The year I ruined our Florida vacation

There is something  enigmatic about you that I have never been able to figure out. If you want ribs at Dengeos for dinner, but mom and I don’t want to go to Dengeos, being denied those ribs will bring a cloud of anger and disappointment over the rest of our evening. This can happen over a brownie. Mom not making you breakfast. A trip to the store. It happens weekly on Sundays as we begin our breakfast-out ritual. (It’s part of the ritual now, frankly.)

But if a vacation you’ve been looking forward to for months–one for which you’ve literally counted the days on the calendar–is suddenly cancelled, you’re fine. Yeah, you’re bummed, but you’re bummed like a 24 year-old would be, not an 11 year-old who is hyper-focused on securing her agenda. And it’s not just this episode; you’re super cool about how long it’s taking us to redo your room. You’ve been nice and understanding about how long it’s taking us to get on with that basement remodel that will net you an entire room all to yourself plus a great place to hide away from your parents when friends come over. So what’s up with that?

There’s a history to my confusion. When you were a baby, as I’m sure you’ve heard us mention, you were not easy. It wasn’t just the colic. After you got over that and began to make your way through the world, even before your “terrible 2’s,” you got angry at us a LOT and had some pretty epic fits.  We happened upon a few books and articles and learned about what are commonly called  “spirited” children.

You fit the profile. The gist was that these kids needed to not be surprised that much. They needed things explained to them in advance so that their expectations were not thwarted. So we tried it. And it worked. We still do it! All the time! You just think we’re probably anal parents who over-communicate our plans. But that’s why we’ll say “OK, so we’re going to go to the store and then after we’re going to come back but it’ll be too late to watch anything and you still have to do your homework before bed so–”

“I know, I know,” you’ll say.

This is because of our experience with you as a toddler. But something has shifted over these years that I failed to notice. At some point, you stopped sweating the big stuff.

This year my appendix let us down. After five months of not knowing why I was so sick, mom had to pick you up from school and tell you something like “We need to hurry. We have to take Dad to the hospital.” And knowing you, you had some plan for how you’d like to spend your evening that almost definitely involved all of us watching Dr. Pol or something, and in that moment your plans were ruined. You went to the hospital in good spirits and then went home with Uncle Brent and then had no dad at home for 5 days, which must have really messed up all kinds of stuff.

That night in the ER the surgeon told us our Florida trip would need to be cancelled no matter what. You were there when he told us.  It meant no daily pool visits,  no daily grand-spoiling, no gaters and water birds and lizards outside the veranda, no trip to Animal Kingdom, no air boat adventure through an animal-packed bayou…

You were beyond stoic about it. You were a trooper. I would say you were even cool.

But God forbid we should say “no” to an extra cookie.  Someday I’ll figure this out. But I’d take a daughter who sweats the small stuff but can handle the big stuff any day over the reverse.

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Life Lesson #4: We suck at knowing what we’ll enjoy

My coworker just turned to me to tell me a story about his wife. She’s been teaching at Northwestern University for almost a year. This is after putting in half a decade earning her PhD. And get this: She hates it. “It’ll probably get better,” I told him. He agreed. But then he added she “realized she hates talking in front of people.”

Oh. That won’t get better.

This is not a weird story.  If there’s anything weird about this phenomenon, it’s that we’re all guilty of making the same mistake all the time, but somehow can’t seem to learn from it. Research strongly supports my assertion. Now that I’m almost 43, I can look back at my own life and validate this research without even thinking that hard. For example…

I thought I wanted to be an actor. I was a good at it and I really liked it. So no-brainer, right? But I also I hated auditioning and doing shit-stupid work I didn’t care about. And guess what? A lot of an actor’s life is about auditioning, and usually for shit-stupid work they don’t care about. Next!

I thought I wanted to be a grant writer for a theatre company. I’m a writer. I loved theatre. This made a ton of sense. But grant-writing is effing boring and mostly involves researching and cutting and pasting. I did it for 3 months and hated it. Next!

I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I ‘m a writer. I enjoy learning about new things and then finding ways to share that information with people. But then I sat next to a reporter when I was an editorial assistant and learned that most of her job was calling people up and pissing them off. No thank you. Next!

I thought I would hate being a technical writer. I write but there is such a thing as boring writing, which I learned as a grant writer. And this seemed worse than grants for arts organizations…this is about describing how to use features in software. Yuck! Well, unemployment will make you try anything, and when the opportunity arose, I needed it desperately enough to try it. And guess what? I really liked it. Turns out there’s a teacher-y and technical side of me that I didn’t know about. I enjoyed figuring out complicated problems and then making them easier for people to understand. I even enjoyed the methodical, non-inspired, repetitious writing of the steps. Go figure. And while I’m no longer a tech writer, and am doing work I enjoy even more, I’m still at the same place that hired me for that.  And I never would be here, if I hadn’t taken that risk.

These were so easy to come up with and I deleted some of them because I feel like I’m belaboring the point. (And this isn’t all about career decisions, either!)

Did you notice what they all have in common? You think you want a thing. You’re even rational and reasonable about it. It’s not like “I’m gonna rent a truck and drive it into Lake Michigan.” These are decisions that make a ton of sense. Like if you told me you were going to major in art or animal science. That kind of sense. Anyone listening to me would have agreed with any of my above expectations.

But what else did they have in common? The doing was nothing like the thinking-about-doing. Nothing at all. That’s the part that humans suck at.

And that’s the lesson. That’s the key. I would argue it’s the single most important career lesson I ever learned.  Do make plans. Do have expectations. (Life falls apart without them.) And occasionally life really does go according to plan.

But hold those plans loosely in your hand and always stay more tuned in to the realities of doing. Because ultimately you will not think your way through your life decisions. You will act your way through them.

If you think and don’t act for too long, you will be stuck. (Oh, and if you act without thinking for too long, you’ll self-destruct.) Not knowing what you want to do isn’t really an excuse not to act either. It’s a little like not knowing what kind of lover you’re looking for. Without dating your way to clarity, you’re wasting your time thinking about what you’re looking for.

Bottom line: the more you act, the more you will learn. The more you push yourself to try things that you’re not even sure you’ll like, the more you will learn about yourself–and you may be surprised. In that sense, action becomes your greatest guide.

Happy 2017!!! Top 3 Changes Since Last Year

1-23-2017-4-46-42-pmHappy New Year, Ari! You rang in the new year by staying up all night for the first time in your life to “see the ball drop because everyone at school has seen it but  me!” We kinda saw it. It was disappointing. As it always is. So it was a perfect introduction. And then on the 1st, you sat with  Lily and Jack to watch your parents perform for the first time (in a Neo-Futurist benefit performance of old plays from Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.) Mom danced a Fosse number while she made ants on a log. I smashed fruit. We picked these plays because we thought you’d like them.  You did. (Fist pump.)

Anyway, in keeping with my recent annual tradition…I wanted to talk about the ways in which you’ve changed since we rang in 2016.  And the ways are many. As usual, you’re more  you. By that I mean way smarter and way funnier. You can make me laugh hard. And we’ve had a few dinners out as a family where we all cracked each other up on an adult level for the first time, ever.  It gave me a picture of the kind of life we might all have together if we manage to keep our bond tight during those teenage years.

Otherwise, here are the top 3 ways you’ve changed since last year:

#3. You’re bored with elementary school. While it’s a fact that Mrs. Kersner is just not as nice or engaging as Mr. Pollard, I also think maybe you’ve matured to point where you’re ready for more challenge. You’ve never been a huge fan of school, but for the first time in your life you’re saying things like “uuhhhhhh….I really, really don’t want to go to school tomorrow!” At first we wondered if something bad was happening to you because of the growing sense of dread you seemed to display. It turns out, you’re just bored as crap. I think you’re ready for Middle School. And while you may not know it, I think you’re ready for new friends, too.

#2. You’re showing a tendency toward obsessive worry. It started on Thanksgiving day, 2016, when we came home from Papa’s house and you noticed that your gerbils had been fighting. Teddy’s belly was scratched up and bloody, Marcus had wounds on his tail and both of them had cuts and scrapes around their necks.  You were horribly upset.  After some quick research, we simplified their cage and treated their cuts and they both healed up nicely and haven’t fought again. This was a few weeks after Marcus escaped from his cage and I found him while we were watching TV. Both of these events seem to have unglued you a bit. “I’m worried about the gerbils” has become a daily mantra, multiple times a day. The upside of all of this is that you’re really talking about and processing your feelings in ways that feel healthy and adult. The downside…or more accurately the concerning side…is that your gerbil’s well-being is dominating your thoughts at home in an almost phobic way. You check on them, sometimes, every few minutes. You’ve told us that you don’t want to go on a vacation while they’re still alive. When I come in to kiss you good night, you ask me to check on them on my way in and then again on my way out. You wear earplugs made of cotton balls so you don’t wake up worrying about the noises you hear. You tell us, almost daily, that you’re afraid to feed them because…”what if one of them won’t eat?” (Which is legit. They’re 3. They’re old. This will happen. But that certainty seems to provoke more anxiety in you than surrender.) So what does all of this mean? I don’t know. But it’s new and interesting and worth watching.

#1. You’re becoming less of a tom boy.  I was sitting having a beer with my friend Halena one night, telling her how much you remind me of her. (She is I guess what you’d call a tom boy if we called adults tom boys.) And then the next day you told us you wanted to get your ears pierced! And then you started buying and collecting all these flavored lip balms (and then later gloss). You dressed up like a grown-up looking vampire punk girl for Halloween and then kept wearing the boots you bought that day! You started putting stuff in your hair a few months ago–some kind of oil that you brush in after you shower. And it’s making your hair look great. You seem to have noticed that your hair looks great. You seem to have noticed your looks. And then you bought a purse!  This is all happening fast. And I had no idea how many rights of passage there were for girls. For boys it’s like you get a big-boy bed, you stop playing with toys, then you get a car and leave for college. Girls…I’m already noticing have all these in-between phases that include all kinds of things. It’s crazy! You’re still definitely holding on to your individuality so far. When we bought you the purse, you told me “I like it a lot, but I don’t like the idea of me having a purse.” I can see you wrestling with identity and trying to allow these things in on your own terms.

Christmas 2017 … First cellphone!

cellpics-37It was our first Christmas in a long time where we didn’t have to leave the house. We didn’t drive to visit papa (at his home or at the hospital like two years ago.) We woke, we did stockings, we ate, we did gifts…mom and I quibbled over whether all gifts should be passed out before we open them, or whether we should pass, open, pass, open. We agreed to a compromise. You were Switzerland, although you made it clear you kinda agreed with me.

You got Legos out the wazoo and you loved it. Mom and I began secretly texting each other about when we should reveal your big present, which was hiding behind the TV. Being a fan of theatrics, I thought it should come LATE, like way after all the fun had died down in the late afternoon. Mom thought early, before you got too wrapped up in Lego madness. Again, we compromised.

In the late morning we pulled the whole “what’s that behind the TV” trick. You were really excited–even for you–and gave mom a big hug. Then me. When I complained.

Later that day we left for Chinese food, waited way too long for a table and then the food was only so-so. We decided we’d never eat there again. I partly wrote this down in the hopes that I’d remember.

This was Christmas 2016. Your first Christmas without Simon. Our first Christmas with Bella. Our second Christmas where we ate at that same disappointing Chinese food place. And the day you got your first cellphone.

You told me you had a GREAT Christmas.  Mission accomplished.

Remember when you stayed up late to witness Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech?

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: A man passes by a Anti-Donald Trump mural painted on a building in Lower Manhattan on August 28, 2015 in New York City. Trump is leading the Republican presidential field in most polls. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)You may remember it as kind of funny–how sure I was. And how it all came crashing down. Mom had expressed worry. Not me. I was confident. We all wore white that day to commemorate the women’s suffrage movement.  I was never afraid. I was never concerned. I never entertained a what-if scenario that included that Big Orange Turd becoming a member of the club that has Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama as members. Never.

It wasn’t until results started to come in that were surprising and states we thought she’d win easily were too close to call…and suddenly all the many ways Hillary could win became all the many ways she could lose. But it happened. When things turned really ugly and you had fallen asleep, mom made you go to bed. You protested as though you were missing out. You missed my shock, flipping between my phone, laptop and TV over and over again, like I was caught in a ghostly loop. You missed mom crying and then going to bed before it was officially over…and then waking up and crying in the middle of the night when I told her it was done.

And you may not remember this, but my confidence was not at all unusual. (If anything mom’s worry was.) Anyone who had done their homework, dug into the data, followed the news, knew that it was a foregone conclusion: Hillary would win. I don’t know know when it is you’ll be reading this but by now you may have witnessed a predictable election or two. Those are normal. Since the age of modern polling, there have really only been two big surprises to-date and this was the first I’d ever lived through. They occurred in 1948 and 2016.

But there we were as a family the next day trying to make sense of it–a day I had taken off and that I thought you’d take off so we could all celebrate. We decided to send you into school instead. Again, you felt like you were missing out. Mom and I were trying to make sense of it for you first thing in the morning, explaining how we thought this happened, what it meant and what it didn’t mean.

It didn’t seem like you were that upset. You were too young to be as scared and devastated as we were.  To you, it was a little like the bully won the spelling bee, beating that nice kid he just gave a wedgie to an hour ago.  It was a vague injustice. The story with a shitty ending. You did ask how it could have happened. But then you were ready to move on. Which is good.

But I do want to be sure you know that this happened here, at this point in your life.

It’s funny because as you’re reading this–assuming you haven’t found it early–you know how this all turned out. I’m writing it and I don’t. I don’t know how it turns out for him or our country but you know. Was he impeached? Was he actually re-elected? I kind of wish you could tell me. And then you could be the parent trying to make sense of the injustice of it all.

Milestone: you got your ears pierced!!

Elliimg_5951 got her ears pierced recently, and has been trending ever-so-slightly mainstream in her gendered ways. It’s got you thinking, and pushing some boundaries you had set fr yourself. And after telling us only a few days ago that you wanted to this, got your ears pierced TODAY. I was totally surprised. And even more so than with the whole bra thing, life is like ALL about earrings right now, dude.

Smella Bella Noodle Bayiates

bella-crop

And just like that we got a new dog. We, the family made up of two slow-motion pragmatists (allegedly in charge) and one act-now-think-later 10-year-old, did something about as spur-of-the-moment as you can get.

I was not ready. You and mom were. But the thing is, getting a dog when you’re not ready yet is nothing like getting a new boyfriend or girlfriend when you’re not ready. If you rebound with a person, the relationship is probably doomed. Rebound with a dog…eventually you get over your grief and at the other end of that tunnel is a super-cute dog that is irresistible to love.  Bonus!

We were on our way back from your riding lesson. And you brought it up. We had looked at dogs at Felines and Canines online and we did know there was a cutie named Bell there that was part BT and cyugly-as-all-get-out. I said I was open to driving over there. Mom said sure…and before you knew it we were crouched down in front of cages “looking” at forlorn little pooches. I will say, for the record, I was sure we would adopt then.  Mom may have truly thought we were just looking–I will never know. But I knew.  The two of you move faster than I do, and you were ready. And if you’re an animal lover, “just looking” at dogs is a little like “just looking” at gourmet chocolates. You will not merely observe. You will partake.

The first time Bella (then Bell) saw us, she dropped her ears and sat, submissive. We melted. The first time we met her, she jumped upside down into my lap, committed several acts of acrobatic cuteness around the room and I thought: I love this twiggy clown! Mom was not that impressed, though! Her energy was a little too extreme that day. And we went home to get Zoe so we could take them both on a walk and see how they interacted. For the record, on the drive back to the house, I thought the adoption I was so sure would happen…was now off. Because, generally, as I’m sure you know, when momma don’t approve…well…end-of-story.

But Zoe liked her. You liked her. I liked her. Mom took a risk. We paid a fee and minutes later we were home with a new dog. If we ever do anything this impulsive again, from the time this happened to the time you read this…I will be astounded. And I hope I remember to record it! Because this is not how mom and dad roll!

To my surprise though, it’s been YOU more than us, who has shown regret for acting too quickly! You like Bella…you even love her…but she has bonded very closely with mom, and she has a few issues that she’s getting over. And I’ve watched you keep her at arms length. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it will pass. Maybe not.

Maybe you weren’t as ready as you thought you were…as for me, my grieving heart is already melting.