Memorial Day Weekend

On Thursday night my friend Sandy’s father died. I was feeling sad for her and sad for myself, for being at the stage of life where your friends’ parents die. My friends Vince and Miller called. They are also friends of Sandy’s and for them the news of her father’s death had sparked one of those arguments that only a couple who has been together since high school can have.

They called me to settle the question of whether Miller had dated a certain boy (the answer, yes). The conversation spun off in to trying to put together a timeline of our young lives and romances, memories of stupid things we did, and for reasons best left unsaid, an unquenchable desire to watch the movie Camelot. I went to bed still sad for Sandy, but also laughing and grateful to have so many people who share my memories.

Saturday I got to see Sheila and Kate, friends I haven’t seen in years. Sheila’s father also recently died. She and I, both mothers, talked about how much we missed lazy Saturdays spent wandering in and out of stores and meeting people for coffee. Kate is a real-life Hollywood writer. Sheila and I wanted dirt on that most nostalgic of shows, Mad Men, which Kate used to work on. We had questions such as, “Is Jon Hamm really that good looking?” (ok, that was my question and apparently, yes). But we also just wanted to talk about the characters.

I mentioned that in watching reruns recently I noticed how much more fun Joan used to be and used to have. Kate agreed, “I think she did used to have more fun when she was younger, she hadn’t been worn down, she hadn’t had a kid, she hadn’t been raped.”  The three of us spent a long, effortless time talking about our careers and our declining eyesight.

That night my husband Danny and I went out for our anniversary. We went to our old neighborhood and ate a delicious dinner in what used to be a hang-out bar with no menu. We went to a play at a theater where we had both seen a lot of plays, and also where I used to take resist-a-ball class, because of course.

My friend Phil co-wrote and stars in the play and at one point, standing very near us, he begins a monologue. As the monologue progresses Danny and I realize that the story he is telling involves Danny’s oldest friend Eric, who committed suicide five years ago. The story is not about Eric, or his death, but about an old apartment of Phil’s. Eric and Phil were neighbors.

Later, over dessert, Danny and I try to joke about it. “Well, it’s not every day that a play brings up your best friend’s suicide, and not even thematically, but literally.” But all these memories are too close to the surface in this neighborhood where we used to live. The jokes fall flat and we bring home our uneaten desserts.

On Sunday, Danny and I take our son Joey to the forest preserve to  learn how to ride a bike. This is not an unloaded situation. It starts with a fight between Danny and Joey on whether or not today is the day, which leads in to a more general fight and tears. I can not ride a bike, and have tried to stay as far away from my kids learning how to ride a bike as possible. I don’t want to put my childhood on them. But Joey wants the dog and me to come along.

I take the dog for a walk and fifteen minutes later I get a phone call. “Mommy, I can do it, come back.”

When I come back I see him, my beautiful son. He is pedaling quickly but effortlessly, a wide smile on his face, he looks as though he’s been riding for years. His father watches from behind, an equally wide smile on his face.

When we were in college Miller told me that I was the only person he knew who looked forward to nostalgia. It’s true, sometimes I live too much in the past. I hold grudges and memories close to my heart. Maybe it is because I’m a writer, or maybe I’m a writer because I am always reworking something that is already past. There is an undeniable joy and comfort for me in reliving the past, even the painful parts, and in reconnecting with those who were there with me.

But sometimes the trip down memory lane is too bumpy even for me. At those times even I know that the best thing you can do is pedal quickly in to the future.

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Lessons Learned in the Rain at 4 a.m.

At four this morning my husband and I  heard a tick, ticking sound coming from the direction of his dresser. I assumed that my husband had accidentally set an alarm on his new phone, or that his old phone had somehow come back to life and was about to explode. He went over to the dresser, but could not find the source of the noise. I began thinking uncharitable thoughts about how messy his dresser was and that if he’d keep it clear, he would be able to find things.

He felt something wet. Later, he told me that he assumed he had gotten a text and his phone had vibrated knocking a glass of water over. At 4 am that theory made a lot of sense. In reality, it was raining, in our room.

Our house is under construction and we are currently without a roof. There was a 20% chance of rain last night and the odds were not in our favor.

We cleared most of my husband’s dresser and covered the rest with a towel. We went upstairs to investigate. The parts of the roof that were covered in a tarp were fine, but there were a few spots here and there where the tarp had not been nailed down or was missing. These spots happened to be over our bedroom and living room.

We looked for our camping tarp, but couldn’t find it since most of our non everyday items are in storage. I hit upon the idea of using the shower curtain from our now non existent basement shower. My husband wanted to look for nails to nail the curtain where the tarp should be. Although we’re living in a construction site, we could not find nails and so that is how I found myself at 4:30 in the morning trying to duct tape a polka dot shower curtain to a roof beam.

Duct tape does not solve everything. Eventually, we simply put the shower curtain on the ground hoping to catch some of the water, or keep it from seeping through to our bedroom. We moved the industrial garbage cans the workers had helpfully left under the worst spots and went back to bed.

We slept for half an hour, then the noise started again. This time it was raining hard and the drips were in our hallways and dripping through the main floor to the basement. So, we covered more things with towels and buckets.

I had been fairly amazed that all the commotion had not woken up our kids, blissfully asleep in the part of the house that still has a roof. My nine-year-old woke up for a few minutes and asked me to stay with him. It was tempting to climb in to that warm bed and sneak in some snuggles, but I got back out put down a few more towels and then the rain stopped again. We snuck in another half an hour or so of sleep.

It was cold and tiring but I had one thought: My husband and I had been woken up at 4 am, there was water coming in our bedroom and we did not yell at each other. Maybe that’s normal, but I grew up in a house where the fact that it was raining outside of the house might cause people to yell at each other.

When I tried to duct tape a polka dot shower curtain to the roof my husband did not insult me. When he suggested that we move a very large, heavy pile of roofing planks out of the way to better position the garbage can I did not insult him. We didn’t actually try and help each other do either of those absurd things, but we let each other try it and then we got back to work together.

I was never sure I wanted to be married. I liked the idea of having someone to change the lightbulbs and reach the high things, but the idea of living with someone, of having someone in my space all the time was hard for me to get behind.

Next month will be our twelfth anniversary. Like any normal human being I’ve spent a little time over the past dozen years of marriage thinking about what it might be like to still be single. I’ve imagined how nice it might be to not have someone who wants to talk when I want to read. I’ve dreamed about clean bathrooms and eating ice cream straight out of the carton.

But I think if you wake up at 4 am and it’s raining in your bedroom and you don’t want to kill the person lying next to you, then you’ve probably got a good thing going.

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Donna Day Blog-a-Thon for Childhood Cancer

I’ve had the word “Donna” on my to-do list for a week or so now. Every year I participate in something known as “Donna Day” a blog-a-thon that helps raise money for children’s cancer research, specifically St. Baldricks.

The blog-a-thon is in honor of Donna, the daughter of friends of mine. Donna died before her fifth birthday. Most years I’ve had an idea of what I wanted to write about a week or more before the blog post was due. This year, I’ve got nada. The name has stayed on my to-do list because I’m tired. I’m tired of childhood cancer. In the past year, two kids I know have gone in to remission and one new child has been diagnosed. I guess overall that’s a win, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like a loss, an exhausting and sad loss.

I know I’m lucky to have the luxury of being tired of thinking about kids with cancer. Like all of us whose children are not sick, I can move in and out, helping when I’m able or when I want to, pushing it to the back of my mind and leaving it on a to-do list when I do not want to think about it.

Those whose children have cancer, or survived cancer, or did not survive cancer, do not have that luxury. Once childhood cancer comes for a visit, it stays permanently, leaving little unwanted gifts: deafness, infertility, fear of strangers, brain damage … the list is long and unpredictable.

This year I have nothing new to say. So I will say the same old thing:

If you’d like to support children and families with cancer, those who can not simply write a name down on a to-do list and let it sit, and certainly can’t cross it off the list, but have to live with cancer every day, may I suggest you donate to St. Baldrick’s.

Donna Day is organized by Jeremy and Sheila, Donna’s loving parents who continue to parent Donna by raising awareness of and funds for childhood cancer. You can contribute directly to their annual St. Baldrick’s Fundraising event here. You can also learn more about the event and how you can participate.

You can learn more about St. Baldrick’s and the pitiful state of funding for childhood cancer here.

If you know someone that you think this message will resonate with, please share this post. If this message doesn’t resonate with you, that’s fine. Check out the Mary Tyler Mom blog or FB page (MTM is also Donna’s mother) or the Donna’s Good Things Facebook Page. Donna’s mother will have a list of other blogs participating, maybe one of their posts will hit the spot for you.



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The Licensed Babysitter

My almost-11-year-old’s current career ambition is to be a babysitter. She wants to babysit, then be a camp counselor, then one day, work with kids with autism. Or, maybe be a scientist that studies autism. Of course, being an author or a pastry chef are also still very much in the running.

On Saturday, she spent from 9:30 -3:30 in a “Safe Sitter” class, the first step on her professional ladder. Feeling giddy and punch drunk because I spent the day in an arcade with my 9-year-old son, I posted my daughter’s certificate and referred to her as a “licensed babysitter.”

My cousin commented that the idea of a “licensed babysitter” was “scary.” I kind of know what he means, but, I still got snippy. I think sometimes those of us who are more on the “free range” side of the parenting spectrum take our dislike for more protective parenting a bit too far.

Just because we didn’t take babysitting classes before we started babysitting, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. I remember being 12 and being left with kids in diapers and having no idea how to change a diaper. Yes, I figured it out, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have been taught how to do it ahead of time. More importantly, I remember being given a ride home by a clearly drunk father and having no idea what I was supposed to do. They covered that in my daughter’s class. They also covered what to do if the drunk dad hits on you.

They also had discussions on how to set prices and how to communicate those prices.

Two of the reasons traditionally female jobs are often under paid are because the jobs are undervalued and women are often uncomfortable talking about money. That devaluation starts early on. If taking care of kids is something any 11-year-old can do with no training, than why do we need to pay daycare workers decently?

I hope that by telling my daughter before she starts her very first job that she is allowed to set prices, and that her services have value, she won’t be one of those women who accepts any salary offered.

I get it, the idea of licensing kids to do basic things that kids have been doing for centuries is weird and smacks of helicopter parenting. But what if instead we think of it as giving our girls a license to do things differently than the way they’ve been done for centuries? What if instead of a license to babysit my daughter has earned a license to stand up for herself? A license to know her self worth? A license to know the value of her services?

That license may scare other people, but it doesn’t scare me.

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Trust Vaccines? Then Please STFU

Kids should be vaccinated. My kids are vaccinated. My father-in-law is a polio survivor. My husband had a dangerous case of chicken pox as an adult. I have lived in third world countries and seen children disfigured by diseases that we don’t get in this country.

I was raised by scientists (well, they’re social scientists, but they will tell you that’s just as important as regular science, and also, they lack all the same social skills as regular scientists, so you know, they’re scientists). I believe in the scientific method and scientific evidence. I like my aromatherapy and my yoga and my pressure points, but when I have a cold bring on the Nyquil. I spent 8 weeks in Bradley Method classes. But after 36 hours of painful but going nowhere labor, pitocin was welcome. When my baby was stuck on my pelvis and we were both in danger of dying, I was pretty happy the midwife left and brought in a doctor with a suction cup. I believe in modern, Western medicine.

Here’s something that’s been shown by science, social science, but still, science. When someone has a firmly held belief, presenting them with facts to the contrary does not change their mind. In fact, it can cause them to cling to that belief more fiercely.

I understand that a sample size of two is not scientifically acceptable, but my kids have been conducting an experiment for years and the results may surprise you. Calling someone an idiot never gets them to do what you want them to do. Shocking I know, but my guess is that same thing holds true for adults. If you write a yelling, screaming blog post or newspaper article or Facebook status calling someone who doesn’t vaccinate their child an idiot they will not rush out and stick a needle that they firmly believe contains poison in to their child’s arm. It just won’t work.

I know that vaccines are safe and useful, but here’s something that may make you a little uncomfortable. Not everyone who thinks otherwise is an uninformed idiot. Yes, some people are being stupid and trendy. But as much as I believe in science, I also believe in history. History has made it pretty clear that sometimes doctors and scientists are wrong (remember thalidomide babies). Sometimes doctors and scientists make shit up (remember when autism was caused by cold-hearted moms).  Sometimes the government does not have our best interests at heart lies to us about science (hello Tuskeegee syphillis experiments). Sometimes pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to over-prescribe medicines (hi, ritalin).

It may feel great to toss off an angry post about stupid non-vaccinating parents. It may feel great to share angry posts on Facebook. I’ll be honest, I  read one too many of those angry posts this morning and it felt pretty good to write this, so I get the impulse.

But truly, what is that blog post or snarky Facebook post accomplishing? If you truly believe in science or you have any experience with human beings, you know that your snark, your anger, your name calling isn’t helping. Calling someone an idiot has not done a single thing to help prevent measles or polio or any other disease, and in fact, may make the situation worse.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we convince people who distrust medicine and science to do so.

I’m sure that my children will keep working on their name calling experiment if they come up with a workable, scientifically replicable solution I’ll let you know. Until then, maybe you know, just try not to be an ass.

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Snow Days

Fourth grade was a bad year for me.  I went from the loving embrace of Mrs. Minnis, a woman who defended my left-handedness by loudly telling everyone in class that her husband, an artist, was also left-handed, to the cold-fish grip of Mrs. Mackrel. Honestly, I don’t even know if that was her name. It might have been Mackle or Mackel, Mackeler?

But I know she was old, a year or so from retirement, and her hands had large blue veins. Every day I went from her boring classroom to a loud room down the hall marked LD. There were kids in that room I’d never seen before, kids I didn’t know went to my school, kids who threw things and yelled, kids who did not speak. I was supposed to go there daily to work on my handwriting and my math. It would have been bad enough even if Jack Jones (not his real name) had not decided to tell me one November day what LD stood for.

That night in tears, I asked my father if it was true, that I was learning disabled, retarded. My father said he didn’t find labels helpful and I went to bed knowing that it was in fact true, I was retarded. The next morning there was snow on the ground, almost unheard of in November in Louisville, KY and from that moment on the worst year of school became the best. There was a Thanksgiving blizzard, followed by snow in December. Louisville, KY is not like Chicago or New York, or honestly, any other normal place. Louisville persists in seeing itself as a southern city and so, like other southern cities, it refuses to buy appropriate snow removal equipment. The merest hint of snow can shut everything down for days.

That year, the early snow combined with a teacher’s strike, proved my savior. Days away from taunting classmates and confusing classrooms gave me room to recover and breathe. The next year, when I was moved to a different school for advanced placement classes, instead of LD, snow days were possibly more important.

We have a popular idea that those of us who grew up in the 1970s all spent our childhoods running in traffic, eating Oreos, and watching TV. That wasn’t my experience. I was over-scheduled and organically fed before it was cool. Violin lessons and Hebrew School twice a week (three times if you count Sundays), a house devoid of junk food except for Tab, summer camp and tightly controlled schedules.

But no one could control snow days. On a snowy night, I would watch the news and pray to see Jefferson County Public Closed scroll by on the bottom of the screen. If it didn’t, then the next morning I would stay in bed, radio on,  eyes squeezed closed, hoping the DJ on WACKY would say the magic words. Then, the choice, do I turn over and go back to sleep or bounce out of bed to make the most of the day?

TV, food, freedom. There was no one to tease me (well, except my sister) and with my parents at work no expectations at which to fail. Even in college, school would occasionally be canceled for snow and the feeling of freedom and release would make me giddy.

It’s one of the things I admire about my hometown, the ability to just stop. I think about that now that I’m in the most midwestern city, the city that works, or well, in a suburb of the city that works. I remember when my kids first started school hearing that our school district NEVER closed and being sad for them.

When my daughter was in first grade though, there was a blizzard, and school closed. I don’t remember what we did, except that we met another family for lunch at a restaurant we could both walk to. The next day though, everything was shoveled and clear and while others were happy to get back to work, I cried because no one else seemed to have a need to get off the path for a while.

Every year since then, blame Obama or blame climate change, school has been closed at least once a year for weather. People write op-eds about the wimpification of our culture. Parents complain. I hear parents and others try parse what causes the schools to close some days and not others.

I get it. I’m trying to work here, too.

But, I’ve decided that this year, I don’t care. Maybe it wasn’t cold enough yesterday and it is today. Maybe sometimes we cancel school when really, we probably could have gone. But we also hear all the time about how over-scheduled and over-pressured our kids are. We don’t hear quite as much about how over-scheduled and over-pressured most adults are, but they are.

Snow days are different than vacation days. Vacation days you plan for, vacation days cause their own level of excitement, yes, but also stress. Snow days are uncontrollable and unpredictable, and maybe, the idea that sometimes you have to stop, sometimes you have to let nature or a superintendent or something else be in control is just as important a lesson for adults as it is for kids.


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An Apology to Sports

I owe sports an apology.

I am not a sports person. I don’t come from a sporty family, I don’t like competition, I don’t like groups, and I am, to put it mildly, uncoordinated.

I think the way my family treated sports was probably pretty typical for a lefty academic family. In my family, professional sports was always seen as unimportant. Frank DeFord’s comments on NPR were something to get through to get to the real news. College sports were something that took money away from the real work of universities (anthropology and sociology according to my parents).

But, I married a sports fan, a former NCAA athlete (swimmer), a fan of pickup basketball games. A man who still loves to listen to Bears and Cubs games on the radio, who always finds another team to follow as an excuse to keep watching games. Then, I gave birth to a sports fan. A boy who taught himself to read so that he could read the Sports Page. He loves to play sports, he loves to watch sports, he loves sports.

My son has always brought me stories about sports that he thinks I’ll appreciate. Usually, it’s something showing people on different teams supporting or helping each other. Sometimes, it’s just something about U of L Basketball, or an athlete who is from Louisville, a short athlete, or a Jewish athlete.

A few years ago I brought him Chris Kluwe and Jason Collins. He brought me Michael Sam.

Then, a few weeks ago he brought me the St. Louis Rams management saying they wouldn’t ask their players to apologize for making the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture. He brought me LeBron James in an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt. When we went to a Black Lives Matter solidarity march this weekend, that’s the sign he wanted to carry. Not just because an athlete had worn the shirt, but because the athlete had shown him how important it was to show your beliefs.

At the march a speaker talked about sports and America. He said Americans love sports because they’re fair. Larry Bird did not get more points for a basket than Michael Jordan. My son gave me a clear look of “I told you so.”

This morning I brought him Andrew Hawkins in his “Justice for Tamir Rice” shirt and told him about his statement refusing to apologize for the shirt. He asked me for more info on Tamir Rice.

A few years ago I realized that team sports, while still probably not a good fit for me, have been excellent for my kids. And now I realize my other mistake, professional sports are not a waste of time and money. Professional sports are part of our culture.

Yes, there are other people I could bring my son: Ray Rice, Michael Vick, Oscar Pistorious, Adrian Peterson. As horrible as their behavior is, it is still part of our culture. Like other entertainers and artists, athletes have a voice and how they use it is sometimes good and sometimes bad.

The actress Nichelle Nichols has told a story about wanting to quit Star Trek and being talked out of it by Martin Luther King, Jr. King told her that she needed to stay in the role, to show a future where a black woman was in a position of authority, to show a future where races worked together.

President Obama has said that his thoughts on gay marriage evolved in part because of TV shows like Will and Grace.

The Jungle, Grapes of Wrath, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, everyone can think of a book that helped change someone’s mind or a policy.

I get it now, sports has the same power.

So, I apologize, for all the cracks about dumb athletes and for all the rolling of eyes at sports talk.

But, I’m still only watching the Super Bowl for the commercials.

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