Kidding aside, parenting outcomes can be amusing

There is no justice when it comes to having children. Frankly, there are days when it seems like you might have gotten someone else’s kids.

Our oldest is laid back and easygoing. As his mother, I know he wasn’t always this way and I have the crow’s feet to prove it. His wife genuinely is laid back, soft-spoken and reserved.

They were blessed with children who, if unsupervised, would and could walk on the ceiling. Naturally, they’d paint the bottoms of their feet first.

The couple you might expect to have cooing doves somehow wound up with braying donkeys. Completely adorable and lovable donkeys, mind you, but children with an energy level and focused determination usually exhibited only by superheroes.

No two kids are ever alike.

At age 3, our youngest arrived for a family visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s one weekend, flung open the door to the mini-van upon arrival and yelled, “Don’t anybody try and kiss me!”

When she was about 9 and had stirred things up before school, I asked her if she woke up every morning wondering what she could do to cause trouble.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Yes.”

Guess who got the most easygoing, pleasant, smiley, good-natured, happy baby in the world?

Our three kids look at one another’s kids and marvel at the inequities of the gene pool. It’s almost like their children’s personalities were switched at birth.

Jerry Springer, line one.

I’ve seen it in other families, too. The wild thing grows up, marries and gets the demure children, while the demure sibling weds and has children that have to be dragged out of public places by the backs of their necks.

A young woman raised in a family of all girls has all boys, and a young father raised with brothers, football, baseball and basketball has ballerinas.

If only parenting required nothing more than navigating familiar waters. But it rarely does. Planning and anticipating are essential to good parenting, but the truth is, you can never fully imagine the future. Sometimes you simply live it when you get there.

You may wind up with a child who is nothing like the child you were for a reason—so that your mind can stretch, your brain will grow and your feet will learn to sprint.

Parenting is not about recreating a smaller version of you; it’s about discovering someone entirely new. It’s exploring how the pieces fit, who that boy was meant to be, what her talents and gifts are, what comes naturally and what needs a push.

Parenting is often learn-as-you-go. It is a lifelong endeavor punctuated with intense joy, sleepless nights and profound humbling—the humbling part is what keeps us all from becoming experts.

Parenting is the most challenging and worthwhile job you’ll ever have. Now go scrape those kids off the ceiling.

How I learned to speed read in less than a moth

I’m a speed reader. Have been since I was a teen. My mother worked for the continuing education department of a university and they were offering a class on speed reading and needed one more person to fill out the class. I became that one person.

The class only met for an hour or two for a few weeks, but when the goal of a class is speed, you don’t need to meet for long. The instructor said to make your eyes go across the lines of words as fast as you could and not be concerned about what the words meant.

I read “Animal Farm” in 10 minutes. Cover to cover. The instructor asked what the book was about. I said I didn’t know, but if I had to guess I’d say it was about animals on a farm.

He looked displeased.

I’ve been speed reading ever since. I can’t stop and I can’t slow down. Today, for example, I plan on reading Churchill’s four-volume “History of the English Speaking Peoples.” Over lunch. I hope it’s more memorable than “Animal Farm.”

As a result of all this speed-reading, I often experience a delay between what I think I read and what something actually says.

The other day I passed by a mall with a large sign that said “Auto Theft Sale.” I thought how efficient of auto thieves to bypass the chop shops and simply sell all the stolen cars in a big tent at the mall. A half-mile later it dawned on me that the sign had said “Auto Tent Sale.”

Last week I read a recipe that called for Monster cheese. I’d never heard of Monster cheese before. I kept reading and, in the back of my mind, I was thinking Monster cheese must be a really, really large block of cheese. Probably with green flecks. A second reading revealed it was Muenster cheese. If Muenster cheese has green flecks, it probably is monster cheese.

That faux pas falls in line with a local restaurant we frequently pass with the big red sign that says “Human Cuisine.” No wonder there are never many cars in the lot. Actually, it says “Hunan Cuisine.”

Every time I drive through a construction zone I gasp. The sign says, “Hit a Worker $10,000.” It reads like they’re offering a reward. Of course, it’s not an enticement; it’s just that my eyes rarely take in the last line that says “Fine.” It’s a $10,000 fine. Someone really needs to rephrase that one.

A department store chain keeps running a promo that says “FIND YOUR YES.” Inevitably, it registers with me as “FIND YOUR EYES.” I always note that my eyes are still in my head. I don’t know where else they would be, but the lettering is so commanding I feel it necessary to double check.

Speed reading has bitten me on the backside more than once. Especially as a writer. Just aks any of my editosr.

Special needs we all share

I was late to church. So I sat in the back row.

My seat on the very end of the last row gave me the great and pleasant distraction of a wide view. It also put me adjacent to, and several rows behind, a family with a young adult daughter who is severely disabled.

Her wheelchair was in the aisle. Her father was next to her and they were doing the dance—the one that parents of special needs children often do. She’d bob her head and her father would lean forward and whisper in her ear. She’d turn her face toward him, he’d lift a small towel and dab at her mouth.

The bob, the lean, the turn and the touch. One, two, three. One, two, three.

They are movements unconsciously synchronized through unspoken needs, knowing and time.

The father and the girl danced a bit and then the girl’s mother cut in. She whispered to her husband and they changed places. The mother was next to her now. The young woman in the wheelchair lifted her arm overhead. It looked like an involuntary reflex, but her mother knew its true meaning. The mother reached over and smoothed hair that had strayed from her daughter’s ponytail. The young woman raised her arm again, the mother smoothed the hair again, a second time and a third.

One, two, three. One, two three.

Contemplating how much that young woman is dependent on others, it dawned on me that while most of us can walk, talk and smooth our own hair, we are probably more like her than we are different.

We all share the same need for someone to sit beside us, to whisper in our ear, to make sense of what is happening, to help unravel events as they unfold.

We all share the same need for kindness, tenderness and a gentle touch. Not only from those we are closest to, but even from those who are strangers, the ones who help clear a path and open a door.

We all share the need for someone to help clean up after us, big messes, small messes, the tangible and the abstract.

We all share the need for someone to engage with, someone to crack us open and pull us out, to discover what we have to offer.

Maybe it is the similarities, not the differences, which often prompt us to turn aside from those afflicted and dependent. Instead of locking eyes, smiling and saying hello, we look away — not because it’s hard to look at them, but because deep down we know what we are really looking at is a partial reflection of ourselves.

Could it be those whose needs are displayed on the outside, remind the rest of us of the needs we cloak on the inside?

We all share similar needs; some of us just wear them inside out.

Go (silent) team!

It’s called Silent Soccer. Maybe you’ve heard about it—perhaps by way of hand gestures or a sporty little mime. Nothing loud or boisterous, of course.

Youth leagues have been implementing Silent Soccer weekends (fingertips to lips here) where parents and fans on the sidelines are told to put a sock in it. No yelling, no cheering, no screaming, no coaching from the sidelines.

Some leagues allow polite clapping, others do not. Some leagues allow parents to wave signs and rally towels, others encourage parents to bring lawn chairs, pillows, their favorite jammies and take a nap. Not really. But they could.

Believe me, at some of the soccer games our son played in as a little guy, a nap would have been entirely possible. In his first league, he even got the trophy to prove it. “Participant.”

But that was then and this is now, when a growing number of parents apparently confuse youth games for the World Cup. A few bad apples behave aggressively, yelling, screaming, berating their own children, making rude comments about other people’s children and bellowing to outcoach the coach. It’s not mature or attractive behavior, but on the upside, at least they’re looking up from their cell phones.

In Silent Soccer, the only thing parents and fans can say is, “Ssssshhhhhh!”

No whistling. No noisemakers. No breathing. I made that one up. You can breathe. But only with permission.

Don’t talk among yourselves. And keep your eyes on your own paper. I made that one up, too.

The next step will be requiring hall passes to leave the sidelines to visit the concession stand or the restroom.

It is just a matter of time before the NFL adopts “Silent Sundays.” I can hardly wait for the “White Noise Olympics.” Maybe next would be the “Would You Please Be Quiet World Series?”

I always thought learning to play the game involved learning to tune out the noise on the sidelines. Or maybe that was the goal of motherhood—learn to focus on driving and tune out the noise in the backseat.

Silent Soccer is an infantile idea imposed on the masses instead of addressing a few fans behaving badly. The bottom line is, if you act like a child, there is no shortage of people happy to treat you like a child. Even if you don’t act like a child, there is no shortage of people happy to treat you like a child. Unfortunately, we have sent a number of such people to Washington.

Maybe what the soccer leagues need to do is proclaim “Grown Up Saturdays,“ where adults are encouraged to root, cheer, and have a good time, but act like adults. Let the coaches coach, the kids play, and the adults model some self-control by leaving the attitude and the trash talk in the car.

Missing tooth takes a bite out of guilt

For nearly three years I’ve been waiting for this moment. Our oldest granddaughter, age 5, has lost a tooth. It’s not the first tooth she has lost, just the first tooth she has lost naturally.

She lost her first tooth when she was 2. At our house. On the patio. She was running and fell face down. Blood everywhere. Blood and crying. Blood and crying are like the chicken and the egg; you don’t know which comes first and it doesn’t matter. They come together—profusely and loudly.

Should such a thing happen on your patio, let me save you time. Don’t bother finding the tooth, submerging it in milk, or finding a dentist who will call you back on a Sunday. The tooth is history.

The toddler will live with a gap and you’ll live with grandma guilt. That’s right, just when you were shedding the last remnants of mother guilt, you now wear the weight of grandma guilt.

Every time she smiled I felt responsible. Sure, I didn’t have anything to do with it and her parents and other adults were present, but it happened at our house. Grandma’s house is supposed to be a fun and happy place, not a place where you to go get your teeth knocked out.

I was so sorry it happened and especially sorry that if something like this had to happen, it couldn’t have happened at her other grandma’s house. But then her other grandma doesn’t have a concrete patio. She does have a lot of gravel and steep hills though. Oh well, it happened here.

Our son and daughter-in-law got over it quickly. They never let it become an issue. The smile with the missing tooth gradually became part of who she was. She’d smile and the missing front tooth would say, “I have charm, personality, and do not mess with me on the playground.” If others noticed the missing tooth, they didn’t inquire. (Thank you.)

And now she has lost her front bottom tooth, directly below the missing top tooth, which means one really great thing – she has a gap. A marvelous, wonderful gap.

Do you know what fun a gap is? You can do great things with a gap. A gap is the kind of fun you should have at Grandma’s house.

She’ll be the centerpiece of every Christmas celebration this year singing, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”

She can insert straws in the gap, do tricks with her tongue, shoot water and perform dazzling feats that will make her the envy of everyone at the kids’ table.

She can whistle through that gap—even when she doesn’t mean to.

She can leave unique teeth tracks in a banana, clearly marking it as her own.

A gap puts her in the same category as famous actors, actresses and supermodels. Granted their gaps align a different way and are substantially smaller, but still.

The best thing about being 5 and having a gap is that it means your permanent teeth are coming soon and Grandma will let herself off the hook.

Difference between collector and scavenger is negotiable

There is a world of difference between a collector and a scavenger. Or so I’ve been told. The husband says he is the former, not the latter, which is a matter we will likely continue to debate for another 30 years.

This collector penchant explains why we have one of the coolest toys ever that we constantly trip over in the garage. It is a pliable 3-inch square casing about 6-feet long.

When I asked where it came from, as he dragged it from his car one day, he was vague. When I asked exactly what it was, as he washed it off with the hose, he was vague. Collectors often are.

The point is, he immediately knew, and I never would have guessed, that this casing would make a great straightaway for Matchbox cars. Kids can drag the long floppy thing into the house (“Watch out for the clock! Don’t knock dishes off the table! Her head! Watch your sister’s head!”), prop it up on the arm of a sofa and send small cars through it. The higher you prop one end of the tubing, the faster the cars go, the more dramatic their exit, and the wilder the laughter and screaming.

To a collector, every single thing has a thousand potential uses. My collector refuses to acknowledge that even small scraps of wood are trash. To him they are the makings of a teeny, tiny fence or a teeny, tiny house or a teeny, tiny chair. I don’t know who the teeny, tiny people are, but apparently they will be coming to live with us.

Collectors and non-collectors see things through different lenses, including television programs. My collector enjoys “Antiques Roadshow,” a program where people bring treasures they inherited or had tucked away somewhere to an appraiser who puts a price on them.

“You say this shot glass was hidden in the pie safe of your great-great-great-grandmother? Well, it is obviously hand-blown glass. The markings tell us it is from the mid-1700s, similar to shot glasses used by Ben Franklin, which means it is worth $3 million.” The owner of the shot glass staggers in disbelief. My collector cheers and I, the non-collector, say, “Goodwill couldn’t sell that thing for fifty cents. It’s only worth what someone is willing to pay.”

On the other hand, I enjoy, and my collector does not, “American Pickers” where two guys in a van drop in on hoarders—I mean collectors—rummage through their stuff and buy it from them.

“Look at them ripping that guy off!” my collector fumes. “He could get so much more for it. Don’t sell!”

Meanwhile, I’m cheering, “Sell! Sell it all! Clean out that entire barn and you could have a really great party room.”

Despite fundamental differences, it is possible for a collector and a non-collector to make peace and live in harmony, albeit amid substantial clutter.

A collector will continue to acquire oddities, while the non-collector will quietly set said oddities beside the trash on garbage day and hope they will disappear. They do. Another collector has picked them up and the great collecting cycle continues.

Whatever it is I may have managed to set out, keep it. Please. I insist. From a non-collector to a collector, it is my gift to you. Except for that long hollow tube thing; we’re keeping that.

Add housekeeping to the resume

My friend who is a nurse now cleans her own office. In a cost cutting move, the powers that be reduced housekeeping services throughout the hospital. Now, in addition to scrambling to see to patients and process vast amounts of paperwork, my friend or one of her co-workers now lug a vacuum to work once a week.

It may be the nurses today, but you can be sure it will be the patients tomorrow. Soon you’ll schedule surgery and be sent pre-op instructions that say, “Please leave all jewelry and valuables at home, but do bring a broom, dust pan and toilet brush.”

Another friend, who works for a pharmaceutical company, has had his trash can taken away. Poof! One day the wastebaskets disappeared. Workers in his department were told to bring plastic bags and cardboard boxes from home and take out their own trash. Corporate America embraces no-trace camping.

Hotels also have implemented cost-cutting moves by reducing housekeeping services and staff. But aren’t hotels largely about housekeeping? If you stay more than one night, many chains now offer the option of having your room fully cleaned, partially cleaned or left untouched.

Those with housekeeping jobs are seeing hours cut and positions eliminated. They’re considered dispensable, if not downright disposable. Housekeeping has never received the respect it deserves. I say this as someone who has kept a home running, doing dishes and laundry, dusting, vacuuming, stocking the fridge, organizing closets and cabinets and tending all manners of ill health.

My nurse friend doesn’t think she’s too good to clean. She’s raised three sons; she knows a thing or two about dirt. My other friend doesn’t think he’s too high and mighty to take out the trash. He does it all the time at home. But it is one more thing that takes time away from the thing they were originally hired to do.

It is time to admit that multi-tasking is overrated. Often a job calls for focus and concentration, the ability to follow a thread and to insure that the next step happens, that a project moves from A to B to C quickly and uninterrupted.

When everyone does their appointed and specialized jobs, it creates harmony and efficiency in the workplace, just as multiple people doing multiple jobs creates harmony and efficiency in the home. I cook; he sets the table. I marinate the meat; he lights the grill.

Housekeeping cleans the office; the nurse sees another patient. Janitorial takes out the trash; the scientist concentrates on cells in the Petri dish. Hotel rooms are cleaned in a timely manner; guests check in without delay and consider a return visit.

Housekeeping, although often underappreciated, has always been a cog in the wheel than enables the wheel to turn—efficiently, quietly and most often without germs and contamination. It is the behind-the-scenes ordering, cleaning and setting things right that allows the fresh start of a new day.

I hope those cutting housekeeping are taking out their own trash, cleaning their own restrooms and vacuuming their own conference rooms.

Streaking reappears on the home front

If you were driving by the house last week and saw a small naked boy watering the ivy with what God gave him, I’d like to explain.

If only I could.

Who would have thought that after more than 30 years of marriage, public nudity would now be a problem? Of course, it’s not the husband or myself (we’re pretty good at following standard dress codes), it’s all these little grandbabies that have us surrounded.

A bare bum here, a bare bum there, here a bum, there a bum, everywhere a bum, bum.

It’s like Revenge of the ‘70s; little streakers are everywhere.

There is partial streaking, full streaking and streaking at a rapid rate of speed with a diaper hanging by one tab and an adult in rapid pursuit.

Moments ago a small streaker darted from the dining room through the kitchen and around the corner. This sort of thing used to happen on college campuses as a form of political protest.

The streaking at our house is not political protest. Potty training is often the reason behind the streaking. A little person yells he has to go potty and bolts toward the potty chair. The little person is in a state of full dress, then partial dress, then no dress, shedding clothing as he runs. It looks like the mission will be a success. We are preparing to clap, cheer and throw confetti like we are welcoming the troops home from overseas, but, oh well. Maybe next time.

Not all of the nudity is a result of potty training. There is also that peculiar yet determined toddler who is periodically compelled to strip off all clothing because—apparently—toddler skin simply needs to breathe.

The problem when you are surrounded by such goings on is that you gradually begin to accept this as standard fare. You forget that the rest of the world isn’t doing diapers, is able to leave home without a pack of diaper wipes and is most likely already toilet trained.

All of which would account for our son and daughter-in-law, who did an emergency tag-team diaper change on the sidewalk with one of them holding the tot upright and the other swapping out the dirty diaper for a fresh one. Clearly, this is their third child. You don’t acquire that kind of skill until you have at least two.

As for the little boy outside watering the ivy, who has ever been able to explain what little boys do outside? I can only imagine that it was a combination of no inhibition and convenience. It would have been a long trip inside the house. Probably a good 8 feet to the front porch, another 3 feet to the front door and once inside it could well have been another eight or nine steps to the bathroom.

That said, it might not have been the first time he has done this. There appears to be a brown patch in the ivy.

Our apologies to the neighbors for the evil thoughts we entertained about their dog.

Hot days lead to heated conersations

These dwindling days of summer have been sizzlers. As one of our daughters said, “It’s been a good week—for putting your head in the freezer.”

The sun rises, the green flag snaps and the heat and humidity both race to 90 in perfect stride. Those two—they stick together. And to everybody else, too.

Like most people melting beneath the final scorch of summer, we enjoy dwelling on exactly how miserable we are.

We have a fancy digital indoor/outdoor thermometer that tells us the heat and humidity, but its accuracy and precision lack drama. For maximum misery, we rely on the old mercury thermometer mounted outside a kitchen window in direct sun.

“Look at that. It’s 120 again this morning,” I marvel.

“Those weather people never can get it right,” the husband says.

Of course, once it hits 120 with matching humidity to boot (and no, I don’t know how you can have humidity above 100 percent, but I know we’ve weathered it) the tomatoes get all funky and billions of teeny, tiny white bugs invade the herbs. Ordinarily, I’d fight back on the bug infestation, but it’s too blasted hot, which is why I just planted a white flag between the oregano and the thyme and yelled, “You win! Eat your little organic hearts out.”

As much as we enjoy being miserable, the bad thing about complaining about the heat is that it inevitably ignites a longstanding family competition. And really, when it comes to suffering blistering heat, you’re nobody unless you’re the somebody who’s been more miserable than everybody.

“It’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity that makes this so bad,” someone says. “It’s not like a dry heat. Now a dry heat—”

The minute someone mentions dry heat in a “that’s not so bad” way you might as well strike a match next to a gasoline can. The wing of our family that has lived in southwest dry heat is not about to be undone with a flip dismissal of their sweat and suffering.

“You don’t know what heat is until you’ve survived Texahoma heat,” they fire back in unison.

“I’ll give you it’s like a blow dryer on high heat in your face,” I say.

“Blow dryer nothing; it’s like the dryer at the automatic car wash. Or the heat blast from a jet engine.”

Someone swiftly counters: “Yes, but with the heat and humidity combined you’ve got your ‘real temperature’ and your ‘feels like’ temperature—”

Back and forth we go, carrying on about which is worse, the dry heat of the Southwest, the stifling humidity of the Deep South or the suffocating heat and humidity of the Midwest.

Finally, someone says, “Why don’t we move outside?”

“Why don’t we?” the husband says. “Looks like it may be rather pleasant after that storm blew through. The thermometer has dipped to 115.”

“You all go ahead,” I say. “I’ll be right there.”

I just need a few seconds to stick my head in the freezer.

Grand old house is a playful mess

The story of choice for one wing of the grandkids right now is “Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter. Part of the attraction is the sheer scandal of it all. Every time an adult reads the story, the kids exude wide-eyed disbelief that a bunny disobeyed his mother (gasp!), ventured into Mr. McGregor’s garden (gasp!) and safely made it home again (the sweet exhale).

Not long ago their mother was driving along and said, “Look, a rabbit is crossing the road. I wonder if it is Peter Rabbit.”

A 3-year-old in the backseat said, “Does he have on a blue jacket?”

They live in the magic of childhood where the walls are papered with wonder and innocence and all things are possible.

When the grands come to our house, they often play dress-up. They dip into a big basket of old clothes – fur stoles I made for the girls ages ago, what was once my best pair of red high heels, reindeer antlers, a pirate eye patch, a plastic crocodile head, a sailor hat, a construction hat, red bandanas, beads, more beads, a plastic stethoscope, aprons, a pioneer bonnet and a play sheriff’s vest and old leather holster.

One of our daughters commented that not many little kids play dress-up anymore.

Pity.

The grands often move the little play table and chairs around and know that the sofa cushions are fair game. Several of them (the ones that should form a Three Kids and a Truck business) have even been known to shove furniture into configurations of their liking. Sometimes I’ll move all the kitchen chairs into the family room and cover them with a big sheet. It’s a fort, a hut, a school, a baby crib, a tent and a jail.

I met a woman who said she doesn’t allow kids to turn the house upside-down.

What’s a house for?

One day this summer, when six of the little bugs were here, they dragged every ball, broom, bucket, hose attachment and water toy they could find in the garage to the backyard. There was running and yelling and screaming and falling down and crying and getting sprayed in the face.

By the end of the day the Slip ‘N Slide was barely spitting water and had decimated a wide swath of grass. Sidewalk chalk was floating in big galvanized tubs filled with water. A pair of swim trunks was half-buried in the sandbox. Random tennis shoes, beach towels, empty juice boxes, remains of PBJ sandwiches crawling with ants, bubble wands, toy trucks and plastic shovels were strewn from one end of the yard to the other. Even a screen had popped out of a door. The place looked like hillbilly heaven.

It may well have been the best day of summer.

Sometimes it is freedom that fuels the imagination. Unbridled play, the mess of paint, the squish of clay, and unconventional uses for conventional things all burn energy, fire brain cells and broaden the horizon.

A measured wildness, free play and blue jackets on rabbits are sheer delights that fill the fleeting span of childhood. Do they entail messes that cry to be cleaned? Almost always.

But surely there is no better use of time.