Sunday, September 30, 2012

Before piano lesson this afternoon

(After Cooper cleaned up from a particularly muddy, rainy weekend of Boy Scout camping)

Olympic bronze medalist learned life lessons in ring

From Friday's Briefing:

Marlen Esparza has devoted half of her life to boxing.
Her deter- mination has paid off. She’s rarely lost a bout to an American opponent. She won a bronze medal in the 2006 world championships and gold in the 2008 Pan American Games. This summer in London she won the bronze medal in women’s flyweight boxing.
Now the 23-year-old Pasadena, Texas, native is adjusting to post-Olympics life — as a spokeswoman, volunteer, sought-after speaker, CoverGirl model and more.
Esparza will be in Dallas on Monday to speak to a student group at Southern Methodist University. We visited by phone this week. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
You were struggling with some discipline issues at school when you took up boxing. How did boxing help you change your attitude?
I was really young. I was 11. I had a bad attitude. I thought I was always right, always in charge.
Boxing really made me grow up quickly. It gave me a lot of discipline. I realized I can’t be a kid forever. I grew up really fast, putting up with other boxers and trainers.
You chose to delay college, instead focusing on your boxing career. How did you make that decision?
It was difficult. I thought I’d go to school and box at the same time. But it wasn’t the way I’d planned it. Instead, I had to take online classes. I was training, boxing, leaving the country. I had to completely stop. I didn’t have time or energy to do school anymore.
But you have plans to return to college?
I’m going to start in January, probably at the University of Houston, and work my way from there.
You chose an unusual path. How supportive were your parents at first?
My dad had to be convinced to let me in the gym. Then he was supportive. My mom just kind of stayed out of it. She didn’t give me a hard time or my dad a hard time.
The toughest thing was my dad letting me in the gym. I was asking him from when I was 8 or 9. He was taking my brothers all the time. Eventually, my older brother didn’t want to box. I got to go.
What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue something out of the ordinary?
My advice to any young girl is there’s no such thing as ordinary or unordinary. You can’t let anybody tell you that it’s right or working. They’ll eventually see your vision. You don’t have to get anyone’s permission to live your life the way you want to live it.
What sort of skills and lessons from the boxing world do you plan to take with you college?
Not every day is going to be an easy day. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of hard work. I know there are going to be days when I’m doubting myself. It all plays a role and it’s natural and normal. I’m going to accept that that’s the journey.
Will you continue to box?
I’m going to go to [the Olympics in] 2016 and get a gold medal. I didn’t think I was going to … but I’ve been blessed with a lot of things, and getting the bronze fueled me up when I was running on empty. I definitely want to try 2016. It was a complete trial run to get to the Olympics. Now I know what it’s going to take. It’s going to be a lot easier.
Do you feel like you’ve lived a full life for a 23-year-old?
I’ve traveled, been to other countries. I know how to get through life. There’s a lot of things I’ve missed out on, too, like going to the zoo or carnivals. But I’ve done a lot more than most my age. I’m grateful for it.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Thursday, September 20, 2012

More action on autism epidemic needed

In tomorrow's Briefing:

Kim Stagliano is the kind of mom who makes me appreciate the parenting struggles I face.
My challenges are fairly typical — guiding two children to make good choices, develop a love for learning, treat others with kindness and compassion, respect authority, avoid danger, stay healthy.
Stagliano has those same challenges with her three daughters plus layer upon layer of additional struggles. All three girls are on the autism spectrum, each with moderate to severe autism.
“They were not touched with the brush,” she said. “They got a full painting.”
Stagliano, her husband and their girls — ages 17, 16 and 12 — live in Connecticut. She is the managing editor of the website Age of Autism ( and author of the novel House of Cards and the memoir All I Can Handle.
She was in Dallas this week to speak at Metrocare’s Meal for the Minds luncheon and spoke with me by phone. Here are excerpts from our visit:
At what age were your girls diagnosed? Mia and Gianna were diagnosed on the same day in November 1999. I don’t recommend that. They were 4 and 3. You usually get started with intervention before formal diagnosis. But it’s still no fun. It’s still a dreadful day. It’s just a searing agony when you watch your children suffer.
When did you realize Bella was on spectrum? She was a different child than her sisters. Bella was completely different physically. Her structural development was off. The very first person who came for intervention said it looked like cerebral palsy. She’s cut from a very different cloth than her sisters.
What are some coping skills that you use to help you through each day? I think staying connected with friends and family is important, but so is being able to let go of the friends and family who cannot and will not grow in this new direction with your family.
I have found new friends. Our children have this common diagnosis. It gives us a bond. Autism is a very lonely diagnosis. It’s important to find a group where you can fit in and find comfort and learn and grow.
How can friends help families who live with autism? Let Mom or Dad tell you their fears, hold their hand. Give them a Starbucks card. Try to support them the way you would if a child had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Try to envelope Mom and Dad with love. It’s lonely and it’s frightening. Give love and kindness and reach out and just say, “I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I wish I could make this easier for you.” That’s worth a million dollars. Just be a friend.
There’s no known cause for autism, nor a known cure. How does this fuel dissension among parents of children with autism? I do think there should be a cure for autism. I simply want my girls to live a healthy, safe, independent life. I adore my kids the way they are, but every American parent wants more for their child.
When you peel back the layers of the controversies of autism, we are a community. I try very hard not to disparage the other side who say there is no cure, that you don’t need a cure. We need each other.
When it comes time for adulthood, it’s not going to matter what Mom and Dad think. It’s about the kids. It’s about giving them the best, safest life possible.
What do you want to hear from the presidential candidates? If I were to sit down with a candidate tomorrow, they would nod and smile and pat me on the head and move on. I’m thinking to Jan. 23, Inauguration Day. What do we do next?
We have not acknowledged the autism epidemic in any fashion in America. We’ve acknowledged increasing numbers. We have not acknowledged an epidemic that is changing families.
There is a decided lack of action and sense of urgency regarding the autism epidemic. This is as much an epidemic as cancer, as Alzheimer’s, taking 1 in 55 boys and altering their lives — taking them out of the game to some degree. That will have ramifications on tax bases, social safety net, workforce, our volunteer base.
There are raging numbers that show no sign of going down. They’re only going up. I’m hoping for real urgency. Awareness without action is nothing.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, September 14, 2012

Middle school events bring back old anxieties

From today's Briefing:

If you happen to be holding on to any middle school anxiety, it just might creep back when your own child reaches that level.
Take, for example, lockers.
A week before the first bell, our middle school invited incoming sixth-graders and their parents to pick up schedules, walk to classes and practice opening lockers.
What I learned that morning: There have been no discernible technological advances in lockers or combination locks for decades.
You still spin the lock to the right twice, then to the left a full turn, then back to the right again. And you still hold your breath as you simultaneously lift and wiggle the latch on the locker, silently praying that you got the numbers just right and that the door will open.
Or perhaps you’re still harboring some bus worries. From what I can tell, that situation hasn’t advanced much, either.
During the first week, when exact ridership was still in flux, Cooper’s bus was packed. On the first afternoon ride home, Cooper reported that he was squished against the window, penned in by two older and bigger kids.
On the second afternoon, there were three kids in every seat and some standing in the aisle. Another bus was dispatched, and crowding was relieved.
Now his route has been broken into two. The mass is more manageable.
Just as I remember, the rowdier kids sit in back. And the bus driver hollers if he hears unacceptably salty language.
For the full-on, face-your-fears middle school experience, though, nothing beats meet-the-teacher night.
Tuesday night, a whole bunch of parents crowded into the cafeteria, looking for the correct line to pick up schedules. Then we stood in cliquish clumps, waiting for instructions from the principal and a bell to send us scurrying to find first-period classes.
Would we know anyone else in the class? Would we have time to visit before the teacher began talking? Should we take notes? Dare we ask questions?
And then the bell would ring again, and we’d have three minutes to find the next room.
In one room, the teacher kept talking after the end-of-class bell. I resisted the urge to stand up, concerned that he’d scowl and grumble, “The bell doesn’t dismiss you. I dismiss you.”
Then I remembered that I’m 40 and that these teachers are human. I even convinced myself that there’s nothing to fear about the sixth grade.
That confidence lasted until fourth period, when the science teacher addressed other parents’ concerns about the previous night’s homework. Heck, I didn’t even know there was homework yet. What else was I missing?
I started taking notes more diligently. Major assignments make up 50 percent of a six-weeks grade, minor assignments 30 percent, daily work 20 percent.
If you turn in daily work a day late, the highest grade possible is a 70. Two days late? Nothing higher than a 50.
One teacher told us to take time to look at binders, in backpacks, even in lockers. To stress organizational skills and time management.
“Everything is coming at them fast and furious,” she said. No kidding, I thought, as my fingers barely kept pace with her rapid-fire advice.
“Tell them it’s OK to come in for tutorials,” she said. “Tell them to pay attention in class.”
Then the bell rang, and we scrambled out of desks and into the hall, searching for the next room. After eight abbreviated class periods, we were dismissed.
I stopped by Cooper’s locker. I braced myself for a tumble of papers and notebooks as I tentatively worked the combination lock.
Right-left-right. Lift and wiggle. Success! The door opened, revealing a library book and two binders, neatly standing on end.
I wrote Cooper a quick note, left it on his locker shelf, then gently closed the door. I’d like to imagine that I was also closing the door on any lingering middle school fears.
Not likely. My old worries have taken on a whole new life — two, actually. But that’s just part of the bittersweet job description of parent.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, September 10, 2012


I've been fighting a sinus infection and severely sore throat (seriously, it's on fire) for a few days.

It's the kind of short-term malady that might make me feel sorry for myself except for all the good that surrounds our family.

Here was our Sunday schedule:

  • Leave the house at 7:45 a.m. to pick up donuts (for Cooper's confirmation class) on the way to church
  • Get to church by 8:30 for early service, during which Cooper was the offertory speaker
  • Teach junior high Sunday school until 10:45
  • Eat lunch at 11
  • Grocery shop at Sprouts at 11:45
  • Cooper back to church for 12:15 piano lesson
  • Home by 1:20
  • Cooper to Scouts from 3 to 4:30
  • Cooper to 5:15 soccer game

See that little window from 1:20 to 3? That was my best shot to be seen by a doctor for increasingly severe head, ear and throat pain.

So I texted Katrina, to check on the patient load at Legacy ER. (She and Jay are co-owners of Legacy, and he is one of the doctors there.)

She reported that it had been a busy morning and to check back with her when I was on the way. I texted at 1:40 to say we were on the way; she replied that the timing was good.

I checked in by 1:48. By 2:03 I had already been giving a steroid/antibiotic shot, and we were gone by 2:10, giving me ample time to drop off a prescription for more antibiotics and get Cooper to Scouts early.

On the way home from soccer, we stopped by Julianne's house, who had picked up Babe's for us for dinner. I had planned to cook, but she intervened. Good thing. By the time we were home from soccer, I was spent.

I somehow managed to oversee showers and brushing of teeth and finished a freelance assignment before falling into bed.

When I woke Katie at 6:30 this morning, she opened her eyes and spoke the sweetest words: "How are you feeling?"

I thought well enough for work (and I had already missed Friday because it was Sept. 7, my least favorite day of the year). I was wrong.

After making sure Cooper was ready for middle school and getting Katie to Bledsoe, I drove to work. Berta came in a few minutes after I did, listened to my scary, raspy voice and sent me home.

I slept off and one for four hours before taking on the afternoon craziness that is our lives. And I left Katie's hip-hop dance class with dinner, again courtesy of Julianne.

In a few minutes, both Cooper and Katie will be in bed, fast asleep. I'm not far behind. I'm praying that I feel much better tomorrow. And I'm giving thanks to God for the kind people all around me who make life easier.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Help your kids cope when school gets a little stressful

From today's Briefing:

It’s barely two weeks into the new school year and we’re dealing with some major stress.
Well, “major” is relative. If you ask Katie, we’re talking big-time tension.
“When it’s time for writing,” she says, “it sometimes feels like my body is going to explode.”
I’m working on pinpointing exactly what makes her so nervous about second-grade writing assignments. And I’m working with her to understand how to recognize symptoms of stress and healthy ways to alleviate it.
When Katie was younger, her default reaction to stress was tears. Maturity and maybe a little peer pressure have dried up most of those crying jags. But she still finds herself in stressful situations, and that emotion has to go somewhere.
Lately, it seems to go straight to her belly. The absence of any other symptoms and the timing of her stomachaches convince me that part of the problem is that she keeps her stress inside, rather than letting it out.
We’ve been practicing strategies to relieve her stress. Her favorite so far: Before a stressful assignment, pull out a piece of paper and scribble out the worries.
I might be an expert on my own child, but I’m no psychology expert. So I checked in with Dr. Peter Stavinoha, director of neuropsychology services at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, for some general advice on stress in elementary-age children. Here are excerpts from our email discussion.
What are some typical stress triggers for elementary-age children?
New situations
Unfamiliar or unpredictable situations
Fear of failure or embarrassment
Big changes, like starting a brand-new school, or transitioning from elementary to middle school
Unreasonably high expectations
Which physical and emotional signs of stress should parents watch for?
Sleep changes
Fearfulness or nervousness
Avoidance of certain activities
Sleep problems
Minor physical complaints
What roles do diet, exercise and adequate sleep play in how a child can deal with typical stress factors? 
We know that proper diet, adequate exercise and ample sleep can help reduce stress. However, when we are feeling very stressed, we often do not adhere to these good habits — kids and adults alike. Poor eating, lack of exercise and inadequate sleep can all contribute to a person being more vulnerable to stress.
What are some techniques that parents can share with their children to alleviate stress? 
Maintaining regular diet, sleep and exercise habits is a good start. Parents want to maintain a sense of normalcy for their child: Keep things as predictable and routine as possible.
Parents also need to check their own expectations for their child to be sure the parent is not inadvertently contributing to the child’s feelings of stress. Talking through stressful situations can help demystify what might seem unknown or unfamiliar to the child.
Parents can even practice talking through a situation that the child might face. Specific relaxation methods might include things that many people find relaxing — listening to soft music; spending focused time with mom or dad; exercises including taking a walk, bike ride, or even yoga; deep breathing exercises; and muscle relaxation methods.
Visualization is another technique sometimes used — basically having the child imagine herself in her favorite place and having the child describe all the inviting, comforting and beautiful things she “sees.”
Simply trying to rationalize with your child that their stress is unwarranted is probably not going to get very far. Parents should acknowledge the child’s stress/uncertainty and provide reassurance and even practice.
At what point should a parent seek outside help for a child’s stress? 
If stress does not subside relatively quickly or becomes so strong that it prevents the child from joining activities that most kids are able to cope with, then parents may wish to seek out help.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at