Broken Zippers

We have reached a critical point in our school career, my youngest and I. With just over three months to go in his entire school career, the lunch bag he has been using since eighth grade (maybe seventh) has sprung a broken zipper. We have been able to limp through this crisis so far, but we are reaching the end of the bag’s utility faster than we are reaching graduation.

The zipper has two pulls that meet in the middle. One of the zippers has come off its track and hangs useless and rattling at one end. While that might seem workable, what with the second pull and all, the zipper has a section of broken and missing teeth, and the other end only zips halfway, leaving the bag gaping and in danger of dumping its contents—literally “losing its lunch,” if you will.

But as I mentioned, we have only three months left of school. In our entire career. It’s not like a new lunch bag can be passed down to a younger sibling or cousin or neighbor. In three months, we’ll be DONE, and there is no one younger to use a crummy lunch bag.

But I know better than to think three months of paper lunch bags would be a good idea. Number one, the environment doesn’t need to give up any more trees. And number two, paper doesn’t keep the lunch cold and the weather will be warming soon.

But here’s the kicker. I knew we had another black lunch box in our house somewhere… or at least we used to. We definitely have a green one, and I know exactly where that one is. But there was a black one… now where did we put that?

Then one day last week, I was carrying the laundry to the basement, and I spotted the lunch bag. It was covered in a layer of dust, hanging on a hook behind my older son’s quiver of flu-flu arrows. (Those suckers haven’t been moved since he was in high school, and he’s graduating from college this year…). So, I took it down and tossed it in the laundry room to wash over break.

A couple days later, when I went to throw it in the wash, I realized it wasn’t empty. You know that feeling of dread you get when you have no idea what you’re about to see, but you know it can’t be good? As I reached for the zipper, I prepared both my eyes and my stomach for whatever four-plus year-old food I was about to uncover. I closed my eyes and unzipped the bag.

I opened one eye and peeked in. A sandwich bag full of goldfish—still orange (though pale) and smiling—stared back at me. A smaller bag held $1.25 in quarters—milk money. I breathed a sigh of relief as I peeled the sticky goldfish bag from the bottom of the container. The oils from the crackers and the years in the bag had made the plastic sticky. I chucked the bag in the trash, scrubbed the residue from the container, and tossed it in the washing machine. Now, we have a nearly new lunch bag to end out the waning school year!

But an important lesson can be learned from this story: Check your lunch bags at the door. You may thank me someday.

Unexpected Duties

Last evening, my son walked in the door from work as I was walking through the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. “If you want to give me your sweatshirt, I’ll toss it in with this load,” I told him. He unzipped his jacket and slipped it off. He started to throw it on the chair, but then changed his mind. He brought it to his nose and sniffed. But right now, he has a pretty bad cold. “I can’t smell anything.” He held it out to me. “Can you smell this and tell me if it needs to be washed?”

You know that parenting manual that we are all supposed to receive before we leave the hospital with our newly hatched babies? The manual that the hospital always forgets to give new parents? This particular task is in there. It’s in the chapter titled, “Unexpected Duties of Parenting.” This chapter contains all the things parents must do, but don’t know about. These are the Surprise! duties, some of which could be perceived as dangerous.

“Uck! This smells horrible! Smell it!” This exclamation is usually followed by some item or other being held out at arm’s length toward the unsuspecting (and thoroughly disgusted) parent.

“It’s really dark in there, Mom. Can you go first?” Yes, that’s definitely a good idea. I’ll go first and when whatever is in there eats me, you’ll be left here to fend for yourself. Good plan.

“Mom, I think the milk is sour. Taste it.” Ooo! That seems like such a great offer, but … no thank you, I’ll pass.

“I dropped my boat [fish net, stick, jacket… insert item here] in the pond, and now I can’t reach it. Come help me get it!” All “emergencies” like this one are delivered frantic and breathless. They often take all spur-of-the-moment creative resources a parent can muster to devise some plan, gather all of the possibly necessary items (stick, rope, rain boots, etc.), and run to retrieve the stray item.

Then there are the SCREAMS that emanate from the far reaches of the house at top vocal volume. With heart pounding, the parent will call out, “What’s happening?” The child who screamed replies, “MOM! There’s a bug in my room!” The parent, with pounding heart calming and eyes rolling, will say (as calmly as possible), “Well, kill it,” because that would be the logical thing to do, right? The panicked reply is always, “It’s HUGE, Mom! Please come, NOW!!”

Over the years, there are myriad forgotten items that have to be delivered to school after the morning’s frantic rush to get out the door and make the bus—lunches, schoolbooks, papers, projects, you name it.

All of this—from crazy requests to chaotic moments—is contained in that single chapter of the great, unseen parenting manual. It might be nice to know these duties are coming and expected. Then again, no one can predict when a child/teen/young adult might say, “Yuck, smell this!” So maybe these unexpected parenting duties have a purpose for us, as parents. Maybe these are simply tiny lessons in thinking on one’s feet and creative problem solving that, when strung together, make us stronger and more prepared for the bigger issues and the truly important parenting duties.

{Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash}

Confession

I was at the grocery store recently, in the coffee/tea aisle perusing the selections of both, really. But as I made my way toward the back of the store, some hot chocolate caught my eye—something different than the usual individually packaged powdered mix. This one was in a miniature, old fashioned glass milk bottle, and there were several different flavors. I bought some for my son—Chocolate Moo-usse. He likes hot chocolate, and this particular brand looked fascinating (and good!)—all natural and (relatively) local.

However, I have to confess that I bought the hot chocolate as much for the packaging as for the actual product, itself. Imagine what a cute vase that would make with some flowers (real or silk) on my desk at work! And just like me, the product promises, “Sillyness by nature.” Indeed, this is the perfect message for me and my life.

This evening, I went to the company website to take a look. They have a great story, and I have to say, I am quite anxious to try the “Hot Chocolate Silly Cookies.”

You know, maybe this was a silly purchase. Seeing as we’re heading into summer, it’s not really hot chocolate weather, first of all. And, as I said, I purchased the hot chocolate mainly for the packaging.

But on the other hand, think about this: all-natural ingredients, great recipes, and pure yumminess (and a new office decoration, as a perk!) all for under $4.00! What’s not to love about that?

Connections

We need to teach our children how to connect with others. I don’t mean teach them how to connect via social media—they are experts at that already. I mean we need to teach them to connect with other people face-to-face and one-on-one.

This thought struck me the other day after a couple things happened. First of all, I realized the new version of Google’s gmail is now offering me the option to click on a pre-determined email response. Essentially, it is “reading” my email and formulating a quick response that I can send to someone like, say, my boss, to thank her, let her know I will check into something, or make her think I am following up on her response or a request. In reality, the pre-determined one-click response allows me to not think. I don’t have to think about my response, and I don’t have to think about following up.

Now, I appreciate the time and effort Google has put in to formulating this algorithm, but shortcuts like this are the reason true communication skills are dwindling to non-functional levels. Seriously.

In order to have functional communication, we have to think about our responses. We have to consider whether an email deserves more than just a cursory glance. We have to think about the person who is receiving the response, and we must choose our language (and tone) based on our audience. Effective communication requires us to engage.

People are no longer engaged with communication. They are no longer engaged with others. They simply hit the reply button, send a one-to-ten word response, and they are done. That brevity does not encourage individuals to connect with other individuals. It demonstrates the power of technology to pull us apart. Yes, it does.

The second thing that gave me a glimpse into our need for better communication occurred when I was picking up a pack of colored chalk for some student tutors. I wandered into a local craft store. When I located the chalk and made my way to the check out, I was greeted by Ted. And when I say, “greeted by,” I mean Ted was working the register. He did not talk to me. He did not make eye contact. He did not speak in a voice that was loud enough or clear enough to be heard and understood. I am not sure why this corporation thought Ted was the best choice for this position. Then again, given the lack of any other visible workers in the store, I suppose their choice was limited.

Friends, we need to teach our children how to connect with others. We need to reinforce the importance of communication in all forms—face-to-face, through email, and over the phone. We need to teach them to look up from their shoes and make eye contact. We need to model and reinforce the conventions of carrying on a conversation. Being able to connect with other people is so important for living a healthy life. If our children have this skill—the ability to connect and communicate—they will have a strong foundation as they move on to “adulting.”

Amplified Mischief

Somehow, in the craziness of my home, we came into possession of a megaphone for a brief period over the weekend. In fact, it was an intentional acquisition on the part of the youngest member of my household. He purchased it as a “Secret Santa” gift for another staff member at his summer camp job. I’m told his pick for “Secret Santa” is the loudest staff member at camp, and my son is the master of gag gifts.

But no one in their right mind can be in possession of a megaphone without trying it out, can they?

So my son scrounged around for the right batteries, and soon, he was walking around our small kitchen, talking to us through the megaphone, turning up the volume, trying out the “siren,” and turning up the volume some more. He decided the volume was best when it was close to as loud as it could get.

Meanwhile, his brother was torturing the cat, picking him up and holding him hostage, despite the fact that the cat wanted to get away from the unpleasant noise of the megaphone. “Leave the cat alone,” I told him. “He wants to flee.”

“C, put the cat down,” the megaphoned command clattered through the kitchen as if the local police had driven right up to our kitchen window and made the demand themselves. It wasn’t long before we were all laughing, including the neighbor out walking her dog.

* * * * *

On Saturday morning, I had to go out to pick up our car, and I figured I would get groceries since I would be car-less for the afternoon. J had to leave for work by 1:15, and even though I knew I would make it, I was cutting it close. I was on my way home when. at 1:05, she called me. “I’m on my way,” I told her. “But I’m going to need some help unloading the car as soon as I get home.”

A few minutes later, I pulled up to the house. My son (the current owner of the megaphone) was standing at the end of our walkway ready to grab the groceries from the car and carry them into the house. My daughter was standing at the front door, megaphone in hand, the look of “boss in charge” in her stance. Had I arrived only two minutes earlier, I might have been able to watch this all shake down.

Oh, how I longed to ask about this particular arrangement of my children—how little brother wound up outside while sister took control of the megaphone. But I know some questions are best left to my imagination.

Unexpected Hedgehog

This unexpected hedgehog landed in my house last night, a graduation present from my daughter’s homeroom teacher. At our high school, homeroom teachers work with the same group of students through four years, and my daughter had developed a jovial rapport with this teacher. The hedgehog thing had started out as a joke at a banquet last week and evolved into this little bugger, a wonder that will provide oodles of hours of entertainment in my house.

Throughout Monday afternoon, I heard there was a hedgehog coming with W, the only child still in school this late in the spring. Last night, I came downstairs to find a clear plastic cylindrical container cast aside on the table where J was eating ice cream, and C was inserting batteries into the hedgehog in question.

“Batteries?” I questioned. “What does it do?”

“Apparently, it talks,” he responded, setting it down on the kitchen table. The three of us watched it, waiting. For what, we didn’t know. C picked it up and squeezed it. Nothing.

“How do you get it to work?” I asked. The hedgehog vibrated on the table and made a whimpering noise.

“I don’t know,” C shrugged. “The instructions are in Chinese.” Again, the little guy vibrated, moving in a circle, and whined something unintelligible.

“It’s talking, but I can’t understand it.” Another quick noise emerged. We watched the cute little toy as if something magical was going to happen, all the while trying to figure out what it was saying.

“I don’t know,” stated C, and he started to exit the room. He turned around and looked at the hedgehog on the table. “Alexa!” he shouted jokingly.

The hedgehog danced in a circle on the table. “Alexa!” it replied back, an octave higher. I gasped, nearly choking on the grapes I was stuffing into my mouth. My jaw dropped as did the jaws of the two others in the room. We stared at the hedgehog.

“Alexa!” C shouted again, just to see if it was a fluke.

“Alexa!” the hedgehog said back. We all began to laugh.

“That is awesome! It really does talk!” one of the kids said, loudly enough that the little device could “hear” and easily repeat.

“…Awesome. It really does talk!” the hedgehog repeated with near perfect intonation, as it danced in a circle.

The kids tried out several more words and phrases, each time being met with a reply repeated in the hedgehog’s cute voice. Finally, we turned it off, still laughing at the experience of discovering the silliness of this toy.

“When you go to work tomorrow, I’m going to play with that,” I informed J. “I can’t wait!” I smiled and winked. Unfortunately, when J left for work today, C got to the hedgehog first.

But that’s okay. I have the whole summer to talk to this silly little toy!

 

Dinner Grades

The other day, I was brainstorming dinner ideas, which is not an infrequent occurrence, and I suddenly realized I had a pot of pasta with green onions in the refrigerator. This pasta had started out to be pasta salad for a school event on Wednesday. But after an incident at school that day, the event had been postponed until the next week. Half of the pasta had been made into salad for a pot luck on Friday, but the rest of the pasta (complete with green onions) was still in my fridge. In limbo. And there was my dinner starting point.

I turned to the trusty Internet to find a recipe that would work for my particular pasta dilemma. Oh, and my daughter is currently testing out a vegetarian diet, so I had to find something vegetarian yet hearty enough to satisfy two ravenous boys. Not too tall of an order, I suppose.

I searched pasta and green onions since those were the ingredients already mixed together. Chicken… nope, bacon… nope, shrimp… oh, come on. I finally stumbled on Spaghetti with Skinny Green Onion Sauce. It was made with peppers, onions, and tomatoes with a base that included tomato paste and cream cheese. I could easily swap out the spaghetti for the pasta I had! I went to work, hoping the recipe would turn out as good as it looked.

As we sat down and began to eat dinner, a quiet fell over the diners at the table. That’s always a good sign. A minute or so later after several bites, C said, “This is really good, Mom—I give it an A+!” (as if grading dinner was a thing). He paused for just a second, then he looked me straight in the eye and added, “That’ll bring your grade up.”

Next to him, his younger brother’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped in a split second of shock. Then he pulled himself together. “That was rude!” he commented, and I burst out laughing. The thought of being graded on my cooking was humorous in itself, but the fact that this meal would “bring my grade up” made me wonder what my grades had been on previous meals.

Too bad I’ll never know. But at least dinner was a hit!

 

Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.

Water

I was in the basement moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer. It was quiet in the basement, despite all manner of teen antics that were presently permeating the first floor. I live in a townhouse-style condominium, and as with most condominiums, this one was built quickly and cheaply. Sound travels from floor to floor, from room to room, and—pretty much—from end to end.

I concentrated on sorting the items that needed to go into the dryer from those that should be line-dried, attempting to ignore the laughter and shouts from above—sounds that clearly indicate mischief is afoot. But then C came tumbling down the stairs, his feet sending vibrations through the house before he skidded to a halt on the second to last stair.

“Can you just keep yourself busy down here for like ten minutes? I’ve got everything under control!”

“Um… no,” I told him, the gears in my brain grinding to a halt. “What’s happening up there?”

But he had already begun the sprint back up the stairs. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ve got it under control!”

I sighed as I hastened my sorting, knowing his story might be more than a bit skewed, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was going on. J came down to get away from the ruckus and breathe, the boys’ rough play proving to be overwhelming. “They got a lot of water on the floor.” And then she proceeded to tell me that one boy threw a cupful of water at the other. “But they’re cleaning it up,” she added.

I took a deep breath pushing the minor complication from my thoughts. After all, it was just water. If my boys need to involve some “weapon” in their fights with each other, I suppose I should be happy that they choose to fight only with water. It’s (generally) easy to clean up, and (with the exception of frozen water balloons) it doesn’t hurt.

Let’s face it: my house has a long relationship with water. In the early days of parenting, I had toddlers jumping out of the tub and running down the hall “to get something,” with no thought for drying off first. I had little ones playing “car wash” and “baby bath time” on my kitchen floor. Water balloons, sprinklers, and pools filled my summers, and snow play with its soaking wet mittens, boots, snowpants, and jackets filled the dark afternoons of December through March. Rain, “frogging” in our pond, puddle jumping, water pistols and super-soakers.

A late-stage teenage water fight? I’ve got this! After all, what’s a little water between brothers when it’s all in fun?

Tough Lessons from the Road

A few months back—probably in the fall when the weather was good and the roads were clear—there was a discussion among some of my Facebook friends about motorcycles and pushing the limits of speed. These people were jovially comparing their top speeds, as if hitting 120 was a great accomplishment.

Recently, my 16 year old has been talking about getting a motorcycle, and I am not thrilled at the prospect. While I hope he will ride responsibly if he ever does get one, there is always that temptation to just test how it might feel to go a bit faster than one should. Meanwhile, I have always lived with the paranoid and constant fear that when a motorcyclist speeds past me on the highway, I will encounter the rider up ahead, splayed out in the road after a momentary misstep.

The other day, we were on our way back from a college visit, because really, shouldn’t we just continue to look at colleges since I am now four years into the process: one kid, then the next, and now the youngest? We had just merged from one highway to the next, and I was finding my place among the several lanes. A motorcycle with a young rider suddenly flew past us at an alarming speed, weaving in and out of the cars as he flew. He was living out the rush of a lifetime. A state trooper pursued him, sirens blaring, but he continued his reckless journey unabated.

As we crested the top of the hill, we had an almost two-mile view into a slight valley and up another hill. The motorcycle was a small dot moving along the road up ahead—easy to spot as it traveled faster than the cars around it. The trooper had backed off, knowing that continued pursuit would increase the possibility of the danger.

We traveled another couple miles and… Chaos. We spotted the motorcycle in a crumpled heap. W let out a fearful, “Oh!” and I gasped, the tears springing almost immediately. This was just too much. This sight—the scene of bike, the rider, and the chaos that comes before  emergency personnel arrive—is one of those scenes that I will never unsee. It is one that will quietly creep alongside me and rear its ugly head each and every time a motorcycle recklessly passes me. My once paranoid fear is now realized, confirmed, and etched in my brain forever.

And while I would not wish this sight on anyone, this lesson is one that only the road can teach—either by example or by experience. This lesson is best learned by example. I believe the message came screaming through to my son without my need to speak a word. This young rider had gathered enough speed to send himself headlong into whatever it is that comes next.

Each and every day, we walk the thin line between this world and the next. Depending on our choices, some days, that line seems much thinner and more vague than others—both as fine as the silk of a caterpillar hanging from a tree, and clearly visible to the naked eye. Without warning, we can slip from one side to the other.

One of the toughest lessons to learn is that each and every day is one of those days.