Thursday, January 10, 2013

Remember that saying, "When pigs fly..."? Today, pigs are flying, the pot's at the end of the rainbow, the twelfth of never has happened.

Why? While Oldest was listening to me coach our youngest son about writing a short essay, he turned to me and said, "Mom, you just need to teach him how to write a five paragraph essay and the rest of his schooling will be so much easier."

Say what?

Where did this alien come from and what has he done with our son?

That was my initial reaction. I couldn't believe that the brief time I spent with him two years ago helping him map out a short essay had taken root in his mind. No wonder his most recent research paper had  been such a pleasure to read. No wonder it flowed logically and had excellent examples. Me. I had done this. All those years of teaching high school students how to write simple papers actually paid off: I actually taught my own kid the art of writing..

"Yes, I know. I will." I sighed a bit. Youngest is my rebel. If Mom tries to teach him, it must be wrong.

"No! I mean now! He needs it from here on out."

"Maybe you should talk to him about it," I said trying to keep it quiet and low. Maybe Youngest couldn't hear us. Maybe he could simply explain to Youngest how he had learned to write from Mom. He would encourage that young whippersnapper to actually listen to the wisdom of his mother. I could see good things happening here.

But Oldest makes a bull in a china shop look like a genteel lady drinking tea. "You!" he said, pointing to his little brother. "Come here!"

"Son," I protested. "Can't you ask him more nicely. Don't you have manners?"

"This is too important," insisted Big Brother. "Sit down here. You need to learn to write!"

For reasons only known to our Creator, Little Brother immediately obeyed, eyes rounded as though he were being taught about how babies were made.

"Now, the first thing you need to do is make an outline...."

I looked at the alien being who had taken over my Oldest Son's body. Was this the boy who had at first refused to make a map, outline or web? Was this the boy who insisted that he knew how to write? Was this the child that I thought seriously of tying to the chair while I gave him instruction?

"Next," continued our Little Professor, "do you know what a thesis is?"

Shock again. When did our Oldest discover the concept of a thesis?

I listened intently as the instruction continued. There was talk about attention getting for the introduction, transition sentences, and examples.  I sat open-mouthed in amazement as our overly bossy sixteen-year-old plowed into a fantastic explanation about the finer points of essay writing. Formulaic, yes. Effective high school writing. You bet.

Funnier still, Youngest was listening as intently as if he were learning to drive a backhoe. He was engaged in the discussion, nodding and intently studying the outline Oldest was slowly making on his lapdesk.  The two poured over it like engineers designing a huge building.

I felt thrilled. I was the first person to create this protege, with the school doing a fine job of filling in the gaps, reiterating my lessons, and teaching the finer points of writing such as transitions. My own writing background was so deficient that at his age I was barely able to write a complete paragraph, and certainly knew nothing about organizing a whole paper.

It's a wonder when a child learns a complex task. It's an even greater wonder when he actually can teach that task to a younger sibling. What an awe inspiring thing to behold. I will be doing the Snoopy Dance until bedtime, and maybe a few days after that.

Now if I could just get the kid to use his manners....

Friday, November 2, 2012

When Love Letters Can't Tell The Story

"What's in there?" asked Oldest when we loaded my old trunk into the back seat of the car.My mother, had lost the only key, the one she insisted she would keep safe. After living with the trunk locked up for eight years, I finally scraped together the necessary $85 and found the old key maker to get it opened.

"A World War I sword, a box of love letters, a black hat I intended to wear to your grandmother's funeral, and a twenty-five foot gum wrapper chain," I answered.

The boys burst out laughing. "One of these things is not like the other," Oldest sang. They couldn't wait to see the sword, but were curious about the gum wrapper chain, too. The love letters? Not even on their radar map.

But for me it was the box of love letters, written to me by the young man who had stolen my heart when I was sixteen, that had been calling to me. He had been handsome, a great dancer, sexy and a charmer. We exchanged notes in school like crazy, and I kept them all in a shoe box. But after thinking about it for the past few years, I decided to finally get rid of them. It was time.

He was not my parents' idea of the perfect boyfriend at all. He lived with a foster family after he stole a snowmobile. Rumor had it that his parents drank. Suffice to say, they were not in favor of us dating at all. One day when they met up with his probation officer, they arranged it so that when he was sent home, she would make sure we didn't see each other any more. And that's what she did: took me out for a little talk and told me that my boyfriend had agreed to not call or see me again, that it was his idea, and if I didn't agree, she would make things very difficult for him.  My head spun with both the grief of him not wanting to see me again to the idea that if I tried to, his life would be miserable. Naturally I agreed and tried to move on. Yes, I talked to him later after I started dating someone new. He had tried to reach me by phone often but after we finally connected, I was already dating someone else. The disappointment in his voice was palpable. 

The years moved on, and I thought of him often. I resigned myself that he never could have loved me because he always cheated. He came close to my apartment once when I was in college. I could see him from the window, and when he looked up, he saw me. But he never came to say hello. I accepted that it was over, that it had probably been one sided, that it was folly to even bother with it. When I looked him up on Facebook thirty years later, he was living the kind of life I would have hated. According to the comments on his MySpace page, he still cheated. I even met his son, a troubled young man who ultimately spent time in jail for spousal abuse. You know he learned that at home. I'm glad my ex and I didn't end up together. Most of all, I am glad I married the Man Who Puts Up With Me.

One night this last summer I lit a fire in our fire pit, grabbed that box of old love letters and reread the drama that occurred between my sophomore and senior year of high school.  And what a drama it was! Whenever I wasn't in town to hang out with him, he was seeking out some of my girlfriends and charming them, too. Naturally, this created great angst between those of us who actually liked one another. I had no idea who to believe: the boy who professed his undying love to me, or the girls who told me how he had been calling them. Finally I determined the truth from a impartial friend: he was a cheater.

I got the idea that my teenage years were not what I remembered because I found my old high school diary last summer. When I reread it, I discovered that I had an intense focus on going off to college. On those pages, I poured out my heartfelt concerns that while I cared deeply for my boyfriend, the day would come when I would leave. As I reread those pages, I realized that all the years I mourned the sudden loss of that young Romeo, I had lost perspective of what I really felt at the time. I loved him but knew it wasn't permanent. The years that tainted my viewpoint of that love affair as much as the betrayal of the boyfriend.

So there I was, placing each reread note between my old boyfriend and I into the fire. And then I realized that just a week or two earlier, Oldest stood out by our fire pit with a lighter and burned the Dear John letter he had gotten that day from the girl he loved. His inner pain showed on his face from the drama in his life just like the drama had been in my life. Same age, same pain of lost love. Maybe the circumstances were different, but that feeling of loss is the same.

I debated throwing away these love letters and finally decided that some writing was just too personal to share. I didn't want my children to find it and ever wonder if my feelings lingered for my former boyfriend. I never wanted them to doubt my love for my husband. They would have had to judge the young man on his handwriting or spelling, None of that would have given him a complete picture of his charm, the attraction we had toward one another. It was an "aha!" moment when I could understand why Martha Washington burned George's letters to her, something I always felt was a tragic loss. Sometimes personal writing just can't tell the story correctly.

All of this has got me examining perspective more closely. It's amazing how time intensifies or smooths out feelings. One of the girls who my ex had approached constantly spent her senior year torturing me with snide comments about my feelings for that boy. It was the most miserable year of my life. Yet in rereading the letters she had written to me in our junior year, I found a girl who truly didn't want to have conflict, who didn't want me to be hurt, who hated herself and her life. For all the pain she caused me in what should have been a wonderful year, I had missed her truly miserable life. I was too close to the situation to see it for what it was worth.

Now I'm dealing with a teenager who is moody, angry at times, loving at other times, kind to others and pissy at me. He needs me and hates me all at the same time. Nothing I say is right, and I don't like that at all. It's like living with a grizzly bear.No amount of intellectualizing it makes it easy. I know that all I need to do is survive because he'll figure out later how smart I am. In the meantime, it is painful to deal with his attitude. I wonder how I will look back on this time. Will it be with the feeling of how horrible it was, or in some other way? I don't know. Funny how my love life 35 years ago give me lessons even today. It just goes to show how there is value in all aspects of experience.

The Drug Talk

"Hey," I whispered to The Man Who Puts Up With Me. "Got a favor to ask."

He groaned, and I knew what he was thinking.Something to fix, something that needs doing. Something that would take all day. He's my number one fix it guy, even though he doesn't get much done around here because he's gone so much, and when he is home, he's tired and just wants to relax or mess around with the family.  "What?" he asked warily.

"I think you should have the drug talk with our Youngest," I said. "He thinks you're the best, and looks up to you."

"Got it," His thumb went up. This was an easy task, something he wouldn't find work at all.

For those of you who don't have children or who engage in recreational drugs, it might come as a wonder as to why parents take the time to speak occasionally of how not to do drugs, how to look cool at parties while dumping the beer down the sink, how to say "no" in 100 different ways. Early on in our marriage, we decided it was much easier to encourage the kids to live without drugs rather than dealing with rehab, or an early death, or a lifetime of unnecessary struggle.

Now don't get me wrong. We weren't saints as kids, something we've admitted to our children. My parents never said a word to me about drugs until I was way past 17 and by then it was way too late. And although I like a beer now and then, I've come to understand that my body no longer tolerates the stuff. Most of all, I've admitted to myself that the kids who grew up in our extended family where booze was always present versus the nephews and nieces who never saw it in their homes now live very different lives. In short, I like the ones who never had the stuff around and they are far more wealthy and successful. So it doesn't matter that I probably never drew a sober breath my freshman year of college. I can just see how much those people who remained sober just did better all the way around compared to me.

I expect the boys to drink and maybe even try something they shouldn't in their life. But I don't want them to have my blessing if they get stoned. I probably will be that nagging voice in the back of their head.

All that said, The Man Who Puts Up With Me took Youngest and the dog on a walk. And this is somewhat how the conversation went:

Man: So if you get sad or depressed, and someone offers you drugs, what will you do?

Youngest: Can I still play my music?

Man: Of course!

Youngest: (putting up his thumb) Then we're all good. No problem.

Man: (stumbling to overcome his surprise) Okay. supposed you are ticked off at Mom and Dad and you storm out of the house. You know someone who has drugs available. What do you do?

Youngest:  Can I still play my music?

Man:  Uh, sure!

Youngest: Then we're good!

Man: (Fumbling for ideas) Uh...well, how about if you are at a party and kids are pressuring you to drink.

Youngest:  Is there music there?

And so the conversation went on.  Apparently music is the ultimate drug repellent.

And besides making me laugh, I thought about it for a long time afterward.  Music is his life, and now gives him a moral compass. This gift for the desire to play the piano, guitar and percussion spills over in a way too mysterious for for us to comprehend.  What keeps him grounded is less about my husband and I but more of notes on a page, tuned instruments and all of us singing.

It makes me think about caroling this year, how maybe it's important in a way that I don't realize. That conversation makes that drive to boy's choir practice worth more than the time I spend on the road. The time I spend in the audience during his concerts, listening to him practice, asking strangers if he can practice on the piano in the entryway (think hospital) and sitting through hours of recitals may be a price of keeping our kid out of bigger trouble. It's a price I am willing to pay for sure. It was a surprise, but a pleasant one.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Don't Eat That!

Oldest is my culinary challenge. It's not that he won't eat certain things. It's that he seems to forever be chowing down things he shouldn't!

It started as a baby. If he went to play in the mud, we had to sit right beside him because within moments his little hand would grab a glob and drift right toward his mouth.

"I've eaten lots of dirt as a kid," people would confess to me as Oldest went through this stage. They assured me that it probably did them some good, and that all people needed to eat a little dirt now and then. I didn't find this fact as interesting as they did.

As life continued, he periodically imbimbed on things he shouldn't. Once when he was two, our little family went fishing on a remote river in western Alaska. It was a fisherwoman's dream come true. I got to catch them, and my hubby volunteered to gut them out and babysit at the same time. I lost myself in the most glorious fishing I've ever done. The Man Who Puts Up With Me let our toddler explore the little island at will, but at one point when he glanced up to check on Oldest, discovered our little boy "petting" one of the fish. Slime dripped off Oldest's hand. Mystified, our son tried to shake it off, but when that didn't work, began licking it off.  Daddy couldn't get to him fast enough to prevent a little fish slime from going down the tube.  The errant babysitter didn't have the heart to relate the story to me for quite some time.

Then our hound came live with us. Had I ever known this would open up a whole other eating world for our then fourteen year old, I might have protested adding the four legged addition to our home.

One day shortly after we loaded up on possible treats for training Rikki, the hound, I put a couple of dog biscuits on the table, then went into the kitchen to cook some dinner. Within moments I heard Oldest say, "Mom, these crackers are stale!"

"What crackers?" I asked, truly puzzled.

"The ones I found on the table," he answered.

Slowly it dawned on me, and I tried to keep a straight face as I said, "Yeah, they probably don't taste real good since it's DOG BISCUITS!"

Of course, he's too cool to get upset, but I noticed he didn't eat the second half of the doggie treat.

Rikki, however continued to have competition for his treats. One afternoon Oldest rode home with Hubby in the big rig. At one point in the drive, Oldest piped up and said, "Dad, this jerky is the worst I've ever tasted!"

"Where'd you get it from?" asked The Man Who Puts Up With Me. Oldest pointed to a little cupboard. "Well, that's because it's Dog Jerky!" exclaimed Hubby. "It's rawhide!"

Dog treats apparently aren't approved by human taste testers.

Yesterday topped the culinary adventures list.  While I was standing at the stove cooking dinner, Oldest walked in and came over by me. We chatted amiably, and then he picked something up from the counter. "Huh! What an odd shape for a chip!"  And he popped it in his mouth.

Within seconds he said, "Whoa!" and took three steps back. 

"What?" I asked, concerned now that something was either really good tasting or really bad.

He chewed several more times, and his eyes began to water. Then he gulped, and his eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his head. "What was that?"

"What?"  I asked, now a little more frantically. We normally don't keep dangerous things on our counter, but I didn't want the boy to get hurt. My mind quickly went to the little dish of dog treats that I keep there, but they are bone shaped. I didn't think he'd get into those!

"This," he said, reaching back to the area where he had gotten his "snack."  "Is this garlic?"

Sure enough. He had popped a garlic clove straight into his mouth.

By the time it registered into my brain, and I started to laugh, he asked, "What's going to happen to me now?"

"Well," I said, trying not to fall over from laughter, " you won't have to worry about vampires tonight.  Or parasites for that matter."

He didn't turn green, but good naturedly laughed it off. He felt it all afternoon, too, and I wondered about the poor kids who had to take driver's training with him. Of all the things he has eaten, this one still cracks me up. Never a dull moment in the life of the kid who needs to explore.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Your Radio, Your Music

"Mom, look!"  Youngest sat next to the computer, typed in a few words on the navigation bar, and up popped, "Disney Radio."  "You gotta hear this song."  A second or two later the song from Disney channel's newest musical came rapping over the speaker. His face reflect the luminescent screen glow from his laptop. But there was no mistaking his delight at having found a website with his favorite music.

Suddenly he was the face of the boy who sat next to the shoe-box sized radio listening to the newest swing sounds from the 1940's. He was the boy who practically clung to the radio as the sounds of the Grand Ol' Oprey floated around the room, the Midwestern boy who dreamed of the sweet sands on the beaches of California as the Beach Boys sang surfing songs.  I remembered my transistor radio, hand sized, the new technology of the time, that I cuddled in bed at night, waiting for my favorite hit. The technology may have changed, but what hasn't is the pull of new music that will define a young person's youth. Who can't remember the delicious time spent singing with your favorite songs?

"Do you like it, Mom?" His voice was filled with hope.

The syrupy rap lyrics floated out of my computer's speakers. Gone was the raw edge that defined the genre.  I smiled and said, "It seems okay!"

He relaxed. "I thought so, too."

"You like rap?"

"Not the stuff with bad words," he said. "Not the stuff that talks about hurting people and stuff."

"Yeah." I nodded.

We listened long enough for me to understand that he could listen to song after song.  "You wanted to watch "Burn Notice" tonight?" I asked.  Earlier he had informed me that there was a "Burn Notice" marathon, and how great the show was because "it talks all about how to be a spy." Very cool stuff.

"Naw," he said. "Do you mind if I take your laptop and listen to these songs?"

I smiled and watched as he packed it up and slipped off to our bed, engrossed in his generation's music, like so many generations before him. And I was reminded of the words my mother liked to say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Watching Life in the Rear View Mirror

Oldest left for a performing arts camp last weekend and returned last night. His dance class has 39 girls- and him. When I asked him how he liked it, he said that whenever he heads over to his classroom, he tries to think of a dozen ways to get out of it. It's usually hot, he's tired, he knows he's going to have to put out some extreme energy, he's feeling lazy. But when he's done, he's super-glad he's participated. I wonder if that's because of the 39 girls or the exercise or the fun of it.

One of his more interesting classes is called "Stage Combat" where he learns about theatrical fighting. After his first day of class, I asked him excitedly, "So how are you doing tonight?"

"I'm sore."


"Because we spent the stage combat class time slapping each other!"

I laughed merrily. His classes sound like a huge amount of fun. He's able to make mistakes there that don't make me cringe because I can't see them. He's learning new things. No doubt about it, this time in his life is so darn cool.

I realized this morning that I was viewing his life as if I were driving in a car down the road, and looking back in the rear view mirror.

You see, I only remember chunks of my childhood and teen years, and truthfully, I walked a path that my sons will never follow. They'll never grow up on a farm as I did in my early childhood.  I lived my teen years in a lakeside home; they have to drive to just go swimming. I am female; their male experiences are quite different. Disco was popular when I was in my teens. Hip hop is their dance music. The list of our different life experiences go on and on.

Yet I find myself glancing backwards in my rear view mirror as they travel down the road in life to see how they handle teenage love, high school classes, and now, going away to school. It's not quite like going off to college, but somewhat. The road, of course, is different for our boys, and watching how they handle "the road of life" is enthralling. I'm probably even more fascinated with Oldest's theater experiences because I started in performing arts when I went off to college, then took an abrupt turn left. His road in theather might actually go forward.

That's what led me to my morning epiphany. It's all right to glance back at our childrens' experiences. Where it gets to be an issue is when it encompasses my own life. Just as driving down the road requires you to glance behind you on occasion, it's critical to keep your eyes focused ahead. I can see how quickly a mother can get caught up in the lives of her children so much that her own journey gets side tracked. You know these kinds of women. Remember the mom who bought the billboard for her daughter when she was running for queen? Or how about the one who murdered a cheerleader in her daughter's class? These are fools who live with their eyes so focused on the rear view mirror that they end up driving off the road completely.

I realize now that while it's great for me to enjoy my children's experiences, I still have future adventures of my own. It's equally as important for my sons to see me toodle off down my own path as it is for me to enjoy their journey. It's a lulling thing, looking back on a path that's familiar,  but it's fatal to both driver and the people coming behind. It also makes for a lousy role model.

It's both liberating and overwhelming to realize that I need to establish a new life roadmap: one that involves my family and yet gives me a course that's right for me. I don't mean just in a job, but spiritually, travel-wise, in adventure, and ways I haven't even yet comtemplated. It's more than establishing a "bucket list" to do before age 100. It's knowing the journey ahead will be filled with adventure. And that's a wonderful thought as I turn my eyes back ahead on the road.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

6 Things You Never Want To Hear Your Teenager Say

Living with a teen boy can be an interesting experience.  Here are some things you never want to hear from him:

1. "Do you know where Dad's machete is?" (That was in a phone conversation yesterday!)

2. "Dance? What dance? I have no idea what dance everyone has been talking about!" (Response when asked if he wanted to attend the local spring dance.)

3. "What? Dad told me to accelerate around turns!" (In response to my white-knucked grab as he rounded a corner while practice driving.)

4. "You don't have to tell me about sex. I read all about it on Wikipedia."

5. "The Marine Corps Recruiter will be calling."  (As I told my ex-Marine hubby, no mother wants to spend nine months carrying a child only to think he's going to get shot in some distant land some day. That's work with no reward.)

6. "I have no idea why I have so many zeroes in that class!"