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Big Brother

15 Apr

My sons and I were at an end of the season basketball party for my 6th grader.  The riot of boys, fresh from a hoops victory found their way to the host’s sport court and quickly devised a game of chucking balls at each other with great force.  I never worry about my oldest son, a natural athlete and easy-going kid; but I am always keeping a special eye out for my middle guy.  Sports are not his thing, nor really are group activities.  He’s a sensitive and quirky boy given to wearing silly costumes and perfecting his Ninja moves when he’s not creating works of art on his Etch-a-Sketch. This sort of behavior doesn’t exactly put him in the main stream, or help him develop those instantaneous friendships that most kids seem to be able to strike up with absolute strangers.  But for the moment, Willie seemed to be holding his own in the mix.

After chatting with some other moms for a while, I looked past my social circle, craning my neck to find Willie in the expansive back yard full of boys.  I spotted his turquoise shirt far across the court.  “Still at it, that’s great,” I mused, just in time to witness him take his belt off and start swinging it wildly towards a small group of boys near him.  “Ooooh, that’s too much” I said out loud and began to hustle towards him.  As I neared, his face came into focus and I could see that he was very upset. “Willie!!” I called out to him, “Come here!!”  He found me with his teary eyes and rushed towards me.  “Can we go, Mom, please, can we go now?” he begged as soon as we met, then buried his face in my shirt.  “Sweetie, what happened?”  “Please can we just go home?” he implored, chin quivering as he tried to hold himself together.  “Let’s go to the bathroom and splash some cold water on your face and you can tell me what happened.”  He pressed his body into mine and we walked as a unit towards the bathroom.

Once inside he explained in tearful gasps that this group of older boys surrounded him and started whipping balls at him and taunting him.  He said he told them to stop but one kid wouldn’t let up.  As upset as I was to hear this, my first reaction was to lecture him that the answer was not for him to start swinging his belt and making a bad situation worse.  I impressed upon him that he always has the option of walking away.  Though I counseled him towards flight, my own response was pure fight. Peering into my son’s tearstained face, I felt my hackles start to rise.  A primitive instinct gripped me and sent a shot of adrenaline through my veins. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with my baby. 

I am conflicted about situations like this.  On one hand, I strive to be a responsible parent who raises good citizens.  The Bible tells us not to return evil for evil and Jesus himself taught that if someone strikes you, you turn the other cheek.  (Although with the utmost reverence and respect for my Lord and Savior, I do have to point out that though Jesus was the Messiah… he was never a mother… When people taunted or doubted him, I can’t help but picture Mary rolling up the sleeves of her tunic and yelling “Aw, HELL to the NO!!!” as Joseph struggled to hold her back…) But I get it, I really do.  I have to teach my kids to take the high road.

Then there is this other part of me, this carnal and gritty part of me that’s from Chicago (ok, not exactly the syringe-littered, pockmarked streets of Cabrini Green; more like the petunia-lined, cobblestoned streets of Libertyville, but still) this hardened part of me that sees things differently.  I grew up in a family of three older brothers and we were raised by our dad.  It was a tough household to grow up in – there was a lot of aggression and hostility.  You’ve heard of the whole:

I can beat the shit out of my brother, but nobody else better lay a finger on him” mentality?  My brothers were the goons who invented that.

Once during my freshman year of high school I had a run in with a kid named Peter Boone [name not changed to protect him, because he wasn’t innocent].  Peter was cocky and arrogant, with blonde stringy hair.  And he was short.  He made Napoleon himself look like he had one heck of a ‘Peter Boone complex.’  One day Peter Boone got a big laugh by making fat jokes about me in front of a group of his friends and I went home that night in tears, refusing to eat dinner.  My normally detached father miraculously noticed my demeanor– or perhaps it was just that it was so very noticeable that I was actually skipping a meal– and tried to get out of me why I was so upset.  When I told him of Peter Boone’s unkind remarks, he was quiet for a moment, then turned to my older brother, Jim.

Like the sensitive, insightful ex-Marine that he was, my dad asked my brother:

“You know this asshole?”

Like the caveman with an underbite he was, my brother grunted.

“Take care of it” my dad commanded ominously.

“Dad, NO!” I begged him, “Tell Jim not to touch him!”  Wanting to in some way comfort his daughter-in-distress, my dad offered this:  “Then eat your dinner and tomorrow you tell that Peter Boone asshole, that if he ever says another word to you, Iam gonna beat the shit out of him.”  Ahhh, those were the good old days:  when parents could threaten bodily harm against their children’s adversaries without fear of the SWAT team, the ACLU, and Dateline NBC coming to knock down their door.

Thirty years later I found myself in the role of parent, grappling with the very same moral dilemma:  What to do about my son’s Peter Boone?  I felt like I had an angel on one shoulder.  And Don Corleone on the other.  Just then there was a knock on the bathroom door and my oldest son stepped inside.  “Is William OK?” he asked, his face registering genuine concern.  I told him briefly what occurred.  “Who was it?” he asked, and I noticed the almost imperceptible setting of his jaw.  When William told him the kid’s name– the short, blonde kid’s name– there was no aggression in his voice, just calm resolve when John assured his younger brother:  “That is not going to happen again.”

In that moment my 12 year-old morphed into a 6’5” gladiator, broad shouldered and strong.  He turned on his heel and strode—I had never seen him strode before—but he strode away from us, towards the transgressor.  It never occurred to me to try and stop him.  This was his shining moment and I wasn’t going to dim his light by getting in his way.

All he had to say to the boy was “That’s my brother. You are not going to be mean to him.”

“What are you going to do about it?” the boy answered back, his voice suddenly small, and squeaky.

You don’t want to know what I’m going to do about it.”  And the little Petey Boone skittered away.

The next day John told me that when he saw this boy at school, the kid shied away and wouldn’t make eye contact with him.  So John took it upon himself to go up to the kid and reassure him.  “Dude, we’re ok.  Just don’t do it again.”

That was all it took.  A protective instinct embodied.  A decisive statement delivered with confidence.

And one moment for a son to prove to his mother that he knows exactly where the high road is.


Signs That Your 8-Year Old Watches Too Much TV…

15 Apr

(While riding in the car one day…)

Andrew: (angrily) “Mom, State Farm Insurance LIES!!”

Me: “What makes you say that?”

Andrew: “They said that their rates are lower than Geico!!”

(Later that same week…)

Andrew: “Mom, can you get in trouble for calling 911 if a bad guy isn’t chasing you?”

Me: “Andrew, it’s OK to call 911 if you are in danger or if you are really scared about something…”

Andrew: “… but not like if you are scared about what to wear to prom…”

Baseball Gear

15 Apr

The bad news was that my 8 year-old son couldn’t find his baseball cleats.

The good news was that he wore his cup to school this morning, so at least he knew exactly where that was.

24 Jun

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time.  You have exactly the same number of hours a day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.”

— H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Prep School

10 Jun

My conventionally unconventional middle son, William, has strong opinions.  Last year it was his strong opinion that school was boring and he shouldn’t have to go.  Though his father and I patiently explained to him that truancy laws prohibit 8 year-olds from absences caused of their own free will, William nonetheless exercised the only peaceful protest he knew how:  he waged a boycott of 3rd grade.

Such an act of civil disobedience was not new behavior for my son, who by the age of 2 had earned himself the nickname, “The Conscientious Objector.”  His M.O. was to protest any perceived injustice in his life– by simply going limp and unresponsive– thus requiring an exasperated parent to drag his lifeless body toward the bathtub or perhaps away from the gumball machine at the grocery store…

Once, at the age of 4, in order to get out of a much-hated swimming lesson, William pulled his passive-aggressive schtick, and went limp in the arms of his gullible swim instructor, who promptly activated the YMCA’s emergency response system, thereby clearing the pool, calling 911, and summoning the fire department and paramedics. 

So after Willie’s tenacious boycott resulted in him spending the entirety of his 3rd grade year with his head on his desk, folding all his spelling and math worksheets into little origami ninja stars, it became apparent that our precocious son would be better suited to a less traditional environment than what our neighborhood public school had to offer.

A long search and much hand-wringing lead us to a progressive charter school where we learned, he would call his teachers by their first names and have the freedom to decide exactly what schoolwork he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it.  This school doesn’t give out grades—it doesn’t even have desks in the classroom!– but it does have a labyrinth for quiet meditation… an organic vegetable garden… and Peace Pole in the middle of campus where students can gather to celebrate one another’s diversity.

On the Friday before school was to start, we pulled into the parking lot for the New Student Open House.  My disbelieving eyes took in an unlikely assortment of dilapidated trucks and expensive hybrid vehicles.  Each sporting a bumper sticker with some sort of wacky liberal credo like:  “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Meat” or “Every Day is Earth Day!” or  “Obama for President.”   I warily parked my nondescript minivan next to a Volkswagen Beetle with a license plate that read “MTHRSHP.”  Seeing as how the most liberal thing about me is my use of sunscreen, I started to feel uneasy about whether or not we were going to fit in here.

As we walked across campus, I took in the people:  apparently every dad had either once played backup for the Allman Brothers Band, or perhaps had recently written a manifesto.   And as tired as I was of seeing the Scottsdale SAHM’s uniform of $200 jeans and Juicy Couture, nothing could have prepared me for the Lilith Fair reunion that were the moms at this new school— all hairy-leggin’ it under flowy peasant skirts, and free-boobin’ it beneath tye-dyed tank tops.  Their pierced noses and pendulous breasts reminded me of the National Geographics I used to thumb through at the dentist’s office back in 1979.  If there were any cues about Fall Fashion Trends to be taken from the women at this school… then, Ladies, I can tell you without reservation that “Hemp is the New Black.”

In the classroom, boys and girls alike had long hair and oddball names like Cosmo and Chrysanthemum.  They gripped their eco-friendly, reusable metal water bottles and talked excitedly about summer vacations spent composting garbage; while their parents stood around proudly comparing carbon footprints and exchanging the names of good Rolfers.

I quietly excused myself and wandered outside to the school’s ‘Garden of Global Serenity’ where I sat down forlornly on a bench—probably hand-hewn by the school’s 2nd graders from the reclaimed bark of an organic tree…

Never before had I felt like such an outsider.  My bland little family is about as exotic as a loaf of Wonder Bread– yet at my son’s new school, conformists like us are the lunatic fringe.  I imagined having to instruct my son to keep our conservative values on the down-low:  Whatever you do, don’t tell them your parents vote Republican… or that we attend church on Sundays!   If anyone asks, we voted for… Kucinich… and we worship Mother Earth!!

I’m ashamed to say it to you now, but at that moment, I longed for signs of civilization as I knew it.  I closed my eyes and envisioned myself in my happy place: pushing a cart through Costco.  I found solace in the sea of sameness there:  the gargantuan SUV’s… creaseless foreheads… and buoyant silicone breasts.

I took a deep breath and shored myself up to rejoin the group of parents.   Despite the culture shock, I knew we’d made the right choice and found a school where our little non-conformist’s creative genius and personality quirks would be so nurtured that someday he could —  live his own truth — and fulfill his destiny… by chaining himself to a municipal building… or dropping out of Harvard… or publishing his very own manifesto.

Of Crafts and Carnage…

26 Feb

This morning I discovered a bloody towel in the bathroom that my three sons share.   At first I confess I actually didn’t think much of it, because frankly, when you have three sons, finding an occasional bloody towel in the house is not all that unusual.  A bit later, however, as I was putting laundry away in my middle son’s dresser, I looked down and discovered a bloody spot on the rug. Well, not so much a spot, really… more like a sizable splotch, likely left by a succession of drips.  Then my eye went to what looked like an entire  boxful of spent band-aid wrappers.  I didn’t need David Caruso and a Haz Mat team to tell me that I’d happened upon a crime  scene.

“William!”  I yelled.

“Yeah, Mom?!”  he yelled back.

“Come here!”  I yelled again.  Because I am the mother of three boys I do a lot of yelling.  I consider it my ‘Love Language’.  My nine year-old son arrived breathless in front of me.  He surveyed me, surveying the gory scene.

“What happened?”  I asked him.

“Paper cut” he replied.  Emphasis on the LIED.

“Son, the only way a paper cut could result in this much blood loss is if someone took a copy of ‘War and Peace’ and fired it at you with a bazooka” I reported, my 18 years of health care experience coming in handy yet again.


“Tell me how you cut yourself” I tersely demanded… I mean, I compassionately queried.

“With a knife,” his confession was barely audible.

“What were you doing with a knife?” I tersely, er, compassionately, uh, demanded…

“I was cutting up popsicle sticks to make a craft I saw on You Tube.”  ARRARARAHGH!!!!  Damn you, YOU TUBE!!!!

“Give me the knife,” I ordered.  From his closet he produced a pocketknife he’d borrowed from his dad for this past weekend’s Cub Scout camping trip.

“Now show me where you cut yourself,” I gently directed, my hard, crusty exterior cracking to reveal a soft, chewy center.   He lifted his left hand to reveal a tattered band-aid encircling a filthy index finger.  When I pulled off the band-aid, I saw an injury I immediately recognized.

Just 2 weeks ago my oldest son had been home sick with a cold.  In the middle of the day I was loading the dishwasher and he, I assumed, was watching TV in my bedroom.  Suddenly he appeared in front of me, his face ashen.

“Are you ok?” I asked, then looked down to see that his hand was wrapped in a towel and there was blood on his shirt.

What the…?”

“I cut my finger”

“I can see that,” I asked reaching for his hand, “How?”

“I was trying to make a bow and arrow.  I saw it on ‘You Tube.’”

I guessed we’d get to ‘what in the Sam Hill were you thinking’ phase of the conversation later, but first I needed to see that finger.  I slowly unwrapped the towel he’d wound tightly around his injured hand (see what I mean about bloody towels not being all that unusual in our house?)  Oooh.  The cut looked deep.  And it sort of traversed the joint (there’s that health care background coming in to play again).  “Sweetie, I think I need to take you to the doctor.  You may need a stitch or two.”


I couldn’t help but think that mothers of daughters have it so easy.  Girls will sit for hours quietly and peacefully entertaining themselves doing crafts.  Any mother of boys knows that any boy doing anything quietly for any length of time is cause for alarm.  In a household full of boys, “quietly doing crafts” involves sharp knives, bloodshed, and trips to urgent care.  I’ve yet to hear that one of my friends had to rush her daughter to the doctor for treatment because the little darling had a violent glitter mishap.  Or put her eye out when her Bedazzler misfired.  Or set her tutu on fire when her Easy Bake Oven exploded…  With boys it’s different.  There is an element of danger in everything.

When we got home from the doctor’s, we showed the stitches to his two younger brothers and had a nice chat about Internet safety, craft projects and the need for competent supervision when using sharp objects.  “Remember boys, just because you see someone do something on ‘You Tube,’ doesn’t mean it’s safe to try yourself” I wisely intoned.

After eleven days of protective finger splints and wearing Saran Wrap in the shower, it was time for the stitches to come out.  I started to stress when I thought of trying to squeeze another doctor’s visit into an already jammed schedule.  Wait a minute.  I have eighteen years of health care experience and besides that… I’m crafty… and I know how to sew. Really, how hard could it be?  I got on the Internet and Googled “how to remove stitches.”   I gathered some pointy little scissors, alcohol wipes, my reading glasses and some tweezers.  I limbered up my fingers, cracked my knuckles, then called my son over.  “C’mon, Johnny!  Let’s do this!”

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked dubiously.

“Of course I do,” I replied.  Emphasis on the LIED.

A little snipping.  A little tugging.  A little “Oh be quiet, that didn’t hurt” and voila!  Thank goodness, my Internet craft project went much better than his did.  We cleaned him up and put the whole cut finger mess behind us.  Or so I thought.

Now here I stood just two weeks later, looking at the same injury on a different boy.  Thankfully this cut– the exact same length, in the exact same location– didn’t look exactly as deep.  My now finely honed triage skills told me we could treat this second cut at home.

I led my son into the bathroom and cleaned him up properly, applying a layer of Neosporin and topping it off with a clean band aid, and a kiss.  “Come on, Sweetie.  You can help me mop up the blood spatters.”  It was a tender moment between a mother and son.

I didn’t need the Internet to show me how to do that.

On Boys, Balls and Climbing the Walls…

8 Jun

Yesterday afternoon my husband and I took our three boys to an indoor rock climbing gym– a completely new adventure for all of us.  I had no idea what an elaborate undertaking it would be.  I began to realize that rock climbing was not for sissies when there were 9 pages of liability forms to fill out and 18 separate spots requiring our initials.  Apparently there are numerous ways to maim yourself at an indoor rock climbing gym, and the owners were engaging in some serious legal CYA.  After we absolved the gym from any and all wrongdoing in the event of an untimely carabiner malfunction, there was a safety video to watch.  

During the video is when the true epiphany struck:  Rock climbing is mighty dangerous!  Why was this just occurring to me now?  What in the world possessed me to bring my boys here on a lovely Sunday afternoon in order to dangle them 50 feet in the air from a rope that was probably about as strong as a frayed piece of dental floss?  That image was scary enough… but then I started to wonder:  What if nothing at all went wrong… what if they had a great time…  what if they loved it?  I pictured a future of weekends filled with hand-wringing and floor pacing while my sons enjoyed wilderness excursions that included hanging by their fingertips from sheer rock faces like that Scientologist in that ‘Mission Impossible’ movie.  And then I thought:  “What if they all loved rock climbing so much that they became Scientologists?!”  I’ll be the first to admit that my imagination tends to run wild at times, and it was running completely amuck during that safety video.  

After the video we each put on our rented pairs of teensy tiny little rock climbing shoes that were inspired by ancient Chinese footbinding rituals, before awkwardly donning our requisite groin holsters (that incidentally served to freakishly exaggerate the manhood of every dude in the gym… and I mean that not in a good way).  We then commenced a 20 minute orientation with a cute little fresh-faced girl named Rachel who looked about 12 years old and should be filling us in about the favorite colors of the Jonas Brothers, rather than authoritatively educating us on the death-defying pastime of rock climbing.  When Rachel’s presentation was over, we had to demonstrate all our new found knowledge of knots, harness tightening and belaying tactics to her before she cut us loose (er, probably not a great choice of phrase here).  

The boys started climbing whilst my husband and I stayed on the ground and held on to their ropes for dear life.   Let me just tell you I have never been so tense in all my years.  Watching each of my boys scamper up a 30 ft rock wall was exhilarating and terrifying.  I marveled at their facility as each of them stretched and lunged and nimbly picked his way up the steep walls without a moment’s trepidation.  Even my 6 year old made it to the top about 62 times. It was amazing and I was so proud.  My husband beamed as he looked over at me and proclaimed:  “This place is boy heaven!”  And he was right, where else were boys allowed to literally climb the walls and flirt with death… and not get in trouble for it?  Finally it was Mom’s turn to try.  

It needs to be said that I was not dressed properly at all.  Never having climbed before, I showed up in running shorts.  (Emphasis on the “short”).  Between the teensy tiny shoes and go-go shorts, my thighs looked like they belonged to Mary Lou Retton (that is if Mary Lou had never been an Olympic athlete, and if her idea of “floor exercise” was kicking back with a bag of Doritoes, and flipping through the channels).   Add to that the tight harness cinched around my crotch and midsection, and let me tell you, I was a vision in Bulge.  And while I might have felt like the first woman to summit Mt. Everest as I bravely scaled the colorful plastic toeholds of the beginner’s section of the artificial rock wall, I shudder to think of the view my husband had of my backside as he belayed me from down below.  I must have looked like the second incarnation of the Hindenburg Disaster, up there all blimp-y and inflated while my comparatively little husband stayed down on planet Earth, yanking on my tether to keep me from floating away.  

And by the way, I didn’t actually know that I was afraid of heights until I was about half way up that wall.  I made the mistake of looking down at my little ant-like family scittering around far below me and my palms and forehead instantaneously broke out in sweat– and I mean like a bunch of sprinklers coming on.  When I got so high that I swore my nose was about to bleed, I begged my husband to let me come down.  “OFF BELAY!!!  DOWN CLIMB!!!  DOWN ME NOW!!! I screeched from a frightening altitude.  With my feet safetly back on terra firma, I asked him to point out how high I had gotten, fully expecting that his voice would be choked with admiration as he indicated some lofty distance.  He yawned and pointed to a pink rubber toehold barely 5 feet from the floor.  Totally embarrassing.  I was determined not to let Mt. Rock Wall to get the better of me and tried again.  Somehow during my triumphant ascent, my little tiny ant-husband managed to wield his iPhone to take a “proof of life” shot of me at the top.  I planted the American flag and descended triumphantly.  I couldn’t wait to see the picture of what a rugged and adverturous Boy Mom I was…  As my husband handed me the camera he politely warned me that the photo was “not, uh, very flattering…”  All I saw before I hit the ‘Delete’ button was a horrifying image of the underside of my keester oozing out of a crotch harness.  Let’s not talk about it.  

After a couple of hours of belaying the boys, my hands and my nerves needed a break.  My middle son wanted to spend some time with some boxing gloves and a punching bag, and since neither of his brothers was available to play the role of the punching bag, we went upstairs to the fitness area that gave us a bird’s eye view of all the climbers.   At one point I spotted my 10 year-old literally hanging around.  He had used the auto-belay to climb nearly to the top of the 30 ft wall and had clipped himself to a little tether to sort of “hang out” for a minute or two.  It put us virtually at eye level with one another, but about 20 feet apart with nothing but an expanse of air between us.  The gym was noisy so we couldn’t actually converse with each other, but our eyes met and I mouthed to him:

What are you doing?”  He mouthed a response, but I couldn’t really make out what he was saying.  “What?” I mouthed back.  Again, I could see his lips moving but couldn’t really understand him. Was he telling me he loved it here?  That he was having the time of his life?  Finally after his third attempt, I got it.  He was saying:  “MY BALLS HURT.”  


All in all it was a great afternoon.  I felt adventurous and gratified after a fun family outing where everyone attempted something new and walked out tired and happy. Despite all my worries, there were no carabiner malfunctions, no broken bones, and no dramatic Scientology conversions.  

Mission accomplished.