Monday, June 27, 2011


The girls and I are driving north to Oregon to visit my sister and her family; husband will fly up to meet us. We are staying over in the Bay Area en route and back. Do the math: the three of us in a Honda Civic for at least four 8-hour stretches. I don't completely mind road trips, but I'd rather be the passenger than driver. When I am driving, particularly on long stretches, I take my and my passengers' mortality seriously. As if we are headed into the Death Star in a TIE Fighter, I feel very responsible for (and not completely confident about) getting us back alive.

Have I mentioned that I am really good at worrying?

I thought maybe if I enumerate my fears I could ceremoniously cyber-burn them prior to departure and thereby purge the phobias:

1. Fear of freeway work that necessitates those concrete barriers which narrow the lane and make me nervous car will scrape along the side.
2. Fear of having heart attack while driving in the middle of nowhere (like near Fresno, with only cows around).
3. Fear of dog dying while we are gone.
4. Fear of tire blowout.
5. Fear of snacks running out in the first hour.
6. Fear of getting lost.
7. Fear of having to go to the bathroom every hour (very possible reality).
8. Fear of passing trucks.
9. Fear of daughters falling out of car.
10. Fear of foot getting stuck on accelerator or not being able to brake on time.

Obviously the Mother Fear is crashing of any kind. And I am most fearful of causing a cataclysm myself, not of other crazies on the road. Gee, I know you are all excited to jump in the car with me now!


Here we are in Oakland, safe and sound but not so triumphant. The girls were great, but I managed to psyche myself out on The Grapevine...tunnel vision, mild anxiety attack...I fantasized about pulling over and refusing to drive any further, toddler-tantrum style. People, I had to pass a HOUSE (well, half a house) being hauled in high winds. The soul-sucking landscape added to my angst.

I pulled it together, however; rallied (Baja Fresh chicken taco helped), and we made it in good time.

But I got out of the car and priced airline and Amtrak tickets between here and Portland.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dear Me, You're All Right

When I cleaned out files and binders in my office at the close of school, I found a legal envelope with letters written by my seventh grade students in 1998. It was May, nearing the end of the year, and I had asked my classes to write letters to themselves, imagining they would be reading them ten years later. And that was my promise to my students, that I would find them and return their letters when they were 23 years old.

Alas, I missed my deadline; it's been thirteen years since those thirteen-year-olds confided in themselves. But I got busy right away, tracking them down. Thanks to Facebook and its spider-web networks, discovering one former student led to finding three more, and on...and once students got over the creepiness of receiving a cryptic message from an old teacher ("Hi! I have something to send you...can you me message me your address?"), I began hearing back from them.

The letters I returned, which I sent along with a new one from me and my Directions for Living, were variously deep and superficial, with tones influenced by the mood of that moment in May.  My middle schoolers chronicled fallout from divorces, arguments with friends and parents, and fears (including being kidnapped and becoming fat).  They included diagrams of their bedrooms and drawings of their favorite clothing.  They gave shout-outs to the Back Street Boys, South Park, Delia's, Jack Purcells, Wet Seal, Dawson's Creek, and the Titanic movie.  Many demonstrated admirable self acceptance, though they also wished they didn't have as many pimples.  And one of my students grumbled that he was "wrighting this for Ms. M (mean teacher)." 

The best part of reaching back thirteen years and into the present of these people with whom I shared three hours a day for nine months is the responses they've had to themselves. 

A former student shared on Facebook, "Wow. Just received a letter from my 7th grade teacher written by my 13 year old self to my future self. Cars still don't fly and I did not become an actress but... life is good. :)"

Another wrote to me, "Thank you for believing in me even when all the other kids thought I was a weirdo."
One woman sent me this moving reflection (and permission to include it here):
"When I saw what this was and before I read it, I have to be honest I was really nervous. I'm not sure why...maybe that I was completely different now, that I didn't become what I had envisioned, that I wouldn't like the way I sounded/what I though as a kid, I don't know. But as I read it I actually liked this 13 year old girl a lot. It's amazing how little I knew, how much has changed, how the big things then are the little things now and little things then are the big things now. So bizarre, and wonderful.

If I wrote a letter today to my 13 year old self, it would say in it that I am doing exceptionally well and I am happy, healthy and thriving. That I would eventually find confidence in my looks but more importantly in my brains, my talents, and my ability to be independent.
And that I would go through heartbreak, disappointment, rejection with friends, lovers and employers, that I would make mistakes. But it would lead me to where I wanted..."

How eloquently put by a once-amazing thirteen-year-old and now confident, accomplished woman. 

I feel similarly, that I love myself so much better, more deeply, and authentically now than I did at that awkward age. 

In honor of my students from 1998, and of accepting and embracing our inner middle-schooler, I transcribe here an entry from my 8th grade journal:  February 14, 1985.

The Two Sides of My Personality

One side likes Mike so much she daydreams constantly.  The other side distorts this into a a silly, giggly boy chasing teenager.

One side of me is crazy, wild, show-offy.  The other side is always trying to be neat, wants to be an athlete, tries to exercise and be perfect.

One side of me is nice to people all the time, the other side acts snobby sometimes. 

Both sides of me try to outdo myself and other people in sports.

One side of me tries to (tell) make myself that I'm great, attractive, etc.  The other side convinces myself that I'm not so great, that I'm selfish, ugly, fat.

One side is sad, actress-like, the other side is usually cheerful. 

There are more sides of my personality, I'm sure.  But I'm not sure what side I'd like most people to see. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Happy Father's Day

I spent a good part of the afternoon cleaning up (and cleaning out; hello Garage Sale!) the girls' room. Amazing what I find during these excavations: 332 1-cm. plastic doll accessories, notes between cousins transcribing adult conversations as they spy on the parents, toy horses with doll pillows rubber-banded to their backs, baskets tied with ribbons to bunk beds in a jury-rigged pulley system.

And stuff Big Sis has saved, including a note written by her dad on an index card and slipped into her lunch box on the first day of her first year of standardized testing (about which she was freaking out a little):


He wrote it; she saved it. I think that says a lot about their relationship and the kind of father my husband is.

Happy Father's Day to kind, empowering, thoughtful, and awesome dads everywhere.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What You Need? Baby, Go Get It

I'm watching the kids swim and waiting for the trophy awards and closing ceremonies for a regatta my husband has been competing in this week. He won't win a trophy, but it doesn't matter; he is proud of his crew's showing and that he fulfilled his dream of skippering a boat in a world championship race.

Before I met my husband, he travelled the world, racing sailboats professionally.  When we met, we had both returned to our hometown to work with kids in the programs and schools that launched us; he coached sailing at the local yacht club and I taught middle school at my alma mater.  He negotiated time in his work calendar to continue to pursue professional sailing opportunities and I was starstruck, following his progress in world championships and awed by my boyfriend's fame in the subculture of sailboat racing. 

Last week's six-day, nine-race regatta was the culmination of a year of preparation, including weekends practicing with his crew--weekends he fit in around work and the demands of family (and his wife).  But as I followed his progress hourly on the Etchells Worlds twitter feed each day, the pride and admiration I felt for him when we were newly in love was rekindled.  And I was reminded how important it is for us to pursue our passions and to encourage our partners to do the same. 

One of the lessons I learned early on in my relationship development--from my wise father--is that a relationship isn't a thing (a tangible object) like the two individuals in it.  And each individual has needs which may be completely unrelated to the other person.  In other words, as my father put it when I was suffering college-relationship heartache, "Everything he does isn't about you." 

I think about this a lot lately, as I watch my husband and myself and our friends in similar life phases wrestle with tending to our own needs in the context of busy parenting and working lives.  Of one thing I am certain, though, and I will shout it from the rooftops:  To be a healthy partner and parent, one must be a healthy person.  And if you want a healthy partner and co-parent (as well as a healthy relationship), tend to your own and your partner's health.  That means requesting space and time to devote to your true self, and granting it as well.  There may be nothing more important.

Ten years ago my husband raced sailboats in South America and I ran marathons.  Today, he's happy to race locally and I am More Than Fine with 10Ks.  Between now and then we learned to ask for what we need--a sleep-in here, an hour run before he leaves for work there, the occasional afternoon of fishing or night out with friends.  Still, we get off balance at times.   

Last May when I was feeling frustrated and bogged down at work as well as slightly disconnected from myself, I whined and pouted for a while, and then I called my husband to clear a weekend in October and  signed myself up for an adventure.  Anticipating an October writing retreat gave me a special lift through June, July, August, and September, not to mention the effects I still feel from treating myself to three days of writing among strangers in a magical setting

It's important to report that scheduling these events (regatta, retreat) wasn't without its challenges.  In fact, a practice regatta wound up conflicting with the writing retreat, and husband and I had a bit of a "Me Time" showdown as we discussed the terms of pursuing our interests that weekend, making sacrifices on the other's behalf, and keeping our daughters in the center.  Thanks to friends and family who offered childcare, we raced and wrote that weekend, but learned that negotiation and careful calendaring help with harmony. 

We've gotten good at the give and take, but it means shedding the martyr mantle, bringing hidden agendas to the fore, and recognizing when your own or your partner's equilibrium is off.  Because it's easy to fall into a routine--or to actually feel dragged around by the routine--of work, school, extracurricular activities, homework, laundry, cleaning, feeding people, shopping.  Meetings.  Appointments.  Add in a crisis or two and you have two parents, backs to each another, digging trenches independently, barking orders and cussing under their breath.  Sweaty, exhausted, cranky.  Maybe stopping occasionally to lean on shovels and wave faux-cheerfully at neighbors.  Who, us?  We're great!  See you at the next kids' birthday party!  You betcha. 

It's a slippery slope, so next time you bump rears with your digging partner, stop and offer her a drink.  Tell him you're going for a walk, and he can take a break next.  Schedule a date night.  Then go sign up for a hip-hop dance class; join a book club; dig out the fishing gear or oil pastels.  Of course you're tired after digging all day.  Make yourself do it.  Encourage and applaud your partner for doing the same. 

I've enjoyed watching friends and family members reclaim their passions.  I know a husband who paints and a wife who rows outrigger canoes.  I know a wife who just dusted off her sewing machine and a husband who gets up in the wee hours to bike.  I know a husband who just built a rail rider out in the desert and a wife who attended a week-long artists' workshop.  I know couples who get sitters so they can run or hike or yoga together.  I have a friend who took a cake-decorating class and a colleague who just became a master gardener.  Averting the destructive tendencies of the mid-life crisis, these friends nurtured their interests with the support of their partners.  And their kids are watching.

If you can't remember who you are or what a hobby is, look back ten, fifteen, twenty years at what you loved to do.  And if you're like me, and you aren't feeling the marathons and poetry, evolve a little.  Run and write differently.  Or find something new:  Raise chickens.  Design tee shirts.  Volunteer. 

Being proud of yourself is attractive; being proud of your partner is awesome.  Husband came in 26th out of 80 boats this week, and I think that's hot.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Little for a Lot

Parents from our daughters' local preschool held a fundraiser on Saturday night.  It's the second year we've applied the "keep it simple, stupid" philosophy, understanding that at this time of year, families are both worn out from organizing and attending events and likely running low on funds.  One kind family agrees to host the party at their home/in their backyard, and the obligation for guests is to bring a beverage, hors d'oeuvres, item or service to donate, and a willingness to spend $25-$100.  Preschool teachers offered babysitting services at the preschool from 4 to 7 PM, and approximately twenty couples in attendance raised over $2000. 

It occured to me that this formula is a winning way for a small group to raise quick funds in a community-building atmosphere for a variety of purposes:  a common cause, a family in crisis, a community project. 

The best part was the modesty and creativity of the donations.  Folks offered babysitting, handmade pottery and jewelry, landscaping consultations, favorite craft beers and wine, a ready-for-kindergarten kit, and I donated a curry dinner

Also the food:  no Costco contributions anywhere in sight.  Someone brought bruschetta with Sicilian grandpa's homemade sausage; there were frittatas, orzo salad, and pizzette.  My caprese-salad-on-a-toothpick was not particularly inspired, though the pancetta was a nice addition: 

And now, our preschool will have an updated art room!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Headlights Required

Parenting certainly has its ebbs and flows, its peaks and valleys.  Its barbed-wire fences, its muddy ditches to slog through.  Its daisy-filled meadows with sweet breezes.

And then there are the foggy days, when no one sees clearly straight ahead, behind, or beside.  When we spend more time bumping into one another than making progress. 

We've had some foggy, naggy, muddled times recently.  It's the end of the school year; it's the cusp of transition.  We are all a little edgy, busy, and sleep deprived.  There are days when I wonder if I've said much of anything positive, to anyone, in my household.  When I screech at a child who's jumped off the curb at a busy intersection; remind the preschooler for the nth time to say please, please; mutter under my breath about tone of voice and HEY!  YOU DON'T YELL AT YOUR PARENTS and SINCE WHEN IS THAT ALLOWED FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

The thing is, I think I have a point.  A point which can be found somewhere in my own shrill admonitions.  I believe my parenting instincts are founded in some key philosophies, skills, and qualities I want to instill in my children.  But they've been lacking an anchor--a practical, understandable, unemotional mooring to which to attach what I'm trying to convey to my daughters. 

I thought about this the other night as we embarked on a Family Walk, as Big Sis and I recovered from an episode in which I corrected her and she reacted defensively and we failed to fully comprehend each other's positions on the issue. 

"I'm thinking," I told my husband, "that I need to frame what I'm doing when I reprimand or redirect our kids around what my job is as a parent."

And the more I thought about it, I determined that I parent with two fundamental goals in mind: 

1.  Promoting my daughters' health and safety, and
2.  Helping them be the best of themselves they can be. 

I mulled these two intentions over, recognizing that if what I'm doing or advising or how I am reacting to my children--or modeling for them, for that matter--doesn't align with those two missions, then I should question myself, too.  The idea was making more and more sense, especially since I could see both goals relating to my work with teenagers.

During a calm moment with Big Sis, we discussed my job as a parent and how it relates to our interactions.

"I need to do an excellent job as a parent, and there are two parts to that," I let her know (after we established that going to work and making money was not my first job as a parent).  "So, that means when I am warning you or scolding you or giving you a consequence, it's because I am needing to help you stay safe or reminding you to work on being the best you you can be." 

She nodded, and we imagined some scenarios when I would need to do my job as a parent:  when sisters are saying, "No, YOU'RE dumb" to each other, when Big Sis is climbing on the counter to get something out of the cupboard, when Little Sis is yelling from the living room for me to bring her some cereal, stat. 

Last night we had an opportunity to deploy the new anchor, and after we endured the cycle of my admonishment-->her outrage-->my explanation-->her blame-shifting-->my encouragement of accountability-->her pouting, Big Sis came to me with an apology and hug.  She admitted she wasn't being her best self, and I reminded her of my job.  I also pointed out that how parents keep their kids safe and help them be their best sometimes needs improvement, too, and we'd keep working on that. 

It's a foggy, trial-and-error enterprise, this parenting gig.  I'm grateful for each moment of clarity, wondering how long it will last.