Advice for My Pandemic Senior

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Class of 2020 Avon High School

It’s a month into our pandemic experience. As each weird “new normal” day opens, I think about you and your brother and feel a familiar sadness that’s hard to explain. It comes with a sense of guilt. When the towers fell on 9/11 you were an unborn diaphragm-kicking babe in my belly, still three months away from your due date, and I remember thinking, “Why am I bringing the poor kid into this horrific mess?” It’s a little bit of the same sadness today. 

But too late now, you’re here. My goodness, you’re eighteen already, and I can’t fathom how those years flew by so quick-as-lightning fast. I’m thankful to God you made it this far. You’re smarter than the average bear, blessed with your dad’s handsomeness, good hair, and flair for dress jackets and briefcases, and you have no obvious genetic or health defects that spell disaster for you in the foreseeable future. Phew! That’s a lot to be thankful for, and I’m filled with gratitude for all those things every single day. 

The best thing I can do to mitigate the guilt I feel for bringing you into this crazy place is to give you a few words of advice as you’re about to graduate high school and move on to your new adventures, so here I go…

Notice and commit to memory the beauty around you every single day. 

It’s there, but you have to look for it – some days you have to look HARD. These observations are like points of light during your life’s path. They can quietly pass by you like brief flickers of light, but if you turn and look at them – really look at them, and maybe even jot them down in a journal periodically, they stay with you.

These are the points of light that, when strung together, create your perceptions about life. Trust me that it makes an enormous difference in how you see the world.

The beauty is literally everywhere around you. It’s in nature — a newly sprouted crocus in spring, the suicidal squirrel who runs in front of your car and then rethinks and skitters back to the curb, the complexity of the ice crystals that form on the window right next to your bed. It’s in people — the guy who holds the door for the granny behind him at the store, the sound of your friend’s laughter at an inside joke, the adoring mother who washes the skillet after you make your eggs (OK, shameless plug there)… 

Spread your own magic. 

All day long, there are opportunities to create and diffuse positivity into the world. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is. Notice people, no matter how peripheral they may be to your path. Our connections with others and our ability to lift each other up with a simple but kind comment or a smile are SO underrated. I’m one hundred percent sure it’s what we’re here for — to look someone in the eye, really notice them, and give them a genuine “Thank you,” or even just, “That’s a really cool shirt.” It’s a leap of faith but just trust that it has a butterfly effect and spreads outward like a ripple on a lake. Put it out there as often as you can.

For the love of Pete, put the damn phone down. 

The collective amount of missing out that we’ve all suffered since the invention of these godforsaken smartphones is horrific. Stop the madness. I’m not talking about the informative stuff. Sure, there are a few positives, but it’s 99% negatives.

There is unquantifiable opportunity cost in those hours of “numbing out” and scrolling through meaningless, valueless garbage. That time is precious and you can never get it back. At 18, you think you have a lot of it left but believe me you’ll regret it when you’re 52. I know I do.

When I was a teen, I wasted too many hours of my life watching “General Hospital.” I could have learned three languages and all of astronomy with all that time I wasted. At least I have the ability to flip that show on today and pick right up where I left off with the Quartermaines in their fair hamlet of Port Charles. You poor kids have nothing to show for your wasted time except Doge memes and TikTok dance videos you won’t remember next week.

Life is not fair.

But you can handle it if you’re OK with asking for help and letting others give it to you. You’ll cringe as you see life hurl some truly ghastly curve balls at people. Some of those pitches will include razor blades and the balls may actually detonate like bombs when they hit people in the face. It may bring you to your knees when you see an undeserving soul suffer a fiery car crash, contract terminal cancer, lose a job or lose a child.

It scares the shit out of you because then you know it could happen to you. The only control you have when you or someone you care about is being unfairly pummeled by life is to decide how you’ll react and what you can do to help.

Even in the most desperate of times, there is enormous grace and beauty. Look for the outpouring of love and support shown by loved ones and even complete strangers. Believe that most people are good and things can change for the better, no matter how bad things seem, because that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Be a proactive communicator, in all your relationships. 

Tell people, with as much honesty as you can, how their actions and words affect you. It’s important in work relationships and friendships, and it’s vital in your love relationships. I’ve seen what could have been decades-long happy marriages reduced to rubble due to plain and simple conflict avoidance and inability to say to one another, “something you did (or said) felt crappy to me, and here’s why…”

Lack of honest communication can build resentment that festers and creates walls faster than an old world Italian mason. When the walls become high enough and thick enough, irreparable damage results. Then, sadly, the proverbial “towel” is thrown in and that relationship goes down the crapper.

Collect good friends like flowers, and lean towards the cactuses. 

You’ll know who your flowers are as you travel through life. Your dad and I have done a pretty good job at building our collections. In fact, we’ve built sprawling and gorgeous gardens – each of us having our own, with an overlapping part in the middle that we share. Our high school and college friends, former worklife bosses and coworkers, neighbors from places we’ve lived.

The cactus part is a reference not to their prickly natures, but to their minimal care needs. You can’t collect too many tropicals and exotics with shallow root systems and huge thirsts for water. You’ll kill yourself trying to maintain those and keep ‘em all happy. But those cactuses – they’re the ones that survive with a little love every so often and some infrequent watering.

Don’t forget the water – even cactuses need a little. A quick text every few months – or even years – just to check in or let them know you were remembering something they said years ago is enough to maintain that garden your whole life long. The high maintenance flowers will weed themselves out (see what I did there)  – you will remember them fondly but not enough to resume contact. And that’s OK.

People will disappoint you; be generous with your forgiveness. 

We are such a big human mess of accidental slights, oversharing, forgotten appointments, late arrivals, unreturned borrowed items of clothing/books/cookware/tools/cash, unkept promises, over-commitments, incompatible prioritizations, distractibility and self absorption. It’s astounding to me that any two of us ever manage to be on the same page at any same moment in time.

It’s painful to be hurt by someone you care for. There’s a test that can help you decide if you should forgive them. Ask yourself, “Did they intend to hurt me?” If the answer is, “No,” then forgiveness is absolutely the right course of action. If the answer is “Yes,” (which happens rarely, unless you’re a jerk), then ask, “WHY did they intend to hurt me?”  This can be tricky.

If the matter involves a misperception about who you are and what you’re about, either do your best to correct that misperception, or move on. Up to you, depending on how important that relationship is to your life. But when moving on, don’t belabor it. Just go. Don’t spend more energy or time on that one.

When you’re angry, wait it out. 

Things said and done in anger are so often regrettable and difficult or even impossible to take back. Some can never, ever be taken back. Sure, you can apologize and put them behind you, but the other person often can’t. That memory takes on a life of its own and comes back to bite later.

Time is a great healer of an inflamed and angry ego. Those compelling reasons you had in the heat of the moment for uttering those injurious words (or hurling that plate or Ninja star) can eventually evaporate into thin air with the simple passage of a few moments (or hours, or days). Just give it some time.

Admit it when you’re wrong. 

Your integrity and the respect people have for you are directly correlated with your ability to openly and comfortably admit your own errors and mistakes. You will definitely meet people in life without this ability who thrive and succeed to an impressive degree, but you do not want to be like them. At all.

Why? Because although they’re usually oblivious to it, their friends and coworkers loathe them. People with an inability to admit mistakes (or even worse, blame it on others) have an embarrassing and catastrophic self-reflection blind spot. They think no one else sees them covering up or blaming others, or bending the truth just a little, but people always do.

Once that happens, even just a few times, it’s all over. Without honest admission and correction, without the ability to show the vulnerable soft underbelly of imperfection, respect can’t be earned or regained. People will put up with you — they’ll even work for you and sort of pretend to like you — but they’ll laugh at you and roll their eyes behind your back. You’ll never be taken seriously again.

Get comfortable with vulnerability.

Because you’re a young man, by now you’re aware that our culture celebrates manly men who only seem to comfortably connect with one another through 1. Sports or 2. Work.

This is tragic. Sadly, we’ve taught men to leave the touchy-feely connecting to women, and the men are missing out big time. The stats on the growing epidemic of lonely men in our culture are heartbreaking. Did you hear the story about the single man who became so lonely he began hugging a pole in his apartment? Truth.

You will see men end up all alone and friendless sitting at a bar by themselves at 45-50 years of age. They’ll have not developed the ability to connect with other men and maintain meaningful, real friendships. It requires a comfort with vulnerability and being self secure enough that you’re unafraid of what someone might think of you when you invite another guy to get a beer or go see a movie together.

You must embrace vulnerability in order to forge, cultivate and maintain meaningful friendships. Do not leave that to the women in your life. It’s your own responsibility to hone that skill.

If it scares you a little, you should probably do it. 

Aside from things you know are stupid, like skateboarding without a helmet or trying heroin, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is where growth happens, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now. It’s so much easier to take the cushy path of less resistance – that’s why it’s called The Comfort Zone. But it’s lazy.

Get used to the fact that new growth often doesn’t feel good and go towards it when you have the chance. It’s why the first day at a new job or new school feels awful. It’s why first dates are terrifying.

Fight the natural urge to retreat and fight it hard. When you look back on your life, you’ll see that all your opportunities for great learning and development were preceded by that icky feeling of uncertainty, self-doubt and discomfort. Just do it. Don’t think about it too long, and jump in.

CALL. YOUR. PARENTS.

Life gets busy. That’s my usual excuse for why I haven’t called my parents in too long. You will have so much to do and not nearly enough time. There will be schoolwork, dorm life (praying you’re in a dorm by the fall), parties, friends, girls. Then there will be work, parties, friends, girls. Then there will be work, friends, marriage, and possibly the incredible time black hole of a family with young kids. It’s relentless.

All parents are uncomfortably aware that Cat Stevens’s words from his song “Cat’s in the Cradle” will inevitably describe their own feelings as they watch their children become adults. Please remember there will be no two hearts in the world happier than mine and your dad’s just to hear the sound of your voice. 

I was unprepared for how incredibly hard it would be to watch you grow up — into this capable young man, seemingly overnight — and to step out into your own world and away from ours. If I had known, I wouldn’t have had the guts to say “yes” to this whole parenthood shindig. I am so grateful I did, and I love you more than I can say.

Your father and I can’t wait to see where life takes you. Enjoy the life roller coaster, Freddy.

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My Playroom Blues

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash
Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Where do YOU keep it all, parents?

That cache of objects and artifacts from your children’s baby years and toddlerhoods that you can’t bear to part with?

I have a room full of it in my basement. It’s a separate room down there that we call “the playroom.” When my sons, now 14 and 17, were small, they spent hours together in that room, playing with Legos, Playmobil, Matchbox and Imaginext toys …. I could hear them playing together and laughing uproariously while I was upstairs making dinner or cleaning.

Parents of small children, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS… You have no idea how fast things will change. It’s inevitable.

There was a subtle shift when my older son turned 13ish… the increased self-consciousness and onset of pubescence was almost imperceivable when he was 12 and still had a 9-year old sibling. They still laughed together, and the older brother still enjoyed playing and being silly with the younger one. He probably welcomed respite from the increasingly challenging and rapidly-maturing social culture he was encountering at school.

But when our younger one crossed that same threshold, we had already somehow crossed a seismic shift in their relationship.

There are miles of distance in the divide between the worlds of boys in 8th grade and 11th grade. Eighth grade is still silly boy-child goofiness and memes about unfortunately timed farts and Super Smash Bros Brawl Nintendo game characters. 11th grade is (holy heck, how did we get here?!) college tour season. Mini-adulthood. At the threshold of grown-up-ness. One freaking foot out the door, people. It’s hard. (Have you watched the scene in the movie “Boyhood” where the mom, played so authentically by Rosanna Arquette, says to her just-turned-adult son, “I just thought there’d be…. more.” Shit gets real.)

The house is a lot quieter these days. My sons are not mean to one another, they simply co-exist in their own spheres. On their separate screens. For their father and me, it’s hard to watch. We know this is another developmental phase along a continuum. We both remember times when we experienced similar separateness from our own siblings — it’s perfectly normal development. It’s still hard to watch.

My husband decided to clean up the basement last week, to get rid of the “stuff” we no longer use or need in it, and he targeted the playroom first. He seemed mystified that I’d let all that stuff sit in there for so long, gathering dust. I looked at him squarely in the eyes and said, “Good luck with that.” He looked at me, confused by the answer. I said, “You’ll see.”

“The playroom” has been the bane of my existence for the past several years. I gather up my strength, determined that I’ll make headway and clear it all out into boxes headed to Goodwill. Within an hour, I’m wallowing in nostalgic melancholy about the years when they were small.

I can’t bear to put into the Goodwill boxes the Imaginext castle set with the knights and the dragon they used to fly around the house, the Wall-E movie plastic “Eve” with the little compartment in her belly to hold the little plastic shoe-plant she protected, or the R2-D2 robot they learned how to make dance to the cantina scene song by telling it in their little-boy voices, “R2! Dance mode!”… it feels too much like closing the door on their childhood. It’s too hard to acknowledge that their “little selves” are both gone. I know they’re turning into wonderful young adults, but it still feels like loss. And you grieve losses.

Would it help to hire someone to cart it all away while I cover my eyes and pretend it’s not happening? Absolutely. But I can’t bring myself to do that, either.

My husband emerged upstairs from the playroom after two hours of his attempted clearing. Seated at my desk, I paused my work, and turned to look at him. His expression looked more like someone who’s just been told his dog is dying than a man who triumphantly cleared a roomful of clutter. He said, “Oh, my goodness…That room.” I nodded my head slowly. “Yep,” I said.

Now he understands. Will there come a day when we can muster the strength? The option of hiring someone to do the job for us is looking better and better.

Our Kids Are Not In a Race

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[This piece was originally published by Parent Co. on March 30, 2016.]

The call came from my son’s math teacher (I’ll call her “Ms. W”). She wanted to discuss her recommendation for his freshman math class placement next year in high school.

I could hear the nervousness in her voice as she described her perception of his performance in her honors-level math class this year.

“He’s smart and very capable, and his test scores put him just above the line for a recommendation for Honors Geometry next year.” This was not news to me. My son had transitioned from elementary school to middle school fairly seamlessly, and was placed in honors-level math and language arts classes in 7th and 8th grade. He was earning all A’s in his classes every marking period. Maybe an occasional B+ in science or math.

Math is the only subject my son has always described as the one he “hates.”

Although he’s capable of learning every concept taught, it doesn’t come naturally for him. He has to work hard in math to get A’s and B’s. It’s the only subject that has, on many occasions, brought him to angry tears of frustration. He’s told me that math simply makes him feel stupid.

He is, by nature, a “creative.” He draws, he cartoons, he makes videos and he writes amazingly well. He will not be a doctor, a scientist or an engineer. Those professions, and others that require heavy hard science and math, just don’t appeal to him.

Ms. W continued on, “In 9th grade, the intensity really ramps up in honors math. I know he doesn’t like math, although he works really hard at it. I would love to see him in a situation where he’s comfortably performing well and he feels really good about himself.”

Bingo. It was a no brainer for me to agree with her recommendation that he be placed in the “academic” level geometry class next year.

When I instantly agreed with her recommendation, her sigh of relief was audible. The tension in her voice evaporated. She had prepared herself for the inevitable parent pushback. The pushback that comes instinctively from a parent who fears their child is falling behind in the race. About my decision, she said, “That’s so refreshing. Parents just don’t do that in this town.”

The following week, I told a group of my mom friends about my decision over coffee. One friend with a daughter in her junior year at our high school had an expression of shock on her face, and looked at me like I’d sprouted a second nose. She asked, “But aren’t you worried he’ll be a year behind?”

I smiled as kindly as I could and said, “Behind what? It’s not a race.” She’s still not convinced. She thinks I’m closing a door of opportunity for my son.

What is this fear that is driving parents to crack the whip behind their kids and push them until they crumble?

How many news headlines about teens being exhausted, depressed and suicidal do we have to read before we get it?

This isn’t a race.

Parenting is an opportunity to raise happy, self-confident, well-adjusted human beings who understand they have strengths and gifts to offer the world, but that not everyone excels at everything. That’s just life. Our job is to help them find their strengths and gifts, and to nurture those. To support them when they put effort into mastering areas in which they naturally excel.

I talked with my son about the discussion I had with Ms. W and the decision I made. He feels really good (and relieved!) about it. He’ll take honors-level English and Science and he’ll audition for the a capella choir (he’s a talented singer and it’s something he really enjoys).

He’s looking forward to his freshman year. Many of his classmates are already nervous and worried that the academic pressure in high school will be too great.

Sadly, for many of them, it will be.

Shifting Gears to Fully Appreciate the Gift

IMG_3184Smack in the middle of editing a piece that’s due to a client by noon tomorrow, I get the school district robocall to my cell phone telling me my boys are being released early from school due to the snow storm that is becoming heavier than expected.

Drat. Just as I was getting into my writing groove.

I begin the mental shifting of gears that every part-time work-from-home mom knows so well. Did I seriously expect to finish what I’d started? Time to put my “Mom” hat back on.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it sometimes makes me angry and irritable to have to shift gears from work to family. It’s frustrating to have my progress interrupted and to reset my expectations about how the rest of my day will be spent.

This is how I shift those gears:

I sit for a few minutes before they walk in the door from their buses, I close my eyes, and I focus. I focus on the way their little faces looked when they were just two and five years old. I focus on how my younger son’s lisp used to sound and how he replaced the phrase “what happens if” with his own unique “whunsif”. I remember how my older son used to sing the chorus to “Leaving on a Jetplane” whenever we were headed on a trip to visit his grandfather in Florida.

I think about my younger boy’s classmate, now in 5th grade, still courageously fighting an inoperable brain cancer she’s had since she was just five years old. I think about a former coworker who lost her son when he was just 21, two weeks before his college graduation, when he was in the back seat of a car that was struck by a drunk driver.

In just four short years, my older son will leave for college. Four years?! That’s the blink of an eye. My younger son still snuggles with his two favorite blankets (his “cozies”) when we watch TV. I tell myself, “Momma, stop being such an idiot. These days are numbered, and your babies are leaving you.”

Gear shifting now fully completed, I hear my boys clambering in through the front door, dropping their backpacks on the floor, shaking the snow off their jackets, kicking their wet boots off and laughing about something someone said to one of them on the bus ride home.

I walk to them, grinning from ear to ear at their bemused faces, and I tell them we need to grab a quick bite and then head out to the nearby golf course to go sledding. They agree it’s an excellent idea.

The goal of parenthood is to raise independent humans. Simple, really. Tweet: The goal of parenthood is to raise independent humans. Simple, really. http://ctt.ec/fmBaf+

Teach them how to negotiate their paths through life, how to make good decisions and be kind to others. And to pick up after themselves and make their own food.

You’re teaching them how to leave you. That’s why I find parenting so difficult. You’re teaching these little creatures that you love more than life itself how to be so independent, they will not only be able to leave you, they will want to leave you. Pure and utter heartbreak, isn’t it?

As the years pass, if things go as planned (I know, they sometimes don’t), you watch your kids make these astounding leaps forward. They’re growing. They’re maturing. They’re getting it right. They’re cutting the strings loose, one by one. And it’s happening much, much too fast.

I’m now fully able to recognize that this unexpected shortened school day and interruption of my work progress is nothing less than a sparkling, glorious gift from the universe. I’m determined to gratefully soak up every single second of it.


Originally published in February, 2016 by Parent Co: https://www.parent.com/shifting-gears-to-fully-appreciate-the-gift/