Natural Consequences (Full Circle)

When I was about 13, the world came shattering down around me: literally.

I was my best friend, Kiki‘s, party. Whereas my middle school parties had been all-girl gatherings where we did things like wear pajamas and eat brunch or attend musicals at the local dinner theater (Guys and Dolls, holla!), Kiki’s parties involved things like hanging out and talking.

With – omg – boys.

I played my first game of Spin The Bottle at Kiki’s and was so mortified when the bottle “chose” me, I ran and hid in a closet.

Not only was I a bit out of my league at these affairs, Kiki and I also attended different schools, meaning I knew few of the parties’ guests (likewise when she attended my dinner theater fiestas), so I felt even more awkward. Thankfully, I did know Kiki’s family. Our families had lived in the same Upper East Side apartment complex when we were babies, moving to the Connecticut suburbs two years later. We were constants at holidays and birthdays and went on vacations together. John and Linda were the first adults I was allowed to address by their first names, something I found immensely fantastic.
Me and Kiki, circa 1977-78.

Whenever I came over, there was no formality, no stiffness; just a familial enfolding, as I joined Kiki and her younger sisters on their adventures. John and Linda were very different from my own parents, often permitting us to get away with things that my folks didn’t (staying up late at sleepovers, drinking soda around the pool, not brushing my hair when I woke up in the morning… CRAZY STUFF, y’all). But that wasn’t why I liked them.

They took me in and allowed me to be part of their craziness and loved me for who I was. They were family, plain and simple.

I don’t remember much about this particular party except that, in my attempt to feel less awkward around the boys, I decided to play a game of keep-away (obviously). One boy attempted to have a conversation with me, which was waaaay outside my comfort zone, and rather than engage in discussion, I ran. And he followed. So I kept running.

We continued these shenanigans throughout the house like a one-sided game of tag. Ultimately, I wound up in the bathroom shower (?!), closing the door behind me. Because the shower walls were glass, I was hardly cleverly hidden, so the game was still afoot as the boy tried to follow me into the shower.

With my back against the tiles, I lifted my feet off the ground and propped them against the door to keep it closed, laughing and shouting and making general mayhem.

As the boy continued to shove from the outside, I pressed my feet as hard as I could – wedged perfectly between the door and the wall – to forestall his entrance. We remained like that, pushing mightily, for maybe five seconds… when, all at once, the glass just disappeared, sending me to the shower floor.

You know how in the movies when glass breaks, there’s a cracking before everything implodes? Yeah, not so much here. There was no warning; the entire door, under the stress and pressure, shattered instantaneously, crashing to the ground in a million tiny pieces.

We shattered THE. ENTIRE. DOOR.

Neither the boy nor I was hurt in the destruction, but the room was (to say the least) an absolute disaster. I was paralyzed. What the hell do you do when you’re at your best friend’s party and you’ve just played tag through her living room and shut yourself in the shower (of all places) and then put your feet on said shower’s door and DESTROYED THE DOOR?? WHAT DO YOU DO?

I remember feeling tiny and shattered, myself, as the horror – the embarrassment, the astonishment – became so overpowering, I could barely breathe. Sobbing, unable to move (from shame, not pain), I sat frozen, hoping to disappear or hide the evidence… but a crashing glass door isn’t exactly quiet, so the boy and I were soon surrounded by curious party-goers… who, in turn, went to get John and Linda.

Most important: were we hurt? Upon learning we were fine, they moved on to cleaning up the mess. I was dumbfounded, offering to help. But even then, they didn’t want me to do too much because they didn’t want me to cut myself.

They never yelled. They never said horrible things. They didn’t cry or lash out in frustration. In some ways, this made things even harder; maybe if they’d just let loose, I could release some of my awfulness. THESE FEELINGS ARE REALLY HARD. PLEASE LET ME UNLOAD THEM. But no. There was none of that.

I apologized – profusely. I believe the party continued. I know, when I was picked up, John and Linda talked to my parents. I know, when we left, the shower was still broken, essentially unusable. And I know, the next time I was invited over – which was soon – there was no mention of my error, save for maybe joking about using the upstairs shower if I really needed to get clean. It was kind of incredible.
Walking like crimped Egyptians, right around the time of the Shower Incident.
(OMG I just noticed the boom box…)

Yesterday, Ella and Annie had their own Shower Incident. They were playing with friends, pairs of siblings who are over often, roughhousing and getting loud upstairs (as they do). The volume and antics escalated and I’d just said to Nick, “At what point do we tell them it’s too much?” when there was this earsplitting CRASH that shook the dining room ceiling.

Turns out, they’d been taunting one another from either side of a bedroom door when, to keep one faction out, the other had pressed against a wooden hutch, sending the upper piece – and its contents – thudding to the floor. When I arrived, the kiddos stood in shock, surveying the splintered wooden top of the shelf, the skewed books, the fractured picture frames, the demolished clay creations from summer pottery camp.

As I observed the damage myself, getting ready to lose my shiz, this odd (and completely foreign) calm washed over me.

“Is anybody hurt?”
“No.” (Thank God.)

“How did this happen?”
They explained.

“Okay. Since there’s broken glass on the floor, please get your shoes so you don’t cut yourselves. Then, I’m going to ask you guys {the friends} to head out for a bit so the girls can clean up. Afterward, maybe they can play some more.”

Everyone apologized. I thanked them and said it would be okay. As the kids were donning their shoes, one of them turned to me, saying, “I was sure you were gonna yell!”

“Nope!” I think I surprised us both.

My girls were horror-struck, devastated by the loss of their treasured possessions and the dents in the hardwood floor (shelving units are heavy, yo), but also by the terrible understanding that they had caused the loss. It was then, as I saw them accept their role in the accident, that I remembered the Shower Incident.

I wasn’t sure which was stranger: re-living that moment from my 13 year-old perspective and suddenly understanding how Ella and Annie were feeling… or looking in on my 13 year-old self, from John and Linda’s perspective, and suddenly understanding how they must have felt.

Nobody was hurt. NOBODY WAS HURT! It’s a mess, but it can be cleaned up. Some things can be replaced. Others can’t, but we’ll survive. It wasn’t intentional; sometimes, kids get ahead of themselves and these things happen. It’s okay.

I actually sensed my own heart break a little at the girls’ sadly accepting responsibility for the damage their silly roughhousing caused; maybe Linda and John had been a bit broken-hearted, too.

Despite the lost treasures and damaged floor, there was also this: Now, when I tell the kids that things are getting out of hand, they will finally understand what I mean and will (maybe) tone it down. I sure as hell never raced through Kiki’s house again (which I now understand John and Linda knew). NATURAL CONSEQUENCES, YOU GUYS. A BEAUTIFUL THING.

Is it just me, or is it strange when this parenting thing comes full circle?

I hope our girls and their friends always feel comfortable in our house and its craziness. I hope they feel loved and respected as themselves. I hope they feel safe coming to us when mistakes are made, and welcome again after things are cleaned up (literally and metaphorically). I hope I’m able to see what’s really important even when things get messy. I hope our home is inviting and fun and joy-filled and awesome.

And I hope, the next time I say, “It’s too much. Tone it down!”, they’ll listen and TONE THAT STUFF DOWN before any other natural consequences occur, for the love.

FullSizeRender-4Kiki and me, Disney World 1991, loved even after the Shower Incident.
Yes, I have a perm. #winning

(This story was shared with Ella and Annie’s enthusiastic permission.)

I’m Bringing Boredom Back

In 2014, children rarely have the opportunity to become bored. There are, of course, the timeless classics that have entertained kids for millennia – being outside, playing games, building elaborate villages with Barbies or Legos (okay, so maybe they weren’t doing that hundreds of years ago, but you know what I mean). There are also oodles of technology-filled pastimes, from low-tech marvels like TV and music-listening to ever-updating apps and video games and things that I’m not even remotely hip enough to know about. We can talk ourselves in circles about how much technology is good versus how much is bad, how infrequently children play outside; how over-scheduled their lives are; I’m not even going to attempt to enter into those debates. I will say, however, that all of these things do mean that children almost never have the chance to be bored – they can just fire up the computer, trade Pokeman cards, or set the DVR to record a program that can be watched at any time of the day or night, no more “Oh, I guess I’ll have to wait until it’s on…” or, heaven help us, sitting through commercials.

After observing said never-bored children when they’ve been faced with the slightest bit of change-in-routine adversity, I feel that I can confidently say that boredom is a good thing.

We need to bring back boredom.

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Case in point: after returning Jambi for Advanced Training, we began our drive home via ferry from Long Island to Connecticut. Allow me to paint the scene… A three-deck ship traversing Long Island Sound, cutting majestically through the water at the bow and leaving a frothy white wake at the stern. A gorgeous summer day, sunny but not too warm, salt air breeze billowing around us. Crashing, soaring waves ahead, as though caused by the strongest imaginable current (in fact, they marked where the Sound meets the Atlantic, and they were, indeed, caused by monstrous currents). Sailboats and fishing vessels and motorboats zipping in and out of our line of sight, which extended down the sweeping coast of extreme eastern Long Island, over to the Connecticut shoreline, and all the way out to sea. Rentable binoculars that swiveled in all directions, with which you could see every detail of the passing boats, buildings, and landscape. A formidable-looking building on a formidable-but-beautiful-looking island (which, we learned upon Googling, was Plum Island, home of mysterious government research). A charming lighthouse, promising safety and salvation. Birds cruising overhead, hundreds of passengers with bags and snacks and stories to be imagined, shipboard rooms to be explored and visited.

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Plum Island is actually right perty.

In other words, essentially the perfect setting for a wickedly entertaining action/travel/ adventure movie, complete with intrigue and mystique and mysteriously deep bodies of water…
… and yet, my girls? Bored. BORED TO DEATH.

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Look! A lighthouse!

Although we had a car full of books and drawing supplies and the like, they opted not to bring any of said items with them onto the decks. Likewise, Nick and I forbade them from using their iPads, citing a) that there was no need, as we’d only be onboard for a little over an hour and we tend to reserve electronics for longer journeys, b) they had us and their grandparents to converse and hang out with, and c) we are on a ship traveling over water and past lighthouses with the Atlantic Ocean at our fingertips and how can you find nothing to do omg??

Believe it or not, they – in fact – found nothing to do. Nothing at all for the entire sixty-plus minutes we were on that beautiful, lovely, exciting, godforsaken ferry. Well, I should rephrase that; nothing at all except complaining about how they were so bored and that there was nothing to do.

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House-lighthouse thing near the Connecticut shoreline.

I had assumed that such behavior was not unique to my children but didn’t have an opportunity to put my assumption to the test until yesterday when I volunteered as one of the playground monitors at the girls’ elementary school. Although there was no precipitation during recess itself, it and rained earlier in the day, covering everything with a fine layer of water drops and puddles. The official (i.e. paid) playground monitors attempted to dry off the equipment, but their towels were doing little good; after seeing several first graders slip off the monkey bars and slide – not in the good way – down the climbing walls, the principal decided that it was simply too wet to allow the students to actually play on the playground, so recess was then limited to playing on the blacktop or swings. (Why the kiddos couldn’t play on the fields was a mystery to me; concern over slipping on the wet grass seemed overblown at best; concern over wet sneakers seemed even sillier. Given that our school is not prone to overreacting or helicoptering, however, and generally allows kids to be kids, I decided to give the principal the benefit of the doubt and just go along with the no playing on the grass thing.)

Because there are only six (or eight? I can’t remember) swings, the majority of the students found themselves on or near the blacktop for the duration of recess. It should be noted that the blacktop is an area the is entirely devoid of anything to do, a vast wasteland of asphalt… except for the basket ball hoops on each end (and the requisite basketballs to toss into such hoops), the marked-off four-square courts (and the requisite balls with which to play), the hopscotch boards, the life-sized tic-tac-toe boards, a brick wall replete with drawings, benches upon which to sit, etc. Oh! And did I mention that the children were not required to stand atop the blacktop alone but could bring all of their friends with them?

To be fair, some of the kids entertained themselves all recess long. There were basketball free-throws and impromptu games of Red Rover and marauding bands of children who stalked the corners of the blacktop and gossiped to their hearts’ content. But, by far, the two-word phrase I heard uttered more than any other was, “I’m bored!” or it’s four-word cousin, “This is so boring!” 

Now, I’m hardly the paragon of childhood self-entertainment. It’s long been noted that I used to come downstairs as a kid and ask my mom, “What fun thing do you have planned for me today?” I, like virtually all children, uttered the B word more times than I’d like to count, until my mom actually forbade me from using it. But I did know how to go outside and entertain myself – not with dolls, not with toys, but simply by being and using my imagination. Some of my happiest memories  as a kid revolve around the forts that my brother and I created beneath and within the branches of enormous trees, or the “king chairs” that we dug into snowbanks at the top of our driveway.

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This photo is basically only for show… She was interested in this for approximately 24 seconds.

Today, it’s different. Kids are used to being constantly entertained, to having little – or no – downtime in which to unwind and actually have to devise ways to keep themselves occupied and busy. They go from school to home (almost never by walking) to homework (often scripted) to sports (run by an adult to tells them what to do) to enrichment classes (also run by an adult) to music lessons (taught by grown-ups with an agenda) to dinner to bed. Their “free time” is filled with play, yes – but, left to their own devices, that play would almost always include Minecraft or shows on the Disney Channel or the latest unbeatable level on Candy Crush. Their days are so very structured, with very few opportunities to even consider the art of making something out of (what seems like) nothing.

It makes sense, then – sadly – that neither my girls nor many of the hundreds of kids on that playground were able to occupy themselves with their simple surroundings. They were unable to see that, actually, there was so much to do. They could examine the passing ships and make up stories about where they came from and where they were going. They could look for colonies of ants that were making their homes along the blacktop’s edge. They could count the stairs between the decks or the strides necessary to traverse the blacktop diagonally. They could time themselves (by, like, counting out loud instead of using an app or a watch) to see how quickly they could cross the area in front of them backwards and sideways. They could pick blades of grass and try to whistle with them or braid them together. They could invent tales of espionage and action, elaborate fantasies of why they needed to cross the Sound via ferry instead of driving through Manhattan and up the Connecticut shore. They could stretch. They could do jumping jacks. They could see how long they could stand on one leg or only their tippy tip toes. They could talk to their friends or parents or grandparents – not about anything specific; just talking. They could look up at the sky and search for shapes in the clouds. They could look up at the sky for no other reason than that the sky is not the earth and it is far away and a special kind of magic. They could breathe in deliciously fresh air and appreciate not being stuck indoors all day long.

But mostly? They don’t. They’re just bored.

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Can you tell how appreciative she is?

I know; some of this comes with age. It’s not just a child-of-2014 deficit. But this generation of kids is more scheduled and structured than any we’ve seen before, with more time spent on screens than we could ever have imagined when we were their age, and as a result, they are used to having someone else provide their entertainment – which means they don’t have any idea what to do with themselves when they don’t have something (specific) to do.

Which is crappy because being able to distract oneself when stuck in an undesirable situation is a pretty damned important skill. We’ve all had those dreaded moments at the doctor’s office – or, God forbid, the DMV – when we realize the magazines are from 2011 and we have to preserve the little battery life that remains on our cellphones because we’ll need Google Maps to help us get to the pharmacy (because paper maps? Please) and suddenly terror strikes as we stare thirty minutes of dead air straight in the face. We’ve had those moments waiting in the line that is 397 times longer than the ride itself and we’ve given our phones to our oldest child so that she can take photos of her father trying his hand at whack-a-mole and there’s not even so much as a stray coupon or Advil label to read in our purses or backpacks. THE HORROR.

Truth is, life involves a lot of waiting around, and if you have no ability to occupy yourself unless you’ve got a handheld electronic device within reach or a copy of Us Weekly, it’s not gonna be pretty. Moreover, we’re not going to get very far – I’m talking big picture here, like as a species – if we don’t have people coming up with new ideas and inventions. To do that, imagination and free-thinking is needed, stat. I’m pretty sure that young Benjamin Franklin was roaming his backyard, just biding his time with his kite, as a storm approached and suddenly something sparked his imagination (see what I did there?). If he’d spent every waking moment shuttling between soccer practice and orchestra and besting the next level of the Star Wars version of Angry Birds, he might never have examined his glasses more closely and decided to create bifocals.

As a kid, I think that boredom is pretty much par for the course (as an adult, I honestly don’t understand how anyone over the age of 20 can be bored; there is so much to do in any given day, having nothing to do would be such a wonderful luxury – I can assure you that I’d fill it with mindless blather that would keep me very, very happy). But we’re not doing our children any good by providing them with entertainment 24/7 (yes, this comes from the mom with a Summer Fun List who hates endless stretches of nothing). I bet even Thomas Edison was bored from time to time, which is a good thing because without the ideas that were generated during his downtime, we’d be way behind schedule and might still be listening to “All About That Bass” on 8-track.

I don’t think it’s possible to fully teach kids how to divert their attention. We can help, we can provide suggestions, but in the end, the only way that kids learn how to occupy their time and use their imaginations is to actually do it. And the way to allow them that opportunity means allowing for more downtime – and for more time to be bored. The best way to learn how to beat boredom is to face it enough that you know how to kick its butt.

So, I hereby propose that we bring back boredom. Go on – get outside and play. No, you don’t need to bring the baseball and the bat with you. Just leave the bikes behind. That’s right, you can just be outside with nothing to do – until you create or discover something to do.

Nick and I are really not the hovering type of parents; our girls have a lot of freedom and leeway to learn, to create, to make their own mistakes, to develop confidence and competence. Still, they lack the ability to easily distract themselves without a device or some toys, so we’ve already begun implementing this new philosophy at home, providing stretches of time when we “make” them run along with no crutches to lean on. Ella and Annie don’t yet seem to view this in a positive light, especially when they tell me that they’re bored and I gleefully – and genuinely – chime back, “That’s awesome!”

Someday, when they’re adults, I hope they’ll appreciate the ability to entertain themselves. Especially if we still have the DMV.


All Shook Up

Annie’s fabulous Herb Brooks turkey was, in some ways, to be expected. See, although Herb may have been influenced by Nick, the desire to put her all into school project was definitely inherited from me. There was the school wide make-a-poster contest for the fall festival, where my brother and I — in our own respective grades — took first place each. There was the write-about-a-country project (my country: Saudi Arabia) for which I actually brought in a beautiful head scarf from Saudi Arabia, because my dad had gone there on business trips.

There was the See If White Carnations Still Turn Blue After Mixing Crap Like Sugar And Salt And Kool-Aid Into Their Blue Food Coloring-Tinted Water project, which was set up in the guest room for at least two weeks, threatening to turn the carpet aquamarine. There was the acid rain project one of my best friends and I did in 9th grade, where we asked friends and family to send us vials of water and soil collected from around the country (to analyze the acidity and then pore over actual library books to see, way before Google could help out, if there was a connection between soil content and acid rain), for which we filmed at 15-minute video, complete with several “commercials.”

If there was a project to be done, I was going to DO IT, by God, and DO IT WITH ALL MY MIGHT, especially if a tri-fold board was involved. Man, those boards were cool.

But then, as my mom reminded me last week after I posted about Annie’s turkey, there was the… ill-fated… Tsunami Project Disaster of ’87. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

No? Well, then this is your lucky day.

If memory serves, we had to do a project for science class about some kind of natural disaster. I was quite disappointed to be assigned the tsunami, first because I’d coveted the volcano (you got to blow things up in the classroom, rock on), but also because back then, no one in southwestern Connecticut had really even heard of tsunamis (again, back in the dark ages before Google and CNN and 24 hour news coverage even in the middle of record-breaking typhoons). After doing some research (more library time FTW!), I discovered that tsunamis were actually pretty awesome (in storm-chaser kind of way; work with me, people), and set out to make a project that would aptly demonstrate their awesomeness.

A decent-sized clear plastic bin was procured (undoubtedly by my mother, who had to navigate my ADHD-induced craziness for all of my school projects) – large enough to show what a tsunami was, but not so big I couldn’t carry it to school myself. One half of the bin contained the land, its shoreline and trees and whatever other structures were deemed necessary rendered with clay and things like popsicle sticks, while the other half contained water. By rattling the bin around and simulating an earthquake, the water would slosh ominously toward the land and – voilà – tsunami (or, at least, tsunami, 7th-grade-style), which would knock over some of the houses perched on the beach.

Now, causing the tremors by hand didn’t really work so well — I needed to show that the earthquake (or whatever had caused the disturbance) could happen anywhere, any time, and the displaced water would crest toward land; randomly jiggling the bin back and forth didn’t so much as simulate a tsunami so much as a broken washing machine. I needed something that could be placed just so, rattling, earth-quake like, and then we could all stand back and watch the water roll in. Enter the seemingly perfect solution: my family’s back massager.

We’d had it around for years, and I’d seen it in action many times — for knots just under your shoulders, aching hamstrings, or those extra-fun moments when you placed it on your head and tried to talk, your voice coming out sounding like a robot. You’ve probably seen them out and about; in fact, I just spotted some the other day in Target’s stocking stuffer section:
No, I didn’t buy one; the girls would probably just torture the dogs with them.

Awesome, right? Yeah… Except that my family’s back massager didn’t look like cute little robotic puppies. It looked more like…

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 2.34.58 PM
And now you can’t un-see this. IMAGINE HOW I FEEL.

I carefully described to the class what a tsunami was, how one was caused, and the damage one could render. I showed my little clay model. I added in the water (to many appreciative murmurs from my classmates). But when I pulled out the back massager to demonstrate just how a tsunami worked, giggles – mostly from the boys – began to erupt around the room.

I was stumped. What on earth could be so funny about a back massager?
And then the questions started.

“What the heck is that?”

It’s a back massager.

*snicker* “A WHAT?”

A back massager.

“Uh, yeah… Where’d you get it?”

I brought it from home.

*chuckle* “Where’d you find it?”

Find it? What do you mean? My mom and dad use it, and it was just lying around, so…

*giggle* “Have you ever used it?”

Of course. I use it all the time.

*barely-controlled-hysterics* “YOU DO? What do you do with it??”

(impatiently and a little exasperated at their obvious dim-witted-ness) You know – when I have a sore back, or I’ve gotten a charley horse…

*outright laughter* “Is it FUN???”

Well, I wouldn’t really say it’s fun, but it definitely works – you should try it sometime!

And then I turned the damn thing on and held it up to the bottom of the little plastic display and all hell broke loose — both in the form of the perfectly-formed little tsunami that had brewed in my lovingly constructed project — and amongst my fellow classmates.

The teacher eventually settled everyone down and I soon took my seat, wildly embarrassed but not really certain why. (To this day, I’m not sure how my instructor managed to keep a straight face. Then again, I held it together when my fifth grade general music students created a commercial jingle about an inflatable doll to the tune of “We Will Rock You”, the chorus of which went, “We will.. We will… BLOW YOU!” Teachers are AMAZING, y’all.)

It wasn’t until after class that one of my friends pulled me aside and explained that my innocent little back massager was less chiro and more porno.

If you look up the word “mortified” in the dictionary, you’ll see my name beside it. Use Google, even. It was that awful.

To this day, I’m not sure if my parents didn’t know I was bringing in this delightful device, didn’t realize that it would elicit such a reaction, or thought it would be damn hilarious to have their daughter tote what was essentially a vibrator to seventh grade science (nor, come to think of it, do I know if the “back massager” was ever used for anything beyond easing muscle aches… AND OMG I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW, EVER), but I can promise you that I will not allow my children to make a similarly mortifying mistake.

No, no. I will try my damnedest to prevent them from utterly humiliating themselves in front of their classmates. But if they do – if something slips through the cracks – I will hold their hands and comfort them and tell them that surely it will all be okay.

And then I’ll post about it on Facebook.

After all, they have to have SOMETHING to blog about when they get older.