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.

Intimidating Stuff

Some things in life are intimidating, but the more you do them, the less intimidating they become.

Recently, a group of my student leaders was invited to have dinner with the University president. But the day before the dinner, we were notified that only a couple of the students had responded to the invitation, and the chef needed a head count. When we nudged the students to respond, some of them admitted they were intimidated by the thought of having dinner with the president.

And yet, the situations we encounter are often well matched to our development and to pushing that development just a bit beyond our optimal zone of comfort. Having dinner with a university president (who is well versed in dealing with young adults) is an appropriate situation for a student leader. Having dinner with the CEO of the corporation for which one works would be an appropriate situation for someone who had worked at the company for a while.

Life, you see, is about doing intimidating stuff. Because the intimidating stuff pushes us to grow and become better individuals.

But here’s the funny part. When you start doing intimidating stuff—making inquiry phone calls, engaging in debates with people whose opinions differ from yours, meeting with people in power, having dinner with your boss or the CEO of your organization, having difficult conversations—it stops being intimidating. It becomes the stuff you need to do.  You become more comfortable, and the difficult stuff…? It gets easier. Along the way, others start to recognize you as someone who faces situations head-on, they begin to look up to you, and you are given more responsibility. And more respect.

As you make your way through life, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Sometimes, they are only presented once, and if you don’t jump, you may miss your chance. Take advantage of opportunities so you will be seen. No one is going to come looking for you to work on their project or create their videos or run their department… if they haven’t already met you or heard about you or seen you.

You will be amazed at the opportunities that open up all because you started doing intimidating stuff, and you didn’t let your fear hold you back.

Step out of your comfort zone. The more often you do so, the more comfortable—and the more ready—you will be when it matters most.

{Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash}

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}

Surrender

At the beginning of this year, I came across a picture of a knitting project—a temperature blanket which is completed at the rate of one row per day. I’m not sure what possessed me to take this on, but the finished product looked intriguing. One row per day. How difficult could that be? On January first, or maybe the second, I selected an array of colors—one for each of the ten-degree temperature ranges we’re likely to experience here in the Northeast. I was ready to create a beautiful blanket. One row per day, I thought. I can commit to that!

It wasn’t long before I realized what I had gotten myself into. As I began to knit my one row each night, I realized I had absolutely no control over what the finished product would look like. I could not choose the color I would use each night. Nope. That was chosen for me based on the temperature that day. Suddenly, I was not the creator of the blanket. I was merely an unwitting tool in the finished product. The blanket was going to be its own story, and it was not my story to tell.

Now here we are, almost halfway through the year. I have kept up with my temperature blanket, and I am finding the results somewhat interesting. My colors are based on the high temperature of the day, and there are occasions when I consider fudging just a bit. Ooo, 59°. Perhaps I could knit a row of yellow, my 60s color… but I don’t.

I’ve realized, knitting a temperature blanket has been a giant lesson in surrender.  And this lesson comes at a time when I desperately need it. My children need my advice more than ever.

But do they really? Shouldn’t they figure things out on their own without me meddling in their business? Without me throwing myself into the decisions that will ultimately prepare them to face more and more challenging decisions? Shouldn’t I let them be?

They don’t need me the way they once did, and this is a challenging place for a parent. I won’t always be here, and I know my job is to let them flounder until they ask. My job is to give them the confidence that they have the skills they need. My job is to surrender control and trust that I have done my job in preparing them for exactly this. Even though I might want to help them out just this once… I have to let it go. I have to let them soar or fall so they will learn how to keep moving.

I may not like it any more than I like switching to a colder (or warmer) color in my knitting. But that’s exactly why knitting this blanket at this time has given me such a great lesson. I am not the one in control. I have to let go. My children are ready to tell their own stories.

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!