Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Pup Came Home for Christmas

By now, those of you who are my Facebook friends are aware that I lost my mind a few weeks ago and adopted a puppy. We'd been talking about getting a dog for several months; the kids so kindly reminding me that I could take drugs for my pet allergies. After spending countless hours on PetFinders and visiting the SPCA, I decided to take the kids to a Meet and Greet with Home at Last Pet Rescue. Given that it was 30 minutes away in Blue Bell, it was clear that we were being fairly serious about this. The caveats were clear, however, no puppies and we're not bringing one home today.

So we met Lily, a puppy, and took her home with us that very day. I obviously have exceptionally strong willpower.

Thus far I'm glad to report that Lily has brought more happiness than regret, though I have to confess that in those first few days I was convinced she needed to be returned. The tension at home was reaching dangerously high levels as everyone claimed it was someone else's job to have been watching her when she stopped to pee on the floor. Now, however, the potty accidents have dropped off considerably and all we're dealing with is a sweet puppy who occasionally transforms, Gremlin-like into a lunging, teeth-baring monster.

Still, we all love her. Except Scout. The cat. Scout's about seven or eight. She was here during the Maddie years (Maddie was a nine-year-old yellow lab we adopted who lived until she was 12.) Scout's about as excited to have Lily in our lives as she was to have Maddie. When we brought the puppy home I'm pretty sure I heard her say "What the hell were you thinking? Are you trying to take several years off my life?" She then went away somewhere for several hours to contemplate her next move, which included puffing up to twice her size and hissing menacingly from places where Lily couldn't reach. I keep hoping one day I'll find them curled up together, giving each other baths, but it's not looking good. In fact, from her perch high above the refrigerator, Scout looked down on Lily and made it perfectly clear how she feels about our newest family member.

The following transcript has been translated from the original Felinese:

"Listen up you stupid mutt:

  1. You think they like you? Think again. You're sleeping in a crate. What self-respecting animal does that? What do you think their bed is for? 
  2. I would NEVER eat your poop. That's just stupid. Have you checked your breath lately? Damn, you nasty!
  3. This year we have a lame ass little Christmas tree sitting in the front window. Why? Because you can't be trusted not to put every single thing in your mouth, including pine branches and ornaments. I loved laying under the Christmas tree. You've ruined that. Someday you'll pay.
  4. What's with the big-to-do every time one of the humans comes home? You're making a fool of yourself. And making me look bad. 
  5. If you think that when you get bigger you're going to mess with me, you're sadly mistaken. I will always be able to look down on you from high above, and I look forward to smacking you on the head with my paw. You're going down.
  6. You're not supposed to eat the Christmas wrapping paper. You're supposed to wait till they're trying to use it and then lay on it so they can't get anything done. 
  7. Similarly, you don't beg for the humans to hold you when they're working on the computer. You just jump up on the desk and lay on the keyboard. Are you detecting a theme here, numb skull? 
  8. When I kill stuff and leave it outside, it's because it's gross. You eating it makes you nasty, baby.
  9. A leash? Really? Have you no pride?
  10. You go to bed the same time as our people? Loser. Night time is the right time to play, lady! You'll never be top dog in this joint. Sleep with your eyes open, pup, cause I'm watchin' you...

Here's hoping your holiday is harmonious and that you feel the love of family and friends! 

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Year of Books in Review

I had a Frances moment at dinner the other night. I said something along the lines of "I do quite like green beans." Actually, that was probably a more Albert-like statement, but you remember Frances, don't you? She was one of my favorites:

As I warmly recalled Bread and Jam for Frances, I thought of the many other wonderful children's books that have remained with me since I first read them to Ian and Abby. Leo the Lightening Bug. A Bad Case of the Stripes. Wings. Owl Moon. Nate the Great.

I always thought that being an elementary school librarian would be awesome because of the delightful new books that you would have to read as part of your job. But then I remembered that you'd also have to interact with young kids. So much for that idea.

Consider this trip down memory lane an introduction to my annual Books in Review blog post. For those of you who are new to Freakin' Angels, at the end of the year I like to share my thoughts on the books, movies and sometimes television shows that caught my attention over the past 12 months. While the movies I review are generally from the current year, I must note that the books I've read rarely are new releases. It's too hard to find copies at the library and I'm too cheap to buy them.

Now, without further ado, here are my top 10 reads of 2014.

1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans). Like I said, 904 pages. I've been at it for four months, and because I'm reading it digitally, it feels like I'm making no progress whatsoever. I compare it to a big bowl of spaghetti that you swear you've been eating for an hour, and yet the bowl seems just as full as when you started. So what's keeping me going on this 1870's classic? Simply put: It's brilliant, especially considering when it was written. George Eliot's humorous and insightful look at society--particularly a woman's place in it--is priceless. And somehow she manages to continue advancing the story with every page. Then there's the magical way she puts words together. For example:
For my part, I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self.

2. American Rust by Philipp Meyer. One of two books that received 5-star ratings from me in 2014, and a most interesting writing style. Written from the perspectives of six different characters, mostly in streams of consciousness, the reader is the only one who knows everything that's happening. The writing reflects the characters' state of mind, moving from coherent, full sentences, to disconnected phrases with no punctuation. It felt so real, presenting such an accurate picture of life in a dying steel town, and human nature: good, bad, right, wrong, ethical, unethical, moral, immoral. Like I said, I loved it, but it wasn't popular with everyone. One of my Freakin' Angel friends abandoned it. You know who you are.

3. Absolutist by John Boyne. My second 5-star book this year. Nothing as stylistically unique in the writing, just a really strong and moving story with the historical elements that I particularly enjoy in my novels. Highly recommended.

4. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. If you're one of the 20 people in America who haven't read this book, you'll want to. An amazingly true story that convinces me we'd all learn so much more about history if it was taught through the stories of those who lived it.

5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. If you're one of the 15 people in America who haven't read this yet, you should--even though chances are good that you'll hate it. Or at least hate the ending. Personally, I thought it was a wickedly fun read and the ending was perfect given what we were working with! I don't think I've ever read a more uniquely twisted story. And I thought the movie was really well done.

6. Naked by David Sedaris. This is the year I discovered David Sedaris. What a pity it took me so long! There's something about self-deprecating humor and naked honesty (pun intended) that I greatly appreciate and enjoy (and relate to). I have only one recommendation when it comes to Mr. Sedaris: Don't listen to him on audio when you have children in the car (he's a solid PG-13; or R-rated, depending on how protective you are).

7. Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum. This was the 2012-2013 One Book Villanova selection and I definitely recommend it. It's a great novel with painful parts nicely balanced with a good deal of humor. It deals with the lives of youth with developmental disabilities living in so-called care centers and homes. The only challenge in reading it (aside from the painful parts) is in keeping the characters straight (each chapter is told from a different perspective).

8. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. Read by my neighborhood book club and well-suited for generating discussion. Presents a great moral and ethical dilemma: Would you keep a baby that isn't yours if you wanted one more than anything and couldn't have your own?

9. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. As described on Goodreads.com: With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle. Different than the books I typically read, I recommend it!

10. Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. Haven't read a book so quickly in a very long time. It's the kind of page-turner that you grab at a traffic light. It's not 5-star quality (I'm a tough critic), but if you're looking to be entertained with a fast-paced story, this will do the trick.

Since I didn't read an overwhelming number of books this year, here's a list of the remaining titles and the ratings I gave them on Goodreads.com:

  • The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Definitely not my typical read.  Four stars.
  • Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter (the singer-songwriter). An angel speaks to the main character. Through his horse. Four stars.
  • An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer. A sweet read about a widower finding love again. Three stars.
  • All You Could Ask For by Mark Greenberg (the ESPN talk show host). The sports guy talks about the relationship between three women at difficult points in their lives. Meh. Three stars.
  • Love at Absolute Zero by Christopher Meeks. It started out strong with quirky characters, an interesting premise (can science predict/find love), and a good deal of humor, but it ended up reading like a predictable cheesy romance novel. Two stars.
  • The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. Villanova's One Book 2013-2014. Interesting. Three stars.
So that's it for me. Would love to hear what memorable books you read this year!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Miss Shimmer, um, about this rating..."

Last Friday I took a half day's vacation to judge a speech and debate competition at a South Philly charter school. Ian's coach was desperate for help (each competing school has to provide judges), and since I particularly enjoy critiquing others, I volunteered. This wasn't my first time judging at one of these events, but on previous occasions I judged Oral Interpretation, which is what I competed in during high school (OI is basically dramatic reading). At last week's meet, I was needed to judge two categories that were new to me: Public Forum and Lincoln-Douglas Debate. They're both debating contests, with the differences being that PF involves teams of two arguing pro or con on some predetermined topic (genetically modified foods, in this case), while LD has two individuals face off on a more values/ethics-based topic.

While I didn't particularly enjoy Public Forum (I kept wanting to interject), Lincoln-Douglas was especially difficult, mostly due to the two students I had to judge. On one side was a young man who seemed to be advocating for "the right to be forgotten," as in disappearing from social media if one so chooses. I say he seemed to be speaking on that subject because honestly, I wasn't entirely sure what he was trying to communicate. This was not an auspicious start for my first LD. Little did I know things were about to go from bad to worse. Or at least mediocre to bad.

The young lady, who seemed to be speaking for the public's right to know, presented an opening statement that was nearly incoherent. She stumbled while reading her notes verbatim, never making eye contact, and most of what she read hardly seemed relevant to the discussion.

The event became increasingly awkward when it was time for the students to challenge one another based on the statements they'd each made. The young lady referred to whatever notes she'd arrived with, and made points that were completely unrelated to what the young man had proposed. It was almost as if she hadn't listened or at least hadn't understood what he was saying. She looked either half asleep or under the influence of who knows what. It was painful to watch. She sealed her fate when, given six minutes for her concluding statement, she used only two. And of course, in those two minutes, she said nothing of any value.

My job was to rate them each on a scale that looked something like this (I may be off by a number or two):

26-30 - Excellent
21-25 - Good
18-20 - Fair
15-17 - Below average

The form noted that scores under 15 should be reserved for those who exhibited behavioral problems or issues with their conduct.

I should mention that prior to beginning the meet, the school host asked that we not judge too harshly as it is early in the year and we don't want to discourage students.

Talk about your quandaries.

I rated him a 21 and her a 16, provided lengthy comments and suggestions, and turned my paperwork in to the tabulation room.

As I walked away, I heard "Miss Shimmer (dear God, people, it's one "M," which makes it a long "I"), can you come here for a moment?"

You might guess where this is going. 

I was told, "We really don't want to give anyone less than a 20. Can you give her a 20 and him a 21?"

I replied, "There was considerably more than one point difference in their performances."

"Okay, then give him more points?"

Because I lack the cajones to stand my ground, I crossed out my 16 and gave the worst speaker I've ever seen/heard a 20. I bumped up mediocre man to a 25. And then I mentally began this blog post.

This is a classic example of where we go wrong with youth today. We avoid critiquing them too harshly for fear of hurting their self-esteem. We sugarcoat everything in the hopes they'll believe they can do anything. What's wrong with judging them fairly, pointing out both their strengths and weaknesses so they have a realistic sense of self? What's wrong with suggesting they need to work harder if they want to be better? By never using red pens on homework assignments or tests, by giving everyone a trophy for participating, by telling them they're good, great, or awesome, we're setting them up for a serious shock when they enter the real world where there's no "pass go, collect $200" just for showing up.

And while we're busy patting the back of the below average, we diminish the accomplishments of the standout. Or, we over-inflate the mediocre to establish a reasonable distinction between them and the lesser student, athlete, or artist. My mediocre student didn't deserve a score that had him on the cusp of an excellent rating, but in order for him to justifiably believe that he significantly outperformed his competition, that's how I had to score his performance. Tell me this - why have a below average rating on the scale if we're not supposed to use it?

Believe it or not, I'm not advocating that we crush spirits and kill dreams. I'm merely suggesting that we be honest with kids, crediting them with resilience, which they possess in spades as compared to most adults. If we don't prepare them for honest evaluations and critiques now, at the first sign of criticism on the job, they're going to crumble.

I expect some of you will disagree with me on this and I welcome your feedback. Just try to be gentle. No red pens. No low scores. You know I don't handle criticism very well.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Back Burner for the Book

It’s been a while since I've had that whole “What am I doing with my life? Will my time on this earth have meant anything at all?” meltdown. I found myself in that miserable mental state a great deal during the last year or two in my previous job. I felt unsatisfied and unfulfilled and spent a lot of time wondering what I was supposed to do with whatever gifts I’d been given. Of course, being me, I also spent a good amount of time whining and feeling sorry for myself, which was considerably easier than actually putting on my big girl panties and dealing with it.

Miraculously, despite breaking every rule of job searching, two years ago I found myself in a new position at Villanova University and I haven’t had that empty feeling since. Until now.  It’s not the job, which I truly love, it’s more about the rest of my life, which somehow feels increasingly hollow.

Rob wants to know why I go to bed so damn early? It's so I can avoid the void. A woman can only watch so many episodes of The Gilmore Girls in one sitting before she realizes she’s pathetic. You know it’s time to make a change when you beg your daughter to put down her homework so you can watch television together.

I have some sense of what has caused this rather sudden mental and emotional nosedive: 
  1. The season. I tend to retreat into my head as the days grow shorter and darker. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll drown given how much swimming is going on in my brain.
  2. My three-year sentence commitment as a church elder has come to an end, and I resigned from my committee work at the same time. What I failed to realize is that, while I bitched about it ad nauseam, serving actually gave me a sense of purpose.
  3. I lost my 10-hour a week consulting job. It wasn't much, but it was just enough to keep me busy in the evenings.
  4. My kids need me less and less, which I always thought would be heavenly, but now I’m discovering is actually kinda sad. The only things they want from me are dinner and rides to friends’ houses, neither which I’m particularly excited to offer.
I have determined that the main cause of my current funk, however, is book related. Nothing I've read, but rather the book I haven’t written. I've been down this road before, but at this very moment I know three friends/acquaintances who are enjoying publishing success. One has published his second children’s book and recently had a signing at a local store. A second is looking forward to the release of her first book in December. And a third is publishing her third book!

It goes without saying that my childishly competitive nature demands that I figuratively put pen to paper and write my own damn book. Not because I have a book burning inside of me, but rather because I hate when others succeed at something I always hoped I would do. Well, let me be the first to tell you that this is not the best approach to becoming a writer. Envy does not lead to success. Truth is, years ago I wrote the first paragraph of my novel. Trouble is, that’s all I've got. I have no idea where to go with it or how it would end. And I don’t want to write a mediocre book. I want to write a critically acclaimed book. 

I know what you're thinking: "Here comes the whining and excuses. All the reasons why Kim doesn't have the energy or the self-discipline to make it happen." But you're wrong! In fact, I have a solution for what ails me. Ready? 

Instead of writing a book, I'm going to become an actress!

Stay tuned...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Good News: We're Going to Work Together on This!

Nothing strikes fear into men, women and children like the prospect of a "group project." Has anyone of above average intelligence with a decent work ethic ever been psyched to hear those two words? As children, we learn early on in our education, that "group project" is code for a dysfunctional team approach that leaves everyone unhappy except for the biggest slacker. Schools torture students with group projects throughout their elementary, middle and high school years, to prepare them for more of the same in college. In college, group assignments are intended to reflect "the real world" in which working well in teams is vital to a company's success. Once we arrive in the working world, we lie to our employers when we state in our cover letter that we're "team players." Of course, there is the possibility that I'm the odd man out on this and the rest of you crave such project-based camaraderie, but my sense is that I'm not alone in preferring a stroll over hot coals to working on a team.

It's quite likely that it's the Type As among you who are nodding your heads in agreement while enduring flashbacks of evenings spent redoing a member's contribution to the "group" project. Type As want nothing more than to finish the work efficiently, correctly and without other humans mucking things up. Type As want control and that's exactly what's lacking when the assignment calls for teamwork. Even when you respect your group members and, in general, find them to be competent human beings, you're still likely to mutter, "I'd rather do it myself."

In the past year, I have been reminded several times of the evil that is group projects. I experienced sympathy pains when my colleague Kelly announced that she was working on such an assignment in one of her MBA courses. On another occasion I met with a fairly large group of school parents who are going to work together to put on a successful fundraising event. This "project" revealed an interesting dynamic that I would title "The Swarthmore Syndrome." The way it works is that all the parents from Swarthmore know best. 'Nuff said.

Perhaps the pinnacle of my personal group-based experiences, however, have been two years worth of committee and sessions meetings at church where the unfortunate among us were called into service to re-envision and rebuild our fellowship. I love my church family dearly, but putting Christians together in groups leads to the longest, most drawn out processes ever, accompanied by hushed side conversations, overcommittment by 20% of the frozen chosen, discussions ad nauseam, a great deal of private grumbling, and a lot of public prayer. I think the only thing that could make the experience bearable would be providing adult beverages during meetings, but that would be in violation of the new drug and alcohol policy.

Lest we let the workplace off the group project hot seat, I'd have to say that this is where you're going to find the widest range of so-called team contributors. I suppose this is a result of the salary element. Now, you might think that a paycheck would make a noticeably positive difference in teamwork participation, but based on my personal experiences of the past twenty years, you would be mistaken. In fact, to help those of you are just now entering the workforce, I've created this simple guide to identifying those you may encounter on your team:

  • The Naysayer: It can’t be done. 
  • The Boxer: Don’t ask me to think outside of it.
  • The Historian: That’s not the way we’ve done it in the past.
  • The Soother: Don’t worry about it being perfect, no one gets fired here.
  • The Amnesiac:  If we just ignore it, the boss soon will forget he even gave us the project.
  • The Suck Up: Quick to volunteer, less quick to work, quick to offer to present it to the boss.
  • The Millennial: Assigned to task, encounters first obstacle, commences whining.
  • The Thrill Seeker: It won't take long. We'll get around to it.  
  • The Meet-aholic: Let's meet to discuss next steps, again. I'll bring donuts.
  • The Bucker: It’s not my job.
  • The Pre-Retiree: Been there, done that. It is what it is. 
  • The Once and Done: I tried. It didn’t work. Oh well.
  • The Know-it-All: Type A without social skills.
  • The Fantasizer: Let's try to run a six-month television ad campaign with the $200 in our marketing budget.
  • Frankie Goes to Hollywood (a.k.a.: "Relax, Don't Do It"): There’s always tomorrow. I’m heading home. I've had enough for today. 

And then there's my personal favorite:

  • The Dismisser: The beyond-ballsy colleague who simply declines when presented with an "opportunity" to take on a new project. 
A colleague and friend of mine (someone whom I'm delighted to work with), sent me this helpful venn diagram. Please refer to it the next time you're asked to lead a team. You'll save yourself a good deal of pain and may actually find you enjoy the group project experience!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

I have a doctor's appointment this morning. This is not one of those that you schedule months in advance for your regular checkup. This is one of those where you call and tell them you really need to see the doctor now

I'm not ill, exactly, I just get the sense that something's not right (no smart ass comments, please). For weeks I've been going to bed around 9 p.m. (occasionally earlier), and even though I sleep between 9-10 hours a night, there are still days where I honestly don't know how I'm going to keep my head from hitting the desk in the middle of the afternoon. Then there are my aches and pains. Everyday, even if it's been a week since my last workout, I find there's always something that hurts.

The impetus for today's appointment, however, is my memory loss. While I've had plenty of those "walk into a room and have no idea why" experiences, lately I find myself forgetting something in a matter of seconds. Usually it's harmless enough: Did I put on deodorant just five seconds ago? A sniff solves that mystery. But two nights ago I took my daily medication, which I keep in an old-person daily pill case, and literally seconds later I couldn't remember if I had already taken it. I looked at the day on the pill case and for some reason I was completely befuddled. Without much thought, I took my daily medication. Again. As a result, I woke up at 3:30 a.m., developed a serious case of sweating and trembling hands, and cried. Obviously anti-depressants do NOT make you happier if you take more of them than prescribed. 

So yes, I'm seeing the doctor today and while my self-diagnosis is Lyme's disease (based on the fatigue and aches and pains, plus the weird red spot on my stomach, and the fact that I've found ticks in the house courtesy of the cat), I can almost guarantee that the doctor will put fatigue, aches and pains, and forgetfulness together and diagnosis me with "growing old." He's said it before. Sometimes I think he doesn't take me seriously. I know one of you is going to tell me to find a new doctor, but this appears to be a common problem (hmm...the doctor's being nonchalant or the growing old thing?). 

This past summer, my father fell off the dock in the marina next to his boat. He seriously bruised one side of his torso and thought he had broken a finger. A visit to his physician resulted in an exchange that went something like this:

Doc: What happened?
Dad: Well, I fell stepping onto the dock. I think...
Doc: (cutting him off) You fell because you're getting older. You think you can still do all the things you used to do and the reality is that you can't. You need to slow down.

My father told me later that what he was about to tell the doctor, before he was rudely interrupted, was that he'd had a dizzy spell, which obviously contributed to the fall. Was the dizzy spell the result of age or an entirely separate issue that the doctor took no time to diagnose?

My father and I are alike in many ways, including our refusal to "go gentle into that good night." My dad is 73-years old and hasn't given up a single thing that I've always known him to do. I guarantee that if I could get my hands on a set of water skis and a boat to tow him, he'd happily give it a go. About the only thing he's saying no to these days is amusement park rides, and that happens to most of us when we hit our 40s and spinning things make us want to puke.

Riding roller coasters and boogie boarding are my two main "I am not too old" holdouts. The roller coasters usually leave me needing a chiropractor, and the boogie board may plant me face down in the sand (if I actually manage to catch a wave), but I refuse to say no to what have been sources of great pleasure since I was a kid. My greatest fear is that if I skip just one summer at the amusement park or decline one afternoon in the ocean, I may never return to them again. 

The more seniors I meet, the more I believe that, while growing older is inevitable, there's nothing to say that we have to "get old." We can't control the years, but we do have a say in how we live them. The topic of our aging parents came up in a recent conversation with friends, and the general consensus was that attitude has almost as much to do with the quality of life in our later years as our physical health. I shared about my parents, and my friend told me about his mom, who recently passed away, but whose zest for life had made her such a joy to spend time with. Conversely, his father, who is in fine health, has relegated himself to old man status. 

Some folks seemingly decide overnight that they can no longer do what they did before, and they stop living in the fullest sense of the word. I'm not saying that those who truly can't should fake it, or put themselves or others in harm's way by doing what they should no longer do, but when it's fear that shuts us down, it's sad. 

I often find myself wondering, when I'm old (what age is that exactly?) will I still...

  • Put my feet up on the dashboard of the car or stick them out the window?
  • Dance around the kitchen to make my kids laugh (at me, not with me)?
  • Eat raw cookie dough and lick the spoon when Abby makes cake or icing?
  • Sing along at full volume with every song on the radio?
  • Laugh with complete abandon at funny movies, even in a theater full of people?
  • Hoot and holler at my grandkids' sporting events (if my mom is any indication, that would be "yes")?
  • Act in church skits, or maybe I'll have advanced to community theater by then?
  • Want to prove myself on water skis?

Well, it's about time for that doctor's appointment. I'm tempted to secretly tape the conversation. How much do you want to bet that he tells me I'm fine and that my symptoms are all part of getting old growing older? 

I'll be sure to let you know.

Friday, October 17, 2014

At Your Service

We Older folks tend to grumble about "young people," those teens and young adults who are seemingly minutes away from running the country right into the ground.
"They're lazy."
"They're whiners."
"They expect to have everything handed to them."
While these frustrating faces of the next generation do exist (and I'm sure our elders felt the same way about us), the one thing I can say about today's teens and young adults is that they do a better job of caring for others than my generation ever did. Personally, the concept of "service" wasn't even on my radar at that age, whereas kids today seem to grow up understanding and accepting the call to help those in need. For many, this begins when mom and dad ask party guests to bring an item for charity instead of a birthday gift (personally, the jury's still out on that one).
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."                          -- Mahatma Gandhi
Today, service is a requirement for graduation from our high schools. It's part of what qualifies you for National Honor Society. It's what admissions folks expect to see on your college application. And here's the kicker: I know thousands of kids who continue to serve well after it benefits them on paper.

Okay, I don't know thousands of them personally, but I've seen them in action.

"Service" has been the name of the game in my world for the past few weeks. It started with St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service (STVDS) on September 27, followed by our friends' Ride for Autism Speaks, then last weekend's Ann's Love Builds and the Ride to Conquer Cancer. This past week, Villanova students spent their fall break serving around the region and around the world. And, the entire 8th grade year at Abby's school is dedicated to supporting Cradles to Crayons.

Villanova University's commitment to service isn't just some warm and fuzzy phrase in the promotional material. It's the real deal. STVDS drew 4,300 students, faculty and staff who engaged in service at 140 sites in the greater Philadelphia area. Last weekend, 600 students gathered in St. Thomas of Villanova Church for a blessing and dedication before leaving for their fall service trips.

Then there are my personal friends who do amazing things to care for others. The Fischers put together an annual ride that brings out dozens of bikers to benefit Autism Speaks, and youth are among the many volunteers. At Christmas, a party invitation comes with a request that we bring coats to donate to a local charity. (Not nearly as tacky as asking us to bring food.)

In honor of my friend Ann Bates who lost her battle with brain cancer three years ago this November, Ann's Love Builds continues its annual day of service in her memory. This year, more than 100 people turned out at six different work sites from Princeton to Media as a way of celebrating Ann's life and dedication to caring for others. I spent the morning at a home with 20+ youth and adults whose goal was to provide wheelchair access for a man who recently became a paraplegic. Work included gutter cleaning and guards, trench digging for drainage, and painting the home's basement. In North Philly, Princeton lacrosse players (Ann's husband Chris is the coach) worked at a homeless shelter. Tell me that wasn't a life changing experience for those young men, many of whom grew up having the best of everything.

At the same time Ann's Love was building, Rob was riding his bike, over 130 miles in two days, to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. A fitting tribute to Ann and the millions who lose their battle with cancer each year.

These days, when we consider the state of our country and the world, what first comes to mind are the negatives: our government, debt, terrorism, the economy, ebola, hunger, violence, you name it. It's nice to be able to point to the good that is happening in communities everywhere, thanks to a new generation's commitment to care.

  • Teenagers volunteer 2.4 billion hours annually – worth $34.3 billion to the US economy.
  • Youth volunteering has increased steadily over the past ten years, with 30% of youth participating in volunteer activities at least once a month in 2000. 
  • Out of 13.3 million youth, 59.3% volunteer an average of 3.5 hours per week, versus 49% of the adult population 
Benefits of Volunteering:

  • Youth who volunteer just one hour or more a week are 50% less likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes, become pregnant, or engage other destructive behavior.
  • Teens say the benefits received from volunteering are: Learning to respect others; learning to be helpful and kind; learning to understand people who are different; developing leadership skills, becoming more patient, and better understanding of citizenship.
  • Youth who volunteer are more likely to do well in school, graduate and vote.
  • Young people involved in community service are more likely to have a strong work ethic as an adult.
  • Youth who volunteer are three times more likely to volunteer as adults.
  • 81% of Americans who have volunteer experiences when they are young give to charitable organizations as adults.
"The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams,
but in active charity and in willing service
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I Feel the Need, the Need to Please

You know how some people let everything roll off their back, never taking offense or worrying about what others think? Well, I'm at the other end of the spectrumI take everything personally, at least as it relates to suggestions, recommendations or choices I make that affect others. This is especially evident when it comes to entertainment and leisure time options, which clearly makes this particular aspect of my neuroses of great importance (or at least of mild interest for a blog post). Some examples:
  • I ask my husband or a friend to accompany me to a movie of my choosing. I then worry about whether they like it, thereby rendering myself unable to enjoy the film.
  • I encourage a friend to read a book that I thought was terrific. They tell me later that they tried for months to get into it and finally gave up. I am now partner to the crime of spending too much time on a lousy read when there are gazillions of other books that that individual could have been spending time with.
  • I laugh hysterically (a frequent occurrence) at the TV show I'm watching. I take occasional glances at Rob, seated on the couch next to me, to see whether he's even cracking a smile. I feel stupid if he's not equally amused. 
  • I invite a friend to church (it could happen!) and the pastor's sermon is mediocre at best. I am annoyed with the pastor myself for choosing this particular Sunday to bring a guest, and decide I shall never again be party to Christian outreach or evangelism.
  • I recommend a restaurant for dinner that I generally enjoy. The service is terrible and the food is mediocre at best. I'm embarrassed and feel badly and consider paying for my friend's meal (but then reject the idea because I'm cheap).
In one final, wacky example, I actually feel lousy if I introduce one friend to another friend and they don't exactly hit it off. Then I'm forced to decide which friend is most likely to blame and whether I need to dump the below average friend. Awkward.
The one thing these examples have in common is that the product or service (or person) being delivered has not been produced by me. I experience guilt and regret for recommendations that miss the mark, however, I am not actually responsible for the content. But when I am...

If I'm this loony about suggestions and recommendations, you can imagine my reaction when something I have personally created is not appreciated or enjoyed. Blog posts, for example. You know how it hurts my feelings when you don't "like" them. And do you have any idea how much a comment on the blog itself would mean to me? We've talked about this before. Let's go people. 

Technology has undoubtedly affected our sense of self. We determine our self worth by the number of likes, shares, favorites and comments we receive on any given day. Consider the selfies that teenage girls post on Instagram. Some experts see them as self-esteem boosters that help girls determine the identity they feel most comfortable with. It's all contingent, however, on the undeniable power of likes and retweets. An article in Time magazine reported:
"For a teenage girl, receiving likes on Instagram or Facebook can be seen as an endorsement that they are beautiful, from people who are within their social circle. Comments are there to compliment one’s appearance in a way that doesn't normally happen in a typical personal encounter."
Teen Vogue (of all places) notes that likes and comments that build self-esteem can crush it as well:
"After all, if two photos are postedthe first with nine likes and the second with two likes, some girls could perceive this as feeling less valued."  
But lest we get too serious, let's bring this back to me and my issues. Aside from my blog posts, I've become truly sensitive to the loss of "likes" and followers for the social media that I manage for my employer. The joy of adding 19 new fans can be completely overshadowed by losing one. My spirit is completely crushed when a reader opts out of receiving an e-newsletter that I produce. Every day is just another opportunity for virtual rejection.

What's rather interesting in this crazy self-absorbed analysis, is that, when it comes to me as a person, I'm increasingly less affected by others' opinions. With the exception of being perceived as unkind or just plain unlikable (you cut me deep, Shrek; you cut me very deep), I don't care so much what others think about me personally. As long as my Facebook likes don't dip below 500, I figure I'm okay. But seriously, if someone considers me outspoken (session members at church), obnoxious (other soccer moms), or a party pooper (anyone who's attended a party that I left early), I can shrug it off with a "who needs them anyway?" It just so happens that at this very moment, the issue of what others think is causing a disagreement between Rob and me. Since he loves when I bring him into my blog, allow me to explain:

Every October for the past several years, Rob and I have hosted a bonfire with friends. And since the beginning, invites to this shindig have included a "what to bring" list for guests. The deal has been that we provide the beer, chili, hot dogs and fire, and guests sign up to contribute food and drinks including soda, chips, soft pretzels, salads, finger food, desserts, water bottles, etc. This approach offers several benefits:
  1. I don't need to cook. I don't like cooking and my cooking stinks, so everyone wins when I don't do it.
  2. I don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on food and drink. Kegs are expensive enough.
  3. I don't have to respond to dozens of "what should I bring" inquiries that leave me wondering what guests really will bring, thereby requiring me to cover all bases just to be safe.
  4. No one feels guilty taking advantage of the generous donation of my yard debris to build an illegal fire.
The issue is that Rob, after having had this party for many years, now informs me that he thinks asking guests to bring something is tacky. And this/my tackiness is the reason why he always invites his coworkers personally rather than allowing me to include them on the Evite. I think Rob is a snob, as is any coworker or friend who is turned off by my request. Frankly, if that's your reaction, don't come. I can't imagine that any of my true friends, the people I most enjoy spending time with, think or feel that way.

I know my sister agrees with Rob. She would never have a party and ask people to bring something, but then my sister is a snob, too. What I want to know is how the rest of you feel. Do you think this is inappropriate, given the setting and casual nature of the event (we're not talking about a cocktail party, for which I would only request bottles of wine :-))? 

Since having learned how Rob feels about this, I am childishly refusing to have anything to do with the bonfire. If he thinks we shouldn't ask guests to chip in (literally!), then he can handle the whole megillah and I'll protest by going to the movies.  

I realize that it's ironic to ask who you think is right after trying to convince myself you that I don't care what others think of me personally. But alas, the future of this much-loved event rests on your response. No pressure.

Monday, September 22, 2014

College-Prep Chronicles, Volume 2: The Mom Meltdown

Ian’s transformation occurred just a week or two before his junior year began.  He noted that school was going to be hard, stressful and overwhelming, and he appeared to be bracing himself for the challenges to come. I’ve faced many moments in life with this approach:  Tell yourself something is going to be absolutely awful so that there’s a chance it will be better than you expect.

It’s been super surprising terrific to see Ian approaching his year with a great deal of focus and hard work. Honestly, I’m not exaggerating when I say that he’s more than doubled the amount of time he’s spending on school work each night. It’s as if he just sailed through the past 10 years with little to no effort, and someone (other than his parents, of course) told him this is the year to get your act together. Whatever it was that spurred him on, I’m happy to see the change.

Unfortunately, I’m unhappy at how unprepared I am for Ian’s junior year. I thought I knew what I was doing, and lo and behold I’m actually falling behind. Last week’s back-to-school night threw me into a tizzy.

Let’s talk about back-to-school night, shall we? I’m starting to think it causes post-traumatic stress flashbacks. In my case, to the mid-to-late 80s. The insecurities, fears, concerns and need to compete are the same, only I weigh 20 pounds more and have to color my hair every 6 months weeks to cover the gray. Here are just a few examples of my neuroses what I’ve gone through each year at this time:
  • When Ian was a freshman, I felt overwhelmed and insignificant among the other parents who all seemed so much more grown up than me to know what was going on. As I’ve gotten older Ian has advanced, I've become more comfortable, and now I like to look down upon the lowly freshmen parents and laugh at their angst.
  • I worry about my hair, my breakouts and my clothing. Am I out of style? Are my jeans too tight? Do I have enough cover-up on that zit? Do I look younger or older than the other moms?
  • I bemoan the fact that I can no longer take part in the extracurriculars, or even some of the interesting classes our kids get to take these days. I wonder “Would I make the Silvertones?” “Would I get a solo?” “What about the school musical? Would I have a speaking part?” “Would I make it past the first round in the speech & debate competition?” “Could I get into a great college?” And it occurs to me that if I had had the opportunity to take AP Psychology in high school, that creepy college professor could never have hit on me because I wouldn't have taken his class.  
Getting into college is what’s really stressing me out these days. I had a plan: PSATs in October. See how I do. I mean see how Ian does. If he needs a prep course, we’ll sign him up. If not, awesome. Okay, it’s not much of a plan. Not only am I missing a few steps, but I’m behind the other kids. I mean the other parents. And it turns out there are tests I Ian should take that I’ve never even heard of.  A subject-specific SAT?? Well, yes, Kim, if you had taken any college tours (“I can’t believe you haven’t taken any tours yet”) you’d know that some of them require the subject SAT. No, that’s not instead of the standard SAT, it’s in addition. And don’t forget about the AP tests. Most honors students enter their first year of college with 15 credits under their belt, thanks to AP courses. Oh, and you should really take the AP Spanish course this spring since you have Spanish 4 now. If you wait until next year, with our block scheduling, it will be that much harder to remember everything you learned.

This is why my finger nails look like a dog’s chew toy.

So other kids’ parents have taken them to visit colleges by now. Some already have taken the SAT and the subject SAT and the ACT and the prep courses. Some are talking to admissions counselors to make sure Susie and Bobby are on track for acceptance to their preferred Ivy. How is it I've fallen so far behind??? What if Ian doesn't get into Yale or Princeton and he has to go Swarthmore or Haverford instead? What if he has to actually use mom’s benefits and go to Villanova? What will I tell my friends if Ian doesn't live up to their my expectations his potential? The peer pressure is overwhelming. 

What’s most important is that Ian doesn't disappoint me get a sense of my hysteria. That he remains calm, cool and collected with his nose to the grindstone, taking one day at a time as I've been wisely advising him to do.

He can leave the advanced freaking out to me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Egyptian Rat Screw and Sister Sightings

"As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be." The doxology or a statement about mothers and daughters?

My sister Dawn.
I mean my daughter Abby.
I am the mother of a daughter. An incredibly bright, ambitious and talented 13 year-old. I am thankful that my relationship with Abby has been pretty darn good to this point. And, if I can avoid becoming competitive with my own child, we might just get along fine for the foreseeable future.

I have been envious of Abby's superior athletic ability since she was about five. Her math skills have impressed me since elementary school. The cool confidence and drama-free nature she possesses have been a pleasant surprise, particularly given her mother's dramatic tendencies. She knows her way around baked goods. And her desire to work hard and make a good impression are a source of pride. More recently, I've become aware with more than a little jealousy of Abby's cute teenage figure, which takes me back 30 years to when I was a stick-shaped dork, resenting girls like her.

While all of her qualities are enough to make anyone sick envious want to take her down a peg feel the need to strive to compete, what most gets to me about Abby is her resemblance to my sister Dawn. It's not so much a physical resemblance, but more about personality, attitude and character. It scares me how often I look at her and see my sister. The facial expressions are the same. The things she says and the way she says them is frighteningly similar. Where this causes me particular concern is with regard to their corresponding level of competitiveness. And this just happens to be one of the few things I have in common with my sister. So, if A = D and D = K, what must be true of A and K? Hey look! It's your first math problem of the new school year!

Being four years apart, Dawn and I didn't compete so much in school, but in any setting where we did interact, there was an unspoken desire to kick each others' asses outperform the other. The problem was is that I had have a soft spot that my sister didn't doesn't possess, which means she was is always able to get the better of me. The perfect example of when/where this competition reared its ugly head? The Monopoly board. Dawn was is vicious and ruthless and always had has to have the ship. She would will sucker me into making lousy deals. And, I don't think she ever lost loses.

The first indication that Abby and I might have issues? A game of cards. Not just any game of cards, but a game with the eyebrow-raising name "Egyptian Rat Screw." This is a game of memory and response time, requiring a heightened level of awareness and an above average ability to slap cards. Skills which have weakened in me with each passing year. Skills which Abby has in abundance. And did I mention we're both competitive?

It started out civilly enough. Abby taught me the rules of the game, and for about 10 minutes I behaved as an adult/parent. But then my child transformed before my very eyes and I saw Dawn sitting across from me with that confident smirk that said loud and clear, "You're going down!" And all hell broke loose. I refused to take any more beatings and I let it all out. Yelling. Aggressive card slapping. Profanities. Insults. It was when I told her "I'm surprised you have any friends; you're so mean!" that Abby brought me back to reality with "Mom! I can't believe you said that!" Oops. My bad.

You would think that would have been enough to snap me out of it, but the ugly continued, ultimately reaching its pinnacle when I demanded an impartial judge to make rulings on whose hand hit the deck first. Rob and Ian wisely declined to enter into our melee, leaving only one option: videotaping. We set up the iPad to record, and within minutes were in another disagreement as to who had won a hand. We turned to the iPad for answers. We watched the recording. And went back and watched the recording. And slowed it down frame by frame and watched the recording. And we still couldn't agree on who had won. We abandoned the videotaping. Abby won the game. I had a small tantrum, and that was that. I am happy to report that I have behaved much more appropriately during subsequent games, except when I won that one time. Then I did a little whooping and hollerin' and happy dance and told Abby she was a loser. Just kidding. I didn't do a happy dance. That's just immature.

I'll admit that I still see the ghost of my sister every now and then. Occasionally in my cat who is either aloof or nasty, but most often in Abby. I try to ward off the panic that results at these sightings by reminding myself that I am an adult and no matter how successful she is or how much she resembles Dawn, Abby is my child. This means I will always delude myself into believing have the upper hand...

...As long as I don't challenge her in baking, soccer, softball, clarinet, guitar, math or card games. From now on, I think we'll stick to Scrabble and Boggle. I can beat my sister daughter at those.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Has Anyone Seen My Mind? It Seems to Be Missing.

Have you ever wondered if you're losing your mind? I certainly have, and on more than one occasion. Last night being one of them. As I seriously consider the possibilities that this is happening to me, I find myself wondering if people who lose their minds actually realize it, or, does the fact that I'm asking mean that I'm not. And what does it mean to lose ones mind anyway?

On one hand I have real concerns that I'm headed for early onset dementia. Sure, everyone forgets what they walked into a certain room for, and forgotten names of folks you don't see that often is normal, but it's worse than that for me. I will completely blank on the names of people I'm close to. I  can't recall the title of that book, movie, or TV show to save my life (there goes my trivia game show dream). I remember dates and times wrong. My "brain farts" happen so frequently that I'm getting used to the smell.

Then there's the "crazy" side of losing ones mind. While I feel like my depression symptoms are, for the most part, under control, lately I'm wondering if I'm bipolar or just ridiculously moody. It's like my teenage and young adult years all over again. Come to think of it, I should call my college roommates to apologize. Anyway, last night I went from having a grand ole time with friends to walking a mile home at 11 p.m. because I was angry for no particularly good reason. (Though you'd think by now that husbands would know not to ask their wives, "What's your problem?" in that tone of voice. At least when the kids ask why I'm in a bad mood it's an innocent, albeit foolish, mistake.)

So what is my problem exactly? Well, that's the thing. Looking at the big picture, I have no problems. I have a job, a home, my health, my parents' health, my kids' health, a good great husband, and food for the table (when I actually go grocery shopping). But close up, everything is a problem. I have moments (they last no more than an hour, tops) where I try to be adult and not complain about life to my friends (whom I will be lucky to still call "friends" after my increasingly bad behavior), but ultimately I succumb to all the sh*t that's dragging me down:

Missed deadlines
Divorce news
Family obligations
To do lists
Job searches
Cancer treatments

Some of that has nothing to do with me personally. But it's affecting people I care about and that affects me. I'm well aware that this is the same sh*t that's dragging down nearly everyone I know, but it's just that I feel everything so much more acutely. I recently asked Rob if he thinks everyone experiences the world like I do (albeit without talking/blogging about it), and his immediate answer was "No." No thoughtful consideration required before responding. Isn't he the lucky one to have married me!

You're probably (hopefully) thinking that I'm normal and that this is life. You might say that every mom of a teenager goes through this crap, but I think it'd be so much easier if I didn't jump on the roller coaster with them. I can literally go from happy to bitch in 3.5 seconds. One minute I'll be dreaming of the day when the kids are out of the house and Rob and I can downsize and move somewhere warm and live happily ever after. The next minute I'm seriously doubting that I can stand even one more day together, listening to him pass gas breathe. The poor guy never knows who he's coming home to and a spouse can only be patient for so long. Hence, my walk home last night.

I realize that this post is probably better suited for my personal journal (yes, can you believe there are things I actually keep personal!), but these worries kept me tossing and turning last night and I guess I'm hoping someone will say that they get it, that they've been there, too.

That I'm not losing my mind.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

So a Celebrity Died and People Wept

I'll be honest. I've always thought that people who are dumbstruck ("dumb" being the operative word) by celebrities are pretty sad. Is your life so pathetic that you need to keep up with the Kardashians or keep it "real" with the Housewives of Name-that-Place? Even if you are not personally supporting this sickness, there clearly are too many Americans who are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous. How else would we end up with these ridiculous people on our TV and movie screens?

Need further proof that we are way too interested in the world of celebrities? People is the top selling magazine in this country. There are 46.6 million so-called adults who choose People as a source of reading material. That subscription costs over $100 a year. I know, because I've priced it. I'll admit that I enjoy an occasional issue, but I only look at it for the pictures. I swear.

Then there are those who go well beyond checking out Tinseltown's awards ceremony gowns. Some will search for celebrity homes, stalk them for photos and autographs, and even visit their grave sites. Our reaction to the death of celebrities is especially disconcerting to me. I have never understood the wailing, weeping and homage paid at the death of someone famous. Folks leaving flowers, candles, stuffed animals and photos at meaningful sites? I don't get it. Unless you knew John Lennon, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix or Marilyn Monroe personally, why would you react this way? There are reports of fans committing suicide when Michael Jackson died. Why do you mourn those whom you have never loved and in most cases, never met? You may have been touched by their performances, but is that enough to justify the tears? I see the irony in that statement -- me suggesting that tears need to be justified.

Part of the reason I am turned off by our reaction to the deaths of famous people is that it seems to speak volumes about what matters to us. We cry over lost lives in Hollywood and read every tribute and bit of gossip about those lost souls, but we're quick to turn the page or change the channel when we see photos and hear the stories of hundreds and thousands who are dying from disease and violence in countries we can't find on a map.

But then Robin Williams died.

I did not know him personally, but I still cried when I heard the news. And the more I read about his death, the more tears I shed. I cried because he was still in his prime and had much more to give. I cried because he made me laugh and it hurts to lose someone who gives us the gift of laughter. But perhaps the main reason I cried is because, as a friend of mine said, if Robin Williams couldn't fight the demons of depression, even with every resource at his disposal, what chance do the rest of us have?

If anything good can come from the loss of one of the world's comic geniuses, let it be that the conversation about mental illness continues and that in our darkest moments we recall this line from the Walt Whitman poem "O Me! O Life!" spoken by Robin Williams in one of his most extraordinary movies, The Dead Poet's Society:

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;  
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

So, this is how it's going to be

The summer of 2014 will be remembered as the season in which I lost my children. I think in my very last post, just two short weeks ago, I said something about really liking my kids, and as a result missing them when they're gone, which was the case for the first half of the summer. Well, Ian returned home on Saturday night and I spent a week on a mission trip with Abby, and I can now say that I don't like them nearly as much. Okay, that was a little harsh. Perhaps I should put it this way -- they both turned into teenagers this summer. Just putting that in writing makes my skin crawl.

Perhaps you think I'm lucky that Ian didn't hit this evil stage until now, but maybe in some ways that makes it harder to accept. I really thought that if my 16-year-old was still fairly likable that I was in the clear, that I'd made it past go and could collect $200. I had been patting myself on the back for being such an exceptional parent, having raised a kid who never rolled his eyes or gave me major attitude. Oh, how very foolish I've been.

When picking him up at the airport, after being gone for two weeks, my son's reaction to seeing me was "Hey." And no, it wasn't an upbeat, happy, let-me-give-you-a-hug "Hey!" In his first 24-hours at home I spent maybe three hours with him (he ran off to a friend's house), and in that short amount of time he gave me "the look" and the attitude to go with it. He actually had the cojones to attempt to "decline" a volunteer assignment for the following day that benefited an organization of which he's a member. He seriously thought that by stating, "I don't want to," he would get out of doing the job at hand. I don't know what kinds of kids he spent the past two weeks with, but I'm holding them responsible for this metamorphosis.

And then there's my daughter. Abby also deserted me, physically and emotionally, for most of July. The good news is that I know she felt some degree of guilt because of it. Case in point: Last week, Abby and I worked on Habitat for Humanity houses that were just a few hundred yards apart. During a lull in my work, I walked down to check on my girl (who, by the way, won the tool belt award for hardest worker on the first day of our trip). While visiting, I expressed concern for her safety with regard to something she was doing. She scolded me, in essence telling me to return to my own job site. I realized she was right and so I sulked and with my tail between my legs made my way back. Feeling melancholy over the distinct lack of interaction I'd had with Abby since the trip began, I sat myself down in a quiet place outside and contemplated the increasing gulf between me and my children. And I ate some Swedish Fish. And while I was wallowing in self pity and trying to get the candy out of my teeth, Abby came up to me and expressed concern for my well-being. She asked whether she'd done something wrong and apologized for upsetting me. I got teary-eyed telling her everything was fine and sent her on her way. Guilt is an invaluable tool.

Three days after returning home, Ian is ignoring my repeated requests to put away his clothing, groans when asked to do most any household chore, and feigns illness when he doesn't want to do something. In other words, things have somewhat returned to normal. At least he has stopped rolling his eyes and seems to like me a bit more. Of course, that could be because he again relies on me for food and lodging.

Abby, too, seems to have rediscovered me. When she was away on Monday, she texted to say goodnight and tell me she loves me. It was like the good ole days.

Today, Ian woke early to tell me he was heading to the shore with Noah for the day, asking if that was okay at the same time that Noah's dad was pulling into the driveway to pick him up. Sure, it's okay. Thanks for asking. Maybe 10 minutes notice next time instead of five? I believe that, starting tomorrow, Ian and Abby will both be home, together, for the rest of the summer. Which makes me think it's an excellent time for Rob and me to get out town.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My New Reality: A Preview

It's been a strange summer thus far and it's going to remain strange right up until the first of August. It began in June with Ian heading off to a church youth group retreat in the Poconos the Monday after school let out. He returned home on a Friday afternoon and declined to join his family at the Phillies game and fireworks that evening. The next morning, Rob took Ian and his friend Keaton to the airport at 4:15 a.m. for a flight to Atlanta, where Keaton's parents would pick the boys up and take them to Lake Burton, Georgia. Their stay in Georgia lasted 10 days. On the day they returned, we dropped Abby and her friend Maddie off at Immaculata University for soccer camp. They spent four days there. Three days later Abby left for the Poconos for the middle schoolers' week-long church youth group retreat. That same day Rob and I flew to Minneapolis for the All Star Game. We left Ian home alone, paying one of Rob's coworkers to spend the nights with him.

Rob and I returned from Minnesota last Wednesday afternoon; Abby got home on Thursday. On Saturday, Rob and Ian headed out on their road trip to Oxford, Ohio where Ian is spending two weeks in Miami University's Summer Scholars program.

At the parent meeting for Abby's soccer camp, the leaders told us this would be a good first step toward college for the girls. They were responsible for getting themselves where they needed to be, when they needed to be there. They had to remember their gear and their water, and be sure to change their socks and clothes frequently enough that they didn't develop any strange rashes. They ate in the dining hall and slept in the dormitory and if they had lost their keys it would have cost us them $75. Naturally, Abby and Maddie were just fine. Those two could run the camp.

Ian's two week experience at Miami will be an even greater pre-college test. The question is, who will perform better, him or me?

While I usually welcome the opportunity to have a few days away from my children, I have to confess that this June-July anomaly has me a bit freaked out. Let's face it, these exoduses away from home are just harbingers of things to come. And those things to come will be here before I know it. And quite frankly, I'm not sure I'm ready. Me. The one who started counting down the days till they left for college when they were three. Me. The one who thought this motherhood thing might have been a poor (and irreversible) job choice. Me. The one with the 10-year plan that includes no one except me and Rob on a beach somewhere. How has this happened? How is it that I actually have a small ache in my heart?

I think what happened is that I've grown to really like my kids. Loving your children is pretty much a given, but liking them? Not always. As they've gotten older, we actually have meaningful conversations (as long as Ian's not sitting in front of a screen of some sort), and I find I truly enjoy their company. Ian's bright, quick wit never fails to amuse and impress, and Abby's observations, intelligence and competitive spirit provide a challenge.

I'm amazed at the way they've both changed in the past year or so; Ian, in particular. Last summer he couldn't wait to come home from two camp experiences right here at Villanova, 15 minutes from home. He was miserable. This year he's nine hours away for two weeks, spending his days with complete strangers. And he loves it. He's made friends, enjoys his classes (The Business of Sports), and finds the whole experience "great." "Great" is high praise indeed from a 16-year-old boy. On day one it was only "good."

Knowing that Ian's doing well has eased that small ache, but I do miss his sense of humor. I suppose I better get used to it.

This Saturday, while Ian's still in Ohio, Rob, Abby, my mom and I will drive 10 hours to Banner Elk, NC for our church mission trip. We'll leave a day early, Friday, August 1, in order to pick up Ian at the Baltimore airport where he'll fly in from Cincinnati at the conclusion of his Miami U. experience. We'll return home that night where we will begin the month of August with nothing more than Vacation Bible School on the calendar.

It'll be weird, being together like that. I just hope the kids don't get on my nerves.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Midwestern Meditations

There's nothing better than getting away for a few days. It doesn't even matter how far you go, as long as you're not in your own home with your never-ending to do list in plain sight. I swear I become a different person. Almost pleasant to be around. It's delightful!

Summer presents the most opportunities for these bits of respite from reality. In the past couple months, I've enjoyed an overnight to Cape May with my family; a visit with my parents, sister and nephew near Barnegat Bay; and most recently, I traveled to Minneapolis with my husband for the MLB All Star Game. On this little jaunt I made several observations that I'd like to share with you. This top 10 list isn't particularly meaty (except for the steak and BBQ) or deep, but it's all I've got time for. Seems these little getaways get in the way of getting stuff done and now I'm behind in my job, my home life, my volunteer obligations, yada, yada, yada. The good news is that I actually have a couple of ideas for more substantial posts in the near future. So you have that to look forward to. I seriously hope, however, that you have more to look forward to than a blog post. But I digress. Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Things I Learned on My Summer Vacation (in no particular order).
  1. Pepsi, popcorn, donuts and beer can bring a person to their knees. Literally.
  2. You can't help but feel a tremendous sense of pride and patriotism when six U.S. Air Force Thunderbird jets do a flyover in a flat delta formation at about 400 mph just as Idina Menzel hits the final note of the national anthem.
  3. Somewhere over the rainbow, skies, indeed, are blue.
  4. Some people over-pack clothes when they travel. I over-pack reading material (and never have enough clothes).
  5. You hear some memorable stuff when you visit new places, like "Can you pass me my cheese curds? I left them under your seat."
  6. Money can't buy you love, but it can buy you one hell of a steak. 
  7. People in Minnesota are just nice. TSA folks in the airport there actually appeared to like their jobs. Just can't imagine seeing that in the City of so-called Brotherly Love. 
  8. Every state believes it's the master of BBQ.  
  9. I don't know what it is, but elderly black men have some of the most beautiful faces I've ever seen. I saw Hank Aaron at a pre-game event over the weekend, and his distinguished face reminded me of the Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, one of the greatest elder statesmen (96!) of the black church (and a Judson Press author).  
    Mr. Hank Aaron
    Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor
  10. It's awesome to see people you love as others see them. Over the weekend, I was able to watch my husband in his element, associating with colleagues from around the MLB. He's the same friendly, intelligent, engaging, real, humorous and well-respected guy I fell in love with. Now if only he could return to proper form at home. Ha! 
Here's hoping that wherever your travels take you this summer, you come home with your own top 10 list! And how about sharing it?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Just a Cliche and a Decade Away from Being the It Girl

I am officially too old to ever again be an "It Girl." This painful realization hit me a couple of weeks ago when I learned of a much younger colleague's designation as the cat's meow, the cream of the crop, and the best thing since sliced bread. Okay, no one used those exact words, but the sentiment was communicated clearly enough.

While I will agree that this colleague is a terrific person and a hard working, competent and mature professional, I am not happy about all the chatter. My reasons for being envious concerned are completely rational:
  1. If this individual were to learn that she is so highly regarded, the ego boost could make her very difficult to work with.
  2. Those who think this individual is all that and a bag of chips may become blind to her weaknesses and willing to overlook her flaws.
  3. For leadership to heap the majority of praise on one employee can have disastrous affects on the self-esteem of others who may feel the need to retaliate.
While, none of this applies to me personally because I don't compete work that closely with this individual, I have become aware that older women like myself are clearly being discriminated against when it comes to being the bees knees. Simply put, It Girl status can only be bestowed upon those under the age of 30. This is evidenced by the fact that business journals publish lists of the "Top Professionals Under Age 30," or "40 to Watch Under Age 40," but you never see anything for "Fantastic in their Fifties" or "Successful in their Sixties." The reality is that, once you turn 41, you're expected to be a performer. There's no special recognition. No talk in the break room about the new superstar. No grumbling about the girl who thinks she's "all that."

This is a hard reality for me to face because in my 20s and 30s, I was an It Girl. I worked hard to make sure I was bringing the very best to whatever position I held so that the bar would forever be set at "Kim level" and my replacements would always have very big shoes to fill. Gave everything 110%, never content with the merely the old college try. Raised my hand for every new job responsibility. Kissed butt ad nauseum. And for what? The same Wawa gift card everyone else received. And more responsibility at the same salary. It Girl status doesn't really pay off in the non-profit sector. Ah, hindsight. The point is that I enjoyed the heady feeling of knowing I was appreciated and recognized, and now I'm being forced to rely on my self-confidence to get me through the day. This is why middle-aged people turn to drinking and prescription drugs. They're much more accessible than self-esteem. 

In retrospect, I should have seen this coming several years ago when I noticed that I was no longer the youngest employee in my department or organization. I remember being truly shocked to discover that not only was Susie Q not older than me, but in fact, she was a good decade younger. Clearly I was am in denial of my advancing age, and this new performance-based "reality" is adding insult to injury.

In trying to decide how to handle this delicate situation, I can think of only a few options:

  • Sabotage my colleague's work so her performance is of concern versus congratulations.
  • Find ways to highlight my own work in such a way that it overshadows hers.
  • Encourage her to find employment elsewhere and then recommend a clearly inferior individual to take her place.
  • Find a new job in which I likely am the youngest employee. Maybe the library or the school cafeteria?
  • Put on my big girl panties and deal with it.
I welcome your advice, really. I especially look forward to hearing from you if you've personally managed to maintain It Girl status into your 40s or 50s. I probably won't talk to you again, but I'm still eager to know how you did it. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

I Get So Emotional, Baby

By now my proclivity for tears has become a bit of a joke. My son and one of my Angel friends have called me out for crying "because the sun came up today." I roll with it. At least they're giving me the attention I so deserve desperately crave.

Just your typical day for "feelers" like me!
If you want to label me a bit more accurately, I'm not strictly a crier. I think a better word might be "feeler." I experience a range of emotions in a really deep way. It's as if all the nerves that trigger emotions lie too close to the surface. As a result, tears and laughter come in equally easy measure. The same movie might elicit both, and if you're with me, you may be embarrassed by how freely I share them. If the reaction of strangers is of concern to you, I'll understand if you want to sit a few rows behind me. I should also warn you that I can get physical when frightened. Rob still has the scars of childbirth. Let's just say I held on to his hand really tightly.

In addition to those experiences that evoke a physical reaction, I also can feel overwhelming emotion in life's everyday moments. The daily news or a walk down the street can trigger heartache. The beauty of nature can hit me like a ton of bricks. Even my rare bouts with being content or peaceful are acute, nearly palpable.

Sometimes I think I possess some strange genetic disposition that causes me to observe and absorb more from the world than most people. Except I guess it's not genetic, because I'm pretty sure I'm the only one in my family built this way. My sister tries to avoid unpleasant feelings at all cost, and Abby seems immune to emotional distress. She may be the only person in America who didn't cry at The Fault in Our Stars, though she did confess that her eyes welled up a couple of times. I'm not going to see that movie, at least not in the theaters. Don't want to drown out the audio with my sobbing.

Given my tendency toward free-flowing tears or raucous laughter, one might think that I'd avoid situations that are likely to result in a total breakdown or complete hysteria. But here's the thing: I kind of like the depth of emotions that I experience. While I often will pass on books or movies that I know will cause me distress, when I stumble upon something that touches me, I embrace it rather than fight it. I don't see my emotions as a curse, but rather as a blessing. What a wonderful gift to be so alive and in touch with the world around me!

Having said all that, I should add that the level of emotion of which I speak, even when it's sadness, should not be confused with clinical depression, with which I also have plenty of experience. Perhaps those of us who struggle with this disease also tend to feel things more deeply than others, but they are not one in the same. Depression is a weight that drags you down, making your heart feel heavy regardless of the book you're reading, the movie you're watching or the evening news. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about it is how it settles in regardless of the reality of our lives. When you're suffering with depression, there's nothing worse than hearing "you have nothing to be unhappy about." Be assured that I know my life is nearly perfect, and I already feel badly about feeling bad for no logical reason.

Personally, I'm in a pretty good place these days. I'm lucky to have found a combination of things that work for me, including medication, exercise, wine and quiet time. And I'm happy to say that the antidepressants I take allow me to feel those range of emotions that I've described. If you're on meds that leave you feeling nothing--no highs or lows--I urge you to see your doctor, or a different doctor. There are ways to make the pain go away without shutting down all the feelings--good and bad--that make life worth living.