How do you raise kids in a world like this?

Used to be we often muted the news when the kids were in the room, but these days we don’t even turn it on. And our kids are in their 30s.

Oh, the kids can take it alright, it’s the grands and the little ones we worry about.

The world has become a 24/7 news cycle of screaming sirens, flashing lights, shootings, robberies and racial strife with police in the crosshairs, all of which is punctuated by the occasional Wal-Mart brawl.

In my hometown, we’ve had three amber alerts in two weeks, an 82-year-old man shot in his driveway and a mother who confessed to smothering her two children with her own hands.

We’ve grown numb.

We barely turn our heads when another teacher or coach is charged with molestation.

Fifteen years out from 9/11 and terrorism is not behind us; it is all around us.

And then there’s the political corruption—seemingly without end.

The cherry on top of this sundae is a growing narcissism screaming for attention, constantly beating the drum on the many ways we are all offended. College students, increasingly delicate, now require speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings.

The mob rule of Twitter or Facebook is the new court of justice. The standards of right and wrong that held us together for centuries seem to be crumbling.

So how do you raise kids in a world like this? In a world that some days feels like it is in a free fall?

You do it the same way generations before have done it. The same way others have leaned in to the winds of the unknown and the uncertain, upheaval, unrest, strife, tragedy and even war.

You start with the premise that (trigger warning) life isn’t easy.

Then you create a home that is a shelter in the storm, a place where family and friends can be comfortable, where conversation, creativity, thoughts and ideas are free to flourish.

You use that home as your children’s first school and understand that you are their first teacher. You teach the things you want them to know by modeling them yourself. If you don’t want your kids cowering in fear and lacking confidence, then you can’t cower in fear and lack confidence.

Introduce your children to heroes, both past and present, real-people heroes who have stood strong in the face of challenge and adversity. Then show your children how to stand—for things that are good and true and honorable.

And if you claim to hold the Christian faith, don’t just hold it, live it. Live those words about loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. A scholar friend says the word neighbor means nearest. Demonstrate how to love those nearest, in your families, schools, neighborhoods, work places, houses of worship and the businesses where you shop.

If you do even a few of these things, the clouds won’t seem so ominous. Nothing dispels the darkness like a few shafts of light.

Going to the wall for cake

The incident would not have happened were it not for our deep love of wedding cake.

Four of us served at a wedding reception: our oldest daughter who made her own wedding cake and tends to be a perfectionist; our youngest daughter who also made her own wedding cake and resents being bossed by her older sister; an artistic family friend who hovers over every food ­­­detail like a mother hen, and me, whose strength is being able to panic in a crisis.

The reception was in a beautiful old building with high ceilings, very tall windows, very tall doors and in the process of being restored to its former glory.

The food and the cake were in a room at the back of the building accessible by an exterior entrance. Being that the building hadn’t quite made it all the way back to glory, the exterior door did not yet have a handle. But it was functional as long as you remembered not to close the door all the way.

Someone (who is not important, at least not when I tell the story) let the door close all the way. The four of us stood there dazed. You can’t have a wedding reception without food, let alone a wedding cake—a beautiful cake made by the bride herself. The marriage probably wouldn’t even be legal without cake.

The perfectionist noted that the very old and very tall door did not fit flush at t­­he top. Her younger sister offered to boost her up so she might reach the top of the door. We’ll never know if it was a sincere offer or an opportunity to settle old scores. In any case, that’s when the screaming began.

“Aiiiieeeee!” howled the one whose backside, now six feet above ground, wobbled in her sister’s hands.

“You’re not the lightest thing!” her sister yelled.

The mother hen and I darted back and forth positioning ourselves to catch the one teetering in the air.

“Higher!” the airborne one cried. “I can’t reach it.”

“This is as high as I can go!” moaned the base.

A car drove by slowly. The driver rolled down his window, raised a cell phone and drove away.

“My arms are giving way!” screamed the base.

“Careful!” clucked the mother hen.climbing-the-door

“Stretch!” I yelled. (It’s always easy to encourage those in the air when you’re the one on the ground.)

“I’m going for it,” cried the one in the air who had gained fame as a toddler for scaling door casings.

“NOOOOO! Don’t risk your life for food,” I screamed, my priorities clearly out of whack.

She kicked off her shoes, curled her toes and began inching her way up the brick.

“I can’t look” cried the mother hen, burying her head beneath her wing.

“Got it!” she shouted, pulling the door open, then doing an unsightly dismount nearly crushing her sister, the family friend and myself.

We got the food and the cake and it was the best lemon cake in the history of wedding cake.

Every wedding is special, but this was one we’ll never forget. I still have nightmares.

Getting burned and bummed on fall crafts

It’s PSL season. You know what that is, right? Pumpkin spice latte. It’s not just a drink, it is the official kickoff for fall—the ref’s whistle signaling that it’s time to break out the sweaters, boots, cider, pumpkins, candy corn and endless adorable crafts.

Not wanting to miss out, I tried a pumpkin spice latte. I drank what I could, dumped the rest of it down the sink and stood there wishing I had my money back.

PSL did not kick off fall for me. It only made me revert to my original thought on pumpkin—that it is a bland vegetable made tolerable only by being in a pie.

The same women sipping PSLs and savoring the arrival of fall are flocking to Pinterest in search of adorable crafts. Our youngest daughter has already made a wooden sign with arrows pointing different directions that say bonfire, apple cider, hay rides. She’s clever, crafty and decisive like a good crafter should be.

My last Pinterest project (make that Pinterest fail) involved thousands of small red beads, a hot glue gun and a wooden cutout. The end product was supposed to be a festive Christmas decoration to hang on your door. Mine turned out looking like a giant red N. Having been born in Nebraska, every time I walked by it I yelled, “Go Huskers!”

Besides, the husband asked if it was really necessary for me to craft. He claims his nerves can’t take the sudden outbursts and shrieking. I tend to be careless with the hot glue gun.

PSL and crafting may be out by a process of elimination, but there’s always outdoor decor. I see friends on Facebook talking about spending entire afternoons putting up fall décor.

I was thinking maybe décor was my call, when I heard about Mum Mania on my favorite Saturday morning home and garden show broadcast from a local hardware store—big mums at low prices. “Come on down,” they said. So I went on down.

I was feeling confident about my outdoor seasonal décor potential. Maybe Mum Mania was where I would excel.picture-mums-here

I purchased four incredibly big mums for an incredibly good price. After dropping three off for other people, I took the last one home and stuck it in a pot.

The wind blew it over in the night. The big clay pot cracked and broke into pieces and so did the mum. I kept pieces of the broken mum to remind myself that outdoor décor can burn you faster than a hot glue gun.

My last chance for savoring the arrival of clear days and crisp nights was fall fashion. Then I discovered women are wearing one-size-fits-all plaid wool ponchos. A large plaid poncho on a height-challenged person such as myself looks like I barreled through a horse blanket head first and took the blanket with me. Whenever I try to pull that look off, people stop and ask, “How’s the horse?”

Fall used to be my favorite season.

Birds aren’t the only ones taking flight

I’m not sure how much longer the two of us can fit into this wicker chair together, but for now we fit just fine—snug, but fine. She’s a willowy thing, long legs, hair flying in her face, serious one minute, pure goofball the next. We are on the porch leafing through the Sibley Backyard Birding cards.

“Did you know a swift can sleep when it flies?” she says.

birds

“Is that right?” I ask. “How do you know that?”

“We read it in a book.”

“Amazing,” I say.

“Yep, amazing,” she echoes.

Amazing is that she looked a whole lot like a baby bird herself when she was born, just over 3 pounds. Now here she is sitting strong and healthy, neurons firing, feet swinging, talking about birds, bicycles without training wheels and cartwheels.

“Amazing,” I say. It really is.

“Look at this one, Grandma. We’ve seen this one.”

“Looks like that blue jay slicked his hair back with mousse, doesn’t it?”

She giggles, leafing through the bird cards lickety-split. The stack is in disarray and cards are tumbling in every direction. This is exactly how she’s growing—with amazing speed, with life and learning cascading in every direction.

“Listen,” she whispers. “A woodpecker. Do you hear?”

Oh, I hear. I heard when she cried nearly nonstop the first six months of life, when she babbled first words and now as she chatters nonstop about her new shoes, trips to the library and how she’s stuffy from allergies.

A robin swoops over to the crabapple tree and perches on a branch.

“Look up his song, Grandma.”

I play the robin’s song on my phone. “Cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily.” And then the robin in the tree answers. “Cheer-up, cheer-up, cheer-up.”

“He’s talking to your phone!” she squeals.

“Phone call for Mr. Robin on line one, please.”

She is beyond delighted and I am delighted that she is delighted, knowing that these moments will pass us both by all too quickly.

The robin swoops down to the lawn. She watches him intently, wondering what he might find and speculating that he probably has a nest nearby. The robin hops around, pecks a couple of times and pulls out a fat, juicy worm. He tilts his head as if to show us his catch. And then he takes off.

“Look at him fly,” she says.

I’m looking. Believe me, I’m looking.

Wary of the secret ingredient

We have a long-standing family tradition of thinking someone may be trying to harm us in the kitchen. It’s not that we’re paranoid, it’s just that we all think somebody is out to get us.

When my brother was 4, he watched our mom make hot cocoa at the stove. He studied her mixing milk, sugar and cocoa in a pan over a flame. When she poured in a splash of vanilla, he asked if she was trying to poison him.

There was no convincing him. He’d seen what he’d seen.

Because such suspicion is deeply embedded in a family’s DNA, years ago when one of our girls watched me make guacamole and saw me add lemon juice, she asked me what I was up to. As though I was doing something devious.

“It keeps it from turning brown,” I explained.

She actually made me feel criminal making guacamole.

Family stayed with us over the weekend and I made scrambled eggs Saturday morning, sprinkling them with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Later, the 7-year-old took me aside and said, “Grandma, I liked pepper on the eggs. It makes them spicy.”

“Good,” I said.

“But we don’t eat salt.” She tilted her head and shot me a look that said, “What do you have to say for yourself, woman?”

Guilty—that’s what I have to say for myself. Guilty of seasoning eggs.

Not only is our family suspicious, we do our best to spread suspicion to incoming family members.

We have a son-in-law who detests tomatoes. He so detests them it even says so on the back of his driver’s license: Designated Organ Donor and Hater of Tomatoes.

I persuaded him there was nothing as wonderful as a sun-dried tomato packed in olive oil. So he tried one. Cautiously. He chewed it a couple times, looked at me like I was trying to kill him and then spit it out.

There’s been a distance between us ever since.

We were at our son’s place in Chicago a while back and I was stunned to see him hunched over a bottle of vodka at the kitchen sink on a Sunday morning.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

He said yes, he and his wife have been making their own vanilla by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol for two to three months and he was just straining some for a specialty coffee.

He gave me a bottle to bring home.

I was straining some vanilla from the big vodka bottle into the little bottle I keep in the spice cabinet when the husband walked in.

“I didn’t know you drank,” he said. “And before 9 a.m.?”

“I don’t,” I said. “It’s vanilla.”

“Sure it is.”

 

 

 

 

 

Barbecue and back roads reveal more than what you see

It is simply understood that you don’t visit my hometown of Kansas City and leave there without some of the city’s famous barbecue sauces—Jack Stack, Gates, Blues Hog, Rufus Teague and Smokin’ Guns—which is why when everybody else was semi-conscious from back-to-back feasts of smoked brisket, pulled pork and burnt ends, I announced I was going to the grocery.

“Do you know how to get there?”

I said sure, but I wasn’t really. My brother’s place is outside of the city along back roads of chip and seal, stretches of asphalt here and there and winding highways like Y that slide into other winding highways named YY. And no, you don’t call it Y-Y, you call it double Y.

My nephew announces that he would like to go along. My nephew can’t see. He wore glasses and contacts for a time to enhance what sight remained, then sight left him completely. He mostly keeps his eyes closed now. It’s probably been a decade since he has seen vague outlines of forms.

“Do you really know how to get there, Aunt Lori?” he asks, buckling his seatbelt.

“Sorta, kinda,” I say.

He chuckles. “Hang a right out of the driveway.”

Everything in the country wears thick layers of gray dust courtesy of the clouds cars and trucks kick up as they barrel down the road. But a noisy rain has passed through this afternoon. The land and vegetation, freshly showered, are so green and lush you suspect wet paint on everything in sight.

“We’ll pass some pipes up the road. After that turn right.”

Seconds later, we pass large white and red pipes, the sort used for drainage.

“Pretty sky,” I say. “It looks like orange and lemon sherbet all swirled together.”
small sunset

“Nice,” he says.

“What’s with the house with 15 trucks out front?” I ask.

“On my right? Yeah, I don’t know what’s up.”

Around a curve and on a straightaway are a small herd of goats in a low-lying pasture.

“They’re fainting goats,” he says.

He has a phenomenal memory and uncanny sense of place and direction.

We approach the edge of town and he asks if I see duplexes at the exact moment we drive by some. “One of my good friends used to live there,” he says. “Turn by the Quick Trip up ahead.”

“There’s a road before it and a road after it,” I say.

“Turn after, not before.”

We’re in the business center now. He names all the big box stores as we pass them, correctly and in sequence.

We leave the grocery with bottles of barbeque sauce jostling in plastic bags stretched thin.

“Want to take a different way home?” he asks with a grin.

“Sure.”

“Go down to the end of the lot and turn right. When my friend Phillip and I take this road we can get from my house to the Arby’s parking lot in 10 minutes.” He laughs and slaps his leg.

The sun throws its last long rays of golden light across a field of wheat. The clouds and the sky are a mosaic of color so beautiful as to be distracting. It’s good to have a guide.

 

 

Let them eat cake — lots of it

I should be in an advertisement with crumbs and frosting all over my face and a large headline that reads, “Got Cake?” We have celebrated 10 family birthdays in the past several months. We’ve had a lot of cake—according to the scales, about three pounds’ worth.
There was vanilla with fudge icing, a bird nest cake, a rosebud cake, cheesecake, angel food cake, cake accompanied by sparklers, crème got cakebrulee in lieu of cake, a princess cake and a pirate cake.

This birthday marathon is akin to a car’s odometer rolling over to 100,000. All of the grands have rolled over in a fairly short time span. Their ages are once again in consecutive numerical order and can be recited rapid fire: 7, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and 8 months.

They’re getting older now, so we’re no longer doing as much of that move where someone sniffs a diaper, thrusts a little one at another adult and says, “Here, this one belongs to you!” We’re doing a lot more of “Who needs to go potty? When was the last time you went potty?” Well, that and yelling at the boys, “Don’t do that outside! You’re in the city, not in the woods!”

The dress-up box remains popular, although the tutus, high heels and old purses are running neck-and-neck in the popularity polls with capes and masks, Viking helmets, a plastic sword, a safari hat and a red felt cowboy hat that has weathered some brutal cattle drives.

The doll stroller still gets a workout, but the wagons equally so. The greatest delight is finding a way to connect an old small metal wagon to a deluxe plastic wagon. Together they make a terrific rumble over the sidewalks, shaking the neighbors’ windows and give new meaning to the term wagon train.

The parents of the grands share similar approaches to electronics and digital devices in that they believe they can wait. That’s not to say the older ones don’t know what a selfie is or how to place a call. It’s just that there are other more pressing things to do—like flood the sandbox, drench your cousins or go on a hike looking for leaves, tracks and animal bones.

Once in a blue moon the crowd goes high-brow on us with an occasional program. There has been dancing, singing, recitations and a blossoming fiddle player who does a snappy “Happy Birthday” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” a tune that if you hear more than twice will remain in your head for 72 hours straight.

It is chaos when we are all together. Wonderful, blessed chaos. We do best with the chaos, birthday and otherwise, when the weather is good and the overflow can spill outside and into the backyard.

Naturally, I’m hoping for an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Give kids a break and start school later

There was a time you could tell when school was starting by the school supply aisles at the big box stores. They looked like the aftermath of a tornado—shell-shocked parents, binders strewn across floors, backpacks upended, and pencils driven straight through the display of crayons and markers. But now the school supply shelves are neat. There is no whirlwind rush for supplies, because there is no single “back-to-school” date.
bus to school

School start dates are all over the calendar, leap-frogging earlier and earlier into August and some jumping all the way into July. They say they’re balancing the calendar but I never knew the calendar was out of balance. Did July try to crowd in between January and February? Did the months ending in “er” suddenly rise up and demand Spring placement?

I appreciate that kids may forget much of what they learned during summer vacation. The theory is that if schools shorten summer vacation, kids will retain more. Plus, they’ll get a one-week fall vacation, a one-week Thanksgiving vacation followed a by two-week vacation over the winter holidays and another week-long vacation in the spring. I thought vacation time was the problem.

I’d like to go on record as an advocate for unbalancing the calendar. Yes, I’d like to propose school start dates should be pushed back to September in order to accommodate the lazy days of summer. Who says summer isn’t educational?

I support extending summer so kids can enjoy good nutrition—stand next to a tomato plant, smell the vines, pluck cherry tomatoes in rapid succession and pop them directly into their mouths.

I favor extending summer so students can learn math by charting the proliferation and distribution of zucchini, discovering how one small plant can feed the entire state of Wisconsin.

I support extending summer so every child can have the full sensory experience of sweet corn – smelling the husks, pulling back the silks, feeling butter grease their hands and run down their arms as the scorching August sun turns the grass to a dry, brittle brown.

I hear your opposition: “Your unbalanced calendar is only about food.”

Not true, my unbalanced calendar also puts a premium on boredom. The last few weeks of August should be reserved for stretching time, sitting outside in the evening, feeling the heat evaporate from the earth, watching the sun dip low, listening to crickets, learning the art of dawdling and the sheer pleasure of nothingness. Everyone should experience a season of boredom. It’s how you discover what you enjoy.

I also stand by the unbalanced calendar plan as an economic stimulus package. Freeing August from the grips of school calendars allows time for more family road trips, which generates monies for tourism as well as additional paychecks for restaurant workers, hotel workers and lifeguards. Unbalance the calendar and we’ll have that federal debt paid down in no time. Or not.

I’ve made my case. Now, like every politician, I conclude my argument with that old reliable tug at the heart: Do it for the children.

 

Sometimes 1 + 1 equals a full brain

One of the much touted benefits of aging with a spouse is that, together, the two of you often make a whole brain. You can complete one another’s sentences, tell parallel stories with wildly differing details at the same time and help one another with dates of birthdays and anniversaries, as in, “No, that one was born the year we had the roof replaced.”

On occasion, you can even help provide missing punchlines for one another’s jokes.

The husband starts a familiar one saying, “Do you know why men with a pierced ear are well-suited for marriage? Because—now what was it? Men with a pierced ear are well-suited for marriage because . . . because—”

“Because they’ve already experienced pain and purchased jewelry!” I say. Ba-da-bing. Teamwork. It’s a good system in general, and I’m all for helping one another fill in the blanks, but the husband has gone too far, which is why I will no longer be fielding questions from him, or anyone else for that matter, with more than one compound word beginning with “some.” Something, somewhere, someone, somehow, somebody, sometime are officially off limits, and I mean all of them.

Increasingly, as others play Name that Tune, we play Name that Person.

Last night it was, “Do you remember someone whose name was like royalty, and he used to play something brass and they moved somewhere with South or North in the name?”

At least I had decent parameters to work with on that one. Answer: “Jim King played the trumpet and moved to North Carolina.”

Other times, the questions are so vague I don’t have a clue, such as, “What was that funny story someone told about something that happened in some national park?”

With a structure that loose, I’m grappling with whether we’re talking animal, vegetable or mineral.

It’s not that the man is forgetful, it’s that—like every single one of us these days—he has SHS (Selective Hearing Syndrome). I made that up, but doctors should really use it (only after they pay me for naming rights, of course). He tunes in to the constant barrage of information and noise when he wants to tune in and then uses me as his personal Google search engine for the details he missed when he tuned out.

He’s not the only one who does it. One of the grandkids asked if I would make a dessert I made not long ago. “It was something yummy, something chocolate and you made it when everyone was here and you said you’d make it again sometime.”

Well, that narrows it down to big family gatherings, major holidays and the dessert section of 30 plus cookbooks. I’m going to need WikiLeaks to find that one.

I was going to tell her to get back to me when she had a few more clues, but instead I told her to run it by Grandpa and see if he could remember something. Somehow. Sometime.

 

It’s showtime, take your (correct) seats

I can probably count on one hand the number of times my parents went to see a movie.

In the mid-60s, Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood,” a non-fiction novel based on the murders of four family members in Holcomb, Kansas. A year later, the book was adapted into a movie. My mother, a voracious reader, had read the book.

My parents were familiar with the small town of Humboldt, as they were with most every small town in Kansas and Nebraska.

What’s more, a man from Mom and Dad’s church had been cast in a small part in the movie as the mail carrier. So there you had it – a movie based on a book my mother had read, based on a crime that had sent shock waves throughout the Plains, and had happened in a town they were familiar with, featuring a man they knew in a major motion picture production.

My mother, who didn’t care for television shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” because of the occasional shooting, and my father—who was always in motion (if he sat more than 10 minutes he often lapsed into deep sleep and snoring), were going to see a film-adaption of “In Cold Blood.” A more ill-suited audience for a movie had never existed.

They settled into their seats and were not surprised that a cartoon preceded the movie. There were often shorts before movies. They weren’t familiar with the cartoon characters—a boy with animal companions—but then they watched cartoons about as frequently as they watched movies.

The cartoon seemed long. Very long. About 20 minutes into the cartoon, my mother dispatched my father to ask how long the cartoon was going to last. My father returned and informed my mother that they had bought tickets to the wrong theater and were watching “The Jungle Book.”

in cold jungle bookThoroughly disgusted with themselves, they left the theater and came directly home. It took a few days, but eventually they laughed about the situation.

The other night I browsed Netflix looking for something to take the edge off of a crazy week. I found some obscure movie about horses with an impressive 4.5 out of a 5-star rating. The review said it was inspiring, heart-warming and family friendly. Just my speed. The husband joined me. The opening scene was poorly lit. The title and screen credits may have been done by hand with a wide-tip marker. The plot and dialog were predictable. Instead of lulling me to sleep, it piqued our curiosity as we both wondered how it had garnered a 4.5 rating.

We watched a little longer, still waiting for the plot to develop or at least for the camera angles to suddenly improve. About 20 minutes in, I looked at the review again and saw it was for 11- to 12-year olds.

The movie apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.