Who Are You?

This past weekend I parked my dangerously pale, post-menopausally (yeah, I know that wasn’t a word until right now) plump body in a beach chair and began to read, the ocean generously drowning out the sound of any distractions.

The late 80’s brought me a lot of things, among them a devilishly elusive college degree and a pack of the world’s finest girlfriends. There are five of us women who have carried each other through the darkest valleys and toasted each other’s happiest moments. We have a vault stacked to the very tip top with the most delicious secrets and stories. I could whip a couple of those stories or secrets out and cause some eyebrow raising and pearl clutching, trust me on that. My chosen sisters laugh with me, cry with me, love me despite the many reasons I’m not loveable, and have this uncanny way of blessing me in the most unexpected ways. One of those blessings arrived this recent Mother’s Day when a member of the Fabulous Five sent me Viola Davis’ new book, “Finding Me.”

Only six pages in Viola Davis recounts a conversation she had with Will Smith on the set of Suicide Squad. He asked her who she was. She responded indignantly, questioning what he meant, and stated that she knew who she was. He pressed her, asking again, “No, who are you?” He elaborated by telling her that he would always be that fifteen-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. (Which opens up a whole other conversation, does it not? But let’s stay on topic.) He then asked again, “Who are you?’

I stopped reading. Stopped reading and dog-eared the page. I needed to think about that. I mean, who am I? It’s easy to list adjectives. I’m a mother and a rescuer. I love Charles Barkley, cellos, formal dresses, and the Dallas Cowboys. I’m baffled by people who pay money to make the muffler of a depreciating asset louder and I can’t sleep past 7 am. That’s information about me, but that’s not who I am.

There are events in life that define us. Sometimes it’s a series of events. In all likelihood, for most of us, it’s some kind of trauma. A careless label by a teacher or a loving parent, cruel words from a wounded classmate, or the loss of a friend or loved one. Maybe we grew up with limited resources, had a learning disability, or were raised by a single parent. Those moments crystallize and tell us a story about ourselves. We grab onto that new identity and drag it with us through childhood, pack it up and haul it off to college or to our first job as an adult, and let it silently and surreptitiously govern our lives. When that story is negative, we begin to expend precious energy to hide this part of ourselves that makes us feel unlovable or unworthy. It’s exhausting; mentally, physically and emotionally.

I didn’t have to do too much soul-searching. I knew pretty quickly who I was. I was the kid who never could excel. The one who lacked the drive and focus to make everyone proud. The underachiever. My parents endured an endless cycle of meetings with teachers and administrators who pointed to my standardized test scores and said, “She tests really well. She should be making better grades” or “She talks too much in class and instead of paying attention during math, she hides library books and reads.” I was the kid that makes a parent grit their teeth and say bad words. I had all of the ability and none of the focus. I sailed through elementary school and early middle school, but as the course work demanded more from me in the form of homework and projects, I balked. When I did turn assignments in, they were late and I rarely applied myself. Most of my work was, shall we say, half-assed.

Why? Even now, I don’t really know. I’m sure today I would have been diagnosed ADHD. All I know is that my brain was in 100 places all at once. I might start writing that paper on Hawaii but then realize South America is just east of Hawaii and, oh my, what about the Andes mountains? What animals live there? At bedtime, i was swimming in a sea of Encyclopedia Britannica, my paper wasn’t finished and I knew more about bespectacled bears and alpacas than a wildlife conservationist. Upside? I’m a delightful, sarcastic, fountain of useless information. You definitely want me on your Trivial Pursuit team. The downside? As a smart underachiever you realize pretty quickly that your parents are going to spend more than one school year gazing dreamily at those kids racking up all of the end-of-the-year awards. My testing placed me in advanced classes, but I couldn’t harness my brain power in a way that allowed me to deliver the goods. The guilt was overwhelming but the shame was worse. Shame, after all, is that awareness that you just don’t measure up. How did I cope? The way any kid does. I pretended not to care but my self-confidence plummeted. After a while I just settled into my underachiever role. I began to put my energy into things that didn’t require a great deal of mental focus. Things like parties, concerts, friendships, and boys…very cute ones. Upside? I’ve seen some great shows, collected some of the most talented, interesting, and accomplished friends, and attended parties of legend. Downside? I can list my notable achievements on the side of a nickel.

I went off to college and dragged my neon-flashing underachiever identity with me. Changed my major…many times. So many times, I could possibly have been a pretty impressive freshman advisor by year three. Made a .9 one semester because if I had gone to the trouble to withdraw and take a hard look at myself, it would appear that I cared. And if I cared and still couldn’t do it, then I would be a confirmed failure. I bartended, partied, drank tequila frequently, which shockingly didn’t seem to help anything, and took a break from school. Then, I re-enrolled with my declared major as Business. Go ahead, you can laugh. I can’t hear you. It was like eating sawdust and watching paint dry, simultaneously. Through sheer dumb luck, I enrolled in an Introduction to Poetry Writing class. The professor, who ended up being a favorite of mine, was feeling charitable and took the time to tell me, in the nicest way possible, I was a dumbass but I could write. The needle on my self-confidence meter moved up a little. Hey, I’m failing miserably at life, but I’m marginally good at stringing words together. It’s something, right?

Wherever you are, Dr. Pat Bizzaro, my parents thank you for your role in my final change of major and their brief moment in the sun, smiling broadly, while I accepted my degree. I thank you for seeing beyond my lackluster classroom attendance, as well as my complete absence of self-awareness, and pushing me to be more. In that experience, I fell in love with the pursuit of knowledge. Hell, I would spend the rest of my life enrolled in a university if I had an extra $70,000 lying around.

How did I get it together? I have no idea. Maturity, I’m sure, had something to do with it. I was far more immature than the people around me realized. Being a good communicator is polite language for being a good bullshitter. And we can’t discount the willingness of the wise professor to deliver a little kick in the ass and some encouraging words at just the right time. That was huge. Maybe those things coupled with the realization that there is no pause button for life was a winning combination.

Or maybe it was simply that I was able to stumble around cluelessly and without an audience, until the universe delivered a mentor, my pre-frontal cortex developed, and I found my footing. Most of my peers had moved on in different directions, they were saying “I do” and popping out babies, but I didn’t have a front row seat to all of their accomplishments. I wasn’t measuring myself against anyone else’s six-figure salary, 3500 square foot completely remodeled starter home, or impossibly perfect European vacation.

I had the luxury of bouncing off of (many…sharp) obstacles until I finally got it right. I wasn’t constantly reminded how far behind I was, didn’t feel the need for self-flagellation, or find myself drowning in my shortcomings. I was able to fall on my ass, learn a lesson, get up and dust off without an audience. That period in time allowed me to learn more about what I was made of, find direction, and meet some of the most influential people in my life. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was hard then, but it scares me to think how I would have struggled to navigate that period of my life in today’s world.

Our kids don’t have the gift of failure without an audience. There’s no stepping back and figuring things out without feeling like the whole world is watching and, more importantly, judging. The pressure must be incredible. Social media, and the technology it employs, even with all of its downfalls and known negative impact on mental health, is incredibly hard for kids to abandon. To do so is to isolate themselves. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In many ways, every single day is a performance. Every day there’s an underlying concern about how the world perceives you. Am I good looking enough? Am I achieving enough? Does my home measure up? What about my career?

In the end, I moved on relatively unscathed, if you don’t count the compound-interest I missed out on due to the late start on my retirement account. Are there times I still see myself as the one who just doesn’t measure up? You bet there are, but having the time and grace to mature and the freedom to flounder meant that story didn’t end up derailing me. I didn’t find myself overwhelmed by anxiety and drowning in depression. Instead, I found friendships that lasted a lifetime and I found myself. I am still her, you know, the underachiever, but the lights have burned out on my flashing neon, underachiever sign and I love myself despite the imperfections. It’s a choice, love. It’s a decision, not a feeling. Choose love. Especially, when it comes to you. Because, how can you possibly give love if you can’t accept it from yourself?

I watch from 35 years down the road and I wonder, “What happens to the kids like me now?” The underachievers, the screwups, the kids who lack structure, the ones who struggle to follow the prescribed path. The ones who don’t just think outside the box but wonder what the box is made of and what kind of music the guy who assembled it at the plant likes to listen to. How will that kid who just can’t quite get their act together navigate the world now? Will they find tolerance, time, and a place to grow into themselves and out of their difficult beginnings?

How will they answer the question, “Who are you?”

While we’re on the subject, tell me, who are you? I would love to know.

Hopes for 2022

This little list of hopes was born about a day after the previous post. I often make lists for myself (thank you Apple for making that so easy), and sometimes I share them. I shared this elsewhere but felt like it should be here as well. Thinking of something I forgot? Let me know!

1. I hope we make the leap towards seeing people as unique and complex individuals, instead of Liberals or Conservatives, men or women, Blacks or Whites, homosexual or heterosexual.

2. I hope someone has the good sense to make those loud mufflers illegal. The world is noisy enough, as it is.

3. I hope people begin to value their money again instead of letting slick marketing manipulate them into paying more for junk than it’s worth.

4. I hope people make a conscious choice to consider that maybe they don’t know all there is to know. Maybe, just maybe, a willingness to challenge their long-held beliefs will result in adaptability and growth rather than stagnation and extinction. I mean, who wants to be a fossil?

5. I hope we all start to realize that happy is now.

6. I hope we begin to spend 10 minutes of each school day teaching America’s children how to regulate their autonomic nervous system because, currently, we live in a country where a popular reaction to anger or frustration is to shoot someone.

7. I hope we find our way back to children enjoying sports and other activities for fun, instead of as a competitive side gig. And I hope that leads to more kids trying different stuff instead of gunning for a shoe deal before they’re 12. Damn, y’all, just play and laugh.

8. I hope people gain a better understanding of what an incredible, powerful, miracle their brain is and stop assaulting it with substances. Instead, discover it’s full potential. You are so much smarter than you may think.

9. I hope everyone makes time for live music/dance, art exhibits, theater, reading, long walks, hikes, sunrises and sunsets. The arts and nature give us everything that is truly beautiful and soul-stirring.

10. I hope you remember to tell your friends and family how they’ve impacted your life while they’re still around to hear it.

11. I hope each and every one of you realizes that you and your value in this world are so much greater than the sum of your mistakes.

12. I hope someone comes up with a calorie-less tortilla chip and calorie-burning cosmopolitan.13. I hope everyone considers that once we’re dead and gone, all that remains of us on this earth are the actions that we took. This year, find a way to leave your positive mark on the world.

14. I hope you love. With love comes joy, heartbreak, compassion, excitement, desire, compromise and sacrifice. Love is what makes life beautiful and meaningful. It drives back the darkness.

15. I hope people stop driving like selfish, reckless, jackasses. The goal is to arrive without killing anyone, least of all yourself.

May you approach the coming 365 days with a good support system, peace in your heart, and a calm soul that allows you to embrace whatever lies ahead.

Cheers 🥂

You’ve Never Looked Better Than In My Rearview Mirror: A Goodbye to 2021

As the sun dropped low in the sky this evening, I leashed the dogs and took them for a walk. The breeze a balmy 75 today, despite it being the 31st of December. And there, tugging at my mind were a cascade of memories: me, around 10 years old, riding my bike fast and furiously down the steepest hill in my neighborhood, a cool breeze rushing past my ears drowning out every sound but the push of my rubber tires against pavement; 17 years old, cheeks flush with the heat from a bonfire in the middle of nowhere, the breeze rustling the trees as I clutched a warm beer and laughed with the kind of joy reserved for the young; 21 and stepping out of the bar into a welcome breeze after four sweltering hours of trying to hear drink orders over the chatter of drunk college kids hoping to get lucky and Mick Jagger bellowing out “Shattered.”

Déjà vu. That feeling that we’ve done something before. Said something before. Been somewhere before. What it really is, is an experience that causes a sequence of previously fired neurons in the brain to fire again. And so, when it’s all said and done, what we really are is a collection of our experiences. The good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy. They are each (the important ones, anyway) stored in our hippocampus and contribute to who we are and who we’re becoming.

And so, as we close the door on 2021, I suppose it’s only natural to think about how the year and the memories that resulted from it changed me, what I learned, and what I anticipate for life in 2022.

2021 taught me that grief is just flat out brutal. In June, I lost my person. You know that friend that you tell stuff to that you would never write down because if you did and the wrong person read it, you could be ostracized from polite society for the rest of your life? Ok, maybe that’s just me. I trusted him when I didn’t even trust myself. He was one of the few who got to see behind the curtain. In those moments when I was being catty and petty, he laughed at me. And when I was wallowing in self-doubt and self-pity, he made me laugh at myself. There aren’t many of us who, in this lifetime, stumble across a person who meets us wherever we are, and with whatever we need. He was the person I measured other men against, which really wasn’t fair to other men. And, get this ladies, he was a unicorn. Yep, he was handsome, funny as hell, hard-working, a great dad, had a conscience, was fearless, big-hearted, fun-loving, dependable, and loyal to a fault. Oh, and he had overcome great obstacles in life with grace, so he knew what was important. When he died, he left behind a beautiful daughter he adored, a woman he loved and who loved him with all her being, a big family consisting of two married, exceptional, parents and five other loud, loving, larger-than-life siblings, an endless supply of friends, and me. I can compartmentalize like a boss, but this broke me down. I don’t think I’ll ever breathe again, the same way I once did.

2021 taught me that people are hell bent on staying mired down in their current ways of thinking. If we’re honest, most of what we think is just habit. You know that if people are so lazy they’ll pay someone $10.00 to deliver a $15.00 meal rather than fetch it themselves, they are not researching jack shit. These are the same people who say things like, “Well, they said that as long as you gargle with Clorox, you’ll be fine.” Who the hell is they? These people have no interest in straddling that gap in society or looking at topics through someone else’s life filter. There is power and freedom in knowledge. Accepting that there’s junk you don’t know shouldn’t be a stretch. Rethinking means letting go of who we think we are and being open-minded and objective. Maybe taking a minute to consider that if your great- grandparents weren’t slaves, you might just have gotten a leg up in life on the people whose great-grandparents were. Trust me, each generation benefits from what the generation before it had. How do you think generation after generation of rich people stay rich? You think they’re all just crafty business people? They aren’t. Some of them are dumb as dirt but the diligence, determination and, maybe even, luck of an ancestor, coupled with compound interest keeps them living fat. Anyway, I digress….back to rethinking. Reach down and pull your brain out of that box you’ve been keeping it in. Dinosaurs will tell you all you need to know. They are proof positive that adaptability and flexibility are key to surviving in this world. Consistency and an inability to change will lead you straight to spending eternity as a fossil. You know how they tell you to start worrying when your coach doesn’t correct you anymore, because it means he thinks you’re hopeless? When people start spouting off the nonsense they read on some unverified web page, I just nod. To present them with other points of view to consider would be like yelling at a deaf man. I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and smile while the archeologists are brushing the dirt off of them.

2021 taught me that while there are a lot of people out there willing to sacrifice for their fellow man, there’s a bunch of other ones who don’t give a rat’s ass if your boat sets sail with the plug pulled out. They’ll buy up more toilet paper and gasoline than they could use in 50 lifetimes before they’ll risk that they might go without for an hour or two. They don’t like to admit it, though. They say stuff like, “Oh, I always keep 230 12-pks of Charmin in my garage. I’ve done that forever. This has nothing to do with COVID.” They’re lying. They sat in the grocery store parking lot and waited for them to unlock the doors so they could buy every pack of toilet paper that would fit in their trunk. Y’all know who you are. Those same people filled up 110 gas cans when we had that 96-hour gas shortage. If somebody drops a match near their storage shed, it’s not going to be pretty. The thing about those people is they’ll die with a whole lot of stuff but they won’t die with a whole lot of love. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ll take the love, wipe with leaves and ride my bike, before I’ll live with only myself in mind. I suppose you see what people are really made of when a crisis rolls around.

Over the last twelve months, I shed many a private tear which did not help me lose even one pound, worried about my kids which I’ve been doing for 22 years and closely resembles digging a hole in quicksand, held extended conversations with myself about making a big change in my life, i.e., new job, new house, new city, and done not a damn thing about any of it, and quit eating tortilla chips about 15 times. I’ve started writing books, then stopped, and read more instead. I’ve railed against life and how unfair it is, then reminded myself that a fair is a place you go to ride rides and eat cotton candy.

Who knows, maybe 2022 will be the year I make a big change. Shake things up a bit. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll just continue to work my way through the stack of books on my night table, roll my eyes when people say ignorant bullshit, worry about my kids, baby talk my parade of animals, and learn to navigate life with this vise grip around my chest. In the end, we’re all just trying to get by, right? Doing the best we can with what we have, trying to keep our fears in check, pay our bills, and not make fools of ourselves that can be captured on film and posted online later.

So, if you see me failing miserably at self-improvement in 2022, cut a girl a break. Or better yet, buy me a cosmopolitan. And no video, please.

9/11 Strength in Unity

Often, I think, “I should write more. Publish more.” Then I remember that I write pretty often, I just don’t publish that much. The Notes app on my phone is full ideas I’ve fleshed out, but the truth is I’m just in a headspace unwilling to deal with the division and the vitriol people so relentlessly spew at one another. Between those who are perched on the edge of their seat looking for an opportunity to be offended and the ones who become an expert eager for a fight an hour after procuring internet access, it just feels too heavy. I creep a little on social media now, but between politics and COVID, which somehow became political, it’s just not the little escape it used to be.

As we sit here on the doorstep of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, though, I’m reminded that there are some events that weigh heavily on me and the unburdening my soul begins to outweigh the burden of dealing with those who are always in search of a point of contention.

In the Fall of 1984 at ECU, I met a couple of guys from New Jersey in my microeconomics class. English was our instructor’s second language and we quickly developed a friendship as we worked together to decipher the lectures. Eventually, they invited me to a pre-game party, and that’s how I met Jimmy Straine. Jimmy was cute, with a sprinkling of freckles and a quick smile that let you know you were welcome, and well-loved. His nickname was Mookie, a moniker I believe he received in high school. I always attributed it to Mookie Wilson because he was from Jersey, no one ever said a bad word about either of them, and they both had naturally happy, upbeat personalities, but it could have been for 100 other reasons I know nothing about. Those Jersey boys worked hard but they played hard to even things up. It always felt like Jimmy was at the center of the fun. He was open and genuine, funny as hell, and I liked him immediately. He routinely used the word “kid” when referring to his peers. “Oh, yeah, he’s a great kid,” Jimmy would say, or “Yeah, I know that kid. He’s from my hometown.” As a Southerner whose exposure to northern colloquialisms was limited, I always got a kick out of that. He was, as my dad would say, “One helluva guy.”

Jimmy and I were friends for a few years in college. I last saw him in the mid-80’s. We didn’t exchange Christmas cards or dance at each other’s weddings, but Jimmy made an impression on me. You know those people that pop in and out of your mind, years after you part ways? Even now, if I hear Dire Straits, The Cars or, better yet, R.E.M, Jimmy is the first person who comes to mind. Although I had not seen him in many years, I knew through a mutual friend that he had married a great girl, was working for Cantor Fitzgerald, and that they were expecting their second child.

Jimmy died in the North Tower on September 11, 2001. Jimmy, his wife Trish, and their 3 year old son, Finn, had welcomed a new baby boy to the family on September 5th. He had taken one full day off and then worked a few half days. September 10th was his first full day back at work.

I was shocked, horrified, grief-stricken, frightened and overwhelmed. I was all of those things and I was blind with rage. I didn’t know the personal details of every victim, but I did know the details of one. The only thing I had ever done in NYC was change planes but meeting a funny, warm, guy from Jersey 37 years prior, put a face on the victims for me. How dare these 19 men come into the United States of America and steal Jimmy Straine from his wife and children, his friends and family. How dare they permanently alter the course of so many lives because they weren’t happy about the Persian Gulf War, our government’s support of Israel, or our presence in the Middle East. For me, Jimmy represented every innocent human being affected by the callous and sociopathic actions of Osama bin Laden and his deluded followers.

2,977 innocent people died in the attacks of September 11. 2001. Many of them died while doing extraordinary things trying to save others, instead of taking the necessary steps to save their own lives. I think about the people who made a conscious decision to go INTO those burning, compromised buildings and UP those stairs to lead people to safety, instead of hauling ass in the other direction. I think about the people on those planes, who even in their own terror, provided comfort to someone else or called home to let their people know they were loved. I think about the people on United Flight 93 who engaged the hijackers knowing they would save lives, but those lives wouldn’t be their own. I think about the first responders and volunteers who spent days digging through the smoldering rubble, breathing god knows what, and desperate to find those who might be buried alive. Many, people who never consciously intended to be on the frontlines but ended up there anyway.

We saw the very worst of humanity in motion. But in the chaos of the devastation, smoke and rubble, we saw the very best of what lies within us when we find ourselves in the most terrifying and inconceivable circumstances, rise. We came together as a nation in a way that I had not seen in my lifetime. The murderous and heartless attacks of Osama bin Laden and 19 hitmen, unintentionally caused us to focus on all the ways in which we, as Americans, are infinitely alike. We saw our similarities instead of how we differed. We were reminded that we all matter to someone, we all go to work each day with the expectation that we are going to arrive home safely, and we all take life for granted more often than not. We realized that many of us are capable of unprecedented acts of bravery that defy anything we could ever have imagined. We felt the pain of losing people we had never met and would never meet. In some cases, we felt the pain of losing people we had met. There will never come a time that those images, the rescues, and the lives lost don’t bring me to tears.

Our focus became survival and protection of our citizens, regardless of our differences. We mourned the loss of those 2,977 people as a nation. We celebrated the heroism of our citizens. We demanded, as a society, that survivors and families of those we lost be provided for. We re-evaluated our procedures and improved security as a nation.

We were, in the immediate aftermath, on the same team. That unity was, in the midst of all that death and destruction, incredibly beautiful. It reminded me why I love this country, for all it’s flaws and failings, unwaveringly. The burning, white hot anger I felt began to transform into pride and resilience.

Here we are though, a little more than two decades from one of our greatest showings of unity as a nation and we again have internal battle lines drawn from one side of the country to the other, and a growing intolerance for anyone whose beliefs don’t align with our own. We seem to have forgotten that we are all fallible and fight battles others know nothing of, while they do the same. We have forgotten the heroism, the strengths, and the weaknesses that lie within us. We most certainly have lost sight of the fact that we are all either showing love or crying out for it, and we are all one day closer to dying.

Our belief systems are complicated. They are the result of genetics, life experience, education, religious teachings, income level, and our unique nervous system. We are never all going to agree. We can, however, choose to look beyond our differences and value our similarities as human beings. We can elevate ourselves above needing to be right, focus on ways to have a positive impact on our community, and pursue knowledge. We can stop saving compassion, heroism, and unity for catastrophic events and make those character traits goals in our daily lives.

In the worst moment in U.S. history, we all found a connection; whether, like me, it was because of someone you hadn’t seen in decades, or because your neighbor is a first responder, or your cousin was a flight attendant.

It was the worst game of six degrees in history.

If there is anything positive that lives on from the events of 9/11, it’s the knowledge that we are a nation capable of unshakeable unity and strength. Let’s not wait for another cataclysmic event to practice loving our neighbors. Let’s make every effort to live our lives in a way that shows honor for this incredible life we have the privilege of living and benefits society as a whole. Keep an open mind, look for compromise, and when none can be found, search instead for a way to listen to an opposing opinion without prejudice and ask questions without judgment.

And next time you have the good fortune to be in NYC, visit The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

See how we rise. We always rise.

On the Other Side of 55

My birthday has been arriving, without fail, on February 19th since 1965. In some years past, I’ve put together a “Things I’ve Learned” list to mark its passing and create a record of notable things Ive had on my mind. At times, I think that list is my way of feeling like I’ve done something over the past year other than grow older. This year I’ve struggled to pull it together. Not because of a lack of material, but because I see how technology has given every single person on the planet a platform. Many shouldn’t have one and that leads me to think deeply about whether I’m one of those people. If you feel that I am, take comfort in the knowledge that I’m giving it serious thought and it’s likely I’ll eventually come to the same conclusion.

This is the first year that I’ve felt a bit ambivalent about getting older. Possibly because this is the first year I’ve felt old. I’ve never been one to expect the masses to fall at my feet and kiss my rings on my birthday, but I’ve never felt melancholy about it either. My fortieth didn’t scar me and, truthfully, I really started coming into my own in my mid-40’s. Prior to that, I was pretty much fumbling around in the dark. At 50, not much had changed. My son did point out that I had almost certainly lived half of my life already, but I shed not one tear because verbal harassment is our love language. At 55 I was feeling wiser than ever before and, despite the visible signs of aging, that felt like a good place to be.

This year was different. A couple of weeks ago, I went in for a bone density scan. As a non-smoker who exercises regularly, avoids soft drinks and lives a fairly healthy life, I considered it a formality. It was a surprise when I received a call telling me I have osteoporosis in both hips and osteopenia in my spine. Is it cancer? No. Not even close. It’s not any number of really serious things it could be and for that I am grateful. For the first time, though, I felt old. Right down to my bones…or what’s left of them. It was like this flashing neon sign that wouldn’t be ignored. A firm realization that no matter how I felt mentally, my body is a bunch of quantum particles whose DNA can only hold up under environmental attack for so long. I know I’m fortunate just to be here and healthy, but I still feel a little put out about being at the top of the sliding board headed straight for 60. I can’t swear to it because I’ve never been a man, but getting older is hard on women in a different way than it is men. It’s particularly tough for women in my age group. We were, after all, raised by a generation of women who never left home without full makeup. In fact, I know a woman who swears that within minutes of delivering her first child, her mother looked over at her and said with a gentle smile, “Honey, you look pale. You need a little lipstick.”

Those lists I mentioned previously were always pretty unisex. This year is a little different. This year is about why, despite the unique challenges of aging as a woman, I feel privileged to be one. This is a celebration of the women in my life and all of the ways we’re wonderful that haven’t a damn thing to do with the way we look. It’s a reflection upon the unique ways we approach life and our responsibilities. So, maybe this gives a woman around my age an opportunity to feel understood. Maybe it gives a younger woman a fast track to a new perspective, or an older woman a sense of recognition for the trail she blazed for all who followed her.

  • When it comes to upper body strength, men have us beat. I worked my ass off in my 20’s to be able to do ten pull ups. Can I do one now? Hell no. Half of one? Maybe, with the promise of a Cosmopolitan afterward. But I’ll tell you this, what we lack in upper body strength we make up for in emotional strength. When the worst tragedies of life take place, we are the ones who rise up. I have, over the course of my life, seen women deal with soul-crushing challenges like the loss of a child, addiction, infidelity, rape, both mental and physical illness, aging parents, divorce, and destitution, with grace and perseverance. We may wallow for a minute, but we always regain our footing. We are where life begins, after all, and there is something in that gift that enables us to rise when we really don’t think we can. Don’t know what I mean? Watch Steel Magnolias. Is it sappy? Yep. But every woman sees some of Mlynn’s character in herself and, if she’s lucky, recognizes her circle of friends in Ouiser, Truvy, Annelle, and Clairee. I don’t move to tears easily, but there are two movie scenes that get me every time. Sex and the City, when Big leaves Carrie at the altar and Charlotte defends her in the street and that Steel Magnolia’s scene at the graveside when M’Lynn loses it. The power of female friendship is the resounding theme here. I hope that each of you know that kind of fierce female love.
  • As women, we feel intrinsically responsible for our children. Children, despite our best efforts, sometimes stray from the trail we blazed for them. When it happens, we question every decision we made as a mother. Did I push too hard? Did I not push hard enough? Should they have had more responsibility? Should they have had less? You can do everything right as a parent and still have a kid who stumbles. You want to see the fight in a woman? Any female from any species? Endanger her offspring. Women never stop fighting for their kids. We love them in a way that’s reflexive, like breathing or blinking. We love them when they’re the least loveable. Sometimes we show that love by giving advice, financial support, or attention. Other times we show it by having the strength to say no, set difficult boundaries or withdraw financial support, despite the fear of losing them forever. Our love is built out of something otherworldly. Whatever your child may be going through, I hope you never give up. I hope you never stop talking. A mother’s love has saved more than one life.
  • Women take self-sacrifice to an art form. Really, we do it all. Should we? No, we really shouldn’t. The rub though, is that we are wired to step up and keep the world rotating on its axis. Imagine what your little corner of the world would look like if you just took a month’s hiatus. That’s how incredibly remarkable you are. You will feel overwhelmed. Often. Why? Because you are overwhelmed. Occasionally, you’ll drop a few of the 100 balls you’re juggling. That’s okay. I once forgot to pick my son up from first grade. Feel free to boost yourself up with that little nugget any time. I see you. I see what you do and I’m awed by it. There’s more than one of you out there that inspire me in ways you don’t even know about. I hope that any time you’re feeling the weight of it all, you’ll look in the mirror and remind yourself of all the good you put out into the world and how many people marvel at you from afar.
  • With all of that responsibility comes stress and maybe some anxiety. Take a walk. Yes, a walk. When we walk, our eyes (which are actually a part of our brain that extrudes from the skull) engage in a unique side-to-side movement which shuts down our amygdala and puts our brain in a state of relaxation. The benefits are endless. A walk reduces stress, encourages creativity, and helps prevent osteoporosis. Learned the brain stuff from my favorite neuroscience podcast. Dr. Andrew Huberman is a super smart human being who wants to make science accessible for everyone. You’re everyone. I hope you will do yourself a favor and check him out.
  • In my youth, I gravitated more towards men as friends. Mostly, because I was uncomfortable with emotion. They appreciated my wit and sarcasm, were impervious to my zingers, and things never got too heavy. I learned though, that when your world implodes, the people that come to your rescue will be the women in your life. They will care for your children, scrub your toilets, cook food, walk your dogs, pay your bills, give you permission to cry, cry with you, and find a way to give you hope. Don’t listen when a friend tells you she’s fine. Women always say they’re fine when they aren’t and I don’t think we’re going to learn how to ask for help anytime soon. If there’s a crisis and your friend is left to depend on just her husband, everyone is going to starve, none of the bills will get paid, and there will be no clean sheets on the bed. Thank you to each one of you who has come to my rescue when I most needed it. I hope that you will look for more opportunities, not only to help but to accept help.
  • You are beautiful. I don’t care what message you’re getting every time you see a 70- year-old woman who could pass for 30, you are beautiful! I say that, I think it when I run into people I haven’t seen in a while, and I mean it. I will be the first to admit, if I had a few thousand uncommitted dollars, I would find it hard to resist replacing all that youthful collagen that abandoned this ship over the last five years. It’s an unexplained phenomenon. When I look at other women, I notice everything that is beautiful and interesting and pass right over the very things I’m critical of when I look in my own mirror. This year, I’m going to work hard at giving myself the grace I extend to others. I hope you will too.
  • As women, we are often multi-tasking. Did someone tell you it isn’t possible to multi-task? They’re a damn liar. We do it all day, every day. Raise your hand if, in the 70’s or 80’s, you ever changed gears, drank coffee, smoked a cigarette and applied makeup while driving. I rest my case. As a result, we get a great deal done. Usually for other people. And hey, that’s okay! After all, it is believed that there are four independent brain circuits that influence our feelings of well-being. One of the four is generosity. We are wired for cooperation, compassion and generosity. I just hope you all remember to take a step back and do for you, as you do for everyone else.
  • For years I struggled with the idea of vulnerability. I was afraid it made me look weak. Eventually, I realized there’s more than one definition of vulnerability. It doesn’t have to just mean “open to attack.” It can also mean open to loving and being loved. It was other women that taught me the toughest people I knew were the most vulnerable ones. Crawling into your shell may protect you from ever feeling hurt or trusting the wrong person, but it also prevents you from meeting the people that could open your world up, possibly change your life for the better, and show you the care and love you deserve. It takes much more courage to be open than it does to just close yourself off from feeling. I hope that you will take that risk of vulnerability and reap the rewards that each of you so generously deserve. Just stay off of Twitter. Those people are miserable and vicious. We’re looking for openness, not a beat down.
  • I read somewhere, and firmly believe, that people are always in a constant state of either showing love or crying out for it. I don’t remember who said it but WOW. What a truth! Sometimes, the most undesirable behavior is just a person crying out for love. As women, we need to focus on judging each other less and do a better job of recognizing when we’re crying out to each other. Do you have a friend who you think is struggling but she’s withdrawn from you? It isn’t because she doesn’t need you, it’s because as women we fiercely protect the people we love. We avoid talking about the struggles of our kids or our spouses, because we never want others to focus on their failings and lose sight of all that’s still beautiful about them. That’s a lonely place to be. I hope that you recognize the opportunity to be someone’s non-judgmental sounding board. My friend Gina and I have “vaulted” conversations. When we’re at our wit’s end, we drive to Sonic, get a couple of slushies and begin by saying, “Okay, this is vaulted…” What a gift, to unload and know that you’re in a safe space. I hope you grab a cherry limeade slushie and a friend and fill your vault slam full.
  • Despite how the world is progressing, as women we still have great early influence on children. If you have young children or work as a teacher, you have a unique opportunity to introduce practices to enhance mental wellness. Mindfulness helps us manage our emotions, increase focus, and decrease stress, anxiety and depression. It teaches us to manage our emotions rather than our emotions managing us. I hope that you’ll learn more about how being in the moment, focus, and breathing can have a powerful impact on our lives. If you teach them nothing else related to mindfulness, teach them starfish breathing for when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Using their index finger, have them trace the outside of their other hand, beginning at the thumb and inhaling as they move up and exhaling as they trace down the other side. Focus on the movement and the breathing. Mindfulness has helped me in every aspect of my life. If you want to learn more, John Kabat Zinn wrote a great book called, “Where Ever You Go, There You Are.”

My 55th year brought more knowledge of self, especially as a woman. I learned that exercise, avoiding soft drinks and not smoking, is no match for genetics and bone structure, so I’m committed to taking the extra calcium. I realized I’m more intelligent than I thought I was as a young woman but not nearly as intelligent as I would like to be, so I’m embracing every opportunity to learn. I found that I need the company of my girlfriends more than ever before, so I’m committed to making more time for the women that have so graciously blessed me with their friendship. If you have great women in your life like I do, there’s nowhere you feel more supported and less judged.

I’m hopeful that during this year of 56, I stop looking in the mirror and feeling disappointed that my body isn’t 25, that I continue to gain a better understanding of myself and the people around me, and that I break my addiction to tortilla chips. I’ll continue to look for ways to grow intellectually and spiritually, and make contributions that help rather than hurt. I’ll resist the urge to curl up in a ball and coast.

And tonight, when I blow out my candles, I’ll wish to find myself awash in even more funny, gifted, kind, determined, fallible women and that the coming year presents endless opportunities to celebrate all that makes being a woman such a worthwhile journey.

Long live the sisterhood.

Last Year’s Wisdom

*What follows is a birthday post from 2020 that I shared on my Facebook page but never posted here. I didn’t realize it until I began working on a piece for this year, so here you go. Forgive me for my disorganization. Often I think too much and then sometimes hardly at all.

55. Double nickels. When I was younger, birthdays were dressing up, collecting the people that made you laugh, and heading out to celebrate. Now, for whatever reason, they’re cause for reflection. Rumination begins about 6 months out and I jot down little bits of things I think about, so that I don’t forget them. It’s a habit that began in my 20’s. I routinely find parts of poems, paragraphs, or just words, scribbled on pieces of papers and stuck in books, old purses, or coat pockets. The end result is my birthday list that you can peruse or just quickly scroll past. The beauty of life is that you always have a choice. This year we have an eclectic collection of random thoughts.

1. Always, always open a bag of sugar over the sink.

2. One of my greatest regrets. When my kids were young, they were very involved in athletics. Our weekends became consumed with tournaments and competitions; the weekdays with practices. On the few weekends we were in town, I didn’t want to get up and get dressed. I just wanted to relax and enjoy them. I prioritized athletics over faith. Don’t do that. Life is hard. From the teen years until the end, we have times when we ride the wave and others when we swim for our lives. During those times when we’re struggling, a church family gives you a feeling of love and acceptance. Faith can help you take the next step on the days you don’t know how. It teaches you how to let go of things you can’t control. Strength of faith is a tremendous gift to give your children. Prioritize it.

3.  You can’t have it all. I took several Econ classes. None of them were as interesting as Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and I understood very little that the nice Asian man said, but I did manage to retain one concept: Opportunity Cost. When you choose one thing, you forgo the potential gain from another thing. Imagine potential outcomes of the choices you make. Don’t just wing it.

4. Marry whomever you like, but be extraordinarily careful about who you have children with. I think I’ve told you that before, but it bears repeating.

5. When my children would be bothered about something someone said about them, I would say, “Why do you care what they think?” That’s a stupid thing to say. Of course, they care what people think. None of us want to be misjudged or misunderstood. The right response is, “I’m sorry, honey. I know that hurts and hurts badly. Let’s have a good cry about it, go for a walk, and then let it go. This will pass, you are loved, and the only thing you can control is yourself.”

6. There is no way to divorce and it not affect your children. No amount of money can fix it, no amount of love fills the void. Children of intact marriages have a sense of security that children of divorce never have. They will, at some point, struggle. Be ready for that. I was so naive.

7. Instead of relegating exercise to practice, learn to exercise for mental health and stress relief. Teach that to your kids when they’re very young. Add meditation to it. As little as 5 minutes a day can make a miraculous difference. There’s a free app called Headspace. Try it.

8. Long-term happiness is mostly determined by how we process the world we find ourselves in. Only about 10% is generated by our external environment. That’s why some of the happiest people you know don’t have squat. I didn’t make that up, either.

9.  Stop beating your kids up psychologically for underperforming. I’ve never met a kid who wanted to make a D or strike out. I’ve never met an adult who wanted to let their family down. Behind every behavior there’s a feeling. Meet people where they are and ask questions from a place of love. Anxiety and depression make it nearly impossible to focus. And anxiety and depression in teens doesn’t look like it does in adults.

10. Plant stuff. The smell of dirt, sunshine, and sweat heals lots of stuff. Some of my best memories are being in the garden with my Daddy Steve.

11. I have learned over the course of the last year that I have very mixed feelings about social media. I see it do a tremendous amount of good, simply by presenting people with opportunities to rise up. I also think it is full of pitfalls, particularly for kids. When we were in school, there were a few people we felt woefully inadequate beside and they didn’t have the benefit of “filters.” Our kids are bombarded with fake stuff all the time and they don’t have the emotional maturity to process it. Until we tire of it, don’t type things to people that you wouldn’t say to them at a cocktail party. Would you walk up to a stranger at a cocktail party and tell them they’re an idiot because they think differently than you? If you answered “yes,” I bet you’ve had more than one real life, well-deserved, ass whoopin’.

12.  I’m really starting to show my age and I’m surprisingly ok with it. I had my moment of cuteness and now it’s someone else’s turn. It’s freeing in a weird way. Make the most of every stage of life.

13. At 55, we lost my Uncle Mack. He was well-loved as a coach and a man. He taught me a great deal about what’s important in life. I was not a loveable teenager. I was hardheaded, unfocused, defiant, and generally exhausting. He never acknowledged that in me. He always made me feel loveable, even when I was excelling at being unlovable. He made a big difference in my life. Be someone’s Uncle Mack.

14. Interruption is the archnemesis of creativity. Carve out time for yourself. You have a gift, whether you’ve recognized it yet, or not, it’s there. Thanks to Scott Eagle for that reminder.

15. There is no substitute for hard work and sacrifice. I realize that more and more. Every single person who has done something extraordinary, worked their asses off for it. And there’s a difference between having money and doing something extraordinary.

Thanks for the birthday wishes. You all make a 55-year-old feel like a 25-year-old. As long as I don’t look in a mirror, I should be able to ride that wave for a good 24 hours. Cheers, love, and light ❤

In Pursuit of A New Year

New Year’s Eve, or as we called it in my bartending days, “Amateur Night,” has long been my least favorite of the holidays. Partly, because people seem to feel compelled to drink beyond their ability to speak, but mostly because we task ourselves with looking for ways to be better. It’s all about the resolutions. Well, after the booze, it is anyway.

This is it. This is the year we’re going to stop smoking, lose 10 lbs., read more, learn a foreign language, or save more money. It’s a time for reflection, which is a good thing. It also seems to be a time for taking stock in all the ways we fall short. And that, I think, is a bad thing.

So, what if this year, rather than make attempts to change ourselves in a way that pushes us closer to perfection, we let perfection go. Why? Because perfection alienates. We spend a great deal of time spit-shining our image. Never has that been more magnified than with the advent of social media and digital images. That photo didn’t capture your best side? Delete it and take another one. Looking a little “fluffy?” Download an app and whittle that waist down. There’s a mindset that we’re as fantastic as the edited images we upload. The problem is that we aren’t.

We’re messy and we’re hard to understand. Some days our spouse is the love of our life and some days we grit our teeth and roll our eyes. Our kids have times when they’re firing on all pistons and we’re thrilled….then they struggle. Sometimes they struggle for years. Sometimes we struggle for years with them. Sometimes we’re feeling great financially, and sometimes we can’t sleep at night. Some of us battle anxiety, depression, our weight, substance abuse, and demons we can’t even name. Life is a see-saw and when there’s a sudden shift and you land on your ass, the ground that rushes at you is hard and unmerciful.

In my younger years I knew exactly how I wanted to be seen. I needed to be thought of as always in control; competent, unflappable, fearless, confident, and tough. I embraced that role. Thought it made me someone people could depend on in tough times, someone friends could call on in a crisis. I was, I would eventually learn, the opposite. Years ago, a very good friend found herself on some rough seas. The world was closing in on her. She was struggling mightily, and ultimately made some decisions that landed her in the hospital. Did she really want to die? I don’t know. Maybe she was just tired. Sometimes, I think life can just make people really, really tired. Fortunately, she recovered completely and worked her way back to stability, peace, and happiness. She’s a truly exceptional person in a multitude of ways, so that’s been a blessing for me and for the world at large. When I asked her why she didn’t come to me when she was struggling, she told me that she was too embarrassed. She said I “seemed to have it all together.” If you know me now, you know that’s laughable. I was none of those things I had pretended to be. The cold, hard breakdown is this: I like control because I’m insecure, every day I worry that I’ve failed my children in a multitude of ways, I second guess every word I put on paper, and I used to feign toughness because my heart was perpetually in the process of breaking. We’ll be kind and call me a carefully coiffed hot mess. I cried when I left her. I’ve never disliked myself more than I did in that moment. Living a lie had caused me to fail someone I loved.

Perceived perfection alienates people. Remember that. Write it down. Know that there are three things never intended to be perfect:  Music, art, and people.

The illusion of perfection makes people smile in your face and foster a superficial relationship with you, all the while running in the opposite direction. Why? Because no one wants to feel like a failure. When you seem to be lounging in your bubble bath in your castle at the top of the hill, anyone with any sense will walk away rather than render themselves bruised and battered trying to climb a mountain they know they’ll never summit.

So, this New Year’s Eve, why don’t we make a pact to let the pursuit of perfection go.

That’s right, let it go. In fact, kick it out on its ass where it belongs.

Maybe perfection is actually in the pursuit of life. Maybe it’s the experience of the struggling relationship, that less than perfect figure, the uncertain career path, the juggling act that is paying too many bills with too few dollars, and other imperfections that force us down rich paths and in fruitful directions we hadn’t planned on going. Maybe it’s those unplanned journeys that leave us with broken hearts, tear-stained faces, and skinned knees that push us along the path that leads to the development of character, determination, and grit. Nothing fills the soul like overcoming.

I know from personal experience that the best results in life are often born of restrictions. It’s brick walls and glass ceilings that force us to make creative decisions, leading us on expeditions we never would have planned. If life is perfect, if the world is your oyster, there is no growth, there’s just existing.

This year let’s make resolutions to live bigger and brighter. Reflect more, BE more. Carve out time to sit with someone and be vulnerable. Practice being genuine. Laugh at ourselves. Give more and take less. Love ourselves. Be inclusive. Celebrate imperfection and the unintentional art that is its result. Give love. Foster friendships with people who wax where we wane. Practice kindness. Grow.

This year, I’m telling you there’s nothing you need to fix. You’re fantastic just as you are. And I know what I’m talking about.

Bring it, 2021.

Let’s Hear It For The Boys!

basketball

Warning: Read at your own risk. This is not a masterpiece, so if you’re looking for that, stop here. It’s a goodbye letter to my son’s friends, who have brought me so much joy over the years, and a thank you note to the women who raised them. They’re going off to college and we’re all a little sleep-deprived, a little crazy, and a whole lot poorer………

My boys are going off to college. I say “my boys,” because if you have even one son, you have about 50 “boys”. Girls are different. They travel in pairs and trios. Not boys. Boys travel in packs. The packs come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Where there’s one, there are at least four more. I owe the mothers of my son’s friends a debt of gratitude for sharing their boys with me over the years.

Thanks to the women who raised “my boys” and raised them so well.

They’ve been handy for things like eating the food that’s been in the freezer too long, bringing in my groceries without me even asking, and moving heavy stuff. It’s no secret that I’m a mom with a sense of humor and not easily offended, so they’ve excelled at making me laugh so hard I lost my breath. They have reminded me what it feels like to be young and on the edge of something great. They’ve watched sports with me and kept an eye out for my teenage daughter like she’s their sister too, weighing in on who she can and can’t hang out with. They’ve made me hope that when my daughter does start dating, she’ll find a boy even half as wonderful as her brother and his friends.

Thanks for teaching them to say, “Yes, ma’am” and “thank you,” and for giving them permission to come to our house. Thank you for teaching them to pick up after themselves. They may not do it at home, but take comfort in knowing that at my house they make you look good.

Climbing in bed on Friday night, without even my own son at home yet, and waking up Saturday morning to a family room full of sleeping boys was a blessing to me. I’ve cooked for them and loved doing it, despite the fact that my kitchen skills are marginal, at best. I turned our backyard into a basketball court and allowed the living room to evolve into a “man cave”, with gaming systems, a mini-fridge and a giant TV, in hopes that they would come and stay.

Initially, that was my crafty way to keep Jake close so that I knew he was safe. It wasn’t long before I realized how much it mattered to me that your boys were safe too.

Thanks for sharing the love of your life with me. Your boys have been great friends to my boy and that is an invaluable gift. I promise you, I will walk through fire for any of them. Their presence grew my heart to triple its normal size and, for as long as I live, they can always seek refuge here if they need it.

I wish I had the resources to give them something more than the promise to walk through the proverbial fire for them, as they head off to change the world, but alas, Jake is going to be paying off college loans until he’s 102, so I’ve had to scale back my spending.

What I can do is send them off, armed with some advice. I’ve been told our attention spans have deteriorated to the point where most people won’t read a paragraph that’s more than four lines, so I’m going to put it in list form in hopes that they will accidentally read a little before a squirrel happens by.

Pearls of Wisdom for “My Boys”

  1. If it needs to be a secret, you shouldn’t be doing it.
  2. This is your chance to evolve into the person YOU want to be. Reinvent yourself. Don’t buy into the labels assigned to you in your youth. You don’t know it yet, but your mind and your life are about to expand in ways you can’t imagine.
  3. GO. TO. CLASS. There is no substitute for your physical presence. Someone, maybe you or maybe your parents, is paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 for you to get an education. The least you can do is get to class.
  4. Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and ambitions. Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future. I didn’t make that up, but I wish I had. No truer words have ever been spoken.
  5. Avoid the girl who needs to be the center of attention. Why? Because the minute your focus is redirected to your studies or your job, she will go out and find someone else to feed her ego. Let her go off and break someone else’s heart. Otherwise, I’ve got to hunt her down, and well…..that’s not going to end nicely for anyone.
  6. Forget your SAT scores and high school GPA. They’re irrelevant now. New ballgame. Prepare to work your ass off. Determination and perseverance will take you so much further than you realize.
  7. Be bold. Meet new people. In addition to determination and perseverance, you need connections. When you graduate and begin looking for employment, connections are everything.
  8. Professors are people too. Let them see that you’re serious about being successful. A wise man once told me, if you make a good first impression they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt when you most need it.
  9. “O Captain! My Captain!” Yes, I’m talking to you. You are your own boss now. If you don’t have a great deal of self-discipline, you better find some. There are going to be distractions and opportunities to derail you, like you’ve never imagined. Your education has to be the priority. You need to be better qualified than the other applicant. If you flunk out and go home you won’t be.
  10. Do not, under any circumstances, bring a strumpet home to meet your mother. You should all be able to recognize them on sight. I know your mamas and they’ve all worked hard to raise you right. Don’t make us act ugly, because we will.
  11. Take care of yourselves, both physically and mentally. We’re not naïve, and we expect you to have some fun, but know when to say “when”. There is nothing attractive about a drunk guy. In one glance you are sloppy, stupid, uncoordinated, and helpless. Not a good look.
  12. Take care of your friends. Partially developed frontal lobes sometimes lead to stupid decisions. If someone has too much to drink or is visibly impaired, do not leave them alone. You were raised better than that. Be the responsible one.
  13. Get a job. It will greatly improve your time management skills, and you will meet some incredible people.
  14. Step into this new experience with an open mind. You’re going to be surrounded by people from a multitude of regions, religions, backgrounds, ethnicities, and belief systems. Learn from them and appreciate the insight they’re able to give you. I promise, it will pay off in the real world.
  15. Call your mama. We’re proud of you, we’re confident in your abilities, and we want to see you grab the world by the tail, but when we look at you, we still see a chubby little boy with fat cheeks and muddy shoes, who loves us more than oxygen. That will never change. Never.
  16. There will be drugs. Don’t do them. Just don’t. Nothing good can come of it.
  17. Embrace your mistakes and learn from them. If you don’t make some, you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s okay to fall down, as long as you get back up with renewed purpose.
  18. Call your dad. He misses you too, but may not be as obnoxious about it as your mother and I are. He has knowledge that can benefit you; access it while he’s on this earth.
  19. Be kind. It’s free and it changes lives. Yours, as well as someone else’s. Be a positive voice in this world of ours that is so fast, complicated, and at times, self-serving.
  20. Don’t come home too much. This is your time to really discover YOU and practice adulting. If you’re home every weekend, you’re still absorbing the energy of who we want you to be and what we believe is best for you. Separate from us a little. We’ll hate it and it will hurt, but we will survive; and then we will marvel at this man you’ve become with your own identity, belief system, and ambitious plans for the future.

Make us proud, your mom and me, because we both love you to pieces. I know you will. And when you’re home, mi casa es su casa. Come by, give me a big hug, and tell me how great you’re doing. This old lady is going to miss looking out the back window while you play basketball, listening to your seriously awful music, and having free labor at my disposal.

Now get out there and kick ass. You owe us at least that.

 

 

You’re Fantastic and I Love You

IMG_0505Dear Teenage Girls,

You’ve been fed many lies over the course of your lives, and I’m going to apologize on behalf of society for all of the misconceptions you must surely have regarding your purpose on this earth, and your value as a human being.

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, it’s not your job to be sexy. You’re a teenager, not a woman. You can stop with the pouty-lipped selfies and the midriff prom dresses. What’s perfectly normal is for a teenage girl to look in the mirror before a date and think, “I hope I look pretty.” What’s not normal is for a teenage girl to look in the mirror before a date and think, “Do I look hot?” It is not your job at 16 to look sexually desirable, nor should it be your goal.

You’ve grown up watching commercials where VS models with unrealistic measurements, parade down runways in their underwear. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s not okay to walk around in lingerie in front of people you don’t know. Nor is it okay to send photos of yourself in lingerie, or less, to attract the attention of a teenage boy. Additionally, you’ve tuned in while groups of women alternate “hooking up” with some random man, so pathetic he has to go on a network television show to find a date, in hopes that he will choose them. I’m going to let you in on another little secret. Women with a healthy self-esteem, don’t compete with a gaggle of women for a man’s affection. Men with a healthy self-esteem, don’t invite the attention of 20 women, simultaneously. Do your very best to remind yourself daily of your value.

For reasons I’ve been unable to determine, my generation of parents has one hell of a time telling your generation of teenagers, no. This has resulted in many of you leaving your homes with your ass extending well past the hem of your shorts and, in some cases, wearing shorts so tight that you must surely be doing permanent damage to your circulatory system. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to do stupid things. Your frontal lobe is still under construction. This is why you are impulsive and unpredictable. As parents, it’s our job to be your frontal lobe. We’re supposed to say, “I’m sorry, honey. There’s no way in hell I’m buying those shorts for you. You look like a working girl.” Should you wear shorts down to your knees? No, you’re not 70. But, you should wear shorts that completely cover your butt cheeks. Unfortunately, due to either your parent’s own struggles with propriety or their inability to tell you no, you’re leaving home dressed in a way that misrepresents who you are and what you aspire to be. Or at least, I hope you’re being misrepresented. If you’re not, life is going to get a whole lot harder in a couple of years. My father, Big Jerry, would have turned beet red, gritted his teeth, and spontaneously combusted, if I attempted leaving his house wearing a push up bra and short shorts. It was this crazy setup we had where I was the child and he was the parent. I’m currently working on a handbook entitled, “What Would Big Jerry Do?” It would serve as a guide for those parents just too submissive to give you boundaries that will protect you from your own impulsiveness, and will set you up for the kind of life you deserve.

So, in an effort to combat this image the media has perpetuated, that you are just underdeveloped women out parading your wares to underdeveloped men, and to give you the frank advice and boundaries you’re not getting at home, I’ve created a list of stuff you need to know. Why? Because, as I tell my daughter every single day, “You’re fantastic and I love you.”

  • You are special. There is no one else on this earth like you. Not everyone is worthy of your time and attention. Be selective.
  • Teenage boys, even the nice ones, will say whatever they think they need to say to see you naked. They are driven by hormones. In that moment, they may even believe what they’re saying, but it’s only their penis talking.  You’re driven by hormones too. This means your body will tell you, you want to do things you shouldn’t do. Stop. Emotional people don’t make good decisions. Wait until you’re not in “the moment” to determine what you may or may not be ready for….and trust me, while your body may say it’s ready, you are absolutely not ready emotionally. Sex changes everything. Your mother may not tell you that, but I will.
  • John Mayer is right. Your body is a Wonderland, but it’s YOUR Wonderland. You’re not a ride at the county fair. Protect it. It’s the only one you get. And contrary to what the writers of the show, “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” would have you believe, it’s not glamorous to be an unwed teenage mother, and it puts a serious cramp in your dating life. In fact, once you have a child, your life is no longer your own. Every single decision you make is made with another human being in mind. A human being that is completely dependent upon you for survival. Sound like a tremendous responsibility? It is. It is if you’re doing it right, anyway.
  • You want to be attractive to others. I get that. First, ask yourself, “What kind of guy do I want to attract?” Then conduct yourself accordingly. Here’s the cold, hard truth. If you go out dressed like a strumpet, I guarantee you that you will get the buyer you advertised for. You will get a player. You will get the guy that is charming, and good-looking, and can’t wait to move on to the next girl who presents herself as “willing”. Because, you see, as much as we like to say, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” we do. We all do.
  • You have been led to believe that your value lies in your sexuality. This is why some of your friends fall into the trap of sending nude photos to boys they hardly know. They aren’t bad girls. They’re struggling. Subconsciously, they think they’re showing someone they find attractive their “value”. That isn’t where your value lies. As young women, you have more opportunity now, than any generation before you. You are intelligent, creative, capable, well-educated, and on FIRE! The STEM professions are begging for women….and they pay well. Be an achiever. People are naturally attracted to people who are successful. Find something you love to do, and do it well.
  • Most teenage boys are lazy. They like life the easiest and most effortless way possible. This means they will do as little as you will allow them to do. EXPECT them come to the door to get you. EXPECT them to open your car door on a date. DON’T agree to a date via text. Remember, you are special and you should be treated as such. Repeat after me: “As long as I allow it, it will continue.” Set expectations and boundaries. Demand that those expectations be met and that those boundaries be respected.
  • Nothing that happens between you and a teenage boy, who is not your established boyfriend, is a secret. I grew up with mostly male friends and I can tell you that they tell everything: Every. Single. Little. Salacious. Detail. And in many cases, they also share some extra stuff that they make up. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “If I hookup with this guy tonight, am I going to feel the least bit uncomfortable running into him at a party tomorrow night?” If the answer is yes, or maybe, just don’t.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other girls. Beauty is not just physical appearance. It’s a combination of qualities that include kindness, intelligence, integrity, talent, creativity, and humor. You’re never comparing apples to apples. Some of us wax where others wane. For some reason, girls view each other as adversaries while guys view each other as teammates. You don’t need more adversaries, you need more teammates. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot make yourself look better by making someone else look worse.
  • Do you have a friend who’s engaging in promiscuous behavior? Does she laugh it off and tell you she’s using them too? Guess what. She’s lying. Men are wired differently than we are. For many boys, sex can be a purely physical act. They can engage in sexual activity with someone that they have little or no attraction to and feel no emotion for. Girls are different. Sex is tied to your brain, as well as your body. I’ve never known a girl who could engage in sexual activity and not suffer emotionally if she was then rejected. If you have a friend who is selling herself short, talk to her. Help her see her value. She’s looking for love, validation, and attention, and a hormone-driven teenage boy is not where she’s going to find it. Sex is a wonderful thing when it occurs between two people who are emotionally mature, committed to one another, and engaged in a relationship founded on love and trust. Otherwise, it is a minefield from both a physical health, as well as a mental health, perspective.
  • As high school students, you face a whole host of temptations that your parents never did. In my day, we could legally purchase alcohol at 18, so there was alcohol and a little weed here and there. Now, high school experimentation encompasses prescription drugs and illegal drugs we didn’t even know existed. Would you eat food you pulled from a trashcan? No? Well, if you ingest anything that wasn’t prescribed to you, and hasn’t been regulated by the federal government, you are basically playing Russian Roulette. Drug dealers aren’t concerned with your safety. They are in it for the money. Period. You could be putting stuff in your body that it can’t cope with. You know, that body you only have one of. And trust me, you need all the brain cells you can get. My father once told me that there’s nothing more unattractive than an inebriated woman. I worked as a bartender in college and I can tell you that’s a true statement. It’s actually true for both sexes, but right now we’re talking about you. Not only does it make you less attractive, it leaves you a potential victim. Never, ever leave a friend who has consumed illegal drugs or alcohol alone anywhere. I can assure you that there is some low-life out there just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of her.

Do I seem angry? Good, because I am. I look at your generation of young women and I see the potential for greatness of a kind we haven’t realized in the generations that came before you. I’m scared too, because I fear that we’re failing you, and you don’t realize just how remarkable you are. You don’t know that you’re much, much more than the sum of your reproductive parts. Sit down and make a list of every positive quality you have. The catch? None of them can be related to your physical appearance. I don’t care if your eyebrows are “on fleek” or you’re “skinny thick”. I care about how you’re going to leave your mark on the world. I care about what your dreams are….and I command you to dream big. I care about your intellectual strengths, whether they’re academic or artistic, or both. Are you tenacious? Great! Contemplative? Perfect. Are you fiery? Brilliant. It will keep people from taking advantage of you.

You are perfect in your imperfection. Every day, I want you to look at yourself and say, “You’re fantastic and I love you.” Start showing the world who you are and what you’re capable of, instead of what you’ve got. If you need a mentor, let me know. Seriously, let me know.

Because, you’re fantastic and I love you.

 

 

Letting Go

Letting Go

June 27th, 1999. I’m making a quick trip to the grocery store. As I’m backing out of the driveway, I have this nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something. I brake and look over; purse is in the passenger seat. I shift to reverse again and give the car a little gas. Still not out of the driveway, I screech to a halt. Then it hits me, “Oh, shit! I have a baby!”

Now, in my defense I had given birth four days earlier and had gotten maybe a total of 45 minutes sleep in the days that followed. I was determined to breast feed this child. All of the research said he would be more intelligent, have fewer ear infections, and bond more completely to me. I was sold on the idea. I had visions of me, clad in skinny jeans, laughing and rocking him while he breast-fed and cooed, lovingly and contentedly. The reality was me, a zombie (seriously, I was hideous and a little surprised that my baby didn’t recoil from me in fear) wearing men’s sweatpants, and crying hysterically while my baby drank ferociously from my mangled breast, then passed out cold like a binge drinker at an open bar.

It was my first clue that, despite the fact that I was head over heels in love with this kid, I wasn’t going to be a natural at the motherhood thing.

The breast feeding experience gave me a new found respect for animals that can’t resort to Enfamil when the going gets rough. In fact, I still wince when I see a baby anything latch on. I did find, though, that what I lacked in breast feeding expertise, I made up for in other areas. I perfected cleaning with my right hand while I carried him in the crook of my left arm. On the rare occasions when I actually laid him down, I placed a compact mirror under his nose at regular intervals to be sure he was breathing. I selected his baby food with great care, trying each jar first and discarding the truly nasty stuff. There’s a lot of truly nasty baby food.

Because I lost the coin toss, we named him Jake instead of Landry. Jake and I became inseparable. I shielded him from that psycho purple dinosaur, bought him Baby Einstein DVD’s, and introduced him to classic rock. Imagine my pride, when at 2 1/2 years old, he launched into ‘Purple Haze’ in the middle of my ultrasound appointment while pregnant with his sister. Even the doctor remarked that he had never heard a 2 year old sing Hendrix before. Jake was having lots of fun ruling my universe. So much so, that when I brought his sister home from the hospital, he took one look at her while I was changing her diaper, expressed his dismay over the fact that she didn’t have a penis (after all, what would she play with in the tub?) and asked how long before we could take her back.

In time, Jake acquiesced and his younger sister became a much loved, although not breast-fed, part of the family. Then, when he was about 6 years old, his father and I separated. Divorce isn’t always a bad thing. There are times when it turns an emotionally-charged and unpredictable home, into a relaxed and stable one. This was one of those times.

Relief doesn’t describe how I felt. It was a physical lightening. If you’ve been through it, you know what I’m saying is true. I was worried though, about my kids and how they would adjust. My daughter was 3 and too young to really have a grasp of what was happening, but Jake was 6 and he understood exactly what the deal was. On top of that, he was a boy and I wasn’t. There was stuff he would have to be taught and I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

It’s no secret that I wasn’t the conventional, “Dr. Spock” kind of mother. My kids listened to rock instead of Kids Bop because I consider bad music a form of child abuse; I didn’t make them eat green baby food; I never had the extra outfit, remembered to pack a snack, or watered down the juice; neither one of them took a nap after they were about a year old; and when they fell down and skinned their knee, I clapped. Yep, that’s right. I clapped and cheered like they had just jumped the Grand Canyon on a Honda CR-50. In the blink of an eye, they would go from a possible level 10 meltdown to thinking they were the coolest cat on the planet and wearing that Band-Aid like a badge. Learned that one from my good friend, Gina. Try it.

So, as the years rolled on, I began to truly see what this boy of mine was made of. I did my best to fill in the voids and I’m sure I failed miserably often, but he never let me know it. Sure he would love football, I signed him up to play. After much research, I took him out in the yard to teach him how to tackle. I went into this detailed explanation about velocity being the result of the distance he traveled and the time he traveled it in. “It’s important” I said, “that you not hesitate or you’ll lose force.” He looked at me in complete seriousness and said, “Why do I want to run into another person at full speed? That doesn’t seem very smart.” A better mom would have seen the light, scrapped football and signed him up for tennis. He played for a few years, trying to make me happy, before he finally admitted he hated it.

And so began the evolution of this boy who, through no fault of his own, was forced to deal with the shortcomings of an unconventional mother as he evolved into a man. Being a single parent, mother or father, creates a parent/child dynamic very different than the one that exists in a two-parent household. When you’re a woman trying to raise a boy to be a man, it’s a true balancing act. As much as I wanted him to grow up blissfully unaware of the challenges we faced, that would have been impossible. Had he not been wired with the emotional maturity of a 40-year old, the wit of a stand up comic, and been smarter at 10 than I am now, life might have gone in a different direction. I desperately wanted to do right by him, and he never wanted to disappoint me, so we navigated life as a team.

I learned that the perfect time to talk to him about life was while he was shooting basketball. He loosened up and I had my best shot at dissecting his world to figure out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. He learned that even though my jump shot was sketchy, I was great for running down rebounds.

I learned that being left out of father/son outings wasn’t going to kill him, even though it almost did me. He learned to surround himself with kids who had similar situations or who were the square peg in the round hole for some other reason.

I learned that the legendary “good ole boys” club is alive and well. He learned to be his own man and to let something go when it stops being fun.

I learned to stop worrying that he was too shy, or too laid back, or not motivated enough. He learned to step up and take control of his life, his grades, and settled comfortably into being who he was born to be.

I learned that no matter how I tried to hide the stress of too many bills and not enough money, some kids can’t be fooled. He learned that with life comes challenges and that giving up isn’t an option.

I learned to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t home to bake the class cupcakes and I was way too tired to cook dinner many nights. He learned how hard single parents work to keep life on track…and I guarantee you he’ll be one hell of a great husband and dad because of it.

When I took him to kindergarten, we were both excited and said goodbye with a big smile and a fist bump. I looked around at the red-rimmed eyes of the other mothers and thought, “What is wrong with these people? They aren’t going off to war, they’re going to school. This is the natural progression of things.” I saw it with each transition; elementary to middle school, and then middle school to high school. There were a couple of times I was sure I had pulled something during a hard eye roll. I called those women bad names. Names that mean weak and wimpy and look like the word fussy.

Enter karma.

There are 206 days until this boy of mine graduates from high school. 221 days until I can no longer call him a boy. I know because I remind myself every day. I often hear parents say to their children, “I’m not your friend.” They say it as if they’re proud of that; as if it, in some way, makes them a better parent. Hell, I’m no expert. Maybe it does.

I’ll tell you this though, my son is my friend. He has walked all the way through the fire with me. Helped me find ways to make $10 last four days. Convinced me the meal I fed him was absolutely delicious when I knew it was barely edible. Reminded me that it was important for me to nurture my own love relationship, because one day he and McRae were going to be gone. Made me laugh so hard I cried, when all I really wanted to do was collapse in a heap and have a pity party. Stepped in and educated his sister on the many short-comings of teenage boys, among those the ability to lie through their teeth when they’re talking to teenage girls. Forbidden me from going to bat for him because he wants to be his own man. Told me he’s proud of me when I wasn’t very proud of myself. Taken care of me when I wasn’t feeling well. Supported my volunteer efforts. Gotten up to discuss world events with me over a cup of coffee, even when he could have slept in. And best of all, over the years he’s kept my house filled with happy, funny kids who consistently reminded me what life is really about.

In my book, that’s not just a friend. That’s a best friend.

So, on most days I find myself trying to quell the tears that appear for no real reason. No real reason other than I’m one day closer to letting him go. One day closer to not hearing him call out “Stevie”, instead of “Mom”. One day closer to chasing the boys away from McRae by myself. One day closer to only having one child to say, “You’re fantastic and I love you” to as we head out into the world each day. One day closer to collapsing in a heap and having that pity party, but quietly because I know it’s selfish. One day closer to sending my man-boy off into a world that doesn’t seem as kind as it did when I was his age. One day closer to reducing my role in his life to one that’s less bossy and more advisory. One day closer to having no idea if he’s going to class or hanging out with the right crowd.

One day closer to having no idea if he’s home safe before I go to bed. And that, my friends, is the worst part.

I’ve done what I set out to do, but never believed I could. His entire life I’ve stressed independence and self-sufficiency. I’ve reminded him how my job is to prepare him to leave. In every aspect of my life I’ve been an underachiever; until now. I knocked this out of the park. There are days I wish I had eased off the gas a little. I wish I could see some hesitation in him. I don’t. I see a man ready for the next chapter. Eager to expand his world intellectually, physically, and emotionally.

He’s ready. The question is, am I? Regardless, I’ll practice what I’ve preached.

I’ll be tough, stay focused, give him a smile and a fist bump, and whisper to myself,  just like I did all those years ago, “This is the natural progression of things.”