Monday, September 30, 2013

Children help you find your strengths

From Friday's Briefing:

I once was an expert tree climber.
I could survey a trunk and its limbs, plot out strategy, and in no time I was taking shelter amid branches and leaves.
One evening, though, after returning to solid ground, I discovered a downside of climbing: ticks. Lots of blood-sucking ticks that had once lived on or around this particular tree now resided on me.
Before the last parasite was removed, I vowed to never again climb a tree. I would no longer participate in an activity that might make me a host to most unwelcome critters.
My tree-climbing days are now long gone. My time with ticks — well, they are more difficult to control.
Cooper spent last weekend camping with Boy Scouts at a nearby lake. The weather was ideal — the first real taste of autumn we’ve had since last November.
The ground was damp, but no rain fell for the duration of the trip.
This camping trip afforded some free time, and Cooper spent his nestled in a comfy corner of the woods, where he could enjoy solitude, nature and the novel he’s currently reading.
It’s also most likely where a tick decided to hop aboard for a snack.
A few hours after Cooper had returned home, he asked if I’d check the black spot on his back.
One glance and I knew what to do: Head for the computer and type “how to safely remove a tick from a human.”
The first entry was from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a reliable source. I studied the instructions, urged Cooper to follow me to the bathroom, sanitized some tweezers, and took a deep breath.
I plucked the creature from my son’s back, pleased that the body seemed intact yet horrified by its wiggling legs.
I tossed the interloper, cleaned Cooper’s back and silently congratulated myself for not freaking out.
Of course, I’d do just about anything for my children.
Remove ticks and splinters, clean and dress wounds.
Stay up super late while one completes a school project. Wake up way early on Saturdays for games and practices.
Scour the Internet for a specific toy. Agonize over the perfect Halloween costume.
All this that we do for our children — willingly, joyfully — gives me pause. What are we doing for them that we aren’t doing for ourselves?
Now that I know I can battle a tick and win, I wonder how many experiences I’ve let pass me by. How many outdoorsy opportunities have I declined; how many trees have I left unclimbed?
One of the great gifts of parenthood is the ability not to live through our children but to discover our own possibilities because of our children.
I don’t want to model fear for my children, so I try to model courage instead.
When a child falls down, cries out in pain and produces blood — or when a parasite has dug into a child’s skin — I fight the instinct to run in the opposite direction and curl up in a protective ball. Instead, I somehow discover strength to assess and address the problem.
That strength doesn’t mean I’ll ever reclaim my tree-climbing glory days. But who knows what other heights I might scale.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, September 20, 2013

It takes time to get to a place of forgiveness

From today's Briefing:

For a long, long while, I’ve held a grudge against a single Central Texas county.
Bell County was the locale of many rough patches in my younger years. I go back to visit occasionally, though never with much joy in my heart. No matter how much I adore the people who live there, my Bell County stops are perfunctory.
It’s foolish, no doubt. There’s nothing inherently distasteful or shady about the place. I’ve simply allowed bad memories and unfortunate experiences to tarnish the image.
Memories like living in a trailer and wearing hand-me-downs, worried about real and imagined scorn from peers.
Like fretting some days about having enough food.
Like feeling isolated, marginalized, neglected.
While all of those experiences were actually mine and certainly shaped who I am, they don’t control me now. So I’ve been working on letting go of my unfounded dislike for an entire county.
Then, in one dramatic swoop, the longstanding grudge disappeared.
The antidote: heartfelt words from a dear friend who shared his own Bell County experience.
In 1975 — four years before I would first move to Central Texas — a family of seven landed at the tiny airport in Temple.
Mom, dad, four children and a tiny baby arrived from Vietnam, seeking refuge from war at the invitation of a Baptist church.
The people of this church enveloped the family with love and support, provided the family with a home and helped the family adjust to a radically different culture.
All of this important work, this tangible proof of the inherent goodness of the human spirit, took place only miles from that trailer where I’d cry myself to sleep at night.
My friend recently revisited Temple and the church that opened its doors to his family. After his return, he emailed me a black-and-white photo of his family’s first day in Temple — a glorious snapshot of hope and mild trepidation, with telltale 1970s high-waisted pants and splashes of plaid.
About this photo, he writes: “A reminder of where I came from. A reminder of my humble beginnings. A reminder of God’s blessings.”
Those words struck my heart. Those words wiped clean my Bell County slate.
They also reminded me of my own blessings during my time there.
Even when life at home was rough, I was loved. And when I needed support I couldn’t find at home, I could find it with my grandparents and at my best friend’s house and in every classroom at every school I attended.
Some of my most memorable teachers were a part of this community — like Mr. Finney, who let me sing in the choir despite my uneven warbling, and Mrs. Creek, who encouraged my love for reading.
For far too long, I’ve let some bad experiences overshadow what really matters: When there were crises, there were always people to help. When there was darkness, someone nearby was shining a light.
I’m actually looking forward to my next trip to Central Texas. I plan to drive in with a cheerful spirit, to wave at the church that played a crucial role in rescuing my friend, to bid adieu to hard feelings, to welcome joy while letting go of expired pain.
And to say “I’m sorry” for taking so long.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, September 13, 2013

I make mistakes, but sometimes I can fix them

Sunday nights at our house are devoted to preparing for the week ahead.
We fold and sort socks, gather athletic gear and pack backpacks. We post the week’s activities on a hallway calendar.
I cook enough dinner for at least two nights. I prep fruits and veggies for kid lunchboxes. I make a giant salad for my own lunchbox for the week.
In the midst of all those activities this week, the garbage disposal stopped working. When I flipped the switch to pulverize some tomato scraps, I didn’t hear a grumbling motor. The only sound was a low hum.
I am no stranger to disposal trouble, but I’d never encountered this noise.
Google, no doubt, would provide some clues. I pulled out my smartphone, searched “disposal humming but not working,” and began diagnosing the problem.
All signs pointed to a stuck flywheel.
Upon further investigation, I found a YouTube video from a slightly off-color maintenance man in Idaho. So I settled on the kitchen floor, sitting cross-legged in front of the open cabinet, and watching this dude’s every move.
He told me to find a 5/16-inch hex wrench. I paused the video to search for the specific wrench. I found just about every other width except the 5/16-inch.
And none of the other sizes worked.
I gave up on Mr. Idaho and relied again on my phone, this time to text a friend who knows all the disposal answers.
She called back and offered the right-sized wrench but first suggested I try the old broom handle trick. Mr. Idaho didn’t include that technique, so I let my friend talk me through the procedure. Voila! A little bit of leverage and nudging and the flywheel became unstuck.
One of the greatest confidence boosters in the world comes from successful DIY home repair. I solved the problem — albeit with help — in quick time, and I didn’t spend a cent.
My cooking and cleaning resumed, and I went to bed feeling pretty good about myself. I am strong! And mighty!
That confidence lasted almost an entire day.
On Tuesday morning, I discovered a puddle of water on the kitchen floor.
The water was not from the sink, thank goodness, but from the freezer.
It seemed as if someone — that would be me — failed to close the freezer door all the way on Monday night. Melting water trickled out of the ice dispenser for hours.
I mopped up the mess, evaluated the freezer contents and continued with morning prep for a full day — deflated but not defeated.
My confidence was restored by the end of the workday. I had solved problems and fulfilled requests. And then I learned of another mess I’d made.
I had somehow, accidentally, managed to change the contents of a shared document. A document needed by dozens of coworkers. At my brand-new job.
I apologized and sat with a coworker as she corrected my mistake (no YouTube video necessary).
We laughed about the error. All was forgiven. I left the office feeling deflated but not defeated.
No doubt something else will break soon. It may even be my fault. And I’ll fix it myself or ask for help. I might even have to pay someone.
And then I’ll move on, buoyed by the confidence of a problem solved. I’ll remember that I’m sometimes strong and mighty — and that I’m always human.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, September 06, 2013

Cycle between smooth, rough defines our land

From today's Briefing:

A cluster of visitors, from Nebraska and Michigan, California and Texas, gathered around a petite, sturdy tour guide in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
“Look at Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said, pointing at a stately bronze bust. “Look at the stone. It’s both rough and smooth. Life is both rough and smooth.”
It was the recurring theme discovered during my family’s long weekend in the nation’s capital, where the American story is told again and again, in museums and buildings and at the bases of monuments.
We sacrificed lives in a fierce fight for independence from the British, and we won.
We fought again in the War of 1812. The British burned our White House and our Capitol. We rebuilt.
A few decades later, the whole country was torn apart, this time from within.
More than 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War. Four years after the first shots at Fort Sumter, the battles were over. Human rights won.
And then we lost the great Abraham Lincoln. Slaves were freed, but equality remained elusive.
A tapestry of rough and smooth.
War after war robbed our country of the greatest resource — our people. And yet our participation in those wars guaranteed freedoms for humans around the world.
People of color — and people moved to speak up on their behalf — launched the Civil Rights movement, forcing our nation to formally discard “separate but equal.”
We lost yet another president, the fourth by assassination, right here in Dallas.
We persevered during the Cold War, spread democracy across the globe, rescued global neighbors in need — and at the same time planted seeds of dissent that would later bear poisonous fruit.
We suffered cruel blows of terrorism on our own soil. The events of one day radically changed how we live. Time is now delineated as “pre-9/11” and “post-9/11.”
Rough and smooth. They live in harmony.
When my family wandered in to the National Museum of American History on Saturday, we heard a lone voice singing a powerful gospel song. We walked closer to find a young African-American woman, an actress, leading an interactive exhibit of the Woolworth’s student sit-in in Greensboro, N.C.
She wore a time-period dress and a scarf in her hair. She spoke to the gathered crowd as if we were students in 1960. She was recruiting us for the movement.
She told us that if we participated, if we chose to sit on soda shop stools to protest laws that promoted and allowed separate but equal, we would be provoked. We would be called names. We would be attacked. No matter what, we could never return violence with violence.
“But you must be brave, you must be focused, you must persevere,” she said.
Those Greensboro students were brave. They remained passive while under attack. They never wavered from their vision. And they forced desegregation of the lunch counter.
They were as brave as George Washington leading troops across the Delaware in December 1776. As brave as Lewis and Clark charging across the continent to reach the Pacific. As brave as Oklahoma pioneers and Suffragettes and World War II fighter pilots and first responders at the World Trade Center.
It’s been 12 years since the twin towers fell. Twelve years of rough and smooth.
Remember those first few days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when everything was rough? We were despondent, angry, confused, grief-stricken.
And yet, we have endured.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the middle of crisis, to worry when our safety is threatened or when we’re on the brink of conflict. It’s understandable to bemoan the world in which we’re raising our children.
History, though, reveals a pattern of justifiable hope. Of trials that lead to progress. Of difficult circumstances that become smooth — often just in time for the next rough patch.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, September 01, 2013

3, 5, 7

Monday was the first day of school. Katie: grade 3. Tyra: grade 5. Cooper: grade 7.

(In case you haven't heard, I'm teaching fifth grade! Read about it here.)

Here our photos from the first day for Katie and Cooper. Cooper has grown so tall that I have to move back to get him all in the frame. We think he's 5'7", though this week he may have grown to 5'8". Seriously.