Sunday, December 30, 2007

Resolution Solutions

New Year’s Resolutions are pretty much made to broken. There are good intentions behind them – or at least behind some of them – and the naming of such behavior-changing objectives at the start of a new year is a good lesson for both parent and child; it’s the follow-through in which the true lesson lies.

For my eldest child and son, Blake, I resolve to: Breathe and wait patiently – or as patiently as I can muster – when weeks go by without an email. I resolve to stop bugging him every other email about purchasing a cell phone that works internationally, so that he can call me from his base in far-off Okinawa. I additionally resolve to cease inquiring as to whether or not a marriage is in his future, either short- or long-term. Experiencing grandchildren before I am too much older and grayer and less spry would be really nice, but I will zip my lip in 2008 (can’t promise the same for 2009 however).

For my 22-year-old son Kenny, I resolve to: Keep remembering that he is just 22 and not necessarily ready to settle down with a “real” job. Any job is preferable right now, but I resolve to gently remind him of that fact, not get right in his face. The urge to lay a gigantic motherly guilt trip on his young self is strong to tremendous, yet I will endeavor to position such a trip in a more tactful, less obvious (but hopefully quite effective) manner. I additionally resolve to resist contacting him the nano-second something goes awry with my computer or I-Touch or other such similar electronic, technological device.

For my daughter, Janet, I resolve to: be less judgmental of certain actions and fashions. I may not agree with the why’s, but I will try and let her be her, whatever the metamorphosis entails this freshman year. I will also be extra careful about using words and phrases more appropriate for a teen than a middle-aged mother of four. Slang like “whatevs,” “kickin’ ,” “word up” and “hooking up.” To me, “hooking up” means meeting with someone, but apparently in teen-dom it means something altogether less innocent.

For youngest son and child, Jack, a sixth grader, I resolve to: stop asking him if he has a girlfriend, quit reminding him to do his homework while he is in the midst of doing it (only to me it doesn’t look as if he is since the television is on), and bring an end to playfully requesting he score a dozen points for me in his basketball games. I didn’t realize he took that silly suggestion to heart and the pressure was a pain, to say the least. Of course I hope he resolves to lighten up and recognize a joke when he hears one!

Kids should make resolutions too, even if they last but a day or a week or a month or two. Everyone has area for improvement, even those who are still in the process of growing, maturing and finding their way in the world.

“Stick to your guns,” “Follow through on your responsibilities,” “Finish what your started,” aren’t simply annoying parental axioms. They are time-honored and often-tested truths that we can all benefit from on the journey to becoming better, more service-oriented, more self-esteemed human beings. Actually, not just humans being, but humans doing.

In terms of much uttered wise suggestions, though, lies the ever-popular, “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you’re gonna state a resolution, model to your kids that you can actually execute it.

I resolve to resolve that oft-unresolved suggestion. How about you?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

InTEXTicated Kids

Tweens and teens texting all over town on their cell phones gives new meaning to the phrase, “Thumbs up!”

How do they do it? And how do they do it with such lightening fast speed? Why do they do it instead of just calling? (Probably the same reason most of us resort to email instead of picking up the old-fashioned telephone: it saves time). Somehow in this still-new millennium the written word speaks faster then, well, the spoken word.

Walking down Elm, sitting outside of Starbucks, pulling up in front of New Canaan High or Saxe or the Outback and you will find child upon child with heads bent down towards their cellular devices thumbs working feverishly. They even drive while texting! That seems to be taking things way too far.

Goodness! It was hard enough for me as a teen to learn to type with my fingers let alone use my thumbs to send a message on a keyboard as small as a cell phone’s. I am a total dork trying to use my thumb to scroll down my contacts with my right thumb, and trying to read the tiny type with my feeble eyes, and then correctly hit send with my left thumb to actually speak. I often mean to call Jon, my husband, but end up hitting “Jen,” my friend, instead. Ditto “Hoelzer” instead of “home.” It’s a malfunction of eyes and digits!

But the kids – yikes! Maybe it’s those early years of video game controllers and all of that thumb muscle toning that’s built their dexterity and swiftness. Tap-tap-tap-tap-TAP! Some message or other goes hurtling through the networks of Verizon, Sprint, Cingular and T-Mobile, et al and just as quickly a response is announced with a tune or a tone.

“Why don’t you just call him?” I ask Janet or Jack incredulously. And this generation’s “intelligent” answer is always, “Because!”

There is even a service/web site thing called “Twitter,” in which you can text dozens of your friends at any given moment: “At the beach” or “Sitting outside of Dunkin’ Donuts” or “Going hiking in Jackson.” My 22-year-old son Kenny does this. I don’t get it; who cares? Do all of your friends really need to know what you are doing at that exact moment?

The texts I receive from my daughter can be occasionally annoying and suspect. Suspect because if I get one during the school day I can picture her plain as day thumbing away beneath a desk during Mr. Dockum’s science class. Annoying because the text may read, “I have a free in half an hour. Wanna bring me a *$ ?” (That’s shorthand for “Starbucks.”) The time I received that particular ditty I texted back: “How ‘bout No!”

It is impressive and intimidating and fascinating watching these thumb typing bandits as they walk, talk, sip beverages, chew gum, snack, shop and/or watch t.v. or school sporting events. It’s simply intoxicating for them.

And we’re left scratching our heads with our fingers, opposable thumbs clumsy and slow and uncool.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Real Men Say, "Ask Your Mother” by Michael Turpin

I was having one of those moments the other night with my son. We were watching a Yankee game on Friday night. He was draped across my lap like a warm comforter. “Dad,” he asked. I waited like a proud father for his profound question - - perhaps about the meaning of life or whether we can do more to stop global warming. “What’s Playgirl magazine? “

“What” I asked lurching up in my chair and vaulting him across the settee. “This kid in my class says he models for Playgirl magazine.” I hesitated. The air was thick with pregnant anticipation. While I was pretty sure no sixth grader in Saxe was doing extra curricular model work for Larry Flynt Enterprises, I decided to hedge my bets. It was the end of a long week. I was tired. “Better ask your mother….”

Like adroit wingbacks in a rugby match, husbands have for generations been skirting their duty to answer the tough questions for fear of losing their status as “the popular” parent. Moms get the grunt work - - the bitching, the cajoling, the punishments, the consequences - - they are the wardens of domesticity. Dads often act like the Red Cross coming in and meeting with the prisoners, asking how they are doing and if they need anything. They inadvertently undermine policy and morale. Dads get home later in the evening during “the witching hour” and are appalled by the suggestion that they should help after the hard day they have endured at the office or having to share a three seater on the Metro North. They are thinking, “where are the slippers, pipe and shaken martini?”

As I was speaking to a friend on the phone the other evening, I could hear some yelling in the background. I could just make out a high pitched teenaged voice…” Dad ….was fine but …ruin everything….life. You…….my life…. prevent …….going out….night”

I asked my friend what the commotion was all about. “ I told my daughter it was ok to go to town tomorrow before I checked with the boss. I think I stepped in it. She’s in arguing with her Mom”. He realized too late, there is zero upside to saying “yes” to anything. My theory is this need to make domestic decisions without consultation stems from being in control all day at the office and wanting to bring that control home at night. “I have a lot of people reporting to me at work” complains one executive. “but the way they react to my judgment at home, it’s as if they are amazed that I can find the office or get dressed each morning”.

Dad’s want rapid popularity and the kind of loyalty you get when you give someone a bonus at work. This explains agreeing to a sleep over, unaware or not paying attention to the fact that the boy has had two consecutive sleepovers, fell asleep in his mashed potatoes at dinner and was grounded less than two hours ago for going on to the computer using his sister’s email address. It could all have been avoided by just saying, “ better ask your mother “. Instead, Mom will override this uninformed intrusion, resulting in an irrational child and Mom being pegged as the bad guy. Dad’s response? “ What’d I do ?”

It is the same, day in and day out, each house a region overtaken by juvenile Taliban and Al Kidda - - irrational adolescent militants who believe in a theology of sugar, electronics and lack of accountability. Martial law seems to work best in these regions of dissent and the absence of authority creates chaos.

It has always been this way. On the battlefield of life, my Mom was the master sergeant and my father, the clueless second lieutenant right out of West Point. It was my mother who knew how to talk to the troops. She understood what they worried about and had a sixth sense about any slight change in behavior. If a kid was too quiet at dinner, something was weighing on them. She could lull anyone into a confession where you would share your deepest fears.

Doctor Ruth, as we called her, was the female incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Mrs. Freud – Sigmund’s mother. The Case of Wetted Wood is a Turpin holiday favorite recounted every year as we relive the adventures and interventions of Dr Ruth. In this particularly confounding case, the feminine sleuth could not locate the wafting odor of ammonia emanating from one of her young son’s bedrooms. The mystery was further complicated when aged shag rugs were removed in each boy’s room to be replaced with wooden floors. A rotted hole in the wood was discovered behind a bedroom door. The workers deduced that a leak from the adjacent bathroom shower was the culprit. Dr Ruth was not convinced.

Something was not right. The occupant of the room seemed too cooperative that week and very circumspect. Upon interrogation, the suspect cracked and confessed that for the last six months he had been urinating behind the door because he was too scared to walk to the toilet at night. This explained the ammonia smell, the rotten wood and the constant presence of the housecat in the boy’s room at night. Dr Ruth saved the family thousands of dollars and even went so far as to protect the identity of child - - the penalty for such an egregious act would have entailed more lashes than a conscripted sailor on a British Man Of War.

The difference between the 60’s Dad and today’s dad is that the upper case “D’s” felt no social or personal obligation to be helpful. They were the hunters. Everything else as far as they were concerned was gathering. They did not even disguise the fact that they were less engaged and basked in a sort of clueless nirvana on domestic issues. They abdicated everything and were informed on a need to know basis by their spouses. Today’s father is expected to participate more but it’s my theory that some out there secretly long for the era of less accountability and resist the siren’s call of equal duty. This breeds a passive aggressive behavior that is exhibited in eye rolls, partial listening, martyred sighs and incomplete grocery store runs. In the end, gents, we must grudgingly accept it is a new day. When it comes to movie and sports trivia, go ahead and blurt out the answer because you know it. But on all other things personal or domestic, it is the ultimate sign of self awareness to offer one pat response: “better ask your mother”.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Birth Order Myths and Maybe-Truths

Since the days of Cain and Abel, birth order has fascinated us and formed who we are and perhaps what career we choose, as well as our relationships with siblings, our spouse, and with our friends. Along with the genes and personality traits that our parents pass along, the order in which they conceived and popped us out into this world helps to make us who we are.

There are variables, however, to the theories that firstborns are usually more responsible, smarter and strive to please more than second-or-third borns. Or that middle children have less of a clear-cut role in the family, or even that the youngest expects others to make decisions for him and takes on less responsibility. Often the sex of the child as well as the dynamics in blended, single or divorced families throw a wrench into the accepted birth order suppositions.

I am the eldest of two and so as the first-born of course I am smarter and more responsible than my younger brother (good thing he lives in Maryland and never reads this column; I am obviously kidding about being superior). However, according to a Dr. Spock website, the oldest are “typically responsive to the parents’ expectations” and that was certainly a truism growing up. The second-born, or youngest, says the site, is “easygoing… charming and manipulative.” That’s accurate of my brother. While he was rebelling, I felt a strong need to fulfill my mom and dad’s hopes for me as a diversion to his crazy antics of adolescence.

My own four children are a bit all over the map in terms of the birth order traits.

Blake, the first-born, enlisted in the Marines right out of New Canaan High, so clearly he took on a leadership role in life as well as in the family. He was always the peace-keeper and protector growing up and still is. Another website states that the first-born may respond to the birth of the second child by feeling unloved and neglected. I know I certainly felt that way and was constantly taunting my brother as being dropped on the door-step instead of being born to our mother, and I enjoyed trying to figure out ways to “get rid of him” as a child. Blake reacted to Kenny’s birth by chucking a Matchbox car at the baby’s face, resulting in a butterfly stitch to the forehead. There were other such incidents until each reached their teens; they are now the best of friends.

Kenny has the distinction of having been the youngest for eight years until I remarried and had his sister, Janet. Her birth catapulted him to the position of the middle child, a rank that’s often described as discouraged, becoming the “problem child.” Acting out for the middle kid is a way to garner back his or her parents’ attention. Spot on for Kenny. And Janet – who not only shares Kenny’s status as middle child, but also shares Kenny’s birth date – has revealed some of those tendencies as well, though not as strongly as her brother.

Janet, like Kenny, had/has a double place in the hierarchy of my children in that she is the oldest of the Evans’ kids, so she shares many first-born traits, too, which can counteract the characteristics of the typical middle child. Being the only girl throws in a whole different set of actions (and hormonal reactions) to the sibling mix. Her older brothers at first protected and coddled her, then felt she was a royal pain, and now for the most part have reverted back to their original nurturing ways. How we, her parents, deal with her is also a direct correlation to her birth order(s), sex, and personality traits of additionally being a part of a family with two older half-siblings. I spoil her the most by far.

“Baby” Jack really doesn’t exhibit the typical traits of the youngest in the family, but he has experienced the inevitable parental responses to being the last child born. While Blake’s baby book is filled to the brim with duly-noted milestones and dozens of photos, I couldn’t even begin to tell you where Jack’s is located in the attic (or is it the basement?), and it merely notes his size and weight and includes those inked newborn feet the hospital produces. I can recite the time of birth, birth weight and length of Blake, Kenny and Janet, but draw a blank on Jack’s vital newborn statistics. I don’t recall what his first word was and almost always forget to bring my camera to school events or to the field of play! His sibling’s landmarks are memorialized and memorized properly. The birth order experts postulate that the baby of the family usually feels smallest and weakest and is unable to take on responsibilities, but nothing could be farther than the truth for my youngest guy. In fact one quote reveals that: “unburdened by the high expectations that many parents have for their eldest children many youngest experience greater success than their siblings or they will make their mark in life in a very individualistic way.” That’s my baby!

A competitive will, a free spirit, a sense of superiority, a need to be babied, all of these things can – and often are – explained by birth order. So many forces collide to shape our personalities and our approach to life, and it’s spellbinding to watch it all in the faces of our children.

“Location, location, location.” It’s not just a real estate mantra, is it?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Son, the Hobo

School is beginning next week. Whether your child is entering kindergarten, his senior year of high school or her junior year of college, your thoughts most likely follow this track: “Oh! What will he/she be when they ‘grow up’?” Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief?

My son? My 22-year-old son with his valedictorian trimmed Bachelor of Arts? Well, he’s a hobo!

According to Kenny, “a hobo is defined as a migratory worker who likes to travel, a tramp travels without working, and a bum does not travel or work.” His self-proclaimed “Hobo Lifestyle 2.0” is for enjoying. As he says on his website for the chronicles of this adventure, “I intend to do that (enjoy), and experience as much as I can. Right now I have some cool ideas I've gotten started on, and none of them require me to physically be somewhere. Perfect. Now it's time to be everywhere…”

Ah, it’s every parent’s dream, right? Wait, let me adjust my aneurysm.

The kid had a full-time job for two years (he earned his B.A. in two years in an intensive, year ‘round accredited college). He has student loan payments, plus cell phone charges, and had rent and utilities and food to pay for before embarking on the hobo life earlier this summer. He had been making extra money recording demos for musicians out of his apartment in New York, and a teeny wee bit of cash on two separate web businesses which are still not completely up on the scale they need to be for, say, Google to come a ‘calling with their billions of dollars.

And now he literally carries his life on his back. There is no plan. It’s just a Jack Kerouac kind of escapade. Did I mention the lack of income? The lack of funding from his parents? The student loan payments?

When I shipped him off to kindergarten 17 years ago, he waved from behind his Teenage Ninja Turtle back pack, his smile big, bold and full of promise. Two weeks ago I left him at the Whitefish, Montana train depot, and he waved from behind his four-foot-high North Face pack, sleeping bag dangling from the side, with a smile, big, bold and full of promise. I failed miserably at not looking miserable, wildly wiping tears off my face, not unlike that clear, cool September morning of his kindergarten inauguration. Oh for crying out load (literally); why am I letting him just go like that?!

The answer: because I really have no choice.

We all need to find ourselves. Many of us do it while struggling through that first pay-your-dues job after high school or college. Some of us don’t find ourselves or our professional passion until middle age. And a few of us – like Kenny – need to literally travel in and around ourselves and our surroundings to hit upon our essence.

The good news? He has a decent and solid education under his frayed, hobo belt; he was born with a keen intelligence and a craftily creative streak. The Weston and New Canaan school systems laid the foundation and the basics. Now nature will take its course.

Our kids can be anything they want to be and sometimes what we guide them to be as well. As they board that school bus next week, please know that their journey will actually go beyond easy-readers and fractions and colonial times and chemistry. We and their teachers are the conduits on their educational, professional, social and personal quest.

And because it can be a survival of the fittest, I suggest packing them a can of bear mace, too. Kenny has his at the ready.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Mountain Kids

I'm getting ready to leave the Teton mountain range area in Wyoming and drive Janet and Jack back to the sloping ridges of New Canaan. Both spent a month each at the same ranch camp (Teton Valley Ranch) southeast of Jackson Hole, and Jack additionally had a month with us at our lodge unit at the base of the Jackson Hole ski area while Janet's camp session was going on. My mountain kids; I'm grateful that we have been able to provide this gift to them.

I was basically a summer "beach child," spending upwards of six hours a day lying prone on the sand at Comp Beach, especially as a teenager. My family also spent at least two weeks a summer on a beach island off the Jersey shore. Although a couple months of our childhood winters lead us up to the mountains in and around Stowe, Vermont, my brother and I were not mountain kids (until my brother lived in Stowe year 'round during his twenties). But Janet and Jack - they're most assuredly of the mountain variety.

Both children have been spending time every summer and one week per winter out in Jackson since they were toddlers. They learned and continue to appreciate and respect the wide and varied, rugged landscapes out here, as well as the power and beauty of the Snake River that winds it's way through the Teton Valley. With their Jackson-based aunt and uncle as their first guides - and now their camp counselors - they have trekked through sage brush and shale up and around many a peak. They've stood on the tops of mountains at elevations that astound. It's all a far cry from Connecticut in many ways and that's what makes it special and unique. And Teton Valley Ranch serves to keep them grounded, if only for those 30-days and a few more 24-hours beyond the final campfire of the session.

When my sister-in-law first told us of the camp during the summer of Janet's fourth grade summer, we felt it would be a terrific way to get her away from her "safe" cocoon of New Canaan and get her unplugged from all things electronic for a month. She would meet and bunk with girls from all over the country, spend an inordinate amount of time outside, active and hopefully eager, all with the Grand Teton as a backdrop.

Since her fifth grade summer, Janet has had one month a year where the most amazing things happen. All of the other 11 months, she is a shower-a-day girl, practically panicking if it looks as though that can't happen. Her clothes must match and be oh-so-specifically purchased at the "right" store, and feminine and pretty and clean. And the hair, oh the hair! Brushed and flattened or curled and blow-dried and styled just so. The eye make-up application is an art even her 50-year-old mother hasn't managed to master. But from the middle of July through the middle of August, she is going three to four to five days without a shower when her group goes on back-packing trips and/or pack trips into the mountains with the horses. Through the wonders of e-camp I can see her wearing mismatched socks, mismatched rain gear, baseball and knit caps pulled jauntily over her pleated hair. Her knees are sometimes cut-up, her western riding wear is dusty and worn-in and decidedly not East Coast trendy. And in every photo she is wearing the biggest smile I have ever seen and she has never looked more gorgeous. On the day of the final rodeo, my pampered pet is roping like a champ, giddyapping around the ring like the cowgirl she has temporarily become and doing the "boot dance" like a pro.

For one month a year, she - and now Jack - prove that they can easily exist without cell phones, television, I-pods, and computers. I should only be so lucky the rest of the year.

And for one month a year I get to be a mountain mama, doing a lot of what the kids are doing but without cool counselors and in a more cautious manner; ah, youth!
I love the peace and serenity I find at this altitude and the sound of the fluttering aspen leaves and swaying pines is as calming as waves on the seashore. The vastness of the Wyoming sky is a marvel.

At the final campfire of the camp season, I feel as wistful as the campers, and the melancholy is palpable. There is one camp song in particular that never fails to choke me up as we take one final look around at the hills and mountain ranges and the dry, western heat sinks away into cool nip. The first lyrics haunt me and comfort me all at once, and I find that every July they spring immediately to my ears as we set our sights Westward.

"Yellowstone winds, oh they're calling me back again. 'Come here to me my friend,' they whisper to my soul..."

I love that my mountain kids' souls are also being nourished by those winds. And that in addition to New Canaan, they can call Teton Valley "home."

Monday, August 06, 2007

Thank You, Harry Potter
Young muggles have united for the past 10 years in one of the oldest forms of entertainment and perhaps the keenest building block for learning - by reading. Most specifically by tucking in to the thick-paged and mysterious and magical world of a bespectacled, charming young wizard, named Harry Potter.

With the recent release of J.K. Rowling's last installment in the Harry Potter series ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"), many accounts that I have read and watched on the television have featured the testimonies of teens and 20-somethings - as well as their parents - extolling the virtues of the books and how they aided in the child's love of reading. Harry not only captured imaginations,but he guided young readers into the wonderful world of books.

My 9-year-old niece in Wyoming has a hard time putting her Potter books down. She reads in the car - a feat that always turns me deathly nauseous - for hours in her bedroom, at the dinner table while waiting for the main course, and even on trips to the banks of the Snake river. Her example prompted my son Jack to begin his summer sixth grade reading assignment by gobbling up the pages of two Harry Potter adventures in two weeks! I thought it would be a struggle to get him into reading a book on his post-camp vacation, but blessedly I have been proved wrong.

Summer is such an easy time to introduce young children to reading without the pressure of book reports or quizzes or peers perhaps reading at a faster pace. They can get a jump start before September. They can discover that there is just as much fun to be had between the covers of a book than a video or computer game, or t.v. show, or even dashing about the yard. It is welcome down-time and the opportunity to learn without realizing that's what is occurring.

My husband rarely, if at all, reads during the fall, winter or spring, but finds himself absorbed in a good book or two or three during the summer months. I, too, will devour novel upon novel with a greater pace in the warmer, lazier months, and I think our example lends itself to the kids' reading a tome of their own.

"It's reading time," I have announced while sitting on the beach with Jack and Janet, or hanging out in our unit in the wilds of Wyoming. Sometimes there is protest, but mostly it is welcomed and my suggestion is taken to heart and mind. And it goes without saying that the quiet time is very apreciated indeed.

Observing the types of books the kids choose is a fascination for this parent as well. Blake has always gravitated towards works of military fiction and non-fiction as well as spy thrillers; Kenny as a young boy read each and every one of the "Goosebumps" books and now chooses more short how-to's regarding entreprenurial works; Janet has only read one of the Potter novels, and instead spends time with the pages of various girlfriend-themed series (although I have been pressuring her to read my 30-something year old, dog-eared copy of "The Catcher in the Rye"), and Jack predictably loves books on sports, especially baseball, plus Harry's trials and triumphs at Hogwarts.

With a month remaining until the trill of the school bells, there is still time to get your child immersed in a book be it Harry or Mary and her little lamb. I'm sure DandyTales and Elm Street Books will reveal more than a treasure of titles for everyone, both the newbie young and older, seasoned readers.

Wave the magic wand of the written word in front of your son or daughter and watch the wizardry of reading take hold.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Kids, the Country and Freedom

Yesterday we celebrated the Fourth of July, the birth of our nation and all that freedom stands for. Every year, I am hoping that my children gain a keener understanding that the initial freedom of these United States of America wasn’t “free,” and that even today, there is a price.

Given the times in which they are living – especially the years since September 11, 2001 – and the older brother who took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” I believe they are getting the gist.

The kids have been fortunate enough to have visited London, Paris and Rome (that sounds like they’re some upscale store, doesn’t it?), as well as Northern Cyprus, the place their Evans’ grandmother now calls home. These trips have provided a taste, a peek, into other cultures and customs outside of their own, and have perhaps supplied a growing appreciation of the differences between our country and others. But I think a good look at some of the United States is in order for them as well.

Two summers ago I loaded up the car with Janet, now 14, and Jack, now 11, and drove from Connecticut to Wyoming, where Janet has been attending camp, and where we spend a chunk or chunkette of the summer each year. Primarily we saw more amber waves of grain then we cared to, until we reached the purple mountain majesty of which we are already familiar. I dashed so fast across the Midwest that they really didn’t get much of a taste for what lies between sea to shining sea.

This year I hope to allow for more than a snippet of America.

At the start of next week Janet, a friend of hers from camp, my son Kenny, 22, and I will climb into my SUV in search of America. (Okay, so I exaggerate a bit; we are driving to Wyoming to pick Jack up from camp and deliver Janet to same camp for her session, and kick back in Jackson Hole for a month). But a good part of America will be searched! I want the kids to see that the diversity of America isn’t only present in the landscape but also in her citizens.

I’d like to have a leisurely lunch near Pennsylvania-Dutch country, so that they might see an Amish village, a buggy, a Lancaster county family up close. To witness in the flesh that not all teenage girls feel a need to, nor can they, dress head-to-toe in Abercrombie or Hollister or Ralph Lauren. Stop for gas and a soda in Illinois, catching a few rays of sun beside a corn field where somebody’s father works the land with nary a Blackberry in sight. Kenny and I want to drive down a piece of the infamous Route 66, starting probably from south of Chicago and then through part of Kansas. And then we’ll ramble up back north towards the Rockies and our destination state.

On the drive back with just Janet and Jack as passengers, I hope to take another meandering, spacious skies route and visit Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands, then veer off into a bit of Wisconsin and Minnesota before heading back to the fruited plains and final density of New England.

“Turn off the DVD player, kids! Look out the windows! Look at America the beautiful! We are so lucky to live here!” This is the land of the free and of the brave. This is the country that was and will always be worth fighting for, that young men and women have died and will continue dying for if they so choose to join our armed forces.

“Don’t be afraid,” I will also tell them. “That doesn’t mean your brother Blake will die, too, but if… If God forbid he did… it will be because freedom isn’t free, but it still merits defense whether it’s on our soil or another’s.”

My children already know from history lessons and from current events that not all wars make sense, that America’s involvement in battles isn’t always clear and evident. Yet I want them to understand also that a country that values liberty and justice for all is a precious place in which to live and that it is worth preserving. As corny as it may sound, I hope for them to be proud citizens.

If I can show them as much of their country as is physically and financially as possible, then maybe they’ll have a fuller picture. After driving through a dusty desert town without a national retailer or a fast-food chain in sight, maybe they’ll not take for granted the area in which they live. A big home in leafy New Canaan, filled with state-of-the-art electronic devices isn’t a right; it’s a privilege that must be appreciated.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We give these to our children at their birth and all we can anticipate is their understanding for and of the latter two.

The search for the source is priceless.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

You and Me
by Michael Turpin

The spring sun hesitated for what seemed an hour or so, crouching just under the highest ridge of the valley. Everywhere, denuded trees seemed ready to burst an early season feathered green. With the twilight, came cool air that settled down into the draws and creek beds in the great Frost Valley. In the distance, there was movement like a restless breeze as hundreds of The People from every great Indian nation descended onto a gentle slope that fell easily to the edge of a midnight blue lake.

A great fire roared, crackling and swirling devils of smoke that twisted and chased away those who drew too close for warmth. The hillside slowly changed colors from deep green to restless sienna as Princesses and young Guides gathered for the final ceremony of the season. Chippewa, Omaha, Mohegan, Pequot - - the list went on and on. Each chief gave thanks to the Great Spirit and passed the mantle of leadership to another while the braves and princesses looked on in admiration, wonder and anticipation. The Nation was one and gratefully, the land still provided what the Nation needed to survive. Everyone mingled in deep appreciation and slowly retreated to their lodges, long houses and teepees for reflection and revelry.

It was my last trip to Frost Valley and Y guides with my youngest child. For the last ten years ( not withstanding a three year hiatus in London ) , we had been a link in the YMCA Princesses and Guides chain forging precious time together – “just you and me time” as my older son used to say when we would make our trips together. This annual pilgrimage to the hidden valley deep in the Catskill mountains was each boy’s favorite rite of passage - - the long drive, the cabins, the hiking, the recreation, the ghost stories and the entertainment all combining for a deeply etched memory of companionship and caring. It was the Y at its best.

The YMCA of New Canaan is rumored to have the most successful Y Guides program in the entire country. Guides and Princesses begin at kindergarten and create opportunities for time together during those tender years between ages 6 and 9. These are the years where you are still the center of the universe for your child. This is the time preceding a parent’s steady decline from sun, moon and stars to distant planet in the galaxy called “Whatever”. Growing up in Southern California, the YMCA was in many ways the center of my universe for sports, outdoors, summer camp counseling, work and midweek recreation. It was a safe and important oasis.

For a town like ours that is often stereotyped as “type A” and “self absorbed”, the community and commitment demonstrated by its consistently successful YMCA programs contradicts those labels and speaks volumes about our possibilities - - as parents, as teachers and yes, even as tribal chiefs! Each Y tribe is unique. Some tribes frankly have issues. In California, one of the Indian Princess Dads in our tribe had an affair with another Dad’s squaw. Both men stayed in the tribe. We renamed the one Dad
“Steals Another Man’s Horse”. Our New Canaan tribe, The Mohegans, is known for its games of chance, inventions, sarcasm, extremely poor nutrition and speed in which we can break camp on the last day of a sleep over. There are other tribes who are known for things such as gathering nuts, making beads and eating filet mignon. There are some that enjoy little dominion over their own tribe and descend into chaos and Game Boys whenever they gather as a group. There have been rumors of firewater in some longhouses but like so many legends of the Nation, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Some tribes are apathetic, prone to logistical mayhem and always seem to lose their headbands. There are those rare but powerful tribes, guided by strong leaders who insist on a strong identity, loud war cries, animal skins for every season and an ice chest in every teepee. Yes, there is diversity in this Indian Nation. Although by day, the Princesses and Braves appear quite homogeneous, by night they revert to an odd panoply of behaviors stimulated by the fact that there is no squaw within a hundred miles.

As we walk along a path padded with brown pine needles, the boys stomp through dark, brackish puddles of muddy rain water, swinging walking sticks like swords and trading exaggerated stories of what might lie around the next bend of the trail. We traverse a V shaped cable bridge that hangs precipitously above a rushing stream. The trail takes us towards The Devil’s Hole - - a destination shrouded in mystery and hyperbole. Older siblings have already relayed the story of “the counselor who drowned “when he fell into the hole of rushing water. That story has now distorted into the slaughter of an entire family from Michigan. “ Wha-wha-what exactly is in the hole, anyway ?” I overheard one boy ask another. “ I think it’s a deep pool of water and there may be something down inside of it that will grab you if you get too close” said another.“ Nervous laughter and the half hearted swing of a hiking stick. “Whatever it is, if it tries to get me, I will c-c-cut off its head!” declares the bravest of the bunch as he slides back closer to his Dad. The forest is beautiful here with the path paralleling a wide trout stream that cascades down a pitched canyon. Later, we discover The Hole but upon witnessing no blood or bones, the boys lose interest and vote for returning to the campsite to catch newts.

“Look I caught two newts at the same time” screams one of the boys. Unfortunately for these amorous amphibians, it is mating season and their conjugal bliss is constantly being interrupted by nets and squeals of delight as they are lifted from the water, dropped into a plastic containers and then tossed back into the water. More hiking, and then dinner. Our tribe settles down for a dinner of hamburgers, hotdogs, chips and sodas. Later, a medicine man mercifully offers me an antacid. A fellow tribe sharing our longhouse unleashes an intimidating display of BBQs, marinated steaks and civility that makes us feel like pagans. Our boys are oblivious and have once again disappeared into the woods to satisfy some latent genetic need to sharpen sticks, throw rocks and soak their only clean pair of shoes in mud. As silky twilight gives way to night, I rest on the hillside, exhausted but content watching our great nation of people. A small hand slips into mine and a warm, exhausted little boy leans in and lays his head on my lap, “Dad ?”

“Yeah, buddy?”
“Today was my best day, ever.”
“Me, too, pal”
“The best part - - was it was just you and me.”

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Dangerous World of Boys

If you’ve recently given birth to your first son, or if you’re already a mom of, say, an infant or toddler boy, this is a cautionary tale, a primer, a “buckle-your-seat-belts-you’re-in-for-a-bumpy-ride” introduction to being a mother (or father) of the young male of the species.

Boys and bumps, bruises, breaks and bloody cuts seem – in my experience – to go hand-in-hand.

Out of my three sons, so far my son Kenny takes the prize in the becoming wounded department. When Kenny was age one, Blake chucked a Matchbox car at him resulting in a butterfly stitch to the forehead. At age four, Kenny broke his tibia, and repeated that break a scant two years later. At seven, Blake accidentally (yeah, right) slammed Kenny’s fingers in a door, resulting in yet another break and half a dozen stitches. At 11, he broke his arm falling off a swing. When he was 15, he sprained that same arm, and at age 19, badly cut one hand after a freak fall on his way back to his apartment after class.

Some boys are more accident prone than others. Blake survived childhood with only a few stitches and bumps, and – considering he has been in combat three times since 2003 – has emerged with only the most minor of injuries. But the first time your child, your son, gets a bad boo-boo it’s almost as painful for you.

The first sign of a break or of blood gives new meaning to the term “adrenaline rush.”

If your son is an athlete, well, try and prepare yourself for the inevitable injury, although admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how one prepares oneself. The least of it may be a bad bruise. But there, lurking in the air on the field of play, may be the breakage of a limb, an errant ball flying into your son’s nether regions, a bloody nose or blackened eye; momentary unconsciousness. Now these are the worst cases and should not in any way, shape or form mean you prohibit sports from your child’s agenda. Because – trust me – even the most seemingly ordinary of moments at home may cause temporarily traumatic injury.

Case in point: On this past Easter Sunday evening, as I was folding laundry and my husband, Jon, was paying bills, a blood-curdling scream emanated from our garage. Janet began yelling for us: “Mom! Dad! Jack’s hurt! Jack’s hurt!” As I ran into the garage, there was Jack holding his left hand, blood spewing from one of his fingers. “I closed it in the door! Omigod! Help!” As he was going out the side door of our garage, he had accidentally slammed the door shut on his fingers, specifically, the middle finger (pretty appropriate for how he felt at that moment). We bundled his hand in a towel and ice and Jon dashed him to Norwalk Hospital. By the grace of God, I decided to immediately begin cleaning up all the blood in the garage and as I did, I looked down and there staring up at me was the top of Jack’s finger! We had no idea that it had been severed. Bottom line is that most of it was stitched back on and I’m sure he’ll be playing baseball in no time. But, mercy me – dashing part of my kid’s finger to the hospital resulted in a billion new grey hairs and a heart that nearly popped right out of me and out of my car and onto Route 123.

Ah, boys. Here’s what you need to do as soon as you birth one: Stock your medicine cabinet with bandages, gauze, Neosporin, hydrogen peroxide, a finger splint, an ace bandage, several ice packs and arnica. Stock your liquor cabinet with whiskey or wine, or load up your freezer with pints of your favorite ice cream (pick your poison) for you to ingest after the accident, Keep in mind that you should probably breathe while the initial ouchiness ensues. Don’t let your boy catch you crying, and keep reminding yourself that things will be okay; this too shall pass.

Until the next time.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Waiting to Exhale

The nature of the business of being parents means that we must often endure, wait out and try to help when our child is caught up in the grip of emotional, social and/or physical pain. We gasp, we hold our breath, we pray, and we wait to exhale.

Our child may be diagnosed with a disease, an illness or an injury, and after doing all that we can possibly do to support them and aid in their recovery, often the results are left in the hands of those more knowledgeable, or in something/someone greater than ourselves. Many times it is up to our child to help themselves, and it is the waiting for that to happen which takes our breath away. The expression, “Time takes time,” is both a balm and bewilderment.

A child may impulsively quit their job with no prospects on the horizon. They may decide high school isn’t for them and we watch as their grades plummet. An undiagnosed learning disability derails our eight-year-old. As mothers and fathers of teens we pretty much have to inhale and suck it up for two, three, four years, especially if teenaged angst makes them implode. In preschool or in elementary school our child may be one of the bullies or the bullied, and we wait both patiently and impatiently for this too to pass.

A son goes to war and the anxiety is unbearable at times, yet bear it we must.

Blake has been deployed since last September, and was in Iraq for the last five months. We learned late last week that he had arrived in Kuwait. He will be there for a couple of weeks until the naval ship arrives to begin the journey of bringing the Marines and Sailors stateside. And so on that score I have begun the exhaling process, which isn’t fully complete until I can wrap my arms around the big lug sometime in June.

During a shopping trip to Bob’s Sports this week, I received a hug from owner Rob Mallozzi upon hearing the news. He commented on my big smile and the look of relief in my face.

“Yes,” I beamed, for the first time in a long time. “The breathing out is welcome.”

We all want our children safe, sane and secure. When bad or uncomfortable news visits our child, we must hang onto hope – that the cancer will go into remission; that the ADD will become under control; that he can play ball again or that her leg will heal enough so may she dance once more; that their heart will mend or their lost soul will be found; that their disability won’t impede success, or that self-destructive behaviors can morph back into self-love; that combat will not offer the ultimate sacrifice. As tempting as it is for us to run for the bedcovers or self-medicate, we must remember that what is happening is happening more to them than to us. We need to get out of our own way and try to be present for our child.

That feeling a mother gets as she watches her five-year-old first board that big yellow bus for kindergarten is repeated over and over as the child ages. It’s the “Omigosh-omigosh-are-they-going-to-be-okay” mini panic attack; the big intake of air, the flutters in the belly, and the pounding of the heart so full of love it hurts.

Holding on to hope is the tool we can use when these moments present themselves (and they will). Hope and choice: Will we let this situation crush us or our child, or will we choose to gain new strength and perspective? Will we inhale so tightly that we can never again breathe easily?

C.S. Jung once said, “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” That is a lesson, a mantra, that we can teach our children and also, of course, ourselves.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

By Michael Turpin

“Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today!We're born again, there's new grass on the field.A-roundin' third, and headed for home, it's a brown-eyed handsome man;Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Oh, put me in, Coach - I'm ready to play today;Put me in, Coach - I'm ready to play today;Look at me, I can be Centerfield.”
~John Fogerty, Centerfield

At one point during a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, "Do you understand what cooperation is? What a team is?" The little boy nodded in the affirmative. "Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?" The little boy nodded yes. "So," the coach continued, "I'm sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn't argue, curse, attack the umpire, or call him a butt-head. Do you understand all that? Again the little boy nodded. He continued, "And when I take you out of the game so another boy gets a chance to play, it's not good sportsmanship to call your coach 'a dumb ass' is it?" Again the little boy nodded."Good," said the coach. "Now go over there and explain all that to your dad in the stands".

It’s baseball season and for the first time in many years, my schedule has finally succeeded in not allowing me to co- head coach one of my son’s teams. I am already having withdrawals and have started to behave oddly at home. I yelled “ slide” to my eight year old as he was running to greet me at the door the other day. I asked my wife if it would be ok if we buy a radar gun. “We could clock all kinds of things - - how fast the kids get out to the bus in the morning, how quickly they come to dinner when we call. We could increase their allowance when they beat certain time thresholds …” She gave me that “you are a very troubled person” look. The sad truth is my job has finally gotten the better of my April and May and it looks like I would be too unreliable to once again become platoon leader for a small squad of budding eleven and twelve year olds. Anyone need an assistant?

Coaching is a catharsis. It’s the ultimate opportunity to be of service and help shape kids. It is also a mirror that one can hold up for self reflection. If done improperly, it can be a demoralizing experience for a child, a source of constant tension for parents and a Greek tragedy for the fatally flawed but well intentioned coach. When Reverend Joe Ehrmann came to New Canaan last fall, many coaches were introduced to the book about Joe, Seasons of Life. For some, it was given to us either as a gift or a stocking stuffer. For others, it was left surreptitiously on a front door step and in a few cases, tied to a rock and hurled through a living room window.

Joe’s message is priceless: each kid is a treasure trove of possibility and sports is a stage where we can discover each child’s potential. Coaches can cultivate each player to become a more confident and engaged citizen of our community and can help preserve and build self esteem which is the oxygen that fuels adolescence. I realize this is innate stuff to a lot of people who work with kids. Yet for others, including myself, Ehrmann’s talk was a great reminder of the gift that is coaching kids.

There are coaches, and yes I am one of them, that occasionally forget that it is really just a game and become a little obsessed with winning. It’s sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where two alpha males make eye contact across the watering hole (in this case the baseball diamond). I can almost see his antlers growing. I scratch the ground with my cleat. He picks up a bat and takes a few half swings. The rut is on. It’s a curse, really, thinking that the other coach is going home at night and instead of catching up on bills or reading to their four year old, he/she is calculating batting averages and comparing first to second base sprint times. Each season there is always one coach that “challenges my objectivity. “ Whether it is having their runner steal second while enjoying an eight run lead or invoking some double secret rule like the “Speed of Play” clause from the Cal Ripkin Official rules book that I get handed every year but never read.

At this point, I have to beg forgiveness from my pastor who views me as a “work in progress” as he preaches understanding and tolerance. There’s just something about that mixture of red dirt, chalk, and eye black that makes a guy a little, how should we say, less spiritual? I have had to learn the key to being a good coach is to realize that it is not about me. It’s not about the parents. It’s about every kid that I have been entrusted with- - every single one. It means taking pride in each kid’s progress and teaching them something new. It means telling them the story about when I was a kid and how I pretended to go to football practice but would instead hide in the bushes, in full pads , smear dirt on my pants and wait for two hours before going home, hoping a passing dog did not lift his leg on my hiding place. It’s me remembering when my son makes an error or strikes out and looks at me that I do not cringe, shake my head or make a face but smile and clap and say “ go get ‘em “ It’s finding humor in everything. Whether it is a food shack that is listed in Zagats and is rumored to be selling foie gras or the way people park their cars at Mead Park as if they have spilled an extra hot latte in their lap.

We all want our children to respect one another, try their best, work hard, and come back to play another year. We need to remember that great television commercial that appears during most NCAA games that says, “There are 30,000 athletes in American universities and most of them will major in something other than sports after college.” It’s a great time of year - - the smell of freshly cut grass, chalk lines faithfully edged around a red dust diamond, and the sharp ping of a well hit line drive mixing with the roar of a hometown crowd. Somewhere a kid rounds third base and tries to beat the throw to home while another player tugs on his/her coach’s arm and says, “Hey coach, put me in. I can play centerfield!”
Party On, Dude!

Today is my youngest child’s 11th birthday (Jack). Last year I figured that after 22 years of throwing parties for my one to four children, we were done. But apparently the rumors of their birthday parties’ demise were greatly exaggerated.

Over the years, I’ve thrown parties where magicians appeared, both young (age 13) and old (a 75-year-old magician). Barney, a Ninja Turtle, Captain Hook and Blue from Blue’s Clues have attended, as well as various clowns. We’ve had baseball themed parties, basketball parties, worker truck parties, Ghostbuster parties, 1950’s themed parties, gold-mining parties, pony rides, bowling, karate and manicure celebrations, and parties held at My Three Sons, Discovery Zone, the late great Mattie’s, and a semi-professional ballpark. Parties, parties everywhere and no relief in sight!

When publishing County Kids magazine, I began to feel like so much the party “expert” that we began putting out an annual party guide called “Partyline.” The tips and trends therein served to give me more fuel for the birthday party fever and fervor of my children. Over the years I practiced insanity as far as these age celebrations were concerned (the definition of insanity as doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results). I expected the events to be quieter, more manageable. I also expected my children to stop desiring them.

Kenny and Blake eventually conceded around age 16; Jack and Janet have yet to give up the ghost, no matter how hard I plead. And it’s probably because they have grown up with the myriad party people, places and things that have always existed in their world.

Last year when Janet turned 13, she had 30 of her nearest and dearest friends over for a swimming party. She had told us she was inviting 20, but that number morphed by party time and Jon and I sprouted more grey hair instantly.

“That’s it!” I cried insistently after the big to-do. “No more birthday parties!” I’m done, I thought. Put a fork in me, totally justifying – however – that Jon had thrown me a 50th birthday bash two months earlier.

But no… Jack’s wanting a gathering of buddies this year and all of my whining hadn’t stopped the planning.

Gone are the days of girls in starched party dresses, boys in blue blazers, a home-baked cake and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. In are paintball and laser tag parties; girls and boys in shorts and t-shirts wild with cake-induced frenzy. Goody bags cost a small fortune and are considered de rigueur; the quest for a new and different party venue is exhausting, yet always do-able. It’s frightening.

So I guess it’s party on, dude time once again.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dad With a Capital “ D “
by Michael Turpin

I recall growing up in a house with four boys where neighbors routinely referred to my mother as “ that poor woman “ and my father would walk in each night at 7 p.m. and calmly ask , “ Who gets the belt “ ?

“Let’s see” she would begin. “Michael and his friends lobbed oranges at what they thought was a slow moving group of cars that turned out to be a funeral procession.
Our garage is full of audio visual equipment that was stolen from the middle school after YOUR son used the glass cutter art kit we gave him for Christmas to cut a hole in the audio visual room window. The boys were not sure what to do with the merchandise. Apparently your son does not have someone to fence the goods yet. Miles was suspended for streaking what he thought was an all girl’s high school but mistakenly turned out to be the all girls elementary school and Patrick’s school counselor thinks he may have some form of personality disorder as it is the only acceptable excuse for his behavior…..Otherwise, it was a pretty good day. ” My father, un-phased and a firm believer in corporal punishment, would swiftly mete out his justice in hopes that his boys would grow up to be stewards of the community and not wards of the criminal justice system.

My father was a Dad with a capital “ D “. He would routinely break into tirades over politics, any form of incompetence, and “liberals “ including our local minister who he was convinced was an agent for the KGB. He never apologized. Empathy was something “liberals” used as Trojan Horse term for income redistribution. He never shared his feelings or cried, except perhaps at the collapse of the 1969 Cubs. He was the king of his castle and while his boys gave him a run for his money, our kingdom was under the martial law of a benevolent dictatorship. He was the illegitimate offspring of Pinochet and Tito. While no one questioned for a minute that my mother was the real genius behind my father’s “ success “, both as a businessman and a parent, he was the executive and judicial branch of the family. While Mom’s intuition could detect a fire, fight, any form of alcohol, illicit material or inappropriate behavior within a five mile radius, he was the man. Their partnership celebrated its 50th year this past summer.

Yet, “ The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit “ generation carried obvious inequities. Its chronic chauvinism and silent martyrdom had its flaws and dysfunctions. Later mothers and society with the help of Gloria Steinem (another Russian Spy ) broke through to celebrate equality and liberate women to apply their cunning intuition across a broader field of personal and professional opportunities. The fathers, the Dad’s with a big “ D” were left behind. They grumbled, swore and continued to lament the erosion of societal values and the slow emasculation of the American male. As their sons wed and became a next generation of fathers, the sons quickly realized they were entering un-chartered waters and Dad with the capital “ D” appeared to be an outdated point of reference.

“I never changed as many damned diapers with all four of you boys as you do for her “ my father mumbled as I nimbly replaced my newborn daughter’s diaper.” I knew we were both in new territory. He, thinking I had been neutered in some UFO secret experiment and me, wondering when my wife would offer him a sprig of hemlock to stir his ice tea. However, as I got older, I regained an appreciation for the big “ D’.

Let’s face it, being today’s dad carries a lot of benefits but also is spelled with a lower case “d ”. While I see growing up in Big D’s house like France under Napoleon, he looks at my house like a twisted version of Lord of the Flies. In my home, dad gets home from work to a wife and teenaged daughter locked in a mortal combat over the amount of midriff her outfit is showing. Like a UN peace keeper, I don my blue helmet and try to break up the brutal internecine fighting, only to have them both turn on me and chase me into my office. When disciplining my two boys, I am supposed to use intimidating language like, “let’s use our inside voices “and the brutally decisive “Ok, mister, this time you really have lost a privilege.” Dad with a big D wants to vomit. The boys react to me as if I have the retaliatory power of Luxembourg and continue with their misbehavior. You know what finally works? A page out of the old Big D’s playbook - - the occasional yell, the immediate intervention, the threat always followed up with determined consequences.

Evolution is a funny thing. The old big “D” dad had to go but the little “d” dad has to develop new tricks and methods to ensure his survival. Occasionally activating those less politically correct genes to keep the herd moving west isn’t always a bad thing. It’s nice to remember you can combine the soft skin of restraint and compassion with the hard sinews of being decisive, fair and tough - - that’s little “ d” and Big “D” combining to make a better man.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Instantly Gratified Kids
by Julie Butler Evans

“Good things come to those who wait,” is a concept that seems to fly right over the current generation’s head. “I-want-what-I-want-and-I-want-it-now” no longer seems to apply to addicts, unless you count the tiny and not-so-tiny pod of children growing up in today’s world. They are addicted to NOW.

With a bastion of micro-waveable treats, instant music via i-tunes; cell phones; movies-on-demand (apt moniker); overnight delivery; digital and cell-phone cameras allowing immediate glossy photos in hand or to the eye and a myriad of additional conveniences and electronics of the 21st century, getting on-the-spot satisfaction is easy.

As I was mulling over this column’s theme, my daughter unwittingly illustrated the topic perfectly. She asked me to blow-dry her hair for her (because doing it herself would be too timely and too much work?) and as she complained about how long it was taking (are you kidding me?!), I offered sarcastically that perhaps someone could create a dryer that zaps the hair dry and straight 30 seconds. “Oh!” she exclaimed excitedly, “that would be soooo cool! Awesome! Do you think someone will invent that?” “Probably,” I muttered under my breath, eyes rolling in my head.

Whatever happened to waiting, to going to a store to buy an album/CD; to needing to get home before calling a friend?

“Can we go to Grammaphone now? I want the Star Wars video game;” “Just order take-out, mom. It takes too long for you to cook;” “I don’t want to do temp jobs, My website will make a million immediately;” “I need new jeans. Can you go get some at Rugby when I’m in school?” Last time I checked I was a parent, not a manservant. Or are they one and the same now and I have I enabled myself to act as such?

I recall almost with fondness how my friends and I needed to wait to save our allowance to go to Main Street in Westport to buy an album at Klein’s record department, or purchase some hoop earrings from Country Gal. Once the money was saved we may have to bide our time a bit longer until one of our parents was available able to drop us off downtown. Getting pictures from Homecoming took about a week to be developed. Fast food meant a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

It’s not only the kids who are used to instant gratification; we adults have hopped on the magic carpet ride to immediacy. Because it’s available. With a click of the mouse we can avoid driving to the shoe store and instead find a pair of Uggs boxed on our doorstep within 24 hours. Netflix provides movies in the mail instead of searching for a parking space downtown. I can log on to the computer at any time of day or night and search out what’s going on in Iraq, or read a quick email from Blake, rather than wait an interminable amount of time as did my military family predecessors during World War 2 and Vietnam. An email “thank you” replaces – as my good friend Michael Turpin pointed out in a column in the other New Canaan newspaper – the “lost art of letter writing.”

Even though the tools and technologies of without-delay exist in our world, maybe we can still take the time (all puns intended on that phrase) to model delayed gratification and engage in some old-fashioned methods to retrieve and acquire an object of desire or necessity. Drive into town to rent a movie. Once in a while disallow cell phones and laptops on vacation (come on; you can do it Mr. or Mrs. Busy-pants). Let your pre-driving teen to cool their heels for half an hour when they call and proclaim that you pick them up NOW – there’s no need for you to drop what you were doing unless it’s an emergency. Diet pills, starving and incessant exercise, and/or liposuction to attain a rail-thin body isn’t nearly as healthy as simply eating smaller meals and running a few miles a week to teach our daughters that skinny doesn’t equal self-esteem. Blue jean, sneakers or video game buying can wait until the weekend.

In a nutshell, we can teach this: Gratification can be achieved the old-fashioned way - by earning it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Embarrassing Our Offspring

by Julie Butler Evans

Kids have been “embarrassed” by their parents forever, especially teenagers. I know for a fact that my daughter will feel completely humiliated by this column, for instance, although let me reassure you, Janet, that is not my intent. And your brothers will not be spared by my examples, so, you’re in good company.

From the time I hit age 11 I was prone to the whiny-phrased, “Daaaadddy! You’re embarrassing me!”
He would shimmy and shake in public to the music of the Supremes and Crystal Gale and an assortment of other 1960’s-1970’s recording industry artists. He was also prone to calling me “Baby Julie” in front of my friends. There was an array of other awkward moments, some real and most in all probability, imagined.

Here’s an example of both. The other night I took
Janet up to Hartford to attend the popular phenomenon “High School Musical” in concert. As the first song burst into life a mere four rows in front of us, I began to sway my arms back and forth with the rest of the audience. In a flash she was slapping my arms down. “You are NOT allowed to do that, mom. No!” Anytime I began to clap or try to move my body to the infectious rhythms I was met with a determined and deadly look that clearly translated to “Do not embarrass me.”

It’s fun though.

When Kenny and Blake were in middle school I apparently mortified them as they played in basketball games by shouting their names, followed by the supportive words “Yay!”, “Go!” and “Alright!” They told me in no uncertain terms that I was to sit on my hands and zip my lip; mostly I applied their edict, but occasionally I would let the enthusiasm fly if for no other reason than to watch them wince or squirm. Jack has taken over where they left off, yet since he’s only 10 he seems to be cutting me some slack.

My sense of fashion now and again is a deep well of embarrassment for not only my daughter but also for my sons. And I love it. “What are you wearing?!” can leap from all four of their lips. Of course, their sense of fashion has embarrassed ME on occasion. Take the mid-to-late ‘90s when Blake and Kenny insisted on wearing these baggy jeans half way across their nether regions so that one could eyeball the tops to the midway of their boxers. Even when wearing dress shirts their khakis would sit casually at their hips, the hint of undergarments peaking from atop their waistband.

I wear my ability to embarrass like a badge of honor. To me, it means I am doing my job. My biggest “stunt” to date? Last Christmas, for our annual holiday party, I came downstairs wearing the following get-up: A “Sexy Santa” costume. It was a low-cut short red dress trimmed in white fur, black fish net stockings, boots and accessorized with red stain gloves also with white trim. Not only did my husband have a coronary (and not in a good, “va-va-vavoom” way), but my kids either screamed in horror (Janet), laughed (Jack) or shook their heads, turned pink and denied I was their mother (Blake and Kenny). All five members of my family requested that I change my attire.

No way. I was 49 years old at the time and I reserved the right to do as I pleased; I’d earned it. And guess what? All the men at the party appreciated the look, the women laughed in a good way and I am hoping that my husband felt more embarrassed for not cherishing the look more.

There’s nothing embarrassing about realizing one can still turn a male head or two, four decades and four children later.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Surviving “Snow Days”
by Julie Butler Evans

I look forward with such unmitigated glee to the end of the holiday vacation. That first week of January promises that children will be back in school and I will have at least six hours of “Julie-time.” But, inevitably, that euphoria is cut excruciatingly short thanks to another mother – Mother Nature. The snow begins to dribble or dump and suddenly the kids are home early, go in later or are home for the entire day altogether.

I’m not such an old fuddy-duddy that I don’t remember the thrill of a “snow day” as a child. Except “back in the day” we didn’t have nearly as many days off as my children have had during their school career. My friends and I waited for the bus in bundles of clothes and boots while the snow flew around us. There were plenty of mornings where we would watch the flakes come down thick outside our classroom window, but the school day was never cut short. I have to admit it was sort of exciting to be on the bus during snowstorms, going slowly down the windy roads of Weston, the chains on the bus tires jingling like bells on Santa’s sleigh. But that was then and this is now.

Now means even the report of a possible snowstorm can cause school to be cancelled. During the winter the kids watch the weather channel as if the best cartoon in the universe were on it. Even if it snows on a Saturday they are convinced that school won’t be in session come Monday morning.

I practically break out in a sweat on snow-draped mornings watching the local television stations’ school closing scroll across the bottom of the t.v. set. As soon as the schools beginning with “M’s” start my heartbeat quickens and I hold my breath and cross my fingers. If New Canaan is indeed cancelled I let out a guttural cry and flop back onto the bed. There go all my plans and appointments for the day.

So, how to survive a snow day? I actually don’t have any concrete advice and survival all depends upon the ages of your children. When any and all of mine were of nursery school and younger elementary-school age making it through the day without losing my mind and my hair meant bundling all of us up and playing out in the snowy yard for a while, hot soup and hot chocolate, board games and a couple hours of Nickelodeon. As they have gotten older – and if the driving conditions permit – we will take in a matinee, or failing that, rent a movie or two. I know it’s not ideal to depend on the television as a babysitter, but it nevertheless allows me to get some writing done, return phone calls and perform house chores uninterrupted. And always, dividing and conquering means less conflicts between siblings, so I will arrange to swap one of my kids for a friend’s kids (i.e. Janet’s friend Brooke will come over and Jack will go over to her house to play with her brother Cole). Everybody’s happy.

Well, not exactly everybody. I am happier and more productive when the kids are in school Monday through Friday. January seems unusually full of school delays, early dismissals and out and out no school. And then, before you know it, February break rolls around!

Winter should be a time to appreciate snow – tranquility! Skiing! Cozy fires! – but for this mom it more often than not causes cringing and crankiness, not my more attractive traits to be sure.

Luckily, the kids find the cringe and the crank hilarious. Perhaps that’s their way of surviving ME!

Ode to the Baby of the Family
by Julie Butler Evans

“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” I used to recite that line from the book, Love You Forever, to Kenny as a boy at bedtime. Heck, I think I have even uttered it to him in young adulthood. But I also repeat it to Jack, the real baby of our family.

Jack Butler Evans, nearly 10, was my 40th birthday present; albeit three weeks after my birth certificate states I actually turned into a 40-year-old. He was born in the year we learned my father was to die, so his arrival was made even more significant and precious. As the baby of the family, he is at once coddled and carefree. As the youngest of four, I give him a lot more leeway, yet I am a veteran of the trickery children try to pull, so it’s harder for him to execute the fake illness, the white lie about homework, or the false angelic smile when questioned as to what he’s doing in a room in which he shouldn’t be playing.

My friends who are the youngest recount tales of both woe and wonder – they feel that they “got away” with more things than their older siblings and were left to fend for themselves often -- yet also received seemingly more of their parents’ attention, even if that love didn’t translate into boxes and boxes of childhood pictures and keepsakes on their behalf. (Jack has a lot less to show in the way of baby pictures and records of milestones).

I am the oldest of two and so my baby-of-the-family days amounted to just two years, a status I share with my oldest child, Blake. Kenny was the baby for eight years before his younger sister, Janet, came on the scene. I would assure him that he was still my “baby” because he was my baby son and my baby Flannery (my former surname when married to his father). But then along came Jack so Kenny has officially been a middle kid for a decade. Janet was the baby for three years and I promise her that as our only daughter she is forever the baby girl. I am not certain why I feel the need to have each of my kids believe as if they have never lost their “baby-of-the-family” status. Maybe I am still frustrated that even after almost 48 years, my brother usurped my reign and horned in on my parent’s attention.

Back to Jack. Several other friends of mine in town with sons as their youngest child share that the boys still like to snuggle with them, even as middle schoolers. It’s not that they’re “momma’s boys,” but there is just an instinct to continue to feel protected, loved, and special. Jack possesses what I call the “puppieness;” he enjoys falling asleep curled next to me in bed while I watch television or sitting close to me on the couch or on an airplane. He usually seems genuinely happy to see me and I fully intend to enjoy it while it lasts.

I think that parents with multiple children realize that the baby will not break, that hanging out in a dirty diaper a bit longer won’t scar it for life, that hand-me-downs are every bit as good as the newest-latest-and-greatest contraption and that a skinned knee is not worth phoning 9-1-1. We know our youngest are equally as fallible as the oldest we once believed was not. We found that our first-born child learned primarily from us, but that the next-born learn also from those siblings who came before (both a good and a not-so-good thing I have discovered). We can count on the older kids to help watch out for the younger ones, which frees us up somewhat.

I still have a good eight years to go until I am able to be a parent without a school age child in the house, but I do look forward to those last three, when Jack, the youngest, will essentially be Jack, the only, as soon as Janet goes off to college. He’ll have a little taste of what it was like for us first-born kids. Then again, as long as I’m living, my baby he’ll be.