a conversation instead of a revision, how to make the team without the tryout, get the job before the interview. All the time those parents are providing short-cuts to some misguided version of success, they are also sending a loud and clear message to the kids that they won’t get the grade, can’t make the team, don’t deserve the job.

If every time a kid faces a challenge, he’s given a crutch instead of chance, why wouldn’t he choose the shortcut over the long road? Some of the smartest, most able students with whom I’ve worked are also those who fight near debilitating angst and anxiety. They don’t believe they can do it, make it, earn it, because their parents don’t.

I get to be another set of eyes, telling them that they’re good, they can, they will.

I tell them, time and again, even if I can’t get them to believe it.

If only I could, then maybe they really could conquer the world.

Household Chores

Doing laundry is simple. Throw it in a washer, a dryer, fold and put away. Not terribly taxing, no heavy lifting, no hands and knees scrubbing. And yet, it’s my least favorite household chore. I’d opt for cleaning a bathroom over doing a couple of loads of laundry, any day.

LaundryBecause despite the simplicity of it, it simply is never done.

Kind of like parenting.

My mom has frequently noted that worrying about her kids didn’t cease when we became adults, nor when we had children of our own. In fact, the presence of grandchildren only widened her circle of worry. As the family’s somewhat reluctant matriarch, she also has plenty of nieces and nephews in whose lives she remains protectively involved. There is even an assortment of unrelated children from lifelong and new-found friends, not to mention the childhood friends of my brothers and me that have filled her quasi parenting role over the years.

If you have kids in your life, that sort-of-parenting thing is nearly unavoidable. Even if you don’t want it, even if you’ve never been a parent.

It’s why my mom was among the very first to know when my brother’s friend was going to be a dad. Why my son’s buddies will hang with me even when Michael’s fast out the door. Why Alex’s friends are my Facebook friends. And why the lines can become so blurred when I work with college kids I didn’t know before and won’t see after.

Graduation marks a pretty clear ending to my relationship with my students. It’s probably why I have a harder time at the ceremony than they do. I know what they don’t; that it will be the very last time I ever see them. Sure, a few circle back for a visit or two, friend-request me on Facebook, enter my LinkedIn network. But in any meaningful way, most of them are gone forever. It’s the way it’s supposed to be and I accept it. In fact, I appreciate the clarity of the ending.

It’s harder for me when the lines are fuzzy.

I once told a student that I could help her get all As if that was what she wanted (it wasn’t hyperbole; this kid was capable), but if she wanted me to care more about her grades than her, she’d need to find another tutor. I was serious. I was either all-in or all-out.

Black and white.

She opted in. But after accepting that black and white bargain, she presented me with a whole lot of grey—kind of like poorly laundered whites—and it drove me crazy.

Try as I might, I know I can’t fold up my kids’ troubles into neatly sorted piles. One glance at my daughter’s bedroom or a typical dorm room offers proof-positive of the messiness of kids’ lives. Foreshadowing evidence may begin with babies at mealtime, or toddlers at play, but the state of disarray lasts a lifetime.

Whether you’re an actual parent or only a quasi-parent, kids make your life cluttered and messy and unfinished –but never incomplete.

Wacky Ideas Welcome

When I was in high school one of my teachers embraced the philosophy: the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. The premise being that if you had a question and didn’t seek out an answer, you were being stupid.

In spite of the questions I’ve heard over the years that test the premise, I still buy into the notion that it’s better to ask than to remain in doubt. So when my student said that she really had no interest in debating the topic of euthanasia for an argument based writing assignment, it occurred to me that she might not be asking the question.

questionsSo I did.

When I had said euthanasia, what she heard was “youth in Asia.”

Ah. Pretty hard to take sides in a for-or-against debate about a billion little kids in a continent a world away.

I encourage my students to ask lots of questions, in part by asking plenty of my own. I usually take a Socratic approach, turning their questions back at them to get them to think of their own answers. They don’t often appreciate my methods. What some of them care for even less, though, is when my queries stray from their school work and hit closer to home. It’s not idle curiosity, nor am I looking to unearth any imagined mysteries of their college antics. Instead, I offer them somewhere to throw the dirt that can weigh them down so. So I ask questions that can lead to places that I don’t need—or particularly want—to go.

Questions are good. Even if the answers sometimes aren’t.

Because those questions can make them think –reimagine, step out of their comfort zone, take a chance.

The process works outside academia, too. Just differently.

Marketing is supposed to be creative and fun, but even in such a dynamic field, there is the temptation to hang on to what works. After all, if you’re getting good results from a strategy, why would you change it?

To do better, my company’s founder might say.

So when an email went out last week about a campaign for one of our favorite clients with the inclusion that “no idea can be too crazy or wacky for us to handle,” it was a reminder that taking chances isn’t just for kids.

The account manager opened the doors to the whole team, with the invitation to try something different.

She gave no guarantee that the more outrageous of the ideas wouldn’t be laughed at; we do have a sense of humor, after all. But she was encouraging everyone to step up and maybe even out on a limb or two.

Good for her. Better for the company.

She’s got a whole lot of ideas and answers of her own; she’s been at this gig for a while and she’s good at it. But instead of relying on what’s worked in the past and giving ready answers, she’s asking questions.

And questions are good.

Guilt trip

The parenting book admonished not to use threats, bribes or guilt in childrearing. I jokingly told a friend: she’s taking away all my best tools.guilt

While I occasionally used the first two (but preferred to call them consequences and rewards) I shunned guilt as a go-to strategy –most of the time. In tree-to-apple fashion, though, guilt may have unintentionally seeped into the repertoire of my parenting modus operandi. Interestingly, it worked not at all with Michael and all too well on Alex.

Apparently, it (sometimes) works on students, too.

A student told me the other day that I was making her feel guilty. In a too quick response and not one of my proudest tutoring moments I said –good!

The truth is I don’t want my students to feel guilty. What I do want them to feel is responsible. And not to me, or their professors, or even their parents –but rather to themselves.

I think we do our kids a real disservice when we give them a pass on many of the responsibilities we shouldered when we were their age. A lot of kids are assigned too narrowly focused roles that handcuff them and their ability to mature. They’re required to maintain their grades, but not their rooms. They need to show coaches respect, but not necessarily their teammates. And if they happen to be good students and athletes, then part time jobs are virtually off the table –which means whatever money they have, they must be given.

Taking away their need—and right—to earn their own money may give them time and focus to earn good grades, but it also robs them of their independence. And it keeps us hyper-involved in their lives long after we should be. It’s one thing to hand them an occasional twenty for gas; it’s another thing for them to have to come to us for every penny.

It’s tempting to give to our kids, especially when we can afford to do so. However, if we want our kids out of the nest—and believe me, we do—feathering them too warmly in our protection isn’t the way to get there.

Sure, we can teach financial responsibility by modeling it ourselves, but earning their own money gives kids the opportunity to make good—and bad—purchasing decisions. It teaches them about their own values and priorities –and a lot about themselves. Earning and spending come with reward and regret and the tastes are both sweeter and more bitter when the kids are the ones picking up the tab.

Some parents use money and its attached strings—there are always strings—as one more lengthy umbilical cord. While it certainly can ensure a constant connection for mom and dad, those strings can be strangling to the kids trying to break free.