Month: September 2014

Protest is Patriotic and Patriotism is Messy

ScanJoe4th2005

Our son with his flag.

We live in Jefferson County, Colorado. You might have heard about us in the news lately.

Recently, one of our newly elected school board members, Julie Williams, initiated a call for a review of the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) curriculum, with which she takes issue because she feels “it has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing.” I am not a history teacher and have no experience writing college-level curriculum so I can’t imagine championing a revision of a course created by college professors and AP teachers. Ms. Williams, however, whose extensive knowledge of U.S. history must come from her previous position in the health industry running an orthodontic office, feels qualified to suggest such a revision. And in making this suggestion, she inadvertently sparked an uprising.

In a press release distributed last week to defend her position, she seemed shocked that anyone would be upset, noting that rewriting the curriculum is not unprecedented because “the Texas State Board of Education has voted to set aside the new AP U.S. History Framework in favor of its own state-mandated U.S. history curriculum.” What she failed to mention about Texas in her press release is that a sample revision to the history books in that state includes the mention of Moses. Yes. THE Moses. Now, I’ve got nothing against Moses, but I’m fairly sure that he had nothing to do with the founding of this nation, given that he had been dead for thousands of years before colonists settled these shores. I’m not sure what happened to the notion of separation of Church and State, but the idea that a textbook in a public school could contain the names of persons mentioned in the Bible seems to play against it. It was around this point in her argument that I determined that there might be a political motive at work in her rewriting the history curriculum. Turns out that Williams and her fellow, conservative cohorts on the board would like to see history courses promote “citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, and respect for authority.” While there is nothing wrong with those topics in and of themselves, if we include them while eliminating discussions about race, gender, ethnicity, and grievances against government, we’re creating a very one-sided discussion. That doesn’t seem accidental to me, and it doesn’t make me comfortable. We’re not the Land of the Free or the Home of the Brave. We’re both.

Recently, students at local high schools have made national news by walking off campus to stage demonstrations against Williams’ suggestion that the APUSH curriculum is not appropriate and should be replaced by curriculum that reduces discussion around grievance and civil disobedience. By doing so, the students have shown exactly why our country is great. We are free to express grievance and perform acts of peaceful, civil disobedience. Students at several area high schools left class last week by the thousands and, with their parents’ permission, stood along busy intersections to voice their dissent about the proposed review, which they feel will limit their education. (It is possible, perhaps, that some of them were simply excited to ditch class. But I like to think that somewhere along the line even those kids gained some insight into the importance of citizens’ rights, free speech, and freedom of assembly.) In any case, I’m sure these protests were the very thing Julie Williams was hoping to quell by changing the curriculum. So much for not raising little rebels. Lesson learned.

My husband and I have been talking a lot over the past year or two about how we can broaden our sons’ experiences to prepare them for the world they will enter as adults. We inhabit a complex, continually changing planet, and we believe our sons need to be ready to accept that nothing is forever and that there are lessons to be learned everywhere, from all people, on all continents. There is no one “right” way of doing things but, instead, a myriad of options for every situation. We want for our sons a truly liberal education in the sense that they should become well-rounded citizens of Earth, open-minded, deeply thoughtful, generous of spirit, and globally aware. We would like them to know that there are good people in every nation and that a few mean-spirited, misguided bullies (hello, ISIS) do not represent the whole of the world’s people. We want for them hope for their future, knowledge that we are united in our common humanity, and the belief that together we can change the fate of this planet. Cue “It’s a Small World After All” and you will get the gist of our dream. None of this means that we do not love our country or are not patriotic. We are. We just don’t happen to believe that the “American Exceptionalism” Julie Williams would push necessarily equals patriotism. Our sons don’t need didactic, closed-minded, pro-America speeches to turn them into patriots. They need exposure to the world at large so they can value and appreciate what we have here.

I don’t love the idea of teaching our children to respect authority without acknowledging that sometimes authority is messed up (ala Hitler). I hope my children learn to question things, to dig deeper, to bravely consider all viewpoints. Call me crazy, but I honestly believe that is what our forefathers imagined when they dreamed about this great nation they were creating…a place where people could think, share their opinions, and compromise successfully when necessary for the betterment of all. I think our nation is facing a political crisis now due to a lack of critical thought and the non-stop, mindless repetition of talking points and sound bytes. We aren’t doing our due diligence as citizens to understand what is going on or what is at stake. We’re watching our 10-minute blurbs of cable news and allowing them to be our Truth. It’s the type of information cleansing that Ms. Williams is espousing that leads nations to ill-guided notions of supremacy. Taking the ugly out of American history is a mistake. It’s only when we are willing to bear witness to the ugly, the confusing, and the difficult that we learn and grow.

 

Stop It

Non-sequitur cute photo of our puppy dog, Ruby.

Non-sequitur cute photo of our puppy dog, Ruby. STOP IT!

A couple of days ago, my insightful, life-coach friend Heather (shameless plug for her here) commented on my last blog post about my need to apologize constantly for my choices and the way I live my life, even when I don’t feel sorry about those things. She simply added this comedy sketch by Bob Newhart to my Facebook page and told me I might appreciate it. In the sketch, Newhart plays a psychologist counseling a young woman about her fear of being buried alive in a box. She relays to him that this thought of being buried alive is so terrifying that she can’t go in tunnels or be in elevators. She is desperate to break free of this pattern in her life. He tells her he will give her two words that should help her put this fear behind her. Then, from across the desk he yells at her, “STOP IT!”

Now, I know that it’s not really possible to stop instantly the thought monsters that lurk in our brains and sabotage our attempts to be our best selves, but I can’t help but think how transformative these two words could be in my life. Look in the mirror and feel like an old hag. STOP IT!  Make a mistake and start berating myself. STOP IT! Hear my kids screaming like banshees at each other and feel the urge to intervene. STOP IT! Sit in a quiet PTO meeting and raise my hand to volunteer to take over a committee. STOP IT!  Witness hubby folding the towels the wrong way (yes…there is a wrong way) and open my mouth to comment. STOP IT!  Have a donut and reach for seconds. STOP IT!

I know I have some giganotosaurus-sized monsters in my head that won’t be quieted with a mere STOP IT, but perhaps those two small words could shush them long enough to keep me from threat-level-red insanity. I mean, if I could just keep myself from volunteering for things I don’t want to do, that would be a colossal step forward. I have invited my hubby and sons to tell me to STOP IT if I am going off the deep end, and I would like to invite my friends to do the same. So, if you see me and I seem to be coming unglued, tell me that you spoke with Bob Newhart. That should be the hint I need to get back on track. Either that or it will cause me to have an inexplicable urge to visit a bed and breakfast in Vermont. But, that might help too.

All Apologies

This morning I was going through some of the boys’ school papers. Joe almost never hands his to me because he flat-out forgets. I recover them months later when I notice his backpack has become too heavy to lift. Luke tosses his graded papers onto the counter amidst the usual chaos there where they often rest unnoticed until I finally remember there is an actual countertop under there and determine I should find it. At that point, they usually find their way to the trash because I don’t have the time to look through papers 20 minutes before company is scheduled to arrive. This morning, though, on a counter that was mostly clear because we had company over for dinner on Sunday, I found Luke’s papers and decided to flip through them before depositing them in the trash.

Luke's paper

Try not to notice that my son has me pegged for a Target addiction with his drawing.

 

Most of Luke’s papers were stamped Excellent or had positive comments written on them in Ms. Fitzwater’s bold, Sharpie markers. She had even drawn some pictures on the few of the papers, which I thought was above and beyond the usual teacher commentary. On this one paper, though, I noticed she had written, “Good second try!” Second try?

“Hey, Luke….”

“Yeah, Mom?”

I showed him the paper.

“Second try? Did you have to do this paper again?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“What happened to the first try?”

Luke looked right at me and in his usual unapologetic, straightforward way responded.

“You could say I didn’t find the right words….or use correct spelling…or use any punctuation..or make real sentences the first time.”

Well…there you go. I suppose that would invite a redo.

Luke is a funny kid. He’ll lie to you if he thinks he can get away with it. If you catch him in a lie, he will come clean without apologizing. It used to bother me, the lack of apology. Then I realized that his lack of contrition is the correct response. Why should he apologize for something he meant to get away with?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this lack of apology and how freeing it must be. I grew up apologizing…for everything. As a child, I was continually made aware if I were being too loud, too quiet, too aloof, too inquisitive, too busy, too lazy, or too whatever-adjective-you-want-to-insert. I became constantly fearful that whatever I was doing affected others in a negative way. I learned to apologize for my emotions, my actions, and my choices, as if everything I did was open to comments from the peanut gallery. I went into my adult life with a hesitant, cautious demeanor. It colored everything I did and reduced the number of things I was willing to attempt. It wasn’t until I hit midlife and felt time ticking away on me that I figured it was time to stop being so damned sorry all the time.

Luke was sent to me for a reason. He’s in my life to teach me that it’s okay not to offer unnecessary apologies. Luke is excellent at empathy and generous about owning up when he’s truly at fault or has caused pain. He merely doesn’t look for excuses for contrition. He doesn’t assume they’re necessary. That’s a skill I am working on. Luke lives his life. He is who he is and he knows what he wants. He knows what his strengths are and he knows his weaknesses too, although he’s smart enough not to dwell on them. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not grateful for what my son has brought to my life. Perhaps if I take some cues from Luke, I will finally grow up and learn to live without being all apologies.

Almost Famous

My thirteen year old reading my blog on his iPad.

Joe reading my blog on his iPad.

The other night, my sister stayed with our sons so hubby and I could attend a theater performance. Now that our boys are older, we get out quite a bit more than we used to. Usually, though, we are gone just for a couple of hours and remain completely accessible by text, phone, or Facetime. Our sons often avoid talking to us when we’re out for short periods of time. They’re too busy enjoying their Xbox or iPads without complaints about too much screen time. When we got to the theater, I turned off my phone, completely comfortable knowing the boys were in my sister’s capable hands, and settled in to enjoy an uninterrupted bit of culture.

After the play was over, I checked my phone just in case. There were four texts and a few notifications on my blog. Two of the texts were from my sister. Apparently Luke’s stomach gave him some trouble so he sacrificed most of his dinner to the toilet. “Too much food” was his excuse. (It’s taken me years, but I’ve gotten my children mostly trained to throw up for other people and not me.) Not surprisingly, the last two texts were from Joe inquiring when we would be home. It takes about three hours’ worth of time before our sons finally notice we’re missing. Once we pass the three-hour mark, Joe begins badgering us relentlessly via any electronic means possible. I expected that on the drive we would receive at least 5 additional text messages (it turned out to be 6) and possibly a request for a Facetime chat. It was nearly 11, and we’d been gone for about 6 hours already. He was tired and stubbornly refusing to fall asleep until we were there. We made a hasty exit and headed home.

I decided to check my blog comments in the car. Turns out one of the comments was on my Contact page. It was from Joe. It simply read, “Hi Mom,” which really cracked me up because this was a new and completely unanticipated way for him to contact me in my absence. My sons have known about my web page for years, but neither of them has ever really shown much of an interest in it. They just know that I write, often about them. I had told them what it was called, and Joe simply looked it up. I was shocked that he’d remembered the title and gotten a wild hair to check on it. This was a first.

When we finally got home, I checked on Luke. He was feeling better and having a snack to make up for his lost dinner. My sister had already crashed out for the night. I found Joe sitting on his bunk bed with his iPad.

“I saw your comment on my blog page,” I said.

“Yeah. I was reading it tonight,” he replied.

“I didn’t know you read my blog.”

“I just started,” he said. “I read the one about Safety Dad when Dad and Mr. Jeff went snowshoeing on Mt. Evans.”

My mind thought back to when I wrote that. It had to have been one of the first entries on this blog. He’d started in the archives. He was working his way through them. My heart was full.

“You’re a good writer, Mom. Some of those are pretty funny.”

I couldn’t decide what to be happier about…the knowledge that my son had actively sought out something I had written or the notion that he had actually appreciated it and me.

This is the most important comment I have ever received.

This is the most important comment I have ever received.

Yesterday I caught him going through my blog again. This time he asked me how he could put a comment on one, so I showed him. I know he’s reading them trying to find posts written about him or his brother. Sooner or later, he’s going to find a couple that I am sure he will protest. He is a teenager and having a mom who is a writer can leave you feeling a bit exposed. When that happens, I’ll show him a couple posts where I embarrassed myself and prove that no one, not even me, escapes the occasional embarrassment. Then I’ll use the opportunity to teach him about poetic license and the First Amendment. In the meantime, I am so honored that he is using his free time to find out more about what I do.

I often say that I write for myself. And this is absolutely true. I use my web page to keep myself accountable. If I know I need to publish something, it diminishes my myriad excuses for not writing. I never started out writing with a plan to build an actual readership. I never truly figured anyone would read it. I simply shared it so I would have the impetus to continue writing. Every single time someone follows my blog, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I never felt my blog was important until this weekend. With my readership increased by this one special person, I feel almost famous.

 

 

Mid-Century and the Mona Lisa

Forgot to take a photo of the house, so here's a photo of my son holding a light beer instead.

Forgot to take a photo of the house, so here’s a photo of my son holding a light beer instead. That works, right?

My sister and her husband have been house hunting. They sold their house last month and need a new one. In a week. They’ve done a lot of looking, put in some offers that didn’t go through, and they’re about to be homeless. (Not that they’ll be living in a van down by the river or anything. Instead, they’ll be moving back in with parents. I think I’d take the van down by the river.) I’ve gone to look at some houses with them and even proffered my sage wisdom about the homes they are looking at, and they are still undecided. Tonight, my family and I went with them to look at a house I accidentally found for them yesterday while driving to pick up lunch for the boys. It is a small, but beautifully restored mid-century modern home. It’s affordably priced, has a two-car garage, and it is like getting a perfectly wrapped package with your favorite gift ever inside. Not that I have any opinion on mid-century modern homes or whether they should buy this one. (They should.)

My sister was a bit iffy about the whole thing. She’s concerned about the lack of decent storage and not thrilled that it’s only two bedrooms. (She wants a guest room. Seriously, though, everyone in their families lives in the same city. Why do they need a guest room?) I think my brother-in-law, who was not present because he’s a coach and was working a high school track meet, would love it. It might not be their forever home, but I totally think they could make it work for a while. And, it’s a perfect situation because it was a house flip and they seller needs the money and they could move in fairly quickly because no one is living in it.

While my sister was unconvinced, my husband loved it and was trying to figure out if we could push a wall out and put an addition on. He was ready to move in. We’ve been talking for a while about downsizing. We’ve got too much stuff, and our stuff is vexing us. I feel the unused “company” dishes throwing shade at me every time I open the cupboard. We want to lighten our load, save money, and travel a lot more. This house would be too much of a downsize for us. We’d lose 2/3rds of our current space. That would be one heck of a downsize. If we’re going to go that small, we should just sell our house, buy the Airstream he’s already wanted, and travel the country while homeschooling our boys at picnic tables like gypsies.

“I think it’s too small,” I said, trying to reason with him.

“We could make it work. It would be an adjustment.”

“The boys cannot share a room. Sure they’re small and cute now, but they’re on the precipice of becoming real teenagers. They’re not going to fit on that bunk bed forever.”

“That’s why we’d push that wall out and make another bedroom.”

“Steve, we are not getting this house,” I said very slowly and clearly, in case he wasn’t hearing very well.

“Okay,” he replied, sullenly. Then I saw him perk up. He’d had a brilliant idea. “We could build our own mid-century modern house.”

This is the point where I looked at him like he was crazy.

“You can’t build a mid-century modern house now. By definition, that’s impossible. Mid-century moderns were built in the 1950s. That’s what made them mid-century.” You never, ever miss with a writer. Words matter.

“You know what I mean,” he replied. “We could build a house like a mid-century modern.”

This is the point where I looked at him like perhaps he’d gone past crazy and straight over the cuckoo’s nest.

“Dude…that would be like repainting the Mona Lisa. It can’t be done.”

He just looked at me and got in the car. I guess I told him.

This is our marriage in a nutshell…my husband, the eternal optimist, and me, the perpetual pragmatist. Someone’s got to keep him grounded, and someone has to remind me to lighten up and dream a little. Nineteen years and we’re still dancing the same waltz. We are planning to move in the next couple years. We’d like to reduce our carbon footprint and go from living large to living less. It’s time to jettison things, like panini machines that collect dust, and lighten our burdens. I don’t know if we’ll build the straw bale house he’s talked about forever or end up in a classic mid-century modern, but we’ll get it figured out. We’ve made the biggest decisions of our lives in minutes. Just don’t ask us what we want for dinner. That’s when things get really ugly.

 

I Stay Home…Get Over It

I have the best job ever.

This is my career. How could it be worthless?

Ever since I made the choice to leave my career and stay home with my sons, I’ve been overwhelmed by my choice. There have been periods of time when I felt like I was nothing more than a butt wiper or a housekeeper or, in darkest times, a slave. Some days it is hard to find the silver lining in my current career. But, no fail, right about the time that I am feeling 100% certain about my decision, some working woman or man asks me what I do. The standard response I get when I tell a career person that I am a stay-at-home mom is a simple, one syllable, “Oh.” Conversation over. Clearly, I have no longer have anything current or intelligent to talk about, and no one wants to hear about kids, so they leave. I am a serial conversation killer. I’m not exactly sure when the decision to expend my energy solely as mother and homemaker vaporized my IQ and decimated my inherent worth as a human being, but it happened. Working people get to ask me ridiculous questions about my personal choice without feeling an iota of impropriety. I wonder how they would feel about it if I questioned the validity of their career choice? Really? You’re a programmer? I’ve heard they’ve taught monkeys to do that.

I was fortunate enough to have a choice to make when I was 32: 1) have a career and no kids, 2) have a career and kids, or 3) have kids and no career. I chose what was behind Door Number Three. When Joe was born, I knew that what I really wanted was as low-stress of a life as I could have. To me, that meant not trying to juggle too many things. Steve worked. We could afford for me not to work. We came to an agreement. He puts money in our bank account. I run the house. We share duties with our sons. Our weekends are free to enjoy because I take care of the busy work during the week. As with any choice, it has both good and bad points. The choice I made means I clean toilets and mop floors like Cinderella because we can’t afford a maid. It also means, however, I can go to yoga during the day when my kids are in school because I am my own boss. Like anyone else’s life, my life is a balancing act to keep things working. But, make no mistake about it, I work. Every day. Seven days a week. I get no paid vacation. No bonuses. No salary. But it’s worth it to me because our four lives are more peaceful because of what I do.

To be fair, I know that the work I do is invisible to those on the outside (unless they catch me at Starbucks having coffee with a friend while they’re on their way to work and suddenly I’m no longer invisible). And this is why people feel free to interpret something they know nothing about. Still, I get tired of answering condescending questions. To that end, today I invented some succinct responses to lessen the agony of being asked them repeatedly:

“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” Never. Work sucks.

“What did you do when you worked?” I was an adult film star.

“What do you do with all your free time when the kids are in school?” Day drink.

“Don’t you get bored?” Oh…when I get bored watching Oprah, I take a nap. Crisis averted.

Really, people. I am doing the right thing for me. I only get one shot with my boys. I have to do my best the first time around because it’s the only time I have. Ask any adult child about their relationship with their parents and you will know this is true. Time with our children goes by fast. I have six years left with my beautiful, deep-thinking, first-born son. It will be over in the blink of an eye. I know I have been fortunate to have a choice, and I know that what is right for me is not necessarily right for others. I don’t begrudge anyone their choice. I simply wish others would believe that there’s more to me than my lack of a paycheck. Right now, I’m somebody’s most important person, and that won’t always be the case. Someday they will no longer need me. I bet I will not be on my death-bed regretting the inordinate amount of time I spent with my sons in their youth. I will only regret acknowledging stupid questions about the smartest choice I ever made.

One Tough Cookie

Look, ma! No hands!

Look, ma! No hands!

A couple of weeks ago, I decided I could no longer live with our basement. We had it finished eight years ago when the boys were small, and our big dream was to get the train table out of our family room. At the time, we had no practical idea about what the space would be used for other than glorified, out-of-sight toy storage and therefore we had the contractor paint the whole space a muted and incredibly boring white, reasoning that white would keep the area bright. Over time and with much abuse by boys, the white walls became foul. For years, I’ve avoided the basement altogether, only occasionally going down there to pick up trash, throw out broken toys, and vacuum up dead spiders. That was all I could handle.

Then I decided it was time to face my fears. The boys are growing up. The train table is gone. It was time for the basement to be a livable space for all of us. I needed to paint. We had to begin by cleaning the pit. I dragged the boys downstairs with me and my black, yard-size, plastic trash bags. We got to work. It was bad. Now, I’ve never wanted to be the Clean Police. I prefer to pick other battles with my sons. And I believe a boy should have someplace that isn’t subject to relentless, maternal scrutiny. (Besides, like a drill sergeant who loves surprise inspections, I prefer scrutiny on random occasions when it is unexpected.) As we continued around the room, though, I did voice my concern about their slovenliness. They reminded me that they do pick up when I ask them. I suggested that perhaps they can be more proactive about taking responsibility for the space when I don’t ask. Shockingly radical idea, I know.

I requested help moving the futon away from the wall. It had been in a bed position since Luke’s sleepover birthday party at the end of May. No. I had not gone down there since the party. I left the clean up to them. They’re old enough to handle that, right? Then summer hit and life got chaotic. We were training for the Inca Trail, and the state of our hideous basement was nowhere in the vicinity of my mind. Don’t judge. As we pulled the futon bed away from the wall, I saw something stuck there. I took one step closer to investigate and realized it was half of a chocolate chip cookie. A chocolate chip cookie. Stuck to the wall. For how long, I was not sure. Oddly enough, my first thought was not, “I am the world’s worst housekeeper.” Instead it was, “How is it sticking there?” I was concerned with the physics of the situation. I actually wondered if it had frosting or something that had adhered it to the wall. My next thought was that it was reasonably disgusting that a cookie stuck to the wall for who knows how long had no mold on it whatsoever. My children had ingested those. I shuddered at what a horrible person I am for feeding that “food” to my offspring. Certainly that should qualify as child abuse.

As I stood there with my mouth agape, staring incredulously at that stupid cookie, the boys started doing the math.

“When did we have cookies down here?” Luke asked.

“I don’t know. You know you’re not supposed to bring food down here,” I answered. “When was the last time I bought cookies?” I puzzled. “I never buy cookies.”

Joe, whose 13-year-old mind can’t remember to come home wearing two shoes, replied,”I think it was Luke’s birthday party.”

Now I started doing the math. Luke’s 11th birthday party was on May 23rd. Oh holy hell.

“That cookie has been on the wall for over three months!” I gasped. “You guys!”

“We didn’t know it was there,” came the rejoinder.

“Well…you should have,” I replied, peeling its overly preserved remains from the wall. “Look,” I said as I showed the cookie to them. “It still looks edible. Want a bite?”

They declined. Later on, though, curiously enough, both kids asked if we could get cookies for dessert.

Sometimes I think back to the days before I had kids, days when I never would have found a half of a cookie stuck to my wall. I think about those days, when my house was always clean and there were no random, inexplicable scuff marks high on the walls and no Legos in my vacuum canister. There were days when I was not afraid to enter any room in my house for fear of what terror might lurk pressed up against the wall behind a piece of furniture. Once upon a time, my house looked good enough for company…all the time. Then I had boys, and my house went to the dogs. Funny thing is it has never felt more like home than it does now. If you come over and find something stuck to the walls, try not to notice it. We’re busy living here.