Friday, May 3, 2019

School Spent

The following appeared in the December edition of Chicago Parent.

As we get deeper into another school year, there are several recurring themes in my life.

First up: I suck at homework. Remember when we were kids and couldn’t conceive of a more heinous punishment than diagramming sentences?

Hold my beer, Punky Brewster.

In teaching my boys this new form of math steeped in the absurd, I have officially become the ferryman of Hades. Every basic rule has been tossed. I feel deceived! Misled! Don’t even get me started on the great Metric System Lie.

I AM STILL WAITING, MISS FLOWERS.*

Last month, my youngest son delivered a list of after-school activities. I immediately honed in on “Homework Club.” Sweet Jesus, there was outsourcing for this! Salvation would be mine. I picked three slots a week.

Then I received a nice little note from the assistant principal gently pointing out that I was to select ONE post-school activity, not three.

I returned to my weekly spot in the kayak to hell trying to understand Common Core math.

The only thing contributing more to my premature death than homework?

School attendance offices.

For 10 years, I have followed the rules. I have submitted the doctor notes. I have made the phone calls. And my kids have approximately 150 unexcused absences.

These so-called “attendance offices” clearly exist only in the realm of unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

The educational system underestimated people like me when they started putting this all online. In the 1980s, if an absent was marked “unexcused,” our overwrought mothers wracked their brains but typically forfeited the fight.

Now?

I can obsess DAILY. I stalk the attendance offices harder than I stalk Kohls for 30% off coupons.

School is stressful for parents, and previous generations got off easy. Report cards were dropped on our parents without warning. Dad would lose his mind over a bad grade or two, but everybody moved on to watch The Love Boat by 7 pm. All was forgiven and quickly forgotten.

Nowadays, we suffer from information overload with the expectation of doing something with it. There is no winning. There is no safe spot between being disengaged and being fanatical. It makes me wish I could have parented in a completely different era.

I bet the property taxes on Little House on the Prairie were awesome.

*Miss Flowers really was my 3rd grade teacher. Despite the big metric system lie, she was quite lovely.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

In Defense of Fortnite

The following appeared in the November edition of Chicago Parent. 

A letter came home from my sons’ school last year suggesting that the devil himself was behind the video game phenomenon Fortnite. It was described as a dangerous epidemic. Crack cocaine for the middle school set!

My kids have engaged in many fads over the years: Angry Birds, Pokemon, Bakugan, Fidget Spinners, Bottle Flipping, and Dabbing to name a few. Some of these were all-consuming obsessions. They typically resulted in the standard school abolitionist letter warning that continued engagement could only result in a life of poverty and petty crime.

Whatever.

Not that I am a fan of video games. My boys were very late entrants into the whole video game arena, and even then, choices were carefully monitored. No blood. No prostitutes. No brain matter.

I initially put the kibosh on Fortnite because guns were involved. But after a while, I realized there was also communication! The boys implemented teamwork and strategy to win.

For the last several years, I’ve noticed a depressing shift in behavior. Once rambunctious boys whom I had to shush in the car were now zombie-like pre-teens staring blankly at their phones.

I rejoiced at the return of banter. Of joking. Of kids being kids.

Then there was the dancing. Never before in recorded history have so many boys suddenly mastered an arsenal of choregraphed and somewhat ridiculous dance steps. There was The Floss, The Shoot, Best Mates, and The Default Dance. Sure, I might have preferred an injection of the occasional Tango or Waltz, but beggars can’t be choosers.

People criticized the atmosphere and implied violence.

I then reminded them that Pac-Man was a cannibal. And the ghosts were clearly members of the occult.

As is true with most red hot fads, Fortnite interest is waning, another casualty of fickle kids. But unlike the whole bottle-flipping craze which left me twitchy, I am a little sad to see this one go.

For once, my boys actually danced like nobody was watching.

You know.

In between building panic walls.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Road Less Traveled


The following appears in the October edition of Chicago Parent.

I live in an amazing neighborhood of Chicago filled with cops, firemen, and public school teachers. Everyone knows everyone. There are constant food trains for the sick and fundraisers for those suffering hard times. When a local kid does good, you read about it in The Beverly Review. A trip for milk can take two hours as you will invariably encounter your Catholic School principal, your cousin, and the kid who pummeled you in fifth grade.

As a closet introvert, I fought with Joe 12 years ago to remain living downtown. Neighborhood life wasn’t for me. I am terrible with names, and I accidentally refer to everyone as Bob or Mary. Living in a neighborhood with limited anonymity? Pass. Not everyone needs to know how often I trip and swear.

I ultimately caved when I envisioned my sons learning to ride their bikes outside the Rain Forest Café.

Our neighborhood experience has been overwhelmingly positive. My kids feel safe. There is freedom to roam. Sure, our 7-Eleven occasionally gets robbed and the soundtrack of my kids’ youth is police sirens, but that’s the price of urban life.

When it came time for my oldest son to choose a high school, I was curious:

Would he select one of the nearest choices absorbing most neighborhood kids?

Would he test for selective enrollment along with some of his old gifted buddies?

Would he gamble on his dad’s school, Mount Carmel, where he knew absolutely nobody?

In a neighborhood with an established social hierarchy and a reputation for being unable to reinvent yourself after the 3rd grade, I was pulling for Carmel. I wanted my son to understand the greater world. I wanted him to eschew the safe and known and seek out those who inspired, challenged and supported him - regardless of background or status.

I held my breath. As much as my husband and I love our neighborhood, we didn’t want our choices to limit the choices for our kids.

Dan chose Mount Carmel.

Only time will reveal how this will shape him, and whether reaching for the great unknown is a worthy endeavor.

But I plan to one day tell him how his mother, too, once chose the road less traveled. And it has definitely made all the difference.

Ultimately, it led me to three young men I am so very proud to call my sons.


Friday, September 28, 2018

The Last Time

The following appeared in the August edition of Chicago Parent. 


It is hard to forget your baby’s first smile. Or first steps. Or first day of school. Those moments are cherished and filmed. Every new milestone rightfully claims its spot in your heart and in your memory.

Yet what they never warn you about?

There is no notice given for the LAST time your child does something.

The last time they say “dwoo” instead of “drew.”

The last time they hold your hand in public.

The last time they call you “mommy.”

For ten years, I have had children in Little League. Dan and Joey eventually walked away from the sport. Dan got tired of having to hit triples in order to make it to first base (Willie Mays Hayes he is not). Joey proved too gangly and impatient to get past coach pitch. He also liked chatting up whoever was on first base and often lost track of plays.

Jack stuck it out. After all, 12U was Cooperstown year! For many teams, it is the pinnacle of a kid’s Little League experience. After months of fundraising and planning, the year culminates in a week-long tournament at the birthplace of baseball. The players get treated like MLB stars. The boys sleep in the barracks and meet kids from across the U.S. and Canada. They trade pins, are allowed unlimited quantities of chocolate milk, and feel as though they’ve landed in a real-life Field of Dreams.

As we packed our minivan and programmed the GPS, I didn’t know what to expect.

But for once, I recognized a possible “last.”

Upon arriving, we deposited our child in his bunk room and kissed him goodbye. He was too excited to swat us away or act annoyed. I was told we could “check out” Jack throughout the week, much like a library book.

“I’ll call you if I need something, mom.”

The week went by in a blink. Memories of my little 3-year old tentatively taking the field conflicted strongly with the 12-year-old now sauntering to the mound with legitimate baseball swagger. He threw strikes. He got hits. He never doubted himself for a moment.

I got a little emotional during the closing ceremonies. The beautiful hills and sunsets of Oneanta, New York became etched into my psyche. I cannot thank baseball enough for what it has given to my family – the friends made, the lessons learned, and the times had.

And for once, I rejoiced that one of the most important “lasts” finally got the send-off it deserved.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Growing Pains

The following appears in the August edition of Chicago Parent.


Two years ago, I noticed mom friends posting pictures of their kids standing next to them as their babies passed them up in height.

My underachieving oldest son, Danny, was nowhere near my size.

Of course, when your mom is 6’ tall, this milestone can prove challenging.

This summer, it took a slight tilt upwards to make me realize that the angle of our eye contact had officially shifted.

I couldn’t wait to capture that much-anticipated photo, but Danny quickly shot it down. He’s at that age where photographic evidence of his existence is frantically shunned.

My three boys are nearing the most confusing and hormone-driven stage of their lives. I’ve lectured them so many times on the underdeveloped male prefrontal cortex, that they use it against me:

“Sorry I forgot my shoes, mom, but you know…PREFRONTAL CORTEX.”

“I know I was supposed to call, but I got all prefrontal cortexy and you understand how that impacts decision making and impulse control.”

Jerks.

There are days I congratulate myself for having the foresight to keep my kids far away from social media. Yet I still feel the pain of other mothers as their kids are ostracized and humiliated because of it, often falling into deep despair. There are days I feel I’ve done everything wrong, perhaps being too strict and strident when a softer touch was obviously needed.

But as is true with everything in life, there is no perfect path.

There is no perfect kid.

And there is definitely no perfect mother.

I look at my very tall baby boy and see such of mix of his father and myself. He’s got my big brown eyes but his father’s thick hair. He’s funnier than I will ever be. He’s inherited both of his parents’ famed stubbornness but has more patience than either of us combined.

And the kindness he carries with him every day?

That’s 100% him.

The years ahead will be telling. I pray every night that he makes good decisions, aligns himself with good kids, and works to be the best version of himself possible. I once tended to Danny 24 hours a day. Now my main role is yelling at him to put down Fortnite.

So much of this is out of my hands. So I am forced to trust in the hands above and the ones that still hug me goodnight.

And for that, I am so grateful.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pucks & Purses

The following appears in the June edition of Chicago Parent.


Yesterday, I turned off the news after yet another segment where two different guests insulted and belittled each other. They asserted that only their side held the true moral high ground.

My children are growing up in an era where intellectual debate and ideological differences play second fiddle to hysteria and name-calling. Everyone is mad. Everyone is yelling.

And nobody is listening.

It is us versus them, often defined by age, race, wealth, sex, or politics.

Late last year, my middle son, Jack, was placed on a park district hockey team. At the first practice, I counted a LOT of ponytails.

Holy crap. The team was 50% girls.

Jack was not pleased. If ever there is a sub-category of people who do NOT see eye-to-eye, it is 12-year-old boys and girls.

I smiled watching the young ladies bounce into the ice rink wearing cute little pink shoes and purses. Then the transformation began as they sauntered out of the locker room with their game faces, sticks, heavy equipment and look of battle readiness.

Jack weighs 90 pounds at 5’3”. He is fast, but slight. As a second year PeeWee, some of the kids tower over him and outweigh him by us much as 70 pounds. While checking is still not technically permitted at the PeeWee level, many refs forget that fact.

The game is very physical. But those sweet little pony-tailed girls?

THEY WERE BEASTS.

Not only were they fantastic skaters, they were also the undeniable enforcers of the team, taking to task anyone engaging in cheap tactics.

Over and over, we heard the same comments before games. The organization is brand new, so the Horned Frogs must suck. The team is half girls, so the Horned Frogs must suck. It’s PARK DISTRICT, so the Horned Frogs must suck.

The Horned Frogs? The new team? The one with all the girls?

They won the championship. The celebration on the ice was symbolic of how they played as a team. It was a jumble of boys and girls, throwing their gloves in the air and coming together for a giant group hug before boy-girl embarrassment quickly kicked in.

I wanted to freeze that moment and show the world.

Look.

Look at what the kids can do.

Why can’t we?