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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Unexpected Parenting Parallels

 “He’s really not a bully,” the playground parent said with a tinge of pride. “He’s just very vocal.”

“He yours?” a young man asked. “He’s quite an athlete!”

“I hate coming to the park,” a woman snapped at her husband. “It stresses me out when she acts like this.”

I was sitting on a bench by the fence, listening to these crazy parents talk, soaking it all in and trying to make sense of why I was there. Meanwhile, my spouse was across the way, involved as always, laughing as he tossed out balls and compliments.

Play dates were a godsend for me when I was raising my children. When the daughter was two years-old we started at Toddlekins, the Mommy-and-Me sing-along, dance-along, big-colorful-parachute hour in the town’s rec center. I also had Number Two, an infant who could be conveniently caged, sitting in his little blue carrier seat in the corner, cooing contentedly.

“Talia knows her ABC's already!”

“Jacob was potty-trained at 10 months.”

“I breastfed Ryan until he was four.”

“Shoshanna is so smart. Can you believe she said…”

My eyes bulged as I listened to the banter, amazed that mothers actually preferred this kind of interaction to propping their toddlers in front of a Disney movie with a bowl of Cheerios.

But it didn’t take long for me to find mothers of like mind, which is not to say any of them ever made disparaging remarks about their children, but they seemed to accept that I did. 

As Susan, the most perfect parent of all once said, “Oh, Betsy, you just say what the rest of us are thinking.”

But I can’t imagine her worst thought ever came close to what spewed from my mouth.

We created our own little Play Group, Anne and Kerri, Diane and Susan and me - and our offspring that totaled 13 when all was said and done. Every Friday we’d rotate houses for bagels and coffee; apple juice for the kids, Diet Coke for me. We would set our children loose in the child-proofed home-of-the-week and sit around the kitchen table chatting until someone bopped someone over the head and the screeching started.

Play Group saved my soul, or probably more accurately, my children's. Those Friday mornings together offered a venue for sharing our fears:

“Do you think Max’s head is too big?”

Solving all-important problems:

“Should we get the Little Tikes car or the workbench for Christmas?”

And preventing permanent scars:

"Can I lock the daughter in her bedroom so she can't come in and out a thousand times a night?"

All 13 of our kids were exceptional. They were smart and handsome and pretty and funny. When we talked about their accomplishments we felt pride for one another and when discussing the occasional demonic behavior, we did it without admonishing blatant parenting foibles. We didn't inflate our egos by bragging to strangers. We didn't send pictures of our kids to the local paper. We kept our kids grounded with low-key birthday parties, home-made Halloween costumes and Easter Egg hunts in the park. And we all got through it together.

Sometime around when little Isabelle started pre-school, Play Group petered out. We got involved in our children's schools and went off in quest of their varied passions which included sports and dance and theater. But we are all still friends, following the kids on Instagram, having chili at Kerri's on Halloween night and never missing the annual holiday party at Dianne's.

The youngest member of the Play Group gang  is finishing up her freshman year in college. And one of the older, and more beautiful, girls just got engaged last week. Our kids all went to college. Some moved far away, some stayed nearby. And they're all just as exceptional now as they were when they were toddlers at Toddlekins. 

And though I will always look back on my Play Group days with fondness, I'm just as happy to have moved on to the next phase of life.

As empty-nesters, my ever-loving spouse often suggests going on a super-special, top-secret date. Secret because as the world's worst skeptic, he knew that if I caught wind of what he had planned, nine times out of ten I would defiantly nix it. His theory is, if he can just get me there, wherever there happens to be, nine times out of ten, I'll have fun, despite myself.

So, off we went, last Sunday afternoon, with our hound, Griffey, in the back seat of the car, me cringing, he grinning, dog panting.

When we arrived at the dog park, a place he knew I'd never go on my own, I rolled my eyes, but followed their lead as the crazy beast dragged us across the field to his future friends.

Once inside those gates, Griffey took off, running, sniffing, barking and flinging saliva for the next 45 minutes. And I sat, silently on the bench, listening to the parental prattle.

"I bring Fido over from the city every week," one proud mutt owner boasted.

"Diamond is so obedient," Diamond's mother exuded as I noted the spiked collar digging deep into the Pit Bull's neck.

"My Charlie loves other dogs!" Charlie's young master smiled as Charlie bared his teeth at the annoying boxer sniffing his privates.

As Griffey ran and ran and ran and the dog owners crooned and clucked, I couldn't help but feel like I was in Doggy Toddlekins.

Keeping in character, I scanned the crowd to see if there was anyone worth befriending. But then I caught myself and thought, I've been there. Done that. And I don't have to do it again with a dog.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Incredible Angst Of Choosing a College

Mayday! Mayday! Take cover! May Day is coming!

Anyone who has the good fortune of cohabiting with a high school senior in the month of April knows exactly what I’m talking about. May 1st is that fateful day when colleges want their commitment deposits and indecisive students have to stop their hemming and hawing, pro-ing and conning, and just make up their fool minds.

Despite having three headstrong offspring, Mayday! only reared its ugly head once in our household. The daughter applied early action to North Carolina and because she knew from the day I bullied her into visiting the campus (the infamous story revealed here), her deposit check was written before the acceptance letter was received. And the third kid didn’t care where he went, as long as he could play baseball, so he just grabbed the first Division 1 offer he got. 

But good old Max in the Middle ran me through the wringer with the incessant flip-flopping, crony-conferring and soul-searching that surrounded his ultimate last minute decision to choose Rowan University. And when I say last minute, I mean last minute. He made the announcement to his sweaty-palmed parents at 11:58 pm on the day of the deadline.

Max was basically choosing between Temple University, a seemingly perfect fit, and Rowan, a New Jersey state college that wanted him on their football team. Max is tall and smart and has a good arm, but knew that his quarterbacking skills were not in the league of say, Brandon Wimbush, who has a real chance of ending up in the NFL. Not only were there concussions and academic tracks to consider, but he had to delve deep into his left-handed soul and ask himself, did he really want to play a sport in college?

Of course he did. His best friends were doing it. And as we all know, high-schoolers are the most peer-driven people on the planet. Jamal was going to run track at Temple; Chris was going to play basketball at Pitt; Kris, who had gone to a prep school in Connecticut, repeating a grade and upping his athletic and academic potential, was most certainly going to play basketball in college the following year; and Siddiq was doing a post-grad year at what was essentially a football player factory. 

But for some reason, perhaps having something to do with his mother's DNA, Max couldn’t make up his mind. His father didn’t see the need for him to play in college. His friends didn’t see the need not to. And his mother just wanted him to make a decision and stick with it.

Having grown up outside of Philadelphia and having spent a summer making fresh-fruit drinks on the fringes of the campus, with Penny (aka Patty) and her brother, I had a soft spot in my heart for Temple. Its diverse student body came as close to reflecting what Max knew and loved about his hometown as any other school we’d seen. On the other hand, he had played sports his entire life and I wasn’t sure he, or I, was ready to give that up. And Rowan was a lovely little place. The people were friendly, the campus was safe and the wisest man in Teaneck, Brian Santostefano, was going there. Temple was a little more expensive, but they offered him enough of a scholarship to make the costs comparable. It was indeed a tough decision.

But, alas, it wasn’t mine to make.

And so, I looked through my Parenting 101 text book, found the section on how to help an indecisive child, took a stand and stuck to it. 

“Think about what you’d most regret not doing,” is what I told him.  “If one day you think you’ll really regret not going to Temple with Jamal, then by all means, go to Temple. If three years from now you picture yourself saying, ‘Boy, do I wish I had given football the old college try,’ then do it now. Just be honest with yourself and do it for you. Not for your friends. Not for your coaches. Not for your (gulp) parents.”

In the end, the very end, the two minutes until you’ve lost your spot in both schools end, Max chose football over friends and committed to Rowan University.

“And remember,” I said, much to my spouse’s chagrin. “Nothing is forever. You can always transfer.”

Which, of course, is precisely what he did. He transferred all the way to Los Angeles. To one of the most expensive schools in the country. 

“You’re the one who put the idea in his head,” my ever-loving spouse reminded me.

In the four years that Max has been away he hasn’t called on me for advice very often. He writes his own script 3,000 miles away using the three-hour time difference and “didn’t want to wake you” Californian excuse for not consulting with his parents on housing, classes, internships – all things that he is now completely capable of figuring out on his own.

As a parent, I have to assume that my words of wisdom fall on deaf ears. But recently and uncharacteristically, Max called to ask what I thought about a choice he had to make. I clearly disagreed with what he clearly wanted to do and he more or less hung up on me.

I later got a text apologizing for his shortness.

“Sorry, Mom,” he said. “But someone once told me that I should make decisions based on what I think I’d most regret not doing. So, I’m doing it.”

And he did.

And whether it was right or wrong, it was his decision to make. His regret to release. And his life to live.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Go, Granny, Go!

“It’s so nice that your grandma can go apple picking with you!” the very, very young mother said to my kindergartener as his very, very, very old mother stood there, mouth agape.

I was all of 43 years-old. And though technically old enough to be a grandmother, my kids were only five, seven and nine. I was as far from being called Nanny as I was from being carded at a bar. In hindsight, I was really quite young. I was wrinkle-less. I didn’t even dye my hair yet. But that little twit, who had her little twittette at 19 years-old, really had some nerve calling ME a GRANDMA! 

Poor little Leo didn’t know what to say; he just kept looking for his grandmother to show up. I laughed it off and made some self-deprecating remark about how very, very old I was and how by the time she reached my age, she’d be a great-grandmother. She reddened, but not by much.

I have a lot of young mother friends. My friend Katrina just turned 40 last summer. My middle son, Max, is best buddies with her boy, Jamal. And though I’m the same age as Katrina’s mother, she never made me feel ancient, nor did I ever feel like she was a babe in the woods. And she certainly never, ever made a remark about me looking like a grandmother. 

My friend Jenn is a few years older than Katrina. She also has a son Max’s age. Jenn is so much smarter and more capable than I ever was that I forget just how young she is. And she long ago forgot that I was more than a decade older than she. 

After all, as she once said, “We’re all the same age when our kids are the same age.”

She’s right. Having kids evens the playing field. We all go through the same ordeals at the same time. The same story hours at the local library, the same swim lessons at the YMCA, the same quests for the best teachers, the same redundant Martin Luther King, Jr. ceremonies, the same getting-cut-from-the-team tragedies, the same popularity contests, the same college rejection letters, the same beer bottles found stashed in the bushes. 

Age doesn’t do a darn thing for you when it comes to kids. Being a young mom doesn’t make you any hipper. Being an old mom doesn’t make you any wiser. Parenting is an equal-opportunity fiasco-fest. 

Sure, I wouldn’t mind being ten years younger. But, then I think of all I would have missed had I birthed my babies a decade earlier. I wouldn’t have toasted the New Year with vodka shots in Moscow, nor would I have sung Feelings karaoke-style at a restaurant in Manila while a pig, snout and all, spun over an open fire. I wouldn’t have spent nine years cutting and pasting at TV Guide magazine, nor would I have enjoyed the front yard barbeques all those summers in Brigantine. I wouldn't have eaten unidentifiable office supplies masked as delicacies in Hong Kong or munched on fresh baquettes and chunks of cheese on a beautiful bicycle day in France. I wouldn’t have been able to spend three nights a week, sometimes four, at the Fireside Inn, and I certainly wouldn’t have made all those road trips from Florida to Maine and everywhere in between. 

I wouldn’t have been able to dance, off-beat, with strangers at the After Hours bar in Ambler, nor would I have been able to see Mike Schmidt hit so many homers from our seats at Veteran’s Stadium. I would never have gone on that first fateful ocean liner with my sister, Emily, nor would I have consorted with the crew on subsequent cruises with Penny (aka Patty). I wouldn’t have lived in my parents’ house until I was twenty-six years old, and I wouldn’t have thrown so many parties at Sherry Lake Apartments once I finally cut the cord. I wouldn’t have ridden my bicycle back and forth to Ocean City for charity and I wouldn’t have slept in so many random rooms in beach town boarding houses with sunburns so bright they blistered. 

I wouldn’t have been able to have so much fun at so many weddings and I wouldn’t have been staying with 16 year-old Cricket Brosius when her parents were vacationing in Europe. And if I hadn’t been staying with Cricket Brosius and her perky little Pekingese pups, she never would have said, “Don’t come home until you kiss him.” And had I come home before I kissed him, I may never have snagged my future spouse.

But I did. And after a long, fun-filled romance, we got married. When, at the tender age of 34, I put forth my first child, I was ready, willing and able. I had no regrets. No wish I had's. No wish I could's. I had done it all. It was high time to be a mother.

Twenty-four years later, I’ve found myself a spin class that is filled with young mothers. They drop their kids at school or daycare, come to the gym, hop on their bikes and talk about fundraisers and breast milk and animated movies and going away for the first time without their kids.

I fit right in. I see myself in their faces. I feel myself in their diaper bags.

The other day a new girl saddled up next to me. Being a veteran spinner now, I helped adjust her bike and gave her an encouraging thumbs up before we started.  

“You did it!” I exclaimed at the end of the hour-long sweat-a-thon.

“You were my inspiration,” she said. “I kept looking over at you and figured if someone your age could do it, so could I.”

My first thought, serious as a heart attack, was "Are you kidding me? You're not that much younger than I am!"

But clearly, I was old enough to be her mother. So, instead I said, ""Go, Granny, go!"

I can probably get the bags removed from my cheeks. I can have the flabby flesh removed from my abdomen. Maybe even the chicken skin from under my arm. I can keep dying my hair and start wearing heels.  I can put make-up on the age spots that are beginning to appear and keep plucking out those stray eyebrow hairs. And chin hairs. I can whiten my teeth and get cortisone shots in my knees so I don't creak and groan with every move. I can keep up with pop culture and avoid saying things like, "I graduated college before you were born," and "I got my first cell phone when I turned 45."

Or, I can simply chuckle every time someone calls me old. Because I know that beneath my sagging facade is a spirit that can go toe-to-toe with anyone out there. I worked hard for every wrinkle, every gray hair and every ache in my body. I had an absolute ball cementing all those laugh lines into permanent position. 

And I promise, if and when I do become a grandma, I'm going to wear that title loud, proud and a little outlandishly. 

Just like I've lived my life.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Sports are Stoopid

“So, Mom,” the daughter said in her daily afternoon call. “What do you think? Should I spend $700 to fly to North Carolina?”

This was the day before the NCAA Championship basketball game between Villanova and UNC. The game was being played in Houston but the celebration would be on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. All over campus and in homes across the country, there are framed photos of Carolina-blue clad students swarming the street after the 2009 victory, a year before the daughter matriculated at The University of North Carolina.

“Well, look at it this way,” I said, guarding my words. “If they win, it will be the best $700 you ever spent. If they lose, it will be the worst.”

It took all of my parenting power not to say, “Go for it!” or worse, offer to help finance the trip. Because, of course, I would have gone in a heartbeat.

In the end, she proved herself much more sensible than her mother, or perhaps it was just a matter of a maxed-out credit card. She stayed in New Orleans and gasped along with much less-invested basketball fans as a last-second shot stole the title from “us.”

The day after the agonizing defeat, I had a hard time looking at the headlines. I cringed when I heard on the radio that it was going to go down as one of the greatest championship games of all time. And I really, truly had a pit in my stomach. It wasn’t until I read Adam Lucas’s masterpiece that I realized I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. If you are an iota of a sports fan or college loyalist, give it a read. It explains a lot.

But, on some level it also validates my contention that sports are stupid.

I shake my head at some of the stupid things I’ve done in the name of sports.

When Anthony Apreda was 11 or 12 years-old, I drove him to Rhode Island at 5:30 in the morning. I don’t get up at 5:30 in the morning for anything. But, we had a Titans baseball tournament and we needed him to pitch. He couldn’t go with the rest of the team the day before because he wanted to also participate in a local tournament that honored his late father. Anthony has always been one of those kids who wants it all and I was one of those kids once myself. So I did it. I drove the 175 miles to Rhode Island, watched a game and turned around and drove back home later that afternoon.

When Leo was a young 'un, we played in a baseball tournament south of Richmond, Virginia over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Theoretically, it would be warmer 350 miles south and the ice and snow storm that was pummeling New Jersey would be but a distant memory by the time we reached our destination. I drove my friend Theresa’s Suburban because there was no way she was going to slip and slide across the Susquehanna River Bridge and skid her way into Virginia. I pretended to be fearless because it was that important to be there to watch 10 year-olds play baseball. In the snow. Yes. It snowed.

Countless times I squished myself between illegal numbers of burly passengers in the back seat of Angela and Tony Hargraves’ Jeep and drove 2 ½ hours to Connecticut to watch their sons play in an hour-long, non competitive, Prep school basketball game.

I ventured into the bowels of the Bronx, the heart of Harlem and questionable courts in Queens for a night-time basketball league in which Max was determined to play. I'd drop him off at the court, circle and circle until I found a parking spot and then walk blocks and blocks in unfamiliar and often not-so-nice neighborhoods, alone. But come Hell or high water, I'd get my kid to the game. And I'd be there to watch.

I rode overnight in a bus with two dozen teenaged cheerleaders and spent three days in Myrtle Beach with thousands of massively made-up, scantily-clad, sequined girls squealing with glee when they hit their back-tuck basket tosses. And heaving with sobs when they dropped a stunt. As they always did. 

I spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars crisscrossing the country for games and tournaments and competitions. I put thousands and thousands and thousands of miles on the old minivan driving back and forth to far away practices and farther away off-season workout sessions.

And I spent thousands and thousands and thousands of hours talking, fretting, scheming and praying about sports. I had constant internal talks with God, begging for my kids and my friends’ kids and kids I didn’t even know to win the championship or get the college scholarship or get drafted into the NBA or MLB or NFL. That they would make the free throw, hit the winning RBI, pull off the perfect routine, make the game-winning pass or just simply survive an at-bat without striking out.

I couldn’t tell you who won the tournament in Rhode Island. I don’t even know if we finished the games in snowy Virginia. I think we did OK, but not good enough in Myrtle Beach. And I can only guess that we lost more basketball games than we won in the New York league.

What I do know is that I got a lump in my throat every time we came close but didn’t win. I know I always felt bad for the losers when we did win. And I know that every time we lost, I'd get that overwhelming feeling that it was proof, once again, that sports are stupid.

For in the end, you grow up to be an accountant anyway. Or a teacher. Or a lawyer. Or a coach. Or a mom who tries not to wear her heart on her sleeve as she endures endless sporting events, all the while trying desperately to make sense of why the win is so important and why the loss is so defining. 

Because no matter how well you train, no matter how well you play, no matter how tough you are mentally, physically or spiritually, in the end, there’s always going to be a Kris Jenkins hitting a buzzer beater four seconds after Marcus Paige sinks the shot of a lifetime. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again

“Oh come on, you miss it!” a fellow old-timer said, brushing off my comment that was something along the lines of why in the world am I standing out here in the pouring rain when I no longer have to?

The thing is, I never had to be there. I chose to be. The question is why?

Saturday was opening day of Teaneck Southern Little League. A day that, for years, had the uncanny ability to churn up a myriad of emotions. Anxiety. Excitement. Anger. Dread. And, oh yeah, Joy.

For a good decade, give or take a couple thousand innings, I was involved in one way or another with my town’s Little League. As a parent. As a board member. As a worker bee. As a team mom. As a surrogate fan for overworked, overwhelmed or just plain over-it parents. 

For years, the Teaneck Southern Hags (as we affectionately and appropriately called ourselves), kicked our own kids to the curb while we devoted hours and hours and hours to other people’s children.

The easy part was convincing companies and local businesses to sponsor teams, organizing tryouts, ordering and distributing uniforms, stocking, cleaning and running the concession stand, designing and printing schedule booklets, assigning kids to teams and coaches to kids, procuring trophies with names spelled correctly, and planning and emceeing the year-end banquet.

All that took was blood and sweat. It was the tears part that was hard.

Whenever there are kids involved, there are tears. There are tears that we hide within our hearts, tears that we blink away in public and tears that pour down our cheeks when no one’s looking.

There are broken dreams and disappointing performances. There are hurt feelings and lost friends. There are tears of triumph and tears of defeat. And sadly, these are the tears not of children, but of parents who are volunteering simply because someone’s gotta do it

We spent months and months every year trying to do the right thing. Deciding whether funds were better spent on bathroom or field renovations. Whether the canteen should serve healthier foods or stick with good old hot dogs and fries. Whether Joey should move up to the Majors with his friends or stay in the Minors where he truly belonged. Whether Mr. Miller was truly detrimental to the league or just an overly zealous coach. Whether it was in bad taste to have a bar sponsor a team or, for that matter, a funeral home. Whether we did a fair job of balancing the teams or would be accused of playing Mommy Ball. Whether opening day ceremonies should be cancelled when it rained or postponed when it snowed.

And it always rained. Or snowed. But the show always went on. And I’d bite my tongue when friends, good friends, asked if I could bring their kid down to the field because they didn’t want to stand there in the freezing cold. I swallowed my vicious words and just mumbled under my breath, why do I have to be here?

But, I never had to do anything. I chose to.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of Teaneck Southern Little League. I haven’t been down to the field in years. A place I used to frequent six days a week for months on end.  A place I went to see my friends. To feel the love. And fend off the haters.

When I was involved with the league, I was way too involved. I cared way too much about what people thought. I ignored my own family way too much. And I took way too much to heart. When my Little League days were over, I thought I’d miss it forever.

But, life has a way of filling in the holes and I found other things to do with my time. I've relaunched my freelance career. I play Mahjong. I belong to a writer’s group. I’m in a book club. I ride my bike. I go to the gym. I have dinner with friends whose kids never played sports. I have friends who don’t have kids, period. And I am doing just fine.

So when Linda Diaz, who understands my love/hate relationship with volunteering, told me that they were honoring former board members at Opening Day this year, I knew that though I had zero interest, I had to go.

And of course, it was raining. At times pouring. I stood there like a fool, as always. Though this year, I wasn’t behind the mic. I was on the sidelines watching James Brown call the kids out to the field. Making jokes like I used to make. Keeping it fun. Keeping it light. Keeping it going because it was pouring rain.

I’m so over this, I thought. So over this.

Linda asked me to throw out the opening softball pitch. I had nothing to do with softball other than playing in the annual Mother’s Game. I figured she asked me because the person she really wanted to toss the opening pitch was late or didn’t show up.

Surprisingly, I got it over the plate. The catcher had no problem snagging my slightly high, but perfectly respectable (for an old hag) pitch.

I walked off the mound. The ceremony was over. I was soaking wet. Ready to go home. And so over it.

“Hey! Miss Betsy!” a familiar face called out to me. “Do you know who that was behind the plate?”

As the man called his daughter over, she flipped off her catcher’s mask. Sure enough, it was the same Sydney Amaro who used to play peek-a-boo with me as a two year-old, hug me as a four year-old and sit with me on the bleachers as a six year-old, cheering together for her brother Domingo rounding the bases.

“You remember me?” I asked, somewhat amazed.

“Of course I do!” the nearly-grown, fourteen year-old beauty said, giving me a great big hug.

And at that moment, I knew exactly why it was that I chose to stand there, like a fool, mixing teardrops with raindrops for so many, many years.