Month: September 2012

The Curse Of Being A Quantitative Person With A Qualitative Life

I find myself in a bit of a quandary. I have a quantitative mind. Like most Americans, I like to see measurable results. Numbers are tidy. They tell a clear story. In this country, we like our charts, percentages, and statistics. You don’t need to look any further than our school system to recognize that truth. Our kids’ successful futures seem to hinge entirely upon grade point averages and optimal scores on the SAT and ACT exams. I did poorly at standardized tests. In fact, based on my marginal scores on the ACT exam, the University of Colorado at Boulder predicted I would be a solid C student. I graduated CU, however, with a solid B+ average. You see, what CU didn’t count on is that despite my desire to be a person who is successful by quantitative measure, I am not. It’s only through subjective assessment that I excel. Standardized tests might tell you that I’m average. My professors might suggest something different.

I’ve been thinking this weekend about how much of a struggle I cause for myself by being a person who would like to measure my success with numbers when there are no figures that can assess my current career. Oh, sure. You could log the number of miles I put in driving my boys to and from private school. You could maybe record the number of hours I spend working with them on their homework per week. I suppose you could even run a statistical analysis on the way I manage our grocery bills. But, none of that is impressive. Grocery bills and carpool hours are not consequential. I’m not increasing sales or cutting corporate losses by millions of dollars. I’m not earning large bonuses or shattering glass ceilings. There’s no way to quantify my effectiveness in my current job, despite the desire my numbers-oriented mind has to do just that.

Because of this discrepancy between the amount of effort I put out and the lack of measurable results I see and accolades I receive, I often feel unsuccessful. As I have reflected on this over this weekend, though, I’ve realized that my need to feel successful has occasionally overshadowed the importance of what I do. What should matter the most is what I know in my heart, which is that I have followed through on what I set out to do. Eleven years ago I made a choice. I chose to stay home with my boys rather than to continue working. I did this because I know I’m an all or nothing gal. I knew if I was working, I’d be wishing I was home with my children; and if I was at home with my children, I’d be thinking about all I had to do at work. I didn’t want my attention to be scattered, so I made a decision. I chose to pull myself out of the numbers game. All this time, though, I’ve continued holding myself accountable to a measurable standard that cannot exist in the role of stay-at-home parent.

Certainly there are more things in this life that are measured in terms of subjective quality rather than objective quantity. Every day there is one sunrise and one sunset, but there is no way to determine which is more breathtaking. There are billions of people on the planet, but each one has unique gifts to offer and there’s no way to measure which of those matter the most. Why do I care if I’m not winning any awards? Would an award make my children love me more? Would it prove I’m a better mother? Does not winning an award prove I’m not worth my carbon matter? I think it’s time to pull myself out of the quantitative world I grew up in. I need to let my competitive mindset go and release my mind from the bonds of measurable assessment. I know I’ve never been great at standardized evaluations. I’m doing the best of which I am capable. By those terms, I am incomparable. That should be enough.

You Say You Want A Revolution…

Luke shows me a political ad on a Lego video on You Tube

The other day I wrote about the political process and how my children are seeing it play out at school. I got a great comment on that blog from my friend, Ken, who said he is troubled by the notion that children in grade school are becoming involved in the discussions in the first place. I see where he’s coming from, at least with regard to the bitterness, back biting, and general nastiness that seem to accompany politics-as-usual these days. Still, there is a part of me that feels that kids should have some knowledge of politics even if they’re incapable of understanding it in any reasonable depth. (Heck…I wish that same thing for most of the voting-eligible adults in this country.) My main interest in making sure my children are at least aware of the political process stems from a purely educational stance. I want them to learn early on that people disagree and see things differently, yet we still need to find some way to work and live together despite disparate views. Yes. I am highly idealistic. I know.

Today, though, instead of teaching my son a lesson about politics in this country, he taught me one.

“So, who are you going to vote for, Luke?” I queried, waiting for his annoyed response at my nonsensical question.

“I can’t vote, Mom,” he replied with exasperation. “I’m not a grown up.”

“Okay. You’re right. But, if you could vote, what would you be thinking?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied in all earnestness, “judging from the ads I’ve seen lately I don’t think either of them is a very good choice.”

Ummm….excuse me?

“What political ads have you seen?” I asked. This is a legitimate question on my part because we watch very little television in this house, and our boys are subsequently shielded from the disproportionate number of ads via that type of media.

“The ones before the Lego videos I watch on You Tube,” he said.

Ah, yes. The You Tube videos. How could I forget?

“Oh. Well, what are the ads saying?”

“Obama’s weak on terrorists and Romney’s going to break his promises to seniors regarding health care.”

Holy hell. The words, as they spilled carelessly from his nine year old mouth, were not his. He was repeating ad copy word for word. It scared the bejeezus out of me.

“You do realize that you can’t believe everything you hear, right?”

“I know,” he said. Then he changed the subject and reminded me that he would like The Avengers movie on DVD as soon as possible.

The whole conversation gave me pause, though. Why are political ads appearing before Lego videos on You Tube? Who is the mastermind behind that genius plan? Let’s hope that the ads on You Tube videos appear randomly. If this pairing isn’t accidental, then it would seem our political parties are attempting to indoctrinate our children quite young. This would be eerily similar to Hitler’s youth approach, but hopefully without the appalling genocide result.

I swear my life keeps becoming more and more complicated. Now, instead of merely explaining to my boys about the Viagra ads they have inadvertently become the targets of, I also need to deflect obnoxious political commentary. I tell you. I don’t get paid enough for this parenting gig for the amount of work I put into it. I keep trying to stay one step ahead of the game, but I keep getting tripped up when I least expect it. Political advertising on Lego videos. Seriously? Lightbulb! Whoa. Hold the phone. Wait just one minute. I wonder…if I made my own ads about room cleaning and doing the dishes and placed them with the Lego videos, do you think I could start a revolution, a tidal wave of conscientious children creating clean houses? Maybe I could change the world with that approach? Or, at least maybe I could change my own world. Anyone want to go in with me on the advertising costs?

 

You Can Never Have Too Many Bath Towels Or Whimsical Metal Creatures

On June 22nd of last year, I happened upon an incredibly brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny blog post that centered around a big, metal chicken named Beyoncé. The chicken was purchased at a discount store by the irreverent and lovely Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. You see, her dear husband had specifically instructed her not to buy the bath towels she’d planned to get. So she honored his request and, rather than buying the practical towels she wanted, she bought a 5-foot tall metal chicken. Then she wrote a blog about it, entitled And That’s Why You Should Learn To Pick Your Battles. I loved the blog post so much I shared it on my Facebook page. Jenny Lawson became my hero. And, my friends and I began sending each other photos of big, metal chickens with the tagline “Knock, Knock, Motherf*****.” It’s become something of a hobby for us.

Beyoncé 2.0

My friend Heather M. gave me a small Beyoncé stand-in last Christmas. As soon as she had done that, Beyoncés started coming out of the coop all over the place. My other friend Heather, Heather L., texted me a photo of this beauty who was found standing outside the Castle Rock Mercantile last March. In July, Heather M. sent me a photo of a huge Beyoncé wanna-be in Whitewater, Colorado. Then, I found Beyoncés of several sizes at an antique store in Redstone in August. I would have gotten one too but the largest one was priced at $285, which is about $250 more than I can afford on the meager, metal-chicken budget my husband has given me.

Baa…baa, Motherf*****!

All of this got me to thinking, though, that what I truly want is not a metal chicken at all but a metal goat. I saw one last September in Steamboat Springs. It was standing outside the Steamboat Art Company and it was bleating “buy me” so loudly that I was sure Steve would hear it from Denver and approve the purchase. I know that a metal goat is not something most people are attracted to and I had no particular place in mind to put him if I got to bring him home, but I had to try. I texted Steve a photo of the tin beast.

Me: I think I need to get this metal goat. Isn’t he cute? 

Steve: He is cute.

Me: I think I need him.

Steve: How much is he?

Me: He’s $140.

Steve: He’s not that cute.

Me:  😦

Steve: Where will you put him?

(At that moment, realizing that Steve was not going to approve the goat purchase, I began postulating a few choice places I’d like to shove that goat.)

Me: The question is where won’t I put him? He can go anywhere. He’s a nice, neutral grey, perfect for any decor.

Steve: I don’t know….

Me: Oh, come on. You know we’re always talking about how I don’t decorate.

Steve: I’m not so sure a big metal goat is the kind of decorating decision we need to be making.

Me: Fine. I won’t get it. Even though I love goats and will never be able to have a real one.

Steve: Remind me…why do you love goats?

Me: Because I can relate to them. They’re spunky. They’re cute. They eat anything. They remind me of me.

Steve: Ummmm…no.

Me: Fine. (At which point I uttered something expletive under my breath and hung up the phone.)

It’s been a little over a year since my goat sighting. I have looked at the Steamboat Art Company for it several times and not seen it again. It breaks my heart to know that goat is living in someone else’s home. I did see its smaller, less expensive, somewhat flimsier cousin in Crested Butte this summer, but we were camping in our pop-up at the time and I didn’t know where I would put it. I mean, strictly speaking, I think of our pop-up as more garden gnome quality, although it may be nearly good enough for one of those concrete geese that country folk dress in rain slickers. All I know is that if I ever find that metal goat again, I’m going to bring it home, credit card statement be damned. Then someday when Steve has picked the wrong battle with me, in honor of Jenny Lawson I will pull it from its hiding space and set it inside the door from the garage so that feisty goat greets him after work wearing nothing but a tag that simply reads: “Baa, baa, Motherf*****!” Remember, husbands…you may think you’ve won the battle, but you will never win the war. Ever.

(PS…Friends, if you happen to see the most beautiful goat in the world, please let me know. He answers to Kanyé, and it’s time to bring him home.)

We Need To Go Old School Again

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers

My boys engaged in free time play

Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:

“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.  Yikes.”

When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.

As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.

In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.

I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.

A Small Tsunami Of Gratitude

(Author’s Note: I try to keep this a PG blog, but there is a link at the bottom of this page to some very happy, positive, enthusiastic profanity. I’m blaming it on Jason Mraz, but I’m encouraging it by sharing it here. Consider yourself warned.)

Rainy night with Jason Mraz at Red Rocks

Sometimes I find that things I’m not too sure about turn out to be the best gifts. I went with my friend, Shari, last night to see Jason Mraz perform at Red Rocks Amphitheater. I didn’t go because I’m a huge Jason Mraz fan. I went because I like Shari and because she asked and because I love concerts at Red Rocks. I saw my first show there in 1985 at the ripe old age of 17. (Oh…okay. Fine. If you must know, my first Red Rocks show was Howard Jones. It was the 80s. I was a teenager. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) Shari moved to Denver two summers ago but hadn’t yet seen a show at my favorite venue, so I was excited to accompany her even if I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the concert.

It was raining, so we geared up with waterproof jackets, umbrellas, and brown plastic lawn bags and braved the elements. We walked up the breath-taking ramp to the amphitheater, found our seats in Row 22, and settled in despite the steady rain. When the opening act had finished and Jason came on, it was still raining. Once we were three songs into the show I realized that the truly beautiful thing about Jason Mraz, whether or not you enjoy his music, is that he is a positive, happy soul and his attitude has the power to make things seem better. If you are a lyrics person, you will find his songs are filled with life-affirming joy and love. I stood in the 50-degree rain for four hours last night and never felt cold. That should say something about the sunshine this man is able to share.

Unless you’re a huge Jason Mraz fan, you may not have heard the song I am about to recommend. I hadn’t heard it until last night, but it was the highlight of my rainy evening. Jason explained that this song is about starting a tsunami of gratitude. I like the sound of that. The song made me smile. It reminded me how important it is to acknowledge the good in everyone you meet. So, I am paying it forward by sharing. Please know that I am truly grateful for your support. I’m 70 posts away from my goal of 366, a full year of daily blogs. I wouldn’t have kept up with it if it hadn’t been for your kindness in bothering to read what I have to say. Maybe you know someone who could use a pat on the back for something they’ve shared, created, begun, or accomplished? Share this song and start a small tsunami of gratitude of your own.

You Fckn Did It

Playing Favorites

My favorite sons

Have you heard about Buzz Bishop, the Canadian radio host who recently published a blog entry in which he specifically notes that his older son is his favorite? I was flipping through some current headlines online when I saw a reference to his blog and had to check it out. Since his blog post, he has been both lambasted and praised for his honesty about his parental favoritism. Playing favorites has long been a topic among parents and children. If you’re of a certain age, you perhaps remember an episode from The Brady Bunch when middle daughter Jan is upset that everything is always about “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.” My sisters and I have long joked about which one of us is Mom’s favorite, despite my mom’s assertion that she has always loved us the same equally.

I had to read more from Bishop to get an idea of where he was coming from when he wrote his blog. His assertion is that he loves his children equally but likes one more than the other. I’m sure there’s not a parent out there who can deny that in a bad moment, one child may seem easier or more pleasant than another, but I hope that feeling stems from a situational place and not a heartfelt one. I love both my boys and like them both for different reasons. They each present different challenges and they each provide different joys. Depending on the moment, I may feel closer to one than the other, but my heart knows no favorites. Beyond that though, even if my heart felt more strongly attached to one child than the other, I would never write about it knowing that someday my child might read my words and be deeply hurt.

My gut reaction to Bishop’s admission is that it was unnecessary. I’m a wholehearted supporter of  honesty in writing, but I also believe that there are some things worth keeping to yourself. This type of journalistic behavior, where we say whatever we’re thinking without giving a thought to the consequences of our message, is egotistical and self-serving. I’m sure it felt great for Bishop to get that information off his chest, but because he used such a visible platform for his disclosure there will someday be a ramification for his action. I have to wonder if then, when his son confronts him from a place of sadness and anger, he will think it was such a good idea. The written word, like the cockroach, lives on despite our occasional wish to quash it post admission. Sharing with your children your experiences is important. Sharing with them that they’re not your favorite? Well…that’s something better left unsaid. Sometimes I think it’s better if we keep some thoughts to ourselves.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, And Understanding

The current political climate in this country is making me nauseous. The amount of venom flowing from both sides of the political spectrum is unnerving at best and unpatriotic at worst. I believe in the two party system. I like the way the differences balance each other out. I think our forefathers created something great here. But, somewhere in the recent past, we came to a point where there is no longer a capacity to agree to disagree and to find common ground despite our disputes. Somewhere along the line, we became unable to view compromise as a viable option. Truth is, though, that is how our government was designed to work. If we can’t reach across party lines, then the balance our forefathers sought is impossible and everything is out of whack.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately as the presidential election nears because of things I’m hearing my children say. Our boys attend a fairly homogenous school where they are at a distinct disadvantage. It would be a safe assessment to admit that roughly 98% of the parents at my boys’ school will be voting the same way during this next election. And, yes, our household is in the 2% who will likely vote the other way. Our boys, smart kids that they are, realize that they are in the minority. They hear what their classmates are saying about the election and they are honestly afraid to join the conversation because they don’t want to admit that our household is different. They are afraid to be ostracized. Joe, specifically, has mentioned hateful things his classmates have said regarding political candidates. I know they’re just kids repeating their parents’ views, but that is what frightens me. We’re passing on this culture of narrow-mindedness to the next generation. I’m afraid it will never end.

Growing up, I knew what my parents political beliefs were. I knew that Ronald Reagan made my mom nervous and that my dad was not too impressed with Jimmy Carter. Through my parents’ political differences, I came to accept the discourse between the two parties as part and parcel of a democratic society. I was never afraid to express my views. I grew up willing to stand up for what I believed or at least being willing to talk about it. My boys are too fearful to do the same. I wish they felt it was worth it to state their opinions, but it’s not. They’re growing up in a country where differences are problematic and where compromise is considered weakness.

If I had one great Miss America wish for this country, it’s that I wish we could throw off intolerance and hatred. Someone who disagrees with us is not an enemy. At the end of the day, we all want the same things. We want a better life for our children, a stable and safe country to live in, the right to live within our own belief system, all wrapped up in peace and prosperity. Just because we don’t see eye to eye doesn’t mean we should perpetuate an environment of hatred. I’m trying to teach my children that tolerance is important, and you can’t do that with words alone. You have to live it. When Christ said, “love thy neighbor,” He meant it…and not simply when it’s convenient or when they share your world view. How do we teach our children to play nicely if we can’t?