September 11th



    Last night Michael held the extension ladder so I could attach an American flag to the face of my house. I’ve only displayed such outward patriotism on one other occasion.




    We all know where we were, what we were doing. And why the day left such a lasting and very personal impression on each of us.

    
It changed the world. For us, for our children, for future generations.




    Approaching the one-year anniversary of September 11th, an editor friend asked if I’d add to her list of contributing writers answering the query: How have you changed since September 11th? I demurred. I hadn’t started writing again and I was reluctant to come out on such an emotionally charged subject. But the request lingered and something compelled me to respond.




    In that column, I waxed nostalgic about my daughter’s entry into the world. Apartheid was fading; Nelson Mandela was stepping up to lead his nation; the Berlin Wall had been toppled. What a glorious time in which to be born.




    But post 9-11, I heaped together a list of much that was wrong with the 21st century world. About the children who would grow up with the searing images of September 11th, I wrote “It is more a part of the fabric of their lives than ours because they step into this new world order with the heavy burden of changing it all.”

    
In spite of ever-horrific headlines and newsfeeds, on good days, I still believe our children are up to the task of meeting that awesome responsibility. That they can rise up and find light even when it may be dim and unapparent to us. 

    
I wonder sometimes how to pass on optimism to our children when there are so many reasons to fall to disbelief. But realize,that in this area at least,  it is more likely they who teach us.




    Before the Little Prince’s pilot became a man, he had the clear-eyed wisdom to note that “grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”




    So it is at this moment that I turn to my daughter, my son and their friends looking for guidance. Teach me well. I can still learn. And I still believe in the promise of your tomorrows.





 

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Team Spirit


    I play softball.


    Not often, or well. But I still play.


    Which means I’m part of a team.


    At this point in my life, that means something much different from what it once did.


    It’s also something different from the kind of teams to which my kids and neighbor’s kids have belonged over the years.


    For the obvious reasons, sure.


    My team likes to win, but we’re not too upset when we lose. This isn’t a competitive league. We’ve got no umps, we don’t keep stats.


    And an injury (or even the threat of one) pretty much trumps athletic effort. We don’t so much give it our all as we do just give it a go.


    But we play games, keep score, do try to round the bases. We have opponents we like to best, and others we cheer on with the same enthusiasm we offer to our own teammates.


    It’s touted as a friendly league. And it is.


    At one point or another, both my kids have been members of teams. They have been part of something bigger than just themselves, and have contributed. In very different ways, both have had an impact on their teams.


    And their teams have had an impact upon them. And for the good and bad of it, so have their coaches.


    The best of those coaches taught, supported, encouraged  -and still demanded. They loved the game and wanted to share their passion. They sent messages about camaraderie and sportsmanship, about how to treat one another and their opponents and about how to handle winning and losing, as a team.


    The worst of them also sent some pretty powerful messages. Like the good guys, they demanded a certain level of play from the kids, but their means were often warped. They taught the basics of the game –but just barely, assuming that the “real” players already knew the fundamentals- and worked more on strategies and tricks. Win-at-any cost attitudes filtered through to little kids feeling big pressure.
 
    Some of those coaches scolded, ranted, belittled. Some cheated. I saw coaches ignore any sense of fairness, keeping  “good” players in long past their due, then demean them when they didn’t perform as expected. They scouted their baby opponents and then gave their own team members a heads-up on weak links. These were big guys coaching little kids to beat their buddies, at whatever cost. I remember hearing one coach advise a 12-year old pitcher barely in control of his blazing fast ball to “brush ‘im off the plate.” And hearing another coach greet his top player as he stepped onto the game field by asking “Are you going to strike out again?”


    And that was the “coaching” offered to the good players.


    But on the sidelines, the worst of those coaches were praised. Parents jockeyed to get their kids under the tutelage of the guy with the winning record.


    Seriously?


    Why?


    We live in a small town. Think big fish-small pond analogy. I always wondered about the parents who couldn’t see what I thought was so obvious.


    Easy stuff, like –it’s supposed to be fun. And that winning really isn’t EVERYTHING.


    And that their kids weren’t going to make it to the pros.


    Turns out I didn’t really have to tell them that their kids weren’t getting athletic scholarships; a lot of those kids didn’t even make the high school cut.


    But I do wish someone had said something to a few of the raving lunatics on the sidelines and in the dugouts. Because too many kids were losing, for the sake of winning. In the name of hollow victory, they were missing all the good stuff that being part of a team can teach.


    Michael had a pair of coaches who believed pretty whole-heartedly that the kids on their team had to respect the game and one another. They coached and taught the kids to play with a sense of equity. Everyone played; no one was stuck in right field for the season.


    Funny thing about that team –they won. A lot.


    I like my team. We win, too. On and off the field. Because I measure the true success of our team by who we’ve become over a lot of years batting a ball around and playing a bit of catch.


    I only wish my kids and their friends had had the same opportunity as me to learn a bit more about what it can really mean to be part of a team.

A Not Guilty Jury


    The thing is –she’s guilty.


    But I get it, I really do.


    The jury foreman said that the State didn’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Juror number two further insisted that even though she and her fellow jurors didn’t put much credence in the defense counterarguments, the ultimate verdict wasn’t at all about the defense. It was about a lack of prosecutorial evidence.


    And so they had no choice but to acquit.


    A few years ago, I was on a jury.


    Before you offer your condolences or tips on how to evade service next time, I should be upfront: when I was tapped, I actually wanted to serve.


    Save your groans –my opinion has changed.


    However, back then I bought into the notion of jury duty as civic obligation. In that pre-jury service world I inhabited, it was a chance for me to be a real participant in the legal system, to see its inner workings, to contribute, hands-on.


    But jury duty jaded me –big time.


    First, our guy was guilty. Absolutely, no doubt in my mind -he not only raped her, but was damned sure he’d get away with it. He and his victim were in the country illegally and he probably figured she’d be too fearful of deportation to point a finger. He figured wrong. She pointed. He ran -out of country.


    Eleven years later, as a legal U.S. resident, she spotted her attacker back on a city street and yelled rape –again. This time, he couldn’t run. She demanded justice.


    Instead, she got us.


    I wish she hadn’t.


    At one point or another during deliberations, six or seven of us voted to convict.


    And then we deadlocked.


    The judge urged us to try again to render a verdict.


    In her entreaty to us, what struck a particular chord with me was the notion that if we were unable to do our job, somebody else would have to do it. Another set of twelve would go through what we were going through. Witnesses would be recalled, the defendant would likely be held while he awaited a new trial. And the victim would relive her ordeal yet again. None of that was okay.


    The underlying point that kept surfacing throughout our deliberations was that the State hadn’t fully proven its case.


    I didn’t care.


    We garnered quite a bit of backstory during our week of jury service and all that stuff we were supposed to ignore –I couldn’t. He did it and I didn’t care that the State hadn’t done its job well.


    I’ve always believed in the overall integrity of our judicial system. And in the principle that it’s better to let a guilty defendant go free than to imprison an innocent one.


    In theory.


    But then I was confronted with the reality of a young girl, new to the country, scared and alone. And all the black and white tenets of our legal system muddled to gray and seemed just an impediment to the truth. I wanted justice for this girl, punishment for her attacker.


    Our foreman kept reminding us that a not guilty verdict shouldn’t be construed as a finding of innocence.


    I’m sure that would have been of little solace to the victim.


    I wasn’t in the room during the Casey Anthony trial, but I can relate to the frustration the jurors must have felt. Still, I look to the sweet picture of a little girl and want justice for her –and punishment. I don’t blame the jury and I could never align myself with the nuts now threatening their lives. They had a job to do and I am certain they took seriously their obligations. But I, for one, would have quickly forgiven them had they ignored the letter-of-the-law and chosen, with that angel’s face in mind, to follow their hearts instead of their heads.

A Bear in the Woods


    Or maybe not. Apparently the bears are moving out of the woods.




    It seems that every week there’s another sighting. Another roving bandit making his not-so-stealthily way through city and suburban neighborhoods across the country. They’re pulling at birdfeeders, scurrying through yards, perching themselves up in backyard trees.
 
    
According to the Massachusetts Environmental Police, this is the time of year when the mama bear kicks the kids out and sends them into the world. Those baby bears are supposed to find their own territory, start their adult lives.




    At the risk of being redundant (https://kidssuck.net/2010/09/01/deer-in-the-headlights.aspx)

and way-sexist, I posit that the sow bears are doing exactly that. Heading out of the family dens and building some of their own, on track and on target.




    But that not-so-little guy with the dumb-eyed look hanging in an Attleboro tree last week, I’ll guess he’s a boy. A teenager, for sure. And the thought bubble above his head in less-than-articulate fashion probably reads: What? Where? Vinnie Babarino in a bear’s cloak.

    
That’s not to say I don’t think the boys are smart. On the contrary, they are. That’s what makes their life delays so damn frustrating. I think Michael has actually devised a mathematical algorithm to compute the absolute minimum effort required to get by in certain areas of his life. And he’s not alone. I’ve had some pretty in-depth conversations with a few of his friends. In a foggy, fast-forward scenario, I can even picture them as adults. Responsible, good men.
 
    
But now, they’re just baby bears, a bit wild, somewhat misguided, and roving.




    And like the bears popping up in places they’re not supposed to be, many of the boys I know are taking the most circuitous routes possible to get to god-only-knows where they’re going. I don’t. And I don’t think they do, either.




    But back to the bears.
 



    All those mama bears in the woods are pushing their kids out into the world. Our world. They’ve taught them well, I’m sure. And they probably know that the girls have paid heed, will likely do just fine. But I bet mama bear also knows full-well that her baby boy isn’t quite ready for the world. Judging from the overblown reaction he gets every time he makes a backyard forage, the world isn’t ready for him either.

    
Mama doesn’t seem to care. Ready-or-not, she pushed him out anyway.




    Too bad we humans don’t do likewise.

    
Instead of following the rules of nature, we’re bucking the intended order of things. It seems that all those helicopter parents created a rash of boomerang babies. The kids often go off and out. But then they come back.




    And in true 21st century fashion, rather than remedy our missteps with action, we’re reacting with talk. There are websites, blogs, discussion forums, all themed around adult-children-living-with-parents.



    All to tell us, we’re not alone.

    T
hat’s part of the problem. Because when we’re assured that we’re not the only ones, it lends normalcy to the trend. 

    
I know of so many really good parents who’ve gotten themselves in this too-many-adults-under-one-roof predicament.




    Reminds me of the guy interviewed on television after something horrible happens in his neighborhood, saying if it can happen here.




    It can happen anywhere.




    Unless maybe we follow the bears. And the birds, for that matter. The nest above our back porch light is a-chatter with chaotic chirping in the spring. Long before summer ends, though, it’s pleasantly silent.




    Michael’s only 17. But on days when he’s performing solo drum concerts for hours-on-end, I sometimes wonder what silence emanating from his playroom nest might sound like. And if I’ll ever hear it.

Bridging Divides


    My son has a girlfriend. And I like her.

    
Which is probably okay with Michael. More likely, my input on his love life falls to the apathy pit of his emotion with regard to anything parent-related. An actual objection from him would indicate that he cared. Or noticed.

    
Way too much effort.

    
What he may not be as comfortable with, though, is that she seems to like me, too.




    And I can’t imagine that notion fits well into a world where the parent-child divide spans like the width of Grand Canyon.

    
Ah, the Grand Canyon. 

    
The family vacation which my husband still refers to as the time I tried to kill him. (He’s not much of an adventurer.)



    And which I call the trip-of-a-lifetime.

    
Because it was.

    
Not only for the photo-stop memories that set three generations against a backdrop unlike any other on the planet.

    
But also for that slice of nine-year-old boy that seems such a juxtaposition against the 17-year-old near-man with whom we now live.

    
Hard to believe that Michael is the same boy who mom and dad protectively shuffled to the boat’s rear as we settled in. Showed how much we knew about whitewater rafting and inflatable boats –we had positioned him most decidedly at the craft’s bow, the best place to enjoy the ride. And also to be swallowed whole by the mammoth rapids we would encounter. Go figure.

    
And then again, warned of an impending day of wet, wild, and frosty rapids coming our way, we wrapped Michael in a blue rubber suit that would have fitted better if he were first mate to Captain Ahab. Sure, the water was cold, but temperatures hit 116 degrees that day. The poor kid was at the mercy of his parents’ pitiful effort at protection.




    And, to some extent, he still is.
 
    
Unfortunately, today there are no guides creeping alongside the rapid-riding youngster to assure his safety from plummeting conditions. And we’ve got no trusted adult giving Michael a parental reprieve and lessons on the right way to get up close to a rattlesnake (Dad still maintains there is no right way).

    
One of my students refers to me as her life coach. Apparently, calling myself that actually would require some sort of education and certification. What I am, more likely, is a sort of bridge between her generation and my own. I get to “coach” her not by benefit of school degree, but rather by life degree. And span the chasm that could separate us by offering up a rope of knowledge without placing too much expectation upon her. Or judgment. 

    
As parents, we expect, and too often –we judge.  To some extent, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do. After all, we’re the ones who brought them into this world. And we will be judged by what impact they make upon it. But we should, perhaps, let the judgments fall away.  Our own, but more importantly, our concern for others’, as well.
 
    
Our kids would certainly appreciate that.




    Because they’re judged enough by their peers. 

    
In Michael’s case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Despite his ill-fit to the world-at-large, he seems a good fit to most of his friends. His girlfriend seems to like him. More importantly, she thinks he’s a good person. And with a maturity that contradicts her age, she says she understands my own frustration at the path he’s been heading down recently. She maintains, though, that he will find his way to the other side. I could lay off her faith in Michael on the love-is-blind foundation of young relationships or simple naiveté. Or I could attribute it to optimism, as yet unjaded by time.

    
But instead, I want to trust that this girl has insight, which I may have lost, into the young man I am still trying to raise. I also want to believe that for every guide in Michael’s life now who is introducing him to rattlesnakes, there are others still showing him how to keep a proper grip on life so he doesn’t fall too far off balance.

Peter Pan

    I can’t blame them really. There are days when I still don’t want to grow up. And I’ve been here for awhile.

    
So when my daughter expresses full-blown panic at the notion of graduating college and my son’s teacher suggests, quite benevolently, that he would perhaps benefit from a year alone on an island with just he and his guitar, I get it.

    I get that prelude to panic, the anxiety -although it was never a word we used – as my students begin their tiptoed-tread to the threshold of the real world. They want the independence, the sense of accomplishment, even a bit of the responsibility, perhaps, just not all of it. 

    They’d like to hit the pause button for a year or two –or more.



    And with the support of a science that seems to keep pushing back the maturation date on the prefrontal cortex, a whole lot of semi-adults are screeching to a skidded halt just before that scary doorway to grownup.

    
Emerging adulthood?  

    
Seriously, was there really a need to coin a new developmental phase of human existence for a crutch we created? 

    And create it we did. 

    
All those of us who constructed well-arranged playdates for our toddlers rather than risk the riff-raff of a roughhousing playground.  We didn’t just child-proof and germ-proof their worlds, we life-proofed them. With scary scenarios of child abductions, we bought leashes (sorry –that’s what they were) and held on way too tightly. My go-to response has never been panic, but even I can remember a moment or two when a lost kid sent me head-long into the worst-case scenarios of my unadmitted nightmares. Did someone grab the too-willing-to-go toddler from the water slide? Would I be one to regret the delay in summoning authorities to the shoveled off pond and the lost boys?

    I think we all start off a little crazy; it’s just that kids can turn us from semi-sane to certifiable.




    The best of us fight against it. But too many of us don’t even approach best.

    If a time machine propelled me back, I would probably have laughed out loud at the notion that my friend would become one of the best parents I know. Save for a great foundation, all signs pointed to her continuing her life-party well into adulthood, regardless of kid number one, two, three or four. Her early sense of priorities were on display when she took a pass on the well-planned proposal dinner at the frou-frou fancy skyscraper restaurant to come to a BYOB beach party I was throwing. 

    That was the girl I knew.




    Until she had kids. 

    When they were still toddlers, we shoved our offspring together for our own version of the protected playdate. My friend would often come to my house on the road to a museum, a park or a zoo. Come inside –in spite of my dog and her phobia of the furry guy. Rather than put her fear on full display, though, she’d tough it up for her kids, coo-cooing as she patted Nicki and encouraged her kids to do the same. All through gritted teeth, mind you, with the motivation being that she was giving her kids something she didn’t have. She recognized her unfounded fear for what it was and didn’t want to pass it along.

    That’s the best of us. Putting aside our own fears and neuroses for the sake of giving our kids a saner version of a crazy world.

    My friends and I didn’t overanalyze the job our parents did. I’d say most of us didn’t give it much thought at all. Until we had kids of our own. Then, it mattered. And most of us probably gave them due credit, but still had the audacity to think that we could do better. 

    Just a little bit better.

    Maybe not.

    In our efforts to do –we’ve done too much. And while the hands-on approach works well on some level, it’s that hands-off approach that forces kids to become adults. Navigating the world more on our own got my friends and me out the door. I’m not sure what will do the same for our children.

    But I have an idea.

    Teenage boys are supposed to pull away from their parents. There are a gazillion books explaining the how/when/why of it. All I know is that on our home front, it’s true with gusto. Save for feeding him and financing his whims, Michael would prefer we stay entirely out of his life.
 
    If I were smart, I’d fully oblige.
 
    Unfortunately, old habits die way too hard. I find myself in a pendulum pull of inconsistency that I managed to well avoid when I was disciplining toddlers. On one end of the arc, I willingly let him go. But then on a pivot I’m sucked back by the gravitational force of expectation. Not only my own. But my expectations for him. 

    Michael’s friend recently said she saw “a lot of potential” in him, that she hoped he would “find his way.” Okay, at first I thought –wow, a 16-year-old with that depth? But then I thought to why I’ve always hated the word -because it has so much potential to be lost. And I want to believe that Michael’s won’t be. That he will find his way. But because it is indeed his way, I need to step away from our dance and let him go. When he’s ready to go out the door after all, it’s his decision as to which others he chooses to open.

See You At The Beach

                          



            There must be a mathematical equation confirming that the velocity of time increases exponentially with age.  Why did the years before I turned 16, 18 and 21 crawl?  And yet the time watching my son zip from two to ten, my daughter turn from dress-up to makeup, has passed in an eye blink.  When did “time flies” go from being the phrase of my parents to the refrain of my peers?  My rational brain knows it could not have been a single moment that began the process.  However, I can’t help but wonder if the bearing of children doesn’t somehow set that clock in motion at an unyielding rate.  I only know that the minutes seem a bit more swift of late, the moments a bit more precious.



            It was one of those frigid Spring afternoons, dreary and raw, when I bumped into an acquaintance.  Emblematic of our lives, it was a rushed hello and a dash out the door.  But before the goodbye, she said she’d see me at the beach.  Only in New England would a thermometer hovering still below 50 prompt the notion of a day at the beach.  But the yearning is easy to identify with.  In the shadow of our children’s footsteps, we race from sporting event to piano lesson, from pre-arranged play dates to carefully selected club meets.  Perpetual motion behind the wheel of an SUV.  In such tiny towns, how is it we spend such an inordinate amount of time in our automobiles?  If our winter roads are so harsh how do we move so speedily through the shortest of days?  And the routine only accelerates when the clocks bump forward.  Spring sports verses end-of-year school activities and obligations cause universal conflict.  The holiday bustle has nothing on overscheduled children coupled with the rising temperatures of Spring Fever.  This break neck pace hurtles on for the too many of us who acquiesce to the race.  Continues, that is, until the summer bell.  Until we can tear up the weekly scheduling charts, put aside the lists of required reading, and take a moment to join in the collective end-of-year sign.  Take a moment, perhaps, to dip into the frigid Atlantic waves, turn the cell phones to mute, leave the wristwatches on the nightstand and spend a day at the beach.



            From my narrow perspective, there is a defining lift of burden with that last bus note, that last spring game.  It isn’t just that my own work schedule slows to a trickle or that it seems there’s less to accomplish and more time in which to do it.  It’s more a sense of the throttle decelerating, a life planing to a more even keel.  And it all harkens back to the day when cloud watching had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the dragons in their billows; when the walk to the post office really wasn’t about the bill in my hand.  With the caveats of the adults in my life who warned “how quickly they grow,” I frequented the museums and parks.  There were rambling bike rides with the little girl in back nodding off en route.  There was “Mommy and Me” day for the kindergarten boy.  On one trip to the beach, we went off on a tangent and instead took the subway to Faneuil Hall in Boston in search of the “rock dove” from our bird chart.  The commuters must have wondered about that five-year-old kid jumping up and down because he finally could check off pigeon from the chart.



            Today, the simplicity has been supplanted with the temptations of their twenty-first century lives.  While my children willingly maintain their position at the center of their own universes, there’s less space in there for Mommy and Daddy.  Instead, we’re often relegated to the neighboring orbit.  Held close by our gravitational pull rather than theirs, we hover with an assortment of competing celestial objects: school, sports, clubs, after school jobs, friends, boys.  It gets a bit crowded.  So my offer of a day at the beach today has appeal only if it includes the invitation to a friend or two.  Unfortunately, the time I enjoy spending alone with my kids doesn’t always coincide with the time they wish to spend with me.  I am not, however, so thick that I don’t take the time they still give, even if it’s at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night.



            All this to agree with what we all agree upon.  That life is short and time truly does pass by more quickly than any of us want.  And to offer what I am certain is unneeded advice to my friend awaiting the birth of her first child.  There will be a day in your future when you will have too much on your plate.  Papers, work, a messy house.  There won’t be time for the park or the beach.  Go anyway.  Ignore all but that tiniest of your responsibilities: that little person who’d love to show you his sandcastle.  As a matter of fact, sacrifice the manicure and dig right in.