Wednesday, November 15, 2017

From slow crawl to holiday rush

From Saturday's Briefing:

A huge difference between being a child and being an adult lies in the 55 days between Halloween and Christmas.
When I was much younger, November and December felt frozen. So very many days passed between watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
There was ample time to peruse — and memorize — every single page of the toy sections of the Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs.
I’d stare at calendars, wishing for days to move faster, anxious for Thanksgiving to hurry up so we could all feast and play card games and watch the annual slideshow at Gramma’s house.
By nightfall, after we’d snacked on turkey sandwiches and slivers of leftover pie, it was acceptable to openly discuss Christmas plans. Decorations. Meals. Wish lists.
Still, time would crawl by this point, each day agonizingly longer than the day before, until finally it was Christmas Eve Eve. That’s when the magic would happen.
Hot cocoa. Nonstop television. Festive snacks. Maybe a gift to open early. Family and friends gathering.
At last, Christmas morning arrived, and we’d unpack stockings and unwrap gifts. We’d play new games, read new books, lounge about in new pajamas.
It was the fastest, most glorious day of the year.

And now? Once you’re in charge of making the magic happen, there simply aren’t enough hours available.
Before we’ve greeted the first trick-or-treaters, my mind starts to create lists:
  • Gifts already purchased
  • Places I might have hidden gifts already purchased
  • Gifts yet to purchase
  • Nonprofits to help
  • Possible days for decorating the house
  • Families to add to our Christmas card list
  • Events already on the calendar
  • Days on the calendar not yet claimed
  • People I want to visit with
  • Recipes I want to try
  • Traditions we absolutely must continue
  • Traditions I can ask Katie to pick up
  • Traditions I might let slide
The lists don’t steal the joy of the season. In fact, lists make people like me happy. Completing a list is like, well, like Christmas morning.
It just all tumbles by so quickly.
It's part of the tragedy of adulthood. We want to freeze — or at least slow down — time with our babies who are no longer babies. We want to savor moments because we know they're fleeting. We want to spend our time wisely because we know we don't get it back.
Yet we’ve placed on ourselves the burden of creating magic for children who want the opposite. They want time to move faster. They don’t yet fully understand the value of reveling in the right now. They don’t consider time a nonrenewable resource.
Every year I make new promises to myself — and try to keep them in the following years. I no longer worry about fancy ribbon for packages. I no longer stress if the Christmas dishes stay boxed away. I no longer obsessively try to “even up” gifts for my children. (I’m certain they don’t count packages or add up prices in their heads.)
This year’s promises: We will drink cocoa whenever we feel like it. We won’t feel guilty about turning down an invitation or two. We’ll watch A Charlie Brown Christmas together, even if there’s homework that night.
We can’t control time, but a great gift of adulthood is learning that we can take care to spend it well.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Try rooting for the whole team

From today's Briefing:

A sign of parental growth: You watch a performance or a game without nonstop laser focus on your own child.
If you’ve achieved this feat with 100 percent accuracy, I congratulate you. Perhaps you can share your secret with the rest of us. I’ve been parenting for more than 16 years, and it’s a skill I’m still working toward.
Soccer games, musicals, band concerts. It’s all the same. Yes, I’m happy that my child is part of a group, and yes, isn’t it great they’re all working together so well, but where can I sit to get the best photo and/or video of my child?
For the first two years of Cooper’s marching band career, I knew on precisely which yard-line he would begin and end each movement of the show. After watching so many rehearsals, halftimes and competitions, I could easily discern if he was in synch with his line or if there was a tiny misstep.
What were all the other kids doing? I was a little fuzzy on the details.
This year has been different. I know that Cooper begins the show way in the back, just in front of a sousaphone. (He’s the tallest kid out there, so he’s easy to find.) I know that at some point he and his clarinet end up on the opposite side of the field, in front. There’s a whole lot of marching and playing in between, but I don’t track his every move.
Instead, I’ve been focused on the big picture and details not necessarily related to my child. 
I’m listening more purposefully to the music. I’m mesmerized by the color guard flags. I watch with fascination as the whole group of about 120 teenagers creates precise images on the field.
This year I’m a bigger fan of the whole band.
And, oh, these kids have earned their fan base. They give up a month of summer break to prep for the fall. They practice together eight hours a week outside of school hours, arriving by 6:45 a.m. most weekdays and staying until 7 or 8:30 p.m. one night a week. (There always seems to be a bigger pile of homework on late practice nights.)
They provide the soundtrack to football games. They entertain at halftime. They spend most Saturdays in October in a stadium far from home, prepping and waiting to compete – and then waiting to hear contest results.
Every one of those kids deserves admiration – not only for their individual contributions but for their willingness and ability to work as a cohesive unit.
Today as I’m watching our band perform at the UIL area marching competition, I’ll check for Cooper in the back, smile and wave in his direction (though he’ll have no idea where I am) and settle in for the big show.
I’ll watch for Brian and Madison, Jonathan and Sruthi, Ethan and Jill, Kenneth and Malini. I’ll take a couple of photos of the whole field, not bothering to zoom in on Cooper or anyone else. This is a team effort, and I’m rooting for the whole team, including but not limited to my own child.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How I spent my summer break ...

One of my projects this summer was reporting and writing for construction magazines:

Monday, October 16, 2017

We all have work to do

A year ago I wrote about raising children to protect their bodies and to respect the bodies that belong to every other living soul. The conversation was forced, as they often are, by current events. Here we are again, discussing as a nation the same story, just a different man in a powerful position taking advantage of women with less power. (Click here for last year's column.)
All of the "Me, too" comments are heartbreaking and not the least bit shocking.
I was a fresh college graduate, working at my first daily newspaper as a copy editor. The editor walked through the backshop as we were checking proofs on deadline. He pointed to a headline and told me I could do better. (He was right.) I returned to my desk, wrote a better headline and was proofing the page again when walked through the backshop a second time.
"This headline sings, Tyra," he said, and he placed his hands on my shoulders, pulled me toward him and kissed my forehead.
I was barely 21.
My freckled face turned crimson. The backshop went silent. He walked one way, I walked the other, my eyes on the floor and stinging with tears. I cried most of the drive home that late night.
So, "Me, too," that one time.
I'm now 45 and quick to correct and redirect sexist comments in my classroom. I pray that not a single one of the girls I've taught will ever have to say, "Me, too." I pray that not a single one of the boys I've taught will exert their power unfairly over another human.
We all have work to do

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Shining a light on the good

From today's Briefing:

The aftermath of the vicious attack in Las Vegas makes me want to gather my children, lock the front door and hide under the covers for a week, for a month, for maybe forever.
I haven’t, though, and I won’t.
Our plan is to continue enjoying as much of the world as we can reach, to give more than we take, to live the gift of the days we’ve been granted.
For the past couple of weeks, in an effort to push away fear, I’ve been focusing on heroes. I think of them, with fondness and a nod to the great author Madeleine L’Engle, as light bearers.
In her classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle points to the heavy-hitters: Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus Christ. They are among the “very best fighters” and “lights for us to see by.”
We are surrounded by light bearers.
Think of the people who threw their bodies atop others to protect loved ones and strangers as a madman terrorized the concert crowd in Vegas.
Think of the first responders who risked their lives that night and who risk their lives every day to take care of everyone else.
Their light dissipates the darkness.
In my own little community, heroes abound.
There’s Aerin Thomas, daughter of a friend. Aerin was 12 when her father suffered a heart attack in their home. She administered CPR until the paramedics arrived and helped keep her dad alive.
There are the Tamney girls – Cathryn, a freshman in college, and Victoria, a high school junior – who have devoted hundreds of hours serving children with special needs. 
There are Pete and Gracie Hosp. The most darling couple in Frisco, Texas.
They married here 60 years ago, and they’ve been bearing light ever since.
Gracie and her husband volunteered in Sunday school classes and homeroom classes, on football fields and school buses. Pete served on the City Council and on the school board. He served on city committees that no doubt met for infinite hours, requiring all kinds of support at home from Gracie. He was a volunteer firefighter and a Boy Scout leader. He was one of Santa’s most reliable helpers, filling in for the jolly elf all over town.
Pete and Gracie helped to build this community that more than 168,000 people now call home. 
Pete and Gracie aren’t the kind of people who seek glory, but they were recognized for their commitment to their town and its people with a namesake school.
Pete and Gracie Hosp Elementary opened in August 2014, about a mile from my home. I had the honor to help launch Hosp Elementary as a staff member and to visit occasionally with our namesakes.
Teachers and students alike were awestruck when Pete would walk the halls, pop in to a classroom or surprise us at a Friday morning assembly. Teachers and students alike would line up each December to have their photos taken with the Santa who looked suspiciously like Mr. Hosp.
That dear man passed away this week, survived by his sweetheart and two adult children. His light, though, will never extinguish.
Pete and Gracie have been heroes to children who are now grownups, are heroes to children who are still learning to read, will be heroes to children who will never get to meet them.
Among that big bunch of Hosp children are future light bearers, sacred souls who will refuse to define the world as scary and out of control, who will serve their own communities and, in turn, inspire a whole new batch of heroes.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Sunday, October 01, 2017

On the cusp of adulthood

From Saturday's Briefing:

When I think of Cooper the Boy Scout, I’m usually visualizing his first year.
He was actually a Cub Scout then, a tiny Tiger Cub with an orange neckerchief under his blue uniform collar, round haircut that accentuated his chubby cheeks and a slightly mischievous smile.
He had just started first grade, and he and his daddy were looking forward to learning about camping together.
Cooper embraced the Cub Scout experience, and he continued after his daddy’s death. He grew from Tiger to Wolf to Bear to Webelos and earned the Arrow of Light.
At last, in fifth grade, he was a real Boy Scout, with many more opportunities to camp and learn about all kinds of disciplines, including sailing, photography and American cultures.
And now, just after starting his junior year in high school, Cooper is an Eagle Scout, having earned the highest rank in the organization.
He’ll wear a red, white and blue neckerchief – the kind reserved for Eagle Scouts – under the khaki collar of the same uniform shirt he’s been wearing since 2012 – the one we bought oversized for longevity and now barely fits.
He long ago shed the round haircut, and there’s zero evidence of baby fat on his chiseled face. Yet I’m still surprised sometimes to hear his deep voice in the house, irrationally expecting the squeaky Tiger Cub voice from a decade ago.
I had the same feeling last weekend, as Cooper joined a big group of friends to celebrate homecoming. 
(Technically it’s called forthcoming because his high school hasn’t yet had a graduating class and therefore hasn’t had alums to come home. And most students don’t actually go to the homecoming dance. They get dressed up, take photos, eat dinner out and gather at someone’s home. That’s another topic for another day.)
There were 20 teens, all gussied up, posing in front of fountains and sculptures at an office park not far from home. Every possible combination was documented: All the boys. All the girls. All the soccer players. All the drill team members. All the couples. One couple at a time.
Cooper and his date posed in front of a peculiar water feature – a metal sculpture of a toothy gar devouring a small house.
When Cooper was tiny, we would drive by that same sculpture, and Steve would shout out silly things like, “It’s a fish eating a hotdog!” or “It’s a house eating a fish!” Cooper would giggle and correct him every time: “No! It’s a fish eating a house!”
Those days are long gone. Saturday afternoon, there was Cooper, all 6-foot-4 of him, wearing a charcoal suit and taking a lovely young lady to dinner, yet all I could hear was his toddler laugh.
As the photo session continued, I giggled a few times myself – mostly at the parents, including me. We shouted instructions. We angled for the best shots. We marveled at our children, so dashing and beautiful, so patient with our demands.
We captured images of teenagers in fancy clothes, all while we recalled preschoolers playing dress-up and first days of kindergarten and a time when boys or girls were to be avoided at all cost.
Those teenagers are still our babies, our toddlers, our 6-year-olds, our 10-year-olds. They are all those ages wrapped up in bodies almost fully grown, young people eager to grow up and yet still dependent on the necessities and comforts of home. One day we’ll let them go, but none of us are ready yet.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

When tragedy strikes in other places, we need to lift up those in harm's way

From yesterday's Briefing:

I suspect that I'm not the only human who feels emotionally drained these days.
In the past month, we've been exposed to a long list of heartache and peril.
The first blow was shocking violence in Charlottesville, Va., where people actually re-created some of the most horrific scenes from the 20th century, carrying torches, spewing hatred and marching against an entire group of people based on their skin color. One man rammed his car into a crowd of anti-white-supremacist protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.
We were still grappling with the aftermath of that tragedy when Hurricane Harvey stormed through Texas and Louisiana, disrupting lives and devastating communities. There was no time to breathe before Hurricane Irma marched through the Caribbean and Florida.
In the middle of those disasters, fires have ravaged the Western U.S., Mexico City was rocked by its most powerful earthquake in a century, and India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been hit with deadly floods.
Violence continues at the hands of humans, as well. The United Nations has warned that Myanmar is committing ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims, who are fleeing the country for Bangladesh in crushing numbers. Plano is still reeling from the mass murder of eight people watching football in a home Sunday night.

All of the news, this soul-crushing news, hasn't even affected me directly. I haven't been injured or forced to flee my home. I haven't had to make hurried decisions about what to save, what to leave behind. Yet my heart aches for my neighbors — all of them, in Rockport and Houston, in Barbuda and Key West, in Oregon and Montana, in overcrowded refugee camps.
What can we do?
We can give money to nonprofits that we trust to deliver resources in an equitable and timely fashion. (I've chosen to give money through my church for Harvey relief. I have faith, based on research, in the umbrella organization that receives our contributions.)
We can support nonprofits that support people in need. (I have a friend who teaches English to refugees in Dallas. I can't volunteer with her group right now, but I can send money occasionally to support her work and the precious people she serves.)
We can, if so inclined, pray for the people in harm's way, for the people who commit violence, for the people who are helping tear down and rebuild, for the children who are trapped in crisis, for leaders who don't act in the best interest of people.
We can start to recognize the humanity in each and every soul on earth. We can try to carry someone else's burden, just for a little while. We can listen when people want to share or cry.

We can speak with kindness to our crossing guards, police officers, store clerks and colleagues. We can assume the best first, discarding altogether our cynical inclinations.
We can step into our communities with courage, speaking up for people with small voices or no voice at all. We can politely but firmly name hatred as hatred and insist on civility.
We can recognize that no class of people, no race, no religion, no culture is immune from natural disaster or violent whims of people in power. We rely on one another to swoop in and scoop up. We need one another to tear out molded drywall and to clear debris from land, to provide shelter and to share resources.
We need to give thanks for whatever blessings we have, dig in for sacrifices to lift up our neighbors and expect that our work on behalf of others — here at home and across the globe — will in turn renew our spirits.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Saturday, September 02, 2017

My first weeks in middle school prove not much has changed since 1982

From today's Briefing:

Sixth-grade me
Awkward social exchanges. Evolving identity crises. Asynchronous growth spurts.

I have returned to middle school. Willingly. Cheerfully, in fact.

In the past few weeks I've made the transition from elementary school teacher to middle school teacher. I'm at the school down the street, where the fourth-graders I once taught are now sixth- and seventh-graders. We're growing up together. And while I adore elementary school culture, with homerooms and Friday morning assemblies and recess every day, I'm feeling right at home with lockers and pep rallies and P.E. every day (which requires no whistle from me).

In some ways, I've been preparing for this role since 1982, when I started sixth grade at Belton Junior High. My life at home was often challenging, but I was soothed by the hours I spent each day at school.

I loved everything about it: changing classes, making new friends, singing with the choir. Most of all, I adored my teachers. They were my refuge.

Mr. Finney conducted his singers with passion. He told goofy jokes. He asked interesting questions and remembered answers and made strong connections with his students.

Mrs. Emmert taught math with passion. She talked quickly. Chalk flew from her fingers onto the green board. She had high expectations for her students, and we didn't want to disappoint her.

Mrs. Creek taught reading and writing with passion. She encouraged us to explore multiple genres. She pushed us to write with clarity. She celebrated our progress.

Those adults were heroes. I've carried them in my heart for 35 years, and those fond memories helped lead me to my own middle school classroom.

Of course, life is significantly different today. My students can't imagine a world without smartphones. (Some don't even fathom the concept of a home telephone.) They have no understanding of a television that receives four channels via rabbit ears and needs to be changed with a manual dial. They've always heard the words "social" and "media" smooshed together.

Yet preteens are almost exactly the same today as in 1982.

They visit in the hallways.

They get flustered when their lockers won't open.

They want to be recognized as individuals, and at the same time they want to completely blend in with the crowd.

They laugh at goofy jokes.

They rise to high expectations.

They blossom when an adult celebrates their progress. 

They are mercurial creatures, each and every one. 

Some people are slightly frightened of a mass of middle-schoolers (I myself and slightly frightened of a room full of kindergarteners), but I'm fascinated by them. They are forming strong opinions and express them with vigor. They are a developing a sense of self-awareness, trying to figure out where they belong, which group they should join or which group they should create. 

They're a little like puppies with long limbs and big paws: eager to move and explore, yet still unsure of how everything connects and how much space they take up in the world. 

Every middle school student deserves a Mr. Finney, a Mrs. Emmert and a Mrs. Creek to provide levity, define boundaries and encourage excellence. I'm thrilled that I get the chance to pay homage to these heroes.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The years we had with Margie just weren't enough

From today's Briefing:

I often wish dogs lived as long as sea turtles. We'd have our furry companions for a good 80 years, maybe longer, and our hearts would break less often.

Two weeks ago, my children and I made the difficult and necessary decision to let our Margie go. She was 12 years old, a member of our family for more than 10 years.

We adopted her from a Scottish terrier rescue group when she was a toddler, the same age as our human toddler, Katie. We brought her into our home when life was mostly normal around here. Mom, dad and two young kids eager to go on walks and snuggle a fuzzy friend.

We never learned why Margie was with the rescue group, but it didn't take us long to suspect that she'd run away from her first home. She was a runner.

We were deceived more than once by her squat legs and slightly chunky body. She would act casually, lounging by the front door. In reality, in those early years, she was waiting for her opportunity to see the world. She'd spy a crack in the door, as a package was delivered or someone was walking in, wiggle her way out and charge for the sidewalk.

Katie Damm and Margie the Scottish terrier(Tyra Damm)
Katie Damm and Margie the Scottish terrier  

There was never time to lace up running shoes to chase her. You'd sprint out the door in whatever you were wearing, scan north and south, then fly after her. She could sprint faster than any human for about a quarter of a mile. Then she'd slow down and eventually stop, allowing her people to scoop her up and carry her home.

Most of the time, though, she stood guard. At the front window, watching for squirrels and rabbits. On the sofa, curled atop children's feet. In the kitchen, in case of falling scraps.

Just a few months after she'd settled in as a Damm, we learned that Steve was ill. Margie became his constant companion. She sought him out all over the house — upstairs on the exercise bike, resting on the green chair in the family room, napping in the bedroom.

Our Margie may have not understood the intricacies of brain cancer, but she instinctively knew how to comfort her people — first Steve through his illness and then Cooper, Katie and me in our grief after Steve's death.

Margie stands guard at the door.(Tyra Damm)
Margie stands guard at the door.  

Margie loved neighborhood walks and belly rubs. She loved burrowing in a pile of freshly laundered sheets and towels. She was an especially literate dog, in attendance for hundreds of guided reading sessions and bedtime stories.

She was a majestic mountain of fur, with triangle ears that heard everything and a bark to let us know when it was time to go out, time to come in, time to eat.

In the past couple of years, she had surgery to remove an abdominal growth, and she started slowing down. She took daily medication for a couple of chronic health conditions. She could no longer leap on furniture. She couldn't sleep through the night without needing to go outside for a bathroom break.

And in the past few months, she steadily lost weight despite a healthy appetite.

All of the sudden, she stopped eating altogether and struggled to put weight on her back legs. I knew, though I wanted to deny, that her body could take no more.

The kids and I decided, with our vet's guidance, that it was time.

Katie sat on my left side. Cooper sat on the right. Margie rested in a blanket on my lap. I held her as she took her last breath. We cried and cried and cried.

I like to imagine Margie and Steve reunited, which provides a little comfort as we adjust to life without our pup. We miss the skitter of her paws on the wood floor. We miss morning and evening walks around the block. I sometimes wake in the middle of the night, expecting to hear her bark, crestfallen when I remember the silence.

Yet our hearts will eventually mend, and one day we'll be able to talk about Margie without a lump in our throats.Why do we invite these animals into our lives, these beloved family members who we know won't outlive us? Because they love unconditionally and comfort selflessly and create buckets of joy — even though we don't get to hold on as long as we'd like.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Saturday, August 05, 2017

The surprising lesson I learned while being driven around Chicago

From today's Briefing:

Everyone has a story. We just have to listen.

The kids and I spent a couple of days in Chicago last week, and we were surrounded by stories. Every time we climbed into the back of a taxi cab or Lyft car, we learned a little more.

Our driver to the Museum of Science and Industry wants to travel to Texas someday, mostly to try the food and visit the home base of his church. Cedric has heard that the produce is fresher and the beef is better here. And he'd love to see Joel Osteen preach live at Lakewood Church in Houston.

Cedric shared that he was on public assistance when he was younger. He said that he could have found a way to continue to receive welfare even when he no longer qualified, but he knew that would be dishonest — and he would be taking money from someone else who needed it.

He allows that same philosophy to guide his decisions today. When he shops and sees a bargain, he rarely buys it. "If I didn't need it 10 minutes before I walked in the store, I don't need it now," he said. It would be better, he said, to leave that bargain for a shopper who really needs the item and the discount.

We waved goodbye, climbed out of his car and explored the museum. We bought nothing from the gift shop, Cedric's advice fresh on our minds.

Samuel drove us from our hotel to the theater. He's a special-education teacher hoping to be rehired by the school he transferred to last year. It's close to his home — he can walk — and he enjoys the work.

He was fascinated by the amount of money spent on high school football stadiums in Texas. At the same time, he lamented the poor budgeting decisions of his own school district and state.

"They make a lot of bad choices," he said, with the soft, calm voice you'd hope for from a young man who works with children with special needs.

We wished him luck for the new school year and spilled out on the sidewalk, eager to stand in line for Hamilton.

We relied on Christopher to drive us back to the hotel. He endured our effusive praise for the musical — we stopped short of singing the soundtrack — and we listened to his story.

He lives in Indiana and drives about 45 miles one-way to get to Chicago. The money is good — better than he can make at home. He prefers the afternoon, evening and late-night shifts. On busy weekends, he might not return to his wife and children until 5 or 6 a.m. He's got all kinds of tales of revelry.

No one, though, entertains like our cab driver from the airport.

He spoke with a heavy accent, so we had to lean forward and concentrate on every word. In half an hour, we learned about his three grown children, his travels in Africa and South America, his opinion on pharmaceutical companies and his work in computational physics.

He drives for fun, he says, to get away from his university lab.

After the car in front of us ran a red light and was almost hit by another car, our cabbie shook his head sadly and said, "There is only one second between life and death. Cherish every moment." (Chicago traffic is not for the fainthearted.)

Katie, Cooper and our sweet cab driver
He quizzed Cooper on probability and left him with a puzzle to solve.

He told us about his parents in Scotland and his phone calls home.

"Kids, cherish your mom. She is special," he said. "There is a lifelong bond. Don't ever joke with it."

And then we reached our destination and said goodbye and marveled, again, at the people we've met, the strangers still out there and the stories we've yet to hear.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at