The Doctor is IN

Keen Observations on Life … Whether You Need Them or Not


Good Children’s Literature is Empowering

A decade after I let my membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators guild lapse, I have decided to renew it.

I was actively working on manuscripts while my 13-year-old was brand new and into his toddler years, but full-time work along with my interest in mainstream fiction and the romance genre eventually won the battle of time.

But I’ve always been a big believer that good children’s literature is empowering. The most effective stories are those that provide a snapshot of life and troubles that a child can understand, and then show how the characters come to a resolution on their own. My son is no stranger to the ins and outs of building friendships, learning how to deal with arguments, dealing with the death of family members, financial woes from his parents being laid off, and now puberty wreaking havoc with his wiring.

On Monday, which was his first day of eighth grade (he attends year-round school here in NC), we got to engage in our of our favorite activities: school supply shopping. Whoever said free public education was free is smoking crack. After a trip to Barnes & Noble for required reading and Staples for supplies, we were $150 poorer. But, it’s the required reading that gave me pause.

Three stories they’ll cover this year in Language Arts: My Brother Sam is Dead; The Giver; and The Pearl. Yawn. Really, with all of the spectacular children’s literature that’s come out in the last decade, I wonder why public schools continue to push the same required reading that I had in high school 20 years ago. In searching the required reading table for this year’s three selections, I was not surprised to see that I had read probably 90% of the titles–either in grade school, college (I’m a literature major), or on my own. Many of the books are good and do have good messages, but how about Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games … or hell, how about Harry Potter? I think classic required reading titles definitely have their place, but I wish Language Arts teachers would include a newer novel from the last five years in the list. But realize this: new stuff is worthwhile, too, and focuses on age-old issues with very current situations. One of the reasons required reading should be required is to foster an interest in sitting down and actually, you know, reading. Morals and lessons are extremely important; but so is learning that books can take you anywhere, regardless of where real life has you.

More to come on my regenerated interest in children’s literature … soon.


Out with the old …

Sigh …

Seems I can’t pull myself out of the emotional funk I’ve been in the last couple of days. Between our friends having a baby last week and today being the last day of seventh grade, it seems I’ll be weepy for a little while longer.

Since kindergarten we’ve taken a picture on the first day of school, and the last day of school. Today’s photo was hurried and a little blurry because we were racing to catch the bus, and my 13-year-old said, “Mom, I’ll have this stuff on all day.” Duh, I wanted to say … but he was right.

Year-round schools in our county make the shock of the passage of time hit you like ripping off a Band-Aid: just one week off and then he starts eighth grade. So I’m not even going to try being nice over the next few days; I’m going to allow myself to be surly and sappy, a little weepy if I need to be, and overly-motherly. I’ll deal with the shock of having an eighth grader next week.


Reminiscing About My (13 year old) Baby

We got the notice yesterday around 8:30 am EST that the wife of a longtime friend of ours (we like her, too) was in labor. Exciting news considering he’s two years older at 40, and we’ve been parents for 13 years. Then this morning around 7:30 we got the news that little Isaac Gregory was born around 6:51 am CST, and both my husband and I have been struck with a consuming case of nostalgia.

Peyton, born on Pi Day (March 14), 1998.

As a matter of fact, I was talking to the mini me about it yesterday … childbirth, that is. He blanched, but was curious. He likes to hear stories of when he was a baby, and about my husband and I when we were younger. He said: “I don’t know how you did it mom. Just seems like it would’ve hurt real bad.” I told him the truth: “I had a great pregnancy and was lucky to not every be sick or out of commission. But I won’t lie to you–in those last two weeks I really started to panic because I knew I had to go through labor and begged your daddy to do it for me. It was like trying to suck a watermelon through a straw.” He laughed.

Elementary Peyton, with his radical little self.

The days and weeks of a new baby have been passing through my memory like a movie. It’s so surreal to see it all again, so crisp and clear like it’s happening now. The fear I had about handling the baby; before my own child was born, the youngest kid I’d ever held was probably two. Thanks to my husband, who grew up on a street that had 13 kids born while he was in high school, for showing me I was doing it right. The panic I would feel in those initial weeks when I realized we were in charge of a new life. Holy cow. The sheer joy that filled my heart to bursting when I held my child in my arms. The contentment and happiness I felt through my years of nursing (what can I say, I was La Leche), feeling his little ribcage expanding with his breaths, and the flutter of his little heartbeat against my body.

Seventh grade Peyton is a fierce competitor on the soccer field, whip smart and hysterical.

Today was Peyton’s last Friday of seventh grade. With his year-round school schedule, his days are a little skewed from the norm, and when he finishes his last day on Thursday next week he’ll have just one week out before eighth grade starts. I foresee a small panic attack with that milestone, because his next first day of school will be high school. I don’t know how he continues to mature when I don’t age a day. Sigh … I love parenthood. I love my husband more and more everyday for contributing 50% to my status of motherhood. Yes, some days are challenging, but 98% of them are spectacular and exciting and interesting and humbling. My mother used to tell me: “I couldn’t have picked a better child if I had gone to the baby store.” And I tell it to Peyton. I mean it; I couldn’t have a better son.

So welcome to the world Isaac Gregory. You are the best thing to ever happen to your parents.

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Father’s Day Has Never Been Big for Me … Until I Became A Mother

My heart soars with joy, love and happiness with these two stinky, rotten boys.

When I was growing up, the shadow of the Vietnam War loomed largely over our home. Had my mother allowed it, it would have looked like one of those cartoon rain clouds stuck above a characters head, forever raining on its head.

But she didn’t. My dad was a Vietnam Vet who went into the war a perfectly happy man and good husband. The flip side for him, unfortunately, was a much different portrait. He finally left my mother and I when I was in about the third grade–and good riddance.

So Father’s Day was never high on my list. Why would I hold in regard the stranger who never called on my birthday or Christmas; didn’t pay child support or insurance; didn’t comfort my mother when I called from the emergency room in eighth grade following a car wreck coming home from the fair with friends; who lurked in the shadows and left homemade artistic gifts in the mailbox that scared the shit out of me, just knowing he was out there? I went to daycare until middle school so I didn’t have to be a latchkey kid (as they called us back in the day) and possibly know that today was the day he was going to leave something in the mailbox … and be waiting for me. I still sleep with a nightlight.

My mother, whom her friends call Rah-Rah, done up like a runner.

I’m 38, and for 25 of my years I’ve given my mother a Father’s Day card or gift. Because she did it all. Granted, we had a very basic yard that a neighborhood kid cut on the regular, and we couldn’t have a dog because that would mean we’d have to go outside at night, but our lives were really good. I never wanted for anything I needed, even though money was paycheck-to-paycheck and there weren’t extras. I got most of what I wanted because I was patient (and there was lay away).

And I had 100% of her attention.

But what I had most of all was a strong woman who did not fall apart and cry at the drop of a hat, who kept a job that she retired from six years ago. She wasn’t able to be the room mom or go on field trips; she took one vacation day each school year so she could go to lunch with me, propelling me to the front of the lunch line and making me the HMFIC. She made cupcakes in the middle of the night when snacks were needed; she participated in the phone tree after work; she colored every project I had, sitting next to me at the kitchen table, listening to me chatter about my day and smiling. She was there, and that was all I needed.

Grandbarry and Peyton, at our beloved Emerald Isle, NC.

It wasn’t until I met my husband and got married that I had a “father” in my life, that of my father-in-law. He was an odd fella, a genius scientist but a goofy regular guy. He loved his family, treated his wife like the queen, and was a good provider for his children. He was kind and engaging. And he was a great blueprint for my husband on what a good father should be.

Thirteen years ago, when our son was born, I changed my outlook on fathers all together. My husband and I have been inseparable best friends since our first date; the fates knew what they were doing when they threw us together. But seeing him holding our little peanut of a six and three-quarters pound baby in the palm of one hand, holding him as carefully as if he were made out of the finest crystal, and pressing sweet kisses on his head … sigh. That was all she wrote for me.

We've all got our own kayaks now, but this was Peyton's favorite way to ride.

My husband’s a great father. Sure, he irritates the hell out of me sometimes and I want to pinch his head off, praying mantis-style … but I get over it in about ten minutes. He’s fun and adventurous, chases our son with the water hose, taught him to kayak and play golf, plows unapologetically through the kids in the neighborhood in roller hockey, teaches him all about codes and cyphers (I live with the technology Gestapo and his genius offspring), and provides a grand example of how to be a polite, respectful, protective young man.

I say again: he’s a great father. He’s the father I secretly wished and prayed for in the dark, and I couldn’t be more thankful and richly rewarded that he was given to me for our son. Wow, seriously, he was worth the wait.

One final thought: Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day and every other Hallmark-created holiday should last more than just its namesake day … and it does at our house. But this year will go down in history for its awesome Father’s Day gifts. My mom will be speechless with hers, and my husband will weep with joy. I figure our son and I are in like Flint for a long time. I’m just saying …

(And PS, Matt … if you’re reading this … Peyton would love to have a catch tonight.)

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A Thank You Culture

A dozen years ago, when I was just starting out on my professional journey, I worked as a senior writer in the Nortel Networks international IT marketing/ communications team. Life was good, salaries were soaring, and I was learning a crucial business acumen that has carried me through the years.

Indeed, I was one of thousands of techie employees laid off in the dot com bust in the early years of the new millennium, and in retrospect, my colleagues and I should’ve seen it coming. We went from ridiculously high annual and project bonuses to an operational concept the bigwigs called the “Thank You Culture.”

As part of the Corporate Communications team, I wrote about and encouraged it all the time. But it wasn’t until after I left Nortel and moved into the non-profit world that I truly came to appreciate the concept.

It’s really very simple in nature: find one thing to thank a different person for every day. In the Nortel setting, it was easy to replace the bonus with a hearty “thank you.” Granted, it didn’t spend the same, but the gesture was there, and thank you really does go a long way.

When I worked in Theatre, we were always busy and stressed with deadlines. I managed all kinds of print vendors and was writing commercials and designing playbills … high stress situations always entered the picture when vendors were late, or the set wasn’t ready far enough ahead of time. Complaints were lobbed like baseballs. And then, when I moved into the most stressful job I have ever had–grantwriter and public affairs officer for an organization supporting, housing and advocating for individuals living with HIV/AIDS–I realized that “thank you” was a foreign concept.

I’ve never been shy to make a complaint or advocate for someone unable to do so for themselves. But being on the receiving end of complaints, and just hearing others complain, is terrible. So I have always tried to temper my complaints with compliments.

For example, I don’t ever make a complaint without including some type of suggestion; and when I do complain, I try to do it as respectfully as possible. When I make formal complaints, I never do it anonymously. First of all, I find that to be incredibly cowardly. Secondly, I want you to talk to me and see if we can figure out a happy medium.

And I go out of my way to try to thank others. Whether it’s at a restaurant, at work, at home … I am vocal in my appreciation. At first, the Nortel Thank You Culture project was remedial. Now, it’s just ingrained and I never think about it; I thank on the fly.

My son’s 12, and he’s also a very thankful person. I’m proud of his manners, and never worry that he’ll be horrible when we go out. He is, after all, the greatest masterpiece by my husband and I.

I was especially moved by President Obama’s speech in Tucson this week. I appreciate that the big cheese himself pointed out the importance of listening to each other, being kind and respectful, and being appreciative when we can find similarities.

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.  As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.  Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected.  We’re shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward.  We reflect on the past.   Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder.  Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us?  Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.  We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.  Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order.  We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

Who needs constant complaining and sniping? At the end of the day, aren’t we all just Americans, and don’t we all have hopes and dreams and opinions? Don’t we all have families and friends we love and care for, and want them to do the same for us? It should not be so radical a concept that this was new information for some people.

But it was, so if you’re an optimist with a kind streak like I am, give ’em time. They gotta shake loose the cobwebs of kindness and empathy … but they’ll get it eventually. It’s so easy to say thank you, especially when you’ve had a little practice.

(And if they don’t, THEN you can get ’em. I’ve always found more success in business when I go in with a smile. It puts people off-guard, and more apt to listen if you actually have to unleash your inner bitch.)

Don’t forget to smile, and don’t forget to say thank you. Bless your heart.

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Million Minute Family Challenge | Are You Game?

We are … as team
We Love Pi!
(in honor of the boy,
born on March 14)

We’re going to be on vacation at the end of the month, and I foresee days and days of games mixed in with sun, sand and surf. I was excited to run across the Million Minute Family Challenge this week. We’re big non-electric game players, anyway, but it’ll be a fun challenge to see how many minutes we can log. Hopefully we’ll add a couple hundred to the national goal of one million.

I stand by my opinion that our son is the ace speller and wordsmith that he is from thousands of games of Quiddler, Boggle and Scrabble. His math skills are pretty fine-tuned, as well, and the result of Count Across and Count Down. So if you’ve got a few minutes, check out the details of the Million Minute Family Challenge and challenge yourselves.

Playing board games is good for your brain, and good for your heart! Have fun!