The Lost Art of Learning through ‘Free Range Parenting’

water nature person people girl explore mud puddle soil child family children out interaction tadpoles water based paints

I was a lucky girl.  My parents not only allowed me to play outdoors freely, they often demanded I go outside and find something to do:  Don’t return until the streetlights flick on.    Reading an article recently in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/04/free-range-parenting/557051/) that discusses the dissonance between classes and races when it comes to this “new” concept called “Free Range parenting,” I had to laugh.  While the author makes a valid and stimulating point, I was thinking about her lost opportunity to discuss the benefits of this “Free range parenting.”  I mean, for millennia, parents of all races and social strata have practiced it until the aberration of the 1990s when fearful parents began to cling to their children and control their every move.

Luckily, for the sake of a child’s creativity and intelligence, as well as the sake of teachers everywhere, we are swinging back to allowing our children to play like I did as a child.

Typically, when people criticize today’s lack of childhood “free” play, they target organized sports because they believe there are lessons in relationships and authority lost in the modern multitude of organized teams, today’s prime, often forced, activity for children and their parents.   However, the benefits I gained through “free-range” playing were not only an understanding of interpersonal dynamics, but also the foundations of a budding scientist and artist, maybe even an academic.

In my adventures outdoors, I set shoe box traps for rabbits, laid out dandelion pulp for mice and brought home accidently dug up baby moles. We rescued baby birds and placed them gently in nests, then would hide, waiting to make sure their mothers returned; they always did.  My friends and I captured all sorts of insects: lady bugs, red and black ants, daddy long legs, pill bugs, deadly black widows, trapdoor spiders, bumble bees, honey bees, hornets, wasps. . .We played with most and killed the scariest, smooshing them when we were too young to respect their rights.

Various reptiles and amphibians amazed us, causing us to sit still and watch them hunt.  My brother and I would scoop up frog eggs or new tadpoles and bring them home to watch them gain their legs and lose their tails, returning them to ponds when they were hopping frogs.  We’d attempt to rescue lizards who gave up their own tails when our cats grabbed them excitedly, but more often the speedy reptiles would keep on trucking sure to grow more. . .All of this taught us naturally the foundations often illuminated in early biology lessons: exoskeleton, endoskeleton, regeneration, eggs versus live birth, mammal versus reptile, etc.

While left to our own entertainment, we kids would find chunks of quartz that we thought were diamonds.  When my father told us where we might find more, we’d try to break open rocks searching for what treasure might be inside. Pieces of mica that looked like mirrors and glass made us think, hmm, is this how a mirror is made? Did this lead to the invention of glass?  Shale that we could crunch with the tires of our bikes made us feel as powerful as superheroes. The coal that kicked up when we were walking on forbidden train tracks was so pure and black, making us wonder, really? Future diamonds?  We’d pick up chalk-like rocks to draw on the tarmac, marking our four square and hopscotch games, even the bases for kickball.   And of course, sand and mud were everyone’s favorite media.   A girlfriend and I used to shape figurines of ladybugs and snowmen out of the clay in our yards, paint them with our cheap tempura paints, and try to sell our artwork by the side of the road in front of our house.   Imagine how much more interesting geology lessons are with this personal knowledge of the variety of rocks that make up Earth.

And then comes the blending of geology and physics that I learned on my own.    My friends and I played in creeks, looking for crawdaddies, racing leaf boats, building dams.  We built castles and motes and canals in the sand. The movement of water, creeks, and rivers, brooks and ponds, even oceans and tides all showed us the power and etherealness of water.  The weight of it, the random choice that it takes as it tracks through our fingers, the holes and patterns that it makes in the rocky, sandy, mucky edges and piles of pepples  held our imagination.  The power water has to move and float us and suck us under was wonderfully frightening.  With these experiences I could easily understand what the teacher told me about erosion and flooding and water tables beneath the ground.

In the warming Spring, we’d race one another, rolling down grassy hills or skating too fast around curves.  We’d climb trees, sometimes falling from too high only to have the the wind knocked out of us.  We’d build teeter totters out of logs and rocks and ledges where we could balance and play king of the hill. Or we’d grab onto thick vines to swing across what we imagined were deep ravines, pretending we were Spiderman. My brother and I would ride our bikes into ever shrinking circles or figure eights, losing control when the wheels were moving way too slowly.  All this movement, whether we knew it or not, gave us a personal understanding of gravity, weights and balances.  In fact, when my pal Bitt Nelson rode his bike over a ramp we had set on a pile of sand at a construction site, and flew too far, only to bash his face on a sand loader, forcing his front teeth into his sinuses, we certainly adjusted ourselves.  We didn’t stop riding, but we learned faster than he ran home crying what we had to change not to repeat his catastrophe.

Image result for images of child riding bike over ramp

And when summer came, sitting on hot car hoods, standing in shade to find relief from the scorching sun, noticing how much hotter the black tar is versus the white painted line down the middle of the road, the cool of grass, the heat of concrete, the burn of asphalt, we learned quickly about heat transfer and what could relieve it.  We learned the simple exhaustion that comes from spending the whole day physically rushing and rough housing and playing, planting, digging, climbing.  How hungry we’d get playing and then begging our mothers for something to snack on, assuring her it would not ruin our dinner, quickly understanding why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  All these moments created a vague knowledge of energy.

Years ago, when we played our disorganized sports-the impromptu baseball and football games run by only children- true. . .we learned negotiation and authority as people do say, but also the geometry of boundaries, the physics of messing around with a ball. Sometimes games were not impromptu but scheduled, by us, for us.  See you Saturday, right?  Behind the Olsen’s house?  We figured things out ourselves, like what qualities draw others to a person, like those in Brian Culpepper who was often our favorite captain of street football games or meadow baseball.  Why was adorable Theresa Olsen always picked last in games of football? (Not because she was too slow or too uncoordinated or even too unpopular. . .she was finicky and prissy and whined too much.) Yet we let her play, for we also learned to be nice from each other, allowing the little kids who could never score join the teams because they were ours, a part of our neighborhood.  We shared which neighbor’s yard was welcoming and which neighbor was off limits.  We’d say, Don’t hit it so hard that it goes into Herr Golembush’s yard, don’t run so fast that you can’t stop before you slam into the Nelson’s rose bushes.  The Base is the yellow yield sign, the ball is a foul if it passes the camellias. . .

How often when they play an organized team sport are today’s children welcome to just goof around and test the ball?  Seeing how fast the ball could roll up, down, or over a hill, how fast hitting it squarely mattered, the arc of the hit, the lob, the toss, the strength of the bounce, the angle of the bounce. . .They are told how to hit in today’s games.  And do they learn which player is the best at the game themselves without being told?  Or whose yard is the best for that game that day?  Or who is on whose team?  Almost never.  Adults decide the who, what, where, when and why of each sport, directing children on how slow,  how fast to play, and even what to see and what not to see.

I suggest not only should children play disorganized sports with no adult supervision, but just play.  Just simple, imagination-full play.  Yes, The Atlantic makes a valid point about the unfair judgment over which children play “free range” the most, but her point should be that more people, if not all people should be encouraging it.

Great teachers often use what children already know to create scaffolds between knowledge and understanding. But what if there is nothing to scaffold from? Through the play of my childhood, I built the foundations of all the sciences and some math: biology, physics, geometry, geology, chemistry, even meteorology as I watched in the sky the evolution of the clouds, hoping I would get to swim or fish or play ball.  Do today’s generation of children arrive in class with this foundation anymore?  Do they know what shale or tadpoles or a robin’s egg even looks like?

 

One Foot (and a Whole Heart) Still in Childhood

 

My youngest son, Evan, is now a freshmen in a local high school.  He was anxious about going because he’d heard the rumors that every rising ninth grader hears: the upper classmen target you; in fact, they will target YOU specifically especially if you are short.

All summer he has been measuring himself against me, having grown about five inches in the last year.  I now look at his chin.  But this doesn’t mean he is tall yet.

The men in our family are average height. . .not short, not tall.  They tend to range between 5’10” and 6”, if you leave out a set of cousins whose Dad was 6’5”.  The man was not a blood uncle, so my sons can forget that gene pool.

My youngest was born an average length and a solid weight of 8 lbs. 4 oz.  But he has been below the curve of average size most of his life.  Some of this is heredity; some the fault of the ADD meds he has had to take which curb his appetite. But no matter what I do to circumvent these effects, my boy is simply built like his Dad in bone-skinny, and me in height-short.

I am certain he will catch up to his peers soon since he is still hovering on the child side of puberty, while many have gone far beyond.  And having taught high school for years, I know a growth spurt when I see one coming on.  I’ve watched countless boys 5 foot and some odd inches leave ninth grade and come back men in the fall of their tenth grade year, or even the eleventh. . .or twelfth.

No big deal.

To me.

But to him, he knows that there are ADULT males at the school: seventeen and eighteen year olds who weigh 250 pounds and roam the halls looking for kids like him to carry around by the hair.    Good thing Evan is witty.  And he tries very hard to hide these superstitions, too, posturing as older and wiser than that.

But here’s the thing that makes my tears well.  My youngest is still the youngest of not just my family, but of his peers in terms of maturity, and I’m watching him struggle with leaving childhood behind.  He shifts between being stoic and manly, and whiny and emotional, between knowing things he shouldn’t yet, or oddly innocent of common knowledge.

A few weeks ago, he did express this fear of these giant upper classmen and their possible hazing of the freshmen.  I comforted him by saying, “That’s mostly rumor and lies.  Seniors and Juniors are far too busy just living their lives, dating, working, applying to colleges.  The tenth graders are the ones to worry about. . .”

“Whaaat?”

“I’m just kidding.  Sort of.”

We smiled, but we both knew it was simply one of those rites of passage he’d have to face, just like the inevitable teasing he and his buddies have gone through as their voices began to squeak and squawk into something deeper. (His is still wavering up and down.)

Then toward the end of the week, I had to get a document notarized.  As we waited for the UPS store to open, he said, “How am I going to handle being an adult?  I hardly know anything.  Like Notary. What the heck is a Notary? There’s so much I don’t know.” He listed a few things from the previous week that were news to him.

I said, “Relax.  No ninth grader knows what a notary is.  I’m sure I didn’t at your age.” And then  I explained their duties.

But he’s right.  There is so much Evan doesn’t know that I or his brother did know at his age.  My youngest, because of his dysgraphia, is not a reader, and readers are filled with information, even if much of it is useless.

“Well, you know how you fix that. .Read more, watch more news, get out of the house and do more stuff. . .” I said, mentioning how he had been attached to the same pajama bottoms day in and out all summer.  “The more you experience. . .the more you know.”

Luckily, this is our son who loves to travel with us, and he does love new experiences, so his fear of being an adult ignoramus is somewhat baseless.  But I knew I was listening to a child face his future as a man who had to “know stuff.”

Then this past weekend. . .after snapchatting or tweeting or whatever young teens are doing now, with a girl who might or might not be his girlfriend. . .he came downstairs and asked if we could watch Harry Potter together.  After thirty minutes of digging, we located our DVD collection.  We hadn’t touched them in probably four years or more.

Tony and I sat with Evan, inside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, while we watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, for the Brits.)  At the moment Harry enters Olivander’s store to get fitted for his wand, my youngest raced upstairs looking for his two wands that we had bought the year Universal opened its version of Diagon Alley.  Again, I had to help poke around to find where the toys were.

And my boy, who just a few days before was yucking it up with me as we viewed a particularly adult version of Key and Peele, spent the rest of The Sorcerer’s Stone watching with a wand in both hand.

Yesterday was Evan’s first day of high school.

And many of you might know, there is a vast mental age gap between middle school and high school.  Students go from being led in a formal and silent line down the hall to the cafeteria, to near autonomy at lunch time.  Their lockers in middle school are usually inside their homerooms and assigned to them.  In high school, they buy them if there are any left over, and rarely see the little closets all year.  He’s moved from a school with 1300 pupils, to one with 3400.  He has more teachers, more subjects, and more strangers in his life than ever before.

He came home exhausted.  We went over his homework, and organized his new notebooks to his teachers’ liking.  I fed him pancakes and bacon, a special breakfast-for-dinner occasion.  He asked to watch Chamber of Secrets, another Harry Potter, this time without the wands.  And my child, beat from getting up at 5 a.m. and navigating pending adulthood, went upstairs to go to bed early.

When I came up to kiss him good night, I found him already sleeping.  But not in his room. . .instead, he was curled up in my bed, on my pillow, soundly out.  How many years has it been since he stopped climbing into our bed at night?

And I can’t tell which made me more weepy: the joy or the pain that both come from watching him cling to his childhood, or from knowing this would be probably one the last few moments I could baby him.

In a few weeks, he won’t even remember how uncomfortable starting high school was.  He will be fine.

 

Where’s the Hair?

Image result for hairy chest caveman

Men’s body hair?   I for one don’t understand where it is disappearing to.  Well, the chin, obviously, since hipsters everywhere are trying to impersonate Rip Van Winkle.

I’m beginning to miss body hair in general.  The other day, my youngest son was glancing over my shoulder while I was poking through a magazine.  On one page was an ad for a hair removal product.  The pretty model held an old photo of herself as a pre-teenager.  Her arm used to be covered in black down.  Not too crazy, just the sort that Italian girls might have sported when I was a kid.

Son said, “EWWW. Yuuuuck.”

“Huh?” I replied, as he pointed to what was grossing him out.  “That hair?  So what?”

And here’s the thing: he says, NOT something about her or other girls, but about himself: “I hope my arms don’t ever get like that.”

Well, my beloved kiddo, they MIGHT!

I was expecting him to say something negative about girls, but apparently very few girls even at his young age have any arm hair any more.  Are their parents shaving it off?  Waxing it?  They are not old enough for laser. . .I think.

I find his reaction so very ironic because when he was an infant, one of his self-soothing gestures was to suck his thumb while he gently yanked and smoothed the hair on my arm. . .or his father’s or his grandparents’.  I mean, my arm hair is  a smattering of blonde, or at the very darkest, light ginger growth, but it is graspable.  Oh, the sweet memories of his nursing, while he played with the little hairs on my wrist.

I’m sure there is some deep Freudian something at the root of his pubescent yuck of a hairy arm on himself.  I’m not sure I want to go there.

But more than likely, it is simply modern culture that is destroying his future self-esteem, should he grow up to be as fuzzy as his grandfathers.  Or Mom.

I know the trend of shearing the body to the skin is nothing new on the female side of the genders.  Years ago when I was divorced and had jumped back into the dating pool, I tried the waxing.  My arms suffering first, which bled,  stopped me from trying the wax in a more hairy, more tender region for sure.  In fact, my arm hair became ingrown, once the somewhat curly bits started filling in, causing a rash the likes of smallpox.

I had to go on a first date on one of the hottest days of the year wearing long sleeves. And of course, the date asked me, why the hell are you dressed like that?

Because YOU IDIOTS have decided hair is gross.

Even farther back in time, before the naked pubic bone trend, while I was teaching in a southern, “traditional” school, meaning a place where the men still saw themselves as the lions of the home, we came to a reading passage in a book which mentioned something about hair on a girl’s legs.

A young man shouted out how disgusting that was.  A young lady next to him said, “Lots of women around the world never shave their legs or their armpits.”

“Not their armpits?!!” he griped.  “That’s just plain dirty!”

“So,” I said,  “Really?  Why don’t you shave your armpits then?  Somehow YOURS are nice and clean? And hers,“ pointing at the girl  ”Are dirty?”

“Well. . .yeah!” said the boy.

I said, “HOW?  Don’t men sweat more?  Don’t they have more hair?  If so, how is it cleaner exactly?”

He started turning red.

I continued, “I think you should stand up now and say to all the ladies in class that you are simply a cleaner human being than they are, but that you could be even cleaner.  And then offer to shave your pits.”  He put his head down on the desk to shut me out and said not another word.

The hypocritical thing is that I did shave my pits then.  And I had no intention of stopping and no intention of men ever doing it.

I’ve accepted that this is just how things are.  So much so that a few weeks ago when everyone was up in arms over Sansa Stark being graphically raped by Bolton in Game of Thrones, and more so when R. R.  George Martin stated this was simply realistic to the time period setting, I couldn’t be bothered to ask, “If you are trying to be realistic to a time period then why is Cersei not covered in leg hair, or worse, why does Cersei have a ‘narrow landing strip’ of hair on her pubis.  Pretty modern. . .”

But the bald woman has become so “normal” I stayed out of that argument on misogyny.  I figured it was the actress herself who wouldn’t be caught dead with hairy legs on T.V..

BUT NOW. . .men are joining the changing trend .  And I don’t like it.

I happen to love a hairy chest, arms and legs on my men.  Whether a tiny smattering in that concave area between the pecs, or a thatch from shoulders to naval and below;  Think 1980s Alec Baldwin or Sean Connery? YUM!

I feel badly for men in general, and my sons specifically, that now they are beginning to suffer the grooming demands of a hair-fearing culture.  Sure, I can see the appeal of a slip-and-slide chest that some women crave.  But the vanity and the procedures behind maintaining such is so unappealing.  If it is natural, okay.  If not, don’t go there, Guys

I also feel badly for the young ladies whose mental picture has been so shaped by their culture that they cannot love a downy chest the way I can.  The Black silk that lines my husband’s stomach.  Tingly nirvana, Women!

And I hate that my children may have ANY itch of self-loathing due to the demands of hair-hating women.  My oldest son whose chest is fuzzy blond does pick and pull at it, and has wondered aloud about shaving it.

I cannot tell him that when I was back in the dating pool years ago after his father and I split, I dated a MUCH younger man. To my shock, the guy groomed his privates and shaved his chest. And even as recently as he had done so, I was completely turned off by the mere stubble on his stomach, and the weird crew cut feel of his pubis.  Of course, I guess men are used to that feel from their wives or girlfriends . . .but I’m not going to discuss that with my son.

Not quite.  I simply said, “Not all women want a naked little boy chest.  Some women prefer MEN.  Keep your hair.”

Come on!  If we can shape people into this current baldy viewpoint, let’s reshape them back to the other.

When a Parent Backs Off

I have two sons, with almost eight years between them. On most days, watching us from a secret Big Brother-like camera, our interactions and love are enviable. Some days you might consider calling DEFACs, or whatever family services acronym works near you. Both of my sons are gifted, based on their IQs. Both sons, to varying degrees have ADHD; my youngest, whose ADD is bad enough to warrant meds. also suffers from dysgraphia, the outie to dyslexia’s innie, and a mild memory issue. These keep him locked in special education, rather than soaring in “gifted” classes.

All things school came easily to me. Sure, I whined over the real life value of torturous calculus, but once I stopped weeping, I did it. For my youngest, this is not the case, and it makes it hard for me to relate. The current structures of the American school system frustrate him even more than you could understand. He faces ridiculous tests that, being a teacher myself, I know often cover irrelevant information, or worse the test writers phrase questions in such a way that the original intent of the objective is lost.

(For example, “Objective: students will apply a variety of sentence patterns in their writing.” Resulting Multiple Choice Test Question: “Read the following sentence, then choose the correct pattern that correlates with these sentences” is different from being able to actually create varied sentences. Thus, kids are drilled on recognizing these pattern types. Worse this question carries as much weight as recognizing poor verb usage, because each objective gets a question on the multiple choice test. I think the average American should be able to use verbs, but not label a sentence’s pattern as SVDOIO, right? Do most people even KNOW what I just wrote?)

Besides pointless testing that determines his future, every year my son meets teachers who, because of pay for performance rules that measure their failure rate, seem less interested in breaking his code and reaching him than in covering their asses. From the moment they meet him they begin collecting evidence of why it isn’t their fault he is failing, and send me messages, which go straight into their files: “Your son is very smart but he did not do his work. Your son sat and stared off into space. Your son took an hour to do what took everyone else ten minutes.”. Then they dust off their hands and say to themselves, they’ve done all they can do.

Because there is controversy over the existence of ADHD, some teachers just shrug it off, and gossip among themselves about my parenting, thinking if I just took his video games away, that boy would learn to work. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Apparently, I put my child into the stigma saturated hellhole called Special Ed, because I want him to have more time on his Play Station, playing Destiny. I’m trying to cover up his “poor work ethic” by damaging his reputation with riding “the short bus.”. I prefer him to be called “dumb” by his mainstreamed peers, rather than cracking the whip.

I go through this the first few months every school year until his teachers realize I mean business, and I expect them to do their jobs, explaining, “The fact that he stares off in to space and cannot easily put his words on a page is WHY he is in special Ed. You cannot simply say he isn’t working and then wash your hands of him. That’s like saying about your deaf students, they can’t hear my lessons. You’ll have to solve that at home.” They squirm and get pissed off and often decide to pit themselves against me, sending me little CYA notes almost everyday.

Apparently, in order to allow a child to fail, teachers just have to say, I assigned XYZ, and he didn’t do it.

But here’s the thing about special education. It is supposed to be SPECIAL. If you recognize that my child is “super smart” and YOU are the expert, then you need to figure out how to get knowledge into his head, and then glean evidence that he knows it in some other way.

When we were kids, teachers could do just that: shape a lesson in a special way for a special kid. Can you imagine Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller in today’s schools? Would she have said, “Ma’am, your child seemed to stare off into space when I assigned that reading passage. She fails because she didn’t complete her work.”. The girl went off to Princeton because she had a woman who cracked her code.

SO, each year, I get riled up; it takes me months to get teachers on board with the whole it is your JOB thing. I understand their frustration; I struggle during his homework time. ( I mean WHY does a kid who can do the word problem in his head have to explain his process in WORDS? Why can’t he just write the answer in numbers? And why does it take my kid two hours, filled with tears and hair loss.) I get the teachers’ frustration But they are his teachers not I. If I were,I could adjust his lessons; if I were, I’d have a special degree in his disability, right?

I was particularly riled up this past week, facing the, “your kid’s lazy” crap from a fresh batch of teachers. I have a number of “Twelve Steppers” in my life who advise me; from an anti-codependent stand point, trying to change his teachers is too controlling of me. I’m supposed to “let go and let God.” I hear, your son is old enough now, he can suffer his own consequences.

I heard the same advice when my oldest was in the ninth grade and not working up to his potential. But what if he flunks? Well, summer school. Well, what if he doesn’t get into a good college because of that! Well, he’ll figure it out on his own.

I yelled, punished, rewarded, all things a parent does to try and get their kid in line. But I eventually took the advice and let go. He got himself through, improving as time went on. He began improving. No, he did not go the Harvard, though he had the IQ. He goes to a community school by choice to save money, and lives at home still, and we have a calm, loving friendship now. The twelve steppers say it is because I backed off.

But I just don’t think that advice will work with my youngest. To say that he has to live with the consequences of his actions assumes he has a choice here. His disability doesn’t allow him many choices. He cannot choose to spell that word right or even notice it is wrong. He cannot choose to ignore the misbehaving kids in the next row (and special Ed classes lump learning and behavior problems together. There are plenty of actions he struggles to ignore.) So does that make me codependent because I am trying to control his education?

Really?

Sorry. I’d rather continue to mother him properly and be labelled a control freak than let him slip through the giant cracks in our education system. Too many of his teachers would be relieved to just ignore him.

Failure is an option: Mom’s Memory


I realized something about motherhood this week, that I think is good for grown children to know.

My Mom was unable to attend our Mother’s Day barbecue, and I missed her. In our call, she reminisced happily about when I was a child: I had gone through a chef stage when I was about 9 or 10, and omelets were my gourmet obsession. Omelets with cheese, omelets with mushrooms. . .with spam or olives or pearl onions or pickles, all definitely (over) spiced. Whatever happened to be in the kitchen that I found inspiring was folded (clumsily) into a pan of half-beaten eggs. I recall distinctly enjoying that feeling of creativity. And I would serve these creations to Mom before she was even awake.

One morning, I mixed one with Spaghettios. I had been so talented and awesome with all the others (as evident in her praise), but this time, though she did her best to hide it, she couldn’t bring herself to eat more than one eensy bite; of course she hurt my feelings.

Somehow this moment is one of her favorite memories: The plate filled with undercooked egg, that stringy white bit that is attached to the yoke, still lying there like a bleached worm, jiggling with runny Spaghettios. It made her want to vomit, yet she laughs about it now.

Yeah. Sure. Hilarious.

But this Mother’s day, I realized something: somehow some mothers seem to remember our failures as fondly as they recall our success. Of course, Mom is very happy I have degrees, a warm, happy home, a good job, healthy, happy children, a good marriage. Yes, she trusts that I will take care of her in her old age, all things a Mom can be proud of. But she joyfully recalls the time I shattered the front window of the Chevy with a stone I was throwing at a kid’s head, or the time I made another neighbor hatefully angry when I took him up on a dare to paint his house with rainbows. How was I to know he wasn’t serious. I was only eleven.

She giggles hysterically about once feeding my oldest child pickles or lemons (because he demanded them, that’s why) before he was old enough to know what they were and that he wouldn’t want them. The faces he made! What about the ridiculous waaay-tooo-old for me high heels I had convinced my grandmother to buy when I was thirteen that I could barely walk in, stumbling about like a cartoon. Or how about the time I didn’t bother to check if I-75 went all the way to Virginia, and ended up driving straight on to Kentucky. I am great with maps, but I was going from memory, arrogant me. So who cares that at eighteen years old, I could navigate myself from one end of the country to the other. The resounding memory for Mom is that I ended up in Kentucky by accident. Oh, she loves that one.

Until this weekend, it irked me that she enjoys rifling through her memory bank for my failures. What is wrong with this woman? Does it make her feel superior? But then, I thought about my own sons. I don’t only love reminiscing about the first time I held them, or any time they have behaved nobly. It was also sweet when my oldest was still only able to crawl; the dryer bell buzzed abruptly while he was nearby. He almost stood up and ran down the hall and into my arms, it frightened him so much. When he was six and pretty disinterested in his soccer team, whenever the ball came his way, he’d squat down like a frog and leap over it, much to the horror of his coaches. My youngest son, when he was five, threw a butter knife at a friend’s sleazy boyfriend, and shattered a window pane. (Like mother, like son). He thinks long and hard about his Christmas gifts, and has given me bracelets that are child-sized, purses the size of Montana. I don’t care. I love telling those stories. Just like my Mom didn’t care that she had to try her very best to swallow a gelatinous mouthful of Spaghettios, oozing raw egg whites.

As her memory is beginning to fail, it matters to me more that she recalls me as I really was, has always loved me as I am. I think more than anything our children’s “misses” expose our true parenting more than their successes. How I handled Graham failing math in the ninth grade, or how I handled Evan’s temper tantrum over his GiGi’s Christmas gift, says more about my parenting than their trophies, their excellent grades, their scores. Children are imperfect, just as we, their parents, are. To pretend they are perfect is to ignore who they fully are. It is with great love and pride that each Mother’s day, my Mom thinks back to herself lying sleepy under covers one morning, my shining face waking her to deliver yet another masterpiece of an omelette.

I (don’t) Eat, Therefore I Am

God’s Guide to Food. God Sex Food. Women, Food, and God. All are titles of recent books. I figure most of them are about diets. I don’t really care. What I notice, though, is how many people seem to believe that if they can just get the right combo of foods. . .they will go to heaven. By people I typically mean my dinner guests. And by Heaven, I mean any wondrous place other than who they are right now.

And, as a person who likes to cook for others as a way of showering them with love, I am mighty weary of this crap.

My cook’s nightmare begins in grade school. Children younger than school-age dislike the typical gaseous cruciferous veggies because their tongues typically abhor the garbage after taste. This is true of all babies, pretty much. But visit any school and you will run into kids who dislike steak, or all things orange, or strawberries, or Cheetoes or anything that they can hold up and say, “I am the kid who Hates XYX; it is what makes me more special than you!” When you raise a family, you can watch your own kids try to board this trend when they ask, “Hey, Mom! Is there any food I get hives from?”. And they are disappointed when you answer, “No.” Worse, they start saying things like, “You know I can’t eat anything with leaves!” Uh, since when? Since you met that intriguing kid who can’t eat anything with eyes?

Since when did what we avoid on our dinner plates become the new vanity plate?

Now shift this to the college campuses, where students drink beer like water, cling to sushi stools like birds, and avoid animal proteins (other than raw fish), and any of its cosmetic byproducts like anthrax. Again, trendy identity qualifiers. Woah to the kids who actually eat burgers with their fries!

My own children have a mom who was rarely allowed to dislike any foods; I sneered at spinach for the bitter scummy feel it left on my teeth, and I had to eat it anyway; now I actually love it. I was reared by a Mom who almost always served a meat and three, along with a starch, while we travelled the world with an Air Force Dad; we children pretty much ate everything and liked it. But my own boys have a Dad whose pickiness was catered to: his mother served him “eggs and chips” whenever the rest of the family was enjoying a curried shrimp or a wine soaked rabbit. He wanted me to allow the same avoidance in our own children. When my oldest son squirmed at the veins of a chicken leg, his father defended him rather than point out how rude it was to reject the food we had paid for, and I had worked hard to serve.

Not that I condone guilting kids into eating. But what happened to acceptance and etiquette? Instead, their Dad (my ex) expected me to either cook several meals depending on the current wishes of each member of the household, or make eggs and chips every damned night. I fought this battle hard, and luckily my sons now have broader palettes than their father. But to give him some credit, though he still eats with a sniff and a sneer at many home meals, with his British roots showing, he learned to be politely accepting of whatever a hostess serves him when he leaves his own home.

Not so with, it seems to me, everyone else I know. . .

And like I said, I am certain that much of it is some sort of mass identity crisis. We have a friend who is a tier in the fruit-chewy, vitamin-pyramid trend out west. On a camping trip to Yosemite, while the rest of us enjoyed whatever the chow meister served, she was forcing greens on us through sweet green candies. All I saw her eat were these gummies. So just how does one gummy bear, provide all the nutrients, anti-oxidants, calories, and fiber of a nice, roasted crown of broccoli? And how are these different from store bought vitamins? Don’t ask her, or she’ll paper you in jumbled reports from labs (paid for by the company she represents. . .)

Most of all, she will come close to convincing you that she feels transcendent after a rainbow of chews. This diet defines her. I won’t even bother describing her negativity about our fireside S’mores, the anti-sugar personality is so recognizable and rampant amongst us.

As is the gluten free personality. It is so prevalent that even my bag of Almonds advertises itself as gluten free in order to make itself more marketable. (I love Seth Rogan’s interview with Terri Gross, where he pointedly makes her feel awkward about her avoidance of gluten. Track it down if you can) Yes, there are people who truly can’t handle gluten, just as some people can’t survive a bee sting. But for those of us who are not allergic, it has no ill effects. I know there are popular reports that defy my statement. Just as there are many that support it.

But just what makes so many people so willing to turn away from a grain that has carried humanity through millennia of its survival? Think Djokovic, the tennis phenom who, when he gave up gluten, was unstoppable on the majors track. Maybe if we give up gluten, we too will be and feel more god-like. (Never mind that he suffers Asthma, IBS, and a number of allergies, specifically to gluten, where many of us do not.).

Enter the Vegan. A choice that could be respectably a moral one, a physical one, or. . .as I am lamenting here, a personality. An identity. Sometimes it’s the victim voice, sometimes it’s the superior voice they use when the rest of us eat steak while they enjoy a grilled portabello, but either way, it is quite a vocal banner they wear. “Look at me, I’m a Vegan!”

Overall, I watch so many people I know (more often women than men) jump on these bandwagons for what they say is their health. But it feels very much as if they are seeking a new self, hoping for miraculous change. A friend of mine stuck to a gluten free, vegan month. She was hoping for something notable, some new vigor, dare I say, a whole new woman. She challenged herself and at the end of the month, she returned to lobster and filet and said: “Thank God, I am me. Take the last five years off my life. . .I’d rather have cheese.” She didn’t find a new her, but embraced herself.

Now my point isn’t that sugar, animal fats, salt, gluten, red dye number 666, are fine. Of course most of us will feel better if we enjoy moderation and daily exercise. Instead, I am arguing that abstinence is often trendy and over-controlling of others.

Bowl games 2014. I am often the cook for gatherings of friends, partly because I am good at it; mostly because few others cook (which is a topic for a later blog). I try very hard to create a menu that pleases people and meets their needs.

My sister-in-law has a shifting, never quite cemented, long list of foods she cannot (read:will not) eat. No meat (which may or may not include fish) No sugar. No soy. No Dairy. (unless she goes to Steak n Shake where she will completely ignore these rules, though she fully expects me to comply at all times. I love her, so I try.) My mother can no longer eat fish. My brother-in-law avoids red meat and sugar and cheese. A dear friend is sometimes Kosher. His wife is gluten free. My husband and I joke about another friend’s love life; our first question is always what is the latest woman in his life free of? Probably carbs, to round out our menagerie of “There’s nothing left to eat” fools.

One party where my fish-free Mom came, too. I wanted to make something warm and hearty ahead of time. We served chicken chili, gluten free corn muffins, a salad. I had already asked my SIL what I could make her, and she said not to worry. The people who were to bring a sugar free dessert “forgot”. The gluten free woman “really didn’t like chicken” so wouldn’t eat the chili The one for whom I made it in the first place because he loves chicken chili, enjoyed it, but also whined: “You know, if you had used soy crumbles then maybe______could eat it, too.” Whaaat, she CAN eat soy? I thought she couldn’t. I was offended.

Next party. Fish-free Mom wasn’t coming. I decided on shellfish stew, red based, since a few couldn’t/wouldn’t handle a cream base(though we all know a lobster bisque with sherry and cream is to die for). I chose this for my SIL, (no meat, no cream) who then wouldn’t eat it because the broth just wasn’t one of her faves (though she eats tomatoes, drinks tomato juice, and eats tomato sauce). I ended up grilling her fish and veggies (same ingredients from the stew).

At a gathering in the mountains, a guest didn’t eat asparagus because of the pee-changing effects. Another likes chicken, but not from the grill, could I pop theirs in the oven?

At a brunch last weekend held in honor of an out of town guest, addressing everyone’s issues, but also choosing something that didn’t require me to stand at the stove, I made a seafood quiche, using shrimp and crab,( SIL faves), and Eggs Beaters (to help the BIL’s cholesterol). I left off cheese on half of it since SIL can’t handle dairy, but a few of us embrace cheese. I also said-screw it-and made butter and sugar-laden cinnamon rolls from scratch. And I served fresh fruit, which was almost ignored.

Well. . .BIL sighs: quiche is not his favorite, but he’d eat it. Dairy-free SIL-happily and knowingly serves herself the side with cheese, which doesn’t leave enough for the cheese eaters. The cheese eaters had to take a cheese free slice.. But SIl also moans about eggs. . .another of her possible no-no’s.

And EVERYone devours the rolls, the anti-sugar, anti-gluten, anti-dairy alike.

The only thing consistent with our guests is their inconsistency.

I give up. I told my husband I am no longer cooking for friends and family. I cannot meet their needs obviously, and these typically sweet people allow their FOOD IDENTITIES to overrule etiquette and manners to the point of rudeness, and even confusion. And for what? To belong to some trend? To feel superior?

Just when I reached that boiling point, I saw an Easter Dinner commercial from Walmart. Two women are setting a table. One remarks about place cards. The hostess explains how she has to strategically place the vegan, the meat carver, the gluten free, and the sugar free away from or near certain foods.

If Walmart can mock this food identity issue, it must be so common place, that I am not the only cook suffering this silliness. The fact that guests now believe it is okay to treat hostesses like restaurants is a true problem. I am finished with asking people what they prefer to eat. I don’t care what your relationship to food and your God is. Take the initiative to tell me if there is a food that will cause you to swell and die in under 2 minutes, and I won’t kill you. Otherwise, bring your own dinner, host your own parties, or eat my food without a peep.

To Twist a Maxim: Musings of a Happiness Dependent

I just finished reading yet another reposted secret-to-life-list on Facebook from helpful friends, explaining the 10 to 30 essentials one must learn in order to be happy. One of the most-oft repeated is the stickler that goes something along the lines of “Don’t look to others to be happy; be happy within yourself.”

Ahh, the foundation of co-dependents anonymous everywhere.

Upfront, let me say, being a happy human being all unto yourself, free of others, sounds divine. Oh. . .wait. . . the word “divine” comes from “of God” which implies that something I deem divine is heaven sent, thus, not independently created.

Let me try again. Upfront. . being happy with simply your own amazingness to light up your life sounds. . .well, crazy. Sort of sociopathic.

I know what the helpful advisors mean: don’t let others bring you down; don’t let others steal your light; don’t let others control your destiny beyond your bliss. . .etc. etc.. Those are good pieces of advice, even if I do say them somewhat sarcastically. BUT those admonitions aren’t the same as the advice: “Don’t look to others to be happy.”

Interestingly, the folks who most commonly share that on FB are the people who are entrenched in the accomplishments of their kids, their peers, their church, their mates. Ironic that they espouse independence. It’s become almost trendy to say it, a sort of holier-than-thou-ism that sounds so good on paper, but has absolutely no actual meaning to them.

Before you try to enlighten me, by shooting holes in my cynicism, let me say I have chewed on this co-dependency issue for a long time. What is the difference between healthy independence with joyous relationships, and codependency? What is the difference between co-dependency and healthy dependence? I am not always certain. I doubt those “listers” are, either.

If my husband ever has a fatal heart attack, it will break my heart. If my sons fret over a broken relationship, I want to cry with them. If my Mom suffers when she struggles with her memory, I want to soothe her brow like my baby’s. Genuine disturbances in the world of the people I love are going to effect me, and make me unhappy. I’d be emotionally stunted otherwise.

And the opposite is true. A special wink from my hubby makes my toes tingle. An award for my son’s artwork sparks my pride. Listening to my older son laugh with his friends in the next room, brings me pleasure.

My happiness depends on the happiness of others, as does, often my disappointment. If I make mistakes at work, and others know it, it is not unhealthy to be embarrassed by this. If noone wants to buy your video game idea that you spent years devising, you can tell yourself a million times that it’s all good, but that isn’t really true, is it? You can see yourself as the world’s greatest singer, but if folks plug their ears in your presence, and mock you, you’re going to be hurt. . .a little.

We do not live in vacuums. The nature of the human being is to find happiness with others, to entwine our lives with each other means that we cannot always see where joy is ours or theirs. And I am weary of the world dismissively pretending that there is something wrong with this as stated in a pithy fridge magnet-maxim.

But it isn’t that simple either: if my husband does nothing to protect himself from heart disease, and I lament and fret and worry meal after meal. . .well that’s a different story. If my Mom eventually fully enters the woods called Alzheimer’s, I will still need to sleep and accept it. If my sons keep choosing silly girls, well, at some point I can only sigh. Otherwise, I’d be codependent.

Enter the dangerous flaw in the design of the maxim. It is both true and untrue depending on how it is applied.

I have an alcoholic, drug abusing brother, who has been his own worst nightmare, who still has not hit rock bottom despite several arrests, one neck-breaking accident, and the near loss of his daughter to multiple semi-suicide attempts. When I was young, a teenager, I was of the mind that if I rescued him, I was gifted and emotionally superior to lessor beings. I outgrew that. I feel compassionate toward him. Any addiction is a painful dominatrix. But I also learned that he is his own victim, that only he can take whatever steps he can to sober himself fully, whether his state is rooted in genetics or society. It doesn’t matter; it is still his job. I no longer lie awake at night with worry. My happiness doesn’t depend on his sobriety.

My father however, drinks my brother’s drama like a warm cup of cocoa; pure enjoyment. He would vehemently disagree with me, and claim that he suffers deeply at my brother’s “lifestyle” (and the spawned drama of my niece who is a carbon copy of her father.) Yes, my father does suffer; he cries and loses sleep from his pain. However, he also relishes the adrenaline of being called in the middle of the night and running to the rescue. He adores the adoration of his son and his grand-daughter when they tearfully thank him (only to turn around and continue the shenanigans.) He loves having a subject to discuss that has weight, that has him as the hero in the center.

When I try to explain the dangers of this sort of co-dependency, nothing makes my Dad burn with rage faster. Isn’t a father supposed to help his child in any way he can? It has taken years (YEARS) of “rescues” after shocking events. . .And years of my hammering away on the co-dependency nail, before an eensy glimmer of understanding sank in. Dad resisted the concept that not helping IS help, because after all, isn’t his happiness a direct result of his child’s safety and happiness? (I couldn’t begin to get him to understand that no, his happiness was a direct result of his child’s chaos.)

My father was randomly reflecting on the concept of spanking a child. I can’t recall why. Some debate on talk radio? He argued that rewards and punishments work just as well; why spank? He began his lecture on the beauty of positive reinforcement. Somehow I was able to shift the angle of his argument back to my brother and this time, Dad didn’t see it coming. I said, “Every time Brother has made a really poor choice, what did you do?” He saw it immediately.

“Wrecked his car while drunk?” Bought him another.

“Broke his neck?” Paid hospital Bills.

“Went to jail?” Hired his lawyer.

“Lost a wife? . . .almost lost a child?” Bought him a house.

My father’s argument on the effectiveness of rewards and punishments suddenly dawned on him. Each time my brother has come close to what should be his “bottom”, Dad rewards bad behavior, reinforces it by resolving the “negative”. Classic. My father was speechless for the first time in my life. His need to fix was possibly undoing life’s natural fix.

But there’s the definition of co-dependence. When the structure of one’s life . . .one’s identity is reinforced by other people’s failure (or for that matter, success), one creates a cycle that keeps it all in perpetuation. In other words, Dad feels more like Dad when he saves my brother, so he wraps his life around this drama. My niece, who is on the verge of being diagnosed with border-line-personality disorder, lies constantly to my father, even from the occasional mental institution. Dad seems blind to it, because visiting her often and openly worrying about how to rescue her, (and fantasizing that he will save her) gives him meaning (and reinforces her behavior.)

He would say he would finally be happy when each is safe in body and sound of mind. I say, hogwash. He would disappear because they are not the kind who would remember to call him when their lives are fine. Does he subconsciously know this? The phrase “Don’t look to others for happiness” speaks directly to him, for THIS is codependency

It is the wife who keeps the household running smoothly while her husband drinks their world into oblivion. She will say she wants the drinking to stop, but somehow that order and power she has, makes her feel superior; she doesn’t leave. That buddy of yours who can only pull herself together if she talks to you at 3 am, who tells you every nasty detail of her debauchery with utter shame and never follows your advice, but goes on and on about how you are so awesome, and what would she do without you. . .each time you tell her, it’s okay; she has value; she deserves love too, when she breaks up with yet another horrible guy. . .believe it or not, you relish being the one she turns to. You deserve the 3 a.m. repetitive phone calls. THAT’s codependence. The fact that you know which friend will fall off the diet wagon at Bruster’s with you, and you blame each other . .THAT’s codependence.

But “looking to others for your own happiness” is not necessarily the hellion codependence. Because, like I said, to live so independently, so free of the needs and happiness of others is simply sociopathic. Those who are codependent will not break their own inexplicable pain until they learn the other people they keep expecting to change, should not have this much power over their happiness. My own codependence shows when I repeatedly expect my Father to see the light, when I am angered at how much my brother still hurts my parents. Because contrary to what I have said here, it is nearly impossible to turn a blind eye to the ones we love.

Underlying that truth is the other codependents anonymous truism: expectations are disappointments waiting to happen. I hate that phrase too, only because it and the happiness maxim have both been abused and twisted. Yes, my father expects my brother to see how much he is loved whenever Dad rescues him, and then wake up and change. But Brother doesn’t change, so Dad is then deflated. Expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.

But in any relationship, we have expectations. The danger is when we use these maxims to slough ourselves of the responsibility of other people’s feelings and expectations.

I listened to a woman (who was well-versed in the co-dependent anonymous mantra) argue that she should be allowed to hang out with any man she wants, and her husband should be okay with this, because “his happiness isn’t her job. He needs to make his own.” (Tadah. . .Maxim twisted.) My grandparents lived for each other’s happiness as they believed was the rule of a covenanted marriage. Well into their nineties, they never slept apart, they focused on each other, and they were still holding hands. I cannot imagine either of them ever spending time with anyone else that made the other uncomfortable. They would have laughed at the concept of independent happiness. I am sure anyone with these romantic expectations entering a marriage with someone who is not inclined to meet them will be unhappy, but does that mean they are wrong in their expectations?

My first husband who couldn’t carry on a conversation to save his life, once told me that this was how he was built, and if I wasn’t happy with it, tough shit; I needed to find something else to entertain myself and stop expecting him to do it. (badda-bing.. Maxim twisted) Well, I divorced him and eventually found a man who does talk to me about everything and anything. It didn’t make my ex-very happy. Yet he was right. I did find my own happiness, but it was still bullshit for him to say it wasn’t his responsibility. Don’t enter into relationships if you truly want that much independence, right?

This expectation-to-happiness ratio is why financial advisors say don’t lend money: give it. Lending it means you expect to be paid back; then suddenly you are unhappy when they don’t pay you back. Solution? Give them the money so you don’t have expectations. But still. . .is this really the solution, to just flat out avoid expectations? I shouldn’t expect faithfulness from husband and friends? A boss shouldn’t expect employees to do their job? Parents shouldn’t expect their children to pass their classes? Based on these two maxims, no. Or if you are disappointed by them, recalibrate your choices, or you are codependent. . .

These are complicated maxims: That we have to find happiness within ourself; that we can’t have expectations of others without facing disappointment. Are they simply a bungled version of “love yourself or noone else will”? Or an attempt to unburden oneself from the needs or expectations of other people? Do they free us from being judged? Or do they help extrapolate folks from the jaws of codependency? Whatever truly, they create a sticky wicket.

Maybe both combined should be phrased like this: Your happiness depends on others, but if they are not making you happy, only you can fix that, but you cannot fix them, and trying will often make things worse; you are not ever completely independent and you have certain responsibilities to make others happy sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t count. And if your spirit is broken: Don’t sit around waiting for other people to fix you, because, you my dear, can let go and find something out there joyful.

A mouthful. Not so simple as “listed.”