I was sitting on the back deck today as a hummingbird blew past me on the way to our feeder. I love watching them, so I was grateful when we finally got this feeder up and less than an hour later we had a visitor. I gazed at this speedy creature, mesmerized by its grace and fluidity as its wings fluttered at 53 beats per second, and then it whizzed past me again. It was gone. I realized then what a hummingbird reminds me of. A hummingbird is basically a teenage boy. He’s invisible most of the time. You can’t find him when you are looking for him. But when you put food out, he shows up, blowing past you as if you are of no concern. He devours what you offer. And then the teenage boy, like the hummingbird with its belly full, is gone again. But don’t worry. He always needs food, and as long you provide it you will occasionally catch a glimpse of him, no matter how ephemeral it might be.
During our car travels, we spend a lot of time talking. We’ve so often used car time to cover deep and wide-ranging topics and have intellectual conversations that there have been times when we have driven three or four hours without realizing the radio has been off the entire drive. In truth, our sons often asked us to turn the radio down so they could join the adult conversation happening in the front seat. A conversation can arise from something we see out the window, but it often morphs into another as a kernel of information from the first topic germinates. Sometimes there will be a few moments of silence as we reflect on what has been said, but then someone will reintroduce a previous topic with a new vision that arose from that silence. We can get into some rather passionate discussions and have to fight for an opportunity to put our two-cents in, but it’s definitely one of the ways we learn the most about each other. Usually at the end of a long trip, one of us will remark about how fast the drive went because we talked the entire way.
There was one time when we talked about religion and faith the entire way to Steamboat Springs because our third grade son got into the car worried that we would not end up in heaven together. There was a summer trip home from the mountains when I had to tell our sons, then 11 and 9, that there had been a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, and we spent the remainder of the ride unpacking that information. Our oldest has led us through prehistory, talking animatedly about geology, dinosaurs, evolution, and birds. Our youngest recently read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, a book written 50 years ago, and has been discussing it at length by tying it into our current human condition with the speed of change. During the latest trip, we spent a great deal of time talking about vaccine hesitancy and the Delta variant of Covid-19, about racism and sexism, and about the political climate in our nation too. Occasionally we use car time to discuss our future travel plans, but usually we talk about big picture topics in the world at large because those can carry us the longest distance.
We aren’t always serious. Some of my favorite conversations are ones where someone pops off with a memorable comment. Yesterday, I heard a sarcastic “Nothing shows respect for the American flag more than using it to cradle your ball sack” comment. Once, seven-year-old Joe used a car trip to remark, “You know, Mom, to a car, life IS a highway.” And I remember one ride where my youngest, pulling from something he had seen before somewhere, simply commented out of the blue, “Unfortunately for Joe, he’s made of meat.” Another time I was giving Joe grief about something and from the back seat Luke replied, “You’re not gonna throw him out like day old chowdah.” Yes. New England accent and everything. You never know what weirdness you might hear if you’re paying attention. You just have to be paying attention.
Car time is when your kids are a captive audience. We sought to use this to our advantage. We asked them questions to foster conversations, like What are your top three Pixar films or Who are your favorite Marvel heroes (Captain America and Thor for me, if you were wondering). Because our sons never went to a local school, they never had a bus ride. They just had me dropping them off and picking them up every school day, and the commute to school was never less than 20 minutes one way. Listening during car rides became the most efficient way to learn about my kids and talking during car rides became the most effective way to sneak in some valuable information I was hoping to impart. Along the way, our habit of coming up with family discussions took on a life of its own. It helps to be a family filled with idea people who are never short on opinions, but sometimes I wonder if we were always that way or if we evolved into those people because of our car talk.
I like to think our car conversations are one of the reasons our family is as close as it is. We’re heading up to the mountains again soon, then in a few weeks Joe and I will be driving the 1,084 miles back to his college for fall semester, and after that Luke and I will be sharing the driving task to and from his high school as he gets in more hours before taking his driving test. Eventually these chatty car rides will become more and more infrequent, but good lord I am glad we’ve taken this car time together and used it for discussion because it’s made us the family we are.
The Subtle Art Of Raising A Keeper
My oldest had his wisdom teeth out a couple days ago. He’s been fortunate, and it’s been mostly not a big deal for him. He’s had no bruising, very minimal swelling, and pain that is manageable with over-the-counter relief. Last night, however, he didn’t sleep well. So he awoke at 5:30 a.m. to take some more Advil and when they kicked in he fell back asleep. Great, right? Wrong. He had a coffee date planned for 9:30 this morning. I didn’t know this, but somehow wandered down to his room at that time to check on how he was feeling.
He was pretty out of it as he awoke. He looked at the clock on his phone for a long five or six seconds while it registered in his brain.
“Shit!” he exclaimed as he moved the blanket back and slowly sat up. “I was supposed to meet Ella.”
“When?” I inquired.
“Right about now,” he said.
He’s never been late to pick up his girlfriend. Since he started dating last spring, I’ve learned a great deal about my son and how he conducts himself in matters of the heart. He is considerate, continually thinking of what she might like and dreaming up creative ways to show he cares. He is flexible, willing to rework plans to make the most of their time together. And, he is timely. Usually.
“Text her and tell her you overslept because of your mouth. Tell her you’ll be there in a half an hour. Grab a quick shower. You’ve got this,” I told him.
I knew he was worried. He doesn’t like to be late. Once when he was three, in an absent-minded parental state of exhaustion, I got on the highway to take him to school. Problem was the highway was in the opposite direction of school. He noticed immediately and told me I was going the wrong way. He began to panic, fearful that he would be late, that his teacher would be upset with him, that he had ruined his perfect attendance record. I spent the fifteen minutes rerouting to get him to school apologizing, explaining there are dozens of different ways to arrive at the same location and assuring him it would be fine. When we walked into school, he ran to his classroom. I heard him loudly tell the teacher, “I’m late because my mom went the wrong way. ” Subtle.
At 9:45 I heard the door to the garage open, so I went to say goodbye. He was showered and ready to go, but I noticed his thick hair was uncombed and unruly.
“You didn’t fix your hair,” I noted.
“No time,” he said.
“Nuh uh,” I replied. “You have twenty seconds to fix yourself. Stay right there.”
I dashed off to get the hair cream and reappeared in seconds to help him tame his mop. At the time, it occurred to me maybe I was overstepping my bounds, being too motherly to someone who is no longer a kid but an eighteen year old with a car and a girlfriend. Then I shoved that thought right aside because sometimes it’s good to have someone around to help you out in a rush. Everyone benefits from a little help sometimes, and it’s good to understand that. The devil is in the details. That is the kind of thing I want him to remember as he crosses this bridge from youth into adulthood.
“If you’re going to make a girl wait for you, it’s good to make sure you’re worth waiting for,” I told him as he got into the car.
Many times as a much younger woman I sat waiting for a guy who was late. Many times said guy showed up just as he was, not the least bit concerned about his disheveled appearance or apologetic about his tardiness. The boys who weren’t like that are the ones who stand out to me now. The ones who took a minute to throw on an attractive sweater rather than the crappy, acid-wash denim jacket they wore to school. The ones who bothered to put on a cologne they knew I loved. The ones who showed up with a flower they’d grabbed at a gas station convenience store. Those guys were the ones who made me feel special, the ones who were worth waiting for. I like to think my son will be one of those someday, even if he needs some guidance to get there.
The Best Cure For Middle Age Is Teenage
I saw the above passage in my Facebook feed yesterday and promptly copied and saved it because I love it when other people write my feelings succinctly and turn it into an inspirational post so I don’t have to.
Before having children, I heard myriad dark tales of the harrowing experience of raising teenagers. Having eons ago been a teenager myself, I recalled the endless battles with parents, the scramble to balance friends and boyfriends and homework and extracurriculars and part-time work and social activities, and the confusion surrounding figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do in life. I remember that time as exhausting and exhilarating, a period of self-development precariously balanced with self-loathing.
When my sons, now 18 and 16, were toddlers, I could not wait for them to get older. I longed for a time when I could understand what they wanted and discover who they were. And, through the infinite magic of time that speeds up as we age, I arrived here more quickly than I ever imagined.
While my parents struggled with their teenagers, I’ve found mine to be 10% terror-inducing and 90% delightful. Letting my son drive off at 6 am with his brand-spanking new driver’s license to head to the mountains for a hike, well…that’s terror-inducing. But waking up the next day, pulling up Google Translate on my iPhone to start brushing up on my French for an upcoming trip and finding my sons have been doing the same, well…that’s delightful.
My sons have brought out both the best and the worst in me over the years since they arrived and made us a family. Fortunately, as I have aged, I have relaxed a bit, which has made experiencing my sons’ teenage years more filled with laughter than fraught with frustration. If you get out of your kids what you put into them, I must have given my all.
My Wandering Heart
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” ~Elizabeth Stone
Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.
The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.
Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.
It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.
Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.
Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.
I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.
Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.
Country Tunes, Rose Ceremonies, and Expectations
It’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when expectations of all ilks band together to form a super group of disappointment. You might recognize some of their greatest Country hits.
- How Could You Not Know
- Lingerie…the Gift for You That’s Really For Me
- Ended up at Chili’s in my Best Dress and Pearls
- Don’t Give Me Chocolate and Complain that I’m Fat
- I Paid For Lobster and Got Cold Fish
- My Dog Loves Me More Than You Do
- Stalled in the Friend Zone
- Valentine’s Day Threesome – Me, Myself, and I
- Sleeping on the Sofa Again
Traditionally, this has not been my favorite holiday because I’ve never been great with expectations. Based on something that happened last night with my son, however, I have evidence my attitude may be changing.
Him: “If I wanted to buy some flowers, what would be the best way to do that?”
Me: *silently processing* Flowers? What for? Oh shit. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. OMG. This may be the cutest thing he’s ever said. *squeal* Act cool. Don’t let on that he’s being adorable. And, for holy lizard’s sake, don’t be patronizing. Whatever you do, do not ask who they are for. Crap. Where will we find roses in the morning before school and how early will we have to get to the store? Maybe we should go tonight. Oh man. I don’t want to drive all over town tonight. If we go quickly, maybe I can still catch the men’s half-pipe finals.
“We could hit Whole Foods after dinner if that sounds good,” I replied with my best game face, as if it were barely an issue. “Whole Foods usually has nice flowers.”
“Okay,” he said.
We geared up and drove the five minutes to the store and, being Mom and being something of an expert on expectations, I prepared him for multiple scenarios surrounding the endeavor. There could be no flowers left. There could be a million flower choices. The store might be inordinately busy. The flowers might be more expensive than he was thinking. We might have to go to a few different places. He might have to change his game plan.
He seemed not at all fazed by the prospects. He shared that some of his friends said he was crazy. Some expressed concern he would get hurt. Some said nothing because they had done something similar last year and were reserving judgment. I told him that if he was being honest about his intentions, there was no way to lose. If you act from a place of thoughtfulness without return expectation, you can’t go wrong. Giving should make you feel good, no matter where it leads. The act of giving selflessly is actually a gift for you too.
He was in luck. Whole Foods had dozens of buckets of roses. He had (quite charmingly) done his research about the meanings of rose colors and had decided against yellow. He and the recipient were already friends, so friendship roses seemed to express the obvious. He further knew that red roses were way beyond what would be proportionate to his feelings. He decided on light pink roses so she would know he admired and appreciated her. We inspected the pink rose bouquets to select the optimal bunch. I helped him pick out a small, blank card in which he would later write “Happy Valentine’s Day from your friend” to make sure she knew he simply wanted to do something nice to make her day more special. When we got home, he selected four flowers from the assortment and we put them into a vase.
This morning he was nervous, not about the gift but about the managing of the gift. Where would he put the flowers until they saw each other? How much shade would his classmates give him? How awkward was his morning going to be? What had he gotten himself into? He had no idea what to expect. I told him that was a fair place to be and wished him godspeed.
I have spent most of my life sweating the constant, crushing, considerable heft of expectations. I was raised under them and unconsciously came to regard them as a weighted blanket, a comfortable and secure place from which to operate. Only recently have I examined them more closely and accepted their truths. Expecting too much from others or yourself only causes trouble. Expecting too little from yourself or others leaves your self-esteem vulnerable. Somewhere in the middle of that see saw, around the center at the pivot point, is the best place from which to ride life’s waves. I think I will find that sweet spot eventually. For now, I am enjoying the remainder of those pink roses we purchased last night, admiring and appreciating myself for getting closer to where I hope to be.
It’s In The Stars
Our oldest son chose for his elective this past quarter an astronomy class. Faced with the athletic, artistic, or intellectual, he will nearly always choose the intellectual. I was thrilled when he told me his choice because I too am fascinated by space. As an English major at the University of Colorado, while most of my friends chose Geology for their science requirement, I elected to take three semesters of astronomy…two towards my credit requirement and an extra, upper level course (pass-fail, mind you, because math is not my strong suit) for my own intellectual curiosity.
Joe, being Joe, has spent the entire quarter memorizing facts and statistics about the planets and their moons. Because astronomy is his last class of the day, he often spends our drive home burying me in astronomical facts about the size of planets and the death of stars. Yesterday, though, on our way home he casually mentioned that there was a field trip to the observatory that he might attend because, well, he hadn’t been keeping up on his nightly sky observations and, well, he could get credit in place of the work he hadn’t completed if he spent two hours at the observatory Thursday night.
He told me he wanted to use the large telescope, but he also admitted that he would really rather stay home and binge watch Netflix. I told him it was his choice. It’s his grade and his transcript, after all, and we made the decision to let him be in charge of his fate starting with his freshman year. He’s 15 and we’re not going to babysit him and his school responsibilities. I don’t check the online grade book. I don’t know when his assignments are due. We are not choosing his college for him if he decides to attend college. And I will not be one of those parents calling his professors to ask them for assignment extensions for my son.
Tonight at dinner he seemed committed to going and asked if we would drive him to Observatory Park. On the way there, though, he began lamenting that he hadn’t finished his homework earlier in the week and put himself in the predicament of having to give up two hours of free time on a school night for more school-related work. It was mostly cloudy, light flurries falling on and off all evening, so there might not be much to see, which meant two hours sitting in the observatory listening to lectures without having the occasion to use the telescope at all. The homework assignment didn’t even count for that much. There were myriad reasons not to go. He was counting them off.
We arrived a bit early and sat in the idling car while we waited to see what he would do. As a couple cars opened their doors and spilled their student contents onto the sidewalk, we suggested that he could hop out and catch up with his classmates if he didn’t want to go in alone. He paused for a while, deliberating. Finally, the car door opened and from the back seat we heard, “I really don’t want to do this, but I need the credit.” And with that, he stepped out, closed the door behind him, and walked away, only looking back towards us once before disappearing into the dark park along with the other teenagers.
Parenting is hard. You want your child become successful. You think you might know the best way to make that happen for them. The truth is that the most important thing you can do is let them make their own choices and mistakes, while you sit quietly with your fingers crossed hoping you gave them the right tools for the task. Tonight as Joe loped towards the observatory, I felt fairly confident about his chances of becoming a successful adult. He’s figured out the toughest part about it already: sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do even when you really don’t want to do it. I might be speaking too soon, but I suspect he’s going to make a fine adult. It seems to be in his stars.
Ruined Dinners, Reading Assignments, and Raising Adults
Against my better judgement, I joined a book club today. I swore I would not do it again, but when the opportunity presented itself I found myself unable to say no. The book that pulled me in? How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Like many people over a certain age, I was raised by parents who expected me to pull my own weight from early on. They didn’t hover or harass me to ensure I was doing my job as a child and a student. I was expected to work hard, earn high marks, and contribute at home. They didn’t make me breakfast or fix my school lunch. They didn’t know I was eating Suzy Q’s and french fries when they weren’t around because they weren’t obsessed with my nutritional intake. They didn’t ask me about school projects. If my chores weren’t done, I was grounded. If my grades fell, they didn’t know about it until the report card showed up and then there would be consequences to bear. When my own sons arrived early and small, I started down a different path than my parents traveled. I was actively involved in every aspect of their young lives and I always knew what was going on with them. When Joe started his freshman year this August, it at last hit me that I have four years to turn this kid I manage into the kind of human who won’t need to call me to fill out paperwork in a doctor’s office, remind him of his phone number, or prepare food other than microwavable, plastic trays Yakisoba. Yikes.
The bookclub book, written by a Stanford University’s dean of freshman for helicopter parents invested in getting their kids into Ivy League schools via endless hovering and helping their children with grades, extra curriculars, and volunteer hours over more practical life skills like actually managing themselves, seemed like something I should read. Not necessarily because I am that helicopter parent. I’m not. My sons’ diagnoses with developmental and learning disabilities quickly curtailed my grandiose dreams of them attending Harvard and then perhaps Yale Law. Sure. Those things are still possible for them. Statistically speaking, though, those dreams (already a long shot for the brightest of typical children) become an even more unlikely possibility for my sons dealing with ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. All the hours and dollars I invested in those Baby Einstein videos could not have changed my sons’ brains. They are different, and I now can honestly say I am grateful for that. I’ve also found peace with the notion that they may attend community college or trade school instead of a traditional four-year university. And they may need to live in my basement a bit longer than my friends’ children as they mature and find their own path. It’s all good, though, because their issues have forced us all to be more resilient, more patient, and more understanding of the uniqueness of each person’s life path.
Even with all this, being the parent of children with “issues” has required a different type of helicopter parenting. I’m not pushing them regarding straight A grades or sports scholarships or college-application-worthy community service because the mere act of keeping up in school is hard enough for them. My challenge with helicopter parenting comes from years of having to be their voice surrounding their disabilities. Once you accept that your child is not typical, your job becomes finding ways to make them feel typical. Your days are spent creating a level playing field for them so they have the opportunity to experience the same feelings of success their peers experience. You take on tasks they might do themselves if they were a more typical child. You fill out their forms. You set up timetables for their school projects. You manage their schedules and make sure they get places on time and with the right materials because you know it’s hard enough for them to remember to put on two socks and clean underwear. And sometimes it’s hard to know when to back off and let them fall again once you’ve worked so hard to lift them up.
Because of my divided attention, I let go of some things I might have otherwise insisted upon if my sons were more typical like I was. I’ve been a little lax about regular chore completion. Luckily for me, despite my lack of regular follow-though on chores, my kids often remind me of my short-sightedness and present me with situations in which I must rise to the occasion. Last week, Joe saw that I was preparing a skillet dinner (you know…one of those dishes where all the ingredients touch each other) and he promptly lost his shit. He yelled that I had “ruined” dinner by allowing pieces of potato to mingle with pieces of sausage. Oy. The minute those words came out his mouth, I felt sorry for him. I blinked a few times and told him to leave the room. At that moment, he caught on to his colossal error and apologized for being an unappreciative creep. After a deep breath, I told him that I had a solution to his meal problem. I was going to offer him the opportunity to plan and prepare a few dinners so he can better understand what it is like to try to feed four people with different food issues. (While hubby will eat anything, Luke eschews veggies, I am currently gluten, soy, and dairy-free due to food sensitivities, and Joe is not a fan of meat.) Good luck, buddy.
Tomorrow night is Joe’s first dinner night. Tonight he gets to research and plan his menu. Tomorrow after school I will take him shopping and leave myself available to field recipe questions and provide help with cooking utensils. I’m a little nervous about what I may end up having to ingest as part of this lesson in adulthood, but I have to admit that I am kind of excited too because this step is right in line with my book club read. It’s a growth opportunity for both of us. And it’s appropriate and right on schedule at a time when Joe is both capable of taking it on and in a safe place for a lesson because, if the meal goes south, we have peanut butter and jelly on hand that he can prepare instead. If you want to raise an adult, you have to be prepared for some missteps. As a teenager, I once made a batch of brownies using Pompeii Olive Oil (not even extra virgin) in place of regular oil. We all gotta start somewhere. Today, I start letting Joe learn what it is to be a functioning adult. I bet he’s really sorry he didn’t keep his mouth shut last week.
That Time Whip-Nae-Nae Saved The Day
As our children grow, most of their changes occur imperceptibly. One moment you are gazing into their chubby, little cherub face and the next you are looking directly into the eyes of a slender-faced, high-cheekboned teenager and wondering what wicked sorcery changed them overnight. And while their adult appearance seems to develop in the proverbial eye blink, the transformation in their personalities as they mature from tantrum-tossing toddler into too-cool-for-school teenager seems to take forever. My sons both pitched fits in public places that I swore would last longer than the Cenozoic Era. I watched with grateful glee as the tantrums decreased in duration over the years, evolving from epic, hour-long fuss fests into eye-rolling disgust lasting two seconds from start to finish. It was marked forward progress and it was much easier to notice because it directly impacted the level of peace and quiet in my daily life. Over the years, I have become guardedly optimistic about my sons’ potential to become respectful, open-minded, kind, and decent adult humans because I have witnessed their emotional growth firsthand and been present to overhear other adults as they remarked on it too.
On Halloween evening last weekend, our oldest son did something that proved he is more mature than his meager fourteen years might assert. Right around 6:30 pm, as costumed children began serenading us with Trick-or-Treat calls from our front step, our sons finally decided to get their teenage acts together and get into costume for what Joe proclaimed would be his last year trick-or-treating. For the auspicious occasion, he had chosen a demented, shiny skeleton mask in his first-ever attempt to dress in a costume that could potentially unnerve small children. As he was donning his scary costume, however, there was a wardrobe malfunction with the mask that required last-minute triage with super glue. He put the mask on after the quick-fix solution and discovered the fumes from the not yet dried glue made his eyes water. Not good. We waited a few minutes for the glue to dry and he tried again. Still no go. Everyone else in the trick-or-treating party was ready to hit the road, but Joe’s costume was suddenly out of the question. I immediately apologized for not foreseeing the potential sticky situation in my instant glue fix, but he brushed it off without another thought.
In years past, our ADHD son would likely have in the same situation devolved into a weepy mess and declared the holiday a total loss. He might have thrown himself on his bed and cried in frustration. This year, though, was different. I was the one who was irked and disappointed about the worthless $25 mask that could not be worn. He was calm and collected. Reasoning that he was already dressed in full black, he decided he could easily transition his costume from scary death apparition to scary mime with some white face paint. (Mimes are a freakishly scary Halloween costume, you have to admit.) I dug around in the costume bucket only to discover there was no viable white makeup to use for his transformation. Dammit. Joe and I started brainstorming. I ran to the basement to my containers of old Halloween costumes and searched for something he could use in a pinch. The least feminine item I was able to turn up was a headband for a skunk costume. I brought it to him.
“What about this?” I asked, adding, “I also have a black cat headband, but the ears have a glittery, bright pink in them.”
“I can be a skunk,” he announced confidently and without the slightest hint of teenage embarrassment or disappointment.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I can probably figure out something better if you give me a few more minutes to dig around,” I explained.
“Nope. The skunk is good. I can be a skunk.”
We found some white felt fabric in my office and safety pinned a stripe down the back of his otherwise all black outfit. I pulled out a black eyeliner pencil and drew a skunk nose and whiskers on his face. He put on the headband and checked the mirror.
“I look a little bit like a girl,” he assessed, “but I don’t care. I’m not missing trick-or-treating. Luke and Anthony might make fun of me, but I can deal with it. I’ll just tell everyone I’m doing the stanky leg,” he said, giving a nod to Silento’s Watch Me song.
(Thanks to Joe, I spent the entire evening with the watch-me-whip-watch-me-nae-nae chorus running through my head. And now it is probably in yours. You’re welcome.)
I handed him a flannel pillowcase and he was off, taking on the mantle of leader of the pack with confident aplomb. We’ve spent years working with Joe, both explaining and demonstrating ways to transform lemons into lemonade and chicken shit into chicken salad when things did not go his way. While Luke has always been capable of adjusting quickly when things went awry, Joe has struggled for years, full of sulks and things-always-go-wrong-for-me woe and hours of perseveration. Each meltdown has brought with it an opportunity for growth, and we’ve watched it occur slowly. But this time was markedly different. This time there was zero meltdown. This time he pulled a page out of my fix-it-on-the-fly handbook and adapted to the unfortunate change in plan without a second thought. I’m not sure I have ever felt prouder than I did as I witnessed his determination to jump over this pothole on the greatest of all kid holidays. He did at fourteen something I was not able to accomplish until my mid forties. He made a conscious choice not to take himself so damned seriously. And he rocked it.
As for me, I am going to follow Joe’s example and continue to work at not taking myself quite as seriously. Also, I will never again hear that ridiculous Watch Me song without thinking about the way inspiration and strength can come from the oddest things…like the stanky leg.
Some Things Are Worth Saving For Later
Tonight I’m going back to the 80’s to see The English Beat with a few girlfriends. Two of these friends have known me for a very long time. I’ve known Kerry since grade school, and I met Kayla in the 7th grade. I liked Kerry right away because she had a nice Polish last name like mine, and I thought Kayla was so sophisticated because she had an eyelash curler and had heard of U2 before anyone else I knew. I try not to think about the things these girls witnessed because I’m still trying vehemently to deny some events from my teenage years. (Hopefully their ability to remember is as poor as mine.) One of the reasons I hoped I would not have a daughter was because I was once a teenage girl. I never liked teenage girls. Not even when I was a teenage girl. Oh…the game playing, the conniving, the rumors, the theatrics! I could fill books with my idiocy. Wait. I did. I kept a journal all those years. It’s horrifying.
All this preparing myself for a night out with friends I’ve known for over 30 years got me to thinking about the first real sleepover party I attended. I was 13. It was at Sandy’s house across the street from my own. Sandy, like Kayla, was also very sophisticated. She had moved here from North Carolina and she introduced me to great music from Elvis Costello. She and Kayla slowly divested me from my parents’ music, which consisted of Sonny and Cher and Barry Manilow. Not kidding. Anyway, the sleepover that night was typical. There was music, candy, and silly girl antics.
At one point, someone took my bra, got it wet, and stuck it in the freezer while I was off doing something incredibly lame like jumping around singing songs from Foreigner 4. When it came time to go to bed, I crawled into my sleeping bag to find it wet. There I discovered my once-frozen training bra (which never really got much beyond the training stage, sadly), which had been placed inside the flannel bag and was now completely thawed. Ugh. I was beyond annoyed. Being a teenage girl, I pitched a little hissy fit, took my sleeping bag, and in an overly dramatic fashion stomped myself right out of the house and right across the street to my own comfortable and dry bed. Party pooper.
I look back on those days now and roll my eyes. (Some teenage girl behaviors are never lost). So many stupid things in so few years. Most of them done in the name of some silly boy whom I can barely remember now. Luckily, most of my friends from those days lived those naive, childish moments right along with me. Kerry and I once drank too much and upon hearing her parents come home dumped the remaining contents of our opened beers into her fish tank. Brilliant. Kayla and I used to spend hours sitting outside the Rainbow Music Hall talking to cute, mod boys while waiting to hear bands who hadn’t yet made it big…bands like The Cure and INXS…hoping we’d meet them or at least catch a glimpse of them getting off their tour bus. We did get a signature once from the drummer of Wang Chung (back in their Dance Hall Days, before the horribly overrated Everybody Wang Chung tonight nonsense). I suppose it was all part of being a teenage girl.
I don’t miss those days, but I am infinitely glad I’ve still got some friends from that time in my life now. I’m giddy to see Dave Wakeling and The English Beat tonight at the Bluebird. For a few hours, I won’t even care if their music makes me feel 13 again. I won’t stop myself from singing “Tears of a Clown” too loudly, all the while remembering the immature boy who broke my heart when I was so much younger than I am now. And, as I’m dancing with my friends to “Save It For Later,” everything will be right with the world. Although I’ve put drama of my teenage years behind me, the best things from those days still make me happy.