Friday, August 26, 2011

Putting my school worries in perspective

From today's Briefing:

Who did you get in your class this year? Who is your teacher?
Oh, wait. I mean, which children are in your child’s class this year? Who is your child’s teacher?
If you’re anything like me and my mom friends, you’ve been waiting all summer for the answers to these important questions.
Maybe you even think of your child’s teacher as yours, too. Maybe you catch yourself saying, “My teacher is Mrs. Smith,” when in fact you left elementary school in 1983.
Our elementary school posts class lists 90 minutes before meet-the-teacher night begins. Every year, I resolve to wait until 5:30 p.m. to see the list. And every year, I change my mind at 3:50 and head down the street to read the list as soon as it’s taped to the front doors.
Because after thinking about and discussing at length with other moms which teacher would be the most nurturing, which would be the most challenging, which would best understand the particular quirks of our kids, I want answers.

Lake Crescent

After our Hurricane Ridge adventure, we ate a picnic lunch. In the car. Because the bees were starting to get active up on the mountain.

Then I drove us down the mountain, taking deep breaths the whole way. The greatest source of my nervousness on this trip was the driving. The road to and from Hurricane Ridge is two twisty lanes with a few pull-out lanes on the side to allow drivers to pass.

Some drivers were much more comfortable, driving 10 mph or more over the speed limit. I was happy right at the speed limit. When the fast drivers got behind me, I would pray for a pull-out to appear soon.

In addition, the road is popular with cyclists. And they don't have a bike lane. We're all in the same lane. This didn't bother me -- I'd just slow down and wait for a safe place to pass. This did bother a couple of drivers, who honked at me to pass the bikes while we were on a curve with no clue as to what vehicles might be coming in the other direction.

So, I was happy to get back to Port Angeles and back on U.S. 101. We headed west in search of Lake Crescent.
Lovely Lake Crescent
We wanted some time on the water, so we found Log Cabin Resort on Lake Crescent, where you can rent boats by the hour. It was a slow day, so we talked the boat guy into letting us rent a rowboat for 30 minutes and a paddle boat for 30 minutes.

My boat experience is limited. (In February, Julie, Allison and I took a canoe six miles down the Macal River. We were a good team, and I couldn't have accomplished it on my own.)

But I thought a rowboat would be easy. You just put the oars in and row.


Cooper to the rescue. Cooper learned how to row this summer at Webelos residence camp. At first he tried to talk me through the process. I'm not a good student apparently. So I happily handed him the oars, and he got us moving. He knows which direction to go, when to lift one oar out of the water, when to be still.
Super duper awesome Cooper
I told him over and over how proud I was of him. He smiled the entire hour.

Cooper's in charge.
It's a strange feeling to watch your child perform a task that has absolutely nothing to do with you. He learned this skill away from the house, from a Scout dad. And until our vacation he had no opportunity to show me. I know this is just the beginning of his exploration of the world separate from me.

Cooper loved showing off his Cub Scout skills.
We worked together to row back to shore in time for the paddle boat. Cooper and Katie took turns in the left seat, and I sat in the right. (I was last in a paddle boat in 1977, I think, when Aunt Ami took me and Melane out on Bachman Lake on a sunny afternoon.)

Katie has requested that she get to row on our next trip.
Orange is our color, yes?
The stability of the paddle boat allowed us to dip our hands in the water -- clear, cold, beautiful water. And we'd occasionally stop paddling with our feet to take in the surrounding trees and mountains.
Katie gets a turn at the pedals. (She needs a couple more inches on her legs to be completely comfortable in this boat.)
After our hour was up, we bought soft-serve ice cream to enjoy before heading even farther west: Sol Duc Falls.

Goodbye, Lake Crescent!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A model of children's learning development

From last week's Briefing:

Jake Greenspan carries a significant legacy.
His father, child development expert Dr. Stanley Greenspan, died last year. Dr. Greenspan wrote parenting books based on practice and research. Among a long list of accomplishments, he established the “floor time” method for working with and nurturing children with developmental disorders such as autism.
Jake Greenspan is co-founder and co-director of The Floortime Center in Bethesda, Md., working with families to identify learning differences and to help children overcome those challenges. He employs the diagnostic and therapeutic techniques honed by his father.
Greenspan will be in Dallas next week to speak about his father’s model of evaluating a child’s individual learning profile. I spoke with him this week in advance of his visit. Here are excerpts.

Monday, August 22, 2011

First day

Katie starts first grade today, in Mrs. Gallant's class.

Friends in her class include Will, Logan, Alyssa and Brooke.

Cooper starts fifth grade in Mr. Jensen's homeroom. He'll rotate to Mrs. Shilson's class for language arts and social studies.

Best friend Asher is not in his class this year, but he has lots of other buddies.

This is the second and final year that they'll be on the same campus. (Though Katie is plotting to attend undergraduate school wherever Cooper is getting his graduate degree. She'd prefer University of Texas.)

I've enjoyed this summer so much. I know it's time for our school routine, but I'm going to miss these babies.

Uncle Jim drove from North Dallas very early to walk to school with us. He flies back to Washington, D.C., today.

Angie Williams is the best counselor ever. She has helped our family so much over the past few years.

Coop finds his desk.

Brooke, Mrs. Gallant and Katie

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Before church this morning

Snow in August

On Friday we drove from Port Hadlock to Port Angeles.

First stop: Blackbird Coffee House. I needed to file a story for a new client, and there was no Wi-Fi at the rental house. It was cold enough outside that Cooper and Katie ordered hot chocolate; I was warmed by a mocha.

Second stop: Olympic National Park's visitor center, for directions to Hurricane Ridge.

Cooper and a skull (wolf?) in the visitor center
Friendly park ranger Katie

Third stop, through windy, hilly roads: Hurricane Ridge.

From Hurricane Ridge, you can turn in any direction and see the entire Olympic mountain range. It's a breath-taking, gorgeous, give-thanks-to-God kind of view. 

Hurricane Ridge

We hiked a few trails, where we found the odd mix wildflowers and patches of snow. In August. While our friends at home were continuing to suffer through the worst summer in decades.

Coop is always looking for a good-natured snowball fight.
After 36 days of 100 degrees or higher in Texas, we didn't complain once about being cold.
Lupine in full bloom 
Just before heading north to find Lake Crescent
We did not take this outing for granted. We played and took deep breaths and stopped to stare often.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

At home or far away, remember to make room for surprises

Today's column:

This time last year, as we were broiling in hostile August conditions, I pictured myself on the back porch of a charming wooden house on the edge of a quiet lake.
I was seated in a rocker, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. My children were exploring nearby woods. We were all wearing jackets. Because this fantasy world was Maine.
I dreamt of Maine for months.
When I started researching how to get to Maine, though, I got nervous. Flying to the state is expensive; flying to Boston and driving north is cheaper, but I was unsure about driving through the city and then far up the coast.
Where else is it cool in August? The Northwest. So my fantasy world shifted to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
I secured a little house on the water. Then I studied the map. We weren’t too far from the mammoth Olympic National Park and its three distinct zones — mountains, temperate rainforests and coastal waters.
In no time, my week of doing nothing but sit on the back porch morphed into a jam-packed week of driving and exploring.
That’s how my vacation planning always goes. I’m no good at relaxing — at home or on faraway soil. I have trouble sitting still if there’s a museum to be walked or a trail to be climbed.
So I promised mountains and rainforests and the Pacific Ocean to my children.
I failed to consider lots of factors: being the only adult on the trip; windy, hilly, narrow roads that make driving stressful for this Texan; my exhaustion from a busy summer; Cooper and Katie’s tempered expectations for adventure.
Before we left Texas, I backpedaled on the ocean. It’s a long drive to the Pacific Coast, and there’d be plenty of opportunities to enjoy inlets and bays farther east.
We did make it to the mountains. We left our little rental house and its beach-for-a-backyard early one morning to get to Hurricane Ridge, which affords a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. Turn in any direction and you’re staring at majestic peaks.
You’ll also find snow — even in August. We skidded and tumbled on patches of snow, marveling at our fortune considering the brutal conditions back home.
That same day we discovered Lake Crescent, where we rented a rowboat and a paddleboat. And we discovered waterfalls. And canopies of trees and giant ferns and moss-covered rocks.
By the time we returned to the house that night, I was also reconsidering my rainforest promise.
“I’m not sure that we’ll make to the Hoh,” I apologetically told Cooper and Katie. “We’d have to drive seven hours roundtrip in a day, and I’m not sure about that drive by myself on these roads.”
My children didn’t hesitate to agree. They didn’t want to be captive in the car that long, either. They wanted to play in the backyard, searching for shells and slinging seaweed with sticks and splashing in the bay’s saltwater.
On the morning that we’d planned to drive so far for the rainforest, we slept late. While we were eating breakfast, I spotted something bobbing in the water out back.
It was actually two somethings — a pair of seals playing just a few yards from the water’s edge. I sat on the back porch and Cooper and Katie crept close to the shore, and for an hour we watched those seals bob and dive and swim.
We lazily put on adventuring clothes and shoes and drove two miles away, to explore another stretch of the beach. We interrupted our hike under a bluff. I sat on a rock, doing absolutely nothing while the children dug ravines in the sand and marveled over crab shells.
It was quiet. We had no timetable, no expectations. We were all wearing jackets.
That scene is my new dreamland, my new respite from brutal August. A fresh reminder to temper expectations and to allow room for welcome surprises.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


We rented a house near Port Hadlock for five days. When you walk out the back door, you're on a slightly raised wooden porch. Then there's a stretch of grass. Then the beach of a little bay that leads to Oak Bay and then the Juan De Fuca-Strait and then the Pacific Ocean.

The coastline at the house is rocky, mingled with dark sand. While we were there, there was lots of seaweed. At low tide, we could walk way out into the bay, making a squishy sound with each step on the porous, slippery surface. Sometimes we'd see water spouting up from shallow water, spit out by clams.


Ninja monkeys

(It's going to take a while to tell the story of our wonderful Washington State vacation. I'm not feeling very chronological; I'm just going to share when I have a few spare moments.)

On Monday we hiked around Indian Island, just across the bay from our rental house near Port Hadlock. Most of the island is owned by the U.S. government for a Naval ammunitions base. There is a stretch of land accessible to the public.

We hiked along a trail that eventually leads to a rocky beach.

For most of the walk, Cooper and Katie pretended to be ninja monkeys. They took a break from their ninja moves to meditate.

Back-to-school strategies from moms and students

From last week's Briefing

One of my recent discoveries is the website Pinterest, a virtual bulletin board where users “pin” things they find online and want to remember.
I’ve had to impose a daily time limit on my Pinterest browsing. It’s the kind of site that sucks you in. Not only do you post your own treasures, but you can also view other people’s boards.
Before long, I’m convinced that I need to redecorate the dining room, plant an English garden in the backyard, bake batches of chocolate peanut butter brownies, direct my children to create melted-crayon masterpieces and design a Christmas wreath made entirely of hand-built felt poinsettias.
What I really need right now is a bulletin board of back-to-school tips. All those great hints I’ve heard or witnessed over the years but have inconsistently incorporated into our routine.
I quizzed some of my savvy mom friends for advice on how they create a smooth transition from summer break to fall semester. Here is some of their advice.
Take it easy: Cyndi, whose younger child will be a senior in high school this year, emphasizes the importance of easing into school preparation.
“Never rush them into preparing, and don’t get things that they say that they don’t need, even if you really, really think that they do.”
Boys especially need a laid-back approach to their wardrobe, she advises. 
“They don’t really like to stand out. Let kids find their own style, especially in that awkward middle school and high school time.” 
Mental exercise: Allison likes to mentally walk through the first-day-of-school process before it begins. Two kids at school means two sets of registration forms, two backpacks, two lunchboxes, two school spirit shirts, two sets of school supplies.
(More than one mom strongly suggests buying pre-packaged supplies from school, if that’s an option.)
Early to bed, early to rise: Melinda starts her kids’ bedtime routines a week before school starts. She also wakes her daughter and son up early the week before, so they’ll have time to adjust before the big day.
Morning rush hour: Beth plans ahead for the inevitable rushed mornings. That means clothes are laid out the night before. And before the kids are even awake, she packs lunches, makes breakfast and loads the van.
“I also say, ‘This is what we are having for breakfast,’ not ‘What do you want for breakfast?’ That has seemed to help a bit.”
This school year will bring a change to her house: No television in the mornings.
Don’t sweat the small stuff: Kristin, mom of twins, believes in choosing battles. “Don’t get into fights over little things that don’t really matter, i.e. how to do their hair, unmatched clothing, etc. You will have plenty of things to hash it out about that really are important.”
Dinnertime: Suzy, who works outside the home and is an active volunteer, has been collecting new slow-cooker recipes to make evenings smoother.
I also quizzed some smart students about back-to-school advice for high school and college.
Branch out: Leah, who is starting her sophomore year of high school, emphasizes the need to expand your circle of friends.
“Don’t have a set group of friends in mind and seclude yourself to only them. It’s definitely good to stay faithful and have a ‘shoulder to cry on,’ but there is no obligation to hang with one specific crowd.”
Get involved: Sarah, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, advises college freshmen to find activities quickly.
“Moving away from home was really hard for me, and I was really homesick for the first semester. I learned that I didn’t really know how to make friends, since I’d been around roughly the same group of kids my whole life.”
Engage in class discussions: From Sasha, who is starting his final year of art school: “You’ll get more out of the class and the experience as a whole, and in my experience, professors will have more respect and understanding for you if you participate.”
Leave your comfort zone: Tara, a college sophomore, suggests: “Talk to people who you wouldn’t normally talk to. Network and put yourself out there. To meet people you sometimes have to be the first one to say hi or start an awkward conversation.”
That’s good advice for all of us — students or not.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Brain holds memories that the muscles have forgotten

From today's Briefing:

I went roller-skating as a child more times than I can remember.
My day care center relied on two North Dallas staples to keep elementary-age kids entertained in the summer: Don Carter’s All Star Lanes for bowling and Starlight (or maybe Starlite) for skating.
I can still conjure the smell — a mix of feet and sweat, dill pickles and Jolly Ranchers.
And the sounds — lots of Village People and Olivia Newton-John and Cheap Trick plus wheels on wood planks plus laughter.
And the sights — a dimly lit, low-ceilinged cavern punctuated by a disco ball, benches lined up against the wall, square metal lockers in a back corner.
Those strong memories have lasted a good 30 years. What my body doesn’t remember is exactly how to skate.
It is not like riding a bike.
I laced up a pair of rental skates this summer, joining Katie and Cooper at a birthday party at one of North Texas’ surviving rinks.
This was their first try at skating. (Yet another activity that I’ve failed to introduce them to in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes I feel like a floundering social director.)
I figured I’d warm up with a couple of laps before regaining my youthful speed and at the same time inspire Katie and Cooper with my smooth moves and enviable confidence.
That notion was dispelled as soon as I stood up with heavy skates as my anchor. Any trace of grace exited.
I gingerly scooted across gaudy carpet to hardwoods and plunked my feet down. I couldn’t recall how to hold my body, what to do with my legs, where my arms should go.
There was much more shuffling than rolling. Understandably, my children were not impressed.
Cooper gave up on me for advice and grabbed one of those PVC-pipe-on-wheels contraptions — kind of like a walker, designed to ease children into skating on their own.
The problem is they’re designed for much shorter children. Cooper is 10 and more than 5 feet tall. To hold on to the walker, he had to stoop over.
The walker wheels would move faster than his skates’ wheels, but he refused to release his grip on the walker. So, within a few feet, his torso would drift from semi-vertical to horizontal. Then his colt legs would buckle from underneath him, and he’d tumble to the floor.
He’d scramble back up and try again. And again. Lap after lap.
Meanwhile, Katie couldn’t decide whether she would trust a walker or me.
With me she lacked freedom but gained a little more stability (while stealing it from me, though I didn’t let on).
When she chose freedom, though, she was more likely to fall. Flat on her bottom. Over and over.
Her cries escalated from surprise to frustration to pain.
She and I circled the rink four or five times. We clomped through the “Hokey Pokey,” laughing the whole time we were shaking. Mercifully we were not forced to perform “YMCA” or pair up for couple’s skate.
By the end of the party, the three of us were more than ready to put our street shoes back on.
We hobbled to the car, feeling the phantom weight of those skates. My body was starting to register aches that would last another two days.
“Let’s do that again!” a child enthused.
“Yeah!” the other agreed.
“Someday, maybe,” I mumbled.
Someday, maybe, when nostalgia for skating trumps the memories of my awkward reintroduction.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at