Unexpected Lessons

It’s not a popular statement in “mommy groups” where we’re all supposed to agree that parenting is SO HARD ALL THE TIME but, I’ve occasionally said that the hardest part of being my daughter’s mother was her birth. It was ridiculously, life-threateningly, hard. It was not made easier when she spent the first two days of her life in the NICU, but from then on, it’s actually been pretty smooth sailing.

I mean, there were, and are, issues, concerns, worries. Her early shyness and clinginess were extreme enough to seek out evaluations and earn a diagnosis of “poor proprioception.” She has very flat feet and one leg is slightly shorter than the other, so there were corrective arches for a while. Oh, and she’s a horrible speller. I mean, really, really bad at spelling. But mainly, she’s  a great kid and she’s healthy. Her father and brother are asthmatic and prone to colds, flus, coughs, not her. She’s rarely sick, but when she is, it’s kind of brutal.

Two days before her bat mitzvah she got sick. It was brutal.

One of the things that makes my daughter such a delight, and such a mystery to me, is that she’s a hard worker. I am not a hard worker. If I like something, I’ll do it, but if I don’t, if it’s too hard or too boring, like math, I generally just don’t do it. This isn’t a personality trait that I’m necessarily proud of, but it is something I accept about myself. My daughter is different. She doesn’t have to like or not like something, if she has to do it, she works at it. If it’s something she wants and likes, she works really, really, really hard. If it’s something she doesn’t care about, she just works really hard.

She worked really hard on her bat mitzvah. Some days, she worked really, really, really hard, but mainly, she worked really hard. My daughter is also an Irish dancer. Her bat mitzvah came right in the middle of Irish dance season and she worked really, really, really hard at dance. Her bat mitzvah was in the morning, she had a dance performance that afternoon.

She was perfectly prepared for both. She prepped and practiced and then, she woke up the day before with no voice, a slight fever, and coughing.

The day of her bat mitzvah she woke up at 6:00 am, ready to go. By the time she was ready to start at 10:00 am, she was still ready to go. About 20 minutes in, she started to cough. She sat down and began chugging water in a desperate attempt to keep her throat coated. She made it through her torah portion and her haftorah, and then, she really, really had to pee. She did what any logical person in need of a bathroom would do and raced through her d’var torah. Her beautifully written, somewhat subversive and sassy d’var torah. A d’var torah that questioned the very validity of her torah portion, not to mention threw a little shade at everyone who had bought a new dress for the occasion (including her mother). It was a piece de resistance, that was supposed to let her show everyone what she really thought, and no one heard a word, or rather, people heard a few words, very, very quickly.

She read it so quickly that the congregation burst in to spontaneous laughter/applause when she was done.

Things did not go as planned. She was a little embarrassed, but she recovered, and despite being sick, she went on to dance later in the day. She was tired, she was still sick, but she loves to dance, and her group was expecting her.

Once when she was little my daughter said, “I am not a person who does things well.” She meant she wasn’t one of those people who can naturally do things like cartwheels. My daughter is smart and beautiful, she’s kind and caring, but she doesn’t have that one thing that she’s always just been naturally good at. She is a hard worker. In the end of course, hard workers tend to do better in life than natural talents. Natural talents have a tendency to be afraid to make mistakes, to be unwilling to try new things, to refuse to listen to other people, to get a  little too caught up in their natural talent. But natural talents are glamorous and talked about, hard-workers tend to get overlooked.

Her father and I are not natural talents either, and we know how it feels. We had hoped that her bat mitzvah would give her a boost of confidence. We knew how hard she would work and that because of that work she would be beautifully prepared. We thought that meant she would do a beautiful job and be able to take the memory of that with her always. We thought maybe she would see this as something she was “good at.”

Instead, she was beautifully prepared, and through no fault of her own, she did not do a fantastic job. She did a good job, she did a fantastic job considering … but not the fantastic job she was prepared to do.

One week later, she is still sick and missing part of her voice. Her father is still sick and now, so am I. This morning I was dragging. I had to go to work, she had four performances and school today, her brother had to be taken care of.  “I don’t know how I’ll get through the day,” I said.

“Mom, if I could get through my bat mitzvah, you can get through today,” she answered.

Just like that, my daughter proved once again why being her mother is so easy. She writes her own lesson plans, she finds her own teachable moments.

Did she learn the lesson that hard work always pays off? No, because as much as we all pretend it’s the case, that lesson is just not true. Instead, she learned a better lesson, a true lesson. Sometimes, life sucks. Sometimes things are not fair. Sometimes, through no fault of your own, things are much, much harder than they should be. But you can survive it.

If you can survive your bat mitzvah with a fever, a cold, no voice and really, really having to pee, you can survive anything. If you can get what needs doing done and still have enough in you to go on and dance a jig, you can not only survive, you can thrive.


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Heroes and Valentines

Most 21st century parents are big on “consequences.” We talk about the consequences of actions, we try and outdo each other to make sure we are allowing are children to suffer the natural consequences of their actions (don’t ever, ever bring a middle school child or older a forgotten lunch or be prepared to forever walk a walk of shame). Sometimes we just throw the word out there as a stand in for “vague and horrible punishment,” as in, “If you don’t put down the phone and put on your shoes now there will be consequences.”

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to truly know the consequences of an action.

I’ve taken a temporary job that requires me to be in an office every day. It’s the first time in over a decade that I’ve gone in to an office every day, as opposed to on occasion. What are the consequences of that? Will my house fall apart in a month, or will my kids suddenly become more independent and confident? Will the extra money reduce some stress, or will I spend it all on paying for a sitter and buying meals? Will the consequence of taking this job be a recommitment to working from home, or the desire to get another in-office job?

The other day I was on an EL that switched to run express. Apparently, one man on the train didn’t hear the announcement and decided to force open the doors and jump out at a station. The consequence of his action was further delays. Who knows who was late to work or missed a phone call because of his decision. But, who knows what this man made it to by jumping off the train.

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, on the commute home, a man yelled for someone to hold the doors for him. There’s an argument to be made that during rush hour especially you should never do this. Trains come regularly, and if every train was held for one minute the whole system would get horribly off schedule. But a young man held the door for him.

From the second the man entered the car, we all knew holding the door was either a colossal error or the beginnings of a great story. “WHEW!” He yelled, “I am 50 years old, I can not be running for trains like this anymore. That is too much.”

The rest of the car was quiet, still waiting to learn the consequence of the man holding the door. Would we be entertained? Asked for money? Verbally assaulted? Was there going to be a fight? It was all still unclear.

“Alright, then, it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’m gonna do you all a favor. I’m gonna sing a song and you can take it home tonight and sing it to your honey and they’re gonna love it.” At this point, less-experienced commuters might have written off the potential for violence, but the rest of us knew it was still anyone’s guess.

“Everyone wants a hero. My name ain’t Superman, but I’m going to be your hero, I want to be your hero,” he sang. “There, now isn’t that beautiful, take it home, your girl is gonna love it.” Suddenly, the young man who had held the door for him started rapping the lyrics back to him while his friends laughed. “Hmm, now, that’s interesting Young Turk, but I don’t know about the rap. I don’t think that’s the way to get a girl. They want romance, they want the song.”

“Whatever,” said the young man and he and his friends got off the train.

“You, know it’s Valentine’s Day,” the singer continued. I just want to remind everyone on here to call your mama and tell her happy Valentine’s Day. I’m gonna do it now, ok. I’ll put her on speaker phone.” He then proceeded to take out his cell phone.

“Hi Baby!”
“Mama, happy Valentine’s Day. I’m on the train and you’re on speaker phone and I just wanted to tell you happy Valentine’s Day and remind everyone else to call their mothers.”
“Well, that’s sweet honey, yes, every0ne surely should call their mamas and say happy Valentine’s Day.”
“OK, Mama, I gotta get off the train now, love you.”

We were all quiet. I didn’t know the woman sitting across from me, but she looked like someone I should know. We were about the same age, same hair, she was reading a book from the Oak Park library and wearing red tights with hearts. She had been reading her book for most of the trip, occasionally looking up at the singer, and then at me to share a conspiratorial “This is kind of fun,” smile. I looked down at my own book and then heard her, “Hi Mom, Happy Valentine’s Day.” I looked up and we both cracked up. “So, I’m on the train and there was this guy and he said everyone should call their moms and now the girl across from me is laughing hysterically at me.”

“He got you,” I said.
“He really did,” she answered.

She got off the phone with her mom and went back to her book. When she got off the train at the stop before me we exchanged Happy Valentine’s Days.

My son and I generally share a long snuggle before bedtime. We talk about the day and decompress. Sometimes he gets a little sad as all the energy of the day leaves his body. “I want to laugh more,” he told me.

So I told him the story of my train ride home.

He laughed so loud his rarely-seen-at-bedtime-13-year-old-sister came in to find out what was up. He made me repeat the story. She laughed, and then they both went to bed.

I don’t care what the physicists say, it is not true that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes the consequence is better than you could expect.


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Two Days in the Life

Yesterday was a bad day to be a work from home freelancer. I have two projects due at the end of the week. But, before I knew that I’d have two projects with the same deadline, I made an appointment to go see a caterer about my daughter’s bat mitzvah brunch. This was the time that worked with my husband’s schedule, and he is heading out of town today, and so we kept the appointment.

It was lovely to sit in the restaurant and eat breakfast with my husband and talk to the owner about the event, but oh I had stuff to do.

I came home to do a conference call, and while others were talking I put myself on mute and wrapped my son’s birthday presents for that night. Then, I had to go back out to pick up hostess and new baby presents for my husband to bring on his business trip, because he is also going to have dinner with family while he’s there. Oh, and by the way, his business trip is actually a job interview, out of town, which is something we are forced to consider because my job is oh so flexible and oh so transportable. (Also, friends, don’t get too distracted by that and start texting me asking if we’re moving, as of now, we aren’t.)

On the way out to pick up the presents I noticed that someone had mysteriously left a bag of dog poop on my back porch. When I came back from the errands, I spent 30 minutes talking to the police about why someone might have walked in to my backyard and up my steps in order to leave me dog poop.

Then, I had to put in laundry, because someone is leaving town. Then I wrote one fifth of the project before my son came home. There was homework to deal with, and that turned in to tears, because it was his birthday, and no one should have to do math on their birthday. Then there was hockey to take him to, and by the time I was home from that, my daughter was home, more homework and more nudging, and more laundry, walking the dog, and approximately one fifth more of one project. Sushi was finally decided on as the birthday dinner, and I went and picked it up. At 10:30 I went to bed, having accomplished almost nothing.

Today was a good day to be a freelancer working from home. Today I had an appointment downtown, across the street from the Art Institute. So after my appointment I wandered in to the museum just as they were opening. I went to the Thorne Miniature rooms and stood in front of my favorite rooms, imagining myself appropriately dressed to live in them. I went to the paperweights and stared. I went to see Renoir’s Two Sisters on the Terrace, known in my family as “my painting,” because as a child I had a Madame Alexander doll of the younger sister (in my world, her name is Lynn Jane, and yes, I still have her). My kids each also have a painting, but I did not visit theirs. Instead, I went to a gallery I have never been to, then I went to see the Chagall windows. I went to the member’s lounge and had a cup of not-very-good coffee, but I had a cup of coffee and THEN I went and ate lunch at the cafe. On the way out, I went to visit Ganesh and Buddha.

I came home and there was no dog poop on my porch. I finished part of a project, I walked the dog, and my son came home. We did homework and I worked some more. I wrote something as a favor to a friend, I called another caterer about the evening party. I’m writing this, and then I will work a little more. My doorbell keeps ringing as children from the block come in for something my daughter has planned. Eventually, I will need to go find out what it is. When I go to bed tonight I probably will not have accomplished any more than I did yesterday.

Some days, this always at work, always at home, always doing everything feels like an unfair burden. Some days it feels like an unfair privilege. You never know what will happen in a day.


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Sick Day

Some of my favorite memories from childhood are from sick days. I don’t mean the older, hold a heating pad up to the thermometer so that you can skip school and get stoned sick days. What I loved were the younger sick days, when I was actually sick. Those days when my mom wheeled the small black and white tv on the cart in to my room and I spent the day dozing and watching game shows and soap operas I was too young to understand. Sometimes I would wander in to the kitchen, opening cabinets and looking for secret stashes of candy. Sometimes I would sneak in to my parents’ or my sister’s room and rifle through dresser drawers looking for diaries or proof that I was adopted.

When I was very young, my parents took me to work with them when I was sick. At my father’s office there was a separate lab office not in the same building as his regular office. When we got too bored he and I would go over there and I would spin in an old wooden spinning chair, climb up on gigantic, green metal stool to play with a huge green adding machine and make paper bracelets for the skeleton. When I went to work with my mom I would sit in the back of her classroom and draw pictures, and hide under an afghan in her office to read. Those days were fun, but they didn’t have the freedom of being slightly older and staying home sick.

Once, when I was in second or third grade and my mom thought I was asleep she slipped in to my room and left me a pitcher of 7up and a note to call her at work if I needed anything. Then she bent over the bed and put a cool hand on my forehead.

When my daughter started school I wanted to be able to recreate those feelings of love and comfort and freedom for her and I was fairly lax on what was required to stay home from school sick. Then, in second grade she had a particularly bad teacher and the sick days got a little out of hand and we had to institute a “no vomit, blood, or fever, go to school” rule. By the time she was in 5th grade, she was the world’s most responsible child and grew agitated at the idea of missing school.

She has relaxed slightly over the past two years, helped in part by the fact that she can do most of her classwork online. So, she is home sick today. She has been fighting a stuffy nose, sore throat, possible fever for days and together we decided that it would be best for her to stay in bed and lick it once and for all.

I work from home. There will be no rifling through drawers and cabinets for her, and I know better than to try and sneak into her room while she sleeps. But her father just helped her with her math homework and later maybe I can make her a smoothie and if I’m lucky, she may let me feel her forehead with the back of my hand.

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Moving through Grief

Yesterday, November 8th, was obviously election day. It was also the umpteenth anniversary of my friend Mark’s death from AIDS. In many ways, Mark’s death was my “first.” I knew other people who had died, friends of the family, distant relatives, those beautiful, wild high school kids killed by drunk drivers or drunk driving themselves.

But Mark was the first person I truly, deeply loved who died. Mark’s death was the first one that I felt would change my life. The first one that did change my life. What I remember from those first few days was a feeling that I needed to get stuff done. I needed to call in sick to my teaching job and prepare lesson plans for the time I’d be gone for the funeral. I needed to pay bills, and arrange for someone to feed my cat. I needed to clean my tiny studio apartment. I needed to call others and let them know.

When I left my apartment I felt a little like I was walking around in a glass box. I wanted to reach out to people and ask them if they knew Mark, if they knew he was gone. But the box was the only thing protecting me, the only thing keeping me from breaking, and I knew if I tried to reach out, the box and I would shatter. I was 25 and had just moved to Chicago. Mark died in San Diego. I knew that no one at Jewel or my building knew him. But through my glass box it looked like everyone else was in mourning, too. Years before another friend and I spent many stoned hours discussing how when we were high it seemed like everyone around us was also high. This is how grief felt, too. Inside my glass box of mourning, I thought it was possible that everyone else was also mourning.

It’s a little bit what it feels like to me today. I am sad and shocked. I know it’s true and yet I can’t quite believe it. I feel like I need to do so many things, finish articles for my clients, clean the house, arrange a Girl Scout field trip. I took a walk on a beautiful fall day and with every person I passed I wondered if they too were in mourning. If they to were grieving today.

What I remember most from Mark’s funeral was the way my fragile glass box turned in to a warm bubble. All of us who loved Mark were in the bubble. We stayed in one house, we shared beds and couches, we ate, we drank and smoked and posed for ridiculous photos together, long before the days of funeral selfies. Eventually, we had to go back to our own cities, we had to leave our bubble.

When I came back to Chicago I made my friend who picked me up at the airport promise to call me the next day. “I’m not sure I’ll still be here, I think I might die,” I told him. “You won’t,” he promised and he called every day for the next two weeks. Every day I answered and every day I felt a little less like I too was dying.

So this is what I hope happens now. I hope that we all have our days of mourning and grief. I hope we move from our glass boxes and find our bubbles. That we find the people who know how we feel, those who truly get us. And then I hope that we all start to find our strength again.

The biggest lesson I learned from losing Mark was that even a broken heart keeps on beating.


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The Other Problem

Like most women I’ve spent this week thinking about my stories. I have been kept up at night by the stories of my friends and things that happened to me. Stories of men grabbing me, things men said to me, strangers, bosses, coworkers. The man who grabbed my breast on an airplane when I was sixteen. The boss who said that my chest was a hell of a contribution to the business, when actually, I was running his store. They boyfriend who hit the wall right next to my head because he was angry about my raise.

Earlier this year I was telling my husband a story about a catcall I’d received on the way to the El that day and he was surprised to learn that, like most women, I have a strategy for assessing and handling catcalls. He was surprised to learn that I always, always smile or wave because I fear the escalation. How I smile and/or wave depends on whether it’s one man, coming up to me on the street while I walk to my office, or a group of men lounging nearby. I have said “thank you” to a stranger telling me that I look sexy. Thank you.

Until recently, my husband did not know that for the entire time I lived in Chicago I knew that leaving the house in a skirt or dress meant someone would yell something at me. For years I told the story of my favorite catcall, “Hey Lady, nice rack!” yelled at me from a car as I walked over to a friend’s house one evening. The incongruity of calling me a lady and talking about my rack… for years I’ve laughed about this, adding a Jerry Lewis impression to the “Hey Lady,” forgetting that I was walking alone on a street at night, and was actually terrified, knowing that the men or boys in that car could turn around and grab me at any time.

Like all women, I have these stories. But these stories are not what upsets me about the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tapes. Billy Bush is what upsets me. I know the strangers and coworkers and even friends who have said disgusting things to me. I know the ones who have touched me inappropriately, who have touched me against my will. But what I don’t know is how many of my friends or coworkers or strangers have set me up.

I know the coworker who described to me exactly where he’d put my legs when we had sex and I laughed it off. I don’t know if there was another coworker, a Billy Bush, hiding behind him trading suggestions. I know the guy I carefully, carefully selected an outfit for a date with and later discovered that he secretly set me up to have his friends watch us have sex. But until now I have not wondered who those boys were. Were they friends of mine? Boys I trusted?

I know the foul things people have said to me to my face, but now, I have to think about all the times a room of men went quiet when I walked in to it. I have to think about all the times a coworker accidentally fell against me and another guy stood nearby. Was it on purpose? Was it planned?

Donald Trump is a problem, but he’s a problem we know, a problem we see. A problem every girl over the age of thirteen knows about. But Billy Bush, the good looking, smooth guy. The guy who would never say the word pussy. The nephew and cousin of presidents who just helpfully offers you up to be groped and kissed. Billy Bush is who is keeping me up at night.

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Sacrificing Our Children

On Rosh Hashana we read the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. It is a difficult story to understand. Previously we’ve been told how wanted and loved Isaac is. A late in life baby for his parents, their only child together, he is his father’s favorite.

Then, one day, God, a relatively new figure in Abraham’s life, asks him to take his beloved son and sacrifice him. Abraham is prepared to do it until an angel of God stops him and he sacrifices a ram instead. Why? Why would Abraham be willing to sacrifice his son to a god he just met as an adult? Why would God ask that? Are we supposed to think this is a good thing? A bad thing? Are we supposed to be willing to sacrifice our children to a new God? This the last time that God speaks to Abraham, and some people say that’s because God is disgusted with Abraham. Others say that Isaac is so traumatized by this event that after this point he’s a little “tetched” (as we say in Kentucky). He certainly has his own father/son issues with his twins.

I have a theory that what really happened is Abraham decided to head to the mountains for a few days, Sara insisted he take Isaac with him. Unused to dealing with his kid, Abraham got annoyed and tied him to a tree. Later when Isaac told his mother the story, Abraham came up with the whole sacrifice/ram/God story to cover. But, for whatever reason, the story made it in to the biblical canon, and we are meant to read it and gain something from it.

Yesterday, our rabbi asked us to think about the ways in which we sacrifice our children today. Although I’m not 100% sure this is what he said (it was very cold and my teeth were chattering loudly, and my daughter was distracting me), this is what I heard and I have thought about little else.

I believe I am sacrificing my children to school. We moved to Oak Park “for the schools.” It wasn’t that we’d heard great things about them, but we knew they were safe, they were neighborhood based, and I wouldn’t have to apply to get kids in to “the right school.” That had been enough for my education in Kentucky, consistently ranked one of the worst states for education, and I assumed it would be enough for my children.

For several years it was. Our kids walk to school with friends. They have caring teachers and administrators who know them by name. But over the past eight years that my children have been in school, I have seen the schools change. At my kids’ elementary school children used to participate in a “reading buddies” program. K-2 kids were paired with 3-5 kids to read. Once, when he was in second grade a fifth grade girl came running up to us on the playground and hugged my son. “Hi, I’m Taylor, I’m your son’s reading buddy, he is the cutest!” She giggled and proceeded to involve this much younger boy in a game of tag with her friends. When he was in third grade my son came home with a unicorn and a rainbow drawn on his pitching hand. “I promised my reading buddy if she finished the book, I’d draw this for her,” he explained.

Last night he told me 5th graders no longer have reading buddies, because “there’s not time.” This is the same reason I was given when I asked why 5th graders only have one recess a day, “There’s not time, there’s too much to do.”

They have taken away recess and reading buddies and added in a class on social skills. When I asked if perhaps social skills could be taught through recess I was told “that’s not a curriculum, it can’t be quantified.”

My daughter’s school is so proud of their status as an IB (International Baccalaureate) school. They shuffle between eight classes a day, three minute breaks between classes. They must explain how their math answers show that they “take chances.” But they only have room for one elective (drama, art, or music). They too take a “social skills” class. The social skills class is quantifiable, math is quantifiable, art is not.

The most basic of student teacher interactions, asking to go to the bathroom, has been replaced by scanning a bathroom pass on the ipad. I have no idea how this generation of children will learn the difference between “may” and “can” without asking if they can go to the bathroom, but perhaps it will be covered in the social skills class.

Many people will tell you that this rush, this lack of time for recess or cross-age buddies or art is because of tests, and I think they’re right.

I am not against standardized tests, I am not against quantifying some things in education. I believe that children in Kentucky and children in Chicago and children in Oak Park all deserve the same access to quality education and yes, we are going to have to give them all the same test to make sure that they are all getting the education they deserve.

But my 10-year-old, comes home with an hour of homework every day, even on weekends. At the age of 10, he is already stressed and miserable at school. His childhood is being sacrificed to tests and numbers and like Sara I am learning about it third hand and watching it helpless.

In the bible story, God continuously calls Abraham and Abraham continuously answers “Here I am.” Isaac too uses the phrase when his father calls him to be put on the altar. Our kids use the phrase every day in school. But God does not call Sara. Nobody asks the mother, “What do you think? Do you believe in this new God? Are you willing to sacrifice your child to him?”

Perhaps we should all of us, mothers and fathers, think a little less about Abraham and what he is doing in this story and ask ourselves about Sara. Ask ourselves if we are willing to stay home while our children are sacrificed to a new god.

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