Sunday, October 28, 2012

The mystery of the manatee

In 1999 or thereabouts, Steve and I met Snooty, the oldest living manatee in captivity.

He was living at the Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, Fla. He had recently celebrated his 50th birthday.

That's a long time for a manatee to live, so when we left the aquarium, we bid Snooty solemn farewell. We were certain Snooty wouldn't live much longer.

Earlier this year, I took Cooper and Katie to the same aquarium. And, wouldn't you know it, Snooty was still there, swimming in a big pool, eating obscene amounts of romaine lettuce, showing off to curious visitors.

Snooty on his 63rd birthday
(Photograph: Tiffany Tompkins-Condie)
Snooty is now 64 years old. You can read more about him here. And during daytime hours you can watch him here.

Cooper and Katie admire Snooty in March

Snooty, left, goes in for some fresh food.

Big (pretend) hugs for Snooty

A couple of weeks ago at church, I was talking about our blubbery friend Snooty. (Katie insists he's not fat but rather plump.)

This morning at church I put my purse down, made sure Katie was settled then returned to the Narthex to help Cooper get ready for his role as acolyte.

When I returned to my seat, I saw this.

I opened the bag to find this.

Inside the bag:

I love it!

It wasn't signed. The giver remains a mystery. Thank you!

Before church this morning

Today was Children's Sabbath, with a teamwork theme. Katie led the call to worship, and Cooper served as acolyte and read the offertory prayer.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Concert brings sense of community connection

From today's Briefing:

On Sunday night, eight Frisco moms piled into a slightly sketchy cab outfitted with a karaoke machine and flashy lights, heading to dinner and an appointment with Madonna.
We’re united by neighborhood, children, soccer teams, volunteer commitments — and the opportunity to relive our youth for a night.
Back when we actually were young, the eight of us were flung all over the globe. One in Hawaii, one in Norway. One in Saudi Arabia, one in Southern California. Four Texas girls came from suburbs, big cities and small towns.
When we were teens bebopping to “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” none of us imagined that in the year 2012 we’d gather in Dallas with other friends-to-be to watch Madonna sing and dance.
And we certainly couldn’t have imagined the thousands of other fans who would congregate.
Under one arena roof was a great sea of sequined, glittered, pierced humanity. Sure, there were plenty of understated outfits — dark skinny jeans, black flowy blouses, tasteful black boots, tame costume jewelry. Who really stood out? The guys in animal print hot pants. The middle-aged women in lacy tutus and platform heels and fingerless gloves. The group of men in matching, revealing, fluorescent pink tank tops.
The scene was nothing like our typical suburban mom haunts — our kids’ elementary school, Kroger, the Y, mild-mannered office spaces. And that’s part of what made the night so special. Disparate groups of people who rarely run in the same circles found common ground for one night. That’s pretty remarkable these days, given our current state of affairs.
Look no further than my Facebook news feed — and probably yours, too — for evidence of the great divide. In these final days before the election, I can read dire warnings of the inevitable breakdown of everything this country stands for if (fill in the blank) is elected. I have access to conspiracy theories and name-calling and extreme pontificating.
We’re no longer a country that watches the same prime-time shows at the same time. We have the luxury of scheduling our viewing when it’s convenient, and we have so many options that there’s little overlap in anyone’s repertoire. (My recent rotation: retreads of Downton Abbey and Arrested Development.)
Our playlists are ├╝ber-personalized. We have access to satellite radio and Pandora and Spotify and whatever whims we’ve fulfilled on iTunes.
All this division and sequestration worries me. There’s great value in big community experiences, even when they’re superficial.
I’m heartened when there’s a collective something that most everyone can agree on. Like the tragedy of Big Tex bursting into flames — and the goodhearted acceptance of all the jokes that followed. Like the acknowledgment that “Call Me Maybe” isn’t a great song, but it sure is catchy. And if it comes on in a public place, it is perfectly acceptable to sing along and perhaps emulate the original video or one of many subsequent viral videos.
That sense of community is why my favorite moment from the Madonna concert was the superstar’s rendition of “Like a Prayer.” She encouraged the whole crowd to join her.
Thousands of us sang along. We were straight, gay, buttoned up, tattooed, introverted, extroverted, urban, suburban. Maybe we felt a deep connection to the lyrics. Maybe we were just blissfully reliving 1989.
We knew the melody. We knew all the words. We were connected, if only for a moment.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, October 19, 2012

Keeping kids young is worth giving up some time

From today's Briefing:

My theory for years has been that May is the new December, a month when the calendar is stuffed with more celebrations and volunteer obligations than the Christmas season.

My new theory is that October is the new May. October calendars are filled with costume parties, fall festivals, Fair Day, pumpkin patch visits, soccer games, football games and more. (Rangers baseball is, sadly, missing from that list this year.)
In the middle of all that fun, there are lessons to be learned.
There is an art to opening soda bottles. On Friday night, I chaperoned a middle school event for the first time. The music departments joined together to throw a costume party for band, orchestra and choir students.
Another mom and I were in charge of the drink table. We laid out dozens and dozens of paper cups and filled them with more flavors of soda than I knew existed.
The first three times I opened a 2-liter bottle, the soda exploded, coating my hands and arms and feet in a sugary mess.
My pop partner took over and showed me how to twist the top slightly. Then close it. Then open slowly. Then close it. Again and again until there was no risk of volcanic activity.
I’m now totally prepared for the next middle school party.
There is an art to creating cotton candy. On Saturday our elementary school PTA hosted a fall festival.
We hired a company to set up an inflatable obstacle course, a rock-climbing wall, a giant slide and more on the playing field. We had a pseudo-dunk tank to soak specially chosen teachers (and raise money for two nonprofits). We had a photo booth, face painter, cakewalk and a ring-toss game (rewarded with soda).
And we had a cotton candy machine.
My friend Jenny is a whiz at cotton candy and volunteered to run the table. I volunteered to help for a shift.
Creating a fluffy tornado of spun sugar on a stick is not as easy as it looks. And if you’re like me, in no time you’ll be sporting sugarcoated arms and hair and shoes.
After two hours of on-the- job training, I’m now totally prepared for the next fall festival.
Life is too rushed. I’m convinced that we are forcing our young people to grow up too fast.
Children have access — often by lying about their age — to social media tools they don’t actually need. They are exposed way too early to violence and sex and inappropriate language via video games and television, movies and YouTube.
They try to emulate adult behavior before they’ve fully experienced childhood.
Childhood shouldn’t be wasted, and kids instinctively know it, even if they pretend otherwise.
Some of the preteens who guzzled orange soda at the middle school Friday night showed up at the elementary school Saturday morning. Without a trace of shame they walked the cakewalk, climbed up and slid down the towering slide, posed for goofy photos in a cramped booth. They stood in line for cotton candy.
There was an army of moms and dads who gave up hours of their time to pull off the festival that day. We set aside other obligations to create some frivolous fun for our little community.
At times, it feels like we can’t afford that sort of time, especially in the busy month of October, or December, or May.
But when I think about those middle school kids and their little brothers and sisters having some child-like fun, I realize that that was the best way to spend Saturday.
Children need freedom to act silly. Whether they’re 5 or 15, they need permission to eat a little too much sugar, to soak a teacher with a bucket of water, to run around a field not for state-mandated minutes of exercise but just for fun.
As a bonus, we adults get to go along for the ride.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, October 12, 2012

Self-evaluation can be daunting for complex job of motherhood

From today's Briefing:

I’ve just completed the self-evaluation for my annual performance review at work. It’s a process that I dreaded in my pre-motherhood days. It seemed so tedious and judgmental.
These days, though, I embrace the tidy form with boxes to check and behaviors to assess and goals to set. I appreciate clear-cut expectations and numbers and rules.
I’m a big fan of being graded on a predetermined job description.
There’s nothing tidy or clear-cut or predetermined about my most important job — mom to Cooper and Katie. There’s no written job description for being a parent, partly because it would take too long to write and partly because no one knows precisely what the job requires.
In the past week, I’ve taken on all kinds of tasks that I never anticipated way back in the 20th century.
For example, I helped Katie transform a miniature pumpkin into a lamb. Each classroom at her elementary school is contributing a decorated pumpkin for this weekend’s fall festival.
Katie’s second-grade class is going above and beyond, with a big pumpkin serving as a barn and 20 tiny pumpkins standing in as farm animals.
After much discussion and sketching, Katie settled on a lamb. We glued fluffy batting around the pumpkin. Katie drew a template for its face, and I cut it out of black fabric. Then I hand-stitched the lamb’s eyes, nose and mouth on the fabric and glued the whole face to the batting.
The lamb wobbled without legs, so we headed to the grocery store in search of black pushpins. There were only clear pushpins. We bought them, then drove to the drugstore, where we found black nail polish (Halloween merchandise to the rescue!).
At home, we painted the pins, let them dry, then pushed them into the fake animal’s rotund belly.
Voila! A baby sheep crafted from a tiny orange gourd. A task I never imagined I would tackle.
This week, I’ve also had the unexpected role of consoling Cooper for receiving a detention.
He’s certainly not perfect, but he’s also not a discipline problem at school — he hasn’t had his binder signed since the second grade. So I was shocked when I received an email this week describing insubordination and notice of an hour-long detention after school.
In the hours between the email and his arrival home, I debated what to do, what kind of punishment he’d have at home to complement detention at school.
But when Cooper walked in the front door that afternoon, his long face and slumped shoulders told me he’d been punished enough.
The class had been asked to stop talking. He stopped. He and his tablemate traded work to be graded. Cooper noticed that the other boy was making mistakes on grading.
He had a choice to make: Should he stay silent and watch his grade fall or talk to the student?
He chose to talk, despite the no-talking mandate. He was caught, summoned to the teacher’s desk and given detention.
Any disappointment I’d harbored throughout the day dissipated as Cooper spilled the story. He was bewildered and embarrassed. He felt wronged.
I gave him a hug before a gentle, abbreviated lecture on following the rules. I suggested that next time he wait until talking is permitted to address a mistake. I asked him to write a letter to his teacher to apologize for being disruptive.
I chose not to add any other consequences at home. He was devastated enough by detention itself.
In my pre-mom days, I imagined how I might react to certain situations. A child has homework? She should do it all herself. A child gets in trouble at school? He should pay the price at home, too.
Then those theoretical scenarios actually happen. You realize that a 7-year-old with a big vision can’t always carry out the details by herself and needs help with a needle and thread and a trip to multiple stores for supplies. You witness the defeated spirit of your 11-year-old and know that a hug and some kind words are better than piling on penalties.
There’s no formal evaluation process for this parenting job. The self- critique is a daily affair. The work is exhausting. The end results are years away.
It’s still the best, most important job I’ll ever have.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Scenes from a chess tournament

Katie sits down for the first of five games at the LCA chess tournament. She lost three games, had a bye and played for a draw. She always has a cheerful spirit at these events, no matter the outcome.

Cooper read, played games and watched movies during the tournament. We hung out with our good friends Luke, who also played for Bledsoe, and Jenny, who brought plenty of snacks and is always great company. (Mike was on a two-day bike ride.)  
Jenny says we won the award for the junkiest table. After seven hours at the same spot, we were surrounded by computers, tablets, smartphones, drinks, snacks, books, origami projects and more. 

After Sunday school this morning

We had trouble getting a photo with Cooper's eyes open. He was at Asher's "slumber" party last night, but there was very little sleeping. Poor guy is exhausted today.

If you look closely, you can see Katie's first-ever loose tooth.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Growing into our identities is a tough, lifelong process

From today's Briefing:

I am unapologetically uncool.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I was younger, I was self-consciously uncool.

Each year I become a little more comfortable with my circumstances and choices and less likely to feel diminished because of what I wear or drive or listen to or watch.

Now, I’m not immune to the lures of product placement and glossy magazines and emails from my favorite retailers. I am more likely, though, to make decisions based on what I want, not so much on what I assume my peers would want.

There’s nothing like an hour with middle-school students to remember the old days, when peers naturally held greater sway than family or even myself.

I’m currently leading a youth Sunday school class through a series of lessons on peer pressure.

Part of a recent lesson focused on identifying current status symbols. Just asking the question made me feel, well, uncool.

The thoughtful seventh- and eighth-graders who I lead obliged, drawing pictures and writing lists of the most essential pieces of middle school popularity.

One girl spent her time drawing portraits of members of the band One Direction.

The only boy in class that morning made a list of a bunch of sports and electronics and one item of clothing I’d never heard of — Nike Elite socks.

What makes these socks special — so much so that my student owns a dozen pair? Double layers and cushioning. An array of colors and an intangible cool factor.

What also sets them apart: the price. Each pair costs $14.

That’s cheap compared with the item at the top of the girls’ lists: Miss Me jeans. The current favored jeans for tweens and teens, according the girls in my class, will set you back about $100 — the equivalent of seven or eight pairs of Elite socks.

“Everything that’s considered cool costs a lot of money,” one student said with a hint of defeat.

It sure feels that way sometimes, especially when you’re 12 or 13 and you’re more aware of consumer goods but still too young to get a real job to earn the money to fund the latest styles. And you’re more aware of your own emerging identity but still too young to concretely define it.

If I could communicate with 12-year-old me, I would acknowledge that it’s tough wearing jeans from Sears when most of the other girls are wearing Gloria Vanderbilt. Because 12-year-old girls in general, and 12-year-old me specifically, require confirmation and empathy.

And then I’d visit about the kind of identity that really matters, intangibles like compassion and curiosity, humility and patience, integrity and determination. I wouldn’t dwell too long on my 2012 list of status symbols, though, because 12-year-old me would scarcely believe a list that in no way aligns with her list from 1984. Where are the jelly shoes, legwarmers and ribbon belts?

There’s no going back, of course, and that’s for the best. The journey from then to now is partly what shapes our identity. We have to pine for what we can’t have — and experience some related disappointment — to appreciate what we do have and to realize how insignificant the cool, expensive stuff really is.

We have to grow into our identities, separated from consumer goods and peer influence, at our own pace.

We have to find unabashed comfort with who we are — regardless of the socks on our feet or the rhinestones on — or missing from — our back pockets.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at