Friday, December 2, 2011

Control Issues

I was all ready to post today about how well Sam is doing with the preschool switch, but with a few recent occurrences, I'm feeling the need to wrap my head around something different today....mainly, the idea of "parental control." I don't know a parent who hasn't heard the command that we should "control our kid!" either directly, or indirectly as a blanket statement about so-called permissive parents. Before I dive in, I should acknowledge that there are certainly bad parents out there, ones that don't care what their kids do or how they do it. But it's been my experience that those parents are few and far between. We may not always know how to get a desired result, or we may be tired, overwhelmed, or stymied, but most parents I know DO care about how their children conduct themselves in the world, even when others aren't looking.

When I hear that phrase, though, it always makes me think. Hmmm....."controlling my kid." What exactly does that mean? How would it look in everyday life? How do we "control" another person, someone with their own feelings, priorities, thoughts, desires and motivations? I had some opportunity to meditate on this today.

Sam, Caroline and I went to the park this afternoon to blow off some steam after a day of housework and lounging. He no longer has school on Friday afternoons, so I've been letting those days fall into a more unstructured pattern. We stay in our jammies a little longer, linger over breakfast, clean up the house and do some chores, and watch some TV. It's nice to not have to rush off. But by the afternoon, the kids are ready for a little exercise. This afternoon, we decided to head to a new local park with an awesome ropes course. We went for the first time over the holiday, and Sam loved the three-dimensional spiderweb of ropes to climb up and through. When we got there, it was mostly deserted due to the cold except for a mom with a son and a dad with a daughter who seemed to have met for a playdate.

Time to stop again so I can editorialize. I try really, really hard to not judge other parents. I wasn't always this way. Frankly, I was pretty sanctimonious when Sam was younger. But as I grew into parenting I relaxed a little bit. As I often tell Sam, different families have different rules, and making a hypothesis about the quality or kind of parenting a kid is receiving based on a five minute encounter is patently unfair. People have bad days, check out for a bit, or are just worn down and sometimes what I see isn't their best effort, so I try to be kind. With that said, I present the following while trying to not judge. But it's gonna be hard.

The little boy, probably about 3, had a car he was enjoying. Sam, seeing that, wanted to head back to the car for his own toy and did so, bringing it to the kid for a trade, which the little boy was happy to do. They were playing contentedly together when the mom of the little boy called him over. She informed him that his playdate was with THIS child (pointing to little girl with dad) and he was here to play with HER.

I was....puzzled. I'm used to different parents having different playground rules, but this was a new one. I explained it to Sam and he found something else to do. Over the next half-hour or so, I observed this mom take away the kid's trucks when he started to send them noisily down the metal slide like Sam (I should mention that no one at the bottom or in the vicinity was there to be hit by them, which would have been an occasion to tell Sam to stop), tell him to be careful to not hurt his friend when he wanted to spin her on a toy, and speak sharply to him and give me the stink-eye when he tried to copy something Sam did that was safe for a 5 year old but not a 3 year old. Come to think of it, she gave me the stink-eye a lot.

So, yeah, that was one controlled kid. And to his credit, he was pretty good about doing what his mom asked. But at what cost? The message he was clearly receiving from his mom in that moment was that she expected him to play with the kids SHE wanted him to play with and not anyone else, to play with his toys in a way SHE preferred, that trying new things was dangerous, and that she pretty much expected him to hurt his friends unless she was there to remind him not to. Extrapolating a bit, what is this kid going to learn as he grows, if this is consistent behavior from his parent? Is he going to be comfortable or confident making his own decisions? Is he going to feel like he is a good, worthwhile person with interesting ideas? Will he take responsibility for his own actions? Will he have any personal agency at all?

When people proclaim that we parents should "control our kids," I think this is what they think that looks like - instant obedience and instruction based on prevention instead of correction. And we poor parents can't win for losing. So often, these same parents get criticized in the teenage years especially for being "helicopter parents" - wanting to micromanage their children, make decisions for them, fill out their college applications so they're done right, bird-dog their classes. Often it seems, those same people that think parents these days can't control their little kids are just as incensed when their teenage employees send in Mom to negotiate their salary or a higher grade in their law school class.

Maybe it seems like I'm exaggerating a bit, but I really do believe that it all starts at this age. Kids are not little adults, and they have to learn these things somewhere. Giving them enough room to make mistakes is part of their growing process, and some of them need a little more room than others. Finding that balance of necessary room and teaching social skills is a tricky one, and it's different for each parent and each situation. A playground and an airplane are two different places, for instance. But find it we must for our kids to develop into the functional grown-ups we hope they will become.

And if we get the stink-eye every now and then, well, I guess that's just the cost of business.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


What do you do when the one person whose advice you crave is no longer there to give it?

For the last few weeks, Mark and I have been dealing with an emergent situation with Sam and his school. Perhaps I'll go into details on it later, but the short story is that we've had to decide whether it's the right place for him and if perhaps it's time for a move to another school. Obviously, that's a big decision with consequences on either side. Because of the circumstances it didn't seem that there was a clear good choice, and any choice could have some serious and long-term consequences.

Last week after a long talk with Mark (who let me know that he would go with whatever I thought was best), my eyes welled up with tears and I leaned my head on his shoulder and said, "Since my mom died, I've never wished more that she was here to talk to about this." I missed her so much. I knew she'd have the answers I needed.

But I was on my own.

I spent a few days mulling over the various ramifications of each path. I would be moving him in the middle of the year away from friends he'd been in school with in some cases for years, and to a new environment with new kids, and then we'd do it all over again when he started kindergarten. And there wasn't just Sam to consider, there was also Caroline. She is in the 3 year old class at the same school, and is doing well there. It wasn't fair to move her, too, if she was happy there. And how would Sam feel about seeing her get dropped off twice a week at his old school, and seeing his old teachers?

Then, on Wednesday I went to choir practice where I saw my friend, K. K has had dealings with the same school over a similar situation. Her reaction was a pretty uncharacteristically strong one: "That's bull*&#*! Sam's a great kid, you are great parents. Don't let this make you think otherwise." K knows us and Sam pretty well, and is the mother of a somewhat high-maintenance boy herself, so I take her opinion pretty seriously. She went on to tell me that there was still one spot left at the school her son is doing very well at, she wouldn't pressure me and was happy to just listen if I needed to vent, she knew that there were lots of drawbacks and benefits to whatever we decided, and that she knew we were great parents who would make the best decision for Sam. Also, had I thought about talking to Mrs. B, the principal at the school we planned to send Sam to next year? I might find that helpful.

So, I called Mrs. B. She sings with the choir at church on occasion, and she and I are on good terms. She picked up on the first ring, and I went through the list of concerns that the school had regarding Sam. She laughed.

"Oh, man!" she sighed. "Boys just DO NOT belong in our school system, do they? Have you thought about switching schools?" She went on to describe some of the challenges she had with her own high-maintenance son who is now grown and how she felt they made her a better principal. She pointed out with a smile in her voice that she had her eye on Sam at Mass last weekend, and she had a feeling they'd be good friends next year. And I laughed, too. I didn't feel put on the spot or like a failure acknowledging that Sam might spend some time at her office. Her tone conveyed that this was a part of her job that she really enjoyed - helping kids who were a little "more" figure out how they fit into a classroom environment, that she was on my side in helping me as a parent figure all of this out. When I pointed out that I was working on developing the skills to help him, she said,

"Oh, Kate. You already HAVE the skills to help him. You're just finding them. God would not have given you a child with this temperament if he didn't also give you the skills to help him. I firmly believe that."

Breath out.

I hung up the phone with a huge weight off my shoulders. Somehow, in spite of feeling lost and overwhelmed, I had been able to find a way to people who could listen, offer advice, and support my and Mark's parenting. I wasn't as alone as I thought I was.

I thought about all the advice I'd gotten. The old school, with their recommendation that we take Sam to intensive, long-term counseling for what they believed were emotional issues. Our therapist from this summer, who told us after spending several hours with Sam and listening to us that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, and focused on helping us as parents develop some better skills for helping him. The Sunday school teachers who have approached us and told us how much they enjoy having Sam in class, how he is unusually observant, curious and spiritual. K and Mrs. B's observations and advice. My own instincts, telling me that I wasn't being blind to my own child's challenges, that Sam was in a negative cycle with his teachers at the old school and the issues he seemed to be having were, in fact, a result of him being at a place at which he was no longer thriving, and that taking him to therapy for something that wasn't wrong might make it worse.

So, we've started the process of switching Sam to a different school, and as of today I'm working on tying up some loose ends - mainly, visiting the new school and getting Sam's buy-in, and talking to the old school about our decision in an adult enough fashion that I can feel comfortable keeping Caroline there for the rest of the year. So, you know, just little things. Gulp.

And in thinking about this today, I realized something. If my mom had been around to talk to, I might have fallen into a familiar and easy trap: I could have just taken her advice and done what she thought I should do, because that was often what I ended up doing. After all, she was usually right. Instead, I had to seek out and weigh advice from others, something I'm not usually comfortable with. I had to decide on my own who to give the most weight to based on instinct and past history. I had to trust my mothering gut. I might have reached the same conclusion as I would have if I took Mom's advice, but this time it was MY decision.

And in the end, that is perhaps the greatest gift she could have given me: the realization that I can do this, and I'm not as alone as I thought.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I'm coming to terms with the fact that I'm not a particularly romantic person, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. It's been hard to admit that I'd rather get a new vacuum as a gift then a diamond necklace. In general, my gut reaction when Mark would do something like bring me flowers was "Why did he spend all that money on something that will die in a few days when I would much rather he save it?" To me, a gift that is meaningful and romantic is something that sees a need specific to that person and fills it, and it gets bonus points if it's on sale. Maybe for some people that's jewelry or flowers, but for me, it's an appliance.

Mark and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary yesterday, and it was great. We've always seen our wedding anniversary as not just about us, but about the beginning of our family. Obviously there's a time and a place for us to connect as a couple, but our family was born on the day Mark and I agreed to love and honor each other for the rest of our lives, and as such, we've called it our "familaversary." We spent Sunday morning in our regular routine at church, then had a rehearsal for the choir we're both in, then we celebrated by going to Fred Meyer and picking up a Wii. As befits our tradition and particular gift preferences, we wanted something that would be useful for the whole family. We spent the afternoon laughing hilariously at MarioKart and after a nice family dinner out and bedtime for the kids, Mark and I stayed up late playing Wii tennis and bowling and eating really peppery bacon. Now, I realize that this might not be everyone's idea of romance. But when I put on FB that this was the reason I got married, I wasn't kidding. Last night was perfectly romantic, in our own special brand of romance.

There is a lot of focus in our culture on love, at least the brand of it that it values most. And don't get me wrong, that particular brand is great. But it's often actually infatuation - the heart pitter-pattering, short of breath, I-have-to-be-near-this-person kind of feeling. Like most relationships, we definitely started out that way and we still have our moments after 10 years together. But love is so much more than that to me. It's wanting the best for the other person even when its not convenient. It's sharing deeply held beliefs. It's being there in the dark times, or worse, the boring times. It's being able to be alone together. I knew I was in love with Mark when I realized that I could be with him 24 hours a day without experiencing the typical introvert reaction of feeling like I was "on" around others. I could be "off" and it was ok. I could just relax into him. And when I looked forward to a life with him, days like yesterday were what I envisioned. Days filled with routine, family, and just being by each other.

I guess that's where the vacuum fits in. Giving something like that shows me that he sees not just the dressed up me, but the real, every day me - the one that cleans up and keeps the house from being totally overrun by stuff, that takes care of his kids and handles the day-to-day routine - and that he values that. That he's happy he chose me to share this humble life with, and would do it again.

Now, that's romantic.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ode to a duck

We had a minor crisis in the Leen household this morning. Emily, Sam's well-loved duck friend, went missing. She wasn't in her usual hiding places - the side of the bed, the car, the couch - leading me to privately worry that we'd left her in a restaurant or somewhere else outside the house, possibly lost forever. I didn't share the entirety of my fears with Sam, but he was understandably distraught and went off to school this afternoon on the promise that I'd keep looking.

Emily joined our family when Sam had just turned 3. We were visiting my mom down in Portland over the summer when she was incredibly ill, and we were all staying in a hotel room close to the house so we wouldn't disturb her. It was becoming apparent that we were headed toward the end. I was stressed and Sam was likely feeling it, too.

One night, we went out for pizza at Papa's Pizza, a sort of local version of Chuck E. Cheese, complete with that grabber machine where you pop in some coins and operate the claw in the hopes of snagging a prize. Bless their hearts, they'd rigged the machine so that it was almost guaranteed that each kid would get a prize (can I hear a hip-hip-hooray for local businesses?). Sam came running out of the restaurant at the end of the night with Mark, having captured himself (with some daddy help I'm sure) a prize duck. When I asked what he wanted to name her, he chose to name her after our family friend, Emily, a little girl who was 5 at the time and with whom Sam had been spending a lot of time playing on our trips. I noted at the time that this was the first time that a stuffed animal had not been given the descriptive name "Lion" or "Cow." This duck clearly had personality.

And she had quite the style sense, too. At Sam's insistence, her hair tuft on the top of her head always had to be done just so, coming to a perfect point with the help of some Sam spit. As one can see from the picture, all this styling has taken its toll on the body and volume of her hair.

We also discovered over the next few years that Emily had a, er, unique voice. She spoke in whistle tone of the likes only very young vocal cords are capable of. One step down from dog whistle range. And she usually has a lot to say, especially at bed time.

When Sam asked for Emily last night after discovering she wasn't in his bed, we put him off a bit, not wanting to put in the work to look, and he eventually fell asleep as he sometimes does without her. When it became apparent this morning that she was missing, a low-grade panic took hold. I called Mark, and together we brainstormed where she could be. Did we leave her at Ivar's when we had dinner there on Sunday? Mark Emily. Did she somehow travel somewhere in the car and fall out? I was heartsick at the thought of Emily sitting somewhere in a puddle. Finally on a hunch, I unpacked the Halloween bags we took to the Halloween party at the community center yesterday, and found Caroline's purse , zipped up and containing something soft and squishy. Unzipping it, I may have actually let out a sigh of relief. There was Emily, folded in half and packed into the pink Hello Kitty purse. Caroline, who is also starting to be won over by Emily's unique place in the family, had packed her in there for an adventure.

Holding her, I dialed the school (yes ,really). I asked the teacher who answered to please tell Sam that we found Emily and she's at home. I hung up, thinking that the teacher probably thinks I'm a little crazy, or hovery, or over-involved. But I know Sam, and I know he's been thinking about her on and off all afternoon. And I didn't want him to worry about her any longer than he had to. So if I take a little flack from a teacher about calling, so be it.

And now, I'm going to take a very well-loved duck to meet her Sam at school, and all will be right with the world. Special childhood friends make it so.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why I Hate Sleeping Beauty

I hate Sleeping Beauty. Hate it with a passion. Maybe it's because I've had to watch it about 7 times in the last few weeks, but the plot....well, it leaves something to be desired.

The movie opens at the birth of Aurora. Happy, happy day. And these parents choose this day, the day they know an evil witch will most likely be on the hunt to ruin their happiness (remember, they didn't invite her?) to do something really subtle. You know, thousands of people waving flags, screaming high C's in a song that INCLUDES THE GIRL'S NAME, the usual. Seriously, why don't they just hang up a big banner that says, "HEY, MILLEFICENT! COME ON OVER AND DO SOMETHING EVIL!"

And of course she obliges, in the middle of a wish-giving session. Which brings up, who exactly sets the rules for magic here? Is there some authority? Only one wish per little witch, can't undo the curse but can change it, only bring joy and happiness? As the crabby little blue one says, destroying Millifecent would bring her some pretty serious joy and happiness. Sounds like a reasonable loophole to me. No go, though.

Which brings me to the overly specific and complicated spells. For some reason, Millificent doesn't just kill the baby right there. Probably because killing babies in a Disney movie wouldn't fly. But really, did it have to be that complicated? Wait until she's 16? Prick specifically her finger on specifically a spinning wheel? Because that's not at all easy to get around by destroying all the spinning wheels. Seriously, Millificent, why don't you just invite everyone to your volcano lair where you'll unveil all the details your plan before you destroy them all? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, the witch shows up and everyone's like, "O noes! You mean you're not mad?" Of course she's mad, idiots. She's an evil witch.

And the little witches come up with a truly brilliant plan to hide a baby in a cottage in the woods. Because a baby with three old ladies who suddenly moves into some deserted cottage in the woods wouldn't draw any attention.

Fast-forward 16 years. Now, we're missing a lot of what happened in between, and Disney tries to rectify this by cramming everything that could have gone wrong during those 16 years into ONE DAY, the day of her birthday. Because of course, for the entire 15 years and 364 days leading up to this everyone was on high alert and all was peachy keen, but on the last day they actually have to keep their schmidt together, everyone engages in massive group FAIL.

First, the little witches. I am supposed to believe that this is the very first time they were EVER tempted to use magic? Didn't they raise a baby? I mean, she's a princess and all, but there are still blowouts, colic, and tantrums. And potty training. Good God, I don't know a single parent who wouldn't want a little magic for that. But they're stymied by a CAKE and a DRESS? They've really never done either of those things before? What did they do on the other 15 birthdays, play with rocks and sticks while she wore a potato sack? And then, of course, they send her out by herself on the day Milleficent will be the most desperate with a "LALALALA and don't talk to strangers!" Yeah, I'm sure that'll work.

And Milleficent. You disappoint me. Up until now, you were at least a head above the others, in spite of it all. But NOW you figure out that your minions have been looking for a baby the whole time? You didn't think to ask maybe once in the last 15 years how their search was going for a toddler? A 5 year old? A 10 year old? Consider me let down by your poor management of minions. At least the crow is on the job now (a crow, I might add, that is eventually turned into a statue by Little Crabby Witch, in spite of the whole "only bring joy" thing from earlier. But I digress).

Let's take a look at the parents. Who knows where Mom is. Probably frantically cleaning or doing her hair. Having your daughter taken away by fairies as a newborn has got to do a trip on your head. She's probably popping pills. But Dad....hoo, boy. Your daughter has been missing for 16 years. You're about to see her again for the first time in that long. Not to mention that an evil witch is after her and, as I mentioned, I would deduce that she's getting desperate. So what do you do? What's that? Get drunk with your buddy while singing some stupid drinking song that includes a word no one actually uses or understands? Ding, ding! Way to go, Dad. And Disney. As you learned from Dumbo, drunk idiots in a children's film are never not funny.

So then, the little witches smuggle Briar Rose to the castle BEFORE sundown. Because that's not inviting trouble. And then they're all like, "Let's leave her by herself! Nothing bad will happen!" How do you people manage to walk around without padding? And we trust you with magic?

Of COURSE Milleficent gets her. All you idiots really dropped the ball. And it was THE LAST DAY you had to pull off your cunning little plan. I think she's better off sleeping off the rest of her life if waking up means dealing with all of you.

So, there she is, waiting for the prince in a coma. And of course, her hair is perfect. The three little idiots come up with a plan that actually might work....rescue the prince, point him in the right direction, and tell him to go to there. And they give him weapons because, although they can't change spells, they can conjure weapons out of thin air. Magic Rules, section 105b.

And then we find out something that really makes me mad. Milleficent can turn into A FREAKING DRAGON. Wouldn't this have come in handy sooner? I mean, perhaps she could get her lazy rear out of her castle and do a couple fly-overs instead of depending on pig minions? Maybe she could have just torched the castle and all the inhabitants at the very beginning instead of waiting 16 YEARS? The stupid. It burns.

But not as much as the fact that, in spite of being a witch AND a dragon, she is, apparently able to be destroyed by a sword that THE FAIRIES MUST HAVE HAD THE ENTIRE TIME. Are they too small to lift it? Needed to give it to a human first? Who knows! THEY'RE FREAKING MAGIC, PEOPLE, AND MAGIC HAS RULES!

Anyway, Briar Rose wakes up as Aurora, marries the prince, and dances happily among the idiots, no doubt ignorant of the fact that she should have been destroyed as a baby or in the intervening years if everyone had their crap together, and that it was through sheer luck and MAGIC RULES that she is even currently living at all.

Probably better if she doesn't know.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The roots of empathy

I remember reading that it is right around the age Sam is now that kids start to develop empathy. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) states: Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.

There is such a journey that kids have to go through to get to empathy, and eventually compassion. When we think about that journey from an infant who, at least it seems, has no concern for others in their need for sleep, love, attention, and food, to a full-grown adult who (hopefully) is able to feel what others feel and act on those feelings, that path is pretty extraordinary and full of pitfalls.

I think every parent of every normally developing child wonders at least briefly if their beloved offspring is some kind of sociopath. And yeah, they sort of all are. Sociopathy is defined by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. If this doesn't describe all two and three year olds to a tee sometimes, I don't know what does.

Both of my children have always been sympathetic. Both have peppered their pretend play with dolls getting hurt with the attending "awwws" of sympathy as they are getting their band-aid. And I'll never forget soon after Sam was born when I had a full-on meltdown while he was crying, and he looked at me as if he understood that we were both so sad at that moment, that I was feeling what he was feeling. Being able to recognize feelings in others, simply that others have feelings, is important, but not the end of the path.

We were at the Museum of Flight last weekend when I saw this particular corner start to turn with Sam. We'd sat in the dark theatre to watch a movie about exploration of Mars (Sam is obsessed with space and space travel right now), and the film started with a brief piece about the first Mars rover, Spirit. Several scientists talked about its construction and launch, the hopes they had for it, how had exceeded those hopes, and how much the project had meant to them personally. The section ended by highlighting Spirit's last transmission before it died, and then there was a retrospective of pictures that it had sent to earth with some rather moving music. I glanced over at Sam to see what he thought, and he was tearing up. I asked him what was wrong, and he looked up at me with his tear filled eyes and said,

"It travelled so far, Mommy. And now it's all by itself."

I never thought that seeing Sam be moved to tears would involve a robot, but I'll be darned if that's the first surprise I've gotten during this whole parenting deal. I reached over and grabbed his little hand, and he squeezed it tight. We watched the rest of the movie together that way, and when it was over he said with determination,

"When I grow up, I'm going to be a scientist and go to Mars and go get it."

Oh, son, I love that you love that little lost spaceship, and that you imagine that it's lonely and scared out there on the red planet. Not only that, but that you are actually feeling yourself what you imagine it is feeling, and I love that you want to grow up and go get it and make sure that it's ok. I love that that part of your heart and mind is starting to open.

I'll need to keep in mind, though, that empathy can be a blessing but it can also be a heavy burden, especially when you're not used to it. Things get tougher in a lot of ways from here on out. Feeling what other people feel can be overwhelming. I'll do my best to help you navigate all of these new feelings as they come up, and to let you know that what you feel is ok and good. And I'll do my best to model it for you.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Swim lesson

It's a cloudy, cold-ish June day in Seattle, and I decided to take the kids to the club by myself to go swimming. Sam just got one of those body suits with some floaties sewn into the lining, and that meant I would just need to hold Caroline and could let Sam paddle around the pool on his own. He's been hesitant to make the leap into swimming on his own, and I was hoping that a little confidence in the form of some styrofoam might help him experience it feels to swim by himself.

We had a blast - played Marco Polo, had races across the pool, and played tag. After about a half-hour, though, we reached a point which often happens with Sam: I told him to stop doing something, and he kept right on doing it. This time, it was crawling all over me and Caroline, which Caroline made known she didn't like, and trying to pull the straps on my swimsuit. Since Caroline was screaming and I didn't really want to play peek-a-boob with the rest of the pool occupants, I told him to stop. He didn't. I told him to stop or he would have a time-out on the side of the pool. He didn't stop. So, on the bench he went, where he proceeded to cry, complain, beg and negotiate his way off. I ignored, and then I told him that if he wasn't able to do his time-out quietly, we would need to leave. Any guesses what we did next?

The next act unfolds in the dressing room, where a crying Sam stood in his drippy suit next to Caroline and me while we proceeded to get dressed. I reach over to unzip his suit for him, and he pulls away.

"No!" he spits, "I want to go back to the POOOOOL!"

"Sam, your choices are to let me unzip your suit or wear it to the car and be wet."

"I WAAAANT THE POOOOL!!" Threatening to run out the door, sobbing. I ignore and continue to dry and dress myself and Caroline, all the while Sam is red-faced and in full tantrum mode. Sam attempts to negotiate, threaten, beg, and I calmly repeat his choices, aware that I am being watched.

I glance up, and a kind pair of eyes catches mine. She smiles, and whispers:

"You're doing a great job."

I smile back, and say thank you.

After a while, Sam calms down and begins to get dressed all on his own. Before long, we're joking and laughing together and the storm has passed. Another lady in the locker room catches my eye, and says out of Sam's hearing:

"Look! He's doing great! I remember going through the same thing with my kids. You handled that really well."

Oh, sweet ladies of the OAC locker room. You have no idea how badly I needed to hear that, and what a difference you made to me today. I was telling a friend recently that one of the things I miss so terribly about my mom is how she encouraged me about my parenting and always made me feel that what I was doing was right and valuable. That void in my life hasn't been filled, and I feel it. So often, it seems like I am surrounded by disapproval. I know that's not really the case, but when you're out sailing alone on the sea of parenting as I often am, every little swell begins to feel like a full-on tsunami as you picture every stranger eyeing you disapprovingly, every family member or friend thinking about how they would have done it better. Actually hearing from two strangers who took the time to tell me that I was doing a good job in the midst of a challenge brought tears to my eyes. It also made me think about how I can pay it forward. I already try to go out of my way to say something helpful or supportive to a parent I think might need it, but I know I can do it more often. Now having been the very needy recipient of this gift, I'm going to make more of an effort to give it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The beach

One of the very best things about spring and summer in Seattle (when it eventually arrives) is the ability to go to a number of gorgeous, scenic beaches within a stone's throw of almost wherever you are. They aren't the white sand, blue water beaches of postcards, but the ones I loved from growing up - rocky, rugged, and littered with driftwood. We are incredibly fortunate to live about two blocks from Discovery Park, which has within its borders one of the most beautiful and deserted beaches around. Part of the reason for this is that in order to park in the lot at the beach, you need to sign out a special pass at the visitor's center that is only available to people with small children, the disabled, and the elderly. Otherwise, in order to see this scenic beauty you need to hike about a mile from the nearest parking lot down a steep trail. That means that only about 8 people at a time have a pass, and the rest of the people walking through are there for part of their long walk, not really to lounge around. I discovered this little gem last summer, and we've already been there at least 5 times this spring. No people means that I can let the kids run without the constant policing of interactions with other kids, stealing of toys, throwing of sand....not that I mind doing that stuff, but sometimes it's nice to just sit and let kids be kids in the sand.

Today, the sun was just beginning to peek through the clouds around 11, and we decided that maybe today would be another good day to hop down to our favorite spot. We had nothing on the schedule and only time, so I left my phone at home and packed a lunch and the sand gear, and off we went. We parked and picked through the thin trails to the beach, down a steep bank and over the piles of driftwood and got ourselves set up by a log partially buried in the sand. Almost instantly, Sam and Caroline took two different approaches to enjoying their time, and I sat and observed.

Not far off to the left, a group of a few families had set up a tent and some chairs, and all their kids were down at the waterline throwing in rocks. Caroline saw them and clung to me, looking suspiciously at the group of strangers.

"Mommy, can I go play with those kids?" Sam asked excitedly. After I said he could, he was off like a shot down to the water.

"Hi, I'm Sam!" he said to the other kids, most of them a few years older than him. They all acknowledged him, and one of the kids popped off a shot into the water. "Nice one!" Sam said approvingly. The kid that threw the rock, looked appraisingly at Sam.

"You want to play with us?" he asked.


Meanwhile, Caroline had grabbed a bucket and toddled down to the water. She stood in silence, observing the waves as they lapped up onto the rocks. Then, she very carefully bent down, picked up one rock, turned it over in her hand, and placed it in her bucket. She plopped her bottom down on the wet rocks and continued her careful collecting.

I sat on my log, looking at my two kids. How different both of them are! Sam is outgoing, social, wants to fit in with interesting kids, and knows how. Caroline is an observer. She wants to get the lay of the land, and then, once she feels safe, is perfectly content to live in her own little world doing her own little things. She's funny, but you really have to earn the right to see that.

Both of them are going to have to learn to live out of their comfort zones at some point in time. Sam will have to learn to be alone with himself, and he'll eventually have to deal with kids that don't like him or want to play with him. Caroline will need to learn that we don't always get to be by ourselves as much as we'd like to be, and sometimes we have to learn to play well with others when we'd rather just sit and look at rocks (can you tell I can relate to that?).

Both of these personalities have their unique strengths and challenges. I'm so blessed that I get to help them uncover those.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My friendship with music

Part of my involvement in Choral Arts means that every few months or so I get a neat, new packet of choral music in the mail or over e-mail, most of which I'm unfamiliar with, and some of which is often entirely new music that has never, ever been sung before. It always feels a little like Christmas. I rip open the envelope or open the file and zip through it quickly to get a sense of it, see the composers, the divisi, the tempo markings, the languages. I'm always excited because I know that these pieces are going to become friends over the next few months and, even better, I'll get to sing them with friends.

I was describing recently to one of these friends what I love most about encountering new music and preparing for concerts, and it occurred to me how much all of these pieces I've encountered are like the people in my life. We all have friends who serve different purposes, just like all of the pieces we've sung over our lives. There are pieces that are old friends, perhaps with some history and baggage to them - emotional responses from the past, or fond memories of the people we've shared the experience of singing with. For me, many of those are standard rep pieces that I first sang in college or grad school - Mozart's or Faure's Requiem, for instance - that are old, revisited, and loved. A sub-category of this is the old friend that always seems to fit just right. No matter how much time has passed or how long it has been since you have last seen each other, there is something about that relationship that always just works, as if the passage of time and age means nothing. Whenever I pick up Widmung by Schubert it fits, even if I'm tired or haven't sung in a long time. Among these are also the fun friend, the one that you use to blow off some steam. Not really serious, but they know how to have a good time and are willing to take you along for the ride. We all need pieces and people in our lives for that, too.

There are pieces and people that you meet and go, "Meh. Not for me." Sometimes they just live there in your life, either by stagnancy or necessity. They exist on a continuum that seems to extend from decent to intolerable, and often there they stay. But every now and then they do something remarkable and rewarding - they totally surprise you. Suddenly, you hear the composer's intent and understand their soul through a small gesture or a performance, and it all changes. We had a piece like that on a recent concert. The piece in rehearsal seemed static and unchanging, and I'd gotten used to just singing it and doing what I was supposed to do in relation to it. And then we added the solo instrument to it and I heard it in an entirely new way. It touched something really deep in me, and I was in helpless tears by the end. What a huge surprise. I love that.

Then there are pieces you encounter, and you just know that they're going to be amazing, special, and unique. Something about it just clicks. You haven't even heard it with the rest of the parts yet, but you know when you do it's going to be great and it will keep getting better. You might have to work hard at it, but doing so will reveal more layers, and even after the performance is over you'll be looking forward to performing it again. I think one of the very first times I ever experienced this was singing Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms when I was in college. I remember thinking, "Yes! THIS is what making music is supposed to be about!" Every time I rehearsed it and during every performance I felt like more was revealed to me - there was always more to discover about it. When I was asked in my senior oral exams to name a choral piece that had influenced me and why, that was what I picked.

I think I realized in that moment that I would be chasing that feeling for the rest of my musical life. Isn't that what we want most in all our relationships?

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I have a scar on my chest that's about an inch long. I got it when I was in about the 1st grade when I was running from a friend and decided to hide behind a door and surprise her. I got gashed across the chest by the little thingy sticking out of the door by the doorknob, and, being a kid, I didn't apply a band-aid and went swimming. Bingo, scar.

I look at it now and it always strikes me as a little comical. That part of my body is now a good 2 feet above that part of the door now, and the yoga pose I'd have to do to get them together would probably put me in traction. But there it is.

Does one ever really outgrow something that scars you, or does it just grow along with you? Maybe it surprises you after the pain has passed, or even makes you laugh to think about how it would be impossible for it to ever happen again exactly that way. Life goes on, you grow up, maybe absentmindedly run your fingers over it on occasion just to remind yourself that it's a part of you.

I guess that's how life is sometimes.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ten years

"This isn't a day to go to a bar. It's a day to go to church." - Chris Matthews

As we watched the news last night, both Mark and I came away a bit disturbed. The flag waving, screaming, wild-eyed frenzy seemed out of place among death, even the death of a monster, and we turned off the TV and went to bed shaking our heads.

Today, it's still on my mind, and I can't escape one fact: The age of the participants outside the White House and Ground Zero. For the most part, they were young people - college students and recent graduates. Ten years doesn't seem all that long ago to me. I was already an adult, living my life, aware of the danger in the world but still painfully reminded on September 11, 2001.

These kids, though.....they were between 7 and 12. Old enough to know what was going on, old enough to be frightened by the sudden possibilities in the world, but not old enough to have the skills to process what was going on. These kids, scared and confused, were sat down by their parents and told that a very bad man flew planes into a building and killed thousands of people. Did they ever really grow beyond that idea? It's not that it's not true, but when a child is suddenly and unfairly confronted by evil in the world, I'd imagine it would be easy to seek a simple explanation, and to make one focus point the repository for all of the evil that they saw. For a 10 year old, yeah, that's appropriate. But how about for a 20 year old? Did we adults fail them by not helping them grow into a more broad explanation of what happened? Did we stop talking about it right around the time they really needed us to start?

It made me a little sad to see all of the young faces waving flags and cheering outside the White House, but not because Bin Laden is dead. It made me sad for the world they were forced to come to age in, and who these young people have become because of it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

New thoughts on running

That's what the Tarahumara must sound like, I thought to myself as I chugged along on the trail. I had decided to venture into Discovery Park to run the loop trail, and I was already wondering why I hadn't before. I think between the cougar sightings and the reams of homeless that tumble off the 33 at the Discovery Park stop for an adventure in urban camping, I'd convinced myself that it was deserted and dangerous. So far, the only thing that had given me pause was the enormous blue heron I'd come around a corner and surprised as he sat 10 feet off the trail finishing his lunch. I stopped long enough to look at him, which seemed to make him feel self-conscious. I was also passing and being passed by reams of walkers, dog folks, and other runners, most of whom were crunching the gravel like it was granola and they were starving, me included. I was sort of enjoying the feeling of pounding down the earth, landing hard on my heels on the downhills.

Then, I heard just a faint rustling shuffle on the trail behind me. Was it an animal? It didn't sound like the rhythmic runner's steps I'd gotten accustomed to hearing right before I was passed.

"Good morning!" she said cheerfully as she nudged by me. She was about 10 years older than me, similar build, with a knit cap and shorts over her running tights, and on her feet were a burgundy pair of Vibrams.

"Hey," I panted. "How do you like your Vibrams?"

"Love them!" she said. "My calves were sore, but if you ease into them they're fabulous!"

We chatted about Born to Run a bit before she pulled ahead with a "Have a good morning!" and made her way down the trail in front of me with that quiet, shuffling step. I studied her form closely. Her body seemed very still - no arm pumping or odd gestures, they were just relaxed in a bent position at her sides - and if I had a book on her head I don't think it would have fallen off. Her stride was compact and cadence was fast, and, most notably, her heels almost never completely touched the ground. They came close, but I could tell she wasn't really putting any weight on them. And she was out of sight in no time.

Watching her, I remembered Caballo Blanco's advice to the author of Born to Run: smooth, light, easy fast. I was observing all 4.

I came down out of the woods, and continued my run along the flat, even sidewalks around the park. Let's give this a try, I thought. I shortened my stride and increased my cadence, and concentrated on letting my weight fall on the front part of my foot. I made sure my back was straight and thought about keeping things smooth and easy. I thought about how the author trained by pulling on a rope tied around his waist while running forward, and was instructed to keep that feeling in mind.

A few intriguing thing happened. First of all, my breathing eased up. I'm not sure what my pace was, but I felt like I was running at about the same speed, if not faster. I also noticed that my calves and hamstrings were working harder to keep my heels up. Most notably, I found that instead of feeling like my knee action was driving me forward, the forward drive was coming from somewhere deep in my quads. It felt, at the best moments, effortless and easy. Maybe not so smooth, getting to be light, and definitely not fast....but I'm on the right track.

I came home excited, and (finally!) didn't need to rest my knee, although my heels took a beating on the downhills on the trails and my PF flared up a bit. I'm going to need to figure out how to run those better. I don't think Vibram lady flies down them and lands on her heels.

I was able to recreate that feeling from Saturday a bit on the treadmill today and the results were even better - no knee pain or foot pain at all after the run. My hamstrings, predictably, have complained and the muscles in the bottom of my feet and ankles that are responsible for holding up my heels when I put weight down have also made themselves known, but these are lazy muscles that need to start pulling their weight anyway and I don't feel sorry for them. My totally-not-endorsed-by-a-professional plan at this point is to continue to do my ankle/knee exercises to strengthen those areas, and continue to explore this new form. Just like any technique change (hello, singing), the learning part is going to take me back a few steps in terms of speed and distance, but rebuilding on a more solid foundation is going to be worth it as I up my mileage for the half marathon.

I'm excited!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My 3.1

Finally, here I am. I'd been pacing the kitchen in my running gear, waiting for Mark to get home so I could make my escape. The longer, brighter days have meant that my runs haven't needed to be confined to the treadmill at the gym anymore, and I'm ready to break free.

Outside the condo, I look to the left and set the stopwatch on the iphone I put in my running belt. I zip my jacket a little higher against the gentle but stubborn March wind and a few scattering raindrops, and adjust my belt so that the bottle compartment rests on my back.

I begin.

My body feels relaxed and easy, my arms loose. Across the street, a runner is heading in the same direction as me. He looks much more like a typical runner - tall, thin, his long legs seems to effortlessly gobble up the sidewalk. In no time he's a few blocks beyond me.

I head up the hill on my traditional 5k loop of the neighborhood. This is the only serious hill on the route, and I'll see it again at the end of the run when I return home. Somehow, it always seems easier at the end. Maybe I'm warmed up, maybe it's shorter and less steep returning, maybe I'm delirious. Whatever the reason, I'm glad it's here at the beginning, too, so I can get it out of the way before I have too much time to think about it.

I lean into the hill, running with my weight on my toes, and feel the weight lift off my quads as I crest the top and fall forward. My breath is now coming as it will for the rest of the run, in a two-step rhythm that dictates my pace: breathe in, step, breathe out, step. I concentrate on filling my lungs fully to combat a creeping stitch after the hill, and think about how I probably shouldn't have filched the kids' leftover pizza right before the run.

I pass the Thriftway with its bold display of flowers out front and continue on the sidewalk toward the Village, the gathering of shops in our neighborhood, about a mile away. I can see all the way down the road to the blinking red light at the place I turn. It seems so far away, but I'll be there in about 10 minutes. I keep my eyes focused up on the road and the distance. I've run this sidewalk enough to know by now where the cracks and bumps are.

The road I'm running on is a main thoroughfare, and although the sidewalk is set away from the street by a greenbelt the sounds of cars whizzing by this time of night is constant. I wonder briefly what they see when they look at me? I've gotten past the point of feeling like a "fat runner," although I still break the mold in terms of typical runner physique. I remember a few weeks ago when I was lifting some weights and looking at myself offhandedly in the mirror, and suddenly an uninvited thought zipped into my brain: "I look strong." That was a first. Is that what the cars going by see, too? It's a small neighborhood, I probably know at least a handful of these people driving by. Did they know I was a runner? Would they ever expect it? Thinking back to my pre-running days, I'm not sure I even registered runners on the sidewalks or roads. Now, it's sort of like being pregnant and seeing pregnant women everywhere. Everywhere I drive, I see runners on the road. I find myself wondering if they're training for something, checking out their gear, wondering how far they've run and how far they have left to go, if they think that hill they're running up is hard. If there are any runners in those cars, they are thinking the same thing about me. And they might be just as jealous as I am when I see my brothers and sisters out on the road instead of where I am, trapped behind the wheel.

If I register with the non-runners, they are probably thinking I'm borderline insane, as the rain has now started in earnest. It's not the large drippy rain that other climates experience, but that uniquely Pacific Northwest rain shower that is more of a really dense drizzle. My face is covered with condensation, and large drips accumulate on my eyelashes and the tip of my nose. I thank myself for remembering my jacket. I've turned by the church now and am passing the ball field on my right, where the baseball players are huddled with the coach in the covered dugout, listening to instructions for the next practice. They've ended early because of the rain. Those kids don't know what they're missing, trying to stay dry like that.

I turn the corner to the right to circle the ballfield and make my final approach to the village. I only know this because I've been here so many times, but this will be a long, gradual downhill all the way to my next turn, one of those downhills that you really only notice because you once tried to run it in the opposite direction and realized that yes, it is a hill. I've been fooled before by this hill, when I forgot to enjoy it until it was too late and it was over. I let my body fall slightly and revel in the more open pace while I let my breathing come a little easier.

Now, I'm in the village and making my second right turn around the ball field. I have a flashback to a year ago, when Mark threw on his running shoes on a whim and ran to the Village and back. He came back sweaty and happy. I didn't think I'd ever be able to make it to the Village and back running the whole way, and he got up one night and did it because he felt like it. I was insanely jealous.

I view the slight hill at the end of this block. It's short but steep, and a precursor to the slow incline for the next block after the corner that is the sibling of the slow decline I enjoyed just a few minutes ago. For a while it was my Waterloo on this course, the place where I needed to walk to catch my breath for a minute before running home. Now, I concentrate on running on my quads and return to my pace around the corner, and cruise by the middle school on the home stretch.

I enjoy this mile of flat sidewalk as I always do, getting into my typical post-two-mile mindspace when I really feel the benefit of the run, readying myself for that final hill. When it comes, I'm always surprised that I'm halfway up it before I really even notice I'm climbing. The way down is steep, steeper than it's sibling ascent on the other side, and I let my body fall down the hill again, my arms loose and useless at my sides. I don't think I could stop if I tried.

And back I am at the door of the condo. I fish out my iPhone and notice that at some point around 2 minutes it got jostled and stopped, but it doesn't really matter. As I wait for the buzzer to be answered, my friend from the beginning of the run passes going in the other direction. His long legs are still devouring the cement, and I'm sure that he's covered at least twice as many miles as me. We nod at each other as he passes, and I notice that his clothes are just as soaked as mine, his drenched hat is now in his back pocket.

"I'm back," I pant into the speaker when Mark answers it, although my heart rate has already slowed quite a bit. As I walk toward our door, it's already open for me in anticipation of my return. I walk through it, and three faces turn to me.

"Are you runned, Mommy?" asks the two-year-old, with her typical sweet, expectant expression. Just a few weeks ago, she had grabbed her shoes and headed toward the door with them, declaring that she, herself, was going for a run.

"Yeah, baby," I replied, "and it was great."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Waiting for a sign

When do siblings really become siblings? I think I caught a glimpse yesterday.

Caroline and I went to pick up Sam from preschool and his wonderful teacher, Polly, said with some chagrin that Sam might be a little upset. Apparently, he had wanted to color me a picture about 3 minutes before the end of class, but she told him there wasn't time to get out the paper and crayons. He promptly burst into tears, very uncharacteristic behavior at school for him. I was feeling rushed and didn't really talk to him about it as we headed for the car.

But Caroline noticed. Sam got in the car with his stormy face, and Caroline perked up right away.

"Hi, Sam!" she chirped, waving.

"Hi, Caroline," Sam droned, making his way over to her seat.

Caroline reached up and touched his face.

"Ohhh," she said with sympathy, "Were you class leader today?" Making a guess about why he was upset.

"No," said Sam. Then, he gave her a hug. They held each other for a moment, then they separated and looked at each other and she patted his cheek again.

"Love you, Sam."

"I love you too, Caroline." Another hug.

Did I mention that I was standing by the car in front of the preschool, trying to not bawl?

When you're the parent of two kids, much of your time is spent trying desperately to not let them fight like rabies-ridden badgers in a sack. You wonder if you might as well buy a black-and-white striped jersey and whistle and start selling tickets, because this is just how it's going to be and you might as well make some money.

And then, something like yesterday happens, and you realize that no matter what happens to you and your husband, they will always have each other to look after and be looked after by. The thought somehow makes all the refereeing worth it.