Saturday, June 25, 2016

Kindness is free -- don't be afraid to share it

From today's Briefing:

The young man behind the front desk grimaces as we approach.

“Good morning,” my traveling companion initiates, despite all signs that this hotel employee currently harbors little hospitality. “Rough day already?”

He imperceptibly nods.

Julie smiles with sympathy and cautiously presses on, questioning some charges on the room bill. He mumbles an apology, calculates the correct total and hands over a new copy — all without making eye contact.

“Thank you,” she says, not a hint of irony or insincerity in her voice.

We walk away and whisper hopes that this fellow turns his attitude around before the onslaught of guests checking out. We fear that his bad day is about to get much worse.

Though I wasn’t surprised that my friend of 14 years was courteous when others might be haughty, I was touched by her gentle handling in the face of faulty customer service.

Kindness is free, like all the virtues, yet sometimes we hoard it as if we fear we’ll run out. Of course, kindness, like all the virtues multiples when lavished freely.

We witness it all the time. A teenager holds the door open for a line of people, and they nod, smile, say thank you, continuing the day with appreciation for good manners. A child at the park falls down, and three moms rush to the scene to comfort and help.

A madman murders 49 innocent people, and thousands of people line up for hours to donate blood to help the victims still alive. People serve food and water to responders and members of the media. Generous folks from around the country and world donate millions of dollars to support victims and their families. We embrace our children and whisper in their ears, “I love you. I’m glad you are safe. Be kind to others.”

In the face of adversity, it’s unadulterated kindness that soothes the soul.

Yet there are moments when we forget to be kind. We are irritated by perceived slights. We interpret benign comments with malicious intent. We insist that our opinion is the only right way, that our need to be heard trumps everyone else’s need to be understood or even loved.

It’s the end of our girlfriends’ getaway to Santa Fe. The four of us moms, exhausted in a good way from hiking and window-shopping and eating, are on a plane headed to Dallas.

One of the flight attendants begins the usual spiel about exit rows and tray tables, electronic devices and oxygen masks. What’s unusual is her halting, nervous speech. At times she stops altogether, and we can barely hear another attendant prompting with the correct words.

She finishes the script with a tinge of relief in her voice. There’s a pause. Then another voice fills the cabin, informing us that on this flight is a training attendant, who is learning procedures, including how to deliver the pre-flight announcement. We just heard her first attempt.

The entire cabins breaks out into applause, affirming the trainee’s efforts. She walks down the aisle waving and bowing, her nervousness dissipating with every step.

A whole plane full of weary travelers lavished kindness on a stranger. It cost us nothing. And maybe she banked some of those accolades in her heart, to cash in on a future rough day.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Celebrate more than just straight A's

From today's Briefing:


The morning of Katie’s fifth-grade celebration, she stood on stage beneath a congratulations banner, threw her arms in the air and beamed.
Hours later, as I studied a photo of my exuberant 10-year-old, I realized that she had reached a goal that’s gone unspoken but should have been a top priority.
She finished the year — all of elementary school, actually — with a cheerful spirit, strong self-confidence and emotional stability. What more could I ask for?
This is the time of year when families celebrate perfect attendance and straight A’s, the Dean’s List and outstanding (fill in the blank) student. Those are all worth celebration, for sure, but there’s no certificate (nor does there need to be) for what really counts: peace with yourself for who you are and what you stand for.
It’s taken me years to fully understand.
When Cooper started the third grade, his daddy was very ill and under care of hospice. I met with his teacher to talk about our expectations for the school year. I didn’t care about his grades, I told her. For this year, the goal was for Cooper to finish with strong emotional health. Academics were secondary.
Steve died two weeks after the school year began. Cooper missed one day of school before returning to class. Over the next nine months, he visited with the school counselor regularly and received grief therapy from our hospice agency.
The year was tough, no doubt. There were many angst-ridden days and tearful nights. But he ended third grade as a well-adjusted, mostly joyful 8-year-old.
After we endured that first grief-heavy year, my school-year goals returned to normal. Try your best. Work hard. Learn every day, and show what you’ve learned as completely as you can.
I didn’t exactly define success as hitting the All-A Honor Roll every grading period, but I encouraged my children to work toward an A average in every class.
My school-related questions have mostly been academic all these years: Have you studied enough? How was the test? What grades did you get back today?
I regret that I haven’t asked as often: Are you enjoying this class? What are your goals? How are you defining success?
I also regret that I haven’t started every school year with the same goal, with or without crisis: to finish with strong emotional health.
The good news is they’ve managed.
Cooper is not at the top of his class, though he works harder than any child I know. He takes challenging courses for the content (not the extra GPA points) and revels in learning. He’s not defeated by a few B averages. He enjoys school, extracurricular activities and his peers.
Katie constantly volunteers to help others. She embraces new experiences and welcomes newcomers to her routines. She pays little attention to what’s popular and instead holds fast to her beliefs and values.
Will they fulfill their potential? Where will they go to college? What kind of careers will they pursue?
Those questions are secondary to the biggest questions: Will they seek joy in all circumstances? Will they stand firm in their beliefs? Will they finish each journey with raised arms and radiant smiles?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Soak more than just life's good moments

From yesterday's Briefing:

School days are numbered. Our count is down to four.

Cooper, who is finishing his first year of high school, has been announcing the daily number for a couple of weeks.

I had been listening and nodding most mornings, until finally I could stay silent no more.

“Cooper, I might sound like an old person giving advice that isn’t relevant, but I’m going to say it anyway.

“I know you’re ready for the school year to end, but try to soak it up. When you’re focused on how many days you have left, you’re less likely to enjoy the actual day you’ve got.”

He arched his brows and smirked slightly.

“It’s true. Soak it up.”

Then I hugged him, grabbed my lunch off the counter and rushed out the door.

I’ve lived by the mantra “soak it up” for years, but it’s usually for the really good stuff.

Like when Katie was a baby and I ignored housework during her naptimes, opting instead to snuggle my second-born child (based on first-born experience, reminding me how quickly babies grow). I would lie on my back, Katie draped across my torso, close my eyes and listen to my daughter’s breathing.

Soak it up, I told myself. This won’t last forever.

It’s the same when I’m at the beach, any beach. I lie on a towel, squish my toes in the sand, close my eyes and listen to the relentless waves and squawking birds. I fill up my spirit with as much beachy goodness as possible, hoping to store enough memories to tide me over until my next visit. (I’m way overdue.)

Soak it up, I tell myself. You don’t know when you’ll be back.

Lately, though, I’ve been reminding myself to absorb all the moments — not just the obvious ones.

Like crisscrossing Frisco more than once in afternoon traffic to get Cooper to and from a band competition and then to and from an engineering presentation. Soak it up.

Or staying up late to keep him company while he studies for a comprehensive humanities exam over the Renaissance. Soak it up.

Because, much like those blissful baby days, these days won’t last forever, either. We may want to rush through the tough stuff, but when our goal is simply to survive the rough days, we’re missing the gems hidden all over the place.

All those trips in the minivan with Cooper give us extra time to visit about school, friendships and pop culture references I don’t yet understand.

Late-night study sessions allow me to brush up on Romeo and Juliet and debate whether or not the Shakespearean play is a tragedy. (We don’t agree, though I suspect Cooper is more informed than me.) For that matter, we debate the mere existence of Shakespeare altogether.

Parenting a teenager isn’t breezy. There are moments when I ache to hold tiny, sarcasm-free babies again. When I would much rather be on the beach. Any beach.

Yet being parent to a teen isn’t a lifetime commitment. There’s a built-in expiration date, and, based on past experience, one day I’ll probably be nostalgic for the teen years.

Yes, we have four days of school left. Yes, we’re all looking forward to summer break. But I’m not wishing away a single day. I’m soaking up the early mornings, the late nights and all the minutes in between, allowing them to flood my soul with the everyday moments that make up a full life.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The journey is different than expected, but I'm thankful

From Saturday's Briefing:

I am mom to two children, but I claim an additional 146. Those extra represent three years’ worth of teaching, which isn’t exactly the same as parenting but includes similar guiding and worrying, nurturing and redirecting.
I can’t imagine my life without those 146 and the families, stories, challenges and success stories they represent.
It’s the same with a group of volunteers I’ve become attached to over the years. They coordinate the North Texas Head for the Cure 5K, an annual event that raises money for brain cancer research.
I teach because I am passionate about literacy and quality education, because my heart swells every time I read a story aloud or conference with a young writer. I also teach because I need a job that affords a schedule that allows me to care for my own two children as a single mom.
I participate in Head for the Cure because I look forward to a day when a brain cancer diagnosis doesn’t include the words “inoperable” or “incurable.” It’s too late to save my Steve — and a whole host of angels, like Melinda and Maureen and Madison. But there’s a whole army of folks out there — my volunteer-turned-friends included — who haven’t given up hope for future patients and their families.
Early in the grieving process for Steve, while he was still alive and undergoing brutal treatment, I learned to let go of “what if” scenarios, the fantasy world in which cancer hadn’t invaded our lives. No amount of hoping, crying or pleading would change his diagnosis.
Instead, he and I learned to celebrate silver linings. We would have traded almost anything to get rid of that tumor, but that wasn’t an option. So we relished easier- than-expected appointments. We embraced new relationships. We marveled at help received from friends and strangers.
All that was good training for life without a husband and dad at home — a life I never wanted but happened anyway. I’m constantly reminded that our reactions and attitudes define us more than our circumstances.
Last weekend, more than 2,000 people gathered at a park in Plano to walk or run for Head for the Cure. My family has participated the past six years, and it’s a privilege to stand beside volunteers like Shari and Leslie and Gerryl. They are women who make my life richer by modeling selflessness and purpose, and our paths may have not crossed without a shared, albeit tragic, connection.
I prefer to focus on the blessings of our friendships.
It’s the same with those 146 children.
The path that led me to the classroom was bumpy. It’s not the route I asked for or would wish on anyone else, but I’m thankful for the destination.
I have stories about each of those 146 — sometimes dozens of stories about just one child. I’ve listened to tales from the football field and volleyball court. I’ve entertained memories from the Galapagos, from Hawaii, from multiple Disney getaways.
I’ve watched some children endure separation or divorce and others welcome new siblings or kittens.
These children have taught me how to be more patient, how to listen better, how to pay closer attention to details. They have gathered on the carpet to listen to some of my favorite stories, and together we have discovered new favorites.
The past three years have been layered with hugs and high-fives, tearful confessions and jubilant celebrations. I never expected to be here, to be counting 146 kids and looking forward to a few dozen more come August.
This isn’t exactly the journey I anticipated, but I am thankful for every gift — and every single relationship — along the way.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Welcome, May, you bittersweet month

From Saturday's Briefing:

Dear May,

Welcome! I totally mean it. Mostly.

Every year, I both relish and dread your visit. Every year, I vow to prepare for you, to not let you bring me down. Every year, I survive you, but, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s a rough go.

Let’s peek ahead at what you have in store for us this time around: Open House, band banquet, STAAR and AP exams, solo and ensemble contest, 5K, two Boy Scout camping trips, marching band workshops, storybook parade, class presentations, Field Day and end-of-year parties.

That’s just what you’ve revealed so far. You have a reputation for being surreptitious, adding last-minute celebrations, sneaking in overlapping appointments. You seem determined to test every ounce of my logistical skills, to assess my problem-solving savvy.

Today I have big plans for make-ahead meals, guaranteed to get nutritious, well-balanced weeknight dinners on the table. Check back in a couple of weeks, though, and you may find a menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and sliced apples.

Sweet May, you offer ample opportunities to reflect and to cheer. You also present moments guaranteed to make me weep.

This year, you pack a wallop. It’s the final chapter of elementary school for our family.
For a full decade now, you’ve delivered us Field Day. This time, May, we will bid farewell to beanbag races, water relays and tire rolls. Adieu, three-legged race and Hippity-Hops.

For the final time, my Katie will show off a stack of assembled schoolwork — poetry, clay pot, science brochure — held back for one special night. We’ll take one last Open House photo with her elementary teachers. (Alas, it’s no longer necessary for her teachers to stoop down for the camera.)
She will finish up with recess and Friday morning assemblies, safety patrol and jogging club.

May, you and I have spent a lot of days together. You know that I know that my babies are supposed to grow up, to reach milestones, to move on to the next stage of life. Yet you also know I can be a sentimental, messy mess. That’s why, darling month, I’m relying on you to offer some levity. How about some moments of pure joy, not mingled with bittersweet tears of a momma who irrationally wants time to freeze?

I’ve got my eye on the band banquet for guaranteed, tear-free happiness; It’s a semi-formal affair for students and parents, hosted in the school cafeteria, with catered meal and a dance. There will be no weepy farewells. Plus, I rarely pass up the opportunity to observe teens in their habitat.

When there’s a sliver of break in your plans, how about we fit in the first swim of the season, a visit to the Snow Cone Lady, a neighborhood stroll? Let’s have a movie night at home and a morning to sleep in.

These stolen moments are key, May, to our surviving friendship. I need to bank these spirit-filling memories. Because, let’s face it, this go-round is nothing compared with what you’ve got in store in 2019, the year my first baby will graduate high school.


Oh, dear May, sit a spell. Stay a while. You’re welcome as long as you’d like.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Don't shy from the big picture

From Saturday's Briefing:



Parenting requires the uncanny ability to function in the tension between the present and the future.
There’s the survival, often reactionary, mode side of parenting, in which everything hinges on food, clothing, shelter and logistics. Then there’s the squishy future world that requires methodical planning and predicting for who-knows-what variables to come.
Survival mode includes untold hours devoted to nutrition: Learning to nurse a newborn, coercing a toddler to eat vegetables, packing lunches for school, delivering team snacks to ballgames, attempting to keep the cupboards stocked for your ravenous teen.
Same with clothing: Do we have enough onesies? How did this child grow out of all her shoes already? Where did all the socks go? Where did you leave your jacket? How did you get holes in those brand-new jeans? Why on earth did the coach select white shorts for outdoor soccer? You need which shirt clean in 15 minutes? The one at the bottom of the hamper?
Ditto for logistics, a tricky formula with increasing difficulty based on the number of children, activities, divergent campuses and available driving adults.
This right-now sort of parenting occasionally garners praise from the young people. Bake a fabulous batch of cookies or rescue a child from walking home in the rain, and you’re likely to hear “thank you.” You might even receive a giant hug.
Hang on to those accolades. You’ll want to revel in them later, when some of your other decisions are less popular. Because in the middle of providing for basic (and sometimes frivolous) needs, you can’t lose sight of the bigger goal: guiding that tiny person into responsible adulthood.
That focus on the big picture requires the kind of work that sometimes goes unappreciated in the moment. Indeed, it may be openly scorned.
That’s OK. Parenting also requires a thick skin, a kind of hard-earned callus that deflects eye rolls and shrugged shoulders and sarcastic barbs.
Keeping tabs on the future means that you don’t always rescue your child. If your son forgets his clarinet at home, you let it stay at home. You let him earn a 70 for participation in band class that day because it’s not a life-or-death crisis and perhaps, if he suffers the consequences, he’ll never forget it again.
When your child loses a very specific pair of socks, you agree to buy a second pair. Mistakes happen, yes? But when that second pair goes missing, you insist that the child pay for the third pair, because how else is that child going to learn how to care for things?
Parenting with the future in mind means a healthy share of household chores — not just because of present needs but because you want your children to become adults who are able to prepare their own meals, wash dishes and laundry, clean floors and toilets.
In our house, it also means pushing a child out of his comfort zone.
If you’re old enough to handle an email address, I believe you’re old enough to handle your own correspondence. For about four years now, I’ve required Cooper to email the adults in his life to solve problems. If he has a question about schoolwork, he emails his teacher. If he needs to sign off merit badge requirements with a Boy Scout leader, he emails the leader.
He finds addresses on his own. He types in complete sentences. He rereads his requests before sending.
“Thank you for making me write my own emails,” he told me recently. “I feel confident in doing it now, and it’s a good skill to have.”
And just like that, the future seems like it’s already here.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com

Monday, April 04, 2016

Shared pastimes keep treasured memories fresh

From Saturday's Briefing:

Around the same time I gave birth to our first baby, my husband started running. And, in typical Steve fashion, he wasn’t content to run a little: He started training for a marathon.
At the time, I found it slightly inconvenient. I was a brand-new momma, home all day with this tiny person who needed constant attention. Brand-new dad would come home from work, trade his suits for shorts and his Allen Edmonds for Asics, and sprint back out the door.
The more Steve ran, the more I realized that he needed to run. He needed time and space to think through problems — or think of nothing at all. He needed an identity separate from the office, separate from home. He needed to set a goal and accomplish it.
Cooper and I were his biggest fans. We’d wait for him on the front lawn, ice water in hand. We watched him finish many races — a whole bunch of 5Ks, a couple of half marathons, a full marathon.
A few years later, when Steve was no longer able to run, I started running instead.
I didn’t love it as much as Steve did, but every time I laced up my shoes, I felt a little closer to him. I understood his passion for the sport a little better. And I regretted that I had waited too long to actually run with him. I didn’t start until after his cancer diagnosis, after his body was too unstable for sustained walking, much less a 3-mile run.
Steve watched me finish a couple of 5Ks and a half marathon before he died.
More important, he watched his Cooper finish a 5K.
Cooper’s first race was in January 2009. He was 7. He ran some of the course, walked the rest. He finished strong, with swift feet and a huge smile despite a biting wind.
We’ve lost count of how many races he’s run since. A whole bunch of 5Ks. Couple of triathlons. Cross-country meets. Track meets.
He gets a little faster every time.
Back in the fall, my 14-year-old set a goal to run a half marathon. So we looked at calendars and local races and registered for the Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Dallas.
For the past three months, he’s added half-marathon training to his already-full plate of freshman classes, band, track, Boy Scouts and chores at home. He would wake at 5:50 a.m. some days to fit in a long run before school. Other days he’d bike home from school, trade his blue jeans for shorts and his sneakers for trainers, and sprint back out the door.
Two weeks ago, on a brisk Sunday morning, we woke long before dawn to drive downtown and join thousands of others prepared to run 13.1 miles — or cheer from the sidewalks.
I hollered, “Go, Cooper!” when the race began. I walked a few blocks over to cheer again at mile 4. I obsessively checked the Find iPhone app to watch his progress as I meandered to the finish line.
I wiggled my way to the front row of spectators and craned my neck, watching for Cooper to turn the corner and sprint toward the finish.
Cooper, March 20, after 13.1 miles
When I finally spotted him, I was speechless. Literally, I could eke out no words of encouragement or congratulations. One word from me and I would have been a blubbering mess. There’s no feeling like watching your child accomplish a lofty goal.
I thought of his daddy’s first race and his final race. I remembered Cooper’s first 5K and the small crowd of friends and family who had gathered to cheer for him. I recalled him training for weeks despite fatigue or cold weather.
Cooper finished strong, with swift feet, a huge smile and a strong time — like he was born to run.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

After Easter sunrise service this morning


Some notes from this morning:

I woke at 4:45 a.m. to get us ready for sunrise service.

We went to sunrise because Cooper was asked to read the part of Jesus in the service. He's the oldest active youth group member at our church right now.

Cooper is also the tallest youth member. And he was the tallest congregant at the service, so when there was trouble with the cross, he stepped up to help.

We traditionally remove a black sash from the cross in the beginning of the service. At the end, we drape a white sash and add a wreath of fresh flowers. The white cloth was placed but was lopsided -- severely enough that there was risk of it blowing away.

Cooper leaped in the air to try to grab the short end to pull down. He almost made it. Bill, our youth minister, told Cooper to stand on his knee. So, Cooper stood on Bill's knee, scaled the wooden cross, and pulled down the white sash.

We all applauded.

He is risen!