Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Manic May requires teamwork

From Saturday's Briefing:

Every May it’s the same. Can we arrive at the majority of commitments on time? Can we avoid double-booking? Can we end the month with celebratory — not surly — spirits?
How much can families pile on to everyday routines? The list can include, but is not limited to: recitals, concerts, parties, open houses, book fairs, teacher appreciation week, graduations, teas, camping trips, dances, field day, field trips, plays, receptions and tournaments.
I’ve learned to march into May with a plan that includes, but is not limited to: shortcuts for home-cooked meals, the constitution to launder daily, the willingness to overlook some usual chores, gift wrap at the ready, a generous sense of humor, a healthy dose of forgiveness (for self and others) and determination to say no when it all becomes too much.
My most essential strategy: Rely on teamwork.
Cooper, Katie and I have been a family of three for a long while now. We’ve learned one another’s strengths. We know our challenges. Most of the time we do a fine job remembering that we’re on the same team, working toward the same goals.
That attitude is even more important when the month of May is interrupted by hiccups, those presumptuous moments that leave no room for RSVPs.
Perhaps it’s a small hiccup, like when your son realizes a front belt loop on his black slacks has popped loose and you’ve got two minutes before you must pull out of the garage and drive toward the auditorium for the spring band concert.
In that case, the other child locates a needle and black thread, you grab scissors, and your son stands motionless while you mend on the spot.
Or maybe your beloved family dog will not step a paw into the backyard if it’s raining, which is normally no big deal except now we’re in the rainiest season anyone can recall, and the only way to allow your furry friend to take care of business is to take her on walks around the neighborhood.
We’ve had many, many walks this month. The three of us take turns, depending on who is actually home and can most afford a soaking.
Some interruptions are less expected and require extreme creativity. Like the day we found a kitten in our yard.
Actually, our beloved dog found the kitten. Margie the Scottie sniffed out the baby and welcomed it to our home by producing the loudest, fiercest bark I’ve ever heard.
After we contained Margie, the three of us conspired on how to take care of the world’s cutest gray and white cat, now taking residence in our backyard.
Actually, two of us conspired. Katie stood on the patio and sobbed, her soft heart for all living creatures wounded by the possibility that Margie had harmed the kitten.
Cooper and I gingerly approached the abandoned cat, hoping to hold her, I suppose, when she leaped across the yard, producing the loudest, fiercest hiss I’ve ever heard.
We, in turn, all shrieked and leaped, followed quickly by fits of laughter. Who’s scared of a wispy kitten?
We regrouped. Katie joined the cause. (The kitten moved too fast to be injured.) We tiptoed near. She hissed, leaped and darted for the back fence.
After two hours of watching from afar — and keeping Margie at bay — we at last coaxed Maka into a small carrier. (Oh, yes. In the process of staring at her immense cuteness, Cooper couldn’t resist naming her.)
Cooper and Katie took turns sitting next to the carrier on the front porch, waiting for our friend Jackie, the cat whisperer, to return to the neighborhood. Jackie swooped in, took Maka home and convinced her to trust humans and their ways. By the end of the week, Jackie had placed the kitten in a forever home.
Ever since we’ve been enjoying photos and videos of Nellie (her forever name) — a fuzzy reminder of an afternoon in May when, despite crammed schedules and heightened expectations, we banded together for a feline rescue.
Our little team can conquer all of May with gusto. We’ll take it easy some day in June.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyra.damm@gmail.com.

Monday, May 04, 2015


I usually work at school until 5 or 5:30 p.m.

Today I left "early," and Katie and I were home by 4:40 p.m. I had big plans to run necessary errands AND leisurely cook dinner.

About 4:47 p.m., we let Margie out in the backyard. Moments later, there was a tremendous racket from our somewhat-mild-mannered Scottie. (She's mellowed with age.)

I investigated. Margie had cornered what appeared to be a bunny. I forced Margie inside and then took the next sensible step. I asked Cooper, our trusty, brave Boy Scout, to make sure the bunny was OK.

He returned with the news that that was no rabbit -- it was a tiny kitten.

Katie, who loves all living creatures, burst into tears for fear that the baby was injured, either in the journey that led her to our yard or by Margie, whose ancestral line predisposes her to rooting out vermin.
Margie, fresh from locating and "welcoming" the cat
Then I took the next sensible step. I called Jackie, our neighbor, friend and affirmed cat whisperer. She is also a high school counselor and was still at school, prepping for AP exams tomorrow.

She suggested that we (1) get a cat carrier from her laundry room, (2) lure the kitten in with food and (3) hold on to the cat until she could get home.

Cooper obtained the carrier and cat treats. The "luring" part of the job was not so simple.

Now, this cat (who we are calling a girl, though we really don't know) is tiny. Cooper is 6-foot-1. So even though he is super kind and gentle, Coop must have seemed scary to the kitten, who had just been cornered by a fluffy, barking Scottish terrier. When Cooper approached the cat, she hissed and leaped across the backyard.

This caused Cooper, Katie and I to shriek and leap like marionettes with broken strings. I mean, this cat may be tiny, but she is fierce. (The three of us laughed until our sides hurt.)

We let her settle between the back fence and the tree. We started at her for a long while. Katie volunteered to read on the back porch to keep an eye on her. Meanwhile, I really had to run those errands. (The minivan air-conditioner stopped working this weekend, and I needed to get moving on a solution.)

Sweet kitten is still frightened. 
So, I left Cooper and Katie and Margie and the cat at home. Cooper called and texted with updates, all the same. The cat hadn't moved.

By the time I returned home, Cooper had named the cat "Maka." She hadn't eaten a single cat treat or sipped the water he had placed under the tree.

"We have to get her in the carrier, Cooper," I said. "Whatever it takes."

Moments later, Cooper was ready. He had put on blue jeans, hiking boots, a thick jacket and thick socks in an exaggerated effort to protect himself from this wild animal.

We eased up on her, certain she would climb into the carrier.

HISSSS! Pounce! Leap!

Now she was in yet another corner. Cooper and I were determined. We cautiously approached. We braced ourselves. At last -- success! The tiny gray-and-white kitten was contained.

Maka's home while waiting for Jackie
Sweet Jackie was still at school. We weren't comfortable with Margie and Maka in the same house, so the kids took turns sitting on the front steps with crated Maka. They didn't want her to feel alone. When dogs would walk by, Katie would pick the crate up and move it close to the front door, just in case Maka felt frightened.

Around 8:30 p.m., Jackie arrived. We visited for a while, then Jackie walked Maka to her home, where she will keep her until we can find a good home.

Thank you, Jackie, for your help!
I'm proud of this little family -- a genuine team. There are many days (most days?) when I feel like we're just getting by, just able to keep our head above water. Yet we each have our strengths, and we together we compensate for our challenges. We are fortunate to be able to call on experts to help. We laugh every day. We love each other, and we are genuinely grateful for one another.

Now, who wants to adopt Maka?

What do we miss when we are distracted by the small quirks?

From Saturday's Briefing:
No matter how much I love, adore and cherish my children, they can at times be, um, irritating.
One might eat too quickly. The other sometimes nibbles like a baby squirrel.
One child might forget homework assignments at least once a week. Another might steadfastly refuse to fully close a single dresser drawer.
Nothing awful or dangerous. In fact, the simple act of listing them seems trivial.
And yet it’s easy to give those irritants more power than they deserve, to allow them to swell beyond their worth. (And I’m certain they have their own list based on my annoying habits.)
Katie sometimes moves more slowly than I think she should. Breakfast is a drawn-out affair. She’s been known to meander, dodging the most obvious path. At times she dawdles when the occasion calls for alacrity.
There are extended moments when she seems lost in details, missing the bigger picture around her. Her bedroom is a gathering place for an ever-expanding assemblage of tiny, random treasures.
There are a few moments when I’m tempted to exclaim, “Move faster! Eat faster! Stay on the path! Pay attention! Stop saving everything!”
But what would we miss out on if I did?
Tuesday morning was typically slow. We left for school on time, but the structure and speed of her getting-ready process left me puzzled, as usual.
Later that morning, I received an email from one of Katie’s teachers: “Your amazing daughter just shared with me an observation that I’ve never had another child make.”
That one note totally reframed the day. My daughter’s quirks fuel her strengths.
This child finds beauty at every turn. Car rides typically include exclamations to admire the sun’s rays or to look at animals hiding in the clouds.
The bits of “trash” she collects often becomes part of a bigger creation. She made her Halloween costume last year, using cardboard paper towel and toilet paper rolls to craft a giant narwhal tusk. She was the tallest, easiest-to-find child on the trick-or-treat circuit.
She protects all of God’s creatures, not just the “cute” ones. For a year she was a pescetarian, eating no meat, only seafood. After attending a lobster boil last August — and observing the quick turnaround from living creature to dinner on the plate — she gave up seafood, too, and has been a vegetarian ever since.
There’s a wasp nest just outside our kitchen, nestled in the pocket between the sliding glass and screen doors. Katie is torn between her fear of being stung and her innate desire to protect animals.
As I placed wasp spray in our shopping cart this week, Katie hung her head and whispered, “I wish there were a way to get rid of wasps without killing them.”
Living with people, loving those people, requires more than simply tolerating idiosyncrasies. We’ll all get along better and understand one another when we embrace the quirks as small, essential pieces of the whole person.
I tell my children — and myself — all the time: No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. When we take ownership of our mistakes, we learn and grow.
I need to add to the rotation: Our challenges and imperfections are small pieces of a big picture. I love the whole you — and I love all the tiny pieces.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyra.damm@gmail.com.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The importance of roots

From today's Briefing:

Our red oak stands proud. Its limbs reach for the street and the sky and the front porch all at once. Its canopy offers shelter from the sun. Its leaves shake in spring wind, provide comfort in summer heat, dazzle in autumn sunsets, drop with winter’s first kiss.
That tree grows stronger each year, defying its scrawny first year at home, way back in 2002, when we moved in to our brand-new neighborhood. The tree seemed to struggle at first, showing few signs of progress.
Early spring after early spring, Steve would stand on our front porch, arms crossed, studying the tree. After ample investigation, he’d nod and say, “This is going to be THE year for the tree.”
We’ve endured six springs without Steve. In his absence, at least once a year, I stand before the tree, cross my arms, nod and declare it the year of the tree.
I’ve lived in this home, with that red oak in the front yard, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. My little family has been a member of this pocket of Frisco, Texas, for almost 13 years.
Living in one place for so long — after three decades of somewhat nomadic behavior — feels comfortable and comforting.
Take last Saturday, for example.
We attended a youth baseball game at our nearby community park. The starting pitcher was third-grader Adam, honorary extra brother in our home. He lives in the house behind ours. I’ve loved him since before he was born.
And now I get to watch him stand tall on the mound, red-white-and-blue cap pulled low, mitt on his left hand, baseball in his right. Strike, ball or hit — it doesn’t matter. That’s our Adam, pitching in a game he’s loved his whole life.
In another neighborhood later that night, I stood in a crowded kitchen, raised a glass and toasted the engagement of Lindsay and Alec. We’ve known Lindsay for five years. Her mom is one of my most honest, most faithful, most hilarious friends.
This family has struggled, but they are now strong.
They all stood together — mom, dad, two sisters, one brother and a brother-to-be — surrounded by people who love them. There were a few sentimental tears, balanced by laughter and infectious smiles.
The soul of this community, of my community, is the people. They are a huge influence in why I remain in this house, with that red oak, even without Steve.
In his final weeks, he was confined to this house. He took his final breaths in our bedroom. Though those memories can be haunting, I’ve never once considered leaving.
Cooper, Katie and I are invested in the people around us. We grieve when a neighbor is diagnosed with cancer, and we rejoice when she is in remission.
We marvel that the young man across the street, who was 5 when we first met, is about to graduate high school. We give thanks for dedicated teachers in every grade, for talented instructors in every instrument, for compassionate coaches in every sport.
With each subsequent year, I expect our roots will grow deeper. I hope that my children feel secure, comforted and protected.
I pray that these years at home, in one place (with a few adventures sprinkled in), give them confidence to stand proud, to reach up and at the same time reach out, to provide comfort to others.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, April 06, 2015

How sweet it is to spoil once in a while

From Saturday's Briefing:
When I take my children to special events, ballgames or concerts, I rarely spend money on extra stuff. I don’t pay for overpriced T-shirts or souvenir mugs or stuffed animals. Memories from the event are the only souvenir we need.
And food? Just the basics, if that, please. I’ve been known to smuggle in granola bars and juice boxes to ward off visits to unhealthy, uber-expensive concession stands.
Apparently, the rules don’t apply when I’m chaperoning other people’s adorable children.
Last weekend I took my 9-year-old, Katie, and our kindergarten friend Mattie to American Airlines Center to watch the Disney on Ice presentation of Frozen. We belted out the soundtrack on the drive down the Tollway. We admired dozens and dozens of tiny Anna and Elsa lookalikes as we stood in line to enter the arena. We posed for photos in front of cardboard snowflakes.
We were ready to embrace the entire Frozen experience, no extras required.
Katie, having lived with me her entire life, already knows my stance on vendor sales. She loves to look at merchandise on display, but she rarely asks to take anything home.
Mattie, on the other hand, knows nothing about my spending habits. Plus, she saw her mom hand me $40.
We’d barely entered the building when she spotted the first of many snow-cone stands.
“I want one of those!” she enthused.
“Let’s look at all your choices before we spend your money,” I advised.
She obliged. Yet nothing would break her devotion. The girl wanted a snow cone. And she was so charming and so polite — how could I turn her down?
So we stood in line for crushed ice drenched in bright red syrup and served in a plastic stein. Anna on one side, Elsa on the other.
Mattie, already bubbly about the show, was now positively giddy.
Snow cones may induce happiness, but they lack nutritional value, so our next purchase was a kid’s meal for Mattie — hot dog, potato chips and a small Sprite. Of course that meal lacked nutritional value as well, but at least she’d no longer feel hungry.
Before the show lights dimmed or a single performer skated on to the ice, we had our first tiny spill. A smidge of red snow cone dripped on Mattie’s pastel peach dress.
“That will wash right out,” I chirped, as I draped more napkins in her lap.
She’d barely polished off the snow cone when intermission began.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “I’m really hungry.”
A cotton candy vendor strutted nearby.
“I’d like some cotton candy.”
I exchanged skeptical glances with Katie. Neither of us knew the right answer.
“Does your mom usually let you eat cotton candy?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve had it before.”
Now, if this had been my own child, I wouldn’t have even entertained the question. Of course you don’t need cotton candy after eating a giant cup full of liquid sugar.
Yet this wasn’t my own child. This was a 6-year-old caught up in the magic of her favorite movie come to life before her eyes. She wasn’t greedy. She just wanted a little fluffy sugar to take the edge off her hunger.
How could I refuse?
Katie bounded down the stairs until she met up with the cotton candy vendor, then returned with a bag of blue and pink spun sugar, topped with a wearable crown.
By the time we walked out of the arena, crown on Mattie’s head and plastic stein in her hand, all the cotton candy was gone — except the bits stuck in her hair or clinging to her white sweater.
When we returned Mattie home, I sought forgiveness in lieu of permission for the excessive sugar feast.
I later learned that our young friend had a classic sugar-fueled meltdown later that day. She crashed early and hard — a little reminder of why I usually exert more parental control, and why it’s sometimes fun to slightly spoil children who aren’t your own.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Top: Mattie and Katie walk toward the arena.
Bottom: Katie, Mattie (and the snow cone) and me