October 30, 2008

Best Laid Plans

Next weekend, my oldest friend, Amir, is coming to visit from the east coast. I've known him since I was 15, when he became like a second brother to me and a second son in our family. We went through high school and college and marriages and children and we never had one single romantic encounter with each other, which I think is kind of cool.

This afternoon, he called to talk about his visit and, in and among other things, he asked me, "How's Matt doing?" I hate that question. I never know what to say, because the truth (as it is, warped and all, in my head) is very long and over-dramatic and completely draining on anyone who's listening. But saying, "He's great!" is such a total lie that I can hardly spit it out of my mouth. So I usually end up somewhere in between, with "He's good, you know, same old, same old." But Amir pushes it, asks me what's going on. I can't bear to tell him that I think he's on drugs, but I do talk a little about his withdrawal from our family and lack of motivation. Then he asks me,

"Well, is he looking at schools?"

"You're kidding, right?" I ask.

"Really? No? It's that bad?" He sounds sympathetic, disappointed, surprised. And this is where I want to take a double dose of Prozac and kick back a glass of wine, because the absurdity of the conversation I am about to have is killing me. My kid doesn't want to go to college, and that is considered to be within the realm of "that bad".

This is indicative of my upbringing more than anything else. When we were kids, going to college wasn't an option; the only option involved was which one. And even that was limited by the amount of influence our fathers had on our choices. Even those of us who weren't getting good enough grades to end up anywhere impressive (me) were working toward that goal. I just never knew any different.

And I was pretty sure that was how I was raising my own kids, until this year. (I understand that college isn't for everyone. My bias here is clear, I guess.) So when Amir asks about Matt, and if he's looking at colleges, my throat tightens up. I want to be able to say yes. I want to be able to say that the dream he's had since he was five years old, of going to Annapolis and becoming a Navy pilot, has not entirely disappeared. It's not about pride. It's not that I want to brag, I just want to be able to say something definitive. Something better than just no. Amir starts to tell me about the sons of two of our mutual friends from long ago, both the same age as Matt. He says it's been so interesting watching the three of them grow into such different kinds of kids. I know he's not trying to be judgemental. I know I'm hearing things he's not saying (or meaning) but I can't help feeling defeated and defensive when he tells me that Zach might come up north to go to school at Ivy League U, and John's looking at The Air Force Academy, or whatever school his dad went to. I just want to tell him to shut up. But then he says "No worries, Matt just needs to find his bliss." Yeah. I think he's finding it, right now. Down at the river, behind the school, with a bunch of trailer trash losers.

I love my son. God, I love him so much it kills me. I think he's brilliant and I think he's funnier than hell. He's kind and generous and all good things you want your kid to be. But I also think he's lost. I know, I have a propensity for making mountains out of molehills. I am grateful he's in school every day. He's not in jail. He's still got half-way decent grades. Still, I want the very best for him. I want him to go to college, then drive off into Alaska in a school bus if that's what he wants to do. Or flip burgers or work on cars. I really don't care. More than anything, I want him to have choices. I want him to be able to wake up when he's my age and change his entire career if he wants to, simply because he can. I just don't want him to give up now. Not yet.

October 29, 2008


I hope my friend, Kim, doesn't mind if I brag about her. She's quite possibly the coolest mom I know. You know that song, Stacy's Mom? That's all I'm saying. She's terminally cute and tragically hip. She's smart and hysterically funny, but that's not all. She's totally motivated. That's what really impresses me. She's got three kids and a dog who ought to be on Ritalin (the dog, not the kids) but she still manages to work part time and - get this - write a book. Yeah, like a real book. Wait, let me clarify that. It's not her first book. It's the first one that will be published. So, actually, she's written several books. And a blog.

I'm one down, several to go.

When I was in college, I fancied myself a writer. I wrote poetry (air quotes on that, please) like some Bohemian renegade, although I was the biggest, saddest wanna-be ever. Remember what I said about bare feet a few posts ago? I couldn't even wear Birkenstocks convincingly. I tried all the hippie clothing, but I kept having to accessorize. Or wear high heels. I just couldn't cut it, no matter how much time I spent in the local coffee shops, at the movie house, in the women's theater troupe, I was still just a suburban girl from a well-off family, whose father was paying her way through school.

So, instead, I wrote. It was as close to artsy as I was ever going to get. I wrote my heart out through every ridiculously dysfunctional relationship I had (and I use the word relationship loosely). I wrote sob stories, and happy stories, and dark stories about suicide; I wrote short plays and painfully long chapters of (I'm so embarrassed) romance novels. I dreamed that one day, I'd be published; I'd become insanely famous and travel the world. I'd hob nob with other famous authors, like Maya and John and J.D., and they would come and hang out at my Vermont farmhouse for long weekends. Hollywood would make a movie out of every novel I wrote, so even illiterate people would know my name.

The thing is, I never wrote the book. I never finished it. I started a new one, and another one, and another one. Over the years, they were all stuffed into boxes labelled "memorabilia" that stacked up in my various apartments and rental homes, and finally, now, rest in my husband's neat and tidy garage. I gave it up when I had kids; who the hell has time to write when you're raising a family?

But a few months ago, my dear friend Joanne, (a brilliant writer herself), got me writing again. She started a blog with me. Then she started her own. Then I came here. Now we write every day, somewhere. We are writers again. We've picked up our old novels, or modern versions of them, or new ones, and we've been recharged. I sit here and I write about my kids and my value as a parent, but at the end of the day, I'm really just trying to estimate my own worth. Without a career, some days it's hard to do. Who am I? What do I have to offer the world? (Particularly on days when I feel the children I am offering up are not exactly my best effort.)

Kim tells me I'm a writer too, even though she's the one with the book deal. I thought I'd be jealous as all get out if someone I knew got published before I did, but honestly, I'm so outrageously happy for her, it's crazy. It just feels like good karma, like things are coming together and the stars are aligning and all that good shit. It's not about being published, I realized, it's about doing what I love. It's about picking up the pen again, and, as Joanne says, showing up at the page. It's just about the writing.

Today, at the bookstore, Jack and I were browsing the aisles when I called him over to the Young Adult section. I pushed my finger between two books, one whose author's name began with Da and the other with Di. "Check that out," I said, "that's where Kim's book is going to be. Right there." And instead of feeling like this should be me, I felt something I hadn't expected.

If I want to be a writer, I realized, I'm in good company.

October 27, 2008

Cry Baby

Ok, let's lighten this up a little. I think I might have scared people with my last post. A little TMI. I'm not really headed for Western State, if that's what you're thinking. (I'm much more inclined to save up for one of those cushy lock-ups, like in Palm Springs, where a daily massage is called therapy.) Besides, I can't really succumb to insanity, not yet anyway. Matt would never get past security to visit me, with all the metal on those belts.

Jack carved pumpkins with the neighbors yesterday. Sure, my feelings were hurt. And yes, I have to admit, I took it out on my husband, as if it were his fault. What a b*** I am! I was having some uber-fantasy of "family time" that all went awry when, as it turned out, I was actually the only family member who wanted to participate. I had visions of hot apple cider and soggy newspaper all over the kitchen table, laughter and stories of holidays past, your regular June Cleaver snapshot. But realistically? Jack wanted to hang with his friends. Casey had to hit the road. John had already been pumpkin and costume shopping, for God's sake, (what more did I want?) and Matt...well, Matt would just as soon have a limb removed than carve pumpkins with his family. Or do anything with his family, come to think of it.

So there I was, wallowing around in my self pity all day, making the rest of the world miserable because no one wanted to carve pumpkins with me. Waaah!

October 25, 2008

A cocktail by any other name...

The problem with being crazy is that if you're not acting like it, no one believes you. When I first met my new shrink a couple of weeks ago, he asked me questions like

"Do you hear voices in your head?"
"Do you black out for significant periods of time?"
"Do you have out-of-body experiences?"
"Have you ever tried to hurt yourself, or others?"

And I was sitting there thinking Huh? I told you I think I'm crazy, I didn't say I'm a freakin' whack job.

I come from a family who, for a very long time, didn't believe that stress existed. I don't think this is much different from most families of my generation. Our parents faced challenges and hard times with grit and stoicism, not anti-depressants. But that grit and stoicism was heavily augmented with a couple of stiff martinis and a lunch time bridge game for our mothers, so it wasn't all internal fortitude. Instead of heading into a dark closet for a morning of crying and run-away-from-home fantasies, our moms got the playing cards and the lime slices out and made the best of it.

But then drinking in the middle of the day became its own kind of craziness, didn't it? Somewhere along the line, after women working outside the home became the norm, kicking back a cocktail before the kids got off the bus earned its own stigma. Suddenly, needing a little pick-me-up before taking Susie to ballet wasn't acceptable. Before long, it meant you should probably go to A Meeting. So what did we replace it with? I'm no social commentator, so I can't pretend to chronicle the developmental stages between mid-day margaritas and daily doses of anti-depressants, but it sure seems like the same thing to me.

Why is it so not ok to need help? Why should we be able to handle it alone? Ok, I know you’re thinking, "Drugs and alcohol are not help." And you're right. I get that. But even going to counseling, reading self-help books, all that is part of the general belief that if you need that, there must be something wrong with you. We - women, men, parents, breadwinners, caregivers - we should all be able to handle everything that comes our way, no matter the level of mental or emotional challenge, without ever once asking for advice, regulating a chemical imbalance, or, God forbid, cracking a beer. Which I think is so funny – in America we drink “for recreation”. We don’t drink for self-medication. Seriously? Aren’t those synonymous?

I fear I ramble. (Yeah, I fear it every day, but I meant right now.) In my pursuits to become a better person and a better mom, I’ll use all the help I can get, in whatever form it finds me. I’ll try to be judicious in my journey though. If they tell me a lobotomy will help, I’ll make sure to get a second opinion before I lace up my own straightjacket.

October 24, 2008

PTA Fridays

One of the things I started doing this year that I haven't done in the past is to become involved in the PTA. I signed up to be one of the Friday Treats Moms - kind of like a sugar pusher on the playground, really. A bunch of us set up folding tables at the playshed and sell junk - candy, cookies, pencils, popcorn, spirals, you name it - to all the kids, for a fat PTA profit. The first day, I was appalled. Look at all this sugar! Who thought this was a good idea ?? But that first week I had so much fun, talking to the other moms, talking to the kids, being a part of something new, I was absolutely ready to do it again. And the profit we made was amazing, really. I sort of felt like wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora, you know, hang out by the swings and lure the kids over.

At first, though, I was dreading it. You've got to admit, there's a certain stigma about PTA Moms. I was afraid that if I signed my name and wrote my membership check, I would slowly begin to morph into one of two things: the perky-peppy ex-cheerleader helicopter mom who is on the PTA because there's a level of control involved there that she can't get just hanging out in the house; or, I'd gain (yet another) 50 lbs and begin wearing applique sweatshirts with stretch pants while sewing curtains for the puppet show in the kindergarten classroom. Neither one of which was all that appealing, even though I'm no fashion maven to begin with and there's really nothing wrong with ex-cheerleaders. (I would proudly be one, if I had ever been cool enough to make the squad.) But when I got there, the Moms weren't like that at all. They're younger than I am, which I'm used to since Jack is my youngest. But they were friendly and welcoming, even though they all knew each other already.

We're about eight weeks into school now, and I look forward to my Fridays. It's only two hours out of my day and Jack likes it that I'm one of the Treats Moms. I like knowing what's going on at the school and who he hangs out with at recess; I like talking to the other parents about the goings-on that I've never paid any attention to. Today, when the bell rang, I hugged Jack and asked him if he was too cool to kiss his mom in front of his friends. He kind of turned his head, laughing, and said "yeah." So I grabbed him and planted kisses all over his face while the girls around him laughed and tried to help me hold him still. He was laughing at himself and at me, all the way off the playground. It made my day.

I was never involved in school like this when Matt was little. What if I had been? I wonder, if I had been more involved, would he have wandered so far? (Note: that does not translate into If I had been a better mom, maybe my kid wouldn't be so messed up.) I'm just curious; will this help Jack? Will he feel less inclined to push the envelope if he knows I'm right there, on the edge of the playground? And if so, how long do I do it? Right up through high school? There's a fine line, I think, between being involved and being invasive. I have no intention of chaperoning the senior prom, but I would at least like to know the last name of the girl he'll take, which is more than I know about Matt's Homecoming date.

I'm glad I did this. We do our job, but we spend a lot of time talking and laughing out there every Friday. We have a lot in common, just because we're all there. We share our stories and families freely, as if we're all in this together and there's nothing to hide. As if...hmmm.

October 23, 2008


A few years ago, I started taking care of these two neighbor kids in the morning before school. Their parents go to work much earlier than the bus comes, so Tim and Abby would come over and wait with Jack for an hour or so. This year, it's just Abby, who's nine; Tim's in middle school now and leaves at the crack of dawn with the rest of the big kids.

I love Abby. She's brilliant. And I don't mean astronaut smart, which she probably is; she's in the PEAK program and is probably blowing away half the kids in there. I mean brilliant in the ways of wit and wisdom, that is so rare even in most adults I know. She's a little old lady in a 4th grader's body, I swear. A long time ago, we were walking to the bus stop with the boys and they were totally out of control, burping, farting, jumping on each other. We walked behind, slowly,(because Abby does everything deliberately, at the pace of a snail) and I muttered "Boys!" She looked over at me, shook her head in resigned disbelief and said "You know, Tam, some days I don't know how you do it." She kills me.

This morning, she came with us to school for Jack's conference. He got hit pretty hard, by both his teacher and the music teacher. He can't sit still. He talks too much. He's off task. He won't pay attention. (Genetically, I didn't just pass down my freckles. I made sure he got all the good stuff too.) As we were waiting for school to start, I said to him,
"You know, buddy, the thing about acting out all the time is that eventually, you end up in trouble all the time. Then you end up hating school and you end up miserable all the time."

From the back seat, Abby pipes up. "Stress cuts your life short."

"Indeed it does." I say.

"What's stress?" Jack asks

"Well, like things you worry about and things that don't go right in your life and things that make you unhappy." Like your brother, I want to say. But I don't.

"Why does it make your life shorter?"

"Because it's bad for your heart. It makes your heart work harder and use up all its energy that it could use on better stuff if you didn't have stress. So it quits working sooner." (By the way, I absolutely congratulated myself on this explanation. I'm not sure I'd ever tried to define it myself.) Jack nods, understanding.

And then, because God knows exactly how to put things in persective, Abby says,

"Yeah. My mom better let me quit taking piano lessons soon or I'm not going to live very long."

I love her.

October 18, 2008

The boy I knew

I can't be the only 40-something mom who feels like her youth got sucked out of her with each placenta. Tell me I'm not alone in this. I taught high school, for God's sake; how can I not be in touch with my youth? I look at Matty and I realize there is no way on earth I will ever relate to him, no matter how many times I read his MySpace, peek through his text messages or evesdrop on his conversations (oh yes I do). I have no idea what goes through his head or what's in his heart. How can this be? Where did I lose him? And when? How can I have forgotten everything I knew about being young?

When he was little, I always said, not my kid. I looked at moms in the grocery store whose kids had funky hair, or offensive t-shirts and passed judgement so quickly I almost tripped over it. I was so sure that my kids would grow up to be the respectful teenagers that Nickelodeon would have us believe live in every house in America. My kids would never talk back, break the rules, sneak out of the house, do drugs, steal, cheat or lie. Yet, here I am. Buying urine tests at Target and spending half my days researching the scene/emo/punk culture (see? I don't even know the difference) in fear of being in denial. Which, I have to say, is one of my greatest fears. I'm terrified of not knowing; I still pass judgement (God forgive me) on the mothers of the Columbine kids. How in the world do you not know that your kids are hoarding semi-automatic weapons under their beds? And feel free to judge me there. I'm taking the risk of honesty. My husband laughs at me, though. I've been worried that Matt was going to shoot up his school since he was six. I guess I figured if I worried about it enough, it wouldn't happen...? That's how afraid I am of not being aware.

Some days, he's just the boy I knew. He's soft and kind and he actually seems like he needs me, if only for a split second. But before I can even get my heart around him, he's gone. He's some kid I don't even know anymore and I swear it came out of the blue.

So... when I am delighted by the fact that Jack will come back to hug me, if he forgets at the bus stop in the morning, I should also remember that it can all change in a heartbeat, just when I swear I 'm fully awake and paying attention.


There's something about being barefoot that lends itself to sanity. Mind you, I really hate being barefoot. The thought of it is endlessly appealing: carefree, uninhibited, edgy, sexy. I always wanted to be that girl who went barefoot everywhere, who simply couldn't wear shoes because it's so restricting. The girl whose Indian print, crepe skirt brushed the tops of her unpolished, tanned toes, or whose shredded, faded Levis wrinkled under her caloused yet beautiful heels - but no, that wasn't me. My toes were (and are, come to think of it) perfectly polished, always. Scrubbed and exfoliated into unnatural states of smoothness, simply to tuck them into expensive sandals. Usually high heeled, frequently impractical, but always adorable.
Barefoot is far too au natural for me. Barefoot usually means that something yucky is going to get stuck to the bottom of my foot. That I'm going to contract some awful disease or that, simply, my feet aren't all that pretty and they really need to be accessorized. It means that my back will hurt later from lack of arch support and that I will have to get a pedicure ASAP.

But the moments in my life when being barefoot is ok - there are a few - are the ones in which I see myself most clearly. On the beach, with my boys. In the shower, with no place to hide. And at the firepit, all summer, feeling alive and worry free and empowered and, yes, beautiful. I already miss my summer, the late nights with no concerns for bedtimes or workdays. I miss the conversations and the way we let our guards down around that fire. In some ways, it was like therapy, sitting there with our toes and hearts warming to each other. I am sad that when summer ends, we retreat into our homes like turtles, a little for protection, a little out of fear that something dangerous may be around the corner now that the sun isn't here to protect us. I can't wait for it to return, for us all to come out of our hiding places and invite the sun back in, to kick off our shoes, our cares and worries, and prop our toes up on that stone hearth again.

Parenting is a Random Act

It occurs to me that parenting is not linear. It's not chronological, or even sequential. It's scattered, like the photographs I keep of their childhoods: some in this box, some in that drawer, a few in this album, many still trapped in the computer. Parenting, I think, is an every day, random act of love, knowledge, wisdom, error, fear, hope and courage, with nothing you learned yesterday playing any real significant part in what you do today. It's a constant challenge of heart that is confusing at best, debilitating at its worst. Someone, I wish I knew who, once said that having a child is "like walking around with your heart outside of your body for the rest of your life." I'm sure I have never heard anything so true. Every moment of my life, my heart is out there, learning, growing, hurting, loving and moving, ever so slowly, farther away from me. I watch it, split in three but multiplied by a thousand, explore and create and come back to me for a second; I turn my back and reach out my hand for it in the same instant. I keep it close, I let it go, I am afraid it will get lost but I am certain that it will know its way home in the end.

I think sometimes that it should all happen like their school pictures - kindergarten, first grade, second grade, all fitting neatly, one behind the other in the frame, hanging in the hall. But that's not the way it is. In one moment they can be a small child and a wise adult; in one body they can be terrified, but fearless. There is no logical pattern from which I can derive expectations; I want to anticipate what this next day will bring, but I can't. There is nothing to follow, nothing to refer to. It seems as though there should be, don't get me wrong. Life assumes that we learn from our mistakes but in reality, we learn only from and in the present, truly. We learn that yesterday, the greatest love we know will have been tested to its very limits, and today, we will be able to express that very same love in its deepest form. No conditions, no provisions.

Matt is out tonight, courting a new girl. I don't know her, but I know one thing. She sees in my son the goodness, the heart, the intensity and the passion that pulls me to him no matter how desperately he tries to push me away. She sees in him the five year old kid and the 40 year old man, the funny guy and the guy who self professes to love too much. Yes, that's my kid. The one who loves so much it hurts. I am proud that he gets that from me and I am angry at God for giving him that same cross to bear his whole life. I don't suppose I'd have it any other way; if loving too deeply is his greatest flaw, so be it. Like my father and me, one day we will both be able to see that the core of our discontent comes mostly from being cut from the same cloth. Matt is just like me, just like his Grandad - I should have known. I can tell you stories about Jack and his bright outlook on everything in life because it's easy. It's happy and positive, and even when he's missing the bus and making himself miserable, I'm able to sit and laugh about it. It seems that all I ever tell you about Matt is how he's breaking my heart but I think you probably already read between the lines. He breaks my heart not because he's leaving, but because I have to let him go; I have to help him find the courage to walk away and the strength to know that I will always, always be here when he comes back.