Breach of the Levee



    Their barriers are better fortified so the floods are less frequent. It may also be that, stuck on an unbreaking weather front for so long, I now miss the nuances of atmospheric change that could predict an impending deluge. The monotony of the climate has impaired my instincts for meteorological shift.



    Still, when stars and clouds align, I can sometimes become receptacle to a warm and pleasant shower of conversation from my children. Even Michael.




    Alex has always been more the flash flood sort. Her sharing comes in loud bursts of information, full of pelting details. There’s immediacy and urgency. Pay attention and take cover. I can’t always be sure what’s coming, but I’ve learned to ride out the storms; they usually don’t last long.




    Until the year he stopped talking (to me), Michael’s showers were constant and consistent. Like those sleep aid sound boxes that generate rainforest background noise. I could predict their content and clutter. There wasn’t much I needed to do to inspire the rains; little I could do to forestall them.




    He and I have been in a drought for awhile, though. I rarely feel the pulse of quenching wet weather.




    But pulled away from the stresses of his life, Michael can sometimes fall to old weather patterns. I can’t change the storm’s path or direct its flow. In fact, the wrong questions from me can dry up the conversation entirely. If I’m careful, though, I can listen, bask in the cooling waters, and learn.
 
    
Back from Boy Scout camp, and trapped in the car with me for over an hour, Michael could have settled into sleep as he often does. And he did. But not until he shared stories of his adventures –for nearly half the trip.

    
Similar results from the sound recording camp he attended at Salem State University. His enthusiasm –and words- spilled over and out and onto me. And it wasn’t just a soaking of what-he-did, but more pleasing to me was that the conversation included plans of what-he-could-do, who-he-could-be.

    
Because in the tumult of the rains, there’s nothing better to see than glimmers of light, a bit of sun.

    
And the colors of his rainbow.




Boy Scouts



    My son is a Boy Scout. 

    
Not metaphorically. He’d unlikely make the metaphorical cut.




    But he is an actual Boy Scout.

    
Green shorts, olive drab shirt, badge-pocked sash, and all.




    If you saw Michael sans uniform, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Boy Scout. Doesn’t really look the part.

    
His association with Scouting, though? A terrific metaphor for what Michael is.

    
A contradiction.

    
From the time Michael was in elementary school, his teachers often used an interesting assortment of adjectives and nouns to describe him –the gist of their meaning easily encapsulated in a single word: puzzle (thank you Mrs. Klipfel). 

    
Luckily for Michael, those early teachers liked puzzles.




    Not so much his high school teachers.

    Even I weary of the 
challenge. 

    
And I’ve been known to become puzzle-obsessed ‘til wee hours of the morning. 

    
But the pieces of Michael’s puzzle don’t generally fit neatly to any anonymous manufacturers’ pre-fabbed slots.

    
Then, why should they?




    In some ways, Michael is what I always wished I could have been – a non-conformist. Someone who chooses his path based on his own perception of what fits with who he is and who he wants to become.




    Had I the courage to begin along a similar course when I was his age, I don’t think it’s a path I could have fully followed. There would have been doubts. And then, a turning back.

    
There’s a push and pull for many of us, particularly in those early years when we’re all so damned confused. So many kids -and the kids who we once were- really have no idea what they want to be or do when they shed their childhoods for that next big chapter of life.




    Michael must have his moments, too.




    Boy Scouts, really?




    When Michael decided to quit Scouts, I dropped him off at summer camp with the caveat that we expected him to behave, earn the requisite number of badges, support the Troop, regardless of his future plans.




    That was three years ago.




    He goes back every summer.

    
This year, I overhead Michael’s answer to the Scoutmaster’s encouraging statement/question: “See you in September./?”




    The same guy that once wanted Michael out of the Troop, now wants him to stay.

    
Really.




    “Absolutely,” Michael responded, shaking the man’s hand and looking him in the eye.




    So my son, who doesn’t look the part and listens to the beat of a different drum (a whole jazz orchestra, actually) will, in September, begin anew his commitment to a 100-year old organization steeped in obedience and conformity.
 
    
I try to tell myself that I don’t really need to get it. It’s not my job to fully understand why he does what he does.




    Michael’s always colored outside the lines.




    Maybe it’s time I step back and look at the forming picture from a different vantage so I can better see the image that’s really only just beginning to take shape.

    
(And for all those of you who wonder how Michael feels about being front-and-center in so many of these posts, I’ve always given him veto power. In fact, he’s the only family member who seems at all interested in these rantings, even when they don’t include him. He usually lets me read them to him.

    
Go figure.)



Pet Compassion


    Michael was in first grade when I summoned the strength to make the right decision and put my cocker spaniel down. Nicki was 17, old, sad. I had known much sooner than I acted, that it was time to let go. 

    
I just couldn’t.

    
And then one day, I could.




    And I did.

    
I went by myself, told no one but the immediate family. 

    
I thought I handled it well enough when I told Alex and Michael, when I gave them a chance to say goodbye.

    Maybe not.




    I received a note from Michael’s teacher the next day.




    Apparently during “pretzels” time when the kids shared the likes and dislikes of their day, Michael said that he hadn’t liked when his mother killed his dog.




    Hmmm.




    We had to put our dog down again.




    Technically, this one wasn’t ours. But with only one in the family, we all laid claim to the little guy at one point or another.




    I told Michael what was coming, offered the idea of going by Auntie Dawna’s to say goodbye to Logan.




    He took a pass.




    Logan was a good dog.




    As his aunt, I took on an occasional dog sitting shift or two. Last summer, he and I got in quality time on the beach in Maine. During designated doggy hours, I walked/he ran; I threw/he fetched. We played, made friends –mostly the four-legged kind- and took in vistas of the Atlantic surf that force the deep intake of an appreciative breath. Salty sea air –cures all that ails you.

    
Well, apparently not all.




    Logan left us just before this year’s Fourth of July beach party.




    Appropriate, since he wasn’t a fan of the fireworks.




    We’ve put off fully processing his departure.




    But we did much processing beforehand.




    Somewhere in the midst of those many conversations, I would offer the observation that we often handle end-of-life decisions for our pets far more humanely than we do for the people in our lives. With our pets, we formulate a plan and take steps of action that assure they leave us without pain and with a form dignity intact. 

    
I don’t like to think about dying. I’m one of those without a plan.




    And I should know better.




    There isn’t anything worse than watching someone die.




    I know why Michael didn’t want to say goodbye to Logan. He’s always hated transitions and saying goodbye is the worst sort.  

    
I’m with him there.




    I don’t like that we lose people too soon.




    There are always conversations unsaid, hands not held, hugs not given.




    We want another year, another week, or just a day. A single moment, even.

    
When Logan left us, he could still run the beach, fetch a tennis ball. The last memory we’ll all have of him is likely a happy one. I wish I could say the same was always true about the people in our lives.


 


    Most of us know rationally the steps we could take to offer a compassionate ending to those we love. But we hesitate, just a bit –and it’s usually just a bit too long.



    Our hearts hold out for the chance of that one more moment, even when our heads know it’s time to let go.



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.

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.