Saturday, July 22, 2017

Family gets by with teamwork, faith and a little help from our friends

Now and then: The three of us in June 2017 and in September 2009 (on the day of Steve's service)
From today's Briefing:
Days after we sang "Happy birthday" to Cooper, it hit me: I've been a single mom for as long as I was a married mom.

Cooper turned 16 this month. In a few weeks, we'll remember the eighth anniversary of my husband's death. Cooper has lived half of his life without his dad in the house. (Younger sister Katie had only four years with Steve.)

The occasion doesn't warrant a card or a party, but there's a somber sort of celebration in my heart.

We have been the recipients of more meals than I can count. Those early days of widowhood are a blur of casseroles delivered to the front porch and restaurant gift cards in the mailbox. Even today, I can rely on Grandma to show up with dinner during our busiest seasons, or we can walk across the alley for dinner with our best friends.

For eight years, we've relied on other people for rides to and from school, Scouts, church, band, track. Cooper and Katie have a list of folks they can text last-minute for rides, say if it's raining and they're dressed for an important presentation at school. I scan my calendar weekly, trying to avoid overlapping commitments and seeking logistical help when it's unavoidable.
I'm rarely ill, but one awful week I was incapacitated by flu. I was in and out of fevered sleep when the school nurse called. Cooper had suffered a slight injury in PE and needed ibuprofen. I didn't panic. I called a nearby friend, who had already offered to help in any way, and she delivered medicine for me.
When I'm weary from being the only adult who makes decisions, I know who I can call or text for venting with no judgment. When I need advice — because, oh my word, why on earth would my child do that and how am I supposed to respond? — I've got a list of folks who listen and advise.
More often than not, though, the three of us have figured out how to forge life on our own. We long ago settled into a daily routine. Katie is the official dog-walker. Cooper is the light-bulb changer and trash man. I take care of the first half of the laundry process, and they do the rest.
If something's broken, Cooper is our go-to guy. If a gift needs to be wrapped or a card created, Katie's in charge. I plan menus and shop for groceries; the kids take turns unloading the minivan and putting food away.
We've traveled all over the country together. The three of us share precious memories of hiking along the Oregon coast, climbing slippery rocks in Maine, riding Space Mountain at Disneyland, gathering seashells in Florida.
We've lost our way — in more ways than one — yet we've always rediscovered the path together.
We pray together at the dinner table and worship together on Sundays.
We each have built stockpiles of resilience.
There's so much of life we don't get to control. This isn't the parenthood I dreamed of. It's not the childhood I expected for my babies. We've made it this far, though, relying on our compassionate village, steadfast faith and the strength we find in one another. It's teamwork worth celebrating.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

It's not unreasonable to expect polite discourse

From today's Briefing:

Like every parent I know, I've taught my children to say "please" when they want something and "thank you" when they receive it.
Sometimes they forget, and if I'm around when that happens, I always remind them.
When Cooper is waiting outside the band hall for a ride home, he might hurriedly text: "Ready for you to pick me up." That kind of text will earn the reply: "I'll wait until you ask politely."
I'll hop in the minivan as soon as he responds with something close to, "Can you please pick me up from school?"
I try to model the same behavior and use the same kind words with my children and, well, everyone else. "Can you please put away the dishes?" "Can you please walk Margie?" "Thank you for folding the towels."
I've also taught my children that it's not kind to call people names. When you're angry or frustrated, I teach them, try to express yourself with civility. "My feelings were hurt when you ignored me" is obviously preferable to, "Pay attention to me, you big dummy."

The Golden Rule

We rely frequently on the Golden Rule, found twice in the New Testament (as well as in the Old Testament, the Quran and every other major faith tradition's scriptures). It's worded a little differently depending on the verse and translation, but the sentiment is the same: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
This is not extraordinary. This is normal. This is what we should expect from one another, at home, at school, at work, in the grocery store. This is what I expect not only from my children, but also from my students and my friends, from the people I do business with, from my ministers, from my leaders.
Of course, I don't expect to agree with all of these people all of the time — indeed, even some of these people a fraction of the time.
My opinions on health care, climate change and school vouchers don't perfectly align with everyone I know or even everyone I respect. What I believe is based on my own experiences, research and worldview.
One of the great joys of living in the United States and participating in our democracy is recognizing that our strength lies in both our similarities and differences. If only we could do so with greater civility.

Online culture

Many of us seem to lose our manners when hidden behind a screen. We abandon "please," "thank you" and "excuse me." We take shortcuts in grammar, spelling and punctuation, but that's not an excuse for shortcutting kindness.
We also throw out insults with ease. Check almost any news story online for an example.
I peeked at an online news story about President Donald Trump and his ongoing battle with CNN. The story was posted on Fox News. The name-calling was tossed from all sides (and many comments were so hateful I refuse to repeat them):
Liberals are trash.
The president is an immature baby. Get over yourself! Man up!
Then I clicked over to CNN to read a commentary about Trump's most recent decisions. Comments were no kinder:
This is what an idiot looks and acts like.
You liberal idiots make me laugh so hard.
Of course, the president in question sometimes struggles with civility himself. Just last week, he called two members of the media "crazy" and "dumb as a rock." Trump also retweeted a doctored video in which he body-slams and pummels a man with a CNN logo for a head.
I understand differences in opinion. I understand passion that fuels discussion and debate. I accept that policy decisions are often made by people I didn't vote for.
But I struggle with an absence of the values that we expect from our children every day. I won't stop modeling manners, and I won't stop expecting the same from my family, my friends and — perhaps foolishly — from our leaders. I will speak up, as politely as possible, in favor of civility and hope that more of the folks in my circle do the same.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

New life skills are souvenirs from time apart

From Saturday's Briefing:

Summer is sleeping without an alarm, movies in the family room, nights at the neighborhood pool.
Summer is volunteering at church, studying for the PSAT, cleaning out closets.
Summer is also seeking adventure, solving problems, gaining independence.
My children grow up quickly each summer.
Already this break, Cooper has traveled with his uncle in Europe, and Katie has spent a week in Colorado with her grandparents. They each have more adventures to come – a week of camp and church mission trips.
The house is too quiet when one or both are gone, and I miss them terribly, but their weeks away offer practical training for the rest of their lives.
It’s a process we parents work on from the very beginning. We start out taking care of every possible task, and then we slowly release.
For a year or more, we’re solely responsible for every piece of clothing placed on their squishy, squirmy bodies. Then we teach them how to pull up pants, how to wiggle into a shirt, how to cram toes and heels into socks and shoes.
We prepare countless meals, then we start teaching how to rinse produce, how to cut veggies, how to make a sandwich, how to read a recipe.
In restaurants, we provide their voice, placing orders that reflect their very specific likes and dislikes. Eventually, though, they learn to read, speak for themselves and look a waiter in the eye to politely request dinner.
We do all of this modeling and releasing because we know that one day these babies of ours will be on their own.
They need to navigate airport security lines without help – read signs, anticipate steps, follow directions and gather all of their belongings when they’re done.
They need to know how to ride public transportation – understand maps, find stations, buy tickets, stay safe.
They need to carry on conversations with helpers and strangers. They need to make smart purchasing choices, estimate sales taxes, stand in line, pay a cashier, check for correct change.
We can model all over town and practice together, but nothing offers on-the-job training like doing it by yourself – or at least away from the parents who’ve protected for years. And when they come home from their adventures, they have plenty of stories and lessons to share.
Cooper was hiking in the mountains near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, enjoying views of the Alps, while Uncle Jim stayed in the valley. Cooper had wandered about 5 miles when he hit a toll path. He hadn’t packed Euros in his daypack (he’s never hit a walking toll booth in the United States), so he turned around, hiked back down and walked back to the hotel, where he and Jim had agreed to meet.
He didn’t panic. He took the next logical steps. And he’ll likely hike with pocket change from now on.
He had some problem-solving in Munich, too. He took the subway north from the central train station and walked to the BMW Museum. After touring the museum, he struggled to find the subway entrance for his return. His cellphone map wasn’t helpful. So he just started walking back south to the city center, where he found some window shopping, people watching and eventually the train station.
He didn’t panic. He took the next logical steps. And now he knows to more carefully observe signs and plan an exit strategy.

Cooper matured more than two weeks’ worth on that trip – and we’ve still got two months of summer. That’s plenty of time to laze about, read some novels, catch up on movies, lounge at the pool – and practice a few life skills for the not-so-distant years that don’t include an automatic three-month break for summer.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at tyradamm@gmail.com

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hope helps us get past life's disappointments

From today's Briefing:

We three Damms ended the school year mostly the way we wanted. In fact, I'd estimate the year was about 95 percent successful for each of us.
Which part are we more likely to dwell on? Some days, it's that 5 percent of disappointment.
We didn't make a team or group we wanted, we didn't score as high as we expected, we missed out on an event, we failed to earn an honor we thought was ours.
These are the expected, yet never welcome, disappointments in life, occasions that are often devastating at the time but usually minor (or at least much smaller) in retrospect. These are the character-building moments that we would like to avoid altogether — both for ourselves and for our children.
There's no benefit in sheltering from disappointment, though. Tears are shed — and tears eventually dry. Hearts break — and hearts mend. Feelings are hurt, plans are disrupted — and we get a new chance tomorrow.
Eventually, we find strength from the pain of defeat and sorrow. Sometimes, if we're lucky and paying attention, we even gain strength without the pain.
In the waning days of fourth grade, I gathered my students to the front carpet, and we chatted about our read-aloud novels from the year:
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
Loser by Jerry Spinelli
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
"Let's reach way back," I said, "and think about the themes, or life lessons, from our books." We talked about friendship, family and courage. And hope.
"Is there a message of hope in every one of these books?"
Students broke out into excited conversations. They recalled characters and plot, followed by evidence of hope in each novel. I scribbled their answers on the board, trying to keep up with their quick minds and contagious passion.
We had spent the year with these books and their characters, who in turn became our friends. We cried with Rob when he finally let go of his emotions in The Tiger Rising. We held our breath as Zinkoff stumbled through a blizzard in Loser. We cheered when our beloved silverback gorilla friend escaped his concrete domain and relocated to the zoo in The One and Only Ivan.
The room quieted again.
"I hope that when you are in a valley in your life, like Esperanza in her novel, you are able to reach back to these characters and remember that hope helped them through really tough times," I told my students. "Hope will help you, too."
Hope carries us through grief.
Hope means we look for true friendship despite a series of disappointing relationships.
Hope fuels us as we reach for big — even seemingly impossible — goals.
Hope buffers disappointment and disapproval.
Hope pushes us through deep valleys and propels us to the mountaintop.
Hope is essential for survival.
We can't avoid disappointment or loss, but we can prepare for the journey — by watching others, by reading, by living.
And we can spend more time celebrating the mountaintop moments, all while recognizing the value of the valleys.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The May rush is nearly over

From Saturday's Briefing:

Hang on, folks. You can do it. June is just around the bend.

Soon, our calendars will be less crowded. We can hang up the fancy dresses, put away the Sunday shoes. We can sit down to family dinners in which all members are present in both body and mind.

When May has passed, we can breathe.
The refrain is the same every morning this month in our house: "What do you have tonight?"
Each of us seems to have something — or more than one something — that celebrates an end or marks a new beginning. The inevitable overlap requires practiced logistics as well as special guest appearances by helpers who juggle their own crazy calendars.
Take Monday night, for example.
Katie had middle school tennis tryouts at the high school.
Cooper had solo and ensemble contests at the same high school, but first he needed to come home to change.
I made it home from my final staff meeting of the year (wearing neon yellow for "Reading Brightens Your Future" theme day) in time to drive Katie to the tennis courts. While caught in comically slow parking lot traffic, I waved to Cooper, who was speeding home on his bike.
He was in the shower by the time I pulled into the driveway. His hair was still damp as I drove him back to school for competition.
I arrived for a standing Monday tutoring appointment at exactly 5 p.m. While I was teaching adverbial prepositional phrases, Katie was practicing volleys and Cooper was warming up with scales.
Katie completed tryouts in the middle of my tutoring session and caught a ride home with momma friend Liz, who ferries children from the high school all afternoon.
Cooper finished his second song while I was wrapping up. I sent a text to offer a ride home, but by then his walk was nearly over.
The three of us reunited briefly. As I listened to tales from the court and the band hall, I made a grilled cheese sandwich to fuel my next journey. I left veggies, bread and cheese on the counter for the kids' DIY dinner and returned to the minivan. Next stop: back-to-back church committee meetings.
Both children were still immersed in homework (what is May without some giant projects looming?) when I returned home, this time for good.
It was late, but we need clean clothes and clean dishes, so we launched into super-attack chores mode, taking out the trash, folding towels, loading the dishwasher.
In the middle of all that work, we discussed the obvious: "What do we need to gather for whatever we have tomorrow?"
Cooper needed dress clothes for his National Honor Society induction, which would take place immediately after marching brand practice, leaving no time to change at home.
I needed a beach towel for outside reading day at school.
Katie, mercifully, needed nothing special (except perhaps a nap).
I hesitate to complain about May because it represents what makes our lives joyful -- music and friendship, growth and possibilities, milestones and community. And one day, I know, May will no longer revolve around my children's schedules. I'm not going to wish away these days.
I will, though, embrace June and its slightly lazy days with open (albeit tired) arms.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

We miss out on new memories with our kids if we dwell in the past

From yesterday's Briefing:

Moms, I have a gift suggestion for us all. For Mother’s Day, let’s give ourselves permission to live in the moment.
Too many of us live in the past, reminiscing about babyhood or toddlerhood or any day but today. We stare misty-eyed at Timehop photos that reveal innocent eyes, chubby cheeks and seemingly simpler times.
We also live in the future, looking forward to milestones and independence and any event but today. We envy parents who no longer change diapers, then those who no longer pay for daycare, then those who no longer need to ferry their children from place to place.
Our children deserve our attention and adoration today.
On a recent Saturday in Dallas, I woke up to the glory of my children right now.
Katie, Tyra & Cooper at Klyde Warren Park
Together we walked the row of food trucks at Klyde Warren Park, each of us gravitating toward a different cuisine. In the old days, we would have all stood in one line, then another, then another. We’d finally sit, 30 minutes later, crabby and hungry, two-thirds of us eating cold food.
These days, though, I can hand cash to each child. They are old enough and responsible enough to stand in line alone, to order their own food, to pay, to pick up and meet back at a designated table.
We meandered to the playground after our Tex-Mex/Vietnamese/barbecue feast. I was inching toward wistfulness, thinking of days gone by, when Cooper and Katie would have raced to the giant climbing structure, would have begged to jump in the water, would have waited in line for the giant swing.
Instead, Cooper settled in on the bench next to me. (He chatted with me in between Snapchat posts.) Katie wandered to the merry-go-round, not to hop on but spin the little kids as fast as possible.
As I soaked up the sunshine, I worked on soaking up that very moment. A teenager who (most of the time) enjoys my company. A preteen who finds happiness in helping others.
After Katie was worn out from one too many turns of the merry-go-round, we walked a few blocks to the Perot Museum.
We were always on the same floor at the museum, but we weren’t always together. While Cooper was battling with robots, Katie was designing her own light show. While Katie was composing music, Cooper was building towers. 
We enjoyed some shared experiences, but I didn’t feel the need to corral and hover nonstop. When we eventually hit the gift shop, I didn’t have to pry tiny fingers out of the bins of shiny rocks or explain 27 times why we didn’t need another stuffed animal.
Do I miss those days? Absolutely. I don’t have to stare at a photo to remember exactly what it was like to push tiny Cooper on the bucket swing at our neighborhood park or to remember tiny Katie falling asleep among a nest of 27 stuffed animals.
The fact that those days are long gone makes my heart ache a tiny bit, yet longing too much for yesterday steals joy from today.

This Mother’s Day I’m choosing to celebrate how those bygone days have accumulated to reveal the quirky, thoughtful, slightly mischievous children who call me, “Momma.”  I won’t spend a moment wishing away the day, though I trust more celebrations are in store.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

'13 Reasons Why' is a show parents can't afford to ignore

For this Saturday's Briefing, published online early:

If you are a parent, if you work with children, if you care about the teens in your life, you need to watch 13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix series based on a popular young adult novel by Jay Asher.
If watching it is too difficult — as it almost was for me — at least become knowledgeable of the content. Though the work is fiction, there are uncomfortable truths that we can't afford to ignore.

Here are 13 reasons why we need to talk about 13 Reasons Why.

1. Preteens and teens are watching it without you. If you have a Netflix account or if your kids' friends have a Netflix account, they may have already binge-watched all 13 episodes.
Yet the content in this show is too intense and disturbing for children to watch without guidance and the opportunity to discuss and process. My 11-year-old daughter will not be watching the series anytime soon. She and I can discuss themes and situations, but she does not need to carry the burden of the show's violence. My 15-year-old son and I will watch together. (He's read the book already.)
2. Suicide is the second-most common cause of death among American teens ages 15-19. Ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. The narrator of the series is Hannah, a teen who kills herself but first records audiotapes that describe her reasons. Her spirit is absolutely broken, and she craves the emptiness of death more than hopefulness of life.
3. There is nothing glamorous about killing yourself. There's warranted controversy about the bathtub scene in which Hannah slits her wrists. To be honest, I didn't watch the whole scene. I hid behind my hands. It was too real -- and yet isn't that what we need? Don't we need people to understand the horror of taking your own life?
4. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we think we'll never recover from our mistakes. We can't see beyond the mistake and the consequences. We can't forgive ourselves. We need to practice grace — for ourselves and the people who love us and the people who watch us and model our behavior.
5. We need to understand the power of technology and social media.One ill-timed photo can lead to an avalanche of unfair rumors. Our ability to send and receive information — and disinformation — instantly can have devastating consequences. How often do you talk with your child about appropriate social media use? Do you know which accounts your child uses? Do you know what content they see daily? Ignorance is dangerous.
6. We need to talk about sexual assault. It is never acceptable for one human to force his or her body on another human. Our children need to hear us say this often.
7. We can't afford to allow underage drinking and drug use. I live in a community that rationalizes substance use and abuse. "It's OK as long as they're not driving." "They're going to drink anyway. They might as well do it at home." Yet teens under the influence make really stupid decisions. Their brains aren't fully developed. They seek unnecessary risks. They hurt themselves and others.
8. Teens need to feel comfortable talking to adults and advocating for themselves. If your child were sexually assaulted, would he or she feel comfortable telling you? If your child made a terrible mistake, one that might even be illegal, do you trust that he or she would confide in you?
9. Teens need to root their identity in something stronger than their reflection or their peers. I was struck by the complete lack of religion in the series. There is one teen who off-handedly mentions he is Catholic. Another reads tarot cards. That's it. No one talks about God or a faith-based value system. No one wrestles with decisions in the context of a greater good or spiritual purpose.
10. Authentic relationships can save lives. When we know one another intimately, we notice struggles and out-of-character behaviors. When we are vulnerable, others feel comfortable being vulnerable.
11. Trust your instinct. If you're worried about someone, say so. If something doesn't feel right or sound right, investigate with compassion.
12. We can't underestimate the impact our interactions have on others. Our tone, our words, our body language, our availability — it all matters. We don't always know who is struggling, but we know everyone struggles at some time. Let's model a culture that values positive interactions.
13. Kindness is never wrong. When in doubt, opt for kindness. Every time. As the character Clay says in the final episode, "It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow."
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessings shadowed by world's imbalance

From today's Briefing:

I’m in the middle of a happiness challenge, one of those 21-day initiatives that encourages healthy habits. We’re called to exercise, give thanks, reflect on something positive, perform an act of kindness and spend at least 10 minutes praying or meditating.
I love a good checklist, and nothing motivates me like a challenge, so I’ve been dutifully participating. My biggest hurdle so far: counting my blessings.
There’s no shortage to list. The challenge requires that we list three a day, but I could fill a page in my journal every night.
The trouble is the imbalance.
The day after the deadly sarin gas attack in Syria, when it was time to write my thanksgiving list, I froze. Everything I thought of – safe and cozy home, comfortable bed, healthy children, job I love – seemed so luxurious.
Tears reached the page before I could write a single word. I thought of those children and their short, tumultuous lives. I thought of the families they leave behind. I couldn’t shake the inequity between my privileges and their calamity.
Eventually I jotted:
·      A/C that works again in the minivan
·      Students who work hard (and those who don’t always but aspire to)
·      Books
That night I devoted my prayer time to those Syrian families, aid workers and world leaders.
I’m also thankful for easy access to food. I can drive north, east or west and reach a giant, clean grocery store within four minutes.
I don’t even have to walk into the store. I can order my groceries online, pull into a special parking space at the store and listen to the radio or check my email while a clerk loads everything I want in the trunk.
Better yet, I can order from a different vendor online, and someone will deliver the groceries to my doorstep at whatever time I choose. Frozen and refrigerated items are protected by regular ice and dry ice.
If I don’t feel like rinsing, chopping, stirring and heating, I can grab my phone and order from dozens of nearby restaurants. I don’t even have to talk to a human. I can just click, click, click and wait for the doorbell to ring.
Yes, I’m thankful for all of those options.
At the same time, I am horrified by the news this week that almost 20 million people in African and the Middle East are at risk of dying from hunger. Famine, drought and conflict are decimating Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.
I struggle to celebrate my good fortune while millions of other humans subsist in crisis. They have almost nothing, and we have more than we can enjoy.
One of my acts of kindness this week was to send a tiny loan to a merchant in Yemen, a man who struggles to buy enough stock to sale. (My family has participated in microloans through Kiva since 2013.)
I’m not naïve. I don’t expect my prayers or my loan will change the world.
I hold hope, though, that enough prayers and acts of kindness might.
I am truly grateful for the time and place in which I was born. I am thankful for the few luxuries I’ve earned – and the many more I didn’t. 
I give thanks for the people of privilege who devote their lives to helping souls who were born in a time and a place less hospitable than our own.

In the middle of all that gratitude, I keep hoping for a balance in the world, a day when conflicts and famines don’t threaten our neighbors, a day when our brothers and sisters don’t struggle to find happiness.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at tyradamm@gmail.com

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Our memories don't need our mementos

From today's Briefing:

Katie cleaned out her closet last week, creating a giant stack of clothes to pass along to younger friends.
This isn’t unusual. Children outgrow their clothes quicker than they outwear them, and we’re surrounded by families who appreciate a pile of hand-me-downs.
What was unusual was the little dress I placed on top of Katie’s discards: a charmingly mismatched floral number that I’ve held on to for seven years, a dress that Katie outgrew before she entered kindergarten.
She loved this particular dress for its twirling qualities. She wore it to church and preschool parties. And she wore it for our final family photo with her daddy.
 I’ve struggled to let it go for too long, allowing my sentimental tendencies to overpower my practical side. I was finally able to pass on the tiny dress, perfect for a spunky 4-year-old we know, because of music.
Way back in the summer of 2000, in our time before children, Steve and I attended a performance of Parade, an award-winning yet commercially dismal musical. We fell in love with the story and songs, despite the tragic themes and ending.
Parade is obscure, as far as musicals go. It tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in Atlanta who was accused of murdering a girl in the pencil factory he managed. Though the murder and subsequent trial take place almost 50 years after the end of the Civil War, the South is still struggling with anger toward the North and changes in the economy and social structure.
It’s heavy stuff, for sure, providing plenty of material to debate and process.
In the decade that followed, we would discuss the story and sing the songs together. Our favorite was “The Picture Show,” a playful duet between Frankie and Mary, but we’d perform them all, sometimes in the car or in the kitchen while washing up after dinner.
When Steve died in 2009, I didn’t stop listening, and I didn’t stop singing, but I lost a little gusto. Those songs, plus a whole library of others that matter, bridged a connection between life with Steve and life without.
Cooper and Katie have grown up with Parade in the background – along with U2, Jack Johnson, ZZ Top, Wicked, Aaron Copland, Rent, the Beatles, the Dixie Chicks and the Cure. Those tunes are a nod to the daddy they love, a man whose days were too short.
Because Parade is underappreciated, I expected to listen to the same recording over and over for the rest of my days. But a local theater brought the story to life for one night only last weekend – and I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy it live again.
Cooper, Katie and I attended the special production at the WaterTower Theatre, and I used all of my willpower to not sing aloud. I had no willpower to stop my tears.
The lyrics filled my soul again, and this time I was seated not next to Steve but surrounded by our two children. Sometimes I would close my eyes and just listen – and ponder the power of music that endures years, that sweeps us back in time and propels us forward.
I can’t possibly hold on to every scrap of clothing, every memento that ties us to Steve – or to any of my loved ones who have passed away. And I don’t need to. My heart swells with snippets of conversation, with scents that evoke joy, with lines of poetry set to lovely melodies.
Listening to the music again helped me to remember that there are forces more powerful than things.
Little Phoebe will twirl in Katie’s dress, then one day she’ll share it with sister Ingrid. They’ll create their own memories. My sweet memories of the dress are stored up and nestled in with songs and laughter and a few tears.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tone down the urgency: Constant competition isn't helping our kids

From today's Briefing:


Some days it feels like everything in Frisco is a competition.
Who can sign up quickest for the coveted middle school STEM camp?
Who can find the best time to show up to buy candy-coated donuts without waiting an hour in line?
Who can secure teen driving classes via an online calendar system before every other 15-year-old in town?
I sense the urgency on the streets, especially in the afterschool hours, when families are taxiing children to dance, soccer, gymnastics, cheer, volleyball, swimming, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, guitar, voice, math, taekwondo, robotics, coding, violin and/or fencing lessons. We’re competing with traffic and stoplights to get our children to competitive training on time.
I hear the urgency among high school students, especially among those with the top GPAs, the kids who know how many hundredths of a point separate one scholar from the other, who know exam scores of all their friends and frenemies, who take Advanced Placement courses not just for the extra rigor but also, maybe exclusively, for the extra points.
I see the urgency on the fourth-grade playground, especially with the basketball kids, who play each game as if they’re in the Final Four. Every few weeks I blow my whistle, gather the competitors and deliver a speech:
“This is recess basketball. This is not select basketball or tournament basketball or AAU basketball. This is supposed to be fun. This is for anyone who wants to play. You’re playing with this intensity. (I place my hand high above my head.) You need to play with this intensity. (I place my hand at my waist.)”
Frisco didn’t invent this madness – it’s simply where I experience the madness daily. It’s the community I’ve embraced for 15 years, even when I don’t always agree with prevailing opinions or motivations.
City services and facilities are reliable and clean. Neighborhood schools are student-centered and stocked with volunteers. Families reflect a growing diversity of cultures, backgrounds and religions. 
These families, generous with their time and resources, want the best of everything for their children, which works well when you’re collaborating toward a common goal, such as building a park that accommodates children with special needs or approving funding for the arts. It’s less appealing when the race to the top pits child against child, parent against parent.
I don’t advocate for participation trophies or “we’re all winners” in place of keeping score. There are appropriate outlets for healthy competition. But, as often noted but rarely practiced, moderation is key.
Over spring break, our little family combined sightseeing with college tours, as we tiptoe in to university shopping for sophomore Cooper. Student ambassadors at all three schools spoke about the importance of collaboration.
The courses are tough, shared an engineering student at Georgia Tech, and you learn to rely on each other to study and complete projects. We heard the same at Auburn University and the University of Tennessee.
“You take tests by yourself,” our Auburn tour guide told us, “but the rest is done with your group.”
It was reassuring to learn that our future problem-solvers, students who competed to secure seats and scholarships, have embraced a collaborative spirit.
We didn’t limit our tours to campuses; we sought out nearby nature. We hiked to the top Stone Mountain in Georgia. We explored boulders and creeks at Chewacla State Park in Alabama. We walked trails at Ijams Nature Center in Tennessee.

Wherever Cooper spends his college days, he wants access to land he can explore, trails he can run, rocks he can climb. He’s savvy enough to know he can’t avoid jostling people altogether – and wise enough to know he needs an escape plan for the roughest days.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

This complicated state of ours

From today's Briefing:

If you ask my fourth-graders for a quick history of Texas, they’d tell you something like this, give or take a few facts:
***
Thousands of years ago, people crossed the Bering Strait, following giant animals, into what we call North America. Some of those people settled here, on the land we call Texas.
They lived on their own for a long time, until the Spanish traveled across the sea and planted a flag and said, “This is our land.”
The Spanish flag flew over this soil for a while, until the French arrived and claimed the land. That lasted for about five years, until the Spanish reclaimed Texas and said again, “This is our land.”
Spain ruled until Mexico declared independence in 1821. Then Mexico said, “This is our land,” and the Mexican flag flew over Texas.
Mexico invited settlers from America in to Texas, to develop and protect the land. Then Santa Anna became president, and the Texians who had moved in didn’t agree with his new rules, so they fought for independence and eventually won at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Texas became its own republic for about 10 years, until the United States annexed us as the 28th state of the Union. The U.S. flag flew over Texas from 1845 until 1861, when Texas seceded and became part of the Confederacy. When the South lost the Civil War, Texas rejoined the United States.
***
Their story would end there, because that’s as far as we’ve progressed. You’d likely see a lot of sweeping hand motions and dramatic planting of flags. (Some would ignore “quick” and take off on a tangent regarding Karankawa Indians or the Battle of Alamo.) The cattle industry, discovery of oil and Dust Bowl are still to come.
If you ask my fourth-graders for their opinions of Texas history, the answers would be less rehearsed and more emotional. Learning about history is complicated.
My students struggle with the conquering.
They don’t understand how one group of people can show up, plant a flag and take over. They sympathize with the American Indians who were killed by European diseases and later pressured to give up their land, their religion, their language and their way of life, forced to conform at Spanish missions and later at the hands of Texas officials.
Together we struggle with “good guys” vs. “bad guys” in history.
They learn best when I dramatize the Texas Revolution as the good guys (Texians) vs. the bad guys (Santa Anna and the Mexicans). Indeed, we draw many parallels between Santa Anna and Darth Vader. Yet the facts are more nuanced.
Texas settlers did break agreements made with Mexico. They had agreed to adopt Catholicism and the Spanish language, yet they were reluctant to keep those promises.
There’s no doubt that Santa Anna was a power-hungry tyrant. But the men following his orders: They couldn’t be all bad, could they? And what do Mexican children today learn about our fight for freedom? Are we the bad guys?
Plus, Mexico was opposed to slavery, a position that helped push pro-slavery Texas settlers to fight for freedom. So, why are the “good guys” supporting slavery?
Speaking of which, my students struggle most of all with slavery. They are indignant. At times, even, uncharacteristically speechless.
When they regain words, they ask about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which they know contains these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
These 9- and 10-year-olds are sharp. They make connections across the centuries. They question decisions. They wonder about turning points and potentially different outcomes.

One day their stories will merge with our bigger history. They’ll grow up to be disciplined,  leaders – or, at the very least, citizens who hold their leaders accountable.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

More and more prepared: Being a Scout mom has helped me learn to trust my son

From today's Briefing:

What happens when you layer parenthood atop worst-case scenario kind of thinking? Nonstop worry from womb to, well, perhaps forever.
I’m pretty much an expert in the field.
What happens when you layer Boy Scouts atop nonstop worry? The opportunity of personal growth.
I’m getting there.
In fact, last week I was able to sit through an hour-long parent meeting about an upcoming high adventure camp without batting an eye. I wasn’t remotely fazed by warnings of injuries, floods or bears.
Cooper’s already survived all three.
Two summers ago, he and his troop spent a week on the Atchafalaya Swamp. After kayaking for a couple of days, they found respite on a small island. The boys were using various blades to chop bamboo. Cooper, for reasons I still don’t understand, used a machete.
It was a powerful tool. So powerful, in fact, that he sliced straight through bamboo and his shin. He accidentally nicked about an inch of skin.
Because they’re Boy Scouts, his people were prepared. They cleaned the wound and closed it with butterfly strips. The next day, a boat arrived at the island to take Cooper and adult leaders to dry land. Their next stop was the emergency room, to check for possible infection and the need for stitches.
Cooper came home with a story, a scar and a nickname. “Machete,” of course.
The next year, a group of Scouts ventured to Oklahoma for backpacking. Severe weather blew in, creating raging streams. Boys and dads relied on one another, savvy maneuvering and well-placed logs to cross increasingly dangerous water.
They came home with a story, know-how and appreciation for nature’s fickle power.
Last summer that same group spent two weeks together at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. It’s the pinnacle of the Boy Scout experience. Backpacking through the Rockies with everything you need for survival, scaling mountains, sleeping under unadulterated stars. Each day offers an opportunity for a new adventure.
One day the boys stopped hiking for spar pole climbing. (I know, only because I’m a Scout mom, that this includes scaling a tree, stripped of its branches, with the aid of a harness, some rope and blades on your boots.
While one boy is climbing, his buddy is in the charge of the rope on the ground.
Cooper’s buddy was halfway up the pole when a deer shot through the grounds. Then he heard a rustling noise. He turned around to see a black bear, just a few yards away.
Multiple accounts confirm that he sputtered, “B-b-b-bear.” And then the creature waddled away.
Cooper returned home with stories for days, incredible memories and motivation to return.
Way back when Cooper was a tiny first-grade Tiger Cub, I could have never imagined giving thanks for small accidents and near-misses. My job was to shield him from trouble.
Yet every mistake, every change in plans, every weather event, every animal encounter offers the chance to grow stronger – physically, mentally and emotionally.
He’s learned that preparation and teamwork are shields in the face of danger.
Boy Scouts has been just as valuable for me.
I’ve learned to trust my son and the people around him. I’ve realized that denying a child the ability to take risks offers zero protection for adulthood. I’ve been reminded again and again that problem-solving skills are best acquired when you’re actually solving problems.
Cooper has joined a crew for a return trip to Philmont in 2018. I look forward to more stories and his confidence found in succeeding – though I’d be content with no new accident-related nicknames.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at tyradamm@gmail.com.