Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Afternoon full of etiquette finishes with a classic touch

From today's Briefing:

For the past few months, our household has been receiving lessons in manners.

Cooper has been spending a few Sunday evenings in Junior Cotillion classes, where he and sixth-grade friends learn table manners, dance steps, proper seating and more. Then he comes home and passes along all kinds of helpful details.

Katie and I have learned that a gentleman offers his right arm to escort a lady. We have learned that ladies should cross their ankles when seated. We have practiced introducing one friend to another. We have danced the fox-trot in the family room.

All of the classes culminate in the grand ball — the big finale of cotillion.

On Sunday afternoon, in a tasteful hotel ballroom, more than 100 middle-school students gathered to practice their fine manners. I had volunteered to chaperone, allowing me prime viewing.

The boys wore tuxedos. The girls wore white dresses and gloves. After mingling and posing for more photos than they’d like, the snazzy crew lined up outside the ballroom, boys in one line, girls in another.

The boy at the front of the line offered his crooked arm to the girl next to him, and together they walked to the center of the room. There they stopped, introduced themselves to the program’s director and then walked to seats circling the dance floor.

While all of this was happening, the 20 or so volunteer chaperones (all moms save one game dad) gathered to watch.

After every student was seated — boy, girl, boy, girl — they received instructions for the first dance. The random partner they walked in with was their dance partner for the fox-trot.

As the kids filled almost every square foot of the dance floor, we moms started angling for glimpses of our kids. We were no longer content to huddle in the corner.

We spread out, surrounding the scene, iPhones and SLR cameras aimed at the mass of well-behaved preteens.

Image after image shows boys and girls with precise posture. Some are managing smiles. Almost no one is making eye contact with his or her dance partner.

After a few more dances — East Coast swing, salsa, electric slide — and plenty of partner changes, the gentlemen escorted their ladies to tables. They employed their finest manners as they sat down, placed napkins in laps and started on generous slices of chocolate cake.

After cake and punch, the kids danced some more. They’d loosened up a little. Genuine smiles, consistent eye contact and a little personality showed in their moves. By this time, all of the parents were in the ballroom, invited to observe the final half-hour.

The director invited moms and dads onto the floor. We crowded in, eager to dance with our kids. (Kids, by the way, who we swear were in preschool just last year.)

Cooper told me it was too cramped for the fox-trot, so he offered to teach me the salsa.

“Back, front, back, front. Side, side, side, side,” he chanted over and over, working to keep his patience in check. (I’m not exactly known for my rhythm.)

We muddled through the first song. At least in my fumbling, I was mannerly. All decorum dissipated as soon as the final song began to play.

Just small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world … 

My dancing may be awful, but I can sing classic Journey with gusto. Cooper was not pleased.

“Shhhh, Mom,” he said, convinced I was the only parent so uncouth.

Some will win, some will lose. I sang louder. Some are born to sing the blues. 

Cooper was exasperated — until he realized every other mom was singing just as loud and proud.

It goes on and on and on and on.

He gave up in his quest to shush me. He twirled me a few times. When the song was over, my proper son even let me hug him.

Don’t stop believin’ . Hold on to the feelin’.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Me, in red, led by a patient Cooper

Friday, March 22, 2013

Taking responsibility

From today's Briefing:

I woke at 7 a.m. Tuesday, an entire hour late for a typical school day.
I sprinted from my bedroom to the kids’ hallway, half-singing, half-shouting, “Wake up! We’re late! Wake up! My alarm didn’t go off!”
I’ve regretted those five words ever since. Five words that shirked responsibility.
What I should have hollered was, “I didn’t set my alarm!”
It was my fault that we’d all overslept, easy to do in these early daylight saving days, when the sun doesn’t rise until we’re walking out the door. I had failed to turn on my alarm, an uncharacteristic oversight the night before, and my internal clock was snoozing.
Instead of taking responsibility for our super- rushed morning, I blamed the clock.
I didn’t set the record straight during the next 15 minutes because we were in hyperefficient mode. No time for chitchat when there’s barely time for breakfast or tying a pair of shoes. (Both children take pride in never once being tardy for school. Lollygagging was not an option.)
Full regret set in about an hour later, when I was at my desk at work, scanning news headlines online.
I read a little about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case. Two teen boys were found delinquent (similar to a guilty verdict in adult court) for raping an incapacitated teen girl. In the nonjury trial, the defense painted the victim as a liar and a flirt.
The defense argued that she had consented to the sexual contact. Judge Thomas Lipps ruled otherwise.
I also read about Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Men Against Abuse rally, set for Saturday morning at Dallas City Hall.
Rawlings is admirably crusading against domestic violence, imploring men to be real men and to keep violence at bay. He’s tackling a social disease that claims the lives of more than three women every day in the United States. Last year, 26 of those deaths were in Dallas.
Then I read about three cases of rape in less than a month in the Lake Highlands area.
I wonder how many of those violent offenders were raised by parents who refused to model responsibility? How many grew up in homes with adults who placed blame on circumstances or other people instead of owning their mistakes?
When you admit that you’re wrong, you’re one step closer to learning from your mistakes. Even better if you do it in front of children, who can learn firsthand the power of taking responsibility.
When you don’t admit to being wrong, when you constantly shift blame to other people or poor conditions, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to grow. You’re creating an alternate world in which you are the victim — and you’re minimizing the actual victim.
In the seemingly innocuous case of the alarm clock, there was no victim. No real harm was done. But the episode was a wake-up call for me, a reminder that words carry great weight and that little behaviors can, over time, create big problems.
When I said goodnight to the kids Tuesday night, we joked about our crazy, rushed morning. I admitted that I had forgotten to set my alarm the night before and that I was unlikely to make that mistake again soon.
I turned out their bedroom lights and prayed that they were paying attention.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Eggs with a message

Today in Sunday school, Katie decorated a cardboard egg with sticker "jewels."

From that experience, she launched a small service project. This afternoon, she spent two hours:

  • Buying two dozen plastic eggs, jewels and glue
  • Buying candy
  • Stuffing the eggs with candy and a Bible verse
  • Decorating the eggs with jewels

We will deliver the eggs later this week to Atria Senior Living in Carrollton. (It's a retirement home that our church has adopted.)

Some of the eggs have a special meaning, designed with a particular thought in mind. Here are the concepts she illustrated on some of the eggs (all in her own words):

Sometimes there can be darkness in the world, but God can take away the darkness and make people happy.

Sometimes darkness can trap the world, but God can shine His light through.

God is a signal of love, and He sends His love to the earth to make us happy.

Sometimes the rich don't get as much as the poor, because God takes care of the poor.

Even if people laugh at you, you can still let your inspiration shine.

When you get a bad idea or you're going to trick someone, you should instead use your gifts from God wisely and kindly.

Love who you are and shine it out.

Even if you get tangled up or stuck, there's always something you can be joyful about.

Whenever you've lost your way, God will make a path back home.

A little heart can make a big difference. Don't judge by how someone looks. They can always shine really bright.

Before Sunday school this morning

Friday, March 15, 2013

Don't let vacation mishaps spoil the memories

From today's Briefing:

I long ago gave up on the idea that vacation is a complete escape from the world and its troubles — albeit first- world troubles.
Experience has been my teacher. The lessons are plentiful.
Once, at the beginning of a long weekend away, we made it all the way to the airport and through security screening before I realized my wallet was at home. I was rescued by a good friend who swooped into my house, picked up the wallet and delivered it to the airport into the hands of a friendly security agent waiting curbside.
On a trip to Disneyland, 2-year-old Katie threw up in our brand-new minivan on the way to the airport. And in the airport. And on the airplane.
She was horrified upon landing, convinced that Minnie Mouse would meet us at the gate and see her “all dirty.”
On a summer trip in Michigan, we were in a car accident. No one was seriously injured, but the rental car folks were seriously angry. We lost the privilege of ever renting from them again and scrambled to find another car.
Lost luggage. Locked doors with no key. Missed flights. Wanderings without clear direction. My list is long.
With this vast experience, I’ve learned to expect some bumps — and to keep on traveling.
The trip that started with no wallet ended with excellent memories of amusement park rides, aquarium discoveries and a peaceful sunset on the Pacific.
Tiny Katie cleaned up in plenty of time for her first Minnie Mouse visit.
Cooper experienced the thrill of Space Mountain. I devoured (and savored) more than my fair share of Dole Pineapple Whips.
That Michigan trip was one of the greatest vacations in our young family’s history.
This spring break we spent a few days in South Carolina, mostly on Hilton Head Island, chosen because there’s a beach, and the beach is my ultimate happy place. There were a few bumps in the road.
Actually, I hit the first bump before we left. A few hours before our flight out of town, I stopped by our neighborhood urgent care center, concerned about a painful cough and fever. I stayed for a breathing treatment, steroid shot and antibiotic prescription to treat bronchitis.
A little ailment wasn’t going to stand between me and the sea calling my name.
We spent most of Saturday outside, despite temperatures in the 50s, biking, kayaking, lollygagging in hammocks and, yes, hanging out at the beach.
This super-full day was probably not the best plan for an already tired mom with bronchitis, though all that activity did guarantee that I’d be slow-pokey the rest of the trip.
I was feeling fully relaxed by lunchtime Sunday. We were enjoying seafood in a restaurant down by the river.
Then, another bump.
Cooper was eating shrimp and flounder when a piece of metal from his orthodontia broke free. A small silver arm that is supposed to be attached to two temporary crowns was instead dangling from his mouth, anchored to only one crown.
We excused ourselves from the table, and I examined his mouth and the tiny yet expensive piece of misplaced metal out in the sunlight. Yes, it was broken, and no, I couldn’t fix it.
My first Google search via smartphone down on the docks: broken Herbst appliance. After verifying that this was no true emergency, my second Google search: Hilton Head orthodontists.
Monday morning we found a friendly office that agreed to treat a vacationing preteen. By 9:30 a.m., the metal was completely removed (to be reattached by our actual orthodontist), and we were back in vacation mode.
The rest of the day was bump-free — a stroll through Harbour Town, playground time (including a rare 21st-century seesaw sighting), more beach time, a dip in the pool, a little table tennis and lots of food prepared by someone else.
We didn’t totally escape real life and its occasional messes, but we were pretty close. We were reminded that people get sick, things break, mistakes happen — and in the middle of all that, there are still adventures to cultivate and memories to cherish.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, March 08, 2013

Love stays strong

A month after Steve died, our children and I escaped town for Legoland in Southern California.
As we were buckling our seatbelts for the flight out of Dallas, 4-year-old Katie looked around the plane and said, “I wonder if people think it’s weird that we’re flying without a dad.”
I patted her hand and answered, “It’s weird to us, but I don’t think they’ll notice.”
Of course, it’s all we could think about. Our grief was jagged.
For so long we had been an even set of four. A man, a woman, a boy and a girl. With Steve’s final breath, we became an odd set of three.
We’ve adjusted during the past few years. Steve’s absence has become more routine.
Right after his death, I would sometimes pause and wonder why I hadn’t yet told Steve about an important event or a conversation. Now I just wish that I could.
The grief remains, no doubt, but the edges are smoother. I’ve learned how to buy groceries for three people, not four. I’ve learned the optimum schedule for washing and drying laundry for three, not four. We instinctively set the dinner table for three, not four.
Because life as a trio has become so routine, just as with those strangers on the plane, his absence is often invisible to folks around us.
Last year, one of Katie’s sweet first-grade friends was playing at our house. Katie showed her friend a book.
“That was my dad’s,” she said. Her friend, in reply: “You don’t have a dad.”
Katie said firmly, “Yes I do! Everyone has a dad. Mine died. But I have a dad.”
Katie’s the youngest in our trio; she had the least amount of time with Steve. That doesn’t diminish a single bit of her strong devotion.
She frequently prays for him and wonders aloud what he’s up to in heaven. She shares stories she remembers and asks for details she doesn’t.
We often talk about him at dinnertime, when the three of us gather at one end of a table designed for six. I sit on the end, Katie on my left, Cooper on my right.
The other half of the table isn’t empty. It’s usually crowded with art supplies and spelling lists, flash cards and random books.
Saturday night, the whole table was crowded. Rather than disrupt projects midstream, we chose to sit at a card table temporarily set up in the entryway (left over from hosting Bunco the night before).
We placed napkins in laps. Cooper said grace. Katie looked at the empty chair to her right, sighed and said, “Daddy should be there.”
That little card table, designed for four, made his absence palpable.
Then we moved on to fascinating topics, including raccoons (current second-grade project) and the “Harlem Shake.”
At open house this week, I read Katie’s report on raccoons for the first time. (Did you know those bandits can run as fast as 15 mph?)
And I read her response to a writing prompt in advance of St. Patrick’s Day. Handwritten on a green shamrock were these words (edited by me, only to correct spelling): “I am lucky because … even though my dad died, he is the best! I love love!! You dad!”
Yes, our grief remains, the raw edges worn by the passage of time. The love remains, too, burnished even in absentia.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, March 01, 2013

Real version of family exceeds what's imagined

From today's Briefing:

You know those social media memes in which an old- fashioned illustration is accompanied by modern text? They often give voice to pet peeves or universal truths, sometimes with an edge of sarcasm, sometimes with downright cruelty.

The one that speaks to me the loudest features a mom leaning over to speak to her young son: “You’re making it difficult for me to be the parent I always imagined I would be.”
I want to reach out to that imaginary mom and give her a high five — then give that little guy a big hug. Because all the theories and pontifications about parenting mean nothing once you’re actually in charge of young people — and because those children bear the brunt of our scramblings as we constantly adjust.
The parent I imagined I would be is trapped in a romanticized world that failed to consider all kinds of variables, like strong personalities, learning disabilities, hypercompetitive peers, illness and even death.
I once dreamed of relaxed mornings getting ready for school, warm homecomings (with cookies and milk!) every day after school and uber- organized spaces for homework.
I imagined reliably rational conversations, clear-cut decision-making and steadfast adherence to reasonable rules.
Some days our home reflects the realization of some of those dreams. Other days, well, not so much.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, perhaps every day until the year 2027: Parenting is tough. It’s difficult because we have high expectations of our children and of ourselves. And because we’re all human, with quirks and preferences that bind us and sometimes alienate us from one another.
Good thing we humans are also adaptable.
Cooper’s learning disabilities — dyslexia and dysgraphia — nudge me to make decisions I hadn’t anticipated before his diagnosis in fourth grade. For example, if there’s a homework assignment that requires extensive writing, I sometimes help him.
I don’t do the actual crafting of words, but if I determine that the assignment is designed to assess his understanding of a topic and not his ability to type, I might take over the keyboard, letting Cooper dictate sentences. Together we edit the work, talking through punctuation and word choice, organization and phrasing.
Before I was a mom, I also hadn’t considered fully the role of personality in raising children — mine and theirs. I’m a classic introvert. After hours of interaction with others, I’m drained. I need a break — all alone.
My children take after their dear, late father, a classic extrovert. They draw energy from interaction with lots of people. And if there aren’t lots of people around, one will do.
That’s usually me.
I’ve learned to tell Cooper and Katie without guilt or shame, “I need a few minutes of quiet time, then I can focus better.”
I need that restoration, especially to prepare for Katie’s intensity. She’s strong-willed and opinionated in ways I never imagined in my pre-children years. Being her mom challenges all kinds of ideas I once had about discipline and motivation.
I can’t count the number of medical appointments that have included this plea of desperation: “If you will do exactly what the doctor says, I’ll buy you a treat when we’re done.” What I once would have called a bribe I now rationalize as an incentive.
In my mid-20s, the days I started thinking about becoming a mom, I never anticipated taking dictation from my child nor momentarily escaping to another room nor offering a milkshake in exchange for good behavior.
I also never fathomed how rich the rewards would be.
Bear hugs in the morning before we scatter, detail-rich chatter in the afternoons. Spirited discussions about Harry Potter and Anne Shirley. Dreams of faraway lands we’d like to visit — all three of us, together.
Every day we’re creating our own version of what family should be — not like I imagined, but exactly the way we’re supposed to be.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at