Alpha Mom » Mir Kamin parenting and pregnancy opinions and information Wed, 17 Dec 2014 19:33:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 If You’re Shallow And You Know It, Clap Your Hands! Wed, 17 Dec 2014 19:33:00 +0000


I am not, in general, a “material goods” kind of person. My husband loves to tease me that I am the most un-sentimental person he’s ever known. I would rather throw it away than have a mess of things to store. I don’t collect stuff. I abhor the epidemic of “he who dies with the most toys wins.” When my son asks me what I want for Christmas or my birthday, he follows the request with a hasty, “And don’t say ‘peace on earth’ again!” Unfortunately for my kids, this means I am completely impervious to the whine of “… but everyone else has….”

In short, I’m a terrible, mean mother determined to make social pariahs of my children. I mean, they’ve never said that, but it’s been heavily implied.

It’s not that I’m some sort of saint who travels the world in my rags with only a small notebook and a pencil to record my thoughts. I’ll be the first to tell you that I like nice things and I probably spend more money on shoes than is strictly necessary. We have a lot of technology in our house. Once I caved and got an iPhone (several generations in…), it took over part of my brain and now I have trouble functioning without it. But… I pay for my own stuff because I have a job and enough discretionary money with which to do so. Also, hi, I’m a grown-up. A child—excuse me, teenager, practically an adult, Mom—who badgers me for a $400 gaming console is going to be cordially invited to find gainful employment to fund their desires.

There’s another dimension to this puzzle, too, and that’s the Divorce Dynamic of gifting. Believe me when I tell you that I have always been more pragmatic/minimalist about gifting and my children’s father has always believed in gifting extravagance. That’s just how we’re wired, I guess. But when we divorced (and I gather this is not uncommon), those separate proclivities stretched into even further polar opposites. There were years, back in the early days, when what few presents I gave the kids were the result of painstaking thrifting and eBay stalking, because it was all I could afford; meanwhile, their father showered them with more items than a single person could possibly even use, never mind any concept of actual need. I’m not going to lie, that was hard. I was bitter (for a long time). I didn’t like that in addition to being the everyday “unfun” parent I now could never, ever possibly measure up when it came to special occasions, and I resented that I even wanted to, because I was not going to get into a pissing match of stuff in some attempt to make it “more fair.”

Time passed and my anger and annoyance faded. I became more financially stable but still adhered to basic tenets about gift-giving, specifically that “more is more” would never be a guiding principle, and that not getting everything you want the second you want it is good for your character. My kids’ father continued to give them more than I ever would’ve, but I figured out how to disengage from that power struggle and simply smile and say, “Wow, that was really nice of Dad! Lucky you!”

My teenagers have had “dumb” phones for years. Even though “everyone else has smartphones!” (This may or may not be true.) My son doesn’t care too much, but my daughter has bemoaned her lack in this area for a long time, and it was easy enough to convince her that she would never, ever be receiving a smartphone from us. The thing is, non-smart cell phones are no longer in demand (because everyone has smartphones), and although we upgraded them from crummy phones a while back, both of the kids’ phones have recently stopped working properly. My daughter’s phone likes to randomly power down, while my son’s phone often forgets how to pick up signal. This is frustrating for everyone, because it means that ability to send a text or make a call—the reasons I allow them to have the phones in the first place!—is hindered. Yesterday I got an email from my son that said, “My stupid phone is refusing to work and I’m not sure this email is even going to work but can you pick me up at 4:45?” Hey, good for him for figuring out an alternate method of contact, but I received that email at… 4:50. As I tore out of the house, I both texted and tried to call him, but his phone wasn’t working.

Even though it shouldn’t be a surprise, I recently realized my daughter will be off to college in just 18 months, with her brother following a year later. We’d decided a little while back to upgrade them to iPhones for Christmas; after yesterday’s pick-up snafu, we decided to give the kids the phones last night. So it was a double surprise, because no one was expecting a Tuesday night iPhone (ha!) and neither of them were expecting iPhones, period. (And for those who are curious, because I know I would be: Noooooo, we did not get them the latest-and-greatest. We got them the cheapest models available. Poor pumpkins.) My daughter, especially, was ecstatic.

I would love to tell you that this was purely a sensible logistic move; their phones had become unreliable, and years of dealing with good-for-texting-but-no-data phones have taught us that those phones are crappy, and also, thanks to some wheedling, we managed this upgrade without increasing our monthly bill (even though we added in data for two more phones). That would be a lie, though. That was a big part of the decision, sure. But the whole truth is that it is very, very rare that I get to be the one to give either kid a “big” gift. Both kids have been doing a lot of hard work this semester, and I don’t mean schoolwork, either—my son has adjusted to being a full-time public high school student, has strayed out of his comfort zone in countless situations, and has generally been a rock star about handling everything, and my daughter is coming off of a very rocky few years and is finally making real strides in taking the helm of her own life. I tell them all the time that I’m proud of them (and oh, I am), but yeah, okay, I wanted to be the one to give them something “cool” as that material “You’re awesome, here’s a tangible goody” reward. Good behavior is its own reward, sure, but… it’s fun to play Santa, too.

The delighted dancing I witnessed last night made my day (week, month, year).

Does this mean I will start giving them everything they want, whenever they want it? Or that I won’t take those phones right back again if there are problems? Nope. I’m still the mean mom, in some ways, but I sure am enjoying what’s likely to be a very short-lived stint as The Greatest Mom Ever. If this makes me a shallow person, I can live with that.

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Your School Meeting Baking Guide Tue, 09 Dec 2014 17:14:39 +0000

You know how fine dining guides and cookbooks will give you tips on wine pairings? I’m terrible at that; my feeling about wine is “it’s good and you should drink the kind you like regardless of what you’re eating,” so I’m the wrong person to query about the proper vintage to go with your risotto. On the other hand, I am absolutely the right person to ask about what to bake for school meetings.

See, there’s usually one of two reactions when I tell people I never go to a meeting at school without a basket of home-baked goodies: People either think I’m a genius, or they think I’m being “too nice.” Here’s a little secret I’ve learned after a decade of special education meetings with a wide variety of teachers and school administrators: There’s no such thing as “too nice.” Most of the time I’m meeting with folks who have a vested interest in helping my children and who are amazing and well-meaning. Those people deserve treats! Some of the time I’m meeting with folks who are rude and/or unhelpful. Those people also deserve treats, because I’m setting a tone of kindness and cooperation… and even if I’m offering those treats through gritted teeth, I try to remember that people who are making my life more difficult probably aren’t all that happy, themselves. With that in mind, here’s a handy….

School Meeting Baking Chart:

Early morning non-emergency meeting. (This would include plan renewals or other routine sorts of check-ins.) Go with a muffin that’s hearty and healthy; you want something yummy, but not overly sweet. You’re going for “I’m a responsible human who enjoys a balanced diet but still wants to bring you baked goods.”
Best selections: Raisin oat bran, morning glory, anything with rolled oats.

Early morning kind-of-an-emergency meeting. (Called because there is An Issue you’d like the school to address.) These meetings call for a lighter and sweeter muffin. Citrus will make the room smell good and kind of brighten everyone’s outlook, which is a subtle way to make things more pleasant. You’re going for “I realize this is a difficult conversation but I think we could all use a little treat.”
Best selections: Orange cranberry, lemon poppy, anything with berries.

Early morning sorry-my-kid-is-such-a-butthead meeting. (Called because there is An Issue for which your child is culpable.) If you must stick with muffins, now is the time to pull out all the stops: go with a streusel or icing topping (or both, if things are really bad). Even better: make scones. Scones are impressive. You’re going for “I am totally pretending not to grovel with my baking but I am totally groveling with my baking.”
Best selections: Apple fritter muffin, cinnamon streusel muffin, any flavor scone.
(Note: In the case of A True Crisis, I Am Going To Kill That Child, from-scratch cinnamon rolls—preferably utilizing a Cinnabon copycat recipe—may be warranted. Proceed with caution and bring extra napkins.)

Midday or after-school non-emergency meeting. Again, your message is one of moderation but taste. This is a good time for the kinds of cookies your children like to insist aren’t really cookies because where’s the chocolate, Mom?? Don’t make anything so healthy that it’s no longer a treat, though. (Any cookie recipe which uses whole wheat flour doesn’t count.)
Best selections: Oatmeal raisin cookies, homemade granola bars, macaroons, mini-meringues.

Midday or after-school kind-of-an-emergency meeting. This is a great time to bust out any “family favorite” cookie recipe. When in doubt, use chocolate chips. You have a wide field of discretion, here, in that you’re going for sweet treats that won’t lead to a sugar coma but cannot be mistaken for health food.
Best selections: Chocolate chip cookies, gooey bars, lace cookies, any cookie that’s made someone spontaneously declare, “I need this recipe.”

Midday or after-school sorry-my-kid-is-such-a-butthead meeting. Go for the sugar coma. Make it clear that you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the kitchen wishing things had turned out differently. Your goal is a treat so delicious, your child’s sins may be forgiven in a haze of diabetic ecstasy.
Best selections: Cake (with frosting), homemade versions of whoopie pies or Oreos, truffles.


Christmas is coming! Here’s your bonus recommendations:

Winter break teacher gifts, no active crises. This is the perfect time to hand out entire buckets of assorted baked goods, assuming that you’ve already had enough interaction with these teachers to know that they tend to appreciate your offerings. If they like everything and nothing difficult is happening, bake an assortment, pack it up in something pretty, and wish ‘em happy holidays.
Best selections: I like to go with at least four options—one traditional holiday (I do old-fashioned molasses), one “broad-appeal” (like chocolate chip), one that’s simply pretty (generally a shaped and/or frosted sugar or mint cookie), and one slightly more decadent offering (fudge or bark).

Winter break teacher gifts, recent or low-level active crises. Have you been paying attention to which teachers like what? Good. Give them their favorite, whatever that is. I have one school person who doesn’t eat sweets at all, so for Christmas I’ll make spiced nuts now that I know what they’d actually like.
Best selections: Whatever you decide to make, make it the prettiest and the most delicious batch of it ever.

Winter break teacher gifts, active and hair-pulling crises. Sometimes baked goods simply aren’t enough. Recognize and honor those times.
Best selections: Money, booze, tears. (Kidding! I’m kidding. No one wants your tears.) (Still just kidding! You could get in trouble for giving booze or money. So, um, don’t ever give money. And I would never recommend booze because that would be wrong. Would you like a cookie…?)

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To New Parents, From A Parent of Teens Tue, 02 Dec 2014 18:02:36 +0000

We live in a time where waiting until your 30s or 40s to have children seems more common than not. If I’m making small-talk in the grocery checkout line or at a cocktail party and mention that I have not one, but two kids in high school, the response is almost universally shock. “You’re not old enough to have high schoolers!” Well, obviously I’m old enough to have high schoolers—without having had them as a high schooler, myself, even—and it’s not even that I look especially youthful. It’s just that lots of women my age just started having kids a few years ago, or only in the last decade.

I was 26 when my daughter was born. Now she’s headed towards 17 (which means I’m 43); I’ve gained a bunch of weight and wrinkles and gray hair, and as my very favorite hobby is sleeping I will be the first to tell you that if I had an infant at this stage in my life, I’d go insane. I feel old, a lot of the time. I also feel out of place, a lot of the time, because so many of my same-aged peers are in a different life stage than we are. Two of my coworkers had beautiful baby boys this year, and our family gained two gorgeous nieces, too. I don’t want to be that annoying person who’s all, “Oh, just you wait!” or “Let me tell you what it’s like,” because one of the most hard-won lessons of parenting, for me, has been the realization that you just have no idea, heading into it, what awaits you or what you can handle. Besides, no one wants to hear supposed wisdom when there are tiny toes to count and soft bellies to kiss. This is their time to hold their babies, inhale that delicious aroma of hope and promise and organic baby wash, and believe that everything will be perfect.

If I was going share some sort of pseudo-wisdom with those new parents, though, without fear of rolled eyes or hurt feelings, I know what I would say.

I would say that parenting is joyful, terrifying, fulfilling, and rage-inducing. I would say that the hokey “the toughest job you’ll ever love” thing is true, but also that there may be plenty of times that love feels pretty far down on the list of available feelings.

I would say that no matter how or when you come to this parenting gig, children have a way of holding up a mirror to our deepest secrets and fears, even ones we were sure had already been handled or tucked away. Sometimes being a parent will bring out the absolute best in you; you’ll want to be a better person, and more often than you might realize, you are. On the other hand, sometimes being a parent forces you to confront the ways in which you are broken (usually while fervently pleading with the deity of your choosing that you don’t break your kid) and lacking.

I would say that the day will come when you open your mouth and one of your parents’ voices comes out. This may delight you or it may make you cringe. Maybe both. Don’t worry; it will happen more than once, so you’ll have plenty of chances to experience the full spectrum of emotions from nostalgia to horror.

I would say that there will come a point in this parenting gig when you realize how much you can’t fix, and that realization will leave you breathless. At the same time, you will probably remember an instance or two or ten when you judged another parent for something which you believed was their fault, which you now (perhaps with some shame) realize was not only uncharitable and unhelpful, but likely made an already difficult time even worse for them. It’s true that we’re all parenting experts until we have children, and even then, it may be years before we face the stuff that makes colic look like a sunny day in the park. Be kind to other parents. Be kind to yourself, too.

I would say that there will be times when you don’t like your child, and some of those times, you may wonder if there’s something wrong with you, or with them. It may be impossible to picture, as you cuddle your precious infant in your arms, but it will happen. It’s okay. Accept your feelings, but moderate your behavior.

I would say that there will be times when you look at your child and see a stranger and question every parenting decision you’ve ever made. But there will also be times when you behold your adult-sized child and it occurs to you that someday you could be friends. Not just “friends,” but real friends—good, close friends who survived the war together and enjoy each other in spite of it all. That time may still be a long way off, but if you can picture it—at all—that’s a victory. Trust me.

I would say that you will do and say things you never imagined, and you won’t even be sure they’re the right choices, at the time, but you’ll make decisions as best you can and hope for a decent batting average. Sometimes you’ll get it right; sometimes your choices will be catastrophic. I would say that if you’re not already someone who’s comfortable admitting when you’re wrong and offering a heartfelt apology, start cultivating that skill right now, because you will need to apologize to your child countless times over the years. If you do, you’ll both get better and stronger. If you don’t, the trust needed to grow a relationship will erode and create a chasm between you.

I would say that we talk about wanting our children to be healthy and happy, but we’re often terrible at teaching them the tools most likely to result in health and happiness. Or we teach them to the best of our ability and set a great example and they still just don’t get it, and then we blame ourselves. So again, here’s what we need to do: Be kind. Be kind to them, be kind to ourselves, be kind to those we love, be kind to strangers. Keep being kind even when others are mean. Keep being kind even when our children seem bound and determined to demonstrate that kindness doesn’t matter to them. Keep being kind even when your heart is breaking.

I would say that I hope that baby in your arms grows into a strong, confident, capable adult with only the tiniest of hiccups along the way, but no matter how things go, you can handle it. Even if you’re hiding in your closet, sobbing, convinced you can’t? You can. You will. You will let that child go hundreds of times over the years, and many of those times you’ll be convinced they’ll never come back. But you’ll do it. And chances are, they’ll come back again, and you’ll let them go again (and again).

I would say that someday your baby will be a teenager and you’ll look at other people’s new babies and be amazed. You will be a different person than you were when your journey began. You will be envious of the innocence of the new, gobsmacked parent. You will be tired, and frustrated, and worried, and sporadically triumphant, but most often bewildered. You will also feel lucky, and hopeful. Maybe not all the time, but enough.

I would say: It’s a very bumpy ride, but it’s amazing.

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Why The “Best” Holiday Gift For Teens Isn’t For Us Tue, 25 Nov 2014 19:59:20 +0000

“Everyone complains about how hard it is to shop for teens,” I told them, “except for these people—” I gestured to my screen “—who write articles like ‘Great Gift Ideas For Your Teen’ who say it’s easy.” There was some crowding around my computer, and we scanned the article together.

“Lame,” declared my oldest.

I felt like the article was kind of lame, myself, but I was curious on her take. “Really? Why?”

“Because that should be a very short article that goes like this: ‘Great Gift Idea For Your Teen’ should just be followed by a bunch of dollar signs. The end.”

I queried her brother to see if he agreed. He gave me a very “duh, Mom” sort of shrug and said, “Well, money is the best gift. That way I can get whatever I want.”

All about the spirit of giving, my children are. They appreciate the care and thought that goes into gifts, value any kindness presented to them, and… yeah, no. They want cash. Cold, hard cash is the language of teens, and if we would just fork it over, please, that would be great.

Spoiler: I don’t give my kids money as gifts (or, you know, ever). I get what they’re saying, and I understand that at this age there is nothing headier than making your own buying choices and having the means with which to achieve them, but I don’t love the idea of just handing over some cash—even though that’s what they truly want—and conveying that at this special time of year, I love you so much that I couldn’t be bothered to figure out what you like. (They wouldn’t see it that way, and I’m not saying that’s what it means when someone gives cash. I’m saying that’s how I feel about it, because I happen to love picking out gifts for others. To me, part of the joy of the process is the surprise element, the “how did you know?” part of it. It’s my hang-up and I’m not attempting to project it onto anyone else.)

Money feels impersonal to me, even though the kids assure me that they don’t see it that way. At the same time, my kids are well taken care of and don’t want for any essentials, and the things they do really want are things they won’t be getting from us. (Did you know my teenagers are the only ones in the whole world, or at least the only ones in the whole high school who don’t have smartphones? Because their mean and terrible parents don’t think they need them? Feel free to report us to Child Protective Services now that you know the awful truth.)

I’ve never been a bury-them-in-gifts person for Christmas. When they were small, I either did three gifts (Jesus got three gifts, you know) or the “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read” approach. As they’ve gotten older, it’s shifted a bit. Nowadays it’s more One Big Gift and a few small things, but even that big gift is something I could argue they need—a computer, one year; an upgraded flute for my daughter, one year, and a marching piccolo, the next; the trampoline which was meant to lure my couch potatoes outside.

When relatives ask what to get them, I suggest gift cards. To me, that’s better than cash, because they have their freedom but at the same time, we know where the money goes. My gaming son is crazy for Steam, while my daughter makes short work of any iTunes credit or the opportunity to shop at her favorite teen consignment clothing store. Those are gifts they love which are easy for people to get them. And that’s great.

But when I shop… I want to shop. It doesn’t need to be a lot of stuff, or super-fancy stuff, but I enjoy picking out goodies for them. “Something to wear” and “something to read” are still easy enough; there are never too many books or too many t-shirts from Threadless. Sometimes that One Big Gift makes itself apparent early on, and sometimes it doesn’t.

My approach, these days, is to focus on stockings. As I said, I’m not an over-the-top gifts person, I’m not super-sentimental so I am not prone to collecting, and I tend to dislike anything that’s sort of “for the sake of having more.” At this age, I just have to trust that the best gift I can give my teens (short of that coveted cash, of course) is knowing who they are, and stockings are a great way to give that to them via small items in a non-sappy way. Like… they always get chewing gum in their stockings. But my son likes mint gum and my daughter likes fruit-flavored ones. Not a big deal, but they each get what they like. Every year everyone gets a new ornament for the tree, and it has something to do with that past year and thus comes imbued with meaning. My daughter always gets doo-dads for her hair, and that’s something we’ve been doing since she was tiny. My son always gets some sort of sensory fidget (also something we’ve been doing since they were small). Everyone gets socks, and those socks have gotten weirder over the years (but that’s okay, because so have we). The year my son wouldn’t stop randomly declaring “I am… Batman!” his stocking was topped by a Dark Knight mask, and he was delighted. The stocking gifts are not expensive or extravagant, but they are a simple, quiet way to tell these nearly-adults who are working on pulling away from us that we still see and know and love them.

As for the “main” gifts, this year? It’s almost December and I’m still stumped. I’ll figure it out. I don’t know what they’ll be getting, but I do know it’s not cash, much to the kids’ disappointment. I keep telling them that cash is a great gift once you have actual life expenses, like a mortgage, but they persist in believing I’m just mean. Maybe I am, but I’m okay with that.

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Why I Volunteer Even More At The High School Tue, 18 Nov 2014 23:18:50 +0000

My name is Mir, and I’m demanding.

It’s true, and I know it. I don’t mean that I’m obnoxious (I hope I’m not) or unreasonable (I don’t think I am), but I do want what I want and I’m not afraid to say so. In this phase of my life, that translates into spending an inordinate amount of time advocating for my children; while the IEP system is in place to accommodate kids like them (with various special needs), IEPs are neither magic nor automatic. My involvement in the process is necessary to make sure things run smoothly, and I consider that both my right and my privilege. That said, I want to be seen as part of my kids’ educational team, not just a parent making demands.

I have always volunteered in some capacity with my children’s schools/activities, throughout the years. And yes, it started because of this team mentality—hey, teachers, I’m on your side! I’m here to help!—but it has grown to more than that, and now that my kids are at an age where many parents let go and step back, my husband and I are at school more than ever. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Believe me, my kids aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with us, and I have yet to hear, “Do you have to be there?” (In fact, what I usually hear is, “Can you come?” As often as possible, the answer is, “Absolutely.”)

Several times now when I’ve written about volunteering, someone has responded in a huff about how not everyone has the luxury of participating this way. While I know that sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that simply cannot be made to accommodate the time needed, I believe that most parents can find a way to make some volunteer time a reality if it’s important to them. [Edited to add: Even if that means showing up just once the entire year for an hour.] We work full-time and have busy lives and yes, sometimes I would much rather take a nap than go spend hours at school, sure. It’s not always easy or convenient, but I will be there as much as I can, and here’s why:

I want to be part of the team. As I already said, I want to be part of a cohesive team aimed at giving my kids the best school experience possible. Do parents with kids who need something extra who don’t show up to help still find that their kids are accommodated as needed? I certainly hope so—volunteering shouldn’t affect that—but the reality is that parents who help out are viewed more positively by school staff (“this isn’t just a parent asking us to do things, they’re willing to give back, too”), and anything “extra” my kids may need feels like less of an imposition, I assume, because teachers know we appreciate their hard work and do our best to help when possible. And on a very basic, no-ulterior-motive level, I want to give back where I feel my kids are getting the most benefit. Marching band has become very important in my kids’ lives in a dozen different obvious and subtle ways; I want to support the band.

I want to see where and how they’re spending their time. You can call it spying if you must, but I prefer to think of it as helpful reconnaissance. There’s a huge difference (at least with my kids) between the retelling of events around the dinner table and actually seeing with my own eyes how things unfold in real time. When I help out at school, I stay as far away from my kids as is possible—I don’t want to cramp their style—but I see things. I see how they interact with staff, I see who their friends are and how those interactions play out. I see a side of my children I don’t get to see at home. It’s a great way to pick up a lot of information by osmosis; I know which staff will bend the rules for them (for better or for worse) and which ones have no patience when they’re struggling. I know which kids whisper and point and which ones go out of their way to help others. I know who is perfectly polite to my face and horrid when they think no one is looking. I know. This builds my appreciation of the amazing folks involved (and make no mistake, that’s the majority) and allows me to subtly steer the kids away from anyone who may not have their best interests at heart. This is especially useful for my son, whose autism causes him difficulty in reading social cues.

I want to be with them on their terms. At this point in their lives, both of my kids are out of the house more than they’re home. My oldest is happiest when her dance card is not just full but double-booked, and if I didn’t volunteer, I’d hardly see her at all. I guess I could demand she be home more (I’m sure that’d work out great and she wouldn’t be resentful at all…) or just shrug and say, “See you on Sunday!” but I’d rather meet her where she is. As for my son, he needs a little more social support than his sister, and just knowing I’m around is often enough to make him feel more comfortable (and if something happens and he needs me, I’m there). Volunteering is a fabulous, unobtrusive way to stay in your teens’ lives without being right in their faces all the time.

I want to be part of the village. I’ve noticed something interesting has happened over the years: the same kid who wants me to just stay out of it, Mom, geez, is very quick to come to me with other kids’ problems. Recently something went down on a band trip that left another kid kind of shrugging off an incident as “no big deal” and my daughter asked me to please talk to the other kid because “it’s a big deal and this kid needs to hear that from an adult.” She was right, so I was able to pull the other kid aside for a conversation (as well as alert band staff to the issue). It was kind of a sticky situation and I was worried said kid might be angry with me, but the reception to my intervention was… surprisingly grateful, actually. I know that if this same situation had involved my child, someone else would’ve done what I did (and furthermore, that any message would be better “heard” from another adult). I’m not just there for my kids. I’m there for all the kids, as are the the other parents, because that’s good for everyone. The days when I’m there doing my thing and I see another adult call out to one of my kids for a hug (and said kid runs up, unembarrassed and delighted) are the days when I hide a smile and count our blessings. It’s good to have a village.

My people are there, too. I was never a band kid. My husband was never a band kid. Both of us had activities we loved, back when we were our kids’ ages, and our parents weren’t involved. We just went out and did our thing and that was that. Did I ever imagine I’d be where I am today, a middle-aged, frazzled adult who happens to be an active band booster and volunteer? Nope. And did I have any reason to believe that the other parents would turn out to be “my people?” I had no idea, honestly. But it turns out that most of the other parents who are there as much as we are really are our people—we’re not united by a love of band or volunteering, necessarily, but a love of our kids and a similar set of priorities. And what do you know… other folks who see the same merit in all the reasons why we’re there are often people we just plain like hanging out with. I’ve made some great friends through volunteering.

I only have a few years left with these oh-my-gosh-when-did-you-become-adult-sized kids. I’m glad to be able to be there for them (and their pals) before they fly the coop.

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Puzzles Tue, 11 Nov 2014 16:02:35 +0000

There’s some expression about how the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know. I often tell my kids that it must be nice to know everything; I recall that belligerent certainty from my own teen years—I just knew I was right!—and while I remember it and know it’s a normal developmental stage, it still makes me crazy. They are sometimes so convinced of their rightness I realize where the phrase “shake some sense into them” comes from, because the temptation is nearly overwhelming. Wisdom is embedded in knowing how much you don’t know, I’m sure of it.

Or maybe I just think that because I’m keenly aware of how much I don’t know, anymore.

I say it all the time: The longer I parent, the more convinced I become that I don’t know a damn thing. My knowledge banks on the topic of raising well-adjusted humans aren’t just empty, they’re overdrawn. Advice I shared when the kids were younger—and I won’t say that I was smug, because I hope I wasn’t, but I was earnest about it, I’m sure, because it was just true—now seems laughable. Oh, yes, younger me—for sure if you do X when your child does Y it will result in Z. That’s just logic! That was back when I still believed children were predictable. Hahaha!

My parents were here for a visit a few weeks ago, and my father is a word puzzle nut. Crosswords, cryptoquips, whatever they put in the paper, he’s at the kitchen table, pencil in hand, working some sort of puzzle. My daughter went and grabbed an old crossword puzzle book and sat with him, one day, working her puzzle alongside him, until it was pointed out that she was using a kids’ book and could probably handle the puzzle in the paper. “No, that’s too hard,” she said, at first.

Here’s the thing about my beautiful, brilliant nearly-adult girl: There is no gray in her perception. Everything is black or white. It’s impossible or it’s ridiculously easy. It’s a life-or-death issue or it’s pointless. Everything I once understood to be true about motivation and purpose has been turned on its head with this child, because I haven’t a single clue as to how to help her to understand that so much of life is actually gray.

So, the crossword puzzle: She thought it would be too hard, therefore it wasn’t worth attempting. But my dad is sneaky, you know, and he started asking her for help. And later, when he abandoned the puzzle for a while, I found her hunched over it, pencil in hand, filling in answers her grandpa hadn’t been able to suss out. She showed it to him later on and he was blown away by how much she’d done, and I beheld a rare sight: my child looked proud of herself.

Since then, the puzzle page disappears before we’ve even finished unwrapping the paper, seems like. She does the LA Times Sunday puzzle first, as a warm-up to the NY Times Sunday puzzle. She asks me to work on it with her, sometimes, and any parent of a teenager knows that when you’re asked to come do something recreational with your child, you don’t ask questions, you simply move in slowly so as not to startle them. I’m a decent crossword puzzler, I think, after years of practice… but she is better at them than I am, already. She doesn’t need my help. Still, I oblige because I am fascinated by the entire process.

My child who can’t be bothered with homework that doesn’t interest her or who gives up on assignments as soon as she runs into something she doesn’t know will spend hours on these crosswords. She is undaunted by the clues that mystify her; she knows if she keeps going, eventually she’ll have more letters and may figure it out. This same kid who cannot remember to set her alarm at night or seem to get out the door on time or gather up the items she needs before she does so will periodically bolt upright with inspiration, having just figured out the answer to a clue that’s been niggling at the back of her brain for a day or three.

There was a time when I believed I could simply shape my children into the forms I believed most productive. The right environment, the right discipline, and of course they would tow the line or else. Today, my daughter is a classic underachiever—while she possesses the intellect for great accomplishments, her actions rarely match her potential (for a variety of reasons, and let’s not debate whether this is a choice or disability, because now I know that we can’t know the answer, anyway). Chores remain incomplete, schoolwork is neglected and/or forgotten, responsibilities often go unmet. A few years ago, I would’ve surveyed this landscape with anger and frustration and met requests for puzzle time with proclamations like, “Well if you can’t be bothered to do your chores, I certainly can’t be bothered to sit with you while you play” and the like.

Nowadays, I know how much I don’t know. I settle a dog on my lap while she and I put our heads together at the kitchen table and put the paper between us. We take turns. I see her—the true her, smart and funny and competent and engaged—and I know that she can have anything she sets her mind to. I also see that right now, it’s just a crossword puzzle. I wish I knew how to swap out that puzzle for half a dozen other things, just slip more important goals in there and see her focus on them with the same spark and intensity. But I can’t. I no longer kid myself that if I just hit upon the “right” thing, everything will be “fixed.”

I do love crossword puzzles, though. And oh, how I love the lovely young woman who invites me to work on them with her. And so for now, I work on the puzzles, making peace with how much I don’t know.

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Teenagers, Politics and Voting Tue, 04 Nov 2014 15:22:13 +0000

A couple of interesting things have happened in the world of politics this year, and I’m not referring to any laws or even the price of gas. I’m talking about a unique convergence of events: my teen son is taking U.S. Government, in school, and my daughter just realized she’ll be old enough to vote in the next presidential election. (Let’s all take a moment, shall we? The child who “didn’t notice” the mounds of dirty laundry on her floor is going to be participating in selecting the next leader of our country. I know.)

My daughter took this Government class last year and seemed to regard it as just another class; it didn’t interest her all that much. My son, on the other hand, is fascinated in a way none of us would’ve predicted. Part of it is that he has a great, engaging teacher, and part of it is his black-and-white approach to things (thanks, autism!) and incredulity over differing opinions. So here we have just loads of “teachable moments,” both about politics and tact.

“Mom, who are you voting for next week?” These were the first words out of his mouth as he walked in the door one day from school, last week.

“I need more information,” I said, chuckling. “For what?”

He thought a moment. “Senate,” he replied.

“Oh!” I said. “I’m going to vote for [redacted].”

His shoulders lowered with relief. “Oh, good,” he said.

Now I was really curious. There’d never been any question as to our voting proclivities, before, and I figured they must’ve been talking about the senate race in class, but I wasn’t sure why this was so important to him. “Ummm… why do you ask?”

He looked thoughtful, then moved in a bit closer, conspiratorial. “Well, Mom, we were talking about it in class today? And [redacted] seems really… special.” He even made meaningful eyebrows.

I would love to tell you that I gave him a stern lecture on referring to political candidates as “special” (particularly as a special needs individual, himself!), but I cannot. I laughed until I could barely breathe. He was so earnest about it. At 14 he is concerned about the welfare of his home state because, in his unwavering view, one of our esteemed candidates must have suffered some sort of brain injury to hold the beliefs they do. In his mind, that’s the only possible explanation. And while I agree that I’d rather not have that particular individual representing us, as an adult I understand that otherwise intelligent people can sometimes come to believe things that might not make sense to other intelligent people.

It used to be that polite people didn’t talk about politics, and if they did, they were, well, polite about it. It’s hard to explain to a child who lacks a built-in brain-to-mouth filter why it’s not okay to say mean things about politicians, even if you really believe them to be true… or—harder still—to get him to understand the nuances of when it’s okay to have an honest political discussion and when it’s more prudent to remain silent. Trying to help him understand why so many people say so many hateful and sometimes downright ignorant things and claim them not only as truths but “necessary,” when we are still expecting him to temper his words, is a minefield.

We talk politics at the kitchen table. At one end, my daughter makes flippant remarks about how she doesn’t really pay attention and therefore once she’s old enough to vote she’ll probably just skip it. I can see my husband having palpitations every time she says it (and honestly, I think that’s part of the reason she does). We exhort her to take her civic duty seriously, to understand that not voting is voting, even if only as tacit acceptance of other people’s opinions. We still have time to change her mind.

At the other other of the table, my son gesticulates, indignant over every meeting of his Government class. “Today we talked about the right to marry and you will not believe what this kid said….” Life, to him, is simple. There is right and wrong. The people who are wrong are stupid. Obviously. Even when we agree with him, we talk about tolerance, we talk about nuances, we talk about being polite and not getting beat up in class.

Always, we talk about how voting is the single most powerful action we can commit to as citizens, if we want to be part of the democratic process.

This morning I was up and showered and dressed before the kids got up. “Do you have an appointment today?” my daughter asked, skeptical of seeing her usually-robe-clad mother ready so early.

“We’re going to go vote as soon as you leave for school,” I said.

“Ohhhhhhh,” she said. “Right.” Is it making an impression? I hope it is.

My son ate breakfast while my husband and I went over the referendums that will be on the ballot. He didn’t say anything, but later he reminded me, with a wicked grin, to make sure I “don’t vote for the special guy.” Right. I’m glad he’s got everything in perspective.

I vote. I have teenagers, so I tell them about it, and I hope that when the time comes, they’ll vote, too. You only get to be indignant if you cast your vote, I tell them. (That may not be entirely true, but let’s pretend it is.)

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Halloween With The Teens Wed, 29 Oct 2014 14:04:39 +0000

Halloween is almost here, and that means the Internet is chock-full of both outrage and advice for parents like me about what is good and right and acceptable.

Because… you must make a costume at home! Except what’s with the shaming of people who buy costumes, not everyone is a tailor, y’know! And these costumes are creative but those costumes are offensive and what’s with making kids grow up so fast but is that a teenager trick-or-treating? Unacceptable! Also: Candy! Food allergies! Etiquette!

Honestly. Once upon a time I went out trick-or-treating in a store-bought costume that consisted of a carcinogenic plastic poncho-thing and a mask that covered my face and limited my vision and didn’t make me look like Raggedy Ann so much as it just made me look like a demented paper doll with a sweaty face. I went out alone and took whatever I was offered and simply threw away the unwrapped candy and apples and popcorn balls at the end of the night. I’m not saying it was ideal, but it certainly didn’t include the hand-wringing and outrage that modern Halloween seems to entail.

I think kids should wear what they want (within reason, of course; if every “sexy”/racist costume out there disappeared, that’d be okay with me). If you like making costumes, great. If you want to buy a costume, great. I think anyone who gives out candy is nice, and if you can’t eat it due to dietary issues, here’s an idea—don’t eat it. (Before some allergy sufferer gets all up in my grill, listen: my son used to be anaphylactic to peanuts, even just from skin contact. He wore gloves when we trick-or-treated and either swapped out his unsafe candy with his sister at the end of the night or sold it to us. Problem solved.) I don’t care how old you are when you come begging for candy as long as you put a little effort into it; teenagers in regular clothes annoy me, because the idea is that you dress up, but if you’re wearing a costume? I don’t care if you’re collecting Social Security, I will happily give you some candy.

Halloween is supposed to be fun. I just don’t remember so many rules and self-righteous declarations about the right and wrong ways to dress up, distribute candy, wander the neighborhood, etc., from when I was a kid. (You know, back in the good old days when we didn’t have the Internet to tell us what to be mad about at any given time.)

I’ll never forget the first Halloween my oldest was big enough to go out; she was about 18 months, and her dad took her to maybe three houses before she decided she was done. She had no idea what was going on, but was pretty excited to discover that there was candy in her bucket. Somehow I had gotten it into my head that I could make her a costume, easy-peasy, and I felt like really I should, because already I was heavily pregnant with her little brother and feeling some guilt about cutting short her precious time as an only child. As a still-new mom I was receiving a bunch of parenting magazines every month, and one of them featured “easy to make” costumes for Halloween. I was immediately drawn to the instructions for making a “Little Stinker” outfit—a simple skunk costume fashioned from a hooded black sweatshirt and fake fur. The clincher was the giant skunk tail, stuffed with packing peanuts and suspended with fishing twine so that it would stay upright. So cute! And the instructions promised it was both cheap and easy. Even though I’m not a crafty type, I knew this was the perfect costume for my baby girl, and that even I could make it.

Well. Spoiler: I did finish it in time, and it was ridiculously adorable (the tail was nearly as big as she was), and she got tons of compliments during her short trick-or-treating jaunt. However, the “about an hour” project ended up taking me weeks to complete, as I discovered that fake fur is really, really thick and hard to sew. And don’t even get me started on what this “super-affordable” project ended up costing. At least I’d had the foresight to make it with a too-big sweatshirt, which meant that my daughter wore it for two years in a row, and then my son wore it for two years, and then I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth out of it. Needless to say, that was the first and last time I opted for a magazine’s “simple DIY” Halloween costume.

Over the years, we’ve bought costumes, we’ve made other (easier!) costumes, and I followed the kids’ lead as best I could in terms of what they wanted. We’ve had a lot of very “punny” costumes—one year my son was a chick magnet (little fuzzy chicks sewed all over his clothes) and another year my daughter was the dog whiskerer (a pun on dog whisperer; she carried a basket of mustachioed stuffed puppies). We’ve canvassed our own neighborhood, gone to friends’ neighborhoods, done trunk-or-treat in church parking lots, and—as the kids grew older (and I grew more tired)—stayed home with bags of candy and watched movies. Sometimes we put out our chattering motion-activated skeleton who heckles visitors, and I wear my multicolored feather wig (festive!) and hand out candy, and sometimes we just put out a bowl of lollipops and call it a day.

Now that both kids are in high school and the world seems to have a lot of opinions about what they can and can’t do, I very much want to tell them to ignore the nay-sayers and do whatever they want, because the reality is that their childhood is nearly over, and Halloween is just supposed to be a good time for kids. On the other hand… when I realized that Halloween fell on a Friday and there’s a football game they’ll be marching at that night… I wasn’t exactly heartbroken. Problem solved!

But maybe there will be some Sour Patch Kids waiting for them when they get home. Just because.

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What Is DBT (and Who’s It For)? Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:27:27 +0000

Today’s information is being shared with you from the point of view of a layperson (that’s me) who has both observed DBT done with my child and participated in a course of DBT, myself. Full disclosure: I’m a life-long chronic depressive who has done years (and years and years) of various therapies, and while I will never be “cured,” I have (mostly) learned how to manage my symptoms and live a normal life. Many of the different types of therapy I’ve done have been beneficial, but DBT remains, to my mind, the single most practical plan for managing difficult emotions and keeping them from disrupting my life. [That said, please note that I am not a doctor or mental health professional, nor do I play one on TV or the Internet.]

If you’ve heard of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)—and it’s quite possible you haven’t—you’ve probably heard that it’s an “extreme” approach for people with really difficult-to-treat behaviors such as suicidal ideation. While it’s obvious why this is a treatment of choice for individuals engaging in life-endangering behaviors, I’m here to tell you in all sincerity that I wish DBT was being recommended to every parent dealing with a struggling child or struggling themselves with the difficulties of parenting. But hang on; I’m getting ahead of myself.

DBT was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a clinician who struggled with her own issues for years until she came to this method of both accepting oneself and changing at the same time. In fact, if you go read about it on the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ site, you’ll see this:

Who will benefit from DBT?

While DBT was initially developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals with BPD [Borderline Personality Disorder], it has evolved into a treatment for individuals with multiple different disorders. Although many people who are treated with DBT have BPD as a primary diagnosis, DBT has also been adapted for behavioral disorders involving emotional dysregulation (such as substance dependence in individuals with BPD and binge eating disorder) and for treating people with severe depression and associated suicidal thoughts.

Let’s start with a look at the word dialectical:

1. relating to the logical discussion of ideas and opinions.
“dialectical ingenuity”
2. concerned with or acting through opposing forces.
“a dialectical opposition between social convention and individual libertarianism”

The second definition, above, is what really defines this therapy and sets it apart from other approaches; DBT strives to balance acceptance and change. Other types of therapy may look to change how the distressed person feels, thereby changing resultant action, but DBT says, “Okay, you feel that way. We can accept that. At the same time, we can work to change the associated behaviors.” DBT has a huge component of self-awareness coupled with this acceptance, as many people who wind up in this type of therapy really don’t know how they’re feeling a lot of the time (they’re too busy reacting), and stopping to notice and accept whatever emotions are present is an important first step in changing behavior.

As I already mentioned, I happen to disagree with NAMI’s assessment that DBT is beneficial “for people with extreme behavioral disorders.” I think DBT is beneficial for anyone struggling with emotional regulation issues, whether it be due to mental illness or simply a difficult life situation. Point of interest: the main goal of DBT—noting and accepting your emotions, working towards still practicing behavior which is calm and productive, regardless—is very similar to the philosophy of Al-Anon. Even if you’re not mentally ill, yourself, living with someone who is (or who has an addiction or other destructive disorder) requires the patience of a saint, a heart of stone, or a really good mental toolkit for survival.

For the person struggling with destructive behaviors, DBT offers a path to change that’s pretty pragmatic. The whole “let’s talk about your childhood and get to the root of these issues” approach is a valid one, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and it can take a long time, too. Other therapeutic approaches can seek to change underlying feelings, with varying degrees of success. While working towards change via emotions can work, changing behavior regardless of emotions is not only faster, it often results in emotional change, as well. So with DBT, you start with an honest assessment of the issue, then move on to accepting your feelings and modifying your behaviors: I am engaging in Behavior X and that is [not good for me, hurting people I love, wreaking havoc, whatever]. What feelings bring me to Behavior X? Can I identify them? Those feelings are neither good nor bad, they’re just how I feel. Once identified, what different behaviors can I attempt to engage in, instead, when I have those feelings? It doesn’t make for overnight change, of course, but it circumvents this notion (that’s fairly pervasive in psychology) that people can control their feelings. We can control our actions. Not that many people can actually control their feelings, and if you already feel out of control, being tasked with controlling your feelings is probably a one-way ticket to failure.

For the person (parent) dealing with the destructive person (child), DBT offers a way to cope and ultimately accept the current reality. The mechanisms are very similar, but instead of changing obviously destructive behaviors, it helps prevent emotional overwhelm in the face of difficulty. (In my case, it also stops me from yelling. I know that yelling solves nothing, but when I’m upset I’m prone to anger and a raised voice, which—surprise!—is not useful when things are already out of control.) So here it’s more like: I am getting very upset about this thing I do not have the power to change. It’s okay to have feelings about it, but I have to note them and then let them go, because they are serving no useful purpose right now. The most helpful thing I can do in this situation is remain calm and neutral, and I can do that by noting those feelings and setting them down and continuing on with whatever I need to be doing right now. Again, this is not an overnight change or something that will always work 100% of the time, but it’s a perception shift that can be enormously useful.

The most helpful thing ever said to me in therapy came out of a DBT discussion, and it was this: “When we can do better, we do do better.” DBT is simultaneously demanding (you possess the power to change; use it) and forgiving (you are doing the best you can at this very moment). It’s a very gentle way to view yourself, and an oddly-comforting-in-difficult-times way to view the person you love who’s in crisis. They’re doing the best they can. Maybe it’s not what you wish for them, maybe it’s not what you pictured, but they’re doing their best in this moment. And so are you. And really, that’s all any of us can do.

If you’re interested in finding out more about DBT or locating a certified practitioner, visit the DBT-Linehan Board of Certification site.

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Sometimes Karma Is Furry Tue, 14 Oct 2014 16:50:22 +0000

I think a lot about karma, these days. I don’t really know what I believe when it comes to past lives and future lives and all of that, but I do feel a need to believe in some sort of interconnectedness between what we put out into the world and what we get back. (This is why—when life is difficult—my husband and I have a running joke that we were very bad people in a past life.) It just helps me to believe that somehow, there’s an underlying meaning and/or order to life, even if most of the time I have no idea what it might be.

It’s easy to forget about this in the daily minutiae of life. School, work, packing lunches, chauffeuring kids around, feeding one of the dogs every few hours so he doesn’t die, doing laundry… just getting through the day fills up my brain until I drop into bed at night, exhausted and not exactly doing any higher-order philosophical pondering. In general I am prone to a Chicken-Little-esque view of my life (“The sky is falling!!”) and I am trying very hard to change that, so now if everyone I love is still in one piece by the time I crawl into bed, I chalk it up as a successful day. The good thing about this approach is that I’ll forget about all the times I lost my temper or took a lazy shortcut or otherwise wasn’t at my best. The bad thing about this approach is that… I’ll forget about all the times I lost my temper or took a lazy shortcut or otherwise wasn’t at my best. (Personal growth requires an honest assessment of one’s shortcomings, or something. Whatever.)

Anyway. A few weeks ago I was having One Of Those Days. You know the kind; you have about 40 hours worth of tasks to be completed in a 24-hour period, and everyone needs something from you right this second. It was the kind of day where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and my patience was worn thin.

Of course this was a day when my daughter had an appointment, and despite multiple reminders about our departure time, it came as no surprise when I found myself sniping at her to hurry up, we are going to be late, why do you always do this; don’t you know how to read a clock?? By the time we buckled into my car, I was annoyed, she was sullen, and my foot may have been a little heavy on the gas in an attempt to get us where we needed to be on time.

We weren’t all that far from home when I had to lean hard on the brake pedal to avoid… a happy-go-lucky basset hound who was trotting (yes, trotting!) down the road’s double yellow line as if he owned it. Another car was coming from the other direction, too, and we both slowed, then the other vehicle cleared the dog and sped off. I saw pedestrians up ahead, but they were watching with curiosity, not acting as though this was their dog who’d gotten loose.

My daughter was frantic. “He’s going to get hit! What do we do??”

I looked at the dog. I looked at the clock. I looked back at the dog. I pulled off the road and stopped. “We’re going to be late,” I muttered, the picture of selfless grace.

I got out of the car and called to the dog, who ambled over to me, tail wagging. He had a collar and tags, so I managed to lure him to the shoulder of the road and then tried to get a look at his ID. I was just flipping the tag over when he broke away from me, though, and sprinted (well, as much as a basset hound can sprint) behind me. Panicked, I turned around to see that my daughter had also emerged from the car, and he was apparently very happy to see her. Except, that wasn’t quite it. She’d left the car door open, and this dog must be a big fan of car rides.

He hopped into the car and sat on the passenger seat, still wagging, eager for us to take him on an adventure.

We burst out laughing. How could we not? It had been a stressful day, we were late, and now a strange dog was sitting in my car looking for all the world like he’d just won the doggie lottery.

“Alright,” I said to my daughter, “Get in, hold him on your lap.”

She managed to position herself under the dog, and I got back into the driver’s seat. Once we closed the doors, I was able to get a look at his tag. Slinky—of course he was named Slinky—had an address I didn’t recognize, but I punched it into the GPS and we set off to take him home. It turned out he hadn’t wandered all that far; when we pulled into his driveway, he wagged some more, hopped out of the car, and started grazing on the lawn. (Perhaps Slinky is a basset cow?)

We rang the doorbell and waited, but no one appeared. Just when I was trying to figure out what we should do next, a harried gentleman covered in paint came out from around the back of the house, and it turned out that he’d been painting, had left a door open, and he didn’t even know Slinky was out. (Slinky seemed pleased to see him, but also seemed pretty interested in eating more grass.) He thanked us profusely for returning him, and we waved and set back off on our way.

I pulled out my phone and called the doctor’s office to let them know we were en route but might be late. Funny, though—we didn’t hit a single red light or any traffic, and actually made it on time.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we did anything extraordinary, nor do I think that a spur-of-the-moment dog rescue zeroes out all of the times my behavior has been less than stellar. But the rest of the day was… better. Calmer. There was less eye-rolling, fewer power struggles. Weeks later, all I have to say to a certain grumpy teenager is “Slinky wanna go for a ride??” to get a smile.

I’ll take my good karma wherever I can get it these days, even if it leaves fur all over the seat of my car.

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