Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Time I Almost Killed My Husband

The following appears in the January edition of Chicago Parent. 

When it comes to parenting, my husband and I agree on most things. We swore to each other a long time ago to represent a united front against the tyrannical tendencies of our progeny. Man-to-man was discarded once our third son was born. In choosing a zone defense, we knew that regular and clear communication would be critical. For the most part, our plan went swimmingly.

Until recently.

My oldest son began exploring high school choices this month. As a chess-tutoring, trombone-playing 7th grader who just so happens to be built like a Bears’ lineman, Danny has been a unique work in progress for many years. With a complete lack of fast-twitch muscle fibers, the kid has nonetheless enjoyed playing ice hockey and basketball. He talks about a future career in engineering or computers. He has been involved in music since he was four years old.

After a visit to his #1 choice, Chicago’s storied Mt. Carmel High School, I was dumbfounded to discover the school did not have a marching band.

Being a wife somewhat lacking in introspection and calm, I immediately attacked the object of my ire: my husband, Joe (a Mt. Carmel graduate and now Public Enemy #1).

“No marching band? NO MARCHING BAND?? You NEVER told me they didn’t have a marching band!! I feel DECEIVED! Let down! RUINED!”

The voice on the other side of the phone went silent for a moment before finally speaking up:

 “I’m sorry. I do believe you have the wrong number.”

 *click*

After a 24-hour cooling down period, I realized I never explained my rationale for all the music lessons. I had just assumed my husband understood that marching band was the ultimate goal. It would be Danny’s high school clique. The cool geeks. The kids everyone saw at the football games but who didn’t actually risk traumatic brain injury.

The problem was, I never quite communicated this to my husband. Joe was never part of the nerd chic division of high school. Sure, he won the math and accounting awards, but he was cool. He looked like a Backstreet Boy with killer cheekbones and a letterman jacket.

The thought of joining marching band was as foreign to him as me entertaining becoming a cheerleader. For the record, six-feet tall girls never ever entertain becoming a cheerleader, unless the squad really needs a base.

While still licking my wounds and resigning myself to the fact that Danny might never be part of a marching band, my husband browsed the Mt. Carmel website. He then pointed out that there IS a band, they just don’t march anywhere.

“Maybe Danny can get them marching?” Joe suggested.

“Yeah, because he knows so much about formation and drills,” I muttered, defeated.

“Marianne, do you think I ever envisioned having a son who is capable of so much? He can assemble his own Christmas stuff faster and better than I can! Don’t underestimate him. If something is really important to him, Dan will make it happen.”

And just like that, Joe and I were back on the same page, believing and supporting our child on whatever path he chose.

So long as it included the occasional lateral or v-formation and a to-the-right flank.

Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

Friday, December 9, 2016

My Kind of Town, For Now

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

It began around the time we scored our third red-light camera ticket in a month. A few days later, Joe and I learned our property taxes were going up 20%. A new city garbage bill ate what was left of the kids’ college fund and we started having serious conversations about the nobility of the boys opting for a trade.

Chicago was killing us. Desperate to avoid full-blown depression and an obsession with pre-selling our marketable internal organs, I started playing my own version of Julie Andrew’s “Favorite Things.” But I wasn’t singing about raindrops on roses or warm woolen mittens. Instead, it was about escaping my own hometown.

Florida in white flip flops
with red shiny sunglasses, 
Kentucky and its lakes and 
indigenous blue grasses, 
Montana’s cheap insurance 
and natural hot springs, 
these are a few of my favorite things. 
When the private school bill comes, 
when the city stickers are due, 
when they try to make cops and firemen all seem bad, 
I simply remember the places I’ll go, 
and then I don’t feel sooooooo sad. 

It is simply astonishing that I am not a billionaire writing on Broadway.

Despite growing up in the suburbs, most of my adult life has been spent as a proud resident of the city of Chicago. I’ve been a Northsider, a Gold Coaster, and a Southsider. Before I converted to White Sox Fanaticism for marriage, I bled Cubbie blue. I hold sacred my choice of favorite deep dish pizza (Pizano’s) as well as a nostalgic love for all the free parking that once existed on Lower Wacker Drive.

Growing up, my dad used to take us to Navy Pier before it became the tourist mecca it is today. Back then, it was dark and scary and there was something almost mythical about it.

When the new Comiskey (and I won't call it anything else ever) was being built, I watched and thought they were silly to put those seats so high.

I remember the snowstorm that got Jane Byrne elected, and I remember the day Harold Washington died.

I remember it all.

When I spent a year in New York, I realized how much of a Chicagoan I truly am. I was baffled when employers sent their people home from work early in “anticipation” of snow. Wusses.

I could never figure out what the big deal was over the floppy pizza and calling pop “soda.”

Men in New York got freaking manicures.

So I went home and married a fireman. With calloused hands.

For me, Chicago is like those calloused hands. It is a hard working city with more than its fair share of bumps, bruises, and scrapes. When you look into the eyes of its people, you will often find a dichotomy. There is a strong element of fight, but also an understanding that defeat comes more often than not.

And yet many continue to battle.

Not me. I’m sick of callouses. I want well-manicured nails painted bright pink with sparkles.

Even if it means crappy pizza forever.

I love you Chicago, but there’s an expiration date on our relationship. If you really care, now is your chance to woo me.

In the meantime, you can find me on Zillow.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

October Skies, October Lies

The following appeared in the October 2015 edition of Chicago Parent. I never got around to sharing it here because I was hiding under several blankets eating Ding-Dongs with a box of Kleenex.

Gentle autumn breezes and bright seasonal foliage are supposed to be relaxing. Instead, I view them as subterfuge. People who try to market fall as the perfect season are extremely suspect (or have much better prescription drugs than I do). The worst month of them all? October.

October blows.

The enormity and pressures of October have been on a steep, nerve-racking trajectory over the last several years. When I spot that first decorative scarecrow of the season, I must fight the urge to torch the sucker. The Wicked Witch of the West got a bum rap in my book. I stand with Elphaba.

This growing aversion to what was once a childhood highpoint cannot be traced to a single annoyance or repressed memory. It is rather a cornucopia of disaster, riddled with one pitfall after the next:

The Pumpkin Patch
Before I had kids, I thought a pumpkin patch was a farm you stopped at for approximately ten minutes and picked out a couple of gourds. Rookie mistake. A visit can run you several hundred dollars for entry fees, rides, food, and (if you remember), those godforsaken pumpkins.

The only thing more pressing than the cost is the burden to capture that perfect pumpkin patch moment. I once witnessed a family arriving with a professional photographer and makeup artist in tow. Sadly, my photos chronically document one kid blinking, one kid scowling, and one kid refusing to hold still.

Epic patch fail.

Football
Growing up in Chicago, it is understood that football is practically a religion. I am well-versed in screaming things like “Kill that guy!” or “Destroy their quarterback!” But now that I have a son playing the sport? I consider all the players just wee lads in need of some mothering and neurosis.

My new chants include “Watch out for traumatic brain injury!” and “Keep the cerebral spinal fluid intact!” My husband refuses to sit next to me and the other parents try not to make eye contact. 

Halloween 
With my children always too tall for age-appropriate costumes, I have been forced to peruse the Sexy Nurse/Killer Zombie rack for years.

Then there is the treat issue. My boys lobby hard to hand out candy while I prefer the safer and more inclusive route of cheap trinkets. The one time I stocked up on a year’s worth of Halloween-themed yo-yos and erasers? A notice came back from the public school requesting sensitivity towards those not celebrating the holiday.

The harder I try to get this one right, the more I screw up.

Topping things off, my favorite grandfather died in October a long time ago, but I still associate the month with my first serious loss. My husband’s mother also died at 55 on Halloween, and despite never having known her, there is not a day I wish she wasn’t here.

For me, October is the taker of warmth and destroyer of sun. No, I do not love October, but my kids sure do. So I play along. For them, I will plant the scarecrow in the front lawn. I will buy paper clips as treats. I will drop a mortgage payment at the patch. I will work my hardest not to taint them.

And I will pray they fall for it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Days of My Life


The following appears in the September edition of Chicago Parent.


A new school year.

A new set of worries.

A new set of developmental obstacles.

A new case for increasing my Xanax prescription.

Every year for the last seven, I have spent September second-guessing myself. First, there was the life-changing and soul-sucking Selective Enrollment route. The testing, waiting, deciding…it was overwhelming. Danny was fine (I bought him an ice cream cone after his exam), but I knew The Holy Grail would include a spot in one of the state’s preeminent grammar schools.

I think I locked in an ulcer during the process.

A while later, I picked up a nervous tick in choosing to send my two oldest to Catholic school. But you know. JESUS.

This year, I am leaving behind the wonderful Chicago Public School therapists and counselors who have doted on my youngest as though he was their own. They have worked with him to the point where his IEP probably wouldn’t even be re-issued if he was starting anew. He was never in better hands. Joey has been dropped off the spectrum and will now sally forth into the world with only a mild case of ADHD (or as I consider it, a mild touch of his mother’s DNA).

It will be the first time all three of my children will be attending the same school. I should be celebrating, but instead?

I’m totally verklempting.

I grew up in suburbia where there was never any doubt where kids would go for their education. Folks moved to a certain neighborhood FOR a school. There were no choices. My favorite Tab-drinking, chain-smoking moms had more time to worry about important things, like whether Marlena would finally escape the evil clutches of Stefano DiMaro.

No matter the era, geography, or pharmaceutical intervention, there will always be things to keep parents up late at night.

We worry about education. We worry about them finding friends. We worry about them finding the wrong kinds of friends. We worry about a world that is now foreign to us, steeped in social media and cyber bullying, where any slight misstep could be live-streamed on the local moms Facebook page.

My husband tells me to relax.

My mom tells me it will all be fine.

My ticks and insomnia refuse to listen.

The thing is, there is no way of knowing what decisions are more likely to result in a happy, well-rounded child. I do not have Miss Cleo’s psychic abilities. I am riding high on guts, instinct, and love.
 
One of my favorite times as a kid was actually watching a bit of “Days of Our Lives” with my mom. I loved the intrigue, the anguish, and the all-important cliff-hanger.

I never knew how it was going to end, but I never stopped hoping for the best.

It reminds me of parenting. Except I have not once sent a baby upstairs to nap and had him come back downstairs a gorgeous, grown-ass 20-year old man.

When I learn that trick, I will be sure to share.

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.