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.

Roller Coasters


    I used to like roller coasters.



    Ups and downs, twists and turns, even upside downs.




    And I’d often do the exit runaround to get back on and ride again, from a different seat -to get another perspective, a different experience.

    
It was all fun.




    Not anymore.




    Because the roller coaster on which I’m now stuck is way bumpier than any I experienced as a kid. It’s a white-knuckled ride with metal-screeching hairpin turns, plummeting downward spirals, and careening ricochets of off rickety lattice work of questionable stability.




    And its driver isn’t a qualified computer with a vacant-stare carnival worker at the controls. Rather, at the helm is a sleepy-eyed teen, without benefit of technology or any industrial safety standards. Captained by the horrors of hormonal flux and teen angst, this ride is unlike any other. Although perhaps universally experienced, it’s still unfamiliar to me; I’m not sure where and when the curves come, and I can’t see what’s around the next corner. Space Mountain meets Hotel California, where blindness rules and you can check out any time you like, but you can’t get off the damn ride.




    The only sure thing about my ride is the inconsistency of its terrain. Conditions change not merely day-to-day, but hour-to-hour, minute-by-minute. And although I know I’m not alone, it often feels as if I’m riding solo on the front car, headed for a wall.

    
The thing is I always used to believe that the highs were worth the lows –it’s why we ride in the first place. A bit of anticipation, a flood of excitement, and then a gentle pull into a sunlit station. Now, I’m looking at the kiddie rides with longing. And at those sad and staid skyview gondolas that take in the whole park with a bird’s eye view –from a safe distance. What’s wrong with getting the story from afar?




    Lots, I know. 
    



    But still, it would be nice to occasionally forgo the up-close-and-personal viewpoint.

    
But of course, it is my fault.




    It was my choice to hop on the ride, after all. Not just by having kids, but also by forging a relationship that was different from the one my parents had with me. Honesty, involvement. Not answering their questions with because I said so

    
What was I thinking?

    
Because I said so seems a perfectly acceptable answer to me now. Seriously, it’s not like he answers my questions. Monosyllabic murmurings and grunts are more the norm. This from the kid who came wired for sound straight from the womb. Non-stop chatter was the white noise of my life from our earliest engagement. Now, I’d welcome that staticky repetition of mom, mom, mom, as he tried to get my attention for answer to the query of the moment or to include me in the latest of his world discoveries. Back then, it was as if my input was vital fuel for the exploding synapses of his brain. Now, the less input from me, the better.




    This too shall pass.




    If one more person offers up that sage bit of fortune cookie wisdom   -aargh!




    Because just as it does seem ready to pass, the ride hits its skittering stride and plummets to a new depth. And at the next curve, I wonder  -is this where we skid entirely off track?
 
    
And don’t tell me that I’m going to look back at these days with some sort of revisionist reminiscing that turns all the turmoil into fond memory.




    NOT.




    More likely, I’ll look back and wonder how the hell did I survive the ride at all??

Blame It on the Tooth Fairy


    We certainly didn’t originate the concept, but we are perpetuating it. And inflating it, apparently. My sister-in-law, who works in our town’s K-3 school, says the going rate of a lost tooth these days is five bucks. Wow. For virtue of a throw away to every other species on the planet, our kids are yielding some serious bucks.




    In the name of tradition, we’re padding their pillows with cash and sending a message: minimum effort = maximum return. 

    
Hmm.

    
Before you berate my dis to the Tooth Fairy, consider that Santa at least expects good behavior and that the Easter Bunny demands a bit of hunting proficiency. But not the Tooth Fairy. She doesn’t even grade the teeth, or consider the pain with which they may have been extracted. Based solely upon bodily function –in with new teeth, out with old- she delivers reward. Not a bad pay structure, if you can get it.

    
And they can –because we allow it. 

    
Not just by means of the Tooth Fairy but in so many other contemporary versions of the metaphor. By handing out trophies to everyone, by inflating grades and tossing accolades like confetti. And by telling our offspring that they are ALL wonderful. 

    
And they are. Just not at everything.




    That’s more the message we should be sending. Because the problem with giving them much without getting much from them is that it sets the bar pretty low. Instead of being rewarded for a job well done, they’re just being rewarded. 

    
Back in the 20th century when I grew up (makes us all sound old, huh?), my friend and I had our summers pretty easy. We’d hang in the neighborhood, ride our bikes, hop from pool-to-pool. We’d also play a lot of mini golf, hit the arcade and buy ourselves ice cream cones. But our excursions to the big dinosaur weren’t financed by our parents. Not directly anyway. Before we could head out to the links, we had to earn the cash. Okay, it wasn’t digging trenches, but it was work –we’d wash cars, most typically those of our parents. The interesting thing was that while my mom was a pushover with regard to how well we did our job, my friend’s dad was not. His car needed to be spotless and scrubbed to perfection. Our golf money wasn’t handed over until his car underwent a pretty vigorous inspection. Often, there was a redo involved. We weren’t very happy. But what a good message he sent. We got paid only for a job well done.

    
I relate the story not just in a nod to summertime nostalgia, but also because I wonder how often we demand a redo from our own kids. I know I’m too often guilty of letting things slide. As a toddler, Alex made her bed with tight corners and patted down ruffles; now there’s a tangle of covers heaped in a pile. At one time, every lego and choo choo had a set-in-stone home in her brother’s room. Those toys could very well still be there –buried under the pile of clean clothes Michael pulls from every morning as he gets dressed. Oh, how our standards have slipped.

    
I have an interesting relationship with the professors at my school. Interesting, I say, because I rarely meet them. Instead, I get to know them only through the eyes of their students. I find it particularly telling when two students give me completely opposing viewpoints of the same professor. Says more about the student than the teacher, I know. But from this limited scope, I have chosen the professors that I like best, not for who they are, but rather for how they teach. And, of course, how they treat my students. I like when the expectations placed upon my kids are clear and the deadlines are unwavering. And the other thing I really like –is when the bar is high. Because I know my students can reach it. 

    
I have two students upon whom I rely to give me accurate assessments of the professors. Both of them are bright and capable and both of them have received their share of poor grades. What is telling is that when given the recent option to opt for the easy teacher or the one with the reputation of being a hardass, they both chose the latter. Not because they’re type A or because they seek fulfillment from a teacher; they’re not, they don’t. Instead, it’s because they recognize the difference between mediocrity and the reach for perfection. Not perfection. Just the idea of it as a beacon from which to chart a course. 

    
What I’ve discovered is that our kids don’t really mind reaching to high expectations. They just need to know where they are and maybe be given a little guidance on how to get there.




Unabbreviated Content


    OMG, LMFAO

    
Using the brevity of acronyms within the hyper speed world of text messaging and Facebook posts makes a lot of sense. It’s quick, to the point, and for the generation which is text typing most of the letters and numbers, it turns their otherwise easily observable messages into secret code: PR911, 4Q, 420, GNOC, PAW. 

    
Secret, that is, until the codes become so universally accepted that even parents are privy to the hidden language. A teen’s worst nightmare, I am sure.

    
The thing is, those teens are not nearly as clever as they think they are. First off, I’d posit that we of another generation may have chiseled out the beginnings to the whole acronym anonymity.  At the close of all those notes being tossed on desks, and handed off in hallways and homerooms long ago, was invariably a script of innocuous letters. Seemingly meaningless, except to the author, and hopefully, the recipient.

    
In my own writing, I was always hesitant to join in on the big-message sentiment of those little letters. AFA –really how did I know if I was going to be their friend ALWAYS? For that matter, what exactly did they mean by friend? 

    
It’s the likes of these memories that make me wonder -did I really over think every uttered syllable and written word? 

    
Probably, yes. 

    
A friend –yes, the real kind- told me not long ago that I was disgustingly deep as a kid. Yeech! Who would want that kind of moniker? But then she assured me, that since she considered herself its opposite back-in-the-day, the tag wasn’t meant as insult, just observation.

    
Of course, I know that it wasn’t merely my literal interpretation of life that left my pen reluctant to scribe. The truth lay more in a self-defense hewn from a risk adverse beginning. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t take chances; I did all the time. I played too much, drove too fast, back-packed solo through Europe, took hang gliding lessons. I often took chances on myself. But rarely on others.

    
I’m better now.

    
Not much.

    
That’s probably why I don’t understand how kids can share so much with so many. On some level, I wish I could. But on another, I wonder if they’re not building themselves up for disappointment that may turn them cynical long before they’re meant to be.

    
How many times, after all, can they put themselves out there unsuccessfully before writing off whole swaths of human interaction? Maybe their walls need not be made of brick, but the structures so many of them have built leave them fully open to elements they may not be prepared to handle. And texting in code is unlikely to prevent overexposure. 

    
Problem is -gauging the measure of risk against reward isn’t easy. People don’t often come with guarantees. Those that claim to are often the ones who come up most sorely lacking. And it’s never a good feeling to be on the other end of an unanswered text with a laid bare message, regardless of the effort to conceal it in code.

    
Me, I’ll take actions over words any day. Weird philosophy for a writer.

    
The people in my own life accept the lack of the BFF and HAK at the bottom of my emails –warm and fuzzy, I’m not. And they’ve probably learned to read a bit into what I don’t say. I don’t say a lot. But at this point in my life, I also don’t make a whole lot of apologies.

    
I have a friend who ends most of our conversations now with I love you, to which I reply in turn. Because I get it. And she gets to remind me with the simple, but powerful sentiment, of what I already know. That in an instant the opportunity to say it can be taken away and that reminding someone you love him isn’t a bad way to say goodbye. Just in case, it’s the last time you can.

    

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.

There’s No Such Thing As Normal


    I suspect that my 20-year-old self would be aghast at the notion that this other version of me would pine for just plain old normal. Boring, even.




    Ahhh –how time does play with the perceptions of life.




    Once upon a time I had no idea of the twists and turns one’s journey could take. Now, I understand all too clearly that a world view can easily be skewed by the prisms of a differing  vantage point.




    I love the Whoopi Goldberg quote –Normal is in the eye of the beholder.




    How true.




    I also love when the young people with whom I work and live try to tell me of the oh-so-out-there exploits of their friends and families.




    Because I often think, OMG –you have no idea.




    There are secrets in every family and fold. And there are stories that veer so far from normal that I wonder of the word’s constraints. I looked up its origin –made in accordance to a carpenter’s square- and thought to the confining nature of squares and boxes. No wonder so many of us don’t fit to normal. It’s a shame that too many of us pretend we do.




    A little crazy is a good thing.




    The campus on which I work and the community in which I live both squeak a little too loudly with that hollow echo of normalcy. Pretty houses, pretty people. Good kids, good grades. Standards and squares. Lots of squares.




    Yikes –how did I end up here?




    And what ever made me think that this idyllic setting would be such an ideal one for me and my family?




    Michael could look and act just like all the other kids. If he chose to. He doesn’t.




    I would love to fully support his conscious efforts at non-conformity, his unique view of the world and of himself. I want to high-five his many talents and the philosophical bent that assures me that just because he’s not going about it my way, doesn’t mean he won’t eventually get to where he’s meant to be. I want to remain his number one fan, cheerleader, the one who “gets” him more than anyone else.




    But he makes it hard. Really hard.




    It’s not just the disdain with which he often showers me. Or that his teen angst can explode like messy carnage.




    It’s more the gravity pull of expectations. My own and those of others. And it’s because without the rose-colored glasses I may once have worn, it’s hard not to see the doors he’s closing around him. With clear-eyed vision, it’s too easy to think of wasted time and talent, of lost potential. It’s frustrating and discouraging –even sad.




    Normal would be easier.




    Even if I don’t believe in it.




    I have seen behind the curtains of those picture-perfect windows where dysfunction functions in disguise. And I know the outward reflection can be pleasantly distorting. But not at all real. And I think real is better.




    And Michael is, if not anything else, real. And honest. Beguilingly, candidly, painfully honest. He’s also bright and funny and capable.




    The parent of one of his friends recently made it a point to offer a positive picture of my son.




    He’s a good boy,
she said.




    Well, that’s something.




    When parents of today are queried about what they want for their children, the go-to response is that they want them to be happy.




    I do, too. Of course I do. I want him to pursue his dream, to find something fulfilling to do with his life. I want him to be happy.




    But I also want him to be a good person, a man of whom he –and his family- can be proud.




    We have a bit of a family joke when it comes to the young men who pursue my daughter, that they often look good on paper.




    I see a lot of kids on campus and in town. Most of them look good on paper. And some of them are good kids, good people. But some of them are only the ink of their resumes and not its heart. And quite a few of them willingly tilt their “honest” answers to fit the questions and the questioner. It’s probably why I so appreciate it when one or another will quite candidly state that no, they didn’t bother to read the assignment or attend the class. My favorite assessment came from a student who when asked about a poor grade he’d been given by an oft-maligned professor, admitted –it wasn’t her fault. I deserved the grade. An honest answer –a good boy.   




    So when Michael declines to answer a prodding question of mine because he says he doesn’t want to lie, I back off. At the base of the man I hope for him to become I want there to be a solid foundation of honesty. With the often earthquake activity in our pretty house, at least I am  -so far- still assured of his one true beginning.



When It’s Theirs to Give


    Encouraging volunteerism in our young people is a great idea. Unfortunately, like so many good ideas which came before it, I think the execution of it has missed the mark.
 



    Several years ago, when the notion of making community service a requirement for graduation was still in its infancy, I attended the commencement exercises of a small high school in an affluent town north of us. Very small. There were 85 students donning caps and gowns.


 


    The ceremony was beautifully touching, belying the intimacy of kids who had known each another their whole lives. The feel of it all was more reminiscent of family than formality. And these students’ comfort level with one another and with themselves offered a glimpse of all that could be right with an educational experience. Bright futures for all.




    But in a right-minded idea, the high school had decided that all of these privileged children should give back. That they should have an idea and appreciation of what it means to volunteer. So they insisted that they do just that.




    My guess is that the new policy was well-received, quickly approved and met with acquiescence by all.




    All but one, as it turned out.




    It seemed that the class valedictorian, who had actually done quite a bit of unprompted community service on his own, didn’t like the oxymoronic bent of forced volunteerism. Emphasis on moronic.




    He refused to participate in the new requirement.




    Even with the threat of a withheld diploma, he stuck to his principles.




    And so on graduation day, when the classmates with whom he had shared twelve years of school and life shook their principal’s hand and received their diplomas, he did not.




    Volunteering is such a good idea. It’s a shame we’ve allowed it to become just another peg in the light bright picture of that perfect package being built for college admission. Too many students (and lets face it, their parents) look at every move and moment in high school with their eyes on transcripts that will be eyed by admissions officers. It’s become less about doing good and  more about looking good.




    In addition to the misplaced motives of indentured servitude in the guise of community service, there’s also something disquieting about the price tag that comes attached to some of these volunteering opportunities. It seems giving is its own thriving industry. But it’s not really the kids who are doing the giving.




    Sure, they’re likely a great help to that far-flung village or orphanage or hospital.  But c’mon, who among us would pass up free travel and full life exposure for a little work among the downtrodden? Particularly when it’s not junior who’s footing the bill for his foray into famine, it would seem that there’s more of a nod to self than selfless in these volunteering expeditions.




    Something’s off kilter. 

    Have we so perfected the art of hypocrisy that we can’t see that it’s not volunteering if they have no choice? We cry foul at the tricks played on us from atop Capitol Hill and in the shadows of Wall Street, but then allow our kids to begin resume padding in middle school. I think the reason Adam Wheeler’s Harvard scam went so far is because we’ve let all of our children go a little too far in the build-up of their bios. Instead of being met with an awe of disbelief, his well-packed Phillips Academy transcripts, perfect SAT scores, and 4.0 MIT GPA were likely greeted with a ho-hum hyperbole that had him standing alongside a lot of other outstanding scholars. I read that if someone, somewhere along Wheeler’s conned path had taken a moment to do a bit of math, it would have been pretty evident that there simply weren’t enough hours in his academic days to do what he claimed to have done. 

    But it seems that over-the-top is the new norm. So included in all those resplendent resumes are now hours and hours of saving-the-world work by kids who are somehow still maintaining grades, playing sports and musical instruments, and socially mingling with their four thousand friends on Facebook.


    Hmm. How many hours are in their days?


    And why is it that so few of these altruistic adolescents are opting to pull up their sleeves and do a bit of hard work at the most local of levels -at shelters and food pantries? When was the last time that a kid shoveled out his neighbor’s drive without a community service form and pen in hand? Sure, they’ll be good citizens. As long as they get credit for it.


    Nice message.


    Maybe it’s time to repackage the message, then. Time to get back to basics a bit. Instead of sending them off with the sense that there’s a whole lot of free out there, maybe it’s time to make it clear that not much is. Before they give, maybe they need to earn. A part time job teaches a whole lot about effort and value. Then, if they choose a worthy cause to support, it can come from their pockets instead of mommy’s pocketbook. And if they decide to give up a Market Basket shift and its corresponding pay to serve meals because they want to rather than have to, they’ll likely have a better notion of what service is all about and what it really means to be a part of a community.