Artist • Author • Activist • Advocate

"boxed in" by massdistraction @flicker.com

I am a pretty organized person. In fact, there was an eight year stint where I worked as a professional organizer and was paid to go into people’s homes and help make systems to create order out of the chaos that surrounded them. And I was really good at it.

Truth be told, I am supremely organized. I used to lie about my house being as neat as it is. It doesn’t look quite as fabulous as the homes in Style Magazine or House Beautiful, you know, where everything has been staged to perfection – the beds heaped with fluffy, organic linens with a thread count of two million and smoothed so they 100% lump-free; every knick-knack is interesting and placed at the proper angle; the glass in the picture frames on the side tables sparkle, and the familes in the frames sparkle too.

It’s not like that here. Things here aren’t perfect; I just know where my stuff is.

Usually.

Except when I don’t. Because that happens sometimes.

One night, around 10 pm, while I was folding laundry and my husband was out enjoying a Jeff Beck concert, my son apparently realized he had lost his book, Pendragon: The Quillan Games, (#7 in the series) somewhere at school. Pendragon is not a book he checked out at school; it is a library book. A thick, hardcover library book. Apparently, he laid there in the dark perseverating. You know, that thing we do that gets us absolutely nowhere except more freaked out? He was running “what if” scenarios over and over in his head, trying to figure out where he might have left his book, even though he thought it was probably in his desk. Alone in his bedroom he was thinking, What if I can’t find the book? What if it’s really gone? What if I left it on the playground? What if the library charges me three times as much as a new copy would cost. What if my parents get really mad at me for losing the book and don’t trust me and won’t let me take out any more library books? (For a voracious reader, that would be a major punishment.)

Apparently, he tortured himself like this for about thirty minutes before he finally exercised the good sense to come downstairs and explain his dilemma.

My child is the responsible type. He doesn’t like to lose things. He doesn’t like to miss deadlines or due dates. The thought is abhorrent to him. I understand this – apples don’t fall from pear trees, right? – so I was glad when I was able to share something with him that a friend of mine helped me with not too long ago with when I was freaking out about something insignificant, that seemed really big at the moment.

I asked my son to sit on the floor beside me, to close his eyes, and listen to my voice. I told him I was going to take him to the worst case scenario: His worst fear.

photo of "mother and son" by pcgn@flickr.com

“Are you ready?” I asked.

He nodded.

“The book is, in fact, lost. You will have to pay for the book, maybe even three times the price.” Then I added this part: “But you are okay. You aren’t sick. We are all healthy. You have dad and me. We have a home. We have food and clothes, and we love you like crazy.”

He was calmer. Quieter. It was working. (Plus, he was really tired.) And because he was being quiet, I added, “And just so you know, assuming you live a long time – and I hope you do – you are going to lose stuff. A lot. It happens. I lose things all the time. I write notes to myself on slips of paper and they disappear. I don’t know where they go. I lose bills and receipts. Bottom line is, you have to know that you are going to lose shit, and you have to know it’s not worth losing your mind when you lose something.”

He giggled.

“What?” I asked.

“You said the ‘s-word’.”

Ooops.

Drawing on sage advice from my friend Jennifer Hess and her children’s yoga practice, I asked my son to take a deep breath, take in as much air as he could, and then exhale as if he were blowing out a million candles. At first, he couldn’t do it. He felt stupid, he said. But I insisted that he keep trying. He got it right on the third try.

“That felt good,” he said, calmer now.

Walking upstairs together, he let me hold his hand – something he doesn’t always let me do these days.

I hope he gets it: That adults aren’t perfect. We can strive to be organized and have our perfectly-perfect systems, but nothing is fool-proof or fail-safe. The important thing is to have the perspective to understand that what feels so terribly, awfully, overwhelmingly, miserable at one moment can be dealt with and the awful feeling will pass. Even when it is a big something – the loss of a friendship, a major illness, even death – these things have to be dealt with calmly too. Freaking out doesn’t help.

That night was about a lost book.

That night I counted our blessings.

Afternote: Boy found the book at school the next day. It was rescued just as it was about to be sent back to the public library. All’s well that ends well. He is now well into Pendragon Book #8.

"Indulgence of the Flesh" by 4T9R @ flickr.com

“You’re not really going to eat that, are you?” a friend asked me just as I was about to bite into a fabulous piece of very, rare filet.

As a little girl, whenever my father would barbeque, he would always let me sneak a few little pieces of meat off the grill long before they were ready to be served. Charred on the outside and raw on the inside; that was the taste of summer.

In the years before microwaves, when mothers had to decide what they were making for dinner by breakfast each morning, my mother would sometimes put out hamburger meat and, if I was lucky, by the time I got home from school, she would have fashioned them into seasoned patties, ready to go into the oven. In super stealth mode, I would sneak into the kitchen to snatch little bits of uncooked burger from the porcelain plate where they waited to be broiled. I think once I actually ate an entire  burger – raw. This was frowned upon by my mother but not seen as dangerous or cause for grave concern.

My immediate family knows I am a carnivore. To this day, I have a taste for raw, red meat, and I totally gross out my husband. People are always telling me that I am going to get E.coli or trichinosis or salmonella or staphylococcus or some other creepy bacteria that I can’t see or smell.

"mince meat" by sinsiwinsi @ flickr.com

I can’t even disagree with the people who tell me this. I know that E. coli 0157:H7 are like super-bacteria and have managed to mutate so that they survive refrigeration and freezer temperatures and, once in food, they can multiply quickly. People delight in telling me I am being stupid and stubborn, and if I would only agree to cooking my meat just a little more, the bacteria would be killed.

I know the FDA recommendations. People tell me I am tempting the food gods. All I can tell you is in a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, there was a drop in the cases of E. coli 0157 and that it struck “fewer than one case per 100,000 people” and they are clear when they point out that “death is rare.”

Maybe someone should have told my mother 40 years ago that she shouldn’t have left the burgers out at room temperature for more than two hours because, honestly, it was really just delicious. I never got sick. Not even so much as a stomach ache.

People can speak to me about animal cruelty until the cows come home. (Ooh, that is probably a bad choice of words to use here.) And seriously, I am not unsympathetic. I have seen videos of the inhumane ways that cattle have been slaughtered, and it is awful to watch. Truly gruesome. I like to believe the kosher meat that I purchase is prepared a bit more carefully, but I’m not positive that this is the case. For a little while I tried not to eat red meat, but I fell off the wagon with my folk and knife poised over a gorgeous slab of prime rib.

All I know is that I survived my father’s raw steaks, my mother’s raw burgers, piles of steak tartar, 15 years of sushi (some served at restaurants of questionable repute) . . .  and on a tangential yet not completely unrelated note, as I’m sure you can imagine, I absolutely, positively always lick the bowl that held the raw cookie dough. And I’m still here.

I’m still here.

photo by Sheilaz413 @ flickr.com

At what age is it appropriate to give a child a cell phone, and what are the responsibilities and expectations that come along with having one? Do you get the least expensive “pay as you go” plan? Include text? Or go full-blown Internet access?

What are the consequences (if any) if the phone is lost?

"sola" by Alessandro Pinna @ flickr.com

I am trying to understand disappearance. When a person chooses not to communicate, does it mean that person is busy? Could they be on a vacation overseas? Could it have been something that I said, or did I say nothing when I should have said something?

Because here I am walking around thinking everything is right in the world, that every baby born for the last six months has had ten fingers and ten toes. I thought the rain in the forecast meant the grass was growing, that the chill in the air meant pumpkins, not the end of something.

When a person chooses not to communicate with you, that person holds all the cards, all the power. There is little for the excommunicated to do but look at the sky but wonder and try to determine how it could be so blue, cry a little – alone, maybe – in the car, but put on a happy face, as if being forgotten does not hurt like a hundred bee stings, or the bloody scratch from the extended claws of a trusted cat.

Could it be that the person has decided that you are not, in fact, worth the effort – and has left you to figure it out? If that is the case, I am slug-slow at “figgering” and would prefer, like a racehorse with a broken leg, to be put out of my misery more cleanly. In this case without a bullet, but perhaps the words, “In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m already gone.”

How have you dealt with the loss of a friendship?

Ron Mueck's "boy" photo by Adriaan Bloem @ flickr.com

I know a bunch of 10-12 year old kids who, for whatever reason, have developed these funky, little quirks. One friend’s daughter mashes her teeth together in an oddly rhythmic way: three light taps and a grind-slide that, to my ears, sounds about as delightful as fingernails on the chalkboard. Another friend’s daughter  developed this nervous throat-clearing thing which then morphed into a full-blown frequent cough. For a while, my son was making this bizarre “blooping” sound. I don’t even know how he discovered that he could make such a sound, but he began to do it so suddenly one night that I actually got up to check to see if the kitchen tap was dripping.

Years ago, when my now ultra cool, college-aged nephew was younger, he went through an awkward phase where he grimaced and twitched a little bit, and now I know at least two other 11-year old boys who possess these same twitchy-twitches. One frequently touches his ear; the other prefers to touch his nose.

These kinds of “tensional outlets” (as teachers call them) are not uncommon in children, and I’m told the best thing to do is ignore them, but it can be challenging to let your cougher-twitcher-bruxer live and let live. Truth be told, none of these behaviors seem to bother any of the kids within the peer group. In fact, most of the times,  friends are as oblivious to the tics as the kids with the tics are unaware that they are doing anything that could be perceived as weird or annoying.

For a time, it was thought that these strange little habits were a sign of an anxious child: the nail-biting, the hair-twirling, the teeth clicking, but research has shown that tensional outlets show a patterned progression with change and age. Basic physiological outlets like stomach aches and headaches, and even the more overt outlets such as grimacing and excessive movements involving the whole body that are characteristic of ten, eleven and twelve year-olds become less constant as children age. And of course, most outgrow these little idiosyncrasies completely in due time.

So if your littlun starts up with some strange little behavior, do your best remain calm: he will likely soon outgrow it, and soon find another way to drive you nuts!

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?

“185” by me and sysop at flickr.com

Clearly, we are fortunate to live in the United States where we have access to clean water and an abundance of food, but sometimes I wonder if we aren’t on the fast track to the fall of Western Civilization. Has the United States become the most “uncivilized, civilized” country?

What are your pet peeves about our collective behavior? The annoying things that you see/experience on a regular basis here at home in the good ole U.S. of A.?

photo from Mr. T in DC @ flickr.com

I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than 3-years old stood in her bright orange cart while her mother, standing one arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.

“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”

“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”

Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness.

"pink car" by hfb @flickr.com

“We don’t talk to strangers!” the little girl’s mother shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear but for everyone in the entire department to hear as well. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. But instead of smiling politely and wheeling her daughter away to speak with her privately, she made a big ole scene by shouting and pushing the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.

Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.

Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother would include teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people. Sometimes even people we don’t know. In her book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, author Lenore Skenazy points out that Americans watch a lot of  television, and the news is always going on about some child being raped, abducted, or snatched. We hear about how “…this kid went into the bathroom and some guy killed him, and [we] become very scared someone is on the prowl for [our] children” (87). This kind of thinking is crazy-making.

At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service – to calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother with children and ask her – this stranger – if she might use her cell phone to call me because we have become separated. He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help, but instead to reassure that person he is heading home and that he will send help back as soon as he can. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of these things into practice.

I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings. After all, at some point, he will need to know how to interact with people he doesn’t know, why not start early? I also think I have enough faith in humanity to believe that most people are not out to abduct or molest or kill my child.

And really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly ill-equipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous. That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. As far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude to other people.

What could be right about that?

Yesterday, I posted a blog entry about bullying and received a few responses, but many more people privately emailed me with messages that said, “Please don’t post this, but we are having a huge problem with bullying…” or “Please don’t post this. My daughter is a terrible bully and I don’t know what to do about it…” or “I wish I could tell my kid to just punch her bully in the face… Please don’t post this”.

So there is obviously a lot more to say about bullying, and I kind of wanted to continue the dialogue by proposing a few quick scenarios about physical bullying and how parents handle it. Stay with me:

Scenario 1:

Your child comes home from school and reports someone kicked her during recess.

What is your response?

Scenario 2:

Your child comes home from school and reports that she kicked someone during recess.

What is your response?

Is your response gender-based, which is to say, would you say something different to a son than you would to a daughter?

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?

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