Your Magic Powers Are Lacking

Jane and Hal were playing with some dominoes on the dining room table this morning.  Hal had initially been lining them up and then knocking them over, but when he saw his big sister building a tower, he imitated her.

He not only imitated her, but moved faster and completed his tower first.  It wasn’t as stable – it curved a bit and some of the uprights were leaning precariously.  But it was also taller than her finished one since he had stacked an extra domino on the topmost piece.  That domino, and indeed the entire structure, wobbled dangerously.

Jane stood up from the table and walked toward his.  She didn’t touch the table or make any sudden movements but his tower collapsed.  He immediately cried foul and put his head down to cry.  I quickly explained to him why his had fallen and that it wasn’t her fault.

In an attempt to help, Jane, who had walked into the kitchen to prepare breakfast, reassured him: “Hey, the only reason mine didn’t fall down is because I used magic.  I used my magic powers to keep mine standing.”

Hal stared at her for a minute.  And then he turned to stare at her tower.  And then he shook the table.  The tower – of course – collapsed.  Jane cried out in shock.

“Hah!” the six year old, always-underdog kid replied.  “See!  You didn’t use magic.”

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Underwear Memories

This past weekend, Daryl, the eleven year old, announced that he had no clean underwear.  We had recently removed the much-too-small oldest underwear from his supply and he was running short.  I had purchased some more but was saving them for that oh-so-favorite Christmas gift.  But now he was out.  I offered him the much-too-small pairs that he had been wearing just a week or two ago but apparently they were no longer acceptable.  And asking him to wear dirty underwear when I had ten clean pairs tucked away in my closet seemed petty and gross.

So I announced with as much enthusiasm as I could muster that he was going to get part of a Christmas present early!  Yay!  And then I opened the package of new underwear and extracted a pair.  Gosh, it looked so big!  I took it into him and he frowned at me.  “That’s going to be too big,” he said.

“Just try them,” I responded.

He did and they fit just fine.  As I folded laundry later that weekend, I thought about how hard it had been getting to tell Hal’s underwear apart from Daryl’s.  Now, as I folded my husband’s, I thought about how it was going to get harder to tell Daryl’s from Daddy’s.

And that reminded me of a major source of contention between my brother and our step-dad.  My brother had a really bad habit of stealing our step-dad’s underwear.  I can’t recall now whether he extracted them from the laundry before it got sorted or if he actually ventured into his room to steal them out of the drawers.  At any rate, he was always walking around in Bill’s underwear and Bill was always irritated.

So one Christmas, or maybe it was for Bill’s birthday, I hatched a plan.  I bought a package of underwear and stitched colorful “B”s on the fly of them.  Some were small, some were quite large.  All were brightly colored.  When he opened them, I triumphantly announced that now my brother could not claim that he didn’t know the underwear he was wearing was not his.  Problem solved.

It wasn’t too long before my brother was seen walking the house in underwear with bright “B”s stitched on the fly.

Today would have been Bill’s 66th birthday.  He left us nearly nine years ago when his cancer returned with a vengeance.  I’m pleased that memories like this one still return periodically and still make me smile.

Taking A Step Back

So… I intimated a week or two ago that I was writing some thoughts on Ferguson and Eric Garner and the general state of race relations in this country. And I did – I wrote them. But I don’t think I’m going to share them. There’s a handful of reasons.

When I shared them with my husband, he poked a few holes in my arguments and pointed out some new perspectives.   I realized that I didn’t really want to work on revising them, nor did I have the energy to defend them if, by some weird quirk of fate, my blog were to generate more attention than usual, because…

I’m tired.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m tired. I’m worn out. I’m stressed. On top of all the usual chaos that has kept my life full to the brim, I’ve added some medical issues. I cracked a tooth back in August and I’ve now been to the dentist and endodontic specialist five times… and I still don’t have the permanent crown. And I just broke the temporary crown on a piece of pecan pie that I forgot to chew on the other side of my mouth. I also went to the optometrist and now I’m waiting for my glasses to arrive.

In the course of applying for life insurance, I discovered that my blood pressure was a little high and my heart rate was extremely low. That started a chain of events that had my thyroid tested (it’s fine) and has me waiting on a stress test. The scheduling of the stress test was stressful enough, with the first cardiologist’s office continually rescheduling me due to their mistakes and me finally deciding to approach a different one. And now I have a cold, which has run me into the ground and may force yet another rescheduling of the stress test.

These may sound like petty excuses, but I’ve never had so many physical complications, doctor’s visits, and distractions.  I haven’t exercised in nearly a week now and I’m starting to feel the effects.  I simply don’t have the energy to push a position. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that…

It’s not personal for me. That may sound shallow and self-centered, but it’s true. I care very much about the issue and hope for change, but it doesn’t affect me directly and right now, I simply have too much else to be going on with.

It’s like John Pavolovitz said in this insightful essay, we have a proximity problem. We care more about what’s close to us. He presented it as a problem and it is definitely something that we should always be mindful of, but it’s also natural and healthy sometimes. None of us can solve all the world’s problems. If we tried, we’d spread ourselves out so thin, we’d simply vanish. Sometimes we can reach out and effect change; sometimes we have to withdraw and regroup.

One of the lessons of evangelism that I take to heart is that you can’t expect to win someone over to your perspective when their most fundamental needs (food, water, shelter, clothing) are not being met. The same goes for each of us, whether with receiving or with giving. We can’t take on external issues when we are struggling at home.

Well, I’m struggling. I know that my struggles are minor by comparison to what other people have to go through, but they are still my struggles. And right now they are very nearly more than I can bear. Any sane person would know that when they are in this situation, they should cut some stuff out. For me, it’s all I can do to get back to the keyboard and write about my family. Writing about the big stuff… the energy just isn’t there.

So I’ve decided to let that line of thinking go for now. I’m not convinced that the people who need to hear it would hear it, and there’s not much point in preaching to the choir. If you were anxiously awaiting my perspective, I’m sorry to disappoint. If you were wishing I’d quit going political and get back to the feel-good kiddy stories and parenting lessons-learned, you’re in luck.

One thing about going through a period of stress, it really helps you figure out what’s most important to you. Whether it’s what should be most important to you is another question. One best left for a less stressful time.

The Christmas Pageant Rat Race

I’m starting to have second thoughts about church Christmas Pageants.  Yes, I know, cute little kids in lamb ears and tails running around, slightly older kids herding them with shepherd’s crooks or strutting up the aisle carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh, still others in wings and halos slipping down into their eyes, kids remembering lines, or maybe teens narrating so the kids don’t have to.  It’s adorable, right?

Well, yeah.  But we parents are frequently not.  I’ve finally noticed the parental competition that goes into it all.  I used to think maybe it was just me, but no, a lot of parents get really hung up on their kids getting just the right role.  And a lot of churches must fall into patterns that parents then take as rules and then get their feelings hurt when the pattern falls apart just as their child should get to be the star.

Yesterday, a friend was complaining about her older teen not being in the pageant.  Whether her complaint had merit is not what I’m concerned with here.  It was her memories and mine that her story dredged up that got me to pondering it all.

She mentioned how her church had had the tradition of the oldest girl playing Mary but when it was her daughter’s rightful turn, someone else got the part instead.  Two different girls over two different years, if I understood correctly.  This reminded me of the first year we were in our current church.  A friend’s daughter got the part of Mary over Jane and I felt a little bit jilted.  I cynically wondered if my daughter would always be second fiddle simply because she was new.

I know there weren’t exclusionary motives behind the Mary selection that year.  In all reality, only one girl can play Mary.  And Jane was a solid foot taller than the boys.  She would have made a rather strange Mary.  Her friend fit more comfortably in that role while Jane was an outstanding head angel.

That memory led me to our previous church, where the coveted role was not Mary, but Baby Jesus.  Yes, if there was an infant in the congregation, we had a real live baby play Jesus.  Somewhere along the way, it became understood that the role went to the youngest baby.  Jane started off the tradition, complete with a recording of her cries.  When Daryl was born, also in October, he took his turn.

But when Hal joined the world just two months before Christmas, he was overlooked for the role.  Some of the other parents had felt that our family was hogging the Jesus role.  It was given to a kid a few months older.  I was miffed.  How dare they change the tradition?  That was my child’s role by right.

It was ridiculous, I realize that.  But it was also real.  Raw emotion.  It’s the same competitiveness that makes parents worry when someone else’s kid talks first or walks first or potty trains early.  Some sense of validation and spotlight.

I wish I could say I’m beyond all that now.  Given some time, I can let it go, but my gut instinct is one of indignation and a desire for my child to have an important role.  Fact is, though, that there are only so many parts.  A kid gets or doesn’t get a part for a variety of reasons.  None of them, I would wager, is something that should be taken personally.

Besides, while we all clamber to make sure our kid is Mary or Joseph or Baby Jesus or the biggest speaking part, it is always always all the sheep running around that steal the show.  Every time.  That leftover role that gets handed to the littlest ones who can’t be counted on to recite a line or to go where directed.  The role that gets handed to any kid that shows up that night, having missed all the rehearsals.  That’s the role that makes the audience laugh.  That makes the audience fall in love.  That makes the audience think, Hey.  Maybe this Christmas Pageant thing isn’t so bad after all.  Just look at them!  I can’t wait to see what we come up with next year.

Burden vs. Consequence

I’ve been working on a fairly long post attempting to articulate some of my thoughts on the responses I’ve seen, particularly on the internet, to the ongoing protests concerning the recent police shootings.  I’m not ready to share that yet, but here’s a thought that I decided to share separately rather than find a way to work it into that already bloated piece that’s in work.

I’ve seen a lot of people make remarks along the lines of “Well, if so-and-so-now-dead-person had just done this or had not done this, then they’d still be alive.”  And, yes, those statements are completely true.  The incredible thing about hindsight is that it is always 20/20.  Nearly every bad thing that ever happened to anyone could have not happened had they just done something differently.  Sometimes that different choice was obviously the better choice, sometimes not.  Sometimes it’s only obvious looking back.

But whether they could have made a better choice doesn’t (or shouldn’t) put the blame on them.

Here’s an analogy.

Where I work, there are a lot of separate buildings and thus quite a bit of foot traffic outside.  There’s also vehicular traffic.  Company rules state that pedestrians have the right-of-way.  Everywhere.  The parking lot, the streets, the alleys between buildings.  Vehicles are always to yield to pedestrians, regardless of whether they are in a cross walk.  Period.

The burden is on the drivers to avoid hitting the pedestrians.  It is their responsibility.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the pedestrian who will pay the price if they don’t.  It’s the walker who will be squashed like a bug if the driver isn’t paying attention.  The pedestrian suffers the consequences.

It’s the same thing with police.  The burden is on the police to control the situation in an appropriate manner.  It’s their job to keep it from escalating.  It’s their job to keep their cool.  It’s their job to determine when deadly force is appropriate.  It’s their job to not jump to the wrong conclusions.  It’s a difficult job, no doubt about it.

But it’s the person the police approaches who pays the price if they don’t.  As such, it is wise for them to not be provocative.  To do what they are told.  To swallow their pride.  But it is not their responsibility.  It’s still the police officer’s responsibility.  The officer is the one with control and training.  The officer carries the burden.  Or should.

One final note of comparison.  Someone several years ago was driving a vehicle on company premises and didn’t see a petite woman walking. He hit her and caused severe damage to her ankle.  She was out of work for quite some time and it took a very long time for her to recover.  She suffered the physical consequences of the driver’s carelessness.

She was so small, she was probably difficult to see.  The driver didn’t mean to hit her.  He felt really bad about it.  He still lost his job.  The responsibility to avoid the collision had still been his.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

When Math And Awesome Aren’t Considered Synonymous

Jane and I had a conversation recently as she struggled with her math homework and I grew frustrated with what she didn’t understand.  I finally looked at her and said, “Honey, I’m sorry.  But you are not a math person.  I mean, you may do well in math sometimes.  You are in the Pre-AP class and you are making an A, but you just aren’t a math person.  That’s ok – I still love you.”

She shot back immediately with, “Mom, I’m sorry.  But you are not an awesome person.  I mean, you sometimes do awesome things.  Like, you married him.” She motioned to her father.  “And you gave birth to this.” At that, she shimmied her hands down her figure.  “But you just aren’t an awesome person.  That’s ok – I still love you.”

“She does, however, have an exceptional command of the English language,” my husband said with a smile.

“Yes, yes, she does,” I said, laughing.

This is a fascinating reality to me.  Ask anyone who knows us – she looks just like me.  I mean, she’s bigger.  Taller, bigger frame, fuller features.  But I could never deny her as mine.

She also talks incessantly.  Just like me.  And fails to guard her tongue when it would be best not to say something.  Just like me (although I’m finally starting to learn).  She can’t help giving her opinion, taking over, dominating a conversation.  Just. Like. Me.

She loves to read.  She writes very well.  Her eyes are blue.  She angers easily and has trouble letting it go.  Just like me.

But she’s not me.  She is definitely not me.  I get that and I’m ok with that.  But sometimes, in some areas, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around.  And this is one of them.

I loved math.  I mean, I dearly, obsessively, insanely loved math.  When we got to story problems, I consistently worked the unassigned problems in the book because I thought they were fun.  And since I had to know if I was right, I asked the teacher to check them.

Someone gave me a math calendar in early high school.  Each day of the year had a math problem whose answer was that day’s date.  I raced through the entire calendar during the Christmas break and carried it in my backpack when school resumed.  I had been baffled by the repeated appearance of a variable without enough information to solve.  It gnawed at me.

And then one day, my Algebra II teacher said, “Remember how we’ve always told you that you can’t take the square root of a negative number?  Well, we lied.  Meet ‘i’.”  At that, she wrote on the board that i equaled the square root of -1.

That’s all I needed.  I actually exclaimed out loud, “I!” and immediately began to rummage through my backpack.  I pulled the calendar out triumphantly and began to work all those unsolved problems, oblivious to both the instruction taking place and all the incredulous stares of my classmates.

To love something so dearly and have your children not share your passion is difficult.  And, quite frankly, confusing.  When growing up, I was used to most other students not sharing my love of problem solving.  But then I went to work as an engineer and I was surrounded by other people just like me.  Life made sense.

Then I had children.  And I wasn’t prepared to hear “I really don’t like math” or “this doesn’t make sense” or “why do I need to know this”.  Or  “none of the careers I’m interested in require any of the things I’m learning in Algebra I.”  Excuse me?  What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?!

That’s what I got last night as I helped again with homework.  Maybe part of the problem is that I truly delight in trying to get her to *see* how it works.  And she’s not interested.  She just wants to plug the numbers and get an answer and put a box around it and call it good.

She’s still stubborn and overly certain that she’s right.  Which gets frustrating when she’s not.  She worked a problem and eventually got to “t=3”.

“So what’s t?” I asked.

“It’s 3,” she said.

“No, what are its units?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what is it?  3 what?”

“It’s the distance that Claire ran.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

“No,” I said firmly.  “It’s not.  Look at your equations up there.  Claire was running 5mph, so 5t was the distance she ran, right?”

“Right.”

“So what’s t?”

“The distance she ran.”

“No!  That’s 5t.  What does t represent?”

“Miles.  She ran 3 miles.”

“No!”

“Yes!  I know what I’m doing!  I’m right!  The problem asked for how far she ran and I got three.”

“No.  You are not right.  And just because the problem asked for distance doesn’t mean that’s what you solved for.  Listen to me.  I am an engineer.  I love math.  This is not challenging for me.  I know what I’m talking about.  So listen while I explain it.”

I still don’t get why she argues with me on these points.  I really don’t.  She eventually figured out what she was doing wrong and we moved on to another problem.  Where I promptly made a subtraction mistake as I worked the problem on the side.

She again insisted she was right.  I asked her to show me her work.  She did.  It looked right.  I checked mine, noticed my mistake, and affirmed that she was right.  She promptly and smugly mimicked my earlier comments.  I explained that the difference between the two of us was that she insisted she was right and refused to listen to me explain why she wasn’t, whereas I asked to see what she had done and saw that I was wrong.  And admitted it.

On that second problem, she had a division problem that resulted in an obviously wrong answer.  She eventually got it straightened out and came up with “x = 290.”  Again, I asked what x was.

“It’s time.”

“Ok, what units?”

“Minutes.”

“How do you know it’s in minutes?”

“Because that’s what the question asked for.  It said, ‘How many minutes?’.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.  That just means they want the answer in minutes.  It doesn’t mean the number you calculated was in minutes.  What if they gave you all the same information but asked for the time in hours?”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh?  You think so.  Why not?”

“Because she is trying to teach us.  She wouldn’t throw a trick in there like that.”

I disagreed but let it go.  Before long, we were on a problem where the rates of growth of some trees were given in inches per year and their heights in feet.  We both missed that detail even though the last statement in the problem was to pay attention to units.

She was comfortable with her answer and was prepared to move on.  I was bothered by the statement.  Why make that statement on this problem in particular when the units match up, just like all the others.  And then I realized that they didn’t match up.

“Oh! Ho!” I exclaimed in triumph.  “She did it to you!  She totally did to you what you insisted she wouldn’t do!  Look at the units!”

I know I shouldn’t take such glee in being right around my children.  But when you have really bright children who always think they are right, it’s hard not to.  It’s also hard to accept that you are alone in your love of numbers and problem solving.  Daryl is in line with Jane.  I guess I’ll have to hope that Hal, against all odds, will *get* it.

It’s (Not Quite) Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas…

My Kindergarten son still has so much to learn about our family. So much to learn…

As we drove by some lit up houses the other day, he adopted his most know-it-all, disgusted tone, copied so carefully from his older siblings, and said, “Why.  Do all these people.  Have their Christmas decorations out?!  It’s not even Christmas yet.”

“Actually,” I countered, “this is an appropriate time to put decorations out.  It’s December and that’s when people put up Christmas decorations.  We are getting awfully close to Christmas.”

He turned his head in shock and dismay.  His tone turned accusatory.  “Then why don’t we have our decorations out?”

“Because we’ve been busy.  We’ll get to it.”

Give him a few years.  He’ll learn – eventually – that if we don’t pull the decorations down from the attic the day before we leave for Thanksgiving so we can put up the tree that weekend when we return, it might not happen for weeks.  He’ll learn that only once or twice in the 20+ years of our marriage have we ever had decorations/lights up outside the house.  He’ll learn to be grateful that the tree gets up in time.  Shoot.  One year, I cut out some green paper in the shape of a tree and taped it to the wall.  Much younger versions of his siblings actually had a good time drawing the decorations that year.

He’ll learn.  We aren’t like normal people.  Given time, he’ll even come to appreciate it.