Making the Bed

It took me a long time to start making my bed. As a child, it was not something required in my house. It was something saved for company, summer camp, and my one year of boarding school. In college, making my “bed,” which was really a mattress on the floor, was futile. Later, I only made my bed when I was expecting company, either a party where I would need places to put coats, or one person, where I would want my bedroom to be as inviting as possible.

Then there was the article I read that suggested you shouldn’t make your bed. You should instead let the sun shine on your bare bottom sheet to kill off germs and bed bugs. But about a year ago, recovering from cancer and surgery and managing a temporary single-parent status, I began making my bed.

I used to be a champion sleeper. In college, I could make a pot of coffee, study for a few hours, then go back to bed. But for the past 16 years, since becoming a mother, I no longer sleep. Although my children no longer require nighttime help, I remain awake and ready for the cry of the baby monitor, which is silly since it probably didn’t have batteries even when we still used it.

Now, I fall asleep easily and then wake in the middle of the night. When I was a child I hated going to bed because I was sure everything fun happened when I was asleep and my parents and older sister were still awake. Sometimes it still feels like that when I wake up in the middle of the night, like I am missing something important. Sometimes, it just feels like I have to pee.

I use several pillows to sleep. One for my legs, one for my shoulder, and one for my head. An additional pillow is needed if I want to lie on my back. My husband and I have a constant struggle over blankets and by the morning my bed looks like the scene of a very orderly pillow fight. So, now after the dogs have been out, before I begin work, I turn down the covers and top sheet, smoothing out the bottom sheet. I put all the pillows back in their place. I open the window shades and let the sun in.

When I have erased the restless night before, I do my assigned exercises, willing my body to work the way it once did. Hoping eventually that with enough sun and smoothing, I too can be put back in place.

I now understand the appeal of a made bed. It is like a bowl of fruit on the counter. A promise of something fresh and pretty. A promise of a healthier, more orderly day.

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Remembering Names

If you are in your 50s in the age of Facebook you can probably sort the names of people you went to high school with into four categories. There are your friends, the ones you still talk to and know, the ones who hold all your secrets. A few years ago, one of my best friends from high school and I were on a trip together. I marveled at the way we effortlessly set each other up for punch lines. I wondered why it was so easy, until I remembered that we’d been practicing for 30 years.

The second category are the people you know and liked. You’re happy to check in with them regularly, to see that they’re there in the world. You interact with them more on Facebook than you would if just left to phone calls and visits home. But they do not hold the key to your heart the way the first category of people do.

The third category are the people you look for. These are people you always liked, but didn’t really know, the boy from homeroom who said funny things under his breath, the girl who always had an extra pencil on test days. The boy you wound up in one class with and so you dated sophomore year, but didn’t have any friends in common, so never saw again after that. The girl you went to middle school with and lost track of in high school only to see her on graduation day when you said to each other, “Oh my god, we didn’t think we’d survive 8th grade Spanish, but look, we’re graduating high school now! We should totally get together this summer.” Only of course, you never got together over the summer and you haven’t seen her since, even though you both stayed home for college. Sometimes, you find yourself idly searching Facebook for these names, the barely missing parts of your childhood. If you go to your reunion, you look for them. You hope they are well and that they still make funny comments and carry extra pencils.

The fourth category are the names you don’t even know you remember. You’ll be talking to someone from category one or two and they’ll say “Remember, John Smith (not his real name)?” And you say, “No. Wait, yes. Wasn’t he the guy that fell during that assembly?” Then you laugh and you think, “Wow, how could I have ever forgotten that name?” But still, you don’t look for them on Facebook. Nothing against the John Smiths of the world, but life is busy.

Tonight on Facebook, in a group for alums of my high school, I saw a woman’s death announced. I didn’t recognize the name, but then, I thought I recognized the last name. I checked my yearbook and found a boy with hair piled high in a way that could only happen in a 1986 senior photo. I asked a friend, and she confirmed, this boy had transitioned years before.

Honestly, what I remembered most about this person was the thickness of their Kentucky accent, and a theater teacher desperately trying to get them to change it. I can picture them, but cannot recall a single conversation in detail. They were a fourth category name to me.

But I was intrigued, and so I looked. The woman I found on Facebook was a powerhouse. An activist for trans causes and people living with HIV. A supporter of Black Lives Matter. She posted a picture of Kamala Harris dressed as Wonder Woman. Apparently, Kamala had been her first choice for President. I find myself so sad she won’t get to vote for her for Vice President in November. But, I’m also glad this woman found herself and that she got to live her life in a way that was true.

Yesterday, if you had asked me, “What do you think happened to …” I wouldn’t have been able to offer a guess. Today, I think we’ve lost a great person.

In the past few months, death has been everywhere for me. My brother-in-law died. In six months my husband has lost an aunt, a student, and a co-worker. A woman I considered my 3rd grandmother died, as did the father of an old friend.  Still, I find myself mourning a woman whose name I didn’t even know I knew a few hours ago.

A friend whose parents both died recently said that she misses them every second of every day. Yet this woman is also going on with her life. She is raising her beautiful children, supporting her husband and friends, following her interests. Grief does funny things to time. It causes it to bend and stretch. Grief makes time elastic. So you can miss someone every second of every day, and still have time to laugh at your son’s jokes. You can say goodbye to an 18-year-old boy you once knew and meet a 51-year-old woman and mourn her all in the same few minutes.

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Sunday Morning Photos

When he’s bored with his own phone, my 14-year-old son likes to pick up my phone and go through the photos. My phone is 5 years old, so over a third of his life is stored in it. “You take a lot of random pictures,” he said to me the other day.

He’s right, I do. I know enough professional photographers to know that I’m not good at it, but I like to take photos of weird, or funny, things I see. Sometimes, it’s for social media. But sometimes it’s just for me to look at and think about later. When I think about book ideas, a lot of them are coffee table photo essays. I used to take my phone when I walked the dog. But, like a lot of people, we got a Covid puppy. Unlike our beagle, Sammy, who as my neighbor says isn’t really a dog, just an old man who likes to go out and yell at people, the new girl, Nova, is all dog. She is 41 pounds and 11 months of pure chaos.

You cannot bring a phone when you walk Nova. A moment of distraction could result in a tan and white blur of movement barreling down the street. Nova takes her first walk of the day around 6:30. As a morning person, with zero qualms about leaving the house in my pajamas, it doesn’t really bother me.

One of my favorite times and places is early morning in the French Quarter in New Orleans. The noise of the night before makes the quiet of the morning reverberate so much stronger. I like to see the remains of the previous evening, and the hardworking people beginning their clean up.

My suburb of Oak Park, Illinois is no French Quarter. The quiet is more common and so less remarkable. There are no remnants of a bacchanalia, no Mardi Gras beads or broken glass lying in the gutter. There is no one out cleaning the streets. But still, there are things to see. The other morning, there was a red mop lying in the middle of my closest cross street. I know it probably fell out of a car with cleaning supplies, or a moving truck, but I like to think it was a political statement.

A few blocks away a young boy was in his yard with his younger, and smaller puppy. The boy doesn’t know it, but I know his aunt and uncle in California and have met his parents. When they first moved in they were getting rid of a huge and bizarre piano. Although it looked like it belonged in a saloon, it had probably been in their house since the house was built. When the boy’s aunt asked on social media if anyone in the Chicago area wanted a piano, I said yes. One day the boy’s father brought it over on a fork lift. For years afterwards, whenever we would pass the house on our way to school or the park, I would tell the kids “That’s where our piano used to live.”

I don’t know why I felt the need to remind them of our piano’s origins. But, I like connections. I like that a woman I used to work with in my twenties, is the sister-in-law of a woman in my neighborhood, and that even though my friend lives in California, I wound up with a piano she knew about. I guess I reminded the kids about our piano’s first home because I want them to feel those connections. I think they are the best part of growing up in a small town. The puppies sniffed each other through the fence, and that was a little too exciting for Nova, so then we spent some time calming down.

A few blocks away the street was partially closed off for an experiment in “slow streets.” The idea is that with more people home during Covid, the streets should be safer for bikers and walkers. In the middle of the street was someone’s painting easel and chair. There was nothing on the easel, but in the early morning stillness it felt like an artist had simply been plucked from her work and sent into the ether.

There is a man who lives a block away from us who can often be seen and heard in the evenings practicing his violin in the living room. He is particular about his lawn care. Once, I saw him walk past our house, turn around and pluck a dandelion from our yard and leave it on our sidewalk. On this morning, I saw the man running, shirtless in a plaid skort. I do not know if the skort is important to him and this empty, early morning time is the only time that he feels he can express his true running self. For some reason though, it seems more likely to me that he bought it accidentally, maybe on sale, and simply wears it out of frugal stubbornness.

Occasionally, when my husband and I walk both dogs together and I have Sammy, I bring my phone and take pictures. But, there is something nice about just seeing things as well.

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9:00 AM Leaks

The other day, at about 9:00 am, we discovered a leak in our kitchen sink  and I suddenly realized why I’m so tired. It was not the leak.

One rainy day when I was about 9 my BFF and I were in her mother’s car, on the way somewhere, maybe to a party, maybe Sunday school, maybe just to take me home. I don’t know. When we pulled out of the driveway into the cul-de-sac (a street that still looms large in the memory of anyone who ever lived on or visited Deibel Court), we noticed that the dog had gotten into the the garbage cans and strewn trash across the driveway. Her mother told us to stay in the car. She got out and picked up the trash. I remember thinking then that being an adult meant you had to be the one to get out of the car and pick up the trash in the rain, and that it must suck.

I wasn’t wrong. It as good a definition of being an adult as any. Being an adult means being the one to pick up the trash, even in the rain. Usually. Don’t tell my husband, but one morning about 12 years ago I noticed that the toilet was about to overflow. It was my first day of a new job. I was dressed up and desperate to get out of the house before my babies woke up to complain about me leaving. I noticed that toilet on the brink and I walked out of the bathroom without doing a thing, leaving him to handle the impending doom later. Sometimes, even as an adult, you can let someone else handle the soggy trash.

But not right now. Right now there’s just too much soggy trash. By the time we discovered that the kitchen sink was leaking, I had already spent an hour fixing the Internet. With two adults working and two kids attending high school, all online from home, you cannot leave Internet issues for later. After we fixed the leak, we had 30 minutes to walk the dogs before my husband’s first meeting and the kids’ two-hour lunch break. I had promised my daughter a trip to a recently-discovered juice bar during her break.

This is what it feels like all the time now, in the time of Corona. A constant parade of crises and obligations, but even that isn’t the full reason everything is so exhausting. I think it is the interruptions and the lack of privacy. The interruptions that come from having 4 people and 2 dogs in the same space all the time. Even sitting down to write this at 7:30 on a Saturday morning, I have already been interrupted twice by kids and dogs. When I finish this draft, I will go downstairs for breakfast and … Narrator: She did not finish writing the sentence, let alone the draft.

There was a dog who needed to go out, and a kid who needed to talk about the death of a beloved actor. So, instead of whatever fantasy breakfast I was thinking about before, instead I ate some toast and emptied the dishwasher and talked to my son. Then, my husband and son decided to go fishing, so there were supplies to gather. It is now, once again, 9:00 am and I am once again exhausted.

When the kids were little we used to say being a parent was like the old Army ad, “We do more before 9:00 am then you do all day.” Somehow, Corona has put us back in that place of constant movement and interruption, a place where getting a foothold is impossible. We have also gone back to the days where a child cannot be left alone. Only now, it is that a parent cannot be left alone. There is no errand too mundane for someone to want to join me on it. I am grateful that my teenagers want to be with me, but I have not chosen the radio station in my car since Corona started. In this time of supposed isolation, I am constantly around other people. I have started trying to get in bed at 9:00 pm both because I’m tired, and because that might give me a full hour when someone else’s needs or mood are not part of my calculation.

In literature and songs, 3:00 am is the magic hour. Insomnia happens at 3:00 am, people leave bars and get into trouble at 3:00 am. But now, 9:00 am is the magic time. There is something about having your day go off the rails before it’s truly started. Whatever that thing is, it’s exhausting.

 

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The Smell of Creosote

Desert view with creosote

There was a storm the other day, just a little thunder, wind, and rain here, but farther to the north, it was a storm. When I went outside the next morning it smelled like creosote. More precisely, it smelled like waking up at the hotel I used to manage in Desert Hot Springs, where creosote grew outside my floor-length window. In the desert I never pulled the shade on my window. I liked to fall asleep looking at the lights in the distant city and wake up to the very beginning of the sun.

The other morning, the air smelled like taking my coffee outside and watching the sunrise with a whole desert day ahead of me to fill. A day with a hike to take and laps to swim in a pool I would clean, and rooms to turn over, and strangers to check in and talk to and maybe a drink with the group of women I’d become close to, or a visit from my hush-hush secret lover that even my friends didn’t know about until I was ready to leave. My friends in Desert Hot Springs were a group of women about 10 years older than me. Two of them were married to each other and the other two were single and we drank wine and I tried to figure out if I was like them, if I could make my own life, with no husband or kids, without a “regular” job. If I could live in a strange place and take in the smell of creosote every morning.

I’m sure the smell in Chicago had less to do with the storm and more to do with the destructive fires in California. A force of destruction blowing a little bit of peace for me. I am sad about the fires, but I took my hot water and lemon outside and breathed in as much as I could. By the time I was ready for tea and working, the smell had dissipated. I tried all day to get it back, but couldn’t.

I have lived in a lot of places, but Malawi and Desert Hot Springs, neither of which I lived in for long, remain fixed in my imagination. They are places where I found myself, at least for a time. I lost myself again recently. Maybe it was last year when I lost my breast to cancer, maybe it was years before when my life became consumed by the day to day of kids, husband, dogs, and work. All things I want and love. I’m not sure when I disappeared, but I spend a lot of time trying to find little bits of myself, grasping at them like a half-forgotten smell in the wind.

Online high school started for us last week. It is my son’s freshman year. He has always thought of himself as “a sports guy,” but now, starting high school at 5’2″ and 95 pounds, in a year where the intramurals aren’t happening and only the best of the best are playing any sport, in a town that asks kids to specialize early, he is realizing that maybe he is not a sports guy. He wants to be taller and bigger and be able to be on a team. He knows he is not those things, but he is unsure what he is. He does not want me to tell him that he is smart, funny, and loving, that the debate team would be perfect for him, or that he would get a role if he auditioned for a play. He does not want me to tell him that he is possibly a comedian or a writer.

So I do not. Instead I try to tell him that I know how it feels to not know who you are. I know that feeling of being someone with a missing piece. I felt complete when I gave birth to his sister and to him. Sometimes, when I am talking to one of my kids or helping with homework, I feel complete again. Once, in pre-Covid times, his sister was out for the evening with friends. I had washed her sheets earlier in the day and told her to make her bed. But, it was getting later and so I decided to make the bed for her. He followed me into her room and asked if I liked doing stuff like that. “Yeah,” I answered. “I like knowing that she’ll come in thinking that she has to make her bed but instead it will be all made with nice cold sheets and she can go right to sleep.” “Yeah,” he said. “I get that. I’d like doing that and thinking about that, too.” I felt complete again that night.

But, most of the time, I too wonder what kind of person I am, and what piece of me is missing. I wonder if there is a team for me or if maybe I was meant to be one of those women alone in the desert.

The day after the creosote smell I woke up at 5:00 AM to thunder and lightening, but no rain, and no creosote smell. I will need to keep trying to find my missing pieces.

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The Kitchen Table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have always been a kitchen table kind of family. We’re lucky, we have both an eat-in kitchen and a formal dining room. We use them both. We love them both. The kitchen table was the table in my husband’s house growing up. The ability to pull out an extra leaf from underneath and slide it into the very place you pulled it from is a never-ending source of amazement (well, to me). After 40 years or so of use, it was frankly kind of gross and hard to clean, or hard to make look clean. But still, we ate most meals around it.

The dining room table is huge and heavy. I bought it from an antique store in my late 20s, one of my first real furniture purchases. The table had come in the day before and needed refinishing, the chairs needed re-upholstering and so I got table and chairs for $200, delivered to my 3rd floor city apartment, which had it’s own dining room. I had wanted a Formica covered 1950’s diner-style table and chairs, but I did not have an eat in kitchen and I knew the table I wanted wouldn’t match my dining room. I had the chairs re-upholstered and left the table as is, assuming I would fix it one day. Spoiler alert, I have never fixed the dining room table.

We eat most meals at the kitchen table. The dining room is for company and Friday night dinner. Shabbat dinner is a holdover from the kids going to Jewish preschool and insisting on “special Shabbat dinner.” On Friday nights, we set the table with a tablecloth and our wedding china, we do the prayers, we always have dessert. For many years, Friday night dinner was always cheese tortellini, broccoli, and challah. It was the only meal everyone would reliably eat. Two of us are currently dairy free and so we’ve had to branch out and accept that not everyone will always love what we eat on Friday nights.

But most meals are in the kitchen. In the “before times,” the time before Covid-19, we usually managed to eat dinner together as a family 3-5 times a week. Sometimes there were evening classes, sometimes there was hockey, sometimes there were plays. Sometimes the dinners ended in one child or another storming out of the room. Sometimes (often), the kids loudly rejected my cooking and made their own PB&J. Sometimes after an hour or so of cooking and 15 minutes of eating I was left alone to spend 45 minutes cleaning, and it pissed me off. But when we could, we had dinner together.

When Covid came (to the country, not our house luckily), we had some rough spots with meals. One kid began to have stress-related stomach aches that left them barely able to eat, let alone eat with others. My husband began doing puzzles and there was a constant jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table. Being together 24/7 left us with less urge to come together for meals. There was a lot of eating snacks at the counter instead of meals. Friday night dinners were held in the kitchen, with no tablecloth, no china and sometimes even, most shockingly, no dessert.

When my husband finished his jigsaw puzzles, he took on a new project. He started refinishing the kitchen table. He moved the table to the basement and began work. Dinner, when it was held, was now held on a plastic table on the back porch. We felt surprisingly adrift without a kitchen table. We brought a folding table up to the kitchen simply to have a center. Refinishing the table didn’t take as long as a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, but it took awhile. There were 72 hour waits in between steps. The basement smelled of turpentine.

Then, it was done. Yesterday, my husband finished the table and brought it up the same day the kids began online high school. The table shines. I imagine it looks much like it did when my in-laws first brought it home, eager for a place to have their own family dinners. It’s surrounded by two squeaky thrift store chairs my husband bought in his 20s and two squeaky chairs we bought together at IKEA. Last year, when my husband was out of town I attempted to glue all the chairs back together to stop the squeaking. It was only moderately successful. Already on its second day as a newly done table the table is holding today’s newspaper, and a set of napkins, and a pen, and my downstairs glasses, and maybe my purse, I’ll have to check where I left it. No matter how clean and fresh a kitchen table is, it should still hold a little chaos. That is after all the purpose of a kitchen table, to contain the chaos of the family.

Our chairs and are lives are highly imperfect. But we have a kitchen table to hold the chaos and a dining room table for tradition and sometimes, with a little elbow grease, everything can look fresh and new.

 

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Karen and Steve

The other day on Facebook, where all life happens now, a friend asked for the definition of a Karen. She was confused because she thought that previously “Karens” were the women lecturing others about face masks and calling the police about non-socially-distancing groups of teens. But now, it seemed liked people were using “Karen” to describe women refusing to wear their masks and throwing fits in the grocery store.

Women chimed in with various definitions and explanations of Karen. Then, a woman I don’t know commented that she had “checked with her daughters who are in their 20s and in the know on these things” and gave their definition. She also went through everyone else’s comments and told them that they were wrong and that they should look at her definition below.

It was all very Karen and very meta. I was left wondering, where are the Steves? In my 20s I worked at a company that had so many Steves we began renaming them as a condition of employment. Yes, looking back, that’s a pretty problematic employment practice, even as a joke, but it was the 90s. Somewhere in Northern California is a programmer in his 50s who still goes by the name “Mick,” because that’s the name he was given by his coworkers in Chicago.

When the kids were in preschool we had a family Hanukkah party with four or five other families. The only men not named Steve were my husband and his father. My point is that there are clearly as many Steves among middle-aged white men as there are middle-age white women named Karen. As a group, middle-aged white men probably demand special treatment and ask to speak to the manager easily as often as women. But no one has ever dismissed the concern of a middle-aged man by telling him “You’re such a Steve.”

When men behave badly we deal with them as individuals. We call them out as individuals. When women behave badly, we dismiss them as women. It happens with “mean girls” and “bridezillas,” too. Are there girls who are mean? Yes. Is every girl mean? No. Are there brides who demand their bridesmaids change their hair or lose weight, who feel entitled to yell at wedding planners and make demands? Yes. Are their grooms who do that? Also, yes.

The problem with reducing bad behavior to a dismissive gender-based word is two-fold. One, it allows us to dismiss valid complaints and requests that women make. Years ago when I worked for wedding websites I had an advice column (which also explains the name of this blog). I’d get letters all the time from women who had various reasonable requests about their wedding but were afraid to state them because they didn’t want to be labeled “a bridezilla.” Worse, were the women whose own families called them a “bridezilla” every time they mentioned their wedding or stated an opinion.

Sometimes, something is wrong and you need to speak to the manager. Why is it a problem only when women ask to have something fixed?

The other problem with this kind of reductive language is that it supports the idea that women can’t help their behavior. Calling the cops because you see a black man isn’t a product of being a white woman, it’s a product of being a racist white woman. Dismissing women’s bad behavior as “Karen” is just another way of letting primarily white women off the hook for that behavior.

When you reduce bad behavior to a stereotype it becomes easy to dismiss. On another Facebook thread (seriously people, we’re in a pandemic I don’t have any other social outlet), this one in a mom’s group, a woman called another woman a neglectful and unfit mother because her child walked out of the house without shoes. When a third woman referred to her as a Karen, she replied that she couldn’t be a Karen, because she’s black. If the third woman had simply called her judgemental and unkind, or even a judgemental bitch, that criticism would have been a little harder to dismiss. Bitch is a gendered insult, but it’s not an insult that assumes behaving badly is part of being a woman.

When Karen took off in force, there was an overblown backlash claiming that the term was “as bad as the N word.” Clearly, it is not. There is not a history of oppression or hatred behind the term Karen. It is not used as a prelude to murder. If we stop using Karen to dismiss women we’ll just go back to using Soccer Mom or the clunkier, but more direct,  “White Suburban Mom” as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did when dismissing valid concerns about Common Core curriculum.

Not using Karen to dismiss them isn’t going to suddenly make people listen to middle-aged women. But also, using it is still kind of a Steve move.

 

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A Good Crisis Wasted

Here in my middle class (increasingly upper middle class) suburb of Oak Park Illinois the mom groups are in a tizzy. It’s not the usual tizzy about teenagers without bike helmets, or people putting their poop bags in strangers’ garbage cans, or the difficulties of finding a good haircut for curly hair (with which I completely empathize by the way).

The current tizzy is about how “badly” distance learning went for our schools. Many, many women are completely convinced that other school districts did it better. They offered more synchronous learning, more one-on-one time with teachers, better curriculum. Maybe other districts did, I doubt it, but I don’t know.

School wasn’t going so great for one of my kids before he started doing it from home. I mean, it was fine. He’s a smart kid, he had some good grades and some bad grades both of which were entirely his responsibility. But in the eleven years that my family spent in our K-8 school district, the schools got progressively more rigid and less creative. As block scheduling set in, teachers lost the ability to improvise. Despite tons of research showing it is ineffective, the homework load got heavier. First the ipads and then laptops came to rest heavily in their backpacks. Recess got shorter and shorter, necessitating the addition of something called “Second Step,” which supposedly teaches social emotional growth skills. You know, the things you used to learn by playing with friends at recess.

At our massive middle schools (900 – 1,000 students) there is no outdoor space for playing. Because, 12 year olds have zero need to run around. Every day for three years my son and his friends attempted to play football or catch in front of the school. Inevitably, a ball would go into the street. An administrator on duty would go and retrieve it. Sometimes yelling at the boys for using the 15 minutes of free time they had to play. Sometimes confiscating the ball. It’s good that they had all that social-emotional curriculum squeezed into a 15 minute period once a week. I’m sure it helped them process the idea that the adults at the school did not want them to act like children.

For most of us with school-age children, what we see missing from our kids’ day isn’t the math or the history. There will be other chances to learn the causes of World War I. The Pythagorean theorem can be Googled (I’m assuming, I actually don’t know it or really what it is because I am both math illiterate and a functioning adult). For my kid, there have actually been intellectual benefits to school from home. He has started learning about flags. He has taken a seriously deep dive into politics and thinks he might want to be on a city council one day (this might also be due to our binge watching of Parks & Recreation). He has started and stopped learning Gaelic and Hebrew (mainly stopped). All personal interests that the over-scheduled school day and homework left no time for. Imagine if kids could explore personal interests with the help of a teacher.

What our kids have missed is the social aspect of school. What we have missed is them having the social aspect of school. We’re dying for them to be able to spout nonsense with their friends instead of with us. Honestly, if my 14-year-old explains his views on why West Ham is being unfairly treated by the soccer people, how the NFL draft could be improved, or Libertarianism (thanks Ron Swanson), one more time, I’m going to scream.

We want them to be able to blow off steam with other kids, instead of in our house where things are broken. We want someone else to have to watch them eat (and can someone please explain to me how a kid who at home eats 5 full meals a day, evenly spaced at 8, 10, 12, 3, and 6 has been surviving on one 15 minute “lunch” break at 11 am until now? He has grown two inches since March and I’m starting to wonder if school was making him malnourished).

But in all our eagerness to get “back to normal,” we’ve failed to ask what parts of normal school are worth getting back to. We’ve sent a clear message to our district that they need to get it together and figure out a plan for the fall, but we haven’t asked them to use this time wisely. We haven’t asked them, or ourselves, if, now that we’ve had this break, now that we’ve seen what’s really important about school, we maybe want to rethink things a little.

Despite being warned by everyone from Machiavelli to Churchill to Rahm, I fear we have wasted a good crisis.

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Other People’s Children

This morning I went to a bat mitzvah. In almost every bar/bat mitzvah there is a part where the other children in the congregation are invited to come up to the bimah. It usually takes a little coaxing, first, the Jewish kids bound up the stairs, they know what to do. Eventually the non Jewish kids join them. Then they all stand there looking awkward, the boys in shirts tucked half in and half out. The girls shifting their weight in shoes they aren’t quite sure how to stand in. It almost always makes me cry, this show of support, this willingness to expose themselves, to be counted as a friend of the child at the center.

There are kids who were at my bat mitzvah who were at my wedding. There are people who were at my bat mitzvah, my wedding, and my children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. So, I look at whatever group of kids is assembled in front of me and wonder which ones will still be friends 10, 20, 30 years from now. They stand so close to the edge of the rest of their lives it’s impossible not to love them. It’s impossible not to imagine what comes next.

When I left the house for the bat mitzvah I left 8 13-14 year old boys in my basement. Yesterday, they came home from school with my son for his birthday. I’ve known some of these boys since they were 3, some since they were 8, the newest member joined the group when he was 10. We’ve lost a few to other friends, other interests and I miss the one I always knew would fall asleep first. I even miss the ones who almost always got into fights. Even when my son tells me that so and so isn’t as nice anymore, that this one was in a fight, this one suspended, I miss still miss the boys they were. Almost all of the boys tower over me now. Yesterday they were all wearing shirts and ties because it was 8th grade graduation picture day.

“Thanks for having us Mrs. Block,” says a young man who looks like he could just as easily have come in from his first day of a new job. Late at night, the ties shed, some of them in pajamas, they go out to play in the snow. They yell and scream and wrestle and make nuisances of themselves. I feel bad for my neighbors, but I stand transfixed at the window watching them. I am unwilling to ask them to stop, to go back to being young men. I want the group of them to keep playing like this as long as possible. I think I knew how much I would love my own children, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love their friends.

On school mornings my son’s friend walks to our house and then they walk to school together. Every morning I say “I love you” and “Have a good day.” Some days it isn’t clear who I’m saying I love you to and my son jokingly asks, “You love E?” Of course I love him. How could I not love a boy who in first grade, when my son held open the door for him, asked if he wanted to be best friends? How could I not love a boy who chooses “19th century guy dressed as a modern boy” as a Halloween costume? How could I not love the one friend the same height as my own boy? He never asks me if I mean that I love him, too. He knows I do.

There are so many things that surprise you and break your heart as a parent, especially as the parent of teenagers. But there is so much joy in having your heart burst open by so many people.

 

 

 

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Across the Aisle

On Sunday, my husband, teenage daughter and I took the El downtown to the ballet. When we got on a friend I don’t see often was unexpectedly on board and I was excited to chat with her.

A few stops later a family came on. Three gorgeous kids, between the ages of 2-5 and their father, between the ages of 20-25. The sister, a middle child, sat in the farthest right seat and immediately turned around and looked out the window. She did not turn around again until it was time to get off the train and when she did she was smiling from ear to ear. The older brother grabbed the middle seat and his younger brother cried. He had wanted the middle seat. The father sat across the aisle and told the young boy to stop crying. In a move that will surprise no parent ever, the boy kept crying.

A few minutes later, the father offered the younger brother his headphones. The boy, still devastated by the injustice of not getting the middle seat, rejected the offer. The older brother accepted them, causing his little brother to realize that he did in fact want the headphones and now he had been denied the middle seat and the headphones. There were more tears, sniffles and huge, tragic tears running down his beautiful face. The boys both had small top knots and the little boy’s bounced rhythmically with his crying.

The father did his best to ignore the crying, occasionally looking up and saying such helpful things as “I didn’t ask you to stop crying, I told you to stop crying.” Eventually, he stretched his hand across the aisle and the little boy grabbed it and climbed into his father’s lap. With his head on his father’s shoulder, he let out a few short hiccups and relaxed.

I think most of us would like to be the sister, keeping her own counsel, enjoying the view, unbothered by the drama around her. Occasionally, we may be the older brother, winning at everything. But usually we are the younger brother. An initial disappointment upsets us. We are offered a way out of the upset, but it’s too early or not exactly what we want and we can’t accept it. From there, the downward spiral seems unending, until finally, if we are lucky, a hand we can accept is offered. Sometimes we are the father, overwhelmed by the number of things that can possibly go wrong in such an easy transaction, desperately trying to hold back the grief and the chaos, finally offering  a hand across the chasm and having that hand accepted.

If we are lucky, we learn to reach out our hands. If we are lucky, we learn to accept the hands we are offered.

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