Thursday, November 28, 2013

Playing the right tune

I'm so happy to introduce Jeff to this space as my guest post for Thanksgiving this year. Offering up both sides of the coin, Jeff begins with what makes it hard to feel grateful, and ends with the many ways in which he truly does...

I find it difficult to be thankful Saturday morning at 5:03... I am not heading off to work again. I am not going out to run wind sprints or erg 5000 meters for my rowing coach. I am not alone in the cold without a roof over my head, with the wind biting at my bones, tired hungry, broke, broken. I live in a beautiful community with my health, my family, wonderful neighbors and friends, and a great job. I come from strong genes, with grandparents who will both be soon looking back on 100 years of life in this beautiful world. I am at home with a gorgeous wife and 3 lively boys whom I love, adore, and cherish. But, when that little 4 year old bandit steals into my bed in the middle of the night, and reminds his Daddy how lucky he is to have his littlest boy love him so by kicking him squarely in the nose... I find it difficult to be thankful Saturday morning at 5:03!

I am thankful for the myriad ways we help each other. From the little helping hands that set our table in the evening, to the opportunity to provide for others through our time and talents. We seek to help our neighbors and ourselves by the votes we cast and the battles we choose to fight. I am thankful for those who advocate for me when I am to weary to speak up. With every breath we take, we play a part in the natural world around us. I am thankful for those who seek to learn more about the destruction our footsteps may have left as we walk carelessly, and for those who hold our hands to guide us to a better path. I am thankful for those who join in my symphony and play the same melody I do; I am equally thankful for those who make me wonder if I am playing the right tune.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Promising Bestseller in Anger Management

A review from the Editor at Literacy Farm:

When You are Mad by budding new author Leo Carter is a succinct, to-the-point book of instructions with carefully crafted illustrations that make clear the author's intent.  Although publishing is new for this author, his depth of knowledge in feelings of anger runs deep, resulting in this valuable, powerful, and authentic book. The author seems to have intentionally left out methods he himself has used during fits of rage, including door slamming, throwing items down sets of stairs, and flailing about the room while screaming incessantly - perhaps in the hopes of sparing readers from these largely ineffective and counterproductive methods of dealing with anger. Told through a set of clear imperatives, this book is a no-nonsense set of reminders of what to do when you are mad.  It is a must-read, and is currently being offered exclusively at Literacy Farm.

When You are Mad by Leo Carter
"Take a Deep Breath"
"Punch a pillow"
"Scream into a pillow"
"Count to Ten"

**Final note from the Editor:  this is also a book about hope.  It gives me great hope that one day, Leo will actually be able to employ these methods of calming himself down and regaining control.  This book is funny and sweet.  But our evenings have been anything but funny and sweet... and so the discovery of this little book, and knowing that the idea for it was completely his own, gives me such hope... 

Monday, November 18, 2013

When We Were Awesome

The phone rang; my girlfriend asked, "Hey!  Whatcha doing?"  I laughed and said, "Oh, Pax and I were just talking about when you should call 911 and when you shouldn't."  Knowing Pax like she does, she laughed at my emphasis on shouldn't.  "Remember when our kids were really little, and we did that activity playgroup thing?" she asked.  "Remember how somebody had that touch-tone phone that all the kids could use to practice calling 911, and it had that recording of what a dispatcher would sound like on the other end?" she continued.  "And then that safety video they all watched?  My kids still talk about that video, to this day."

"I know! I was just thinking about that the other day!" I said.  We laughed again at this unexpected little rehashing of a shared memory.  My friend said, "We were so awesome then!  We were such good moms!"  I laughed and said "Yeah!  What happened to us?!"  We laughed some more.

And in that moment, it felt really good to remember being an awesome mom.  We were awesome.  We had this one phase of a super-organized playgroup with structured themes and activities - the safety theme was one of many creative mornings. We had a food pyramid/nutrition lesson, a music lesson, an art lesson, a movement/exercise lesson.  Looking through old photos recently, I was amazed at how much time I seemed to have, and I puzzled over why, as my children grow more independent and self-sufficient, I feel like my time is an ever-increasing precious commodity...

Those early days, those were physically hard days.  They were completely exhausting.  At times they were mind-numbing in the repetition of mundane tasks necessary for sustaining and growing life.  They were lonely days, filled with one-sided conversations and children who could only babble or giggle - albeit adorably - in response.  They were frustrating days, but what strikes me, in retrospect, is that there were so many answers.  Baby is crying? Put him in water.  Too many tantrums?  Time for a nap.  Hit his brother?  Put him in time out.  Crabby at 3:00?  Give him a snack.  Need an activity?  Turn on the faucet; open a kitchen drawer; pull out a carton of blocks.  Want instant giggles? Hide behind your hands; chase him around the house.  Feeling sad?  Snuggles are always waiting.

But these days, nebulously defined as raising children aged preschool-to-tween, while less physically demanding than before, are emotionally hard.  Few answers are easy; there are no fast solutions like sleep or food or time outs, nothing that creates definitive and certain knowledge of a job well done.  Parenting now is nuanced; our actions and our words are matched and mirrored, sometimes in ways that are breathtaking and beautiful, other times in ways that are horrifying and alarming... 

On Saturday, I enjoyed an afternoon celebrating a birthday and visiting vineyards with some wonderful mama friends.  Most of these women, I've known for years; a few of them stretch back to the days of when we were Awesome Moms.  What struck me this time was that as we shared stories of parenting our somewhat older children, there was a whole lot of head-scratching, a whole lot of thoughtful silence, a noticeable lack of "well, have you tried...?" or "Did you read that book on...?" or "What always works for me is..."

And yet, what I also heard was the same refrain I've heard scads of times in my 9 1/2 years of parenting.  I heard mothers wrestling with how to help, in the face of so much resistance - how to shape and guide, how to make life less painful for their children, how to show their love, how to see these beautiful children through this messy and sometimes ugly world in which we live.  I heard the love and the pride and the anguish in their voices as they described their sons and daughters and the struggles endured in navigating this road of raising children - sometimes pulling them along; sometimes pushing them from behind; often walking alongside them, hoping to catch them before they fall, leading them back on the path - with hope-filled desperation to raise up these human beings into becoming the very best of our dreams for them, the absolute resolution that we will never, ever give up.

And that's when I realized: we still are awesome moms.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Conformity verses Individuality: this is, in my mind, one of the most crucial and important struggles of developing one's sense of Self.

The night before Halloween, I painted my fingernails orange with a black crackle finish.  They looked awesome, and spooky.  Earlier at the dinner table, I told the kids about seeing the equally cool nail polish on the younger brother of the boy I tutor - his mom had painted his nails black with orange dots on one hand, orange with black dots on the other.  It seemed that everyone was getting into the holiday spirit.

On Saturday, Aidan asked me to paint his nails the same as mine, and I did.  They looked awesome, because you can't put black crackle on something and have it look not awesome.

But then on Monday evening, Aidan was angry and lashing out at us.  He listed minor complaints and aggravations about his day, but it wasn't until I fussed at him about something that he broke down in tears and finally got out what was really bothering him - kids at school had made fun of him for his painted nails.  Not just kids, but friends - and that's what made it hurt more.  As I held him close to me, as I hugged away the hurt and the anger, I puzzled over my reaction to his tears: I felt an odd mix of sadness and satisfaction.  His pain immediately becomes my own, and yet I felt pleased and proud with his decision; he doesn't realize it yet, but he laid the groundwork among his friends for acceptance in his decision to be different.

Wiping away his tears, we talked through what they had said, how he felt.  "It's like the time I got made fun of for wearing a pink shirt," he said.
"But different this time, right? Because you still wear that pink shirt all the time, but you don't usually have your nails painted."
"Yeah.  Because I love that pink shirt,  No one teases me anymore.  But this just made me so MAD!" he said.
"Well, how did you respond?" I asked.
"The same way as with the pink shirt.  I ignored them."
"Aidan, if you like the nail polish just the way it is, keep it on. Wear it, and enjoy it.  But if you're tired of looking at it, I can easily remove it.  The thing that is so important, though, is that only YOU get to decide what to do.  Your friends do not get to make that decision for you.  And remember what this feels like.  Decide now how you will respond when you notice something that is different about another person."

I gently retold stories he's already heard.  When I was in middle school, I had this (ridiculous) outfit from Barnum & Bailey Circus that I adored.  It was a white, one piece painter's outfit with splatters of paint all over it.  I paired it with my Converse All Stars, and thought I looked awesome.  My peers disagreed.  I came home sobbing one day from the teasing I'd endured.  But then I set my jaw and decided, you know what?  I get to decide whether or not to wear this.  Not them.  In high school, the scene repeated itself with a retro, pink plaid dress that looked straight out of Jan Brady's closet - which is exactly why I adored it.  One girl in particular loved to tell me how much she hated the dress, and how stupid I looked in it.... which I took as an invitation to wear it more often than ever before.

Tucking Aidan into bed that night, I revisited the topic, helping him to identify with an extraordinary literary character named Auggie (from the book Wonder).  Aidan's whole face lit up with the comparison, instantly connecting to Auggie. We talked about Aidan and Auggie are alike in how they were teased, and the hurt that they both felt.  We talked about how they were different, in that Aidan can easily change out of a pink shirt or remove his nail polish, but Auggie cannot alter his facial deformity. Aidan's own face softened in understanding and in compassion, connecting Auggie to many other real-life kids who have endured relentless teasing for being different.  In the end, he asked me to remove the nail polish on his fingers.... except for one thumb.  He wanted to keep the thumb painted exactly as it was.

How easily we can remove the polish, change the shirt - yet how imperative it is that we make these choices for ourselves.

How important it is that we continue to find ways in which to be different, to stick out, to challenge the norms and beliefs and biases of those we encounter.

How essential it is that we continue to see past these differences to discover how much the same we really are.  Aidan? Auggie?  My 12-year old self, dressed in a painter's suit?  We share the same hurt of being made fun of.

And we share the same desire to be loved and accepted, exactly as we are made to be, exactly as we've chosen to be.  In our diversity, let us seek, let us find, let us celebrate that which is common....

...beginning with younger brothers who insist on "the same kind of nails as Aidan has on."