because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

On Thunderstorms & Children: Reflections on a Rainy May

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When my son was a wee thing, still wrapped up like a burrito, every time there was a thunderstorm, I carried him outside to the worn wooden bench perched on our front stoop, and, together, we sat and listened to the boomers.

As my burrito grew, he morphed into my l’il Monkey. Whenever we heard thunder or saw that first flick of lightning, we raced to the front door. He’d mastered deadbolts by then, and he turned the knob furiously as if the ice-cream truck were sitting in our driveway. Once outside, we piled on the old bench — my son sat on my lap, holding my hand with a combination of anticipation and fear while I counted: “One-one-thousand, -one-thousand, three-one-thousand…” And when the world shook, we laughed and he begged for another so we waited impatiently for the next thunder-clap to shake our world.

For years we watched the skies darken, the clouds quicken, felt the air grow heavy on our skin. We listened to water slap our sidewalk angrily, and we both came to see how it works: how storms can be furious and yet temporary. He learned that even the scariest storms pass.

I know children who are terrified of thunder and lightning – kids who put their hands over their ears and cry or hide, but my son was raised up on late May storms: flashes of light and all that racket.

Maybe it’s because we imagined G-d taking a shower.

{The way my Monkey was starting to take showers.}

Maybe it’s because we imagined G-d needed to fill up the oceans.

{The way my Monkey was starting to have responsibilities.}

Maybe it’s because he imagined G-d stomping around looking for something He had misplaced.

{The way Monkey misplaced things and got all stompy and frustrated.}

Maybe it’s because he liked talking about G-d and trying to relate to Him.

“G-d makes rain. And rain makes the world grow, Mommy!” l’il Monkey told me as he stared at the yellow lilies, thirsty for a drink.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that with each summer storm, my summer-son was getting “growed up” too.

One May, I saw my son needed a new raincoat and boots for puddle stomping.

“I don’t need a coat. Or boots,” Monkey said as a matter-of-fact.

And he ran out into the downpour.

Unprotected.

Now I’m not saying it’s smart to go outside and run around on a lawn during an electrical storm, I’m just saying that we did. Okay?

We made up goofy dances, sang ridiculous songs, and chased each other around the yard in our bare feet until we were mud-spattered and drenched.

In no time at all, my little burrito will have graduated high school and turn 18.

We live in an apartment with a less inviting front stoop, so we don’t do the thunderstorm thing anymore.

He doesn’t need require as much from me: a meal, a bed, a place to plug in his computer and charge his phone.

Soon, he won’t even need me to provide these things.

While natural, these changes come at me, pelt me, like hard rain on my skin.

One day, when I am an old woman and I hear the distant clatter of thunder, I will remember tiny yellow rain coats and tiny yellow rain-boots. I may not remember much else, but I will remember those little moments — perhaps as one long blurry moment — when the world turned chocolate pudding and everything was positively puddle wonderful.

What do you remember about thunderstorms? What little moments do you cherish?

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Not a Tale for Children

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Recently, I had to make a decision about whether or not to call Child Protective Services. The boy involved is a smart boy. He is not a troublemaker. The people who needed to be reported were the boy’s parents who left him, alone, without any organized adult supervision for several days. In the end, I decided not to do it, but I have fretted over this decision every day since. This is my way of working it out a little.

angel

Not a Tale for Children

His face is not a face. It is an onion to be peeled, a puzzle to be pieced together. His pain is so deep under the surface even he cannot find the center, the source. He remembers very little, but he recalls two sets of hands. The woman’s hands first: long, slender fingers pointing to her chest, and a heart beating there. These hands lifted him when he was tired and could walk no further; these hands ruffled his locks even when he hadn’t bathed; these hands felt like sunshine warming his knee.

The other hands were different. Those hands had fingernails sharpened to claws. Those hands had scarred knuckles. Those hands smelled metallic and gripped a gun with a feeling that he imagines is something close to love. He remembers bruises and fists and, finally, he remembers no hands at all.

He remembers the smell of grass vaguely, but then he is not sure. Maybe he is recalling warm bread with apricot jam, or the scent behind a baby’s knees, or the memory of a thick yellow comforter on a soft bed. A real bed. A place to rest a body or a head.

He remembers he used to have wings, feathers that extended from the center of his back, in the place where his shoulder blades met. His wings were eggshell-colored and silky, too — of this he is certain.

He remembers the day his wings caught fire.

It was the twenty-seventh day after they noticed the wind had stopped moving across the land. Twenty-seven days since the last orange butterfly visited the blue flowers that puffed out purple tongues. On that day, he felt a fist of fire cracking its way up his back and then his wings — which he had always been taught to believe could fly him away from the cracking cement and the muffled rumbling in the distance, the rubble — his beautiful wings turned brown and curled into wispy tendrils of dust.

It had not been a slow burning. His wings exploded into flame and the air around him turned brown and green. He remembers the smell of burning flesh.

Because he was ashamed of his loss, he hid for five days, coming out only at night to scavenge amidst the wreckage, searching for marshmallows and sunflower seeds and bits of cheese. After a while, he forgot what he was hiding for and emerged, small and pigeon-toed. Amazingly, no-one seemed to notice that his wings were gone. Tall, crooked shadows curved over his tiny frame and then rushed past, leaving him questioning if he had ever had them in the first place.

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Shecky the Meckyl and His Technicolor Groove: My Seussian Self-Help Book

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A Bully Free Zone sign - School in Berea, Ohio
Image via Wikipedia

When my son was in 5th grade, he went through a rough patch socially. We had moved to a new house – which meant a new school for him, and there was one douche-bag boy in particular who made his daily life difficult.

In an effort to try to deal with what my son was feeling, I created a little picture book with weird little drawings of a funky little creature named Shecky the Meckyl — who just so happened to be getting teased by some other “Meckyls.”

My son let me read it to him.

Once.

When I finished, I asked him what he thought about my book. He exhaled with the kind of exhaustion that seemed too dramatic for a 5th grader.

“I get it, Mom. I’m Shecky. And some day some people will appreciate me for who I am. I just have to wait it out.”

In hindsight, my son’s annoyed tone wasn’t inappropriate. I was trying to simplify a complex problem. I was telling him “Be Yourself!” when he knew all too well the person that he was — his core self — was being rejected daily. He felt attacked, defenseless, and friendless.

Over the weekend, we found the old manuscript in a bin.

He didn’t remember it, so we read it again.

I thought I would share it. It may not have worked in the moment, but it reminds me that the woes of youth are, in his case, quickly forgotten. And perhaps my little story might offer something else to someone who is going through a rough patch.

• • •

Shecky the Meckyl & His Technicolor Groove

Shecky the Meckyl had a technicolor groove

He’d leave colors in his wake whenever he’d move.

Sweet Shecky had colors where shadows should be

He made rainbows on sidewalks for Meckyls to see.

Shecky loved colors, as most people do,

But Meckyls turned up their noses and said, “PICKLE-POO!”

Which was not a nice thing for a Meckyl to say.

It made Shecky sad, and his colors turned gray.

Said one nasty Meckyl on one nasty day:

“We don’t like your colors; we don’t like your hues

We step in your shades, and get stains on our shoes!”

“You are too bright!” said this nasty fellow,

“Your pink is too pink, your yellow, too yellow!”

“Why don’t you keep all those shades deep inside?

Lock them up tight,”

And so . . . Shecky tried . . .

He held in the purple

He held in the green

He held in the fuschia

And aquamarine.

But once in a while some blue would appear

And the Meckyls would laugh as they though he was queer.

Shecky was puzzled as Meckyls could be

He missed the bright hues which had filled him with glee.

Shecky sat himself down on a cold piece of birch.

And his smile flew away alone in that prickle-perch.

He was sitting deserted on his bum in the street

When who do you think Shecky happened to meet . . .

But his friend Schmeckyl Meckyl who was out for a walk

And when he saw Shecky he stopped for a talk.

“Where are your colors, Shecky? Where did they go?

Can’t they come back, Shecky? Please make it so!”

Shecky answered sadly, a tear in his eye,

“Other Meckyls don’t like them, so why even try?”

“Don’t let those Jabber-Flabbers rain on your parade.

I like you, Shecky and all the colors you’ve made.”

“Please make a rainbow, you know what to do.

Those Meckyls are just cranky. Don’t let them change you!”

So Shecky straightened the glockins which grew from his bum,

He squeezed and he pushed and hoped they would come.

And it started to happen, as things frequently do,

Shecky smiled a smile, and his colors shone through!

With colors flip-flapping, once more Shecky was high,

Ready for anything under the sky.

Some Meckyls still look at Shecky with shlock in their eye,

But now Shecky is thankful he is a colorful guy.

My son doesn’t like to discuss 5th grade, and he rolls his eyes at me when I mention it. Meanwhile, I remain on amber alert.

Just because he is able to “straighten his glockins” and refuses to allow the “Mean Meckyls” of the world to be his undoing, I’m not so sure the same can be said of his mother.

What would you do if you found out your kid was a “Mean Meckyl”? When do you let kids fight their own battles? And when, if ever, do you move to intervene? And would you ever have your child call to apologize to another?

In Fear of Lice

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I am not a fearful person. I’m not afraid of roaches. I’m not afraid of spiders and have been known to pick them up by their legs and toss them out of the house onto the grass. I’m not afraid of snakes and have enjoyed the cool squeeze of a constrictor as it wrapped around my torso. While I do not like the idea of suffering, I am not afraid of death. I’m not afraid that someone will try to steal my child. I’m not afraid of fire and, once, in a New Orleans restaurant, a waiter whisked away my pretty red candle because I kept pouring hot wax onto my palm (and the fancy tablecloth). I’m not afraid of the dark and have taken long walks on overcast nights when there is no moon or stars. I’m not afraid of thunder and lightning, and while a young’un at Camp Seneca Lake, I used to run outside into torrential downpours with a bottle of shampoo to wash my hair while the sky reverberated and flickered. (I didn’t say I was smart; I just said I wasn’t scared.) There are plenty of other things I’m not afraid of.

I am, however, terrified of lice.

My fear of lice is partially irrational because I have never had them, but I have known many families who have been afflicted, and I am smart enough to know that I never want to meet a dirty, blood-sucking louse. I have heard the tales of woe: how the damn things keep coming back even after people picked-nits and bagged favorite pillows, washed towels and linens, even threw out hair brushes, combs and expensive hair accessories.

I have long, thick, curly hair and it seems like clippers would be inevitable. Like Samson from the Old Testament, I am nothing without my hair, so every time that damn letter comes home saying someone in my child’s class has contracted lice, I feel a little sick inside.

The tiny bugs, no bigger than sesame seeds, spread easily among children who are most likely to come into close head-to-head contact with one another. So while I don’t fall into the “at-risk category,” I do have a 10-year old son who ships out to summer camp each year for three weeks, so I feel my worries aren’t completely unwarranted as someone always comes home with the little buggers.

My good friend has sworn on a bottle of Quell that in the unlikely event I should ever contract lice, she would be my nitpicker. She is a very good friend.

I recently learned that some lice have become resistant to over-the counter remedies. (Be still, my heart!) When that happens, pediatricians sometimes choose to provide prescriptions for heavy-duty pesticides. Although some experts believe exposure in small doses to these chemicals is perfectly safe, these days many parents worry about dumping toxic substances on their children’s heads. (Note: I am not afraid of chemicals.) That said, I just happened to come across a great article about treating lice that talks about using Cetaphil skin cleanser and a hair dryer that “had a 95% success rate when repeated once a week for three weeks.”

So while I am still revolted by the possibility that lice could come into my life, I feel armed with more information and as children head off to summer camps across this great land – perhaps, this cheap and seemingly effective treatment might bring some relief to other moms who live in fear of lice.

Is it just me or is anyone else’s head really itchy?

Growing Up Is Hard & Bullies Just Stink

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photo from Chesi - Fotos CC's at Flickr.com

My husband and I have always taught our son that it is important to be friend-ly with everyone. To us, being “friendly” means being kind and tolerant and respectful toward another person, even if you don’t like him so much. We have always been clear with our son that being friendly does not mean that he has to be friends with everyone. He seems to get it.

My son knows that friends are important to me. He understands that my closest friends are the people I can trust to help me when I need them, and he sees I am there for them just the same. If we are lucky (and I consider myself lucky), we have people with whom we can share our deepest secrets; folks who come over even when they know we are sick and barfing; they see us without our make-up on and don’t care that the house is a complete mess; they are the people we shop with, take walks with, or sit still with. I am lucky enough to have people in my life who keep little cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale in their garages refrigerators because they know it is my favorite drink.

There is, of course, an ebb and flow to friendship. Sometimes one person gives more and the other receives – but friendship cannot be one way. Interactions may be brief or extended, but interactions with true friends should – in the ideal – leave us feeling filled up rather than emptied out.

photo of "angryboy" by bolinhanyc @ flickr.com

For kids, it’s harder. I imagine sometimes life must seem more like the reality-show Survivor where there are alliances that change daily. There are secret merges. One day you are in, and the next you are on exile island, alone. Or just voted out – excommunicated, without explanation. Blindsided. My son has been negotiating these waters for a few years now. He knows he has friends; it’s just that many of them don’t attend his school or aren’t in his same grade.

Last year, when my child found himself on the ground at recess, getting kicked in the nuts, he noted later, it wasn’t the being kicked that hurt so much (although it did hurt) but that the fact that a person he’d thought was his friend for many years stood by and watched it happen. That betrayal hurt him much more. He felt – and still feels – that if that person had intervened with a “quit it,” or a “leave him alone,” that somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad because he would have known he had that one person. That one friend.

These playground dynamics are also a terrible reminder of the ever-present social hierarchy, that author William Golding was right: It is Lord of the Flies out there, and everyday there are still perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and (sadly) precious few rescuers. And despite all the anti-bullying campaigns, no, we simply cannot seem to all just get along.

This year, things have been much better for my guy. Since he is heading for middle school in the fall, last week I asked him to tell me the biggest lesson he’d learned from elementary school. As we walked side by side, I was pretty sure he was going to say something about making sure to include quotes in his essays, or to try not to get hit in the face during dodge ball, or something about not eating Diet Coke and Mentos at the same time.

He thought for a good while and then said, “For better or for worse, one thing I learned while getting picked on last year is that the only person I can really count on is myself. And that the people you think are your friends one day may not be the next.”

His words seemed too adult, like he understood and has come to accept something dark about humanity that has taken me almost my whole life to understand. I’d be lying if I said I am more than a little sad that he understands it so well at 10 years old.

What is your experience with bullying? Would you rather have your child be the bully than the victim?

What Would You Do?

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Your child brings home a handout from school that is riddled with more than quite a few teacher errors (misspellings, grammar etc.).

In fantasies, what would you like to say or do? What do you do in reality?

Can You Leave Your Kids Alone?

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Muppet Feet by irreverentwidow @ flickr.com

My mother left me alone in our house when I was in 4th grade. She would sometimes make a quick run to the grocery store and I would watch (torture?) my younger brother for about an hour before she came back home with the goods. By 6th grade, I was making pretty good money as a regular babysitter to several neighborhood families. (When I say “good money,” I mean I was making $1/hour to watch up to 3 children – and sometimes even a dog with a bladder problem.) I would typically arrive at 6 pm, make the kids dinner, entertain them, feed the dog, help them get into pajamas and brush their teeth, get everyone into bed and have them sound asleep by the time the parents came home around 11 pm or so! Pretty responsible for an 11-12 year old, right?

Last year, my husband and I started leaving our (then) 9-year old son alone in the house for little chunks of time. We didn’t leave him for very long. Maybe hubby and I wanted to take a walk around the block after dinner or stop and chat with some neighbors. That kind of thing.

Since things went so well, we gave our li’l monkey greater independence this year. Sometimes he comes home from school, and I’m not home. He knows how to get in, how to make his own snack, knows to get his homework done. He might (or might not) practice his piano. He knows not to let strangers in the house. He knows what to say if someone calls on the phone. I’ve been feeling mighty good about m’boy who has morphed into a pretty confident and competent little person.

That said, I’ve been catching a little grief from people who seem to think that age 10 is simply too young to leave a person “unattended” for any length of time.

Most people have heard of Lenore Skenazy. The author of Free Range Kids, she’s the chick who let her 9-year old son Izzy ride the train from Bloomingdales in the middle of Manhattan to their home in Queens without a cell phone (and she wasn’t even secretly following him or anything. She simply believed he could do it.) Was Izzy too young to take the Subway? Hell, he did it!

I’m not even putting my kid on a train or a bus! He’s happy to have a bit of time alone in the house. And I’m seriously wondering, what could happen to my kid in our home? Why is everyone so worried about him? About me? About my parenting skills? After all, my mother trusted me to stay at home and watch my 6-year old brother when I was 9 years old. Think about the first time you stayed home alone? How old were you? Chances are, if you are over 40, you were about the same age.

So I’m curious: When is it okay for a child to stay home alone for the first time? And would you hire a 6th grade babysitter these days?

"Just-a-Minute" Syndrome: Have We Caused It?

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This entry is courtesy of my dear friend, former high school teacher turned full-time parent, Betsy Whitehouse. If you’d like to pipe in about a topic pertaining to parenting or education (or a place where these world’s collide), please feel free to let me know! I’m glad to shut up from time to time!


photo from joleenieweenie @ flickr.com

I never said boo to my parents. When they told me to do something, I may have slumped my shoulders, but it never occurred to me to reply. I do not mean I wanted to object but showed restraint and held my tongue instead; I mean, the thought of disobeying a parental command never floated across my synapses. How has this tradition not been repeated?

When I ask my son, age 11, to put down his book and come to dinner, I first get silence.

I say, “Please come to the table,” and then I get, “Just a sec, Mom.”

Me: “Fritz!”

Ungrateful child: “I’m coming!” Then silence, followed by no movement from the couch.

Some people will no doubt snicker as they read these words because the child I’m complaining about is reading and not playing video games or texting friends or screwing around on Facebook, but my frustration level is the same, and my dinner is congealing. My mother would whistle up the stairs at me like a dog, and I’d come running.

Why are kids different this generation?

Because it takes work to give kids consequences. We often think that the grounding or the taking away of the hand-held video-game or the cell phone is uncomfortable enough to be a deterrent for the child, but really, it’s uncomfortable for us. We want to teach our kids the right way to live, but how far out of our way are we willing to go?  Not far enough. We are slow to react to bad behavior because it’s disappointing for dad to come home to a child who’s unavailable, banished to her room; because – without a cellphone – it’s inconvenient for us to be unable to call the kid to tell him you’ll be late at pick-up; and, let’s be honest, it can be distracting to have one’s pre-teen PSP-less and yammering while you’re trying to clean, cook, manage. Setting consistent limits for our kids means parents have to suffer the consequences, too. We have to be willing to live with, and be strong with, whatever punishment we mete out.

I never really wanted to turn into my mom; maybe I could just have that one, confident, in-charge, diligent piece of her.