Friday, September 24, 2010

School's Out Forever

I am dropping out of the fifth grade. I didn’t like it the first time, and now, it’s even harder. I’m probably going to skip middle school and high school, too. (Although, there were some fun times in high school I wouldn’t mind re-living. There was this one time at band camp…) I have decided that I really don’t like algebra or making 3-D models of cells or learning about the Reconstruction. My half-baked decision comes after only five weeks of school.  The other night as I sat at the computer with my son, searching the web for some obscure political cartoon satirizing the end of slavery, I had an epiphany. This was his homework, not mine. He was being graded, not me. I was completely free to grab some Merlot and catch the latest episode of “Ghost Hunters” if I wanted. So, I did.

As I sat there watching Jason and Grant attempt to provoke a spirit into slamming a door or ruffling curtains, it occurred to me that if I could just get enough parents behind me, I could start a revolution. I know this sounds crazy, but what if parents quit helping their kids with their school projects and homework? It’s an insane notion, but what if children took full responsibility for their work and (gasp!) did it all by themselves?

I’m thinking about starting a grassroots movement to get parents out of schools. I have a feeling that this will be even more controversial than the prayer issue, though. I’m willing to sacrifice my afternoons at Hobby Lobby looking for foam balls and my evenings spent deciphering the value of x and y to find out. My Mad Mom Manifesto will state that parents are strictly forbidden to “help” their kids with their classroom assignments in any way. I’m calling for moms and dads to spend their time planning family-friendly fall festivals and organizing school improvement committees instead of researching the Civil War or creating a time line for Ben Franklin’s early years. I’m encouraging all parents to put down the magic markers and step away from the construction paper.

I don’t have a single memory of my parents helping me with my school assignments, and I didn’t end up in jail or dancing around a stripper pole. Back in the ‘70’s, parents were parents and not tutors or cheerleaders or substitute teachers. (On a side note: Didn’t it seem that substitute teachers back then were Grumpy Old Trolls pulled from underneath a fairy tale bridge somewhere? We were lucky to make it through the day without being eaten.) My parents never checked to make sure my homework was done, and they especially didn’t care if my answers were correct. The teacher would be checking on that. If I didn’t understand it, then I needed to study harder. Their job was to teach me right from wrong, mold me into a good citizen of the world, love me, clothe me, and feed me. (And occasionally smack my rear when I deserved it.) It was their duty to instill in me the good sense to know that it was my responsibility to get my work done and know that I would suffer the consequences if I didn't. When did parents get their job descriptions confused?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m my kids’ biggest fan, but if we never let them fail, just exactly how does this benefit them? Parents seem to think their child's identity is their own, therefore if the child does poorly, the parent does poorly.  I don't think so.  I finished fifth grade with flying colors, and my son's report card isn't going to change that fact.  I want him to excel, but I want him to want it for himself.  I can't hold his hand forever - I have shoe shopping to do!  (Okay...I'm just kidding...sort of.)

Have you seen the caliber of the projects kids bring to school lately?  It’s usually obvious which kid has an Engineer Mom or an Artist Dad, and because of that, the standard is now set too high. God forbid that a ten year old brings in a poster board on our Founding Fathers that doesn’t look like it was designed by a Madison Avenue marketing firm. And, I’m fairly sure that kindergarteners will soon be required to be proficient in Photoshop and PowerPoint. Crayons are for babies, you know.

So, I’m taking adulthood back. I will no longer agonize over vocabulary words. (Hey, I’m allowed to use spell check, encouraged even.) I have decided that I will worry about fractions only when my recipe calls for half a cup of this or a quarter teaspoon of that. I am officially declaring glue sticks off limits for any one over the age of twenty-one. I’m going to use my downtime to relax like a grown up and encourage my kids to be kids, shaky handwriting, misspelled words and all. Now, who’s with me?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Chance Encounter

Saturday morning was dawning as one of those days that give a little tease of autumn. The sky was a brilliant blue, and we were being spared from the unrelenting humidity of the last three months. Even though I harbor a sincere hatred of my weekend long run, being greeted by sunshine and sixty-five degrees at the front door made it tolerable. I turned on the evil Nike + (Sorry, Lance, but our relationship has grown stale), and began my dreaded ten mile trek.

I headed down the road to an adjacent neighborhood of homes that are a good notch or two (or three) above mine on the socio-economic scale. I love running there for many reasons. One: Wealthier people seem to have the upper hand on the middle class when it comes to ravenous dog containment. I haven’t had a single canine versus weary runner contest yet. (Thank you, Invisible Fence Company!) Two: Wealthier people seem to have fewer yard sales. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you have never tried negotiating yard sale traffic on foot against disoriented grandmothers who have been up since four in the morning and are determined to be the first to get their hands on Aunt Edna’s velvet painting of The Last Supper, then you just need to trust me on this one.

The biggest reason I like to run in this upscale neighborhood is so that I can covet the homes I pass. (Yes, I know it is a sin, but so is gluttony, and you only have to go to Wal-Mart on Saturday to witness a sea of sinners breaking that rule.)  I have picked my favorite houses, but I know that unless I come into possession of a winning lottery ticket (or go back to college and make something of myself), they will never be mine. I like to imagine that my favorite house is always clean (unlike mine), never smells like dog poop and fifth grade boy feet (unlike mine), and there is never a moment of discord between its inhabitants (unlike mine). Through a strange twist of fate during my run last Saturday, I found out that maybe Middle-Classville isn't so bad, and that a big house doesn’t always equal happiness.

I was getting into my groove after a couple of miles when I noticed a woman ahead of me. What caught my attention initially was her size: she was impossibly thin. She was walking when I saw her, but judging from her posture, I assumed she was cooling down after a difficult run. She looked beaten down (I can totally sympathize), and I wondered how her frail-looking legs were even supporting her. I was wearing sunglasses which gave me license to stare, so I did.  I just couldn't stop looking at this little pixie down the street.

As we approached each other, I turned down the volume on my iPod in preparation for the obligatory hand wave and “Good morning.” It turned out that our paths crossed directly in front of her home. She walked past, looked right at me, and instead of a smile or nod, she didn’t acknowledge me at all. She simply turned away, and walked slowly up the path to her front door.

Burn!!  It surprised me to be so summarily dismissed by this woman. Runners are a tortured bunch of ragtag soldiers, and we always give props to our comrades. Always. I continued staring at her, taking in the slow, painful-looking gait and the way her tiny shoulders seemed to be too heavy for her to carry. She stared at the ground as she made her way to her house, and then she was gone.

Everything about this brief confrontation bugged me. Why was I snubbed by this lady? Was she sick? Or injured? Did she think I was beneath her, and maybe she could tell that my running shorts are ten years old and that my faded tee shirt came from Target? Maybe she knew I was only a visitor to this well-manicured community and therefore didn't owe me anything.  I continued on with my run, but for some reason, I kept this woman on the front burner.

Two days later, my neighbor received the horrific news that her good friend had taken her own life. Suicide is shocking. It radiates through friends and family in a way that is different from death by cancer or a heart attack or even a car accident for that matter. Those close to the person will always feel some sense of responsibility. There will always be the “what ifs” that linger.  The ones left behind will wonder if there was something they could have done or said to prevent it from happening.  It's a double whammy from hell.

My neighbor shared old photos of the two of them as twenty-somethings smiling with the world in front of them. There was a familiarity about her good friend that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. The pictures made me feel a sort of affection for the woman and sorrow for her loss even though I had never laid eyes on her. Or, so I thought. When the local newspaper ran her obituary with a recent photograph and home address, I realized that I had indeed laid eyes on her, stared at her actually. This was the woman who I encountered on my run Saturday, and in an instant, it all made sense - the heavy shoulders, the blank stare, the look of utter defeat. I had a chance encounter with a person on the brink of suicide and at that moment, the harsh realization was that a hefty bank account and custom window treatments don't take away sadness and depression.   I knew this in my head, but I had just seen it in the flesh.

It’s possible that she didn’t even see me that morning despite the fact that we were nearly face to face. She was fighting demons that would compel her to end her own life two days later, so it's obvious that her outlook was clouded.   It seems so trite of me now to be upset over being snubbed by a stranger when in reality, this woman was literally on the edge and just barely hanging on by her fingertips.  Maybe next time I won't be so quick to judge. Maybe next time I will have a little more compassion for the distracted person ahead of me at the ATM because they, too, might be struggling to find a reason to stick around on this Earth.  And, maybe this time...I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer that this friend, this mother and wife, found her peace at last.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I See Dead People (Ghost in the Machine Revisited)

“I know why I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eye”, my son said to me as I was cooking dinner. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had come up with this time. My son, like me, has some insatiable need to have an explanation for everything. There is no gray area for this child. “I don’t know” simply won’t do. Every mystery under the sun has an answer, and he won’t rest until he finds it. (Or he makes it up, occasionally) “I found out that you don’t get your peripheral vision until you’re around eight years old,” he announced, “so, that explains it.” Yes, it made sense as to why he was seeing strange things out of the corner of his eye lately, but what about me? According to his science, I have had my peripheral vision for nearly thirty-four years now, so why am I catching odd, fleeting glimpses as well?

About a week ago, my son confided in me that since my mother died, he sees flashes of “things” around the house every now and then. He’ll see someone breeze by his doorway, only to find that no one is upstairs with him. He said there are evenings when he thinks he sees his little sister do the unthinkable and enter his room uninvited, but when he goes to shoo her out, she’s in her own bedroom playing with her Barbie dolls. He told me that he gets a feeling like he’s being watched sometimes. (Okay, that was easy enough to debunk…we have high voltage power lines down the street and every good ghost hunter knows they can make you feel creepy. He totally bought it, too.)

He had to find the answer himself for these seemingly paranormal experiences because when he asked me point blank if I believe in ghosts, I gave him a very gray-area kind of response. My ingenious comeback was, “Have you ever seen those guys on ‘Ghost Hunters’ find any real evidence that ghosts are here? Seriously…they are seeking them out and trying to provoke them, but their findings are marginal at best.” I could tell he wasn’t buying it, though. He was hoping I would tell him without reservation that he was simply seeing the dogs waddle past or that it was the television flashing in his peripheral vision. He wanted a stoic assurance from me that the sounds he hears are coming from the dishwasher or the air conditioner, but I couldn’t give it to him. I, too, have had some run-ins with the unexplained in the last couple of years that have left me scratching my head.

I have always been a skeptic and poo-pooer of all things other worldly, but I can’t find a definite source of the weirdness I have witnessed in my own home as of late. One recent night as I was in my dark bedroom perusing the internet for a cure for cancer (or watching Youtube videos…I can’t remember which), I saw my daughter walk by me on her way to the bathroom. I quickly jumped up and went after her to make sure she wasn’t sick, but no one was there. A bedroom check confirmed that both children were sleeping soundly. But, I know I saw her. I know I saw someone in a white gown.

A similar scenario played out another evening while I was watching television. (Don’t judge – I’m sure it was a PBS documentary or something else as wholesome.) Sitting with my back to the bedroom, I heard the very distinctive sound of my glass shower door being closed too hard for my liking. Thinking that a kid (or two) was about to be busted for slamming doors, I got up to go lay down the law about how they are going to end up shattering the glass, and how they know better, and the rest of the Mom Speech they love to hear.  However, the bathroom light wasn’t even on, and the kids were downstairs.

I will admit to being a little spooked, so I diligently checked every possible source of the noise. Nothing fell in the closet. All bottles and cans were upright under the sink. Three dogs were present and accounted for. At this point, I’m thinking I have a toilet-obsessed entity occupying my house. (Or perhaps it likes to primp and is just enjoying the double vanity mirror.) And, it isn't just me.  My husband said he regularly sees "something" in the upstairs hallway, but we try not to talk about it much because that would mean we are certifiably crazy, right? RIGHT?

What really sent me over the edge was an incident last December, though. I was searching the china cabinet drawers for a pile of my mother’s Christmas recipes. My daughter walked up behind me and said, “Whatcha doin’, Mommy?” Without turning around, I replied, “I’m looking for Granny’s recipes. I’m going to make some of the goodies that she used to make for us.” She stood there quietly for a minute and then said matter-of-factly, “Granny says you’re looking in the wrong place.” I stopped cold in my tracks as the hair on the back of my neck stood on end and goose bumps came over my arms. I slowly turned around, and said “Really? Can Granny tell me where I should look?” She seemed to be thinking about it and said, “No, but it’s definitely not in there.” 

I kept up my fruitless search for a while longer before abandoning it for house cleaning. A few days later while on another wild goose chase, I found the recipes, and they were in a completely different room than I was looking before. Granny was right. She couldn't remember where she left them, but she knew it wasn't in the china cabinet.  And,  I was more than just a little freaked out.

I’m pleading the fifth when it comes to whether or not I really believe in ghosts. It’s very hard not to come across as a Sci-Fi-Channel-Loving Weirdo when you declare that ghosts really are among us. I told my kids that even if there was a ghost in the house, it’s just their grandmother, and there is no reason to fear it. I told them to think of it more as a Guardian Angel, and to sleep better knowing she is watching over them. Honestly though, my mom was a no-nonsense kind of woman, and I find it difficult to believe she would be wasting her time in the afterlife floating around the second floor of my home.  Although, it does go a long way toward explaining why my television is always on the Food Network when I turn it on…

Thursday, September 2, 2010

If you are what you eat, then I'm in big trouble...

I am not a healthy eater. Seriously. I’m sure that other people perceive me to be a fitness nut, but that perception couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am vain, therefore I run. I am scared of gaining weight, therefore I eat foods that are lower in fat, but that could be marshmallows, Lucky Charms, pretzels or Tootsie Rolls depending on my mood. I am lazy, therefore I rely heavily on highly processed foods to feed my family. We are white bread, potato chip and Kraft macaroni and cheese kind of people. I know that I should be ashamed, but I never really thought much about it because all of the other Bad Moms in line at the grocery store also have carts overflowing with Cookie Crisp cereal and Banquet fried chicken strips. Plus, cooking isn’t really my strong suit.

However, everything I knew to be true about the food I’m shoveling into my mouth and putting into my kids’ lunchboxes has been changed by a series of events that have transpired over the course of this week. And, there is a strong possibility that I may never eat again. (Okay, so that’s a little dramatic...)

I recently began following the website of a young mother who has decided to eat only real food, and by that she means food that doesn’t come from a package, (or if it does, it has five ingredients or less), locally grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meat and dairy products from area farmers, and nothing with sugar, artificial sweeteners or white flour. Her list of “don’ts” sounds like everything currently sitting in my pantry and freezer. (Again, lazy.)

She challenged herself to stick to real food for one hundred days. When I read about her commitment, I just shook my head and let out a chuckle as I gave a wink and a nod to my good friend, Chef Boyardee. (The Chef and I go way back.) How or why would anyone do this? Wouldn’t it be terribly expensive and time consuming? If I’m out chasing down some farmer for his organic eggs and milk and spending hours in the kitchen making bread from scratch and chopping vegetables, please tell me when in the world I will have time to look at your vacation pictures on Facebook. “Deadliest Catch” isn’t going to watch itself, you know.

I’ll let you in on a secret, though: I was more than a little jealous of this woman and her quest for a healthier diet. In reality, I want to be that person. I want to be the mom with a fridge full of fresh fruit (say that one five times fast) and organic bread in my toaster. But, this is just some woman in cyberspace. Don’t believe everything on the internet, right? So, imagine my surprise this week when a friend tells me about her successful four week trial run on a vegan diet, and that she and her whole family are alive to tell the story.  She’s even getting kudos from her kids on vegan cupcakes. No. No. NO! I wanted her to say that she felt like a terrible mother for torturing her children this way. I needed to hear that she crawled on her hands and knees to the nearest greasy burger joint for a fix. Instead, she decided to carry on for another four weeks. (And, I land squarely on my face from the guilt trip I just took from serving Pop-Tarts for breakfast…)

The last entry in the you-don’t-eat-healthy-enough trifecta was my discovery of the PBS documentary “Food, Inc”. To say that I was appalled and disgusted by this behind-the-scenes look at the food industry in the United States is an understatement. The curtain was lifted between the grocery store and the process by which the food we eat gets there. And, it made my stomach turn. This isn’t a political statement. I encourage everyone to watch it and see if you can ignore the wretched conditions that surround the chickens that eventually become your grilled chicken sandwich or the cows that end up on your child's plate at your Labor Day Bar-B-Que. That whole “locally raised meat” thing is looking pretty good right now.

I have to make a change. It’s as if the Green Goddess of Fresh Produce has shown me the error of my DiGiorno-eating ways. I’m repenting right now for my Pillsbury Toaster Strudels and Fruity Pebbles. I vow to find a healthy alternative to Spaghetti-O’s and corn dogs. I know this will be an uphill battle at first, but I also know that my body and mind will thank me.  (Although, my bank account will most certainly take the hardest blow.)  My journey of a thousand miles will begin with a single trip to the farmer’s market. I just hope there is life after Chicken McNuggets.