Sunday, January 29, 2012

Before Sunday school this morning

Friday, January 27, 2012

Elementary school's end will just be the beginning

From today's Briefing:

The school year is half over — or, as I prefer to think about it, half full. I’m relying on an optimistic attitude to get through my son’s final weeks of fifth grade without too much weeping.
Cooper’s last day of elementary school may be in June, but getting there is an emotional journey.
I’ve already met with his future middle school counselor to discuss classroom accommodations related to dyslexia. (Despite fears fueled by young adult novels, comic strips and years of television programming, she was not cold or detached or clueless.)
Next week we’ll spend an hour in the middle school cafeteria so Cooper can try out band and orchestra instruments in an effort to determine his musical future.
Soon after, he’ll stand before a couple hundred people to accept his Arrow of Light, which symbolizes completion of achievements in the Cub Scout program. Then he’ll walk across a small bridge to be accepted into the Boy Scout troop of his choice.
A month later, the entire fifth-grade class will hear facts about puberty. The highly anticipated gender-specific talk is scheduled for the hour before the bell rings for spring break, giving the kids no time to compare notes in class and guaranteeing all kinds of fodder for family discussion while we’re allegedly relaxing.
A few weeks after that, he’ll play his final soccer game with the team that’s been together since 2005, when the boys were baby-faced, wiggly, completely adorable preschoolers.
All this builds to what promises to be the most tear-filled event of the whole process: the last day of school, when fifth-graders attend their own special assembly and then parade throughout school, giving high-fives to younger children lining the halls, all while music plays over the intercom, possibly designed to drown the sobs of sentimental moms like me.
(Some of my mom friends refuse to step foot on campus that last day of school, shielding themselves from the emotional experience until their own children are graduating fifth-graders. I show up every year, sort of hoping for some kind of inoculation.)
If all I focused on were these goodbyes and rites of passage, I would be a big ol’ blubbery mess until June. No matter how often I told myself to stop and enjoy the moment, to not wish for the next phase but to enjoy the current phase, Cooper’s elementary school career has zipped by entirely too fast.
So, while I’m misty-eyed about everything that’s ending, I’m working on embracing all that’s about to begin.
In August, Cooper will launch a new school career, with a different classroom and teacher every hour and a locker with a combination lock and the freedom to sit at any table in the cafeteria. He’ll study our world and read novels and solve problems with greater intensity.
He’ll report to the band hall to learn how to play a new instrument. Maybe it’s the first step that leads to marching band in high school and college, like his dad. Or maybe he’ll try it for a year and decide to try a different brand of art.
Like every other sixth-grader, he’ll struggle with and eventually conquer pre-adolescence, part of a necessary journey that will lead to the young man he’s designed to be.
He can choose to try a new soccer team or a new sport altogether. He could spend more time on long-distance running and triathlons or take a few tennis lessons or find a basketball team. Or maybe he’ll take a break from sports, spending more time camping and completing achievements as part of Boy Scouts.
For every milestone we know about and can ink on the calendar, there are many more that aren’t scripted, that we can’t anticipate. Some of those moments will make me cry, too, but I expect the majority will make me smile.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, January 20, 2012

Learning about diversity, one sake bomb at a time

You just never know when and where you’re going to learn a lesson.
I recently took Cooper and Katie to dinner to celebrate their awards in our school’s PTA Reflections contest. Cooper wrote a poem, and Katie wrote a poem and created a pastel drawing, all on the topic of diversity.
We ate at one of those Japanese restaurants where chefs slice and dice and cook and serve right there at the communal table. I started to feel a little uneasy about the choice as we walked to our table with randomly assigned companions.
They were three couples. The men wore shiny shirts that matched their shiny hair.
The women had tall, teased hair, balanced by impossibly tall shoes. Their outfits, in defiance of the cold wind outside, revealed a lot of skin. One of the women wore more eye shadow that night than I have worn cumulatively in my entire life.
They were obviously celebrating in a more adult fashion than my children and I, and I was unsure that we were a good fit for a two-hour, interactive dinner.
But, as Katie wrote in her diversity poem: “No one looks the same, and that is good.”
After the nine of us were seated, a waitress took drink orders. Two soft drinks, one tea, six refills from the bar.
We quickly learned that one of the men was turning 30. One of the women shared with the group her favorite gift from turning 30.
It is the kind of gift that can’t be described in a newspaper intended for a general audience.
At this point, I feared that years of deliberate, careful parenting would totally unravel around a teppanyaki table. And it was the point at which I employed the tried-and-true parenting technique of distraction.
Cooper and I discussed the merits of steak and shrimp vs. chicken and shrimp. Katie colored her paper menu/hat and placed it on her head. While we practiced our own brand of silliness, I stole longing glances at a nearby table filled with mild-mannered folks who didn’t seem to be discussing R-rated activities.
The 30-year-old birthday boy borrowed Katie’s hat. His girlfriend took pictures. We all laughed.
While the chef prepared fried rice, our tablemates told a couple of racist jokes, and I worked on more distraction.
And I thought of more of Katie’s words: “You shouldn’t make fun of people or laugh at them by the way they look. You could hurt their feelings and make them so sad.”
The waitress delivered six sake bombs. My children were enthralled by the process: Place chopsticks parallel across the top of a glass of beer, balance a shot glass atop the chopsticks, pound the table, then watch the shot of sake fall into the beer, making a fizzy concoction intended for immediate consumption.
One of the men slammed his, pointed at Cooper and hollered, “This is the life!”
Wide-eyed Cooper took another sip of Sprite.
Ambient noise mostly camouflaged the colorful adult language from their end of the table. The kids and I had plenty to discuss without homing in on their conversation.
When dinner was over, we all sang “Happy Birthday,” and Katie’s hat was employed for another photo.
Bills were settled, we said goodbye and walked into the cold, dark night.
As we neared the car, Cooper remarked in trademark deadpan, “Those were some interesting people.”
In that moment, I realized that years of parenting can’t be destroyed by one night with a few slightly wild tablemates. In fact, it offered an opportunity to discuss our family’s values — like tolerance and moderation.
And in that moment, I was reminded of the opening lines of Cooper’s poem: “Diversity makes this world richer.”
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Prodigal Son

There are a few Bible stories I struggle with. One of the most difficult for me: the Prodigal Son, from Luke 15:11-32 (below from NRSV).

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 
He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. 

His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 

Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

Let's be honest: I struggle with this parable because I've always identified with the elder son. Why bother doing the right thing all the time if someone else can make bad choices for years then repent and be rewarded?

In reality, every single one of us is the younger son. None of us is the elder son. None of us make the right choice every single time. We all stray, we all make bad decisions, we all find ways to separate ourselves from God.

I'm going to try to let go of my disagreement with the New Testament in this case. And I'm going to work on being thankful for the Father who welcomes all his sons and daughters home, who lavishes his children with promised riches -- simply because they came home.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Parents must set strict rules for pellet guns

From today's Briefing:

Last week an eighth-grader in Brownsville was shot and killed when he refused to stand down and lower his weapon.
Turns out that his weapon was a pellet gun that looked very much like a real gun. Officers say they couldn’t distinguish the difference, and force was necessary for fear that the child would shoot and kill others.
Last week in my own neighborhood, battles were brewing over pellet guns.
The guns are popular after-school playthings for many neighbor boys, even though it’s against Frisco law to discharge them in the city limits.
A middle school boy was threatening younger kids by pointing the gun at close range. An elementary school boy was hit and bruised by one of the pellets.
This is all in open green space, near homes and backyards dotted with jungle gyms, space where parents are usually comfortable allowing their children to run around unsupervised.
I grew up with no exposure to guns, no interest in weapons. I don’t understand the fascination that people have with shooting virtual people on video games or shooting real people with pellets or paintballs. But I recognize it exists and that it’s the culture I’m raising my own children in.
In an effort to better understand gun play, this week I called on Dr. Sarah Feuerbacher, a licensed clinical social worker supervisor and the clinic director of the Family Counseling Center at Southern Methodist University.
Feuerbacher, mom of a toddler son, specializes in family violence and healthy relationships. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Why do children, especially boys, like to play with guns?
Just like girls are socialized to typically play with Barbies and pink things, it’s going to be the same thing for little boys at a very early age. It’s very much a socialization thing. It’s very much environmental.
Even if a child lives in a home without guns, they aren’t so isolated to live only in that home. At some point that child is going to be exposed to it.
The pellet guns sold today are remarkably realistic interpretations of automatic weapons. Why is the market eager for such realistic weapons?
There’s a video that I show in family violence class, Tough Guise by Jason Katz. It goes through and depicts pictures of G.I. Joe from World War II up to today. It’s incredible to see how the action figure’s body has changed, depicting a much stronger, bulkier individual. The guns are also true to form.
The guns have changed since the cowboy days. The real guns are getting bigger.
If a family chooses to allow their children to play with pellet guns, what kind of rules do you suggest? What should those families talk about with their children?
Never aim it at something living, especially a person, but even a squirrel. Teach them the difference between something with life and aiming at the ground.
Talk about what it represents and where you might see a gun for real. Ask, “How do guns make other people feel?”
Talk to them at a young age — what are the rules around real guns in the house?
They should make sure the family is protected, that there is appropriate security.
If a parent has a gun in the home and a child happens upon it, that child is going to be at a disadvantage if they haven’t talked about it.
Shooting pellet guns in a safe environment at targets on a tree is very different than running around, chasing each other in the street unsupervised.
How can families that do allow access to these kinds of guns live peacefully with families that don’t?
I highly recommend that pellet guns be kept in a gun case or safe, locked.
When a pellet gun is used, it’s with appropriate supervision, like a father taking his son to a deer lease. Go to an appropriate location. Put a target up together. Shoot it in that capacity.
The entire system should model what a parent would do in a real gun environment.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, January 06, 2012

Katie: Diversity Means

Katie entered two pieces in this year's Reflections contest -- a pastel drawing and a poem. Both pieces earned an Award of Excellence and advanced to district. Woo hoo, Katie!

Everyone is Different
Kathryn Damm

No one looks the same,
And that is good.

Some people have blonde hair, some have brown hair, some have black hair.
Some people have light skin,
Some people have dark skin.

No one looks the same,
And that is good.
You shouldn’t make fun of people or laugh at them by the way they look.
You could hurt their feelings and make them so sad.

God created us all differently,
And that is good.
It wouldn’t be fun if we were all the same.
We would get bored if we looked and acted the same.

We all have different gifts from God,
And that is good.
Some people have the gift of being good at art.
Some have the gift of being kind.
Some have the gift of singing and dancing.
Some have the gift of being brave.
Some have the gift of sewing.
Some have the gift of being a compassionate teacher.

Everyone is different,
And that is good.


Katie's drawing is titled "Winter Spring Summer Fall" and shows all four seasons in one image. Here's a photo from her process.

And the final product:

Cooper: Diversity Means

Cooper wrote a poem for this year's PTA Reflections contest. Today we learned that his entry won an Award of Excellence at school and has advanced to the district level -- the same as last year's poem. Go, Coop!

The World’s Differences
Cooper Damm

Diversity makes this world richer.

Because of diversity in people,
I can be friends with a British boy and an Asian girl.

Because of diversity in food,
I can have crunchy cheese toast for breakfast, chicken dumplings for lunch and pizza for dinner.

Because of diversity in literature,
I can read the mysterious Secret series and books about mythical gods.

Because of diversity in skills,
People can do amazing things in the fields of science and art
And excel in
Chess, writing, reading, cooking, math and social studies.

Because of diversity in music,
I can listen to the blues, country and rock music.

Because of diversity in animals,
A turtle is slow and has a shell for protection,
A chameleon is quick and can change color for camouflage,
A lion is fast and has sharp teeth to tear through flesh.

Because of diversity in landforms,
Texas has big skies that no mountain can touch
And Colorado has peaceful valleys and mountains that can touch the sky.

Because of diversity you can have a peaceful relationship
With a Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist
All in the same community.

The world is diverse,
And it enriches my life with countless things.

Judy Blume speaks to me (in books and on Twitter)

From today's Briefing:

Every now and then I’m reminded that I haven’t read Gone With the Wind.
It’s certainly not the only classic I’ve missed. But when other women — my Southern sisters, especially — learn of this particular shortcoming, I typically hear a passionate gasp, delivered with the sort of drama I imagine honors Scarlett O’Hara herself.
Even worse to some: I haven’t seen the movie, either.
I know enough to get by. I know that Scarlett, out of desperation, fashions a gown from green drapes and that in the film Clark Gable delivers the ultimate break-up line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The latest reminder of my literary and film omission came during a recent Twitter conversation with friends, some of whom were quoting the movie.
That late-night virtual exchange renewed my interest in the novel. This is the year, I’ve decided with conviction, that I will read Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, a copy of which I bought three years ago, when I was feeling similarly uneducated. I’ll reward myself after with the movie.
Gone With the Wind is one of my measurable goals for 2012.
Another also involves reading, and this one has a deadline.
I plan to reread as much of the Judy Blume anthology as possible before April 19, when the beloved children’s author will be in Dallas to speak. When I think of all the events I’ve got planned this year, Judy Blume’s engagement ranks near the top.
(Typical writing style would dictate that I call her “Blume” after the first reference, but I’ve called her “Judy Blume” in one breath almost my whole life, and I don’t plan to stop now.)
If you tell me you haven’t read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, prepare for a passionate, dramatic gasp. Same goes for Blubber and Deenie and Superfudge.
(I will spare you my exaggerated disdain if you haven’t read her more recent series, the Pain and the Great One. Neither have I, though they’re on my to-read list.)
Judy Blume was the hip, soulful, empathetic parent we all longed for. Her stories of childhood and adolescence answered our questions and gave us fodder for whispered conversations with friends. (None more so than Wifey, which we all knew was written for our moms but we stealthily read anyway.)
I learned about Adolf Hitler and the dangers of jellyfish off the coast of Miami in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.
Blubber spoke to my fears of the school bus and being bullied in general. In fact, I never was bullied — in part, I believe, because I was on guard after being warned by Judy Blume.
For months after reading It’s Not the End of the World, I would assign a grade to my day, always seeking the elusive A+, just like Karen.
And Margaret. Dear Margaret. The sixth-grader who introduced me to exercises that allegedly increase bust size and the horror of 1970s feminine hygiene products.
Beyond the puberty angle, which garners most of the attention, Judy Blume helped to shape my early thoughts on God and faith at a time when no adults around me were interested in going to church or even talking about religion.
In a twist that I could have never imagined 30 years ago — when I first read Are You There God? — I now follow Judy Blume on Twitter. I know, in real time, what movies she’s seen and likes, what she’s serving for holiday meals, when she’s buckling down to write.
When her updates pop into my Twitter feed, I’m reminded of the power of good words and good books. And I’m reminded to keep seeking stories that entertain and inspire and explain.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Arts & Letters Live hosts Judy Blume at 7 p.m. April 19 at First United Methodist Church of Dallas. $16. 214-922-1818.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Work nest

I'm about to settle in for another night shift. Since September, I've been working three nights a week from home, editing on deadline for the DMN.

My favorite work night of the week is the night that overlaps with Laura, my best Universal Desk friend. She always greets me with a hello email. She anticipates questions and answers them before I even think of them. She offers excellent advice. She sends me little snippets of her own life at home and always makes me laugh.

Sunday night, as I virtually reported for duty, I sent her a note describing my work nest -- my workspace for four hours.

PJs and slippers
Sitting in Steve's grandfather's old green leather chair
Feet on ottoman
Covered in new, soft green blanket (Christmas gift)
Pillow behind me
Coffee, iPad and iPhone by my side
MacBook in my lap

And now, I'm off to create tonight's work nest.