Friday, December 27, 2013

Here's to more joyful moments in the new year

From today's Briefing:

My Year of Joy is nearing its end.
Back in January, I was encouraged by speaker Jon Gordon to choose one word to help define 2013. (He is co-author of One Word That Will Change Your Life.)
I considered two other words — quality and balance — before selecting joy. Choosing the word in no way guaranteed instant joy.
In fact, when reviewing the past year, it would be easy to list all of the decidedly less-than-joyful moments.
I had the flu.
I tore my left calf muscle.
Our air conditioner broke, causing water to drip from the attic, through the ceiling and into our kitchen.
Budget cuts eliminated some of my freelance work and income.
My mom passed away.
There’s no way to spin those events as full of cheer.
But because I had chosen to define 2013 as my Year of Joy, I made extra attempts to look for good in spite of the bad.
When I was down and out, family and friends picked up the slack.
On the worst day of my winter flu, the weather was damp, cold and dreary. The slightest movement was painful. And then the phone rang.
It was the middle school nurse with news that Cooper had injured himself during P.E. and required pain reliever.
Earlier that day I had pinky-promised (via text message) a friend that I would call on her if needed. So I called, and she changed her plans midcourse and delivered ibuprofen to my son.
A week after my freelance work was severely cut, I received a phone call from a friend of a friend of a former client. Thirty minutes later, I had gained some new work — not enough to cover the loss but enough to remind me to worry less.
In the two weeks after my mom died, I didn’t cook a single dinner. Friends delivered meals or hosted us every night.
Her memorial service was a lovely reminder, too, of the goodness of people and life. Mom’s slideshow traced 62 years of hairstyles and locales, hugs and laughter — immeasurable joy captured and saved forever.
And I haven’t even gotten to the pure, unadulterated good.
I was hired very last-minute to teach fifth-graders at our neighborhood elementary school, fulfilling a goal set back in 2008.
Ever since, I’ve been spending my weekdays with 47 children, teaching the American Revolution and branches of government, collective nouns and superlative adjectives, text structures and elements of drama.
Truly, it’s a dreamy job.
Katie has been playing violin, becoming less squeaky every day. Cooper plays real, recognizable tunes on his clarinet. They both exude joy when making music.
Really, they exude joy most all the time.
Together we watched dolphins play in the waters of South Carolina and gaped in awe of elk walking in front of us in Oregon. We marveled at the vivid colors inside the Library of Congress and paid homage to our collective favorite president at the Lincoln Memorial.
I survived my fourth year as a single, widowed mom. I once celebrated getting through days, then weeks, then months. It’s a big deal that I’m counting only years.
Of course, I don’t expect to give up on joy in the new year or any other year. I plan to keep on rejoicing in little moments and silver linings, big victories and glimpses of hope.
The big question now: What one word will define 2014?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

At a time of much giving, what do we really need?

From Friday's Briefing:

One of my students asked last week, “Mrs. Damm, what would you like someone to give you for Christmas?”
“A card!”
He nodded. “So you want a gift card? Like to a restaurant?”
I shook my head. “No. I’d like a handmade card.”
He nodded. “What’s your favorite restaurant?”
I gave in. I named a couple. He wasn’t buying my (totally true) story that all I want is a heartfelt message written in marker under a detailed drawing of a snowman or candy cane.
I am firmly entrenched in the stage of life in which giving is hands-down more important than receiving.
Being a parent does that to you. You eavesdrop on your children as they talk about Santa wishes. You ask oh-so-casual questions like, “When you see Santa, what do you think you might ask for?”
Then, as an officially sanctioned Santa helper, you squeeze in time to shop — in person if you have to. But it’s preferable to sit on the sofa with your laptop for online shopping — after the kids have gone to sleep, of course.
While you’re ordering, you hope that the planned request is identical to the real request, remembering that in the past a child has been known to call an audible while visiting with Santa.
Some years, there’s not much you can do to fulfill the request, such as when a child — a born and bred Texas child — earnestly asks only for snow on Christmas Day.
That might be the year that Santa delivers an inexpensive saucer sled as a way to acknowledge the noble yet difficult-to- guarantee wish.
In the middle of all that giving to already-fortunate children, you realize how little we actually need.
My children don’t ask for much for Christmas — partly because they’re not overtly greedy and partly because they already have everything they truly need and much of what they want.
That makes gift-giving all the more important. What I choose to spend our money on reflects what I think matters. It’s why we don’t have a big television in the family room or the latest video game system.
Cooper is an avid camper, so I choose to buy quality gear. It feeds his passion. Plus, it offers me some comfort when he’s away from home. Katie is a creator and a reader, so I spend money on paints and paper, books and more books.
And still, on Christmas Day, I expect that I’ll survey the goods and think to myself, “This is too much.”
When you live in the land of plenty plus, it’s easy to add just one more small gift or two. It’s second nature to think of how much you spent on one child, realize that you spent less on the other child, then buy just one more gift to even out the bounty.
It’s easy to tell yourself, “Well, I know I’m not spending as much as so-and-so.”
It’s easy to create entitled children even when you are absolutely certain you would never intentionally create entitled children.
Yet, I’m not ready to stop giving my children the reasonable gifts they’ve asked for, plus a few surprises.
It’s taken me a few decades to fully appreciate that the best gifts to receive aren’t wrapped and under the tree — uninterrupted time with friends and family, a home-cooked dinner, an afternoon at the movies and, yes, a handmade card from a child.
At the same time, there’s great joy found in giving what makes the recipient happy in the moment.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@ gmail.com.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Icy days bring appreciation for routine

From today's Briefing:

Wednesday night, Dec. 4. Forecast grim.
The kids and I typically don’t run errands after dark on a school night, but tonight we make an exception. Friends had been texting weather warnings throughout the day, with the most dire prediction of them all: “Entombed in ice.”
We shop at the least busy grocery store on our side of town, buying essentials and firewood — enough to last us at least through Sunday.
Thursday afternoon. Sleet begins to fall.
We go through the typical Thursday night motions — pack backpacks for the next day, study for spelling — with an eye on increasingly gray skies and slick roads.
We settle in to watch The Sound of Music Live. All three of us sing along and blurt out disagreements with staging choices. I keep an eye on social media. At 8:38 p.m., it’s official. No school Friday.
Katie cries herself to sleep, despondent over missing school.
Friday morning.
After a night of the loudest ice in the history of the world falling, we are jolly. We bake cinnamon rolls and watch a little TV.
We are lazy. Pajamas until 11 a.m. I cook lentil soup, and my people rave.
Cooper and Katie bundle up and head outdoors for neighborhood adventures, including sledding on the greenbelt. They return to mugs of hot cocoa and the first of many fires in the fireplace.
I read aloud from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Mostly for Katie — it’s new to her — but Cooper loves to listen.)
We watch some Christmas specials. We unanimously agree that the 2001 version ofRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys is unbearable.
By the end of the night, I realize that my children have watched more commercials in the past 24 hours than perhaps the past 24 months.
Saturday morning. Our sidewalk and street are still sheets of ice.
Katie’s violin teacher texts me to remind me of the morning group lesson. There’s no way I’m driving, but Katie is willing to walk, and Cooper is willing to take her. It’s one-half mile from home. They bundle up and head out.
I take a nap. Being home for so long is exhausting, apparently.
With newfound energy, I grade papers. I wrap every gift in the house.
Icy slopes beckon, and the kids return for more sledding. They come home cold and pink-cheeked. Time to start another fire, though I’m starting to worry about the dwindling firewood supply.
Our senior pastor emails with news that Sunday services are canceled. Katie sheds tears and wails, “But it’s Advent!”
Then we receive news that the Sunday violin recital is delayed. Tears are stymied by the promise of a rescheduled date.
Sunday morning. Still icy.
We are still lazy. I haven’t fixed my hair or applied makeup since Thursday.
We are still jolly, though a smidge less than the days before. Arguments are more likely. Forgiveness takes longer.
Katie is reading a book on British royalty. “Did you know that King Henry the Eighth had six wives?” she says. “And that he had two beheaded? All because the wives were sleeping with other men?”
She is 8 and believes that sleeping is literally just sleeping. I’m too tired to explain more. I just nod.
Cooper is whistling. He’s been whistling off and on since Thursday night. “Can you please stop whistling?” I plead. He doesn’t even argue.
My jolliness has dipped considerably. I attempt to remedy the situation with homemade pumpkin chocolate chip bread. We’re out of vegetable oil, and I substitute melted butter. My people rave.
News breaks that school is canceled for Monday. No tears this time, but drawn faces all around. We need to get out.
We go to bed without a drop of hot cocoa or hint of fire. I’m conserving supplies for both. We also leave the television off. No one even asked.
Monday morning. Cold. Ice. Again.
I’m rationing milk and fresh fruit. There are three logs left. By lunchtime they are ash.
We polish off the lentil soup. And the last of the hot cocoa. There’s a chunk of pumpkin bread left. It’s destined for Tuesday breakfast, along with the little bit of pineapple at the back of the fridge.
Dinner relies on pantry and freezer staples.
At 5:56 p.m., the news is official: School resumes Tuesday. Lazy days are over. All three of us are jolly.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Christmas season should be full of joy, not stress

From Friday's Briefing:

Oh, December. The month we welcome and loathe, anticipate and fear.
Every Christmas season, I promise to scale back, to stress less, to say “no” more often. I’m never successful.
This year, I have a different approach. I’m not messing around with generalities. I’m setting specific goals.
I will not use ribbons or bows on packages. This flies in the face of everything I’ve learned from magazines, Pinterest, crafty friends and adorable boutiques all over Dallas: Presentation counts. Cuteness matters.
I’m ignoring all that and instead placing presents under the tree that are wrapped and tagged but totally devoid of flair. It’s a small step, but in the end it will save me a little bit of money and a little bit of time.
My strong hope is that the people on my gift list — all people who I love — won’t be offended by the lack of adornment.
I will be choosy about Christmas decor. After 20 years of post-college adulthood, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff to decorate the house. You might say too much stuff.
In years past, I’ve removed almost all of the everyday framed photos and knickknacks from our living spaces to make room for Christmas-themed photos and knickknacks.
This year, if I don’t absolutely love a Christmas item, it stays in the box. It’s less work now and less work on New Year’s Day, when December is stashed away and everyday life returns.
I won’t feel guilty about not sending Christmas cards. I once was a prolific card sender. Cards would include a photo and handwritten note. Envelopes were also handwritten and were usually decorated with fun stickers or stamps.
It’s been six years since I blanketed family and friends with Christmas cards.
That’s because it’s been six years since Steve first started showing signs of brain cancer. We were consumed with medical care.
Then I became a single mom. A grieving single mom who couldn’t bear the thought of sending family cards with one less family member. So I didn’t, and I still haven’t.
But I feel pangs of guilt and regret every season, worried that folks will think I’ve forgotten them or that I’ve lost all joy and cheer.
One day I will return to my card-sending ways, but not this year. I’ve got plenty of joy and cheer stored up — I’ll just have to share it in person.
I won’t skimp on traditions we love, however. There are some non-negotiable December activities. We decorate our Christmas tree with precision and care, leaving almost no branch empty. We host with open arms Little Red Charlie, our Elf on the Shelf.
We attend a live Nativity. We watch ElfA Charlie Brown Christmas and The Polar Express — almost always while sipping hot chocolate.
We participate in the 7 p.m. Christmas Eve services at our church and sing “Silent Night” by candlelight. We leave cookies and milk for Santa.
We eat baked apple French toast for breakfast Christmas morning. We open gifts one at a time. No free-for-all frenzy.
We fall asleep early Christmas night, exhausted from so much celebrating, and we begin to look forward to January — a month with a little less expectation and a little less built-in stress.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Living HorseHorse

Katie recently wrote an essay for school about HorseHorse, one of her stuffed animals. I have corrected spelling. The rest is all Katie.

Sometimes I think my stuffed animals come to life. I got HorseHorse when I was little. I will treasure her for the rest of my life. HorseHorse is very valuable to me. I love her.

The is what I will start with. HorseHorse's ears are small from me rubbing on them lightly and kindly. On her head she has two blue eyes and reins. She is entirely covered in a soft, smooth blanket of red.

Now I shall get to her body. She is still covered in beautiful red. She has a small squiggly blue line on her back. HorseHorse has cute little legs. I love HorseHorse!

HorseHorse is so delicate that stuffing is falling out. I will pass her down to my kids. So that's about it for the amazing and wonderful … HorseHorse.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Team sports may be fun, but lazy days are delightful

From Friday's Briefing:


It’s officially gift-buying and gift- giving season, but for months I’ve already been enjoying one of the best gifts ever: the gift of no weekend sporting events.
I realize that this is borderline sacrilege in my chosen community, the land of competitive cheer and soccer, hardcore hockey and volleyball, serious softball and baseball, cutthroat lacrosse and football.
I’m no stranger to the parental sacrifices of Saturdays and sometimes Sundays (not to mention weeknight practices). Cooper was a longtime member of a soccer team that was an extension of our family. Katie has dabbled in sports — soccer for a while, then gymnastics, then basketball.
For eight years, our lives partly revolved around recreational sports schedules. When birthday party invitations arrived, I would hold my breath while opening the envelope. Would schedules collide, forcing a decision between a game or celebration?
Same with Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts events. Possible weekend trips out of town. Children’s theater performances. New museum exhibits. Plain ol’ time to relax at home.
This autumn, though, has been the first since 2005 that we haven’t been beholden to a weekend sports calendar. Cooper is playing tennis at school. Katie jumps rope and runs at school. Not a single Saturday or Sunday sports date.
It’s been a welcome gift.
Some Saturdays we have slept late.
We have stayed in pajamas past 8 a.m.
We have ventured to the Dallas Arboretum to explore the new Children’s Adventure Garden. We stayed as long as we wanted, not worrying about getting back to Frisco in time to suit up.
We have gone to a movie in the middle of the afternoon. We have lazed about at the public library.
We have played Skip-Bo and Sequence at the kitchen table. We have baked homemade cowboy cookies.
We have camped at the lake.
I have still ferried children to extracurricular practices, competitions and performances — but with less stress because there are fewer overlapping commitments.
I’m certainly not anti-team sports. There’s great value in children working together toward a common goal, in parents practicing the art of silence so coaches can coach, and in children and parents learning to win and to lose with grace.
I don’t necessarily regret the hours spent driving to and from fields and the hours on the sidelines. But if new parents were to ask for my advice, I would caution them to evaluate how much time they want to devote to a child’s pastime and how much time they want for everything else.
It’s not an easy decision to make, especially when the competition seems to get a little fiercer a little earlier every year.
We have a third-grade friend who wanted to try basketball for the first time this year. She was on a team with other first-time third-grade basketball players.
Her fledgling team was destroyed by veteran teams. The new team would lose games by more than 30 points. In the third grade. Because they had apparently started playing too late to be competitive. Washed up at age 8.
My own third-grader hasn’t played weekend basketball for a couple of years. I no longer worry that there’s ignored latent athletic talent in Katie, gifts that need to be developed now or else they will never be seen again.
I’m not forcing her to try more sports. If she asks, we’ll consider it. If she doesn’t, I rest easy knowing that middle school isn’t too far away, and that she’ll have access to middle school programs and coaches.
In the meantime, I’m enjoying the unexpected gift of more time.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Be thankful for mistakes and the lessons they bring

From today's Briefing:


This Thanksgiving season at the Damm house, we’re making A-to-Z lists of what we’re thankful for.
Depending on which family member you ask, A is for angels, the Avett Brothers or airplanes. B is for the beach, the Beatles or biscuits. C is for Cooper, cooperation or chocolate.
Jump down the alphabet, and M is for Margie (the dog), moms and mistakes.
Mistakes are big on my list — typically when the mistakes are memories rather than fresh wounds.
One Damm child recently suffered through a particularly intimidating competition. Said child didn’t perform as well as expected and was devastated. In the aftermath, I struggled with what to say.
I started with, “You practiced so often and did so well. One small performance doesn’t define you.”
I listened. Waited. Then added, “Next time, you’ll be better prepared for what to expect.”
It may sound like a platitude, but it’s true.
Way back in my middle school days, I was in choir, directed by Mr. Finney, a firecracker of a man.
Every year, he would take on the monster task of staging a musical. In sixth grade, I had small roles in the production Oliver! The next year, Mr. Finney chose Annie. And he told me over and over what a great Annie I would make.
I was petite with naturally curly hair. I was a hard worker. I could memorize lines.
What he didn’t know, because I blended in to the chorus so well, was that I was a not-so-great singer — a particularly essential quality for the title role in a musical.
I didn’t practice much for the audition. After all, Mr. Finney kept telling me that I was ideal.
I stood in the middle of a darkened stage. A spotlight hit me, and I began to warble “Tomorrow.”
Oh, thank goodness for the lack of video cameras, smartphones and YouTube in the early ’80s.
I was terrible. But I didn’t truly realize how awful I was until I was standing alone, mangling a beloved song of optimism, in front of judges. In that spotlight moment, I could hear for the first time my complete lack of talent. And I could see it in Mr. Finney’s disappointed face.
I was cast as a Warbucks housekeeper. Two lines. No solos. All for the best, really.
The whole audition fiasco was the kind of mistake with lifelong lessons. If you want to try for something, by all means go for it, but put some effort into it. Don’t assume that any part, job or position is yours for the taking. And don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not good at something; spend time cultivating your natural talents.
I moved the next year, to a new town and new middle school. As always happened when I moved, I was convinced that at this school, I would somehow magically transform into an outgoing, popular girl. I hadn’t yet embraced the real introverted me.
Not long after arriving, we received notice of a semiformal dance at school. My stepmother created the most beautiful teal tea-length dress with a ruffled off-the-shoulder collar. I wore my first pair of heels. My naturally curly hair was hot-rollered and even poufier than usual — de rigueur for the time.
When I walked into the gym, my confidence fizzled.
The theme wasn’t semiformal (we must have read the flier wrong?). It was Hawaiian luau. I stood out like a less-than-jolly green giant in a sea of Jams shorts, leis and T-shirts.
I escaped to the bathroom to compose myself. A girl I didn’t know pointed and whispered indiscreetly to her friend, “How sad,” as I stood at the mirror.
Again, so many lessons. Double-check the dress code before an event. Be ready to deflect unkind words with witty rejoinders. Most important, don’t let mean girls — or being unique — steal your joy.
I expect my child will one day reflect on that difficult competition and find value in the experience, despite the painful results. I’m hoping there’ll be a list of self-discovered lessons — on composure, confidence, emotional preparedness — plus some thanksgiving for mistakes.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I'm grateful for good advice

From today's Briefing:

Mom and me, 1972
My mom passed away on Saturday.


She had lived with excruciating pain. Her quality of life was minimal. Yet for many years she summoned daily the strength and willpower to live.
In August, she asked for her loved ones to visit. She was ready to let go.
And so we gathered. In the middle of that nursing home visit, one of my best friends texted me unsolicited yet wholly welcome advice: “Today would be the day to tell your mom anything that’s been on your mind that you want her to know.”
And so I did.
For the rest of my life I will be thankful for those last moments with my mom and for the gentle advice that reminded me to speak of love, gratitude, forgiveness and grace.
As I’ve been mourning my mom’s too-short life, I’ve also been considering the best advice I’ve received — whether taken or ignored — from Mom and others. And I asked some friends to share some wisdom they rely on themselves.
Listen (from Julia): When I was a teenager, I was arguing back and forth with my dad about something, and he stopped me and said, “Are you listening to what I’m saying, or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?”
I didn’t understand it at the time, but as adult, I’m very aware that in most conversations, people aren’t really listening. They are just waiting for their turn to talk. A lot of people think I’m quiet, but I’m not. I’m just listening.
Love (from Angela): My mom told me that you can’t spoil children with too much love. My kids don’t get everything they want, maybe not even most of what they want, but they get all the love they want and then some!
Take risks (from Melissa): The best advice I’ve ever received is the advice I didn’t take when I should have! Don’t be afraid to take risks. I did not take enough risks when I was younger relating to my professional career. I will always regret that.
Be you (from Rodney): My dad told me to find out who you are early and be that person. It’s been a great thing for me because you really just be yourself and don’t worry about anything else. You don’t spend a second of your day worrying what anyone else thinks about you.
Good credit (from Kelli): My dad always told me good credit is something that can never be taken away from you — not very fun, but great advice that I appreciate now. When I bought my car, the salesman told me I had the credit of an 80-year-old.
Attitude (from Kalvin): “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude,” from Zig Ziglar.
Journey preparedness (from Stephanie): Never embark on a trip, regardless of distance, on foot or in a car, without emptying your bladder and filling up your water bottle. And always carry your own toilet paper. (From years of camping with the Boy Scouts.)
10 years (from Jen): On the day my 12-year-old was born, my mom said, “You get 10 good years to pour into him, that is it. Use them wisely.”
Forgiveness (from Kristin): Forgiveness is a gift you really give yourself (especially if it’s yourself you are forgiving).
Keep connected (from Katrina): Don’t leave the workforce 100 percent. Always keep connected to your profession and keep an updated résumé. You never know what life will bring.
Be (from Tammy): “Wherever you are, be 100 percent there,” from missionary Jim Elliot. This quote totally changed the way I look at each day and each moment. I don’t want to be 50 percent present and 50 percent checked out. Attempting to give 100 percent of my focus to each moment has allowed me to enjoy the little and big things in life, and also recognize that God is in the center of it all.
Let go (from Roger): I tend to let my disappointments hang around, thinking about what I should have done or what might have been instead of focusing on the present, and making the rest of my life better. I was on a Seattle vacation recently, and lost my camera — my wonderful, expensive, digital camera — on the first day.
I was in a funk for two days before someone told me to shrug it off and not ruin the rest of my vacation. It took some effort on my part, but I put on a smile, stopped dwelling on my loss, and made good use of my limited-function cellphone camera, and certainly enjoyed the remainder of my time in beautiful Seattle.
Lip gloss (from Valerie): I remember hearing as a little girl, “Always wear lip gloss, it lights up your face!” It’s a Southern thing! I have always taken this to heart. A few years ago I slipped in my kitchen and my kneecap popped out of the socket.
My older son tells the true story that while lying on the floor waiting on the ambulance, the only thing I cared about was him bringing me my lip gloss to put on before the paramedics arrived!
Loose ends (from Shannon): My wonderful father said, “Remember, life is a series of loose ends.” It let me know that nothing will ever be “all done” or neat and tidy. It releases me from performance pressure.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Fun mom peeks out now and then


From Friday's Briefing:


I have a new favorite snapshot.
It’s me, Katie and Cooper — a group “selfie” taken with my smartphone in the front yard on Halloween.
Cooper is wearing a straw hat and a checkered, button-down shirt trimmed with strands of raffia. Katie has braided pigtails and a gingham Dorothy Gale dress. I’m sporting a pointy hat and a black dress.
It’s tangible evidence that sometimes I actually am a fun mom.
Most all the time, I am a reliable, responsible, get-things-done mom.
If you’ve got an appointment or a practice, a tutorial or a game, I will get you there on time or find someone who can.
If you need your Scouts uniform washed and dried in the 90-minute window between camping and a meeting, I’m your mom.
If you need help studying for a spelling test or practicing multiplication tables, or if you need ideas for a campaign poster or someone to proofread an essay, I’m your mom.
I am a health-conscious, safety-conscious mom.
I will always remind you to wear a helmet, to look both ways two times before crossing the street, to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and to say no to fast food.
I am a cuddle-on-the- sofa-and-read mom.
If you want to laugh with Anne of Green Gables or the Penderwicks, I’m your mom. If you want to explore Hogwarts or Klickitat Street, settle in.
But a fun mom? Not often, I’m afraid.
I don’t play board games as I often as I’d like. I’m not super spontaneous. I don’t expect I’ll ever be the mom who chaperones kids on late-night toilet-papering escapades.
Though I’ve tried, I still don’t completely understand the world of Minecraft.
During summer months, you’ll find me on a chaise longue more often than you’ll find me playing Marco Polo or practicing cannon balls.
And I never wear costumes.
Except maybe just this once.
My children pleaded year after year and I finally said yes, even though I’m more content to blend in the crowd than to stand out.
This Halloween, after a string of Halloweens in which I disappointed my dramatic, costume-loving daughter, I gave in.
On a whim, I bought a pair of purple-and-black striped tights, marked down to $2. The next day, I found a $3 hat. Those two accessories — plus a simple black dress already in the closet — equaled a costume good enough for Katie. (I drew the line at green face paint.)
On Halloween, after I braided and beribboned Dorothy’s hair and adjusted the scarecrow’s raffia, I made a quick change from schoolteacher clothes to witchy wear.
Dorothy and Scarecrow obliged to photos in the front yard, and then I snapped an arm’s length photo of the three of us.
We left for dinner and trick-or-treating with friends. Throughout the candy-coated night, Katie thanked me at least 10 times for dressing up. She even gave me a freshly acquired fun-sized Heath bar.
Success was declared before 8 p.m. Both children had cavorted with friends and devoured snow cones and cotton candy. They carried baskets heavy with more candy than I’ll ever let them eat (even during my most fun mom moments).
Later that night, as I set aside my pointy hat and peeled off my striped tights, I considered how I might incorporate more fun mom moments into our days — because, you know, I’m not exactly spontaneous.
Then, in a manner mostly uncharacteristic, I stopped worrying. I gave myself permission to be the mom I naturally am — a mom who plans, limits screen time, offers advice as you’re walking out the door, favors books over video games and advises strongly against breaking rules of any kind.
A mom who loves all the time, even when she’s not exactly fun — though she’s got a photo to prove that sometimes she is.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Traumatic morning ends in redemption

From today's Briefing:


Katie and I are standing in the narthex at church. She twirls a brass processional candle — not yet lit — as we review the procedure.
As soon as prelude music begins, she will carry the lit candle and walk slowly yet purposefully down the aisle. When she reaches the altar, she will light two more candles, then return to the narthex and extinguish the flame.
While we wait for cues that her time is near, we talk about how long we’ve looked forward to this day, her first as acolyte.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was 4,” she says, “when Cooper was first an acolyte. I knew I could be one, too, when I was 8, and now it’s finally here!”
“You were baptized on that same altar eight years ago, Katie,” I say. “Daddy and I took turns holding you. And now you are going to light candles in the very same place.”
The pipe organ comes to life. Katie takes a deep breath, and she begins her journey.
Three steps forward and the flame dies. Katie’s enthusiasm dims slightly.
I light the candle again, staring at the wick, somehow convinced that I can will it to cooperate.
Alas, I do not possess supernatural fire skills. By the time Katie reaches the altar, the flame is gone, and her slumped shoulders reveal deflating joy.
A nearby church member helps her light the processional candle again, and success seems within reach. But the altar candles won’t comply. They refuse to light.
Katie tries over and over again. All efforts are fruitless.
She leaves the altar, candles still unlit, and bolts out of the sanctuary, sobbing.
She runs into my arms, and I hug her tight. My sweater is damp with her tears, and my eyes are damp with my own. Our minister joins us to tell Katie that she did everything correctly, that there was trouble with the oil candles, that no one is upset, that everything is going to be OK.
Katie struggles to take shallow breaths between sobs.
What we don’t see: Another minister adjusting the oil candles. An usher repairing the wick on the processional candle.
After a little more crying and a lot of comforting, Katie says she wants to try again.
My first instinct is to say no, to shield her from the possibility of more disappointment, to cradle her like a baby for the next hour.
First instincts aren’t always admirable.
So she tries again. I light the wick. This flame is more confident.
Katie proceeds during the opening hymn. She steps on to the altar and lights two candles. I fight the urge to applaud.
She smiles as she returns to the narthex. We exchange high fives. We hug. Her tears are dry, yet mine return.
On the drive home, we rehash the traumatic, redemptive morning.
“Katie, we all would have understood if you hadn’t tried again,” I say. “But you didn’t give up. You were brave.”
In another month, Katie will be acolyte again. I’ll probably hold my breath the duration of her walk to the altar, and she’ll probably have no hiccups at all.
But she’ll always remember the Sunday morning when a big plan faltered — and she made a big recovery. I hope she’ll always draw from the same well of courage.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Let's be more giddy about giving

In Friday's Briefing:

The children are stooped in a hallway under a staircase, surrounded by giant bags stuffed with monster trucks, storybooks and baby dolls.
These children are giddy — wiggly, giggly, we-can’t-wait-to-get-moving happy.
One by one, they heave a bag up, barely lifting it off the floor, and stagger out the door.
Half an hour later, the kids have reassembled not far from downtown Dallas. They can’t keep their hands out of the bags. They gingerly press buttons, gently turn pages, exclaim over yet another superhero.
And then, finally, the moment they have been waiting for: It’s time to give the toys away.
For four years, my church congregation has spent one October Sunday not in our modest sanctuary but out in the community. We call it Don’t Go to Church, Be the Church.
There are about a dozen hands-on projects each year.
The first year, my family helped to deliver a meal — the equivalent of three or four meals, really — to a nearby fire station.
Our group had just placed the final casserole dish on a crowded table when the alarm sounded. The men we were serving raced away. Lunch would have to wait.
The next year, we joined a graffiti- fighting crew. We gathered on a scraggly field and fanned out, facing a brick wall covered in illicit words. We spent a couple of hours with paint, brushes and rollers in an effort to obliterate the graffiti and brighten a corner of a blighted neighborhood.
Last year, we chose to spend our Sunday morning at an assisted living center. Our group conducted a worship service with Scripture readings, songs and prayers for elderly residents.
This year, we joined the group delivering toys to Children’s Medical Center.
Many had hoped to personally place those new toys in the hands of patients. But that, understandably, wasn’t part of the plan. You can’t have random — albeit well-meaning — folks walking in and out of patient rooms.
Our toys were shelved, waiting for sorting and distributing by staff members who know which patients need what.
No worries. Not a single soul was dispirited by anonymous giving.
We were allowed to peek into a special playroom, designed to address the emotional and spiritual needs of young patients. We were invited to participate in the weekly chaplain service, held in a small chapel and broadcast live across the hospital.
We were giving a little and receiving abundantly.
As I sat on the floor of the chapel, I thought of my two healthy children. I thought of nurses, doctors and support staff who care for injured and ill kids.
I thought of all the families who have sought healing at the hospital, of dreams delayed and even abandoned.
I got lost for a moment, thinking of the heavy needs around us — hunger, poverty, violence and addiction. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you acknowledge our challenges.
At the same time, I found comfort in that chapel, crowded with children who were antsy to share, who were eager to give to others they would never even meet.
I thought of all the families I know who donate time, money and emotion to animal shelters, food banks, libraries, hospitals, schools and clothes closets.
The needs are staggering, but our hearts are bigger. Just imagine if all of us were so giddy about sharing. What if we all were wiggly, giggly, we-can’t-wait-to-get-moving happy about improving our communities?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Friday, October 18, 2013

It's a delight to watch Cooper's world grow


My son is almost halfway finished with middle school, and there are still moments I lament the good ol’ elementary school days.
I miss receiving a class roster with a tidy list of 22 or 23 students, most of whom we already knew from the neighborhood or previous grades.
I miss knowing most of the parents, too — even if some conversations took place only at pickup, assemblies and classroom parties.
I miss less exhausting homework loads.
Middle school requires giving up a lot of control. It requires trust in your child’s ability to make decisions, to choose friends, to implement a whole list of life lessons you’ve been doling out for more than a decade.
Cooper was ready for the transition just in time, even if I was dragging my feet.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to let go of wishing it were different — a task made easier with Cooper fully embracing the experience.
Sometimes, though not as often as in elementary school, I get glimpses of middle- school Cooper in his environment. Last week I helped chaperone the annual costume party sponsored by our middle school’s music department.
It’s a busy season for middle school band students. They perform at some football games and pep rallies. They meet before or after school for sectional practice. They are prepping for contests.
The day of the costume party, Cooper didn’t come home from school, instead staying after to practice for all-region tryouts. I arrived in the band hall minutes before my volunteer shift, to hand off his costume.
The cavernous rooms hosted a gaggle of laughing adolescents. They were milling about, shelving instruments, gobbling pizza.
The joy was palpable. Contagious.
I couldn’t spy Cooper at first, so I asked a similarly lanky fellow, who pointed me in the right direction.
There was my son, smiling, joking, chatting with fellow clarinetists.
He looked like he belonged.
I left him and his scarecrow costume with his people and reported to my assigned station: the Monster Walk. For the next two hours, I helped run the game, like a traditional cakewalk but with trinkets instead of pastry.
I recognized some students under their makeup and masks — kids from elementary school, our neighborhood or previous band events. Most, though, were strangers. Polite, but strangers nonetheless.
I’d occasionally see Cooper walking by with a clump of friends, some of them also unknown to me. He’d smile and wave and keep moving.
I was an outsider, an observer, a foreigner. And yet I felt completely at ease.
No, I don’t know the name of every student in seventh grade or even every student in Cooper’s classes. But I know my son well enough to know that he gravitates toward peers who are kind, responsible and respectful (at least as consistently as seventh-graders can manage).
I find comfort in the middle school band, his chosen school family. It’s a group of kids who, in general, are studious, quick-witted and fun without being outrageous. They are learning how to work as a team as well as improve individual skills in a healthy, competitive environment.
It’s a group of friends found through common interest and values — much like my adult friends.
My son is more than halfway to adulthood himself. It’s no doubt time for him to create relationships outside the safe cocoon of our home and neighborhood. It’s developmentally appropriate for him to form friendships independent of the family, to rely upon those friends for emotional support (and sometimes for help with homework).
The days of rosters and me knowing every peer by name are long gone, swallowed up by my son’s growing world. It’s a world I’m delighted to be a part of — even when I’m on the periphery.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Cooper and Katie after his first band performance at a football game


Thursday, October 17, 2013

The past few days

I should take/make more time to blog, but right now time is especially precious. So, how about a few photos?
Cooper joined his middle school band last Tuesday night to play in the end zone while eighth-grade boys played football on the field. Katie and I dutifully watched most of two games -- B team, then A team -- and listened for Coop's clarinet.
Katie has been practicing for months to perform in the Lone Star Storytelling Festival. Her big concert is this Saturday. Here she is in front of a promotional poster at the Frisco Public Library. (We were there so Cooper could attend a public meeting in the same building for a Boy Scout requirement.)
Coop has been waiting a year for this book. It arrived last Tuesday. He finished Sunday. Now he waits another year for the next in the series. 
Cooper dressed as a scarecrow for this year's music department costume contest. The raffia was sewn on by good friend Jenny. The shirt came from the Frisco Family Services Resale Shop. $4 plus tax. Coop won the award for "Most Basic Costume." It was a compliment, we think.
We spent Saturday morning at the Dallas Arboretum. Jackie and Sydney met us there, too, which made the day even better. We spent some time in the lab in the new children's garden. The kids were able to extract DNA from a strawberry. Katie's experiment is pictured -- the white web stuff on top is DNA.
Cooper and Katie in Peter's House at the Arboretum
Katie created this pastel drawing for our church auction. She titled it "Beauty of Life." 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Parenting trials only seem like crises without end

From Friday's Briefing:


There are trials that no parents escape. Teething. Potty training. Meltdowns.
Then there are trials reserved for a few. Rotavirus. Broken bones. Night terrors.
While in the midst of any one of these trials, you might feel certain that these moments will never, ever cease.
You might imagine your baby will be cranky until age 18, constantly gnawing, drooling and sobbing with unrelenting pain caused by erupting teeth.
You can’t even begin to fathom a day during which you aren’t on guard for accidents, when you’re not carrying a full change of toddler clothes, and when you’re not constantly monitoring your child’s facial expressions and wiggly-ness for signs of bathroom urgency.
In the throes of a stomach virus, you’re absolutely certain that no one in the house will ever eat solid food again, which is ideal because you’ve spent all your grocery money on laundry detergent and disinfectant.
And then, suddenly, you emerge from whatever childhood-induced haze kept you prisoner, and typical life resumes.
We at the Damm house have just stepped out of one of the lousiest of hazes. We have escaped from the dreaded clutches of lice.
The whole experience makes me even more thankful for the first 12, lice-free years of my parenting life. Because living with them is truly miserable.
First, there’s the treatment, which includes dousing your child’s head with a bottle of lice-killing shampoo, otherwise known as pesticide. This is no easy pill to swallow when you’ve devoted much of your parenting career to shielding your children from harmful chemicals.
As your traumatized child — who can’t bear the thought of God’s living creatures dying on her head — sits perched on the edge of the bathtub, you watch the clock, waiting for 10 minutes exactly (and no longer) to pass.
When the bugs are close to dead, it’s time to rinse the shampoo.
What emerges is a tangly mess o’ hair that must be meticulously combed with a fine-toothed, metal comb — every single strand, from scalp to end — in a futile effort to remove eggs.
The work, though, is far from over.
You vacuum like a mad woman. You toss hairbrushes and combs.
You strip the beds and wash everything in hot water. You bag up every pillow and stuffed animal, sentencing them to a minimum two weeks of solitary confinement.
You stop occasionally to administer hugs and offer reassuring phrases such as, “Lice actually prefer clean hair” and “It’s no more shameful than catching a cold.”
You constantly resist the urge to scratch your own head, which, though cleared by the school nurse, is suspiciously itchy all the time now.
You wash more towels and sheets than you’ve washed since the Great Rotavirus Attack of 2002. You give up actually folding, instead creating the largest laundry mountain in your family’s history.
When a child needs yet another clean towel or pillowcase, you direct that child to Laundry Mountain. You pray for no avalanches.
Two or three times a day, possibly every day for the rest of your life, you inspect scalps for eggs. You have a metal comb for each child, and after every use, you soak it in boiling water for at least 10 minutes.
Some of those eggs are resistant to the metal comb, so you also investigate by hand. Every single strand.
And then, seven to 10 days after the initial chemical dousing, you re-treat in an effort to keep the lice at bay.
By this time, your children are veterans with all the manhandling of their hair. They sit patiently. They anticipate your movements. They find humor in the experience.
You spy no eggs.
You put away the metal combs. You’re on the verge of setting pillows and stuffed animals free.
You realize that the Infamous Lice Incident of 2013 won’t endure forever.
You celebrate by taking the tiniest nap — just before conquering Laundry Mountain.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.