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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two Step Parents Forward, No Steps Back

Woody Allen's classic line from Manhattan about two mothers isn't kind or politically correct, but it does get the point across if you're a step parent: 

"Most people don't survive one mother, much less two."

When he says this line, Allen's character  is talking to his ex-wife, who moved in with another woman who became a step-parent to his child. 

If it sounds complicated to you, imagine how it is for your kid. Or maybe it isn't? Having been cast in the role of co-parent reluctantly, I came to realize small children want everyone in the room with them, always, as long as there is love. If mom or dad brings on another mate, and the mate is loving, young children are generally OK with that.

The older they get, the more complicated it gets for them. And sometimes, being young doesn't work for them either.

My first contact with step parenting came when my son was about five. Suddenly there was a new person in his life taking on the role of a parent. How would he see her -- and how would that affect the relationship between us? 

Meanwhile, a lot of garbage that was going on between me and my son's dad -- and as you might expect, that leaked into our parenting.  There were days we both acted more like children than any kid would do. Fortunately, there were also days we were able to rise above it.

When I got remarried, I encountered a whole new view of family and what it meant. I saw that step parenting was really, really hard, because you're kind of an "add-on" parent and,  if you have two other active parents in the mix, there's bound to be some friction. 

Fortunately, my son was good natured and loved people. He managed to forge wonderful relationships with both step parents, in spite of the  craziness that erupted around him at times. When his twin brother and sister were born in his father's family, my son insisted everyone say "brother and sister" and refused to use the words "step brother/sister" or "half." It was obvious he was really committed to both families, and that is always, always, always a good thing.

My own experience taught me parents and step parents don't need to be buddies (though if they are it probably helps their kids). But co-parents do need to try as hard as they can to respect each other--so children and step children will have an easier time respecting all of them.

How do you do that when you're in the middle of a web of hostile feelings? Sometimes it's about stumbling through. Sometimes it's about realizing there are going to be bad days when you make mistakes. And sometimes it's about realizing that no matter what you say or do, your child's co-parents are going to make decisions you won't like -- and you have to let go of that.

I found a few ideas for navigating some of this stuff, but the one thing I promise is there are days it will be tough. There will also be glorious days, I promise you. Just don't expect it to be easy or to happen over night. Don't think you can change anyone else, and don't keep score, because if you do that one thing's certain: you'll always lose

But whatever you do, don't give up, because your child needs you. What they want you to know is there's no such thing as too much love in a family -- and no matter what you think on any given day, there really is enough love to go around.


Parents and Step Parents: Where is the Boundary Line?
Do You Feel Like an Outsider with Your Stepchildren?
Blended Families and Ex-etiquette for Families

Family: Leonid Mamchenkov

Saturday, September 17, 2016

In a Nickname

Do you have a nickname? Do you want one?

I have a friend who calls me Mish, short for Miss Mishegoss, because when we met I was in the middle of a ton of psychic garbarge and mishegoss is the Yiddish word for craziness. My dad called me "Gravel Gertie" when I didn't comb out my curls or "Sarah Heartburn" when he thought I was being too dramatic. (That one's still my favorite). A lot of people who can't remember my name call me "Red," which is what they also called my father; since both of us have (or had, in his case) red hair.

Names give us identity in a paint-by-numbers world, and I guess that's why we fight so hard for them. (If you don't believe me, try misspelling someone's name at work and see how fast you get called on it). Nicknames provide something more; they tell us how others think about us, or even how we think about ourselves.

Growing up, I didn’t much like my first name OR middle name, and ended up changing the middle name, which is now what I go by. It made me think about people who feel they should have been born female or male when they aren’t; it’s similar, I think, to how you can feel about your name.

My husband’s legal name is Peter, but he won’t be called anything except Pete. (This rule, of course, exempts parents and other naming beings, because they obviously chose our names because they liked them).

I used to wonder about names I thought old fashioned or odd; did the kids I knew with those names want to change them? Somehow, this wasn’t something we ever discussed.

Some friends in college came up with “Lark” for me, because it sounded like my last name but added more of what they thought about my energy. I liked it sometimes and not other times. I have a colleague these days who just calls m e “Zark,” and I like that just fine.

But nicknames are still a wild card. A lot of times they’re anything but flattering, and make you wish the people using them would disappear. It seems we don’t really have much control over our own names, but we have even less control over nicknames, which are often based on appearances. Too often, bullies give us names we can't stand, and I guess that must be a requirement if you're a bully; giving someone an ugly name that makes them feel humiliated.

On the other hand, being a writer gives you the opportunity to name characters—and give THEM nicknames, and know they won’t complain. My family of Tabeatas in The Beat on Ruby Street are really named Tabita—but as the main character Ruby explains, they changed their name “for the Beat.” That tells me and hopefully you a little more about them, and the importance of the Beat Generation to their lives.

Right now I’m thinking of giving another character in the book a nickname for book two of the Beat Street Series. I think it may be her last name, but I’m giving myself a little time to decide.

Where I really go crazy is giving nicknames to my cat. I have no idea why this entertains me so much, but I don't seem to be able to stop, and it will probably get worse, not better. Luckily my cat just has to put up with it.

I did find a few other thoughts on kids and nicknames here, in case you’re interested:

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Kids. Money. Scream.

Just the word alone can make you nervous. Puts kids and money in the same sentence and you’re really in for a scare. Is there a way to teach your kids about money without going bonkers?

I have no idea. My approach was best described as "whatever works," if not completely haphazard.

We had chores, we had allowances, we had plenty of “no” responses to requests for things, and then we had too many presents on holidays, and I promise you:

I still have no clue about what I was doing or not doing--let alone if I was doing it right.

I have no idea if my son knows the real value of a dollar, five dollars or fifty, for that matter. He was really good at getting out of chores, but we nagged at him, and eventually he would do them, money or no.

On the other hand, we bribed him to do all kinds of things (homework, ironing, cleaning the salamander tank). Bribing is not recommended with kids, but in the real world, you do it, especially if you are desperate to get something done.

What about you? Do you get your kids to “earn” every dollar? What are your plans about helping them pay for college? (Ours got lucky because a grandparent died and left some money behind).

What about figuring out a consistent approach to money with co-parents after a divorce? (Cue incessant laughter from the audience).

What about grad school? (Don’t get me started). What about saving for your own retirement? Going through a recession and losing your job and wondering what you were going to do about all the expenses including college?

What about… putting your head under a pillow and screaming for the next 20 years?

The only thing that I think really worked well concerning teaching my son something about money was a job he took during high school at a masonry business. The owner was so mean and the work was so hard, he decided he really wanted to go to college because he didn’t ever want to work his life away in a place like that.

Of course, I had nothing to do with this decision or this lesson. So I can’t even take credit for it. But are artists really supposed to know how to be "smart" about money? What does that even mean? 

And no, I don't mean to use being an artist as an excuse, because it isn't. I just can't hold myself up as an example, and if you knew me, I'm sure you wouldn't want me to. As a complete failure at coming up with good tips on this topic, the only thing I can do is share some articles from people who, hopefully, know better:

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Time and the Fair

I honored the last day of August this week by going for a walk on what was probably the most perfect day on the planet—at least in my neck of the woods. Today I’m plotting a Labor Day weekend getaway with my husband that will involve water, sky, and not too many crowds.

But last weekend, as we always do this time of year, we were at the State Fair, which I never expected to attend for so many years. When I first moved to Minnesota, some new friends called and offered to take me and I was charmed by the whole idea.

I’d only been to one county fair before that in Orange County, New York. That had seemed like a foreign country to a city kid, but it was still much more citified than what I see out here.

The State Fair out here is a huge deal, and of course there are rides and crowds and crafts and clothes and food all vying for your attention. Every kind of food imaginable is on a stick so you can walk, and there is never a place where you can hear silence.

But now and again you see the country poking through in front of you, and that’s what I like best. It’s in the tired faces of 4H kids who are resting at the end of the day near their prize (or hopefully prizewinning) sheep, chickens, pigs or cows. It’s in the signs next to the horses, telling you their names and the places where they grew up or were born.

You can also visit the Miracle of Birth Center (which we do every year) to see groups of suckling pigs swarming their exhausted mothers or brand new foals or calves or lambs. If you want a milkshake that’s fresh, you can go to the Dairy Barn and get one that may come from a cow milked very recently.

If you want, you can talk to some of the farmers who tend these animals and find out some interesting facts, like how pigs will eat absolutely anything (including each other) and how many stomachs cows have. You can also find out what it would cost you to raise animals on your own.

The flat art building (and it’s neighbor, crafts) are favorites for my husband, who piqued my interest through a game that's now become our tradition. We each walk through the building and choose our favorite piece of art; and then share it with each other to see if we picked the same one. Some years we have, some we haven’t; but I’m gratified to say we usually like and understand each other’s choices.

My husband nearly always has a corn dog (on a stick of course) and we both always have an ear of corn. (Why do they call it an ear? My next question for next year’s State Fair.) Milkshakes always give us stomach aches (we are a Zantac couple) but we have to have them anyway.

Some days I wonder what my New York buddies would say about this tradition, but I mostly think they would like it. Not because of the crowds (even thicker than on New York's streets, which takes some doing); not because you can get anywhere quickly or because almost anything you eat is going to pack on the pounds; but because even in the midst of craziness at the fair, you know life is slower and wider than it would ever be in real life.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get bored or want something new or that I’ve fallen head over heels in love with the State Fair. I like it, where my husband would say he loves it and wants to go back. But having it bookmark the end of summer kind of helps you turn a corner toward the changing seasons, and makes August sweeter because you can spend a day there.

I guess it’s all about time, right? Prolonging the moment before September descends and you truly have to say goodbye to summer. And then you sigh and say, “Already?” And have no choice but to get on with your day.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Me and Dr. P: Going Way Too Far Back

I probably should never have it. But I have it every day. I am nearly incapable (OK, incapable) of saying no to it.

Not alcohol or drugs. “It” is diet soda (probably worse)? Ruinous for your kidneys, I’m told, with God knows what organ-eating chemicals and additives running through it, but… hey. I can’t stop.

I’ve guzzled it since I was a kid–sanctioned by mom who drank it herself like it was going out of style—and found it an indispensable end to my day (and sometimes a lunch-time companion as well).

I DO drink water, I promise, at least three to four eight ounce glasses, sometimes more when I can rev up the will power. Tea and decaf coffee also make their ways into my stomach, but diet soda (specifically Caffeine Free Diet Dr. Pepper, Coke Zero, or Sparkling ICE when I’m feeling slightly more virtuous) are my drinks of choice.

The fact is, I would drink a lot more of them if I let myself. They are not just a guilty pleasure, they are a super-guilty pleasure. Now and again I get myself to drink plain sparkling water instead, and then I feel really good about my day.

Why am I telling you all this? Part of me is hoping you’ll convince me somehow to stop, but I know you won’t. 

Part of me is hoping I can convince you to keep your kids away from this demonic drinking practice. I didn’t let my son have it at home when he was growing up, though his dad and I both let him have it when we went out to eat. 

I didn't want to make it "forbidden" because I didn't want to tempt him too much. But I didn't want it to be a mainstay for him like it was for me growing up. And I believe I (mostly) succeeded with that very modest goal, at least.

These days,  I’m hoping he doesn’t drink it as much as I do. He works out quite a bit and is better about eating healthy than I am (I think)?

Maybe you can try talking to your kid about the evil that diet drinks do. That doesn't usually work, but I'm probably in a diet-soda haze, so it's all I can think of.

I’m writing this with an empty can of Diet Dr. P on my desk, btw. So, no, you probably won't be able to talk me (or anyone else) out of it. But maybe there IS one thing you CAN do.

Invent a better drink? You'd make a lot of money.

If you can't, well... I haven't read these but they might be helpful:

And here's one I did read:


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Night Owl City

Are you a morning person? I wish I was, but would have to say I'm not. I perk up at 11 p.m. and have a really hard time going to sleep. By the time it's 7:45 a.m. (when I usually have to get up) I'm ready to sleep until noon.

On the other hand, if I don't have work or someplace to be, I have much more energy no matter what time of day it is. So maybe that whole time of day or night thing is just a state of mind. That's what I keep telling myself, though I will never be able to be as perky as my husband is before 9 a.m.

He gets up immediately on waking. (Can you even imagine that?) I am waiting (anxiously and eagerly) for the day when I don't have to be ANYWHERE at any time and can set my own schedule. I know you can do that as a freelance writer/consultant, but you still have to be somewhere and deliver projects to various people.

And... there is something about nighttime that makes me feel more awake. It could be just the prospect of freedom, or the freedom to write what I want.

I had a friend who was also a playwright who had to work as a temp for a while. He told me he used to come home and feel completely numb for hours and all he wanted to do was watch TV. I understand completely because the daily grind is just that--it grinds and wears you down.

That makes me wonder if we send kids to school at an early hour to get them used to the work day. It never really worked for me; I was always tired. I don't know if that meant I was naturally a rebellious artist, but I think it probably does.

I do remember a woman I worked for who said she'd take a night person any time over a day person (we got along very well). She felt night people worked harder and were more organized. When I had a job working nights doing data entry at a hotel, I felt extremely confident and alert and they liked me a lot. So there is something to the whole night person thing, at least when it comes to day jobs.

Theater people are mostly working at night, which is likely why I gravitated to working in theater. When I'm at a gathering of theater peeps, things usually start to perk up at about 10 p.m. and I'm always envious when I have to leave early because of an early work day. One of these days I'll get my schedule right, but until then, I'd have to say I'm a night person who works days.

That's why I could understand Ruby Tabeata so well in The Beat on Ruby's Street. I couldn't have dreamed up anyone (especially not someone who was part of the Beat Generation) who would get up early in the morning willingly.

The world as we know it revolves around day people, though. Not that there's any sort of magic bullet that will help you or your kid become one. (My kid was awake 24/7, I swear to God, for the first year and a half.)

But if you want to learn more about morning people vs. night people, I found a lot of interesting stuff that might help you understand who you are--and who you could have been.

Morning People vs. Night Owls: 9 Insights Backed by Science

Why You're an Early Bird or a Night Owl

Night Owls and Early Birds Have Different Personality Traits

Yawning photo: Dale Cruse
Barn owl: Jitze Couperus

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Worry Bug

Are you a worrier? I am. Can you teach your kids not to worry? Doubtful. But maybe you can teach them HOW to worry, so they won’t worry their lives away.

When my son was small, I found an amazing book called Sam’s Worries by MaryAnn MacDonald. It’s about a young boy who stays up worrying at night. He worries about everything from a library book getting lost to an earthquake at school.

The only thing that stops Sam from worrying is his Teddy Bear, who promises to stay up all night worrying for him. It will make you wish for a worrying Teddy Bear—I know I wanted one after reading this book. Because we all worry, and some of us light on one worry after another like flies.

Being a grownup and all, the bear idea doesn’t work as well, but a friend once told me to give myself a time limit on worrying every day and that kind of helps. I also figured out how to stop myself from obsessing in the middle of the night (my favorite obsession time) by repeating a mantra over and over – which can be any word that won’t get me obsessing again.

Is worry ever good? I would have said no a few days ago but then my husband cut a tendon in half in his finger while trying to open a package and I thought, well, maybe it’s a good idea to worry now and then. Makes you a little more cautious when opening packages.

It can also help you prepare better for projects, because you start earlier than you would if you’re not worried. I’ve never been able to be much of a last-minute person (though sometimes I wish I was). But the good side of prepping for stuff early means I have less stress later on.

Kids don’t need to worry incessantly, but if you don’t learn to care about things like school deadlines, you know how easy it can be to lose track of them. Maybe keeping track isn’t exactly what you’d call worry, but it does seem to involve at least some level of concern, if not anxiety.

How do you balance worry about deadlines with staying away from overthinking or worrying too much? Was Sam ever able to learn how to keep this balance when he grew up?

We can’t really know, because Sam is a fictional character. But we can hope he did. And learn to stop OVER worrying. Here’s some ideas I found that may help: