Monday, April 7, 2014

Climb Every Mountain

Take a picture, everyone is smiling on a ski vacation

“I know, I know, I got to go but PLEASE, just give me one more hug,” he said tearing up. I warily dropped to my knees waiting for the ticking time bomb to explode; I'd been there before, the wailing, the grabbing at me, the complete meltdown. But this time, he pulled me in real tight, gave me one final squeeze and then turned to go. His shoulders quietly shook as the ski instructor led him away.

Wow. What a difference a year makes.

The ski vacation has always been a painful experience for me. When I met Alpha, he had just taken a year off and gone to the French Alps to ski and mountaineer. I had never been on a ski trip in my life -- too busy horseback riding. When we married, he quickly learned the way to my heart was to be able to gallop next to me. He was diligent and very studious; taking riding lessons three days a week. Within a year, I would let the horses rip through the trails of Northern California and he was right by my side, enjoying every minute.

Osama stopped terrorizing ski school
It was never talked about but the expectation was Id do the same for him – so he could continue to enjoy skiing. I had to become good enough so we could spend time together doing what he loved. There were years spent on the mountain with me in tears and Alpha biting his lip in frustration. Every time I showed any signs of ability, hed steer me to the tip of a black diamond. All it took was one look over and Id lose it -- putting a bit of a damper on our vacations.

“Im not sure this whole ski thing is all that great for our marriage,” I told him one evening after giving him the silent treatment for that day's black diamond attempt. “Face it, I may never be cut out for this.”

Never one to throw in the towel, he always re-booked and re-tried. Then the kids came, and with that there was the equipment, boots and ski school. By the time we got to the morning drop off, I was screaming uncle. And Charlie was screaming murder. In fact, we started calling him Osama bin Charlie because the last trip was so bad.

But this year something happened. Mornings at ski school were, well surprising. Osama was a class act. Hed shed his tears with dignity, honor, and then kill it at school for the rest of the day.  At the start of our vacation, all four were gone from 9-3. In that time, Alpha blew by me with his amazing grace and, instead of seething with jealousy Id stay focused, resolved to not taking a complete nosedive.

And there were no black diamonds.

Our first outing with the older kids was beyond remarkable.  Before, “ski school” was a parental euphemism for “draining the college fund”. We saw no real value other than it was an expensive way for our kids to get looked after while we fought on the mountain. After two days, to our shock, Olivia and Jackson joined us as confident and competent skiers.

“Oh god babe, I am really, really sorry,” Alpha pleaded as the other two disappeared. It was a gloriously sunny day with fresh powder. We had taken five or six runs before getting to President Ford. “This is a black diamond, I didnt mean to take this turn.”

But the thing was, I wasnt looking at the pitch when I peeked down the mountain. All I could see was Jackson bombing down – looking so much like his dad. And Olivia. Fearlessly carving her turns. “Well, if Liv can do it, I certainly can,” I turned to his surprised face and plunged over the edge.

At the bottom, I looked up to Alpha with a smile. He was having a hard time masking his emotions: 14 years and four kids later, we had arrived to the place that he had dreamt about long ago in the mountains.

“Cmon, Dad, lets peel off and hit more black diamonds,” Jackson begged. And as I watched them ski away, he turned his head back to me, smiling from ear to ear.

Flush with confidence, I looked down at my daughter's eager face, “Come on Liv, lets try President Ford again."  The mountain was finally calling.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

There is No Light in Daylight Saving

We have it down to a science. The whole get-out-of-the-house-before-school thing:

It starts precisely at 6:15; we hear the pitter-patter of the feet as Charlie races down the hall into our room to “snuggle-bunny” before the others are up. He giggles as he squirms in between Alpha and me in bed, milking the moment for all its worth. The chatter is a mix about the dreams the night before and the plans for the day ahead. A couple of times he has missed his pillow talk with Alpha and I, and we lie awake in bed, wondering if our last baby is finally growing up. To our relief the pitter-patter is back the next morning.

With this built in 6:15 reveille, there is plenty of time to get up, shower, make coffee, wake the others, pack lunches and get a good breakfast down. A solid hour and forty-five minutes before we head out the door. It's an amazing kick-off.

“Gosh, I have such a hard time getting my own two kids to school. I cant imagine FOUR,” someone told me the other day. “You must so have your hands full in the morning.”

Usually I feel a superior sense of parenting when I am surrounded by other's incompetence. I run the morning routine with a drill sergeant's precision and we always arrive at school 15 minutes early.  By then our day is well underway. The kids have cleaned their rooms, made their beds, and packed their lunches and their binders.

Then spring ushers in daylight saving time and I am completely screwed. The little alarm pitter-patters into our bed at 7:15, a solid hour behind. There is no room for the morning chitchat, just panic as I scramble to roust the crew and shove us all out the door in 45 minutes.

Despite my yelling, the kids emerge very slowly from their rooms tired, cranky and in slow motion. I race around the kitchen burning the pancakes while making the peanut and jelly sandwiches. Teddy cant find socks. Liv is crying because she wants to re-rack and Jackson is in the bathroom forever (doing god knows what).

“We have to go to bed earlier,” I have repeated now for the fourth morning in a row. But it doesnt work that way. At night, when it is so gloriously bright, their energy kicks in and they want to savor the longer daylight. “It is SPRING!” they screech with delight. Yes, indeed it is. But at 9pm with the entire house buzzing (including Charlie), I know I am once again, screwed for the morning.

“Wow, you're looking a little frazzled,” the same adoring parent who only recently was admiring me said this morning.

“Im a little off my game,” I admit, recognizing the karma I have created for myself.  (Mental note to self, never feel superior because every parent is going to be incompetent at some junction in life.)

I know we will adjust. Every morning we will claw back a few minutes and in a few weeks, our 6:15 routine will be firmly in place. I will feel in complete control again. Its going to be awesome.

And then comes summer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Searching For Enlightenment

 Alpha and I went to San Francisco to see the Dalai Lama a couple of weeks back. Actually, more pointedly, we went to see my mom honored by the Dalai Lama for her non-profit work. But it just felt good to tell people we were peeling out of Santa Barbara to see one of the most celebrated people of our time.

“My parents went to see a really peaceful person,” Jackson told his friends after we left. “The guy is, like, the most peaceful person on the planet.”

“Did they go see the Dalai Lama?” one of the parents asked incredulously.

“Yeah, that guy! The Dolly Llama!” Jackson exclaimed leaving the parents in stitches.

I have to admit, my expectations were high. Just from the reaction I got by telling people who we were going to see. “Whoa! Wow! The Dalai Lama! Youll have an amazing experience!” theyd say with such conviction I believed them.

The truth is, I hadnt read much about the Dalai Lama, hadnt followed the plight of Tibet, but navigating a lobby filled with half of the SF police department and standing in line for another hour to go through security – I felt like Alpha and I were in for one of the BIG moments in our lives.

The ballroom in the Ritz Carlton was grand, filled with people from all walks of life. There were 51 honorees -- from charity workers who had developed orphanages in ravaged Sudan to doctors who had envisioned that every child should have the right to smile to my own mom, who has impacted over 6,000 low income teens annually for the past decade, helping them get into and then succeed in college and, ultimately, life.

Finally, the Dalai Lama came on stage. I watched him (with a visor over his head) as his entourage helped him to the podium. Everyone in the room focused totally on him. Out loud, he pondered about what he should talk about on this day. We all waited, in anticipation; surely he knew what he was going to say. Here was a room filled with his people eagerly awaiting his words of wisdom.

But that wasnt the way it was. Alpha and I craned our necks to try and read his lips as he mumbled through a standard speech about the importance of peace, his accent making it almost impossible to understand.  I watched those around me also struggling to gain insight and inspiration from him. But there was not much there. After his speech, the honorees walked the stage, and shook hands with him. Each of the 51 had their bio read as they approached the stage.

“At the age of 12, this young man worked in a soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Was exposed to hungry kids and recognized there was not enough food to go around. He started coding and built a program that connected restaurants and farmers to the Foodbanks of San Francisco. His non-profit program Waste No Food has been adopted all over the Bay Area. Thank you Kiran Sridhar.”

With much curiosity I watched a tentative 16 year-old Indian boy, in the midst of much older peers, walk up the steps to shake the Dalai Lamas hand. The extraordinariness of seeing someone so young, shining so bright, affecting so many people, gave me goose bumps. I had to fight not to cry.

Right then and there, I felt everything I needed to: Hope, optimism, a clear vision of our future. 

And that was when I realized, I just had a Dalai Lama moment.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Train Has Left the Station

Jackson doesnt want me to write about him anymore. So thats what I’m writing about. To tell you that he is off limits as of now. No explanation; he's drawn his line in the sand and there's no negotiation. Maybe the experience of walking into school after your mom has written about you in her column was too much.  Maybe his friends and teammates didn't like it when they were mentioned either.  So I cant write about his growing pains anymore. His life is officially a no-go.

Which is a shame, in a way, because there is a ton of column material when you have a 12 year old. Like when he comes home and tells you that he wants to take a girl to the movies – its so clearly out of whack with my perception that they dont talk that much in school. Makes me feel a little delusional. So, of course, being the complete reactionary parent that I am, I tell him, sure, he can absolutely go on a date with a girl -- when he is a freshman in high school.

I called Alpha to relay the conversation -- he was traveling at the time. “So, you are trying to tell me that he is asking to do something and you told him that he could do it in 2 ½ years?” he asked laughing, clearly oblivious to the fact that this stuff is really hard for me.

“Are you telling him everything he is feeling is natural?” a good friend asked me as I downed an espresso. “Its very important to have the communication lines open.

“Not exactly,” I admitted, mumbling under my breath, “I told him everything he is feeling isnt age appropriate and I dont want to talk about it anymore.”

Anyway, its a shame I cant write about it. Writing is really therapy for me. My feelings come pouring out as I type – then I can address them. There are a lot of ambivalent feelings as a mom, to see your little guy become ridiculously big, all in a flash.

 “Letting the boys walk around town, hope that is okay with you,” the text read last week. Deciding it was better to cut right to the chase and avoid long, involved exchange via texts, I called up the parent almost immediately. “Umm, actually, Jackson walking around town at 12 is really not okay with me,” I told him. “This was supposed to be a play date, right?” Wow, did that term suddenly sound crazy.

“Oh gosh, I already told them yes,” he explained. “Sorry, I didnt think it was that big of a deal.” Kind of a metaphor for where I am with Jackson: I say no, but its irrelevant, the train has already left the station. For the next two hours, I was in a complete state of panic.  I imagined abduction, cars hitting them, homeless assaulting them.

“Hey Mom!” I got the call a couple hours later. “Just got back from Yogurtland, how are you?”

Not great Jackson, I wanted to say, but I bite my tongue. Because I know I am in a very bad place psychologically -- and he doesnt need to know about it.

“Say yes as much as you can,” the same friend told me over coffee. “Because they need to hear that you are meeting them halfway.”

Great advice other than the fact that my mind, body and soul are screaming “NO!” right now. But its this kind of angst that I cant write about anymore. I have to respect Jackson and let him feel like he's free, that his steps are not being chronicled by Santa Barbara. Such a shame.

“So, Jackson and I talked last night and he is going to ask this girl out. I told him to make sure she asks her parents as well, its all good. Well sit a few rows back, itll be fun,” Alpha told me last night.  “I think he was really worried Id say no.”

I put my CEO of the house voice on – I am totally in control. “Perfect.  I agree. I think we have to be very careful to try and say yes when we can,” I lecture with confidence.

But once my husband looks deeply into my worried eyes, he sees my bluff. “Its going to be okay Mara,” Alpha whispered to me. “We have raised an amazing kid.”

But I cant write about it anymore.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Exaggerating Growing Pains

Charlie has the  Something About Mary look
Charlie is going through puberty. I know, I know. The facts dont match up. The kid is four. I am a tabloid journalist at heart, so you need to go with me on this. He is showing all the signs. Hes locking the bathroom door when he takes a bath (versus last month when he took a bath with his brother and sister religiously). Hes having “private” conversations with Teddy about a girl named Violet at pre-school. He rolls his eyes when I say something silly. And, for the ultimate proof, he's started using hair gel..

“I think we got a ripple affect going here,” Alpha said as he brushed his teeth while watching all three boys 12, 8 and 4 smear gel in their hair. My problem is, I can only take one (Jackson) legitimately going through puberty at a time – not all three at once.

It started about five months ago. I was picking them up at school and Jackson jumped into the front seat, flashed a huge grin and said, “Hi Mom.” I looked at him, really looked at him and nothing looked different other than the pitch of his voice was several degrees lower.

Thinking I might be mistaken, I turned to Teddy. “Teddy, say ‘Hi Mom,” I insisted.

His variation was similar to that of Olivias. The entire car ride, my mind raced. Secretly glancing over at Jackson from the side, I saw the beginnings of the ‘stach above his lip. Was that there this morning? How did I not notice? Thats when I started to tune in all my senses. First, there is that smell. Get three boys going through puberty in the car for a post-sports carpool and well, its deadly. I had to institute a Windows Down policy.

Instead of making a big deal of what is inevitable, I chose to ignore his current state.  My approach is to stay as even as possible as he swings from rock star one minute to a blubbering wreck the next. Half the time hes telling me, “You just don’t understand me” and, the truth is he is kind of right.  For instance, we had to go to Macys to buy a necklace for his “girlfriend” for Christmas. I have passed the two together at school and they cant even say “hi” to each other in the halls; but there we were, Olivia and I, helping him pick out a present.

And then things really went haywire in our house. Teddy and Charlie started to ask for the gel. They took longer to get dressed in the morning for school. Teddy started a fashion movement in the 3rd grade of longer crazier socks with shorts. He started to strut. Which is really great -- if he wasnt just trying to be his older brother.

Part of me wonders if something in the universe (maybe God) is trying to tell me to pay more attention. And, by exaggerating all the signs of puberty in triplicate is signaling me to notice my oldest is growing up. But, to be honest, I dont know how to handle Jackson turning into a young man. There is so much joy in watching him grow taller, stronger and more confident but there is also something quite scary about it. We've begun talking about cellphone etiquette, as I promised him on his 6th grade graduation hed get his own. Im having frank conversations about Justin Bieber and drug use with him. I notice that his friends are becoming more essential in his life – and “family time” is tolerated but not really embraced.

I just toured junior high schools for next year. Instead of tuning in as the principals talked about the programs and lunch policies, my eyes kept wandering to the students. They are even taller. And they look so much older. How could Jackson possibly be ready for this?

Now, back to pubescent Charlie. There I was, putting his lunch away at preschool. Watching him in his ridiculous outfit of a tank top (“To show off my bi-ceps Mom”) and sports shorts with lacrosse high socks. His hair was straight up in front (picture “Something About Mary” look). He went racing up the ramp with all his friends to open the door to school. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Spun around, raced back to me and jumped into my arms. “Mom! I forgot to tell you I love you!” he giggled as all his friends patiently waited. I hugged him tight, patted down his gelled hair and realized we still have some time.