Friday, May 31, 2013

Planning adventures for summer

From today's Briefing:

The long four-day weekend, afforded by a bad weather makeup day and Memorial Day, was a welcome yet cruel preview of summer.

My small crew had no trouble adjusting to time off. We stayed up late. We slept late. We spent one full morning in pajamas. We hung out at the neighborhood pool.

And then, bam! Tuesday morning required alarm clocks, lunches to go, battered homework folders crammed into backpacks.

That short break before the long break was a good wake-up call. What exactly are the kids going to do all summer?

A few weeks are already spoken for — family vacation, camps, a mission trip. And then there are some gaping expanses of nothingness, days with no plans. We’ll embrace our inner sloths some of those days, but others require adventure. Here’s a list of what I’m hoping we can accomplish this summer.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science: I’m ashamed to admit that we haven’t yet visited the new Dallas museum. I’ve hesitated because people often talk of how crowded it is and how many exhibits are already no longer working. Yet everyone raves about racing a Tyrannosaurus rex and experiencing an earthquake and touching a tornado.

George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum: There are 13 presidential libraries in the United States, and Dallas is fortunate to be home to the newest. So far, we’ve visited only the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., where we enjoyed walking through the history of the final years of the 20th century, sitting in a replica of the Cabinet Room and peering into a faux Oval Office.

The Bush library offers a snapshot of the first years of the 21st century, access to artifacts, a lovely garden and the opportunity to sit in a pseudo-Oval Office.

Reading lists: Every summer I have good intentions of picking up reading logs, having the kids keep track of their books and turning in the lists for prizes. And yet it never happens.

I’m declaring that this year they’ll actually get rewarded for all those books they read (beyond, of course, the intrinsic value of reading in general). We’re planning on three good options, our public library, Half Price Books and Barnes & Noble, each with its own reward system.;;

Shakespeare in the Park: This summer, Shakespeare Dallas presents three shows: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pericles and Much Ado About Nothing. Performances are outside (Samuell Grand Amphitheatre in East Dallas) at night, so no one should burn to a crisp while enjoying the Bard’s witty dialogue. Tickets are inexpensive, kids 12 and younger are free, and you’re welcome to bring food and drink in to the park.

Summer Adventures in Fair Park: I’m a fairweather State Fair fan. I like the idea of the fair, but I’m less enamored of the parking, the crowds and the cost.

I’m hoping that Summer Adventures is a little less crowded — and that we can find a rare coolish or overcast summer day to attend.

For a flat fee, you get access to rides, shows, museums and swan boats.

Food is extra, of course. But who’s complaining about paying for Fletcher’s Corny Dogs and funnel cakes?

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, May 24, 2013

Surviving sixth grade

From today's Briefing:

Somehow we have almost survived sixth grade.
I use “we” because there were multiple moments that I felt tested in the process of my son getting through his first year of middle school.
I use “almost” because there are still two weeks to go, and if I’ve learned anything through the sixth-grade experience, it’s that anything can happen. I’m not counting end-of-school-year chickens before they hatch.
I could fill a book with the lessons and lectures that have bubbled up around here over the past year. Truly, Cooper is an excellent child with solid character, but no child or parent is immune to the unpredictable whims of adolescence.
The chapters of this book would include “You Can’t Study for the Test If You’ve Left Your Binder at School” and “When the Teacher Says No Talking, She Means You, Too” and “Running Shoes Left Unlocked Will Never Be Seen Again.”
Even better would be the companion book, based on what I’ve learned from Cooper. A few of the best lessons:
Try new things.
Cooper has jumped into new adventures with gusto. He rides the bus to and from school without complaint. He’s learned to avoid trouble by sitting toward the front. (“There’s a lot of inappropriate language at the back,” he says, lowering his voice so his little sister won’t hear.)
This time last year, he knew nothing about woodwind instruments. Now he can piece together a clarinet in seconds and then play actual, recognizable tunes.
He attends a citywide youth group, sometimes showing up by himself, never worried about not fitting in or having no one to talk to.
Scale back. 
This time last year, Cooper evaluated his existing activities and considered what he could handle on top of the increased academic difficulty of middle school. Based on all that, he made the tough decision to drop a beloved extracurricular activity.
He had been part of a Destination Imagination team since first grade. He enjoyed the whole experience — weekly practices, creative problem-solving, competing in front of judges. But he wasn’t sure how he could maintain that schedule on top of everything else.
He made the difficult yet mature decision to leave the team in order to make room for all his new experiences.
Stand up for yourself. 
For months now, Cooper has ignored and/or tolerated a friend who likes to brag a little too often. Alongside the boasting comes occasional barbs and insults.
Cooper doesn’t take his friend’s behavior too seriously or personally — another lesson I could learn from him. But after months of grandstanding, Cooper could take no more. He called his buddy out on his behavior and then moved to a different lunch table — a big gesture in the middle school world.
During most of fifth grade, there was one boy — let’s call him Ike — who was kind of a bully to Cooper. Called him names, tripped him on purpose multiple times.
I’m not a big fan of Ike.
All the music students at Cooper’s school have the opportunity to go to Six Flags as a group at the end of the semester. The sixth-graders sign up in groups of six, and they’ll spend the whole day with one another — plus a brave, selfless adult chaperone.
When Cooper arrived home the afternoon of group sign-up day, I asked if he was pleased with the boys in his group.
Yes, he told me, rattling off four names. Then he paused.
“You might not like this, Momma,” he said, “but Ike is in my group, too.”
“Because he’s nice now, and we like to ride the same rides, and you have to forgive people.”
Oh, my favorite sixth- grader, you are wise. I think we’re going to make it.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, May 17, 2013

Climb mountain with tiny steps (and a list)

From today's Briefing:

Every May, it’s the same old story.
Events stack up, crowding our calendar. There are double, sometimes triple bookings for meetings, parties, rehearsals, recitals.
Some of those require advance work — like the two receptions I’m helping with this week. It’s not difficult to gather tablecloths and pretty napkins, flowers and cookies, but it’s time consuming on top of everything else going on.
Some require help from others — like Friday, when Katie is attending the elementary school sock hop and Cooper is playing in the middle school band concert. They both begin at 6:30 p.m. Katie will be dancing the night away under supervision of a dear friend while I’m sitting in an auditorium to listen to “A Freaky Fantasy” and other catchy tunes.
I was feeling particularly overwhelmed Monday morning. I should have been focused on a complex work project, but my mind couldn’t let go of the mountain of tasks waiting for me after hours.
I took a short break and made a giant master list of the week ahead, organized by category, with bullet points under each heading.
No task was too small for the list. After the entire page was filled with action items, I no longer felt overwhelmed. I was relieved to see tiny attainable steps leading to bigger goals.
It’s the same with the world’s woes. And it happens year-round. I’m easily overwhelmed by poverty, injustice, hunger, disease.
When I’m overwhelmed, paralysis creeps in. I can’t possibly solve all the world’s problems. Or even one of them. From there, I’m one small backward step from “Why bother?”
But one small forward step leads to hope. And to get there, I make a list, then attack that list one task at a time.
This year, Cooper, Katie and I have set aside a small amount of money from our monthly budget to donate to nonprofits that are meaningful to us. Every few weeks, we talk about people who need help. I do a little research. Then we vote on where to send our money.
Our priorities have been focused on health care, education and nutrition. We pay special attention to children — no doubt because two of the three members of the bloc are children.
We’ve supported the North Texas Food Bank and Frisco Family Services because we want hungry people to have access to healthy food.
We’ve sent money to Children’s Medical Center Dallas because Steve, my late husband and Cooper and Katie’s daddy, worked there for the final nine years of his life. He was passionate about quality health care for children — all children, regardless of how much money their parents earned.
We’ve donated to Faith Presbyterian Hospice, the folks who helped care for Steve in his final weeks, because we know how important it is for loved ones to say goodbye with peace and dignity.
We’ve given a little money to a classroom in Little Elm, so that first-graders would have books to read.
Our modest gifts won’t end world hunger or cure diseases or solve illiteracy troubles. But we’re taking tiny steps toward hope. We’ve got faith that people all around us are taking similar steps and that a few are making huge leaps. We’ve got faith that others are doing more than donating money — they’re devoting time and talents to solve some overwhelming problems.
It’s easy to complain this time of year about too much going on, not enough time to fit it all in. I suspect I’ll always grumble a little in May. At the same time, my family sure is fortunate to be overwhelmed by celebrations. To be healthy and well fed. To lack for nothing we truly need.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, May 13, 2013

Three Billy Goats Gruff

Each year Frisco hosts the Lone Star Storytelling Festival. The event features national and regional storytellers plus a few students.

Katie chose to audition for this year's festival, scheduled for October. We don't know yet if she was accepted, but I want to share her audition video.

This was the seventh or eighth take. In the previous recordings, she would freeze or laugh or Margie would bark. She was happy this version.

Friday, May 10, 2013

These soundbites pack a mouthful

From today's Briefing:

At home I cycle through sound bites, depending on the current state of affairs.
“Make good choices.” This catchall is especially helpful when children are walking out the front door or walking in to the school building. It’s an umbrella statement, designed to cover the basics of safety and respect. It means use kind words, think before you react, follow the rules, apply wisdom to decisions.
“I am not a servant.” This is used when towels are left on the bathroom floor or dishes on the kitchen table. It’s shorthand for a much longer diatribe that addresses responsibility, cleanliness and gratitude.
“We are a team.” This is a handy phrase when one child doesn’t want to fold socks that belong to others or put away clean towels in all the bathrooms. It’s also good for explaining to one child the necessity of small sacrifices of time or money in support of the other.
“You get out what you put in.” This phrase is in heavy rotation. It’s helpful for explaining why we study for spelling tests and vocabulary quizzes, why practicing an instrument daily makes you better, why we invest in relationships.
Over the weekend, both Cooper and Katie experienced the joy of reaping rewards from hard work.
Cooper was recently selected as a candidate for Order of the Arrow, an honor society of the Boy Scouts of America that recognizes Scouts who exemplify the group’s oath and laws.
Cooper is serious about Boy Scouts. He rarely misses weekly meetings. He’s reluctantly missed just a few camping weekends because of conflicts. He works with a Cub Scout troop as a mentor. He spends free time at merit badge classes.
Being tapped for Order of the Arrow is an honor, but that’s just the beginning. Last weekend, he and a bunch of other candidates camped in less-than-ideal conditions. They remained silent, ate little food and performed manual labor to improve the campsite.
He arrived home Sunday morning dirty, exhausted and genuinely happy. He had survived the Ordeal (the descriptive name of the weekend) and was inducted into the Order of the Arrow.
He didn’t have much time to rest after camping. He unpacked, cleaned up and joined the rest of the family for Katie’s first violin recital.
Katie started violin lessons in January. She’s practiced almost every day since. (You can’t possibly understand the meaning of the word “squeaky” until you’ve heard a beginning 7-year-old violin student practice every day for four months.)
She began by learning to stand and hold the instrument, tucked between her chin and shoulder. Then she learned to pluck the strings. Then she learned how to hold the bow. Then, finally, she learned how to hold her fingers and move the bow along the strings to make the strings sing.
We have heard “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” more times than I can count.
On Sunday, she stood in front of a friendly audience, bowed and played both songs with practiced precision. There was a little bit of squeak, but it was her smoothest performance yet.
She smiled slightly as she bowed again, returned to her seat and beamed, buoyed by pride from a job well done, after weeks and weeks of dedicated work.
“I’m proud of you.” I try to remember to use those words at every bedtime. It’s what I say when they’ve brought home quality work. They are the words du jour when they’ve made good choices, acted like team players and worked hard to accomplish goals. It’s one of my favorite sound bites, and I don’t think it can be overused.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@
Coop, just after arriving home Sunday from his OA Ordeal

Sunday, May 05, 2013

10 Things You Should Know about Katie

Katie is student of the week (a designation that rotates throughout the class all school year). She's prepared a poster about herself and has packed five items for weeklong show-and-tell. I've written a letter about Katie for the class, a tradition at Bledsoe for second grade.

Steve and I wrote a letter for Cooper four years ago, when he was in second grade. (Read it here.) Even now he talks about the letter and how many of the details he remembers. 

For this letter, I'm on my own, of course. I think that Steve would agree with everything here, though. 


Katie is creative. She’s almost always in the middle of a project at home. She likes to write stories, draw pictures, invent skits and plays, create sculpture, make her own books and more.

Katie is a poet. She likes to rhyme. She has a gift for using language to express the beauty of the world around her. Here are some of the phrases that remind me that she is a poet:

“If you're afraid of making mistakes, all you'll do is pretty much stand still.”

“People never run out of love. Love is everywhere in our bodies.”

“It's OK to be different. Everyone had a different path in life.”

“It's weird to think that baby seals start out so cute and then they grow up and eat cute penguins.”

Katie is musical. She loves to sing, play violin and dance.

Katie is adventurous. We have been lucky enough to travel all over the United States and even to Europe and Canada. She always has a good attitude about trying new things, such as riding a horse in the mountains of Colorado, kayaking in the Broad River in South Carolina, and parasailing over the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.

Katie likes to learn about words and languages. She often asks about the origin of words. She easily picks up phrases from foreign languages. She can ask “Where is the Eiffel Tower?” in French just like a native speaker. And she can roll the letter “R” to speak Spanish words beautifully.

Katie loves to help others. She is often seeking ways to raise money to give away. Last Christmas, she made and packaged homemade hot chocolate mix to sell. The year before, she sold her supply of jingle bells and puff balls. She donated all the money to help feed malnourished children in undeveloped countries.

Katie has big plans for her life. She’s been thinking of what she wants to be when she grows up almost her whole life. So far her list has included archeologist, teacher, marine biologist, zoologist and artist.

Katie loves the beach. She loves to jump the waves, dig in the sand and search for treasures. Her dream is to one day live in a cottage near the water in California or Florida.

Katie loves to read. She often wakes up early and stays in bed to read. At night we often read books together, like Harry Potter, The Secret Garden, Ballet Shoes and The Penderwicks.

Katie is faithful. She has had some sad things happen in her life, but she remains positive and cheerful. She knows that God loves her, and she is eager to share that love with others. 

Friday, May 03, 2013

'Single mom' is a way of life, not just a label

From today's Briefing:

In general, dads don’t require a qualifier.

We moms, on the other hand, take our labels seriously: stay-at-home mom, working mom, work-from-home mom, single mom, full-time mom (the most pejorative of them all, with its implication that moms who work outside the home are somehow part-time moms).

Last month, Michelle Obama called herself a “busy single mother” during a television interview. She quickly corrected herself, stating the obvious, that she is married but that being married to the president makes her sometimes feel like a single mom.

Many of you can relate, right? Your husband travels for work, often leaving you responsible for the kids, the house and yard, carpools, discipline, shopping, logistics — often on top of your own job or volunteer activities.

Or your husband goes on a hunting/ gambling/fishing trip with the guys, and you tell your friends that you’re a single mom for the weekend.

This drives me kind of crazy. It has ever since I became a single mom. The Obama slip has forced me to evaluate why.

First, I’m a stickler for precise word choice. “Single” in this case means unmarried. If you are married, you can’t be single.

Second, “single mom” is code for so much more than unmarried.

It means one person shouldering responsibility all the time. There’s no relief in sight at the end of the day or week or month.

When the air-conditioner needs to be repaired and then inspected and then repaired again, there’s only one adult to take off from work and hang out at the house. There’s only one adult with the ability to earn the money to pay for all that repairing.

When a child breaks a rule and you’ve run out of ideas on how to help that child follow the rule, there’s no temporarily distant spouse to text, call or Skype for advice or venting. There’s no tag-teaming at bedtime or on days when you’re ill.

The whole experience can be emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting.

Why can’t all you married moms let us single moms — more than 10 million in the United States — have our label?

Maybe because motherhood isn’t a competition.

Strip away the adjectives, and we’re all simply moms. We’re all charged with raising, nurturing, loving, encouraging, disciplining, praising, shaping, challenging, rewarding, growing these little humans into big, responsible, compassionate humans.

Yes, my experience can be tough, but so it is for every other mom, married or single, no matter if “work” is in an office or in the kitchen.

We are all at risk of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion because we pour so much of our souls into theirs. We worry about their choices from the moment they show the ability to move independently from us. We second-guess ourselves. We hold on too long. We struggle to let go, to let them grow.

We are fiercely proud and protective of our people.

I wish we could all agree to drop the labels, to stop trying to “win” the contest of who’s got the most difficult mom job. (Who’s judging that contest, anyway?)

In this week leading to Mother’s Day, I’m working on letting go of irritation toward women who borrow a term that doesn’t exactly apply. I’m focusing more on the joy of motherhood — my motherhood — because it totally outweighs the sorrow.

I’m acknowledging that there’s no contest to win, but instead, children to raise. And those kids don’t care about labels. They just call me “Mom.”

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tyra, Katie & Cooper, Hilton Head, S.C., March 2013