Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On a Brake

The following appears in the August edition of Chicago Parent. 

It might not have been the cherry-red Ferrari from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it was close. For a minivan mom, anyway.

It started a few months back when my well-traveled Honda Odyssey began making peculiar noises. They stubbornly persisted despite my belting out “7 Years” at full volume in accompaniment with the radio. I pretended the obnoxious grinding sound was actually coming from whatever car was next to me at red lights.

Truth is expensive.

Denial is cheap:

I think Danny’s teeth will straighten out by themselves. 

We can totally afford ice hockey. 

If something is 70% off, that’s like free, right?

With nearly 150,000 miles on our minivan, the thought of a fatal diagnosis paralyzed me. My husband, who does not normally drive the minivan, questioned me after a hockey roadtrip to Crystal Lake.

“Have you noticed your car making noise?”

 “Noise?”

“It sounds like the engine is gargling shrapnel.”

“No. I wonder what you did to it.”

With an emergency call to our mechanic, there came the frantic search for a loaner car. It took a desperate text to my friend Kathy to see if she could spare one.

Hers wasn’t just any car.

It was one of those snazzy Volkswagen Jettas. And she said yes.

The first thing I had to figure out was the key. I scratched my head in bewilderment before pressing a tiny silver button that unleashed it with a magician’s grace.

What kind of sorcery was this?

As I got behind the wheel, a different enchantment took hold. I wasn’t minivan mom.

I was JETTA lady.

Zipping in and out of traffic without a care in the world, I felt younger. When I pulled up in front of our local ice arena to unload several hockey bags (now somewhat smooshed) and related kids, I heard a deep, low whistle.

It was not for me, mind you.

Hockey people just don’t typically see sexy little Jettas.

I discovered a different level of treatment in having to valet park downtown for an appointment. There was no apology for all the empty Gatorade bottles rolling around inside. The man did not grimace upon entry.

He smiled at me.

Perhaps if my minivan truly was dead, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing?

Ironically, I forgot why I bought a Honda Odyssey.

They are like Christmas fruitcakes. They never, ever die.

So when Joe called to tell me the crunching noise was due to some issue with the emergency brake, and was fully repairable, I was a little disappointed.

I liked being Jetta Lady.

After exorcising the twin demon spirits of putrid hockey bag and pre-teen boy, I dropped off my friend’s car. I knew I was bidding farewell not only to a lifestyle that no longer fit, but a simpler, easier way of life.

The heft of my minivan and all that it entails was never more apparent than when I first slid back into my familiar seat. The smell. The empty Gatorade bottles.

And in blue ink, next to where Jack had once parked his kindergarten booster, there was written:

I luv mommie. 

In the words of Ferris Beuller, I am reminded, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

All Things Being Equal

My latest column in the July edition of Chicago Parent.

My husband hails from a family of seven children and is the fifth consecutive boy. I often tease him that nary a soul looked up when he arrived home from the hospital, baby boys being old hat and all.

I am not sure if Joe’s strongest stance on child-rearing is based on birth order or an innate sense of fairness, but he consistently argues:

“What we offer to one child, we offer to all.”

It has proven to be a maddening and expensive concept.

After my oldest son’s somewhat traumatic birth, therapists suggested he engage in activities that develop core strength. Ice skating was high on that list.

My husband peered over my shoulder as I registered Danny for Learn-to-Skate.

“You’re not doing ALL the boys?”

The righteous indignation was palpable.

I had no intention of dragging three little kids to an ice rink. At that time, lacing up just one pair of skates was daunting. We eventually compromised and agreed to hold off on little Joey until he could, you know, WALK.

A while later, we discovered my first son enjoyed chess. I located a local group and planned to send the two oldest boys. Joe again rallied around the cause of no man left behind.

“What about Joey?”

“Joey thinks chess pieces are army guys. And that they should fly.”

“Sign him up.”

I begrudgingly agreed.

Over and over, one child would express an interest and Joe would demand the whole motley crew gain exposure. I was ready to mutiny when I noticed something.

Jack, the tag-along kid for skating, developed a passion for ice hockey. Within one year, he went from the rejection of not making a house team to being promoted to a travel team. Fast as lightening, the kid now sleeps with his hockey stick and speaks with religious fervor over the happenings in the NHL.

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

And Joey, my bundle of energy and limited attention span, flourished under chess tutelage. In learning to consider consequences more than one step out, his grades and focus improved enormously. He also gained confidence in being one of the only second-graders proficient in a complex game.

I could not have predicted that outcome in a million years.

With a new appreciation for exposing children to a plethora of activities and sports, I sometimes get frustrated when parents insist:

“That (sport/activity) just isn’t my child’s thing.”

How can you be so sure?

For the uncoordinated child, sports offer repetitive motions and drills that rival years’ worth of physical therapy. Music lessons can actually improve balance. Martial arts and swimming have been known to help with ADHD.

Many local park districts, schools, and communities provide affordable alternatives to privately run programs.

It was never my intention to be so tired or so poor running these kids here and there. I still try to hide my disappointment when long-term interests fall to the wayside (piano, cello, swimming, soccer). I can only hope that the strong base provided will remain should a passion suddenly reignite.

I do not blame parents who think I am crazy. Yet a long time ago, before my husband and I had kids, we both agreed to offer our kids just one thing:

The entire world.

But they would still have to take out the garbage first.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Source


The following appears in the June edition of Chicago Parent.

As a semi-practicing Catholic, I was a bit surprised by Pope Francis’ recent comments on “helicopter parenting.” In his treatise on family life, His Holiness suggested that parents who constantly keep track of their children are actually sabotaging their kids’ independence.

Perhaps if the institution had done a better job tracking its own black sheep, I’d listen.

 A little helicopter priesting would have gone a long way.

One of my favorite expressions is “Consider the source.” It is why I can’t bite my tongue when the neighborhood know-it-all tells me everything I’m doing wrong (while her son sets the dog’s tail on fire after gorging on forbidden processed foods).

Consider the source.

It is why I ignore Facebook posts and articles about not sticking up for your child when he or she is being treated poorly. These posts usually come directly from the people who run everything, dictate everything, and simply don’t want to be challenged on anything.

Consider the source. 

I do not welcome financial counsel from the bankrupt and I do not seek marriage advice from the thrice-divorced.

Consider the source.

If a friend of mine is a regular patron of Denny’s, I simply cannot take her restaurant recommendations very seriously. Her favorite entrée is Moons Over My Hammy for chrissakes.

Consider the source. 

When I had my first baby, I would listen reverently to the park mom pitching the latest theory on parenting. She seemed to know her stuff. She spoke with authority. She had cute shoes. Twelve years later, I now see her rotten kid around the neighborhood and the only word that comes to mind is “jagoff.”

No, my sources no longer include online gurus, celebrities, or moms with cute shoes.

They are instead the parents of adult children I find intelligent, warm, and accomplished. These moms and dads miraculously raised wonderful people without the aid of the internet or fad parenting.

These are the sources I consider.

So when I asked an old acquaintance how he managed to raise five of the nicest boys I have ever met, I took his comments to heart:

Love them. 

Keep them busy. 

Buy plenty of duct tape. 

The advice was both simple and breathtakingly complex. Loving them was easy. Keeping them busy now requires a matrix worthy of Stephen Hawking. And assuring our house is flush with duct tape at all times? My husband could use a third job. But the advice still guides me every day.

I would encourage every parent to find the right voice. The right source. And seriously. Load up on duct tape.

 You’re going to go through that sh*t like water.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Noise of Motherhood


As a newly minted, two-time national gold award winner for column, humor, I really feel someone needs to start coming over and doing my laundry. Bueller?

Anyway, here is my latest in Chicago Parent magazine. I am rather fond of the topic.


“My mom likes things quiet and clean,” my son Joey once announced to a good friend of mine.

“True, but how do YOU like things?” questioned a clearly amused Shannon.

“I like things LOUD AND MESSY.”

Seasoned moms advise that when a house suddenly falls quiet, it is time to worry. The kids are likely planning a coup or plotting some nefarious deed. Based on this hypothesis, I will never experience a moment’s angst with my youngest son.

He never shuts up. And my house is never, ever quiet.

Recently, Joey stood in front of a Cheesie’s food truck, debating his selections. An extremely patient employee encouraged him to take his time. Joey hemmed and hawed before revealing:

“I hate cheese.”

Undeterred, the young man attempted to steer his young patron towards several non-cheese options. Joey continued to waffle. Finally, the employee took a fresh approach and asked him what he loved most in the world. Without missing a beat, Joey replied:

“TALKING.”

During a hockey game for his brother, Joey abandoned his usual post as the leader of the younger siblings to corner one of the quiet dads. For nearly an hour, I nervously watched out of the corner of my eye. I waited for the man to either signal for help or simply walk away. He never did. I later discovered that Joey had bombarded the poor guy with random thoughts on life and its most pressing questions, including:

“Do you think it would be better to play dead when a bear attacks you, or do you think it would be safer to run away?”

I learned from the man’s wife that he had enjoyed his time with Joey, despite a lapse in grizzly bear knowledge.

Joey is not the kid you want next to you while playing hide-'n'-seek or robbing a bank. He works valiantly to keep it together during school, often writing himself reminders to stay quiet. Yet as the proud recipient of Mount St. Joey after seven hours of holding it all in, I find the explosive verbal barrage overwhelming:

“You know how cousin Gracie got a confirmation name? I want mine to be BOB. Have you seen my red sweater from kindergarten? I was keeping that for memories.”

“Remember, mom, how I threw up in school and on my book and on Mrs. Stankus’ shoes and down the hallway and she called it the ‘Oregon Trail’? It was SPECTACULAR. I wonder who cleaned my math book. Did you ever return that shirt they gave me, mom? Can I have some cake?”

“When you die, mommy, can you visit me? But don’t be a scary ghost or anything like that. Now that I think about it, you don’t really have to visit me. You can just stay in my heart. I miss Sue.”

For someone like me who prefers things “quiet and clean,” Joey has tested the very limits of my patience.

The kid also makes me laugh every day.

There will eventually come a time when Joey is not with me. He will grow up, move out, and hopefully share his enthusiasm and love of everything with the world.

Those moms who once told me to worry only when things were silent were wrong. My house will eventually fall quiet, and the unique and precious gift of Joey will be made all the more obvious.

Being his mom, to use his favorite word, has been truly spectacular.

Now who’s got cake?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Participation Award

The following appears in the April edition of Chicago Parent.

For many years, I have been philosophically opposed to “participation” prizes. It felt like a disservice to have kids believing that mediocrity was cause for celebration. I beamed with pride the first time my oldest son deposited his “everybody wins” ribbon directly into the trash. While I certainly wanted the boys to enjoy learning games and sports, I felt they should also understand that not everyone can be a standout.

Not everyone wins.

It is why I never threw a game of Candy Land in my life.

Things got tricky when my youngest son turned three. There was nothing Joey coveted more than his older brothers’ trophies. He would line them up in ascending height order, rearrange them by color, and then sub-categorize them by sport. Joey polished them. He talked to them. He made them his friends. It was only a matter of time before Joey began his relentless siege to secure his own. Every morning, the first words out of his mouth were:

“When will I get my trophy, mommy?”

Perhaps if Joey had been my first child, I would have engaged in intellectual conversation about winning and losing. About hard work. About striving to be the best.

Instead?

I drove to Goodwill, plunked down $1.99 and bought my kid a random pillar of victory* to get him off my case. Despite this obvious lapse in judgement, I still hated meaningless trophies.

Last month, my older two boys asked to participate in a local chess tournament.I hesitated when Joey insisted he should play, too.

Joey has attention issues. The diagnosed kind. During coach-pitch baseball (where every player has the ball thrown to him until he or she hits it), Joey saw a LOT of pitches. I’m talking 58 strikes here. Butterflies distracted him. He felt the urge to wave to everyone walking through the park. When he got bored, he would plunk down, hum a tune from “Frozen” and draw smiley faces with his finger across the dusty first base.

With this in mind, I reluctantly registered all three boys for the tournament, cringing at the improbability of Joey being able to sit through 4-5 rounds of chess.

Despite these fears, I dropped the kids off with my usual directive:

Do your best.

I may have prayed, too.

Three hours later, I returned and the boys rushed over to fill me in on their evening. Danny complained about having to play eighth graders. Jack was pleased with his 2.5 points. And Joey?

The boy I didn’t consider capable of sitting through a single game lost twice and scored two draws. He played four games. TWO DRAWS. It was so much more than I ever thought possible.

Despite not landing a trophy or winning a single game, Joey received a participation medal.

The next day, he proudly packed his prize in his backpack to show his teacher. He wore it around his neck for a week. He hung it on his wall like he had seen his brothers do – a sole entry in a vast sea of emptiness.

He then asked if he could play in another tournament soon.

I once thought participation medals meant nothing.

 I could not have been more wrong.

 *If Jeni Thompson, the 1999 YMCA Sharks’ Rookie of the Year, is out there and still wants here trophy back, feel free to contact Chicago Parent.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Big Save


The following appears in the March edition of Chicago Parent magazine.

When I registered my oldest son for “instructional basketball,” I had no idea it would be a watershed moment. I envisioned youngsters learning the game from devoted volunteers sworn to uphold the tenets of equal playing time and encouragement for all.

Poor, naïve mom.

Up until that year, athletics weren’t even on Danny’s radar. Despite a newfound eagerness to play, Danny spent more time on the bench than the water boy. It was a sad reiteration of his initial fear that he just wasn’t any good at sports.

Frustrated and angry, I took my grievances to the coach. His response? “Well, has Danny even PLAYED basketball before?”

The message was undeniable. Danny had no business playing this sport. The window of opportunity had closed. If he wasn’t good by now, GO AWAY.

Danny was nine years old.

In an era saddled with ridiculous pressure to master a single sport by second grade, I have often stood in open revolt. I have been mocked for suggesting that winning is meaningless if only two kids can handle the ball by season’s end.

Yet when my middle son expressed a desire to play ice hockey, I succumbed to peer pressure. I signed up for extra camps and coaches. I upgraded the $19 stick. I downloaded YouTube videos on wrist shots.

I became part of the problem. And when a newbie goalie named Jake was assigned to the team, I was irked. Barely out of learn-to-skate, Jake had never before played travel hockey. He was tentative on the ice. I scrutinized his cherubic face and detected not a hint of killer instinct.

I wrote him off.

I became the very type of sports parent I hate. I forgot how quickly kids progress when they are allowed to play. I was only thinking of wins and not of the life lessons youth sports are meant to impart.

Game after game, Jake got better. He began stepping out of the net. He made remarkable saves. His skating improved tenfold.

Then came the all-important tournament weekend. The team fought its way to a championship game only to tie in regulation. There was an overtime. Nobody scored.

 SHOOTOUT.

Poor Jake felt the weight of the team’s expectations and was terrified to disappoint. For a moment, I thought he was going to bolt for the nearest exit. Then I saw a coach whispering in his ear.

He told him he could do this.

Chin up, Jake skated to his spot in front of a net that must have felt enormous.

The kid delivered, blocking shots, and winning not only the game but also MVP for the entire weekend. I cried. I realized it would not have mattered if Jake had given up every goal, I would have been just as happy. By going out there, he had already won. I felt privileged to have witnessed it.

In the end, Jake made the big save not just for his team. He saved me from thinking there is a window or specific criteria for being extraordinary. He saved his mother from having a heart attack right there in the stands. And he saved us all from forgetting that these sports are about believing in the infinite potential of a child.

It is why I think every kid should play sports.

As an aside, my Danny continues to dabble in basketball and always cheers loudest for the newbie.

He understands that someone should.