Baby Books and Rug Burns

On the day I gave birth to our daughter, like all new parents-to-be, we came to the hospital equipped with a camera so we could capture this awesome moment.  Jim spent the better part of my 14-hour labor carefully photographing (minus the really graphic stuff) our first-born’s arrival into the world.   The unintentional photo below is the only evidence (besides the baby) that we were even at the hospital that day.   Apparently, we neglected to remove the lens cap. That they let us take home a live human being when we couldn’t manage a simple camera operation is somewhat astonishing.


It’s 19 years later, and Katie is now a college freshman. Like most parents at this stage, I’m reflecting on how she’s been raised.   Would I have done anything differently?

In the beginning, I was a huge devotee to all of the baby books du jour, strictly abiding by their lists of “must have” items.   I outfitted my medicine cabinet with the $500 worth of goods that every new baby needed to survive, allegedly.   The same lists are available for preparing your kid for college. A friend forwarded me one entitled “The Most Complete First Aid Kit for College Students, Ever!” It is written by a mom/Pharmacist, is four pages long, and includes about 400 items. I considered it for about a minute and tossed it. Instead, I made sure she was still covered by our health plan, threw some Advil and band aids in a kit, and added some condoms for good measure.

In the years between the baby books and the condoms, I like to think I’ve honed my parenting skills a bit.   In my more confident moments, I imagined myself encapsulating all this wisdom into some brilliant tome. Something my kids could turn to for guidance when life gets messy. “The Most Complete List for Surviving Life, Ever!” I never got around to doing this.   Clearly, some parents’ are just more efficient with their time.

We used to get these long holiday letters from acquaintances of ours with kids around the same age. In one particular letter, the mom waxed poetic about her kindergartener, evidently already reading at a 5th grade level.   I’d sigh inwardly and stare at my daughter’s artwork, proudly taped to the fridge. A drawing of our family that only a mother could love. Alien-like stick figures with bugged out eyes, anatomically incorrect.   Apparently, she should have been doing advanced reading. Only five years old, and already behind the eight ball. I’d yell into the other room, “Katie, turn off the TV and grab your book!” For what it’s worth, sadly, the family with the reading prodigy later imploded. So really, no one knows what they’re doing.   Sometimes it’s easiest just to take cues from your kid.

Katie was just over a year old when she figured out how to escape from her crib.   I was a bit dismayed at the time, as I anticipated at least another six months of lockdown. She just waltzed in to the kitchen one morning. No big deal. I put her back in so she could show me how she did it. She scaled the top, like a mini mountaineer, and shimmied her way down. Later that day, I bought her a toddler bed, though she didn’t really stay in that much either. She liked her freedom. She still does.

My daughter thought she could swim, before she actually could, prompting me to enroll her in group swim classes as soon as feasibly possible. The instructor would work with each kid individually, while the rest were supposed to hold on to the side of the pool. The other kids complied, but not my girl. She kept slowly taking her hands away, moving to the center of the pool, and then back. Smiling the whole time. Then she got too far out and couldn’t make it back, so she went under.   The instructor didn’t see what happened. I was holding her baby sister, and couldn’t react fast enough. Another mom jumped in fully clothed and pulled her out. After that, I signed her up for private swim lessons. Her instructor loved her fearlessness, and today she is a confident swimmer.

I admit that sometimes I’d involve Katie in activities simply because I didn’t want her to miss out, versus it being a good fit for her personality. It is the bane of parents’ who were socially awkward as children (me): you will do anything to avoid that same fate for your kid.   I don’t think any permanent damage was done to her, and some amusing times were had.

When the time came, I enrolled Katie in a local Brownie troop. I wasn’t much of a role model in this area, having failed to achieve a promotion to the Girl Scout sphere as a young girl. Nevertheless, I thought this would be a good social opportunity for her. We weren’t a terribly serious troop. Mainly, us moms just wanted the girls to have fun, maybe learn a value or two. Earn a badge here or there.   But, we tried to do a few legitimate “scouty” things, such as organizing a safety lesson at the local fire station.   The girls each had to name a type of burn. When it was Katie’s turn, in a clear voice she shouted, “rug burn”! The other girls giggled. The moms’ laughed in that way we do when a kid innocently utters something with subtle carnal undertones. I choose to believe it was clear evidence of her ability to think outside the box.

I can only speak for myself, but certain moments tend to clarify just what kind of parent you’ll be.   In the early days of Katie’s babyhood, a friend said to me wistfully about breastfeeding, “don’t you just love it?”   It took me a second to collect myself and come up with an appropriately enthusiastic response. “Yes, it’s very special”, I said.   I chose to breastfeed my kids because there was no medical reason I couldn’t. But, my learning curve was steep and there were many anguished, exhausted tears. So no, I didn’t love it at first. I wasn’t going to tell my friend that though. Why subject myself to the potential judgment? Clearly, this was something I was supposed to really enjoy. Who knew?

It was at that instant that I realized there are two kinds of mothers. The kind that is so blissfully caught up in their baby that everything is a love fest. And then there is the kind who, while they love their child, is constantly challenged by their intrinsic lack of maternal ability. Frustrated to the point where they wonder if they’ve made a terrible error in judgment. I fell firmly into the second camp, and knew that I would forever be comparing myself to the blissed out moms.

On Katie’s high school graduation day last year, the texts were flying. Tearful messages of both melancholy and hope.   There were sentiments about not wanting to grow up, latent anger at the college admissions process, and frustrations about the valedictorian selection. These texts were not from my daughter or any one in her age bracket. They were from my friends who also had kids graduating that day. As with the intense adoration I should have felt for nursing, likewise, I guess I should have been awash in sentimental tears at graduation. I wasn’t. I didn’t cry. What I felt that day was a sort of cosmic, prideful, relief. Like I could exhale a little because I had actually managed to parent her to this right of passage (yes, my husband was there, but this is my blog). And, it finally became okay that my path to doing so wasn’t like everybody else’s (I’m a slow learner).

I suppose if my daughter were asked, she might have a few constructive suggestions for things I could have done differently. I don’t know.   Some of my parenting decisions were made with scientific precision; others were of the “close my eyes and jump” variety. They all added up to who she’s become today: a smart, funny, self-sufficient person, who has never been afraid to express her point of view.   I’m not sure if this is because of how she was parented, or in spite of it, but the clues were there early on.

A very young Katie once greeted friends arriving at our home with the following pronouncement: “you shouldn’t say fuck.” She may have known curse words, but she knew you shouldn’t use them. In hindsight, I’d put this firmly in the parenting “win” category.   I can’t imagine why I would have done anything differently.



Friday Night Lights

That’s me – hiding, second from left.  My ill-fated run on the Drill Team.

Several months ago, my friend Jennifer called, ostensibly to wish me a happy birthday.   Towards the end of the conversation, she asked me, “how would you like to help out on our high school Boosters board? We just need someone to write a few checks now and then?” In her own sly way, she was asking me to join the board as their new Treasurer – a job somewhat more involved then “writing a few checks”. I knew this, but I said yes anyway. Mainly, because Jennifer is one of those people I can’t say no to (she makes a mean margarita), but also because I was looking for a new volunteer gig. Something outside my comfort zone, that might be a little challenging.

I have a love-hate relationship with sports, and especially with football. My husband no longer allows me to watch games with him. He seriously loves the sport, and doesn’t find my unsolicited remarks entertaining. In my defense, it’s impossible not to make fun of an activity, where the commentators say things like: “it’s all about the penetration”, “the way they squeeze the tight end in there”, “they got him from behind”. The last time Jim let me watch with him, I hypothesized that football is really an outlet for closeted gay men.   He didn’t appreciate my theory and I’ve been banished ever since.

Ironically though, I adore a good football movie, especially those based on true stories: Brian’s Song, Invincible, Rudy, The Blind Side, and my all time favorite, We Are Marshall. It’s the heartwarming account of the 1970 Marshall University football team that perishes in a plane crash, and the subsequent struggle to re-build the program. I’ve seen it numerous times and always bawl through the whole thing.   It’s so good.

I am admittedly jaded when it comes to male athletes though. It seems to me that they are often given special treatment or face no real consequences for their poor behavior. During my high school years, I witnessed a classmate struggling with basic reading.   He was a valued member of the football team though, so he sailed through his classes. Two other male classmates subjected me to a bit of sexual harassment. One instance could be chalked up to the ignorant frat boy mentality of the perpetrator; the other instance was not as benign.   I never told anyone.   Too embarrassing, and who would’ve cared anyway? Again, they were football players: beloved, popular, and crucial to the success of our winning team.

One would not be wrong to infer that I have been disdainful of the sports culture.   So, I would seem to be the last person who should be participating in the Boosters – an organization whose sole mission is to support high school sports. I disclosed as much to Jennifer, without giving her the ugly details of my history. She saw it as just the opposite. Opining that my lack of positive bias would lend to my objectivity. Plus, she said, “Susan, now you’ll be in the power position (sort of). You’ve come full circle!”   Yeah, she was totally playing to my ego, but she had a point.

Everything I know about Booster clubs, I learned from binge watching “Friday Night Lights”, that delicious TV drama about football in a small Texas town.   The episodes involving the Boosters were always the same: a group of washed up former football stars, still sporting their championship rings and letter jackets, the best days of their lives long behind them. Their adult reality never quite matching the glory they had hoped for.

I didn’t grow up in Texas, but football was a big deal in my small New Jersey town. In late summer, we would begin to see game schedules posted on the windows of local businesses.   We had a hugely successful team – Coach Bauer led the Rams to six state championships over his 25-year tenure (his obit made the NY Times). We had a marching band that performed professionally choreographed half time shows. And, perhaps most significantly, we had a well-appointed stadium, with a lighted football field.

Home games were a serious endeavor, and never more so then on a Friday night.   Traffic would back up along Millbrook Avenue, as folks jockeyed for parking spots. Even for a football pessimist like me, there was something a little magical about a Friday night game. I went to most of them. Under the bleachers, I had my first real kiss – with a trumpet player.   At another game, in the bleachers this time, my friend Debbie consoled me after said trumpet player broke my heart.   I barely watched the actual games, but to this day, I remember the words to all the cheers.  When you’re part of a school with a winning team, it’s hard not to feel a little pride.

It was perhaps this misplaced pride that made me think it was a good idea to try out for the drill team. I didn’t make the team the first time I tried out, and that was probably a good call.   I’m not sure why I succeeded on the second try, other then it was basically the equivalent of a mercy fuck. It would be an understatement to say that I was not well suited for large-scale flag twirling. The one time they actually let me participate in the half-time show, I accidently smacked my metal flagpole into the elbow of the girl next to me. The crack reverberated throughout the stadium.

I’m not sure how things are now at my old high school.   But, the current culture appears to be quite different where my daughters attend school.   School spirit doesn’t seem to be tied to sports so much, and athletes are not the rock stars they were in my day. There’s increased academic and behavioral expectations. My perception is that things are more balanced now, which I think is good.  The stellar drama department, the winning mock trial team, less mainstream sports like Golf, these kids seem to be as celebrated as the more traditional athletes.

The playing field, for lack of a better term, feels a bit more level. I suppose an actual high school kid may see it differently, but from my vantage point, we’ve evolved. It may not be perfect, but there is an improved ethic surrounding high school sports, and I like being a part of an organization that helps to promote this. So, I guess that’s why I said yes to Jennifer. That, and the margaritas.

Sadly, there is no lighted football field at our local high school, and thus, no night games.   I’m told it’s due to some ordinance – probably the result of some NIMBYs who didn’t want to deal with the noise, traffic, and potential game night shenanigans in close proximity to their homes (to which I would ask, why did you choose to live near a high school then?).  I get it, I guess. But, I think this does a real disservice to the sport, and is a lost opportunity for community building.

The Boosters should probably get on this.   Everyone should have the experience of a Friday night football game during his or her high school years.   Whether they are watching from the bleachers, throwing the winning touchdown, or being whacked in the elbow with a metal flagpole.   Go Team.

The Last of the Compassionate Conservatives

My dad, in all his glory.

Don’t listen to me.  I just blew up Thanksgiving.  I told my family in Wisconsin that their vote destroyed the moral fabric of our country.”   I’m paraphrasing a text from a friend shortly after the election.  Although my own personal associations have remained largely intact, I’ve heard so many stories about family relationships strained, some irreparably so.

Lately, I’ve found myself reflecting on how my parents’ operated in the political climate of my formative years, the ’70s and early ’80s.   With family, they generally adopted that old adage of “never discuss politics, sex or religion.” Though I don’t really abide by this approach, I’m beginning to see its’ merits.  Today, the words “Republican” or “Democrat”seem to infer less of a party affiliation and more of a character assessment.   I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Political leanings were not how my parents’ evaluated people. Are you true to your word? Are you respectful? Unless you violated those basic tenets (or messed with one of their kids), you were fine.

My dad was always very open about his political proclivities, and it would have been so interesting to hear what he would say about current events. Unfortunately, he passed away ten years ago last fall, at the too-young age of 69.   Howie was a pragmatic guy and had always made it very clear that he did not want any of the standard death accoutrements.   Pricey coffins, wakes, obituaries, etc. He wanted none of it. “Just put me in a box and be done with it.” “I’ll be dead – it won’t matter!” We respected his wishes and honored him in a way he would have liked. Just myself, my mom and brother, gathered at the mortuary to say a final goodbye and have a hearty cry. Then he went off to be cremated and we went to lunch at Applebee’s. Trust me, he would have heartily approved.

My father supported Ronald Reagan, loved John Wayne, and was a longtime NRA member.   He was born and raised in New York City, but lamented that he was from the wrong part of the country – and the wrong century. He liked the old west, and had a gun collection that suggested as much (kept safe and secure away from me and my brother). Occasionally, he would take them out for show.   I have a distinct memory of a pearl handled pistol, in a red velvet lined case.   He wasn’t a hunter. In fact, I only have one recollection of him actually using a gun.   A bat flew into my pink princess bedroom when I was little. I screamed, the bat flew out, landed on my mom’s pearly white dining room drapes. Dad took care of it with a bb gun. It’s what a wanna-be old west guy did in 1970s suburbia, when up against a critter.

Howie was fiscally prudent, only spending what he could afford. When we were young, he tried to impart on my brother and I how hard he worked to provide for us: charging us a fee every time we left a light on. Credit was used in a planned fashion and paid off accordingly.   But life was enjoyed nevertheless. We didn’t take a lot of fancy vacations – I didn’t travel by plane until I was 19 – but my parents’ never skimped on the day-to-day pleasures. My husband can blame them for my love of fine dining.

Dad was big fan of pulling your own weight, so he didn’t like the Welfare system, feeling it was abused by those not truly in need.   However, he was an avid contributor to social causes that mattered to him. Whenever we had old furniture or household items to give away, he took the time to find out how to donate them to women’s shelters – long before the Internet made it easy to do this.

Compared to his childhood, mine was easy, but certain things he insisted I had to earn. He wouldn’t let me get my drivers license until I could drive a stick shift and explain to him why an oil change was important. He taught me to drive on his 1974 Ford pick-up truck. It had a manual transmission, and no power steering or power breaks. To improve my shifting prowess, he would take me on hills during rush hour traffic. My teenage self found this highly annoying, but I treasure having this skill now.

He understood, in theory, the need for Affirmative Action, but was justifiably ambivalent about it. He didn’t go to college, but started his career in the mailroom at a major US corporation, eventually working his way up to a management position. By the time he retired some 30 years later, his successor needed an MBA for the job. When other parents in our upper middle class town would ask dad where he went to college, he would smirk and say “the school of hard knocks.” However, when I finally decided to go to college, you’d never seen someone so proud. He quite literally ran into the other room to get the checkbook.

While I think dad mainly voted Republican, he briefly became disillusioned with the GOP, and actually voted for Bill Clinton in his first term.   However, my father was hopelessly devoted to my mother and the concept of fidelity (his favorite occasions were Valentines Day and his wedding anniversary, and he took great joy in filling my mom’s jewelry box with gifts). Clinton’s many peccadillos cost him my father’s respect, effectively ending his foray into democratic presidential terrain.

He was a fervent believer that women should be treated equally and respectfully. He explained the Equal Rights Amendment to me and was a big supporter of it.  When he went into management, he took a lot of pride in being able to promote women. He was also a gentleman, and sometimes this got him in trouble. He came home one day puzzled about a woman whom he had held the door open for.   She got mad, claimed it was sexist.   He thought that was ridiculous, but he was careful going forward.

He was a proponent of the death penalty and also strongly pro-choice. Watching TV one night with my parents, I was around 11 years old when I first heard the term “abortion”. My father was the one who explained to me what it meant, answering me honestly, like always.  To him, I think he viewed it as future knowledge I might need, if I were to be truly in control of my life.

He was raised in the Jewish faith, but was disdainful of organized religion. His life experiences exposed him to more of the hypocrisy versus the good of it. He could never understand why people would see a priest for marriage counseling. He used to say, “why would I get relationship advice from a man who wears a dress and has never had sex?” Before the world became politically correct, this was funny.

Howie was not politically active, but his opinions certainly influenced me.   I voted for a Republican in my first election, less because of ideology, and more because it’s how my father voted. It seemed like a good idea at the time, in the absence of my young self giving it much serious thought.   A rational man and an all around good guy, dad was the living embodiment of the term “compassionate conservative”.   It’s why I’m so appalled when blowhard politicians use the phrase to soften their image, when their actions suggest otherwise.

I’ve been reacting a bit emotionally to the current political landscape. Some of my recent pronouncements on social media: “To me, your vote implies you are okay with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexual assault.” “Get your head out of your ass.” Facebook has become my passive aggressive way of telling my conservative friends that, to put it mildly, I don’t agree with them.   I think my father would be amused and oddly proud of my chutzpah (albeit a cowardly form of chutzpah, given I’m sitting behind a keyboard, but still).

However, I don’t want to become the liberal equivalent of what I mock: someone who insulates themself with like minded people, and ample time to guzzle a constant stream of news that aligns with their political views.   It’s so easy to gorge myself on my own outrage, becoming so angry that I’m suddenly intolerant of any view but my own.  Going forward, I should probably consider borrowing a page from my parents’ playbook.   Am I ranting or delivering a message? Is it necessary? Is it truthful? Is it delivered respectfully?

Upon arriving home from work each day, Howie would unwind with a gin and tonic and the newspaper. Rather then relaxing him though, the news would seem to agitate him. Eventually, the gin would kick in, and the edges would soften, and with a weary smile, he’d say: “our government may be really screwed up, but it’s still the best screwed up government in the world.” I can’t be certain if he’d say this today, but I think there’s a good chance he might.  This gives me hope (perhaps misguided) that everything will be just fine.