Ownership




    Shouldering responsibility even when it may not be fully mine to carry (see previous post) may seem a throwback to an earlier and wrong-minded blame-the-victim philosophy. In some ways, maybe it is. The mindset, however, could be a generational thing. My parents, my peers and I have generally held to the belief that we are fully the authors of our own lives. Responsibility, ownership –these are the beacons to which most of us charted our courses.




    It’s an admirable ideal. The flip side of it, though, may be that in addition to accepting our own failings, we sometimes take on the failings of others –especially our offspring. A dangerous habit. Certainly the practice has the potential to be difficult for us, but its cost to our kids may be much more damning.




    Because we’ve allowed it, too many of our children are quick to place blame outside their own sphere. The trajectory may start at home but it follows them out and up into the world. It’s the teacher, the coach, the professor, the boss. Not them.




    This it’s-everyone-else’s-fault mantra sets them on course to an unsustainable climb. Eventually they may find themselves at a precipice without a parachute. And the climb down from such inflated heights can be treacherous, a fall disastrous.




    But it’s our fault.




    Hmmm




    I once opined in a newspaper column that we spend the first years of our children’s lives placing them at the center of the universe and then are shocked when they turn into teenagers and start to agree with the positioning.




    This isn’t to say that our kids aren’t wonderful.




    They are. They have so much to offer. All of them.




    They’re just not all wonderful at everything.




    And when we pretend that they are, and then they fail, it’s pretty easy for them to grab to a life ring of blame; it just has to be the fault of someone else. Because we’ve told them too many times -they’re wonderful.




    The thing is, just like we probably learned a whole lot more from our missteps than from any of our easier accomplishments, our kids would likewise benefit from the occasional reality check. After all, how exactly are they to identify success if they’ve never considered failure?




    My own kids have stumbled on occasion. I’ve had opportunities to step in to soften the blows. A phone call, a small intervention, a push in an alternate direction might have changed the outcome, averted a full-out failure. It was hard to watch my kids hurt, difficult to resist the temptation to intervene. Usually, I did it anyway. It’s too early to tell if it was the right decision.




    Michael will soon to be out of high school. His road has been a much different one than his sister’s. From an outside perspective, it may appear that he’s suffered more failures. But not necessarily. His choices, as misguided as they sometimes appear, have been his own. If he hasn’t exactly excelled at an endeavor, it’s usually entirely of his own choosing. Seriously.




    This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen Michael brush blame from his own shoulders and onto another’s. He’s hardly perfect. On the other hand, he usually acknowledges his shortcomings, owns up to many of his mistakes. 

    
Michael is off on an alternative journey and passionately so. His climb has been a whole lot rockier than those of his peers but he knows every inch of the terrain. And because he’s forged such a unique path, when he does stumble –as he will- he may be better prepared to pick himself up, reassess his direction and continue on.

Sweet Music



    Alex wasn’t a napper. Although she slept through the night early-on, she was up most all of the day.




    So, to get the occasional daylight break from my very active infant, I needed to be creative. After much new-parent experimentation, I discovered that the most effective trick in my toolbox of sleep techniques was placing Alex in her swing and playing a selection from Phantom of the Opera.

    
If you’re familiar with the musical, there is a beautiful love song that closes the first act. Alex would eventually learn All I Ask of You on piano as a gift to me. Offering protection and the soothing of wide-eyed fears, the piece makes for a beautifully resonate lullaby.

    
All I Ask of You, however, wasn’t the tune to which my daughter settled to sleep. Instead, the one surefire song that sent my baby to slumber was the powerful and loud instrumentation of the overture. To the music of a bellowing organ, a bass-heavy assortment of orchestra brass and woodwinds, a flourishing accompaniment of strings and a powerful selection of percussion that included a loudly vibrating timpani, Alex would nod off.




    A fit to her personality in many ways, but also perhaps a supporting
argument for the unwitting influence of invitro activity.




    Convinced that having babies might put a damper on my frequent theatre treks to New York (big understatement), I had to see Phantom before delivery. Paying a premium for the seats (Alex’s dad still doesn’t know just how much I shelled out for those tickets) and flying to New York when perhaps I shouldn’t have (apparently airlines discourage women from flying too close to their due dates), I made the trip, saw the play, was captivated by the music.

    
And apparently so was my unborn child.

    
Phantom wasn’t the only musical backdrop to her young life, however.




    I love music. I’ve shared that love and the full assortment of my musical library and tastes with my children.




    Soon, they began to return the favor. 

    
First it was the music of their laughter, belly giggles that bubbled from deep in their tiny bodies and spilled over in sparkles from their eyes. Then there were the school-learned ditties they performed in public and private recitals, over and over -and over. Still later, it was the litany of their conversation, a multitude of newly-found syllables and sentences. 

    
But finally, it was their own selection of radio stations and CDs that wrested away my full control of the musical sounds emanating from the stereo and the car radio.




    Being older, Alex held sway with her idolizing younger brother for a bit. Then, he fell under the more musically diverse influences of his older cousin Jonathon.




    A war ensued. And I was left to straddle a demilitarized zone between a battle-of-the-bands conflict as the clash of their tastes played out from side-by-side bedrooms. Their versions of what constituted “good” music were vastly different from one another, and neither of them had a problem with upping the amperage in an effort to drown out the musical competition next door.


 


    Michael emerged the victor. In part, because he is the truer musician, but also in a nod to the diversity of his tastes. The performers who flavor his musical palate are too numerous to list: Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, Victor Wooten, Dave Matthews, Radiohead, The Beatles, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The list is varied, wide and willingly and continually expanding.

    
Not only does he fill up and often control the IPod dock; he replicates the music of his favorite artists and creates much of his own.

    
He plays -just about everything. And brings in his friends to jam with him.




    Our house has an open floor plan. There isn’t a room from which you can escape the sound of the music.




    But then, I don’t really try.




    With the exception of his occasional drum solos, I embrace the tunes, dance and sing (poorly) along. Because, the thing is, it’s really good music.

    
I’ll admit I miss the melody of giggling babies, questioning toddlers, curious little kids. I miss my son’s voice in meandering conversation. I miss the connection, the words, the interaction.




    But for now, I’ll have to accept their alternative.
 
    
Because even in the dearth of conversation, I still hear traces of who my son is in his music. If I listen closely enough, I hear Michael -in his music.

    
Sweet, sweet music.


Un-Education


    I moved to a tiny town because its school system had a big reputation. 

    
In the belief that education was a sure pathway to success, I considered performing due diligence with regard to a school system as a vital parental role. Particularly with regard to middle school and high school, I believed my kids deserved the “best.” So in buying my new house, I was also buying into the school’s reputation, believing that its ranking and ratings made it better than others, that its priorities would align with mine and that my children would be well-served.




    I couldn’t have been more wrong.




    Over the years, I have watched my nephews, my kids and the children of my friends left behind by the cookie-cutter dictates of a school that values its false reputation more than the kids it’s supposed to serve.
 
    
While the school can promise that most of its grads will attend college and that some of its alum will even go on to Ivy League schools, what it doesn’t tell is much more telling.




    Left behind in the wake of its success stories are the “other” kids from whom no one hears. Because they simply don’t have a voice.




    There are kids being physically and verbally abused as they watch their perpetrators go unpunished. There are students ostracized from the lunchroom community seeking refuge in bathroom stalls and hidden classroom corners. Young girls forego skimpy fashion styles, not for modesty’s sake, but because long sleeves hide the trace evidence of their cutting. And a legion of boys hides in a haze of reefer smoke because they feel so desperately alone. There are recreational drugs and alcohol, but also a boatload of prescriptive medications, all with the intended goal of making kids fit in. Kids with their whole lives ahead of them are thinking about ending them. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide  –they’re becoming less and less the exception.

    
Every school has to wrestle with problems like drugs and alcohol, bullying and cheating, sexual identity and harassment.  There isn’t a single right answer, no magic remedy. However, there are so many wrong answers.




    Like resting on a reputation instead of building a better one. Or choosing expediency over effort. Or accepting the status quo simply because it’s easier than challenging a wrong reality.




    Because the reality is an achievement warped by hypocrisy. We toss out trophies like confetti, then set unrealistic standards where every student is expected to be good at every subject. Students who don’t take honors courses are made to feel stupid and AP classes, once reserved for those passionate about a particular subject, are now being overpopulated by sub-par students who can’t handle the workload. In this alternate universe, average students no longer exist, but even the overachievers are barely getting by.




    When the message is to excel at any cost, that cost is too steep.
 
    
And our students are paying an exorbitant price.




    Low self-esteem, mounting anxiety disorders, depression. Anger at a system by which they feel betrayed.

    
And worse.




    Even the kids who are making the grade are sometimes getting there through shadowy shortcuts or by outright cheating. 

    
But it’s not their fault; at least not entirely.




    When a system embraces conformity at the cost of individuality, kids see the highest common denominator as minimal expectation. Measuring themselves against such a distorted norm, they can either choose to jump on the ever-accelerating treadmill or step off and out.




    And those often-quirky kids pulling out of the race are some of the brightest, most passionate learners the school has. But rather than grabbing a hold of those who stand out, it berates them for their alternate view of the world. Because it measures success with such a narrow scope, it lets them fall and fail; it abandons them.

    
Our school is supposed to educate, not alienate; support its students, not shut them out. We should be sending a resounding message that when we allow even a single kid to slip through the cracks, all of our students are the worse for it. Instead, our school touts its rankings and ratings and numbers. It’s all about the numbers.




    There’s only one problem with such a misguided mission: our kids aren’t numbers.

Firefly Light

firefly light   I’ve been going about it all wrong.

    I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, some blazing sure sign that everything’s going to work out for the kids I know.

    As if life comes with that sort of guarantee.

    It doesn’t.

    Instead of allowing myself to be engulfed by the darkness, then, maybe I need to embrace a little night vision. As if I’m stepping in from the blinding white of snow, perhaps all it requires is an adjustment of perspective.

    Because the light is there, even if I can’t always see it.

    So I’m going to start looking for small flashes of light -from wherever they may come.

    When my student agrees to lay off the partying for awhile and seems to be following through, there’s a blink of light. And when I see the little girl who clung to her mommy’s leg as if she were gripped there with adhesive, now self-advocate as a teenager –again, I see that spark of light.

    My son’s hits of light may seem more moth-to-fame to his mother. Maybe with Michael it’s a little more difficult because he’s mine. Too many of the traits that frequently frustrate are those which are also too familiarly my own.

    But still there are flickers.

    Even if I sometimes have to be reminded when they occur.

    When I recently started a story with my sister-in-law, “Michael and I had a conversation-“ she stopped me mid-sentence. She wanted me to note it for the pleasant anomaly that it was.

    We had a conversation.

    They’re fairly infrequent. And should be appreciated.

    I might have missed it for the glimmer of light that it was.

    So here-on-in, I’m looking for light, however brief and undramatic. It likely won’t hit with lightning bolt clarity; I’ll have to pay attention.

    I’m not going to look to be bedazzled by the ten thousand degree flash from a star. Instead, I’ll lay in wait for those pinpricks of light, like the eye-catch of white that comes with firefly flight.

    So when Michael exits the car and leans in to give me a kiss on the cheek as if it’s still habit, I’ll note the spark. But I’ll also remind myself not to reach out for the flutter of light, lest I risk dousing the flame and turning it to ash.

 

A Perfect Son



    He is the perfect young man.

    
I can say that without hesitation. For two reasons.

    
First, he isn’t mine.




    Second, he isn’t actually perfect.




    But then that makes him more perfect, still.




    He’s made his share of bad choices. He’s done things for which I am sure he is not proud. Some of them not quite legal. But he always comes back around to who he always was.




    In kindergarten, when the teacher allowed circle time to be about the children’s requests to Santa, his peers were likely asking for Furbies and Beanies, games and gadgets. He had bigger needs. 

    
Perhaps he already had a sense of how the world worked. In his little kid view, Santa must have loomed large as the go-to guy. Santa had connections.




    So when it was his turn, he had a simple request. He didn’t want a toy or a game. He didn’t want anything. The gift he wanted wasn’t even for himself –it was for his friend.

    
He must have figured Santa was high in rank on God’s payroll because he had a favor to ask of the big G. He wanted Santa to ask God to give his friend one chance, one moment, a single phone call –to the boy’s dad.  More than anything he wanted for himself, he wanted his friend to have the chance to talk to his father, a man whom the boy had never met, who had died just before he was born.

    
Santa didn’t come through. Neither did God.

    
Apparently he forgave them both. He still prays. He still believes in a higher power.

    
He and his faith have been often tested –too many times for someone so young. 

    
The college at which I work doesn’t have too many hard-knock-life stories. And most of the kids seem to get it that they’ve got it pretty easy. But I find that even here, it’s those who are asked to shoulder the most who seem most able to gather the strength to handle the weight –same holds true for the adults I know. It’s the sentiment of a saying my mom hates –that God only gives you what you can handle.

    
I understand why she takes umbrage at it. Doesn’t seem fair to me either that a benevolent God would punish you for being strong. My mom’s pretty strong; she’s be duly punished.




    My young man is also pretty strong and he’s again being tested, being asked to step up.

    
Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

    
The boy who is now an adult is too well trusted.



    By powers beyond here and by those of us who know him well. We know he will meet this next challenge as he has met so many in the past –with inner strength, quiet grace.




    I just wish he didn’t have to. It isn’t fair. And he shouldn’t be punished for being a good person.





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.





 

An Internship in Life



    Musing upon the what-ifs that lottery jackpots often spawn, someone recently asked me what I would do if money wasn’t a factor. I can’t remember who. That’s an issue lately, but I digress. I do that too -again, another issue.

    
Back to the windfall that grants dreams, though.




    My answer was too quick, too honest, too sappy. But it explains a lot.




    Like why I work with kids (okay, technically they’re adults) and love it even though it was never part of the plan.




    And why I can sit for hours tweaking writing for which I don’t get paid and spend much less time on the kind of writing that pays (little, tiny) bills.

    
If I could do anything at all for work, I’d do exactly what I’m doing right now. 

    
In different proportions, perhaps. Squeezed in-between travels around the world. But –I’d still work. I’d still write. I’d still hang around college kids.

    
Which brings me to the ill-titled blog which generates an unexpected number of monthly hits.




    This week marks Kidssuck’s one year anniversary.




    I didn’t know what it was going to be when I started it. Most days, I still don’t. But I’m still having fun with it. And you’re still reading it.

    
Thanks for that.




    Thanks also for allowing me to be less of a hypocrite when I advise my kids and my students to choose a job to do because they love it.




    With the certainty one might observe that the tide will rise, Kelley once told me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing –this writing thing. It took me decades to put my work out there, longer still to call myself “writer” when someone asked what I do. Odd, really. Because it’s as much a part of who I am as is my heritage, the color of my eyes. I can’t change it.

    
I tell everyone of the next generation who will listen: Do what you love. Don’t worry about the money.

    
It wasn’t the advice I received as a kid.




    Doesn’t matter. 




    I pretend I’m not as old as I am and I’m finally following my own advice. 

    
It’s like I’m on internship now, trying on pieces of a profession or two for size, adjusting their fit as I go. Every new job, new client, new story seems to produce another; they’re self-propagating. 

    
Instead of following a traditional path for someone my age, I’m forging one of my own. 

    
Maybe that’s why I get along so well with the college kids. On many days, I still feel like I’m just starting out. I make mistakes, ignore reality a lot, think about what-ifs far removed from lottery winnings.

    
And write.




    So, thank you. For being with me on the site’s anniversary. For joining me in these stream-of-consciousness jottings. And for giving me someone for whom to write -besides just me.






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.