Friday, July 7, 2017

In Too Deep

July 7, 2017

Summer in July. If you’re from Fresno, that means if humanly possible, you’ll spend as much time in the pool as you can. If you’re a kid in the 1970s in Fresno, that means every day, all day, flaunting the scorching sizzle of 105 degrees of unrelenting heat by splashing, playing, and diving into the deliciousness of the backyard pool. We had sitting-on-the-bottom-of-the-pool contests, and races walking on our hands into the deep end. We belly-flopped and did back flips and cannonballs off the diving board. We took breaks to run in the house to pee if we thought Mom was paying attention; we didn’t run into the house if we thought we could get away with it, because it was so much work to drag ourselves out and away from the fun, dry ourselves off completely so as not to drip a trail of water through the house, and peel off (and then put back on) the cold, soggy suit just to run back out and rejoin whatever games were in progress. (I know you’re judging here; I also know you’ve done it too. And if you have kids now, you’re fooling yourself if you think they’ve never peed in your pool.)

We had a built-in group of playmates, since there were five of us kids. Our next-door neighbors had ten kids, some of whom were older and out of the house, but many of whom were right there with us in our pool every day. Around lunchtime, Mom would often appear with a stack of sandwiches and some grapes or oranges. We also feasted off of the two mulberry bushes that were in our backyard. (Until we moved to that house, I thought mulberry was just a made-up word that was used in a nursery rhyme.) We knew Mom was in the house and was only a yell away in case of emergencies, but she didn’t often come out to the pool to swim with us. She was scared of swimming, borne of the sink-or-swim lessons she had as a child, when her step-dad threw her into the lake and told her she’d have to figure out how to get back to land on her own. She never got over the panic she felt around water, but she wanted us to have a pool. (She also paid to take us to swim lessons so we could learn how to swim in a less threatening environment than she did.) Although Mom occasionally passed by the kitchen window with a casual “Be careful!” or “Watch your little brother!”, we were mostly joyously, raucously, exuberantly free from parents, from worries, from cares about anything more important than which kid got to decide the next game that we played. Sun up to sundown, that’s where we were. It’s a wonder we survived without drowning or sunstroke.

Today we wouldn’t dream of leaving our young kids to their own devices all day, especially not in the pool. The dangerous part for us, though, was when Dad was off for the weekends and he decided to join us in the pool. Dad liked to rough house and was impatient with ‘weakness’. He’d jump in the pool and wrestle and fight, pitting his 200 pound frame against his 12 year old son, his 10 and 8 year old daughters. On the one hand, we liked when he would join in our games; he was a busy man and spent a lot of time at the office during the week days. There was always an edge, though—the feeling that things could turn at any moment. They often did. Riding on Dad’s back was fun; watching him swan-dive into the pool, seeming to freeze momentarily mid-air to cockily salute and wave to an adoring audience—well, we loved those moments. But inevitably, Dad wanted to wrestle us, take us on precariously close to the deeper end of the pool where he could stand, but we could not. There was something strange that overcame him during those battles, a competitive spirit that could not be tempered with logic or reason. He played dirty, not one to let his kids get the better of him. His signature move was to suddenly swing around to face whichever kid was trying to ride his back to bring him down. He’d swiftly reach out to hold us underwater, the palm of his hand planted firmly on the top of his opponent’s head—the ultimate show of superior strength and agility. To this day I can remember the feeling of being held, firmly and helplessly, under the surface, just moments shy of far too long—arms flailing, panicked eyes casting about for some means of escape, feeling the burning sensation in my lungs and knowing I couldn’t hold my breath anymore. I remember several times thinking, “He’s going to forget to let me up in time. I’m going to drown before he lets me up!” Inevitably, when Dad did finally let me or my brother or sister up from his vise-like grip, we’d either be angry (my brother, my sister), or we’d be crying. Gary even tried to sucker punch Dad in retaliation once, but a swift, sneak attack underwater is difficult to pull off. It set Dad off even more, and Gary was pushed underwater once again in order for Dad to underscore his dominance. Dad’s victorious gloating grin after these matches would be eclipsed by that impatient, irrational anger. He’d call us babies, he’d rail at us for playing the game and then being sore losers. He’d become enraged and said he wouldn’t play with us anymore, and then he’d either banish us to the shallow end or tell us we weren’t big enough to go in the pool at all and would make us get out for the day. He’d brood and sulk for the rest of the day. There were always arguments with my mother, too, when she told him he needed to be more gentle with us; he needed to remember that he was bigger and stronger than all of us. He, on the other hand, didn’t want to raise sissies; he didn’t want to have weaklings for kids. We needed to get over it and toughen up. At the same time, he seemed to need constant validation that we acknowledged him as the strongest, the wiliest of us all. He needed to know that we knew he was the alpha male. Even as a kid I thought it was irresponsible—unparental, even.

Those 1970s summers were seemingly carefree and without purpose, but they taught me a lot, too, about what I expect, and what I accept, from those who hold positions of power in my personal, professional, and public world. Back then, I was willing to jump back in the pool again and again, knowing that danger and anger lurked there, for the trade-off of my father’s playful bravado and fun that always preceded it. But I what I eventually realized is that risking my well-being in order to feed someone else’s insecurities is simply not worth diving into. Is it selfish to not want to drown under the weight of someone else’s baggage? Those hot summer days taught me that being selfish is sometimes necessary for survival.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

On Twitter

June 15, 2017

I read yesterday that Donald Trump blocked Stephen King on Twitter.  J.K. Rowling immediately stepped up and said she'd be happy to send S.K. Trump's tweets so he could remain in the loop.  This is all mildly amusing, if you don't think too hard about it.  If you do stop to think about it, however, you realize that the Leader of the Free World, of a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, is deliberately and purposefully blocking his own communication to people he fears will disagree with him.  Stephen King is only one of many dissidents who have been blocked from reading Trump's tweets.  You might say that it's only social media, that it's Trump's right to block individuals--I mean, I certainly have that capability on my own Twitter account--but I am not a public figure tasked with representing those I might choose to block.  Since Trump has made Twitter his primary means of communication with the American public--these reactionary, staccato, 140 character temper-tantrums designed to incite ire and deflect blame and responsibility--it should be alarming that he feels he is entitled to narrow his audience to those who won't call him out and challenge the veracity of his missives.  He both works for us and is supposed to represent all of his constituents, not just those who nod and smile at his antics.  If we don't recognize that his entitled view of narrowing the scope of available communication on Twitter as a microcosm of the broader intent to choke out opposing viewpoints in other areas of government, we are burying our heads in the sand.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

50 Down, 50 To Go

June 14, 2017

There are a lot of people, women in particular, who have a funny sort of relationship with their birthdays.  Like a number of other women I know, my mother celebrated her 29th birthday several times from—well, her 29th birthday—until she passed away at 29 (plus 33).  Honestly, I’ve never really understood the trepidation with which Mom approached that annual date on the calendar.  I love my birthday, and I’ve never been shy about proclaiming my age.  It’s a number, after all—a marker indicating another year of family, friends, laughter, experiences—both good and bad, and insights.  And, as the saying goes, having another birthday certainly beats the alternative of not having another birthday.

So here I am at 50.  The way I see it, I’m halfway through this life. (I’m an overachiever—I’m planning to live to the century mark.)  I used to think 50 was old, but it really is true that old age is way more about a state of mind than the year you were born.  Yes, I’m a little (a lot) softer and squishier than I used to be, and there are wrinkles and hairs where there didn’t used to be any.  And you know how some young adults outgrow the awkward phase and develop into stunning beauties? I think I’ll stop holding my breath for that now.  That’s okay though;  I don’t feel old, and I think it’ll be a long time before I hit that mark.  What keeps you young is watching your children grow and seeing them build their own futures and families, laughing and loving with friends, traveling and seeking out new adventures, continuing to read and learn, making new connections and seeking new perspectives.  I’ve got lots of places to go, books to read, and people to love in the next 50 years.  Starting right now.  Here’s to the next leg of the journey!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Graduation Day-A Different Perspective

June 13, 2017

Last week’s end of the school year was a whirlwind, and I’m just now finally having a moment to sit and reflect.  The baby girl graduated, and she did it in style.  With it came the usual senior celebration fare:  awards ceremonies, Grad Nite, Sober Grad, graduation parties, and lots of family and friends to cheer her on.  At the actual graduation ceremony, she and her classmates symbolically and publicly bid farewell to their now-alma mater and set feet firmly on the proverbial path to their futures.

I’ve always bristled at hearing folks say that the kids enter “the real world” after high school.  The real world is whatever world one inhabits, and students inhabit the very real world of high school for a time.  Once they’ve run that gauntlet, they enter a new world, but it is not one any more real than their previous four years.  It is, simply, their next new world for a time.  We all have many new real worlds that we enter throughout our lives: new schools, new jobs, new relationships, new mother- or fatherhood, new retirement.  Each step along the path becomes our new normal.  The new normal, Danielle’s next reality, is college, and all the hope, promise, excitement, and even anxiety that will bring.

In this new reality, she’ll be finding out who she is becoming as a young adult.  She’ll be leaving the relative safety net of parental dependence to begin the exhilarating and sometimes incredibly frustrating process of becoming truly independent.  While I hope that there are big decisions she’ll still bring to me for help and guidance, there are a whole host of decisions and choices that she’ll make entirely on her own—for which she and she alone will bear the fruit or the consequences.  I have faith that she has the tools to be true to herself and make good decisions, but we all stumble sometimes.  She will stumble.  I also have faith that she has the tools to pick herself up, dust herself off, and continue forward when that happens.

In thinking about Danielle’s new reality, though, I have to stop and recognize that this is not just Danielle’s new normal.  She is my last, as I have said, to graduate from high school.  For many parents, this is a cause for celebration.  (Empty nest! Time to set up that craft room or the new man-cave!)  For some parents, it’s almost a time of mourning.  (Empty nest? What will I do without my babies?)  For me, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit of both.  But it’s more than just an empty nest, isn’t it?  It’s not just about freed up space in a home.  It’s about identity.  For nearly twenty years, from Child One to Child Three, I have been the mom of a school-aged child.  While that hasn’t been the whole of my identity, it did comprise the vast majority of who I was and what I did in those years—as I felt it should.  As I wanted it to be.  I have met and even befriended many of my children’s teachers, and together we have both commiserated with each other on occasion and celebrated my children’s progress.  I have coached soccer and Destination Imagination, I have attended more choir, robotics, and sporting events that I could possibly count.  I have made late night runs to Target to purchase poster board for the project that was due tomorrow (Tomorrow?? Are you serious??), and I have hosted slumber parties and study sessions.  I have been a study partner and a proofreader; I have chaperoned field trips and logged countless miles in the mom taxi.  I have fretted with them when they were struggling in classes, and I have rejoiced with them over hard-earned grades and well-deserved accolades.  I have become ‘bonus mom’ to a number of children I did not birth, but who have become part of my family at the side of my own children through the years.  Along the way, at every turn, I tried to emulate and model positivity, good decision-making, forgiveness, flexibility, open-mindedness, balance, joy.  I didn’t always succeed in these, but I hope I did more often than I did not.  I hope with all of the lessons they learned from books in school, they also learned lessons from me that don’t come from books—the kinds of lessons that teach you how to take what you learn from all the books and use it to help those around you, to make a difference in the lives of others.

While I will always be my kids’ mom and their number one cheerleader, the role of mom will be a different one in this new normal as Danielle embarks on her new path.  I will still always be there for her, and for my older two who have already walked down the path a ways, but what they need from me will be different.  Sometimes that will mean being a shoulder to cry on, and sometimes that will mean getting out of the way so that they can spread their wings and fly—or learn to fall—on their own.  The day to day minutiae of being a school-aged parent will be in the rear-view mirror.  Some days I’ll miss it terribly—yes, even little things like having to sign parent permission slips and shopping for Back to School supplies—and some days I’ll marvel at how I was able to manage juggling all of those little things while maintaining some semblance of sanity.  Some days I’ll rise to the occasion and be exactly who I need to be for myself and my kids, and some days I’ll falter and fail them, or feel I have failed myself.  I don’t know yet how to be the person I need to be in my new ‘real world’, because I’ve never been her before.  Just like Danielle, just like Nicholas and Brianna before her, I’m stepping into new territory here, and will have to learn to find my way.  I don’t know yet how to be not the mom of school aged children anymore, but I’ll learn.  I, too, have graduated, and am ready to start my next ‘real world’.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Last Friday

May 29th, 2017

On Friday night, we went out to dinner.  Folks who know me know what that means: our regular Family Dinner Night tradition.  Years ago, when the kids’ dad and I divorced, I instituted Friday Family Dinner Nights for a couple of reasons.  First of all, by Friday nights, this then-single mama was TIRED.  After taking care of the kids all week, and running them to all of the various clubs, lessons, and sports practices after school AND working full-time, by Friday night I couldn’t wrap my brain around thinking of one more meal to plan, prep, cook, and clean up after.  I decided we’d let restaurants take care of all that for us at the end of the week.  The other reason—the more important reason, actually, was that I really wanted to establish some new traditions for our new household.  We had some traditions and rituals that we maintained from our previous life, but I felt it was important to create some new ones as well—continuity plus transition.  It’s a tricky balance, but one I felt was important as we forged a new beginning.

Friday Family Dinner Night wasn’t just for Friday nights though, contrary to the name.  Each week, we would take turns picking out the restaurant, in descending age order.  For the first couple of years, that meant that I would take us to a family friendly sit-down restaurant as fancy as, say Applebee’s or Chili’s, and Brianna was likely to choose one of those too.  On Nicholas’ nights we almost always went to Taco Bell, and Danielle’s choice wavered between McDonald’s and Burger King.  A couple of the rules were that no one was allowed to complain about the restaurant when it was someone else’s choice, and whoever got to choose that week was responsible for the “Question of the Day” for each dinner that week, both at home and at the restaurant on Friday night.  The Question of the Day had to be an open-ended one that invited story-telling or a conversation starter, and it had to be a different question each night.  Whoever was responsible for the evening’s Question of the Day had to answer first, and then each person in subsequent age order had to answer the same question—no passing.  We got to talk about pretty regular events, such as explaining something we had learned that day, and fantastical questions, like who would we cast to play ourselves in a movie, or what super powers we wished we had and what we’d do with them.  Danielle’s favorite kind of question early on was “What’s your favorite…” (Carebear?, cartoon character?, fruit?, sport?).  As the kids got older, the questions got better, as did the restaurant choices.  We tried to branch out and check out new restaurants as they opened or as we heard about them from friends.  As Doug came into our lives, he too became part of the Friday night ritual and rotation.  Also as the kids grew older, it became harder to sit down every night during the week for a meal due to increased demands of the kids’ activities, but that Friday night was sacred for more than a dozen years.  Even in lean times, when money was scarce, I clung doggedly to that tradition.  

So back to this past Friday night.  Brianna still participates when she’s in town visiting, and we automatically bump it up to her choice when she’s there.  Both Nicholas and Danielle have had to miss on occasion, and sometimes we move it to Thursday night to accommodate schedules.  It’s become trickier, though.  As a 20 year old, Nicholas has a work schedule that often includes a Friday night shift, and that was true this past week.  He comes when he can, but he’s growing up and moving on, and this last Friday found Danielle, Doug, and me at Chili’s, just the three of us.  It was a bit of a nostalgic sort of evening, since we are nearing graduation for Danielle.  I don’t know really how it had never occurred to me, but I suddenly realized that Family Dinner Nights, which have been such an important part of our family traditions over the years, is nearing its end.  Nicholas will still be in Fresno with us, and when we can we’ll still go out to dinner on Friday nights, but Danielle is going away to school, as her sister did.  She has two more months at home, and then there will be no more regular dinners at home—or out.  She’s branching out into a new beginning, as we all did together more than a dozen years ago.  She’ll be forming her own new traditions and rituals as she traverses this new path, and I’m excited to see what those will be.  But for me, that truly does mean the end of an era here.  She is my last, and there are things that I am just now realizing, truly, will ‘graduate’ with her when she goes.  There will be exciting things about the ways in which our lives—all of our lives—will change moving forward, but I am sure that this is only one of a great many things I haven’t even realized yet how much I will miss when they’re gone.  I have always known I would miss my kids when they weren’t part of my every day routine; I am only just now beginning to realize how much of my routine is about my kids.  We’re going to have to figure out new traditions to forge together, apart.  I’m going to have to find new beginnings out of my endings.