On being personable

Humankind-Be-Both-Button-(0127)There’s an author I’ve been following since back in the early days of my own blog. I liked the way she wrote, and she had an amusing way of drawing people into her content by using suggestive titles that made me laugh. Heck, back in those days her blog was even called The Accidental Cootchie Mama.

One day she put a call to action in one of her posts, and I responded. I don’t even remember what it was–something about taking a few seconds out of my day to help her friend. It seemed easy enough, so I did it and commented accordingly. Lo and behold, this person–this author–responded. To little ol’ me. For some reason, that made me feel important.

Fast forward a few years, and The Accidental Cootchie Mama gave way to a real-life author blog. You see, my writer had PUBLISHED A BOOK! This was exciting for me, since I felt a kinship with her, this blogger-has-big-writing-dreams-and-starts-accomplishing-them person. I identified with the first half of that description, and her success gave me hope for the second half. I still follow her because she’s real to me.

Fast forward again, and now she’s three books in. I’m learning a lot about the grueling nature of a book tour and the only-glamorous-on-the-outside life of a published author. This woman works hard for everything she gets. She’s trying to eke out a living on the book circuit while she wrestles with a bunch of personal issues. But you know what, she’s transparent about it. She’s real, and I love that about her.

Yesterday I noticed a Facebook post that screamed for acknowledgement. Her energy and resolve were flagging, so I added a comment. Guess what.

Within seconds, she responded. It made my day.

What’s the point of this rambling post? I wasn’t entirely sure when I started writing; I just felt that there was something important in this incident. As I’ve worked this out on my keyboard, here’s what I think now.

Behind every facade, whether it’s a book cover, a marquee, an athletic jersey, a title, or a pasted-on smile, you’ll find a real person. Don’t ever forget that, and treat people accordingly.

And don’t forget that real people have ups and down, just like the rest of us real people. If it feels right, throw a word of encouragement their way. Or support. Or love. Or even just recognition of the fact that the person is a, well, person. Not an author or an actor or an athlete or an elected official or a teacher or a business mogul or a cab driver, but a person with hopes and dreams and trials and disappointments.

We’re all in this together. And words do matter.

P.S. If you get a chance, check out http://andrawatkins.com/blog/. Whether or not her writing ends up speaking to you, she’d surely appreciate your interest. After all, she’s a real person.

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Poll position

Election dayMy state’s primary elections took place today and it was a big deal. Probably not so much for everyone else, mind you, but today marked a milestone moment for me. When the election volunteer asked me which party’s ballot I wanted this morning, for the first time in thirty years–three decades!–I gave a different answer than I ever have. The world may not have cracked in two, but I felt a fissure in my soul. (Side note: I’m not going to open a party debate here, friends, so don’t even try. The point is my change itself, not the why.)

This one, short encounter stirred up so many issues for me that I hardly know where to start, the party issue notwithstanding.  But here I go, of course. I don’t have the answers, so consider this food for thought.

First of all, why do we have to have party-specific primaries? I have never in my life voted a straight ticket in a general election, so why should I have to in a primary? I understand that in our two-party system this may have arguable merits. Then again, why are we stuck in a two-party system when, in this country of 300+ million people, it is nearly impossible to align the spread of everyone’s views into two neat columns?

On a peripheral note, the poll worker asked me out loud in an open room which ballot I wanted. That kind of defeats the purpose of a secret ballot, don’t you think? Everything else I needed to do this morning took place on an iPad–scanning my ID, verifying my address, signing in–so why couldn’t there have been a check box on the electronic form that didn’t force me to announce my choice to the room at large? (In the interest of full disclosure, by the time I arrived at my polling place, I had already seen an online post from a friend that read, “A pin could drop in here and the intake process requires you to designate your political party out loud in front of everyone. Our system is hilarious.” I was already stewing about this when I arrived.)

And my polling place was in a church. That in itself actually does not offend me; there was no proselytizing, no overt or covert pressure–it was just a big building with enough room for a lot of people, whose caretakers had graciously offered its use to the government. As I thought about it, though, I wondered whether synagogues and mosques were also being used similarly, so I looked it up. It seems as though synagogues may be more widely used than mosques, but there are a handful of the latter designated as polling places sprinkled around the country. Still, something feels off. (I found this interesting article from the Orlando Sentinel in my queries.) There is definitely a level of discomfort associated with using particular types of religious gathering places as polling sites. I say make it all or none.

That brings me to another point. Why do we vote on Tuesdays? Okay, so we’ve started to offer some early voting opportunities, but jeez-Louise, why do we make this so hard? People work, for Pete’s sake. Kids need to be hauled to school, to practice, to appointments. Finding time to squeeze in a vote isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Other countries designate a weekend day; we could do the same. Yes, I know people also work on the weekends, but we could keep the polls open for the full 24 hours of the day. And oh, since schools are closed on weekends, we could use those great big public buildings as polling places and eliminate the house-of-worship issue. Just a thought.

All that said, I feel passionately that it is my right and privilege to vote. My government has given me a voice, and by golly, I’m going to use it. I haven’t missed too many elections since I became of legal age to cast my ballot, and I don’t plan to in the future. For years I went at 6am so I could take my kids with me before school started. They asked more, deeper questions every year, and I’m pretty sure everyone around me in line got an unintentional civics lesson those days. Flawed as it is, I believe in democracy (technically a republic, but that’s splitting hairs).

If you’ve got the chance, go vote. Add your voice to the rising chorus of this country. Hopefully someday soon we’ll find a beautiful harmony.

Lessons learned

Teacher-writing-on-blackboard564My kid will be home from college in a few days (four, but who’s counting?), and boy-oh-boy, have I learned a lot this year. Yes, you read that correctly. I, THE MOM, have learned a lot from my boy’s first college year.

When I started this post, I intended to write about all the things my boy has conquered, is in the process of conquering, or even wants to conquer. If you read The pomp following the circumstances, you’ll remember that his academic journey hasn’t been easy. Now that he’s finding his footing, I realized that the rest of the story–still being written–is his to tell.

So I’ll tell you mine.

After years of trying to find the right buttons to push, I’ve handed my bub the control panel. That hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t killed me, either. In fact, I’m starting to like it.

Here’s what I’ve taken away from these first two semesters.

  1. True motivation comes from within. We all know this, right? The concept is easy enough to apply to ourselves, especially when we want to push back against someone who is pushing us to do something. I’ll do it when I’M ready, not when you tell me to. Or think about any time you’ve tried to lose weight for a wedding, a high school reunion, or a trip to the beach. I don’t know about you, but once the event is over, I jump right back into my old habits. Oh, it’s not intentional, but once the external motivator has passed, I’m rudderless. So how does this apply to my first year as a college mom? I’ve had to recognize that my boy has to find his motivation the same way. I can’t push and prod and cajole and wheedle him into learning, not at this level. I can and will support him any way he wants me to, but the drive has to be all his. Not being there to look over his shoulder has helped us both grow up.
  2. Sometimes you have to screw up to understand the lesson. Failure is a part of life; it teaches you how to handle adversity. You learn what doesn’t work so you can get right back to trying what does. (CLICK HERE to check out this short vid if you question the value of failure. It’s worth the eleven minutes.) I screw up all the time, and it teaches me to not do the same thing in the same way if I want to succeed. That may seem self-evident, but when it comes to my kids, reason flies out the window. I know it in my head,  but in my heart, Momma wants to make it all better. … You know what’s coming. I got a phone call from my son midway through the first semester. He had screwed up, and he called to tell me about it. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut and listened. I found that he was mad at himself for being stupid, and he had already taken steps to deal with the incident. He had a plan and he followed through on it, correcting his mistake and moving forward. The phone call wasn’t to ask for help. It was to give me the courtesy of letting me know. Lesson learned–for both of us.
  3. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I’m usually the first person to share introspective commentary; heck, I have years of blog posts to show for it. But those are for me. If you find value in them, great, but my kids? I have to protect them! Keep them safe! I have to take care of things! Umm…yeah. Clearly humility is not my strong suit. It’s pretty egotistical to think I can fix everything, and it’s downright selfish to buffer them from life’s important lessons. If I had to learn them on my own, they probably do, too.
  4. Letting go is rewarding. I’m much better at the end of this year than I was at the beginning, but I still have a lot to learn. It hasn’t always been easy (though the miles have helped to remove daily interaction in the minutiae), but I love this new phase. The conversations about philosophy and politics and just regular life stuff have started to outweigh the exchanges about logistics and to-do lists. I’m seeing him as a person and not just my kid–and I really, really like this guy.

It’s hard to helicopter from 1100+ miles away, so I’ve had to assume a sit-back-and-try-to-relax posture. Some of my lessons have been hard-won, and others have sneaked up on me. Hopefully they’ve sunk in. Spending the next three months under the same roof will make it easy to slip back into old habits; check back with me at the end of the summer to see if I’ve really taken these lessons to heart.

P.S. I’ve got one more year till my daughter leaves for college. She’s a completely different personality, so I suspect I’ll be blessed with a whole different set of lessons. Stand by.

The right to remain silent

jelly donutIf you’re female, you’ve probably grumbled about your weight at least once in your life. Whether you feel plagued with an extra five pounds or fifty, we all have our number. It’s a girl thing. (I’m sure it occasionally happens with men too, but I’m not a dude, so I’ll keep my assumptions to my own gender.)

You’d think, then, that women would be understanding of each other. Apparently that’s not always the case.

A friend of mine–one who is now 100 pounds lighter and kicking the sh*t out of her goals–recently told me of an incident that happened early in her weight loss journey. She had finally decided to wage war on her sedentary lifestyle and less-than-healthy habits and got herself moving, literally. She started walking on an indoor track, slowly at first because that’s all her body and mind could handle. In fact, she remembers the broom-wielding custodian easily gliding around her has he cleaned the track. Nonetheless, she was moving; that constituted victory all by itself.

Enter one perky soccer mom (PSM), complete with yoga pants and svelte physique, power walking around the track. No biggie, right? There’s room for everyone.

Not so, friends.

As PSM rounded the curve and started to pass my friend, she threw a verbal barb that lodged itself in my friend’s heart.

I’ll bet you wish you hadn’t had that doughnut this morning, huh?

What the heck? WHO SAYS THAT?!

Every time I ponder this story I get angry all over again, for lots of different reasons. I can’t process the unbelievable rudeness of this woman. You can call it fat shaming or whatever the fashionable term of the day happens to be, but I call it rude. It’s just downright mean. Whatever happened to good manners? Decorum? Class? Did degrading someone else make PSM feel superior? Did she think pushing someone down would raise her up? If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

The bigger issue that intrigues me about this incident is the sense of entitlement. I’ve seen it over and over at the gym: fit-looking people with the “right” kind of workout clothes draping the “right” kind of body cast sneers toward the less perfect people huffing and puffing and sweating as they struggle to finish a workout. Their attitude rises from their skin like steam: Look at you! You have no right to be here. You can’t even use this machine right. You’re in my way. I deserve to be here; you don’t.

Excuse me, but isn’t the person who is out of shape exactly the person who should be at the gym? And shouldn’t we applaud those of us–regardless of size, creed, color, or anything else–who take the initiative to do something positive? We should be making way for progress, not impeding it.

Inside or outside the gym, why is it often the people who need something least who feel the most entitled to it?

Think about that.

And the next time you find yourself ready to throw shade on someone doing something good for herself, remember: you have the right to remain silent. Exercise that.

Chew on this

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For nearly two years, three tiny Tootsie Rolls have made their home in the console of my car, nestled among a pile of pennies. I can no more bring myself to eat them than to throw them away. Every time I try to do either, I remember.

My son and I were headed east to visit colleges. We’d stopped for lunch at a Panera a couple of hours away from home, where an old man tottered through the restaurant, handing out cheer and Tootsie Rolls. He was just trying to brighten people’s day, making even the grumpiest adults giggle like children when he placed his candy in their hands. I loved it.

When we headed back to our car, I noticed my son carefully place his candies on a ledge outside the restaurant. I scooped them up, afraid that the old man might see, and hopped in the car.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“I’m not going to take candy from someone I don’t know,” explained my son.

Oof. The wind went out of me.

Apparently all those don’t-take-candy-from-strangers harangues when he was a kid actually stuck with him. Mom win, right?

At the same time, I felt sad. Had he missed the joy of the moment? Do we find ourselves in a world where even the smallest gestures of goodwill must be rejected for safety’s sake? Would I have let a seven-year-old take the candy I was so willing to let a seventeen-year-old eat? There was lesson in here somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

I’m still not sure what it is, actually. There are so many options. Don’t take candy from strangers. Take joy in the small things. Be careful. Be grateful. 

I can’t throw away those three chocolate tidbits because I don’t know which lesson is the right one. Somehow, they both have merit, and neither claims victory over the other. Maybe the lesson is found in the balance.

And so they remain, giving me something to chew on every time I see them.

The pomp following the circumstances

Jake_Davis_Proof_07Today’s the day. Like so many other eighteen-year-olds since practically forever, my son gets to walk across a stage, shake his principal’s hand, look sheepishly into the crowd for his family, and flip the tassel on his mortarboard from right to left. At about 12:15pm, my firstborn will be a high school graduate.

Big freakin’ deal, right? At least, that’s what I thought when I was in school. High school was something I HAD to do. It wasn’t a choice; it was a rite of passage. Year after year, schools churn out young (oh, how young!) adults who are ready to take on the world, kids who only recently learned to drive a car and maybe became eligible to vote–or to be drafted. And whether someone struggled with homework or breezed through classes, the result was the same: the band playing Pomp and Circumstance in a gym filled with family and friends who come to bear witness to this “accomplishment.” Yeah, yeah, let’s just get to the party and have some fun–where’s the cake.

You won’t often hear me say this, but I was wrong. Yep, I. WAS. WRONG.

As a parent, I get it now. As I think about my favorite son walking across that stage in a few hours, I don’t see just another kid, barely discernible from the other 600 around him in the same blue cap and gown. I see all the “moments” of the last twelve (thirteen, if you count kindergarten) years. The circumstances that brought us to this pomp.

I see his pride in mastering chapter books in first grade and his voracious hunger for more.

I see the days when the light in his eyes started to dim and sputter–at age seven–and a teacher who left him to struggle on his own.

I see the third grader who begged me to take him out of accelerated classes because he just wanted to nurse his wounds–and the teacher who reassured me and gave my boy room to find himself.

I see the boy who established a pattern of not caring and not doing and then trying desperately at the last minute to fix it–and a fifth grade teacher who appreciated his sense of humor and intelligence but didn’t let those things get in the way of holding him accountable.

I see high test scores and low grades.

I see the kid who desperately looked for things he could control when so much of his life was in others’ hands and rocking his little world.

I see the middle schooler who wouldn’t turn in homework, whose posted daily grades sported more zeroes than a gazillion.

I see the seventh grader who wouldn’t do his homework because it was “stupid” and he had “already done it a million times in class and the teacher already knows I know how.”

I see the kid who wanted to go to Harvard and then didn’t care if he went to college at all.

I see the second-to-last runner in a middle school cross country meet of more than 300 boys, ambling along because his mom wouldn’t let him quit during the season and he really didn’t want to be there.

I see the kid who tried out for the basketball team in seventh grade and came out of the school crying when the coach told him he would have been the next one if he could have taken one more.

I see the kid who threw himself into wrestling because, well, screw that basketball coach!

I see the lean eighth grader whose cross country coach didn’t recognize him on the first day of practice because he had changed his physique and his work ethic so drastically over the summer–the same kid who immediately earned a spot on the varsity roster. The same kid who finished in the top 25 at the same meet where he had finished next-to-last the year before.

I see the cut-up who decided to pee on the soccer field in the middle of gym class, earning him an out-of-school suspension and a sputtering phone call from his angry PE teacher to his parents.

I see the disinterested freshman from whom his dad and I had to threaten to take away the love of his life–wrestling–if his grades didn’t improve from failing to at least Cs.

I see the kid who finally got me to allow him to back off the honors classes because I was so tired of fighting.

I see the sophomore who, when he finally had some breathing room, began to realize that maybe he was smart–and for the first time ever and with not a lot of effort posted report cards with nothing lower than Bs (and even a few As).

I see the smile that spread across this kid’s face when I informed him that a deal I made with him way, way, way back in middle school about earning a semester’s worth of As and Bs would earn him a weekend trip anywhere he wanted to go–and the joy on his face when he picked the B1G Wrestling Championships only three hours away in Columbus, Ohio.

I see the kid who gained the confidence in himself to add AP and dual credit-eligible classes back into his schedule and then breeze through them.

I see the kid who made dumb mistakes and bad decisions and took the consequences like a gut punch, but took them nonetheless.

I see the panicked junior who walked away shaking from his first college fair when he realized the choices he had already made–and the bad grades that proved them–had a huge effect on his options for college.

I see the determined young man who told the admissions officer at his then first-choice college that yes, his GPA was pretty low, but he was going to fix it–and then proceeded to do just that.

I see the little-boy-turned-almost-man who decided to make up for all his bad academic decisions and earned six consecutive semesters on the honor roll, with three of those on the distinguished honor roll.

I see the kid for whom I gladly sat through eighteen hours of wrestling in each of two more years at B1G tournaments because he kept earning the trips by posting good grades. (Even when we had to drive to Iowa City in the middle of the night!)

I see the kid who was presented the school’s economics award for outstanding performance in the subject.

I see the young man who juggled a job and school and sports and even earned employee of the month honors in the middle of it all.

I see the athlete who earned six varsity letters, four for wrestling and two for cross country.

I see the teenager who once didn’t care whether he passed or failed become riddled with angst because he wanted the A instead of the B.

I see the kid who not only understands but also models for others the true meaning of self-discipline.

I see the kid who applied to nine colleges and received acceptances to all nine–including the institution where he told the admissions counselor he would bring up his GPA.

I see the kid who brought his GPA from a 2.7 after four semesters to a 3.4 at the end of his high school career–and nearly a 4.0 for those last four semesters.

I see the kid who is EXCITED not only about college, but about learning.

I see the boy who stuck his head back inside the door as he was leaving this morning and asked, “Mom, they’ll give me my honors sash at graduation practice, right?”

Every one of us parents has a story. Those kids with the goofy hats may all look alike, but each journey across the stage is only the end of a much longer walk. Whether high school and all that led up to it was easy, hard, or anywhere along the continuum, this is an accomplishment. It means something. It may be a rite of passage, but it isn’t necessarily a right of passage.

We–yes WE, my son and I–worked hard to get here. There were many, many, many days when I thought we’d never see this day, but here we are. My bub is more than ready. I am so proud of what he has learned. It has been a long and winding road and it probably won’t get any straighter, buy you’re darned tootin’ that I’m going to be celebrating this afternoon.

That’s my boy up there on that stage.

I love him so much.

 

 

The fork in the road

fork in the roadMy son just spent weeks, months even, agonizing over his college choice. Even after he finally came to a decision, he still agonized. Had he made the right decision? When I checked in with him the next day (ready to cancel my deposit and put it on the other school if he had any regrets), his resolution had become firm. I’m good, Mom. I had second thoughts at first, but I’m good now.

It turns out that a call to his dad had given him the assurance he needed to move forward confidently. To paraphrase his paraphrase, his dad told him that  now that he had made a decision, it was by nature the right one. He shouldn’t second guess it; now it’s all about making it happen. I puzzled over that a bit, but I was glad it had helped.

Fast forward a couple of days, and the daily sayings calendar on my desk greeted me with “Decide what you want. Do that.”

Suddenly it all came together for me. Whatever the issue, too often we wait until we “figure it out.” That’s usually a cleverly disguised moniker we use as we wait–hope–for some kind of sign. We want someone, something to give us the answer, or we think that we’ll have some magical epiphany that will lead us in the “right” direction. Instead, we need to just decide, then do.

What if I make the wrong decision, you ask? What will I do then?

That’s easy. Just decide to do something different. Then do it. You’ll have plenty of time, now that you’ve given up all the hours, days, weeks, months, YEARS you used to spend vacillating between your choices.

I hope I can effectively convey this concept to my kids. Don’t wait to figure it out. Pick your direction and forge your path. You’ll get farther faster, build your confidence, and learn a lot along the way. And since you’re already forging a path, you can build it in any direction you want.

So when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Maybe Yogi Berra knew what he was talking about after all.