Have you ever spent all morning cleaning the house and gotten very hungry all of a sudden, and started craving those Trader Joe’s cauliflower pancakes you had in the freezer, but ALSO in the freezer was an overenthusiastic ice maker, which spewed ice over the kitchen floor whenever you opened it, and then, when you closed it and went into the fridge for another tasty and necessary item, you stepped on a piece of ice and started to slip, so you reached down to pick it up, and the fridge attacked you with GUSTO, and the collision it had with your shoulder dislodged the shelving on the side of the fridge door, and everything heavy and full and glass fell and shattered on the kitchen tiles, including that GIGANTIC bottle of gluten-free tamari sauce you bought because it was so much cheaper to buy that way, and then had to spend the next hour trying to mop it all up without cutting yourself too badly, and that damn soy sauce was everywhere. and THEN you remembered how you made this new year’s resolution that when you caught yourself having negative thoughts, you should say, “And this is good because—?” and found yourself thinking, “This is good because now I can feel a little bit sorry for myself without feeling ashamed?” I have.
1:17 pm: “Despair.” With freedom still 118 minutes away, I looked longingly at the jellyfish in their watery castle. Nothing would have given me greater joy than to watch them float for the remainder of the afternoon. It behooved me to focus on the task at hand, however: herding hormonal preteens through the gift shop while keeping all breaking, licking, and stealing to a minimum.
I’ll start at the beginning.
9:00 – 10:30 am: “Mutual Tolerance.” To be honest, the first hour or two had not been terrible; everybody was reasonably focused and amenable back then. Students swarmed the exhibition halls, copying each other’s answers to worksheet questions while I relentlessly counted heads. Long ago, when I brought my kids here on a regular basis, I let the youngest wear her tap shoes. That way I could hear her footsteps and snag her before she disappeared into the kaleidoscopic crowds. But these kids were my size, with long legs and All-Stars and limited impulse control, so I wrangled to the best of my abilities.
10:45 am: “Loss.” Unable to locate either of the teachers or even the vast majority of the other students from our school, I was forced to swallow my pride and ask for assistance from museum personnel. They raised eyebrows in disdainful bewilderment, spoke agitatedly into headsets, and filed us in front of a packed auditorium–to the embarrassment of all currently in my charge. Note: Middle schoolers do not like to be embarrassed.
11:00 am: “Reprieve.” In the Planetarium, most of the tough kids dozed off, which was a nice turn of events. I guess it’s tiring to ride that pubescent roller coaster all day. Given a moment to relax and gather my thoughts, I might have gotten a few winks myself. Let’s call it meditating.
When I did manage to pay attention, I heard myself guffawing at the docent’s terrible jokes. How disappointing. What happens to humans when we reach middle age, anyway? And why isn’t there an exhibit at the Academy of Sciences that explains mid-life mysteries such as: how we hurt ourselves sleeping, or why pants become unbearably tight by 4 pm?
12:04 – 12:26 pm: “Lunch.” We desperately needed an airing out, but rain was dumping relentlessly. We sprawled on the floor of the cafeteria, where the noise level hovered around an impressive 140 decibels. I tried to keep the food fights to a minimum; failing that, pretended not to notice. Kids stole each other’s Cheetos, spilled a variety of contraband, and “group-chatted” with friends back at school, hooting and snorting until half-chewed food bits plastered their phones and friends. Several skirmishes were doused, and all cursing was ignored. Note: teachers occasionally adopt a Stepford Wife-type expression, perhaps because death and/or a partial frontal-lobotomy is necessary to avoid feeling pain in these circumstances. I adopted the same approach. It beats yelling.
12:46 pm: “Detonation.” All hell broke loose once we hit the touch pool. Due to some comment or action too small for the adult seismograph, Mia and Carmen were no longer speaking, so the other girls allied themselves accordingly. I had to choose: force all sides of the conflict to stay together and risk a full-on fight? Or give the aggrieved parties enough room to avoid bloodshed? Since only a few kids could torment sea stars at a time, I let my cranky quorum dissolve into disparate, dark caverns of tanks. I was lucky to know where five or six of them were at any given moment. The phones were out in force by then, no doubt broadcasting their social war to the larger middle school arena. I pretended not to notice—mostly so I could check my own and count the minutes to freedom.
2:10 – 2:29: “Education.” In the African Hall, I tried in vain to interest them in a replica of Lucy (the oldest human ancestor to walk upright) or in the adorable penguins that swam and pooped and watched the Nature Channel at the far end of the room. Instead, students gravitated to the diorama of stuffed dik-diks, doubling over as they read the explanatory signage loudly and repeatedly—a sign titled, “Dikdik Details,” and containing other unfortunate words and phrases such as: “sticky fluid.” Never mind that the fluid in question was produced by their under-eye glands. Hey, science experts! Couldn’t we have called this eye fluid tears, so that eleven-year-old boys might refrain from dry humping the nearby benches?
Oh, well. At least everyone temporarily forgot about World War III.
Note: the Dikdik is named for the alarm call it makes by blowing air through its nasal passages–often while lurching in a zig-zag pattern. I’m surprised they weren’t named “Drunken Idiots” or “Tween Boys.”
Another note: the Blue-Footed Booby is not on display at the Academy. I’d say I dodged a bullet there.
2:40 – 3:15 pm: “The Reemergence of Hope.” The schlep back to school was remarkably uneventful despite:
*a twenty-minute walk in the pouring rain
*100 wet, overstimulated sixth graders crammed onto a single city bus, and
*the fact that adults were outnumbered 25:1.
One of the teachers commented that this was a “great group of students” and that they were a “welcome relief” after last year’s cohort. I managed to maintain my new Stepford Wife expression while making a mental note not to volunteer for anything involving the current 7th graders.
3:15 pm and onward: “Dénouement.” I rewarded myself with vending machine coffee in a Styrofoam cup…and a big fat glass of wine with dinner.
What I learned: kids are great, but two is plenty. Also, we can’t possibly afford to pay our middle school teachers what they deserve.
I remember it all like it was yesterday.
Acne, drama, self-doubt. Excessive mooning about. A variety of binges and very bad decisions.
I behaved irrationally, irresponsibly, disrespectfully, and the one I treated the worst was me.
Yet having a teenager may be even more terrifying.
Still plagued by acne and self-doubt, my lingering woes are compounded by close proximity to this raw lump of developing human–one who wears her disdain, depression, euphoria, and ill-founded bravado at the very surface. Nothing I can say or do will serve as salve. It is what it is–a tough row to hoe.
I remember when each hour crawled languorously before me—a caterpillar on sixteen tiny legs, inching from Pensacola to New York City and back before the mantel clock would chime again.
Two days before my birthday, I thought I might be 50 before I turned eleven.
Now the years skip about with surprising unpredictability, and I’m never certain how old I am on any given day. It’s not unusual for me to believe I’m in my late twenties–until I try to stay up past eleven, until I glance at my little ones, and realize we see eye to eye.
My house is not a happy sleep place. Sooner or later, someone is destined to rouse me, so I can no longer doze off before the first two or three late-night interruptions. This makes it impossible to relax, read a book, sleep, or participate enthusiastically in conjugal relations. Mostly I just lie there and worry about who will be first to appear bleary-eyed at my bedside.
Last night, it was Miss Twelve. My light was still on low and I was holding a book open, imagining myself being able to concentrate on the words.
Miss Twelve looked at me expectantly. What follows is our conversation, verbatim:
Miss 12: What?
Miss 12: What?
Me: What’s up?
Miss 12: What?
Me: WHAT IS UP?
Miss 12: What?
Me: Can’t sleep?
Miss 12: What?
Me: IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE HAVING TROUBLE SLEEPING.
Miss 12: What?
Me: Do you need something?
Miss 12: What?
Me: HOW CAN I HELP YOU?
Miss 12: I can’t sleep.
Me: You can’t sleep and you are DEAF.
Miss 12: What?
Me: YOU SEEM DEAF.
Miss 12: I can’t hear you. I’m wearing ear plugs (removes ear plugs).
Me: WHY WOULD YOU WEAR EARPLUGS WHILE TRYING TO HAVE A CONVERSATION?
Miss 12: I was too lazy to take them out.
Miss 12: Anyway. I can’t sleep, so I took some melatonin. Good night.
Ridiculous as it was, the interchange was mercifully brief, and did not require me to get up and rub a back, procure ibuprofen, review for the state capitals test, fluff pillows, discuss the fall of the Roman Empire, fetch an icepack, listen to friend issues, or massage feet–all of which have happened in the past few weeks. Instead, I had plenty of time to worry about the next nighttime visitor.
To be honest, I’ve never read a chicken soup book; I can’t get past the cloying font on the covers. But I could see how a volume dedicated to the carpool driver might be useful. Gratitude is definitely not the focus of my consciousness while driving a carful of kids from here to eternity.
It’s not usually the kids that give me an aneurysm, though. The main problem with the carpool is the driving.
And the traffic.
And the idiots.
It’s the construction detours and backups.
It’s the sitting, the endless sitting.
It’s the feeling that my life is passing me by while I lurch from red light to red light.
It’s the premonition that if and when I finally arrive, a posse of hormonally-agitated tweens will roll their eyes and say welcoming things such as, “what took you so long?”
It’s the fact that, after ninety minutes in my gas-guzzling butt-breaker, I am unable to exit the vehicle without hoisting myself up with the car door. Apparently I have developed some sort of Saturday night palsy of the left hip. No doubt AARP is lurking in the shadows, waiting to enroll an early-adopter.
And…did I mention the sitting?
I am thankful that the carpool exists, of course. Otherwise I would be doing three times the driving. In fact, since it’s physically impossible to be two places at one time, one or both of my kids would be standing around unchaperoned on a curb somewhere. I am therefore forever indebted to those lovely parents who have teamed with me.
A carpool is a beautiful and delicate balance, thrown easily by one member making a team, or being cast in a play, or needing a retainer, or feverish. Do not sit next to me or my kids if you have a cold. You could screw up the logistics of my parenting life for the next two weeks, and my carpool buddies wouldn’t thank you, either.
I do try to combat my bad-itude. I bring snacks, a special ergonomic back pillow, and loud music of the passengers’ choosing. I’ve developed an audiobook habit for the solo runs, which helps mask the fact that I waste a shocking proportion of my waking hours behind the wheel–only to arrive exactly where I began.
Despite all of that…I f#%@ing hate it. I do.
I’m not alone, either. Carpool driving is on the shit list of parents everywhere, right next to stomach viruses, fundraising, and lunchroom duty. We are ripe for some spiritual guidance. So where is our chicken soup book?
There are 250 soup books. No lie. They have editions specifically targeting:
- parents of twins
- hockey lovers, and
- country music listeners.
There are fourteen different soup books about the wisdom we can gain from our furry friends. There is even one volume mysteriously entitled, “O, Canada.”
Surely the size and desperation of the group keening for some carpool inspiration warrants the 251st book.
Bring on the soup, people.
Jolene was the sprout of every girl who had ever hurt my feelings, reincarnated as a preschooler.
Yet my daughter was inexplicably devoted.
Ever hopeful, she would greet her wee frien-emy warmly.
Jolene would shriek and hide under the table. She would ignore–then punish cruelly if my child played with anyone else.
When confronted, Jolene would blame her actions on her delicate emotional state. “I’m really missing my mom today,” she would say, copping a sad face. “That’s why I’m making bad choices.”
But she would look me in the eye in a way that tipped her tiny hand.
In honor of the upcoming holiday, I wanted to take a moment to think about gratitude.
If that sentence gave you the heebie jeebies, join the club. For some unknown reason, I have a deep-seated repulsion for Chicken Soup-y type aphorisms and daily meditations.
Perhaps it is accentuated by the cliché art and bad fonts which typically accompany such things.
Don’t get me wrong. I love sunsets. In fact, I would be thrilled to be present for the moment depicted above. But what’s great about the setting sun over the lake is definitely not the cloying overscript on a two-dimensional reproduction.
Moreover, just because I won’t hang that poster doesn’t mean I have a beef with fostering gratitude. On the contrary! Gratitude is essential. I’m working on this often, striving to be a better person, and I certainly don’t want my kids to grow up to be selfish brutes. So…presenting…
A brief discussion of gratitude in a sans serif style.
Semi-recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, and Family Circle once again outline that teaching gratitude to your kids is important. Do it.
Why? Fostering gratitude doesn’t just make more tolerable people; it makes happier people. Jeffrey Froh (PsyD) did a study with middle schoolers. He asked one group to list up to five things for which they were grateful everyday for two weeks. Another group listed hassles, and the last group filled out surveys. The first group showed a marked jump in optimism and overall well-being that extended for a while, even after the study was completed. Those students also had a more positive attitude about school in general. Feeling grateful boosts happiness, gives people better perspective in life, and improves relationships at home, school, and work.
To sum up what I’ve learned…most experts recommend:
- Model gratitude. Big surprise. Thank your kids. Thank your significant other. Thank friends, cashiers, relatives, teachers, baristas, maybe even the DMV clerk. After all, it must be a sucky job.
- Give positive reinforcement. Even just “hey, thanks for noticing.” or “I appreciate your comment,” can help the set a pattern of behavior.
- Give them less. Have kids work toward something they want, do chores, earn money. Let them know the value of an item. I could buy you those shoes, but then we can’t order pizza tonight. Lost a backpack? Help earn a new one. Talk about how work hours translate into garbage pick up, electricity, gasoline, vacation. Read aloud Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In addition to being a humorous and vivid story, it discusses hard work, chores, about wasting nothing. There is also a great discussion about the value of a silver dollar that Almanzo would like to spend at the fair. Another book recommendation: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. If that doesn’t make you appreciate having heat and food on the table, I don’t know what will. Amazing.
- Volunteer as a family. We’ve started very small. We collect our change and bring it to CoinStar periodically, which allows us to select a charity and send it electronically. What could be simpler? It teaches them that even pennies and nickels can add up to something significant. We’ve also baked cookies and given them out to homeless people, sold cupcakes to raise money for charities, and currently we foster kittens for the SPCA.
- Coach when appropriate. I often have my kids make their own purchases, even when they are using my money. I remind them to say thank you (before or after the transaction, not during. I try to avoid barking at them while they are mid-transaction) and ask them to leave a tip when appropriate. They need little nudges along the way. “I was disappointed that you didn’t seem more grateful after I helped you with your homework. I could have been doing other things.” Reminding them of opportunities to be aware and thankful is not cheating.
- Structure a moment of gratitude into the day. Practice, practice, practice! Gratitude is a muscle that needs exercising. Examining life for the positive helps lay new pathways in the brain, creating a positive mindset. That explains why Jeffrey Froh’s experiment had such an impact. This is big! I grew up saying grace at the table, so it feels natural to ask my kids, “What are you thankful about today?” when we sit down to eat dinner. I answer the question, too.
I highly recommend Shawn Achor’s TED talk on Happiness. Don’t be put off by its title: “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” It actually includes the happy secret to better life. There are amazing nuggets tucked in amongst some amusing anecdotes. Among them: “90% of your longterm happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” In other words, by your MINDSET. Further study has shown that increasing positivity increases creativity, energy, and intelligence, because the dopamine released not only makes us feel happiness, it turns on the learning centers of our brains.
In the last two minutes of his talk, he outlines five quick and easy ways to increase happiness–based on research and not hopeful speculation. Guess what comes in at number one? Write down three new gratitudes each day for 21 days in a row. That is why I now have a gratitude journal, though I can’t call it that, of course. The phrase “Gratitude Journal” makes me gag a little. I have a crass name which I can’t repeat here, but which makes me laugh every time I take it out. I figure that makes me happier, too.
My brother-in-law is a very ambitious and successful guy. I asked him once, “how do you juggle everything?” And he told me, “Sometimes, when I’m hurrying from one thing to another, I pull over, turn off the car engine for two minutes, and breathe.”
His comment didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. It wasn’t delivered in a “here’s what you must do to be amazing like me” manner. It was just honest and straightforward. And effective. Dubious? Try it yourself.
Today I would like to take a moment to mull over a few other comments that seemed very small at the time, and grew to be important tenets along the way.
“Don’t discount this young man just because he’s nice to you.” I was indeed surprised to hear a comment like that from my mother. Smart lady, though. I married the guy.
“Be more Beret.” This sounds like a no-brainer. People say things like “be yourself” and “be true to yourself” all the time. But somehow, throwing my name in there made all the difference to me. I thought, “I am Beret, how can I be more Beret?” I started small, of course. I started reading books that I like, instead of the ones I should read. I started saying no to things. I started saying yes to things. I started making time for things that make me happy. I started singing along with catchy songs even though they might be insipid. Who cares?
“You don’t have to love being a mother, you just have to love your children.” This was news to me. If I ever write a book about parenting, this is the quote I will use on the dedications page.
Lastly, when I started teaching, I didn’t go through the traditional credentialing route. I hadn’t taken any education courses in college, so I had a boatload of theory crammed into six or eight weeks one summer, and then I was thrown to the wolves. Terrified nearly to paralysis, I asked a seasoned teacher for a few wise words before my first day. “Always have an extra piece of chalk in your pocket,” he said.
When I tell that story to people they roll their eyes. “Nobody has chalkboards anymore,” they say. But while I am grateful for discussions of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, that teacher’s advice still rings in my ears. For me, it meant that no matter how great a challenge I was facing, how insurmountable and overwhelming it might seem, I could break it down into tiny, doable tasks. Likewise, despite the fact that the knowledge and skills we need as teachers/parents/humans are hopelessly infinite, we can start by learning one thing and building upon it.
Onward and upward.
I have a handy little alarm mechanism: if I find myself desperately searching for a bathroom in my dreams, I can promptly rouse myself to take appropriate action. I am exceedingly grateful for this–as is the Spouse, undoubtedly.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a variety of embarrassing sleep behaviors, this afternoon serving as a case in point.
I lurched into consciousness, suddenly aware that my jaw was stretched into a silent scream and a large bubble of spit ballooned from my gaping crevasse. Since the cup and napkin had magically disappeared from my tray table, there was no doubt that my Munch face had been witnessed.
The circumstances of this last-minute flight to my childhood home are too recent and too raw to probe at the moment. Instead, I will tell you why I was so dang tired. I will divulge the wisdom I found at 3:28 last Sunday morning:
I am done hosting slumber parties.
The only caveat which might possibly allow for a future overnight posse of midgets would be a signed affidavit from the parent or guardian of each participant, asserting that the potential attendee would not, under any circumstances:
- Yell or whine for prolonged periods of time as if the Disney Channel had come to life.
- Pour copious amounts of the host’s toiletries into dozens of Kleenexes and toss the soggy blobs into the shower.
- Dump three quarters of the contents of her plate onto the floor, survey the carnage, and proceed to stroll through it in her tights.
- Break off a sofa leg.
- Say things like, “you’re terrible at this game,” and “there’s no room for you in here,” to the birthday girl until she cries.
- Interpret the words “no” and “stop” as encouragement to continue on course.
- Have a complete meltdown over music selection and then hide in the attic.
- Have three subsequent crying jags clothed only in underpants, making all the other guests fight to sleep in another room.
- Yell “I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!” in host’s face as she attempts to soothe you.
- Sneak downstairs and retrieve forbidden technology after bedtime, then keep a few guests awake all night with inappropriate garbage from the internet.
- Lock herself in the bathroom in the middle of the night and proceed to pound relentlessly on the door while the host hunts frantically for a screwdriver.
- Offer culinary critique such as, “I like waffles, but not when they taste like this.”
In the case of a breach of contract, the parent or guardian of the offending party would be fined an amount commensurate with an overnight sitter, lodging for two at a nearby resort, plus a couple of therapy sessions. Better yet, let’s collect the fee up front as a security deposit. Who knows, we might even return it if your child comports herself appropriately.