Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tracing Family Lines

When I was a child, family ties were murky. On random holidays, we would gather in some cousin’s yard in a loose flock. The adults would drink too much beer and the kids would run in circles, weaving in and out of tall bodies, tagging each other with reaching fingers.

It wasn’t important how we were related. We answered our elders with the obligatory Southern “ma’am” and “sir.” We called everyone older than us “uncle” or “aunt,” though they were much more likely to be our first cousins once removed.

It was only confusing in school, where classmates with small families don’t struggle to understand the concept of aunts and uncles. With a vast sea of local relatives, it was difficult for my young mind to grasp that your aunt was only the sister of your mother or father. In my world, she could just as easily be my grandmother’s first cousin. Family ties were foggy like that.

I started researching my family history in 2012. A friend had informed me that was offering a 30-day free trial. He had traced his family tree back to English royalty.

With a simple 30-day free trial.

What did I have to lose?

The better questions was: What did I have to gain?

I dove into the Jones line first, hoping to find a great-grandfather who abandoned his family in 1931. The man had disappeared like a vapor. No census records. No death certificate. It was like he walked off the edge of the world, leaving behind three children and a disgruntled wife. It’s hard to chase a ghost. I’ve often joked that maybe my great-grandmother buried him in the backyard. Weirder things have happened.

Thirty days isn’t long enough to trace centuries of relatives. What was supposed to be a little month-long project of curiosity instead turned into crazed obsession. I purchased an ancestry membership, got lost in census records, dug into family trees. In that first furious foray into family lineage, I discovered a link to British baronets, my grandparents’ marriage certificate, and my great-grandmother’s birth mother.

But when I emerged with birth records and passenger lists, the sweat of battle still glistening on my brow, I realized my efforts were largely unappreciated. Having expected glory and praise (or at least a modest pat on the back) from my relatives, I was disappointed to find that nobody seemed to care.

I announced we were descended from the Bickley Baronets on social media, tagging aunts and cousins with the amusing (if not earth-shattering) news. While I grasped the triumph of this discovery firmly in my hand, waving it like a victory banner, not one person so much as “liked” my discovery. When I told my dad, he grunted and turned up the volume on the television. Reruns of Gunsmoke were apparently more interesting to him than family history. I couldn’t relate.

My grandmother was worse. When I informed her I had found her grandmother, she was mildly interested. But only until I unraveled the story for her as I sat cross-legged on her living room floor. A precious family story had been passed down, one of how an infant (who would become my great-grandmother) was pried from the stiff dead arms of her intellectually disabled mother. But I had found her mother on the 1920 census, alive and well and working as an office clerk in Maryland. This piece of evidence would suggest she was neither dead nor intellectually disabled when my great-grandmother was adopted.

My grandmother drew her lips into a thin hard line, and shaking her head slightly, said one cold word.


I had been shut down but not entirely demoralized.

Instead of giving up, I buried into birth records and death certificates like a mole, digging in the dark, keeping to myself. It really didn’t matter if anyone acknowledged what I was doing. I  needed to trace the intricate lace of my family lines. I was driven to understand how I came by the DNA that gave me blue eyes, long fingers, and wide feet. Why could I roll my tongue and carry a tune? Could my great-grandfather? What about his mother?

It was an impulse to know myself by knowing them, though they had been reduced to nothing more than names on ancient documents or etched in marble headstones.

But genealogy is hard work. It will unravel your insides and leave you with more questions than it answers. There are probably things you don’t want to know, like how my mother had an aunt and uncle who died of neglect and malnutrition when they were just babies. Research will leave you mourning people you never met. Blood is thicker than water.

Two years ago, my children gifted me with a DNA test for Mother’s Day. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it put an end to the family stories of Cherokee blood. I am boringly European, although my family is anything but boring. That DNA test revealed more family evidence, proving that Maryland clerk was in fact my grandmother’s grandmother. DNA doesn’t lie.

Now I find myself sorting through hundreds of DNA matches, relatives I’ve never met, names and faces of strangers. Deciphering relations is like ciphering impossible math problems.

If my mother and your father were half second cousins, what does that make us?

DNA results have left me more confused. I am less sure of who I am, and I didn’t think that was possible. There were Earth-shattering surprises. The kind that makes the family tapestry seem to unravel at the edges.

I am still the kid weaving her way through a crowd of relatives, wondering which are uncles and which are cousins. Reaching out to tag them with fingers.

“Tell me your story.”

“I thought I knew who you were.”

I thought I knew who I was. But DNA and marriage records and death certificates just muddy the water. It swirls around until I’m lost again.

If I stare at those connecting family lines long enough, the Henrys and Oscars and Catherines that dot the generations swirl in a muck until they run together, forming a blur that sometimes has my father’s eyes.

That blur is me.

I’m still trying to bring myself into focus.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Boys Will Be Boys - Why Masculinity Is Actually Heroic Not Toxic

Raising boys is not for the faint of heart.
I am the mother of two boys. The two of them are responsible for every single gray hair I have on my head. For those with no experience raising little ones, boys are generally loud and rambunctious. Like most young boys, mine toppled Christmas trees, wrestled in the dirt, and repeatedly tried to jump from the top of the playground slide. (Not the tame little toddler slide, either, but the giant, twisting one that the Parks and Rec department finally removed because it was dangerously tall. That thing was like 20 feet high and little boys kept trying to jump off it. )

My boys were wild. They ran with sticks. They tried to ride the dog. They would take running leaps down the hallway stairs. They rode bikes with no hands. They literally climbed the walls of my house like miniature versions of Spider-Man.

And I let them.

Attempting to rein in their excessive energy was futile. So, I let them run and climb and jump off things, constantly testing their courage and their physical boundaries.

I let them be boys.

And when my boys came to me with dirty faces and scraped knees I often uttered this horrific, four-word phrase:

“Boys will be boys.”

I know the Karens and Jennifers of the world, with their self-righteous views of what constitutes civilized behavior, are out there clutching their pearls and gasping in horror, but it’s true. I totally, 100 percent, unapologetically let my boys behave like boys.

I get it. “Boys will be boys” has often been a poor excuse for bad behavior. From bar fights to sexual assault, the bad behavior of some men has been swept aside, trivialized, and normalized as just something that is part of their nature. Something they can’t control. Boys will be boys.

However, typical male behavior isn’t all bad, and we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Even if that baby does have a Y chromosome and a penis.

Boys do have a natural tendency to be adventurous and active, to be risk takers and push limits. But it isn’t “uncivilized.” In fact, it is those very traits that created civilization in the first place.

If you’ve ever watched baby animals play, you’ve seen them actively working to hone skills they will need to be successful adults. The lion cub that pins his sibling to the ground is practicing how to make dinner. Twin fawns playing chase are practicing how to not become dinner.

Human boys are doing the same thing. They are perfecting the skills they need to be men.

Physical activity strengthens muscle and develops physical coordination. Taking risks helps develop courage in the face of fear. And even that aggression, when properly channeled, cultivates ambition and determination, not to mention the skills needed to defend themselves and their loved ones.

Lately, masculinity is being painted with broad negative brush strokes. The narrative is that masculinity is “toxic,” ultimately responsible for the ills of society, from wars to rape to a lack of seat space on public transit.

It has become popular opinion that limiting masculine behaviors, including rough and tumble boyhood play, is the answer to all Society’s problems. If men would just be less manly, the world would be a better place.


Masculinity isn’t intrinsically toxic. In spite of Gillette commercials and the new feminist diatribe, manhood is not dangerous or destructive to society. Yes, there are men who are those things. However, it isn’t because they are too masculine. Whether its pathology or poor home training, that causes individuals to be destructive, we can’t blame manhood for the deadly actions of a few.

Whenever there is danger, it is men who rush in. With strong muscles and brave hearts, they put aside concerns for their own well-being. They rush toward fires, and raging flood waters, and the sound of gunshots to save the weak and the innocent. The masculine traits of assertiveness, strength, aggression, dominance, and control save lives and prevent tragedy every single day of the year.

We can’t argue with hard facts and statistics. Most violent acts are committed by men. But so are most acts of valor and bravery. Masculinity isn't inherently toxic. Rather, it is virtuous and courageous. Masculinity isn't misogyny and homophobia, posturing and compensation. Masculinity is action and strength and bravery. It is using inherent power, not to harm, but to serve and protect.

There is an alarming trend in this country to emasculate our boys. Participation in once popular contact sports has seen a rapid decline. From 2009 to 2014, student participation in wrestling fell by 41.9%, while the number of kids playing tackle football decreased by almost 18%. While it may be mothers and school officials who are concerned about danger and injury that have spawned this decline, it could be a serious detriment to our young boys. This could be the beginning of generations of men who lack strength, physical skill, and a competitive edge.

Our public schools are formatted in ways that favor the learning style of girls while neglecting the way boys typically learn. In recent years, learning has become more language-based and less hands on. Recess has been shortened or altogether banned. We are expecting our boys to sit still and be quiet for longer and longer stretches of time. In short, we expect them to learn and behave like little girls. And when they can’t, we medicate them.

But boys like to be rough. They like to take things apart, climb to the top of the monkey bars, and roll in the dirt. It is in their nature. That is what we mean when we say, “Boys will be boys.”

If we constantly tell them that their very real needs to move and be physical and take risks are “bad”, Society is going to be in big trouble. When we convince men that their natural masculine inclinations are negative, we destroy masculinity as a whole. The good parts of masculinity far outweigh the negative, even if those aren’t the ones that make the evening news.

Men are pretty freakin’ awesome. We should be acknowledging that instead of tearing down boys, expecting them to behave like girls, and telling them that masculinity is toxic. As a modern Society, we cannot afford to eradicate masculinity.

If we destroy masculinity, who will rush in to save the suffering? Who will brave danger to help the innocent? Without aggression, courage, strength, and action we will be a society without heroes.

When all the heroes are gone, we’ll be left with a bunch of demure guys in skinny jeans, albeit with perfectly trimmed beards (thanks Gillette!). Those “men” will be too concerned with offending someone to take risks or speak their mind. They will lack the drive and courage to change the world. They will be too afraid of their “toxic masculinity” to pick up a suffering woman and carry her to safety.

After all, it is really hard to rush into a burning building or a dangerous war zone in skin tight jeans, especially when you’re concerned about spilling your latte...or breaking a nail.

Gillette did get one thing right in their new commercial.

The boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.

Rather than making them feel guilty or inadequate for being intrinsically strong, strapping, and male, we should let them know it is okay to be men.

Heck. Maybe we should even encourage it.

(AFP/Getty Images)


(David J. Phillip/AP)

(Getty Images)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Always Leave A Place Better Than You Found It

As a kid, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time hunting with my dad. Because Daddy wasn’t a private landowner, our hunting trips were spent hiking through state game lands, national forests, and other tracts of public property.

Often while we were hiking over rough terrain, either following crude trails or striking our own, Daddy would bend down to fetch some piece of garbage that wasn’t his own. Candy wrappers, beer bottles, soda cans, plastic baggies, were all fair game. He would pick them up, stuff them in his pack, and tote them out of the woods for proper disposal later.

“Always leave a place better than you found it.”

That was his only explanation. Few things irritated Daddy more than careless, inconsiderate hunters. Littering the natural landscape was one of his big pet peeves.

I must have heard this statement dozens of times over the years, a mantra carved into the crevices of my brain matter through repetition and respect.

I learned this principle following in my Daddy’s footsteps, my hiking boots literally stepping into the prints left by his. I still follow in Daddy’s footsteps, even though his boots are empty now. I always try to leave a place better than I found it.

Last week, my oldest daughter was stopped in a small town restaurant by two local women. The three of them chatted politely, mostly about my daughter’s first semester at UNC and her future plans. As always, Hannah was articulate and polite, answering questions with confidence and appropriate enthusiasm.

After their brief conversation, the two women commented about what how intelligent, confident,  friendly, ambitious, and well-mannered my daughter is.

“Yes. She’s nothing like her mother.”

Of course those words were never meant for my ears, but you have to be careful what you say in a small town. The walls have ears and secrets travel faster than green grass through a goose. And because those words were uttered in private, of course they got back around to me.

Now you might think hearing someone utter an insult to my character would get my panties in a wad, but you’d be wrong. I totally recognize the comment for what it is: a sincere compliment (although admittedly a backhanded one).

Of course my daughter is a better person than me. That was the point all along. The fact that these women could so clearly see that proves my success as a parent.

My daughter is smarter, kinder, and more driven than I have ever been, but that was all part of the plan. And if you think she’s awesome and amazing, you should meet the other three. Passionate, strong, motivated, brave. These are all words that could describe any one of my four kids. They are all better human beings than I will ever be.

Saying my daughter is NOTHING like me might be a bit of a stretch. She has lived with me for almost two decades, following round behind me or beside me for large portions of that time. We share strands of DNA. She once watched the world from my hip, ate my cooking, and listened to my singing. Surely that’s left a small imprint of me somewhere in her psyche.

However, I appreciate the acknowledgement that this fabulous person is better than me. I put an awful lot of time and effort into her raising. And I’m glad to have been successful.

I’m just following in my Daddy’s footsteps.

I’m just trying to leave this world better than I found it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Excuse Me, Ma'am? Could You Focus on the Important Things?

We're still bragging about this...
There's no way you're going to get our kids to stop saying, "ma'am."
I live in a small, rural county in eastern North Carolina. Tarboro is the county seat, and for most folks around here, it feels like the big city. Tarboro has  a McDonald’s and a Walmart, after all. (Although the Walmart isn’t the twenty-four hour kind. That place locks up at midnight. Unlike most places that can claim, “Nothing good happens after midnight,” Tarboro is altogether different. Here we say, “NOTHING happens after midnight.” Not a gosh darn thing. We pretty much roll up the streets after 10 pm.)

Heck, the local Piggly Wiggly (that’s the local grocery for those of y’all that ain’t from around here) doesn’t even unlock its doors on Sunday until after church service. True story.

Tarboro, NC is like a scene out of Mayberry. A small town with tree-lined streets and well-kept Victorian homes, Tarboro is smack dab in the middle of Edgecombe County, surrounded by sprawling fields full of cotton and tobacco.

While North Carolina isn’t exactly the “deep” South, we are firmly tucked inside the Bible Belt. Change comes slowly here. Just like our historic houses and monuments to the “Southern Cause,” the way we talk is an artifact from the past, and it’s not just our Southern drawls.

We hold tight to manners in much the same way we clutch our pearls and handkerchiefs, thinking the rest of the world is at least a smidgen barbaric. And most people think this is charming and quaint, like front-porch sitting, knowing your neighbors, the smell of magnolias, and Sunday dinner. It reminds people of gentler days when things were simpler and time moved at a slower pace.

This place is as Southern as they come. The main industry is agriculture, and families here can trace their last names back generations. Children here are weaned on sweet tea and cut their teeth on cornbread and homemade biscuits.

Just like in other places across the country, a child’s first word is liable to be “no.” Kids are amazingly similar no matter where you’re from.

However, around here that word is also likely to be followed by the word “ma’am,” lest there be a butt whooping and hell to pay.

As you can imagine, it was quite a surprise when our little Tarboro made the national news this week for this:

Elementary school children are no match for easily offended adults who wear imagined oppression like a badge of honor.

So, yeah. Tarboro, NC, hometown of good ol’ boys, makes national news because a teacher punished a fifth grader for calling her ma’am.

She might as well have cursed the sky for being blue.

The teacher claims to have repeatedly told the child to stop referring to her as ma’am. We don’t really know why... because privacy issues and educational politics. Perhaps she was upset this kid assumed her gender. How dare a 10 year-old attempt to dictate the gender identity of his teachers?

Or perhaps it was this teacher’s attempt to rip down the patriarchy, liberating women from archaic gender roles. Maybe this teacher is on a mission to destroy rules of decorum that limit ladies to nibbling cucumber sandwiches held daintily in white-gloved hands.

God help the poor guy who tries to hold the door for this one.

Ma’am isn’t a curse word. It shouldn’t be treated like hate speech. It isn’t meant to disparage or intimidate. It isn’t an insult to women everywhere. It’s just a way to show respect to your elders. It’s a way to be polite and civil. It’s one of the few things that separate us from the beasts. (You know? Those barbarians living above the Mason Dixon?)

Even if you think the term is incredibly outdated, you can’t easily unravel years of home-training.

Sorry, Lady (term loosely applied). You’ll have to try harder if you plan to make these kids woke. We resist change here like we resist Texas-style barbecue (is it really even barbecue?), unsweet tea (Or as we call it: nasty brown water), and low-carb diets (Bring on the biscuits and mashed taters!) And I promise that resistance isn’t all bad. It’s one of those things that makes this place homey and friendly and charming.

Sweetheart, if you’re going to make it in this town, you’re going to need to pick your battles. I promise this one isn’t worth it.

You’re a teacher, although arguably a pretty crappy one. I mean, you picked writing as a PUNISHMENT. There’s nothing like a teacher planting the notion in a young, fertile mind that writing is torture, a chore so tedious as to be reserved for mean-spirited discipline. Of course, this is punishment for only the most serious when you do what your parents tell you rather than what your teacher demands.

Bravo! Way to squash the next generation of Faulkners, Twains, and Dickinsons. (Those are famous American writers for those of you who may have received an Edgecombe County education.)

Why don’t you focus on basic literacy and math skills. I mean that’s your job. You weren’t hired to teach social justice, feminism, or progressive thought, no matter how noble those causes may be.

Edgecombe County has an abysmal graduation rate of 79 percent. Only 25 percent of the county’s students are proficient in reading. Only 27 percent are proficient in math. Why are you wasting your time trying to dismantle a student’s family values? (Here is a link for these stats. Just in case you want to tell me how awesome the schools are here.)

Honey, there are bigger catfish to fry (and serve up with a heapin’ side of collard greens and some fried okra.) Let’s start with the basics.

Anyone else suddenly hungry?

Is it just me?

I’m not saying you don’t have your work cut out for you. Educating kids is a tough, tough job.  Darlin’, there’s a heck of a lot of work to do. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to it… Ma’am.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Silent Sam and the Things That Never Change

Friday, we dropped my oldest daughter off at UNC Chapel Hill for her first year of college. I had put off thinking about it all summer, stuffing down emotions, procrastinating in my usual way, promising to deal with it later.

That morning we packed the family car with everything she would need - at least a dozen pairs of shoes, a case of ramen, over-priced text books, strings of Christmas lights. There was only a small space left for her. She had to carry her potted cactus plants on her lap for the entire two-hour drive.

The weather was sunny. The temperature well into the mid-90s. It was hot work toting box after box up several flights of stairs to a tiny, drab dorm room where she will spend the next months. We lofted her bed, assembled a brand new futon, hung pictures.

It didn't take long for us all to get sweaty. It felt like labor. It made me remember another kind of labor, 36 hours of contractions to birth her.

Letting go of a child is hard work.

In my normal procrastinating way, I put off good-bye as long as possible, making her bed, unpacking her clothes. I actually unfolded, then carefully and deliberately refolded each piece before tucking it inside the dresser drawer. We bought sushi on Franklin Street, eating slowly, savoring each individual bite, dragging out dinner much longer than was necessary.

But you can't procrastinate forever, in spite of your best efforts. Good-bye was inevitable and the emotions came gurgling up from the place I had been stuffing them all summer long.

"I'm going to wait to have my emotional breakdown until I'm in the car," I told her.

"Me, too," she said throwing her arms around me as the tears started flowing. Hers first, then mine. Just like the day she was born.

And suddenly, in that moment, she wasn't the stunning and confident young woman I had lived with all summer. In her place was a toddler, the one who had held my neck with a death grip, clinging to me like a cuttlefish. She had super human strength, like her arms were made of suction cups, impossible to pry open.

I could have held her forever, but that isn't how things work.

The walk back to the car without her felt all wrong. In my heart, it still felt like I was walking away from that small, helpless toddler. How was I supposed to protect her from so far away?

My mothering instincts hadn't caught up to the fact that saber tooth tigers weren't lurking around every corner waiting to rip my baby to shreds. Although college might hold some danger, my rational brain knows she can handle it. She is a confident, mature, responsible young lady.

Children grow much faster than mothers are able to let go.

Monday night, she sent a message to the family chat. (Yes, we have an active family chat. I like to think that makes us the cool family.)

"Silent Sam is down! Protesters toppled the statue."

Silent Sam was an iconic Confederate monument on UNC's campus. The statue, an image of a Confederate soldier, had stirred up a lot of controversy in last year's Southern hysteria surrounding historic monuments.

We had passed him on our way to get sushi.

"I'm surprised nobody has torn him down yet," my daughter had commented.

All of us had known it was only a matter of time.

My husband quickly pulled up internet video footage of the mob shouting and kicking at the fallen statue.


"Where are you?" My thumbs could barely type the message.

In that brief terror-filled moment before she answered, I thought my child might be in danger. In that instant, it didn't matter the reason behind the mob's actions. It didn't matter if they were right or wrong. It didn't matter whether I agreed with their reasoning or their morality. It didn't matter if I understood their motivations or if their ideologies conformed with mine.

The only thing that mattered, the ONLY THING...

Was whether my child was safe.

"I'm in my room. It’s a bit scary, being this close to that. I’ve never been this close to this stuff before."

She grew up in a small, quiet, Southern town. The rowdiest people get is right before the threat of snow flurries, as everyone rushes the local Piggly Wiggly for bread and milk.

"Stay in your room," I typed back, thumbs still trembling.

Mothers spend 18 years in vain attempts to keep their children safe, only to send them out into the thick of things where they are anything but.

And she is in the thick of things. In the thick of thinking and social change and questioning everything. And for her it is exciting.

Silent Sam was not a real person, but a representation, a symbol of the more than one thousand UNC students who fought on both sides of the War Between the States.

I can't help but empathize with Silent Sam's mother, symbolic just like her son.

Each of those mothers, on both sides of the conflict, spent 18 years keeping their children safe only to send them out into the thick of things, where they were anything but.

I suppose everyone knew it was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time before things had to come crashing down.

They were mothers from small towns like mine, where people don't get particularly rowdy. Those mothers must have felt the strong arms of their children as they said good-bye. Those sweet mothers must have thought of the toddler grip those arms once held on their skirts, their hands, their heart. They remembered the feel of chubby arms wrapped around them.

Did those mothers wish they could hold that child just a little longer?

The reasons behind The War must not have mattered so much.  It couldn't have mattered whether it was right or wrong, whether she agreed with it or not. It must not have mattered whether she understood the motivations or if her ideologies conformed with what others considered "right."

The only thing that mattered was the safety of her child.


"Where are you?" she must have prayed each night.

Only some of those mothers never heard from their children again.

It is in a mother's nature to wish a safe and peaceful life for her children.

It is in a child's nature to make a difference, to change the world, to be right in the thick of things.

Time marches on.

Things change.

Some things never will.

Monday, August 13, 2018

I Wonder Why No One Comes to My Book Club

I don't understand why everyone stopped coming to my book club.

I have fabulous snacks. I provide a great spread of exotic cheese and scrumptious finger foods, tiny little shrimp puffs and the traditional Southern cheese straw. There are monogrammed cocktail napkins and enough chardonnay to appease the average middle-aged housewife.

But everyone has stopped coming.

When we were deciding which book to read, Sharon suggested we read Love in the Time of Cholera. While this is indeed a love story of astonishing power, I felt it might be above the group's reading and comprehension level. I didn't want the ladies to try anything too challenging, so I handed out Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks. That one is definitely within the group's abilities. Who cares if no one has any desire to read it?

Before we got started, I passed out highlighters, a vocabulary list, and a thick packet of worksheets. Some of it was busy work (there was at least one mind-numbing, time-sucking word search), but most of it was designed to prepare them for the all-powerful, super-important, state-mandated test.

I informed them the packet must be completed before the next meeting if they wanted a good grade. Don't make me call your mother to find out why you're being belligerent, Sharon.

At the start of the meeting, I passed out a quick vocabulary test. Then everyone wrote a short synopsis of what they had just read. I made several people read theirs in front of the group.

Then, I made sure to do most of the talking, lecturing at the front of the room. I asked mundane questions about character names and general action and setting. I made sure to call on the people who didn't raise their hands, putting them on the spot. Shame is a great motivator to participation.

I brought out the points I thought the students, er... I mean book club members should know.  I made sure each person viewed the book through my values and life experience, instead of filtering it through their own thoughts, values, and reality.

What do you mean you don't know, Sharon? Didn't you read the book? This question would be easy if you had done your homework. I'm so disappointed, Sharon. Can someone who actually read the book please answer the question for Sharon?

At the end of the "discussion," after I told them what the book was really about and made sure they knew exactly what to think, I passed out bubble sheets and number two pencils for the required content retention test. I made sure there was only one "right" answer to the test questions and the required three paragraph essay.

Everyone who passed got to go to the kitchen for my fabulous snacks.

The members who didn't pass went to the living room for mandatory remediation to prepare for the retest. (That means you, Sharon. Are you even trying?).

Those who passed the retest only got half the snacks as those who passed on the first try. Those who didn't pass, well... they had to reread the book and repeat book club again next year.

And yet... not one single person appreciates my efforts. It's like they don't even enjoy reading.

Especially Sharon.

Weird, right?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What Happened to Summer Vacation?

It is a Tuesday morning. There are only a few short weeks of summer left before school starts. The weather is perfectly sunny today, although admittedly warm and humid. However, the neighborhood is eerily quiet.

I know there are children here. Sometimes I see them, although I only catch glimpses. I see the child across the street as he ambles from his mother's car to the front door every weekday evening. I see the window decals on my neighbors' minivans for the local school. Sometimes, during the school year, I might see a few of them waiting for the school bus to arrive. I know they are here, although I rarely see them, and when I do it is only short flashes of their presence.

This neighborhood silence frightens me. It's too quiet. As the long days of summer have been drifting by, I haven't seen the first gaggle of youngsters ride by on bicycles. I haven't seen them running past the house. I haven't heard the patter of sneakers on the sidewalk. I haven't caught sight of even a single child in the neighborhood park or roaming free in any public spaces.

They are here, but only behind closed doors.

It really isn't the silence that bothers me. It is knowing these neighborhood children are contained in structured, adult-led, indoor activities, constantly told what to do, how to act... what to think. Structured activities, while terribly convenient for busy working parents, are essentially the bane of childhood.

Overly nostalgic adults like me laud our own childhoods. Our pant suit-clad, stay-at-home mothers sent us outside so they could mop floors and watch their stories in peace. They didn't want to to see us until dinner time. My mother even told me once to "go play in traffic." With nothing better to do, we made friends, played games, and created our own adventures.

Gone are those days of barefoot abandon. There isn't the time nor the freedom for neighborhood play and backyard forts. Today, nearly every waking hour of the typical child's day is orchestrated by someone else.

Summers, evenings, and weekends, times that used to be sacred space for childhood play, have morphed into time for structured activities. Too often, when we actually witness kids playing in a park, they are garbed in matching uniforms and being instructed by adult coaches or counselors. They follow instructions, wait in orderly lines, and only play games with clear rules imposed by grown-ups.

There is little free time to explore the environment, to play with sticks, squish in mud, or lay in the grass and daydream. Today's children are exiled from nature, caged and cutoff from the natural world. Not only are they not allowed to play with the unfettered freedom of previous generations, they are also segregated from the "real world." The only social interactions they experience are with children their own age, the ones also caged in the same confining structure of modern American childhood, and even those interactions are limited to the rules and restrictions of the adult-imposed environment.

The landscape of childhood has changed drastically in just a few short decades. Today's children probably wouldn't know what to do if they weren't given clear directions (although I suspect it wouldn't take them long to figure things out). But the strict rules and ordered schedules modern children endure, would have drive me absolutely crazy as a child.

But maybe it is doing that to today's children as well.

Perhaps the carefully arranged schedules children are forced to keep are, in fact, driving them literally insane, or at the very least having a severe affect on their mental health.

Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, asserts a causal link between the decline in childhood play and the marked increase in childhood psychopathy, including depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide. He had this to say in his 2011 article published in the American Journal of Play:

Play functions as the major mean by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn howto make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. 

Over the last century, Western Society has made amazing, almost miraculous advancements in medicine and technology. Quality of life has improved tremendously for large portions of the world's population. Our country has also made amazing progress in destroying old prejudices of race, sexual orientation, and gender. Today, life is undeniably easier than it was for even our recent ancestors.

However, if we measure progress based on happiness and mental health, we have actually been moving steadily backwards since the 1950s. Here are just a few examples:

  • Today, approximately 2.6 million American children have diagnosed anxiety and/or depression.
  • There are currently millions of U.S. kids on prescription medication for behavioral issues and depression.
  • According to a study published this May in Pediatrics, the number of kids hospitalized for thinking about or attempting suicide has more than doubled in less than 10 years. 

Anxiety and depression often correspond to the feeling that an individual lacks control of their own lives. People who believe they have power to change their circumstances and control their own fate are less likely to experience anxiety and depression.

Children, especially those whose lives are an endless string of school, organized sports, and other planned activities, can easily feel like victims of circumstances beyond their control. These kids are  constantly being told where to go and what to do, when to eat and when to use the bathroom, when to sit and when to run. Even when they are allowed to run, they are told how far and how fast to do it. Even kids choose their own activities, they may still feel little control over how their time is spent since outside authorities are still decide how they will spend each individual minute in those activities.

Modern children have very little time for free play.

This is a serious issue.

Play deprivation can have far-reaching affects. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of the book, Balanced and Barefoot, describes the importance of childhood play and its impact on physical and emotional development.

“We are keeping [children] from attaining the very sensory input they need in order to grow into resilient and able-bodied people. They need to climb, jump, run through the woods, pick up sticks, jump in mud puddles, and fall and get hurt on occasion. These are all natural and necessary experiences that will help develop a healthy sensory system–foundational to learning and accomplishing many of life’s goals.”
Behind closed doors, in single file lines, herded from one organized activity to another, children are not given the freedom they need to develop and reach their full potential. Even when the activities are designed to give them a jump start on educational success, it may actually hinder that success. Many of the qualities that contribute to success in the adult world - like problem solving, creativity, cooperation, compromise, and a willingness to take calculated risks - are all developed on the playground, not the classroom or the sports field.

There are plenty of reasons for the lack of childhood activity in the typical American neighborhood. Working mothers, television and video games, academic pressure, fear of dangerous predators, and being reported to Child Protective Services are all factors keeping modern kids in carefully controlled and supervised environments.

It really doesn't matter why. The result is the same regardless of the reason - anxious, stressed-out kids who will grow up and struggle to find balance, motivation, and happiness. If they are never given the freedom to be well-adjusted children, they will never develop the skills necessary to be well-adjusted adults.

Children need the opportunity to grow outside of fences. They need to run too fast and be too loud. They need to scrape knees, play in the mud. They need to find their own cure for boredom and make up rules to their own games.

And that is why the neighborhood silence frightens me. I worry I won't get the chance to be the grumpy old woman who yells at the neighborhood kids to stop trampling her grass. I worry about what kinds of adults the neighborhood children I rarely see will become.

Is the world ready for what we're raising behind closed doors?

More importantly... will they be ready for the world?

Friday, July 13, 2018

This Dog is Getting Old

My dog is getting old.

I'm pretty sure he was just a puppy yesterday, but today I noticed the abundance of white hairs around his dark muzzle. He needed help jumping up on the couch, an act he isn't technically allowed to do, but knows he can get away with when my husband is at work. He walks around stiff-legged in the mornings, following on my heels as I brew the coffee, feed the cats, fill his water dish. By late morning he's able to work the stiffness free, but he moans in his sleep, resting under my feet as I type away at the computer.

Sometimes he yips in his dreams, feet twitching, and I think he imagines he is still just a puppy, too.

I know there are things in the world I should be concerned about. We are in the middle of FBI agent Peter Strzok's hearing before a joint session of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. This is happening even as we speak (or I type, since we aren't actually in the same room. I like to imagine you and I are having a conversation, however. I do so enjoy our chats.)

And there is apparently some crisis at the border, although there are no DHS stats to prove it. (And all of my liberal friends will shout about me saying so. I might even be called ugly names.)

There's a huge anti-Trump gathering in the UK, complete with a giant inflatable Baby Trump blimp.

And hundreds of people are sick after an outbreak of the cyclospora parasite apparently linked to McDonald's. This could be the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.

I think Justin Bieber  also just gave some chick a $500,000 engagement ring.

There are plenty of super important things that should concern me.

But none of this matters.

Because my dog is getting old.

I decided years ago that I wouldn't fight old age. I wouldn't be one of those people that dyes her hair and lies about her age. I wouldn't invest hundreds of dollars in anti-wrinkle creams or plastic surgery. I was going to embrace my aging, bask in the grace of growing older, appreciate the wisdom earned through years of experience and questionable decisions.

I've mostly succeeded. I will tell you my age if you ask. I don't dye my hair. I wash my face with plain ol' soap and water (much to my teenage daughter's horror).

And though my knees often ache first thing in the morning and right before it rains, I don't care much that my body is getting older.

But what is really, REALLY hard about aging, is that everyone else is aging, too. And while I have no problem with my own gray hairs and wrinkles, it breaks my heart to see the white hairs growing around my puppy's nose. Because the hardest part about time passing is losing people you love.

It sucks that dogs have such short lives. When my last dog died, I was a young mother with small children. Buck had been my baby before my own, genetic human babies were born. His puppy picture still sits on the piano, right beside my daughter's graduation picture and the portrait of my son in his Army uniform. He has a place of honor surrounded by dozens of pictures of my human family.

Buck was an old dog, too. He was fourteen when he got sick. I spent 5 whole days camped beside him on the floor, because he would cry when I left him. I made a pallet of blankets in the spare room, crying when he did, praying he would get better. The children were forced to fend for themselves, scavenging peanut butter on toast for sustenance. They would try to share their sandwiches with the dog, confused and sad that he wouldn't lift his head to lick his favorite sticky treat from their fingertips.

I called my dad in tears, "We just had to put Buck down. I don't want to bury him here. I want to bury him at Grandma's, but I have no way to get there and I can't stand the thought of putting him in the freezer until I can." We were a one-vehicle family at the time. It was a Tuesday. My husband needed the car to get to work. Saturday was a long time to hold on to a dead dog in a cardboard box. The only solution seemed to be to slide it into the big storage freezer, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

And Daddy came (with my mom, of course). He drove three hours to pick me and the children up, so I could bury my dog at my Grandmother's house, the place he was born and loved more than any other. He would go nuts if you asked him, "Wanna go to Grandma's?" Spinning circles, wagging his shaggy tail, barking with excitement and anticipation. When we arrived, he would run through the green grass across the yard to the back door. Once inside he would leap up onto her lap to give her kisses and get a good belly rub.

Daddy dug the hole for my dog's grave, right beside the holes he had dug for Buck's mama and daddy. A family cemetery of sorts. I was a mess of excess snot and tears and searing emotional pain.

"Kids, hold your Mama," Daddy told my children as he threw the first bits of dirt on top of the box with my dog's body inside.

When my childhood dog, Sugar died. Daddy dug that hole, too. He hugged me hard and helped me make a wooden cross out of two pieces of scrap trim he'd pulled off a job site. I wrote her name in big block letters with a fat green crayon and placed a handful of dandelions at its base.

And now, this dog is getting old.

But I don't have a Daddy to help me through this time.

And maybe that is really why this is tearing me up this morning. Is it really the dog that is getting old, or is it all of us. Will losing this dog be the thing that sends me over the edge?

There are things I should be doing. Important things. Things I should be fretting about. Big things.

But societies crumble and governments have always been corrupt.

But this dog, this one right here, he is getting old.

So y'all carry on with hand-wringing and general worry. Keep calling each other names if you have to. I think today, I'm just going to sit with the dog.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Surviving Graduation - A Commencement Speech for Moms

It is graduation season, and I’ve seen pictures of smiling graduates just about everywhere. Whether your kid is graduating from preschool or law school, as a parent, graduation is an emotional day.

I recently sat through commencement exercises for my oldest daughter. I felt a whirlwind of convoluted feelings as I watched her march across the stage in high heels to grasp her diploma. I was certainly proud, but also sadly nostalgic as I caught fleeting glimpses of the toddler who once rode my hip and pulled my hair.

Speeches are an inevitable part of any graduation ceremony, and this one had its fair share. As my shining child approached the podium to give her speech as valedictorian (Yes, I am taking this opportunity to brag), I glanced around the room at all my fellow moms, and something occurred to me.

Sure graduation is all about the kids and their accomplishments, but the mothers sitting in the audience clutching tissues and trying to hold it together have accomplished something monumental, too.

We won’t get to walk across any stages or receive any official paper acknowledgement of our accomplishment. There won’t be recognition of our hard work, because like moms throughout history, we don’t do it for the accolades.

But since we don’t get our own ceremony, I’ve written my own mom graduation speech. Because if your kid is crossing a stage in a cap and gown, you have both accomplished something great. Kudos, Moms, on a job well done.

A Mom's Graduation Speech

Welcome, friends, family, teachers, and staff. We have finally made it. It is graduation day. Today is the culmination of years of hard work. For our graduates, that hard work occurred mostly as research papers, algebra problems, and multiple choice history tests. But for most of the moms in this room, the work looked quite different.

We didn’t have to study for tests or obsess over MLA citation format. There were no formal evaluations, and it was left mostly to ourselves to obsess over our performance.

For us, the work began long before these distinguished scholars were even born. When we suffered through horrible bouts of morning sickness, obsessed about prenatal nutrition, and worried about brain development. When we pored over books about pregnancy and marveled at our growing bellies, gasping at the first butterfly flutters of movement.

If you are a birth mother, your body was wrenched and your soul twisted by childbirth. With a gush of blood and pain and unearthly love, these people entered the world, wet and wide-eyed. And we lost ourselves in those eyes and the exhaustion of hard work and little sleep. There were so many diapers and so many tears (both theirs and ours... the tears, not the diapers).

Our work took the form of judgmental stares during grocery store tantrums. We dealt with marathon nursing sessions, night terrors, croup and stomach viruses.

There were broken windows, broken bones, and broken hearts. We have hovered nearby as they learned to walk, to ride a bicycle, to fall in love.

This parenting thing was much more difficult than we expected, but also much more rewarding. While we are mostly happy that the days of dirty diapers, spelling lists, and broken curfews are over, we would trade almost anything to go back, just for a short visit, to experience the grounding weight of our babies in our arms, the sticky-faced toddler grins, even the endless questions of “Why?”

While this day is a huge and exciting beginning for our children, it is a monumental ending for us as moms. As our young people move off to college, work, or service, we are likely to find ourselves floundering, wondering what to do when there are no lunches to pack or carpools to drive.

Our kids don’t realize it yet, but our relationship is teetering on the verge of change. No longer will our children be a constant presence, even if usually behind a closed bedroom door. After they’ve drifted off to places of employment and higher education, they will become more like visitors at our dining room tables. Although, I hope they still barge through the front door without knocking, kick off their shoes in the middle of the room, and make their way to the fridge to gulp milk straight from the carton, their presence will almost startle us, shaking us out of what will inevitably become our new normal.

Because daily, since we heard that first tiny heartbeat, our lives have been knitted together forming a beautiful, if somewhat dysfunctional tapestry. Each thread woven and knotted to form the fabric of our lives as a family. It is no wonder that graduation makes mothers feel as if we are beginning to unravel.

We are standing on the cusp of a life where our presence is no longer required. We get to stand by and watch them fly, whether just across town or across the country. They are still leaving us, just as they have been leaving us in the tiniest of ways every day. Those first steps they took, wobbling into our open arms, were actually the first steps away from us. Every day they have needed us a little less.

And while this is a sad day for us moms in many ways, this is how it is meant to be. This is what we’ve been working so hard to accomplish. When mothers do their jobs well, they become almost obsolete.

So, for the graduates sitting out there getting ready to turn your tassels, be patient with us. I know its hard, but don’t meet our tears with your usual sarcastic eye roll. This is one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do, and some of us suffered through a 36-hour childbirth to get you here.

As you turn your tassels, we’ll be cutting our apron strings. And although you’re more than ready to meet the world head on, anxious to start this next exciting chapter in your lives, we are already missing every little version of you we’ve loved through the years. The wheel keeps turning. Even when we missed our babies, we never loved the toddlers or the children or the teenagers that replaced them any less. In fact, love grows more fierce and fiery with every turning of the page.

So, to the moms out there struggling just as hard as I am, I think I know how to survive this. We have to keep looking to the future, embracing change just like we have all along. To survive this momentous milestone, we must look forward to the future through the exciting lens of their life, the one ready to burst forth in full bloom, not backwards through the lens of ours.

They have become amazing young humans, and the potential they hold is no less than it was when we heard them take that first crying breath. I am excited to see how this story progresses. I’m ready to read the sequel to what has been the most divine and exhilarating story I have ever witnessed.

Moms, we’ve arrived. And yet we really haven’t. The parenting finish line is a myth. We are mothers. That doesn’t end at graduation. Every exit is an entrance to somewhere else. And this tiny goodbye, just like all the others we’ve experienced from birth to walking to driver's licenses, may not be a goodbye at all. Maybe it is just time to turn the page and see what’s next.

But it's still okay if you want to get lost in a bottle of wine and a box of baby pictures. That is definitely my plan for later tonight.

And to my graduating daughter: Congratulations, Sweetheart. You have always amazed me, and you continue still. I love you to the moon and back.

I always will.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Forget Football. A Walk in the Woods is Way More Dangerous

Look at all this DANGER!!!
University life is dangerous. What with all the rape culture and underage binge drinking, it's a miracle anyone makes it out alive, let alone with an actual degree. A lot of the activities college students engage in is inherently risky, but some of it just won't be tolerated by university officials.

Hiking, for example.

Penn State University recently shut down its 98-year-old "Outing Club' after school administrators decided the group was "too risky" for its student body. Why? Apparently, the Outing Club goes on outings (go figure) that occasionally take students beyond the reach of cell phone towers. This put them at risk of being disconnected from the rest of the world for short periods of time.

Its hard to imagine anything more dangerous that the inability to update your Instagram. Frightening stuff.

"Student safety in any activity is our primary focus," a Penn State spokeswoman told local media.

And while this sounds like a great reason to ban a bunch of young adults from backpacking in state parks, this statement is incredibly disingenuous.

The Penn State Outing Club claims it hasn't "heard of any injuries sustained on club outings in recent years."

Meanwhile, Penn State's football program remains in place, in spite of growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussions. According to the NCAA's injury statistics, 34 percent of college football players have had one concussion, while another 30 percent have had 2 or more.

A concussion is a much more serious and dangerous injury than the sunburn and bug bites suffered by student hikers. It seems off that the football program (along with the lacrosse and rugby programs) remain intact with all of this focus on student safety.

Of course, those football players are raking in millions of dollars in cash for the Nittany Lions, so I suppose the administration will just conveniently ignore the danger of those programs.

For 98 years, the Penn State Outing Club has planned hiking, camping, and canoeing trips into the woods. I bet cell phone reception was horrific back in the 1920s, and yet students wandered off into the woods without the University so much as batting an eyelash.

But they are right. Wandering off into the woods and disconnecting from electronic media IS dangerous.

Without an electronic tether, students might actually have to separate themselves from the constant stream of thought programming delivered by "news" sources and social media. They might actually have an independent thought (GASP!) or momentarily stop seeking validation in the form of likes and retweets (Oh, the horror!).

Plus, if students spend too much time in the woods, they might learn something that isn't on the approved curriculum. For instance, creativity and efficiency. Research published by The Wilderness Society has shown that time spent outdoors, away from technology, helps boost creativity, improve focus, and aid in problem solving, as well as strengthen work efficiency.

Hiking also makes you healthier. It improves cardiovascular health, sleep quality, and muscle strength. Hiking reduces depression, stress, and anxiety. It improves mood and boosts self-confidence and creativity.

Think about it. Could there be anything more dangerous than a bunch of healthy, creative, confident, unplugged, free-thinking young adults?

This isn't about risk assessments or protecting college students like special snowflakes at all. We wouldn't want anyone sitting still and quiet and pondering the meaning of life, maybe deciding that the societal constructs we take for granted might actually be destructive.

There is absolutely nothing more dangerous.

At least for the status quo.

Even if it is the best thing that could happen to a University student.